Mention OKINAWA (沖縄) to a mainland Japanese and you’ll likely receive a wistful sigh in return. Perpetually warm weather, clear seas bursting with fish, fantastic food, gentle people, unspoilt beaches and jungle…the list could go on. More than one hundred subtropical islands, collectively known as the Ryūkyū Shotō, stretch over 700km of ocean from Kyūshū southwest to Yonaguni-jima, almost within sight of Taiwan, and provide one of Japan’s favourite getaways. Getting here may be a little costly, but Okinawa’s lush vegetation, vision-of-paradise beaches and superb coral reefs can charm the most jaded traveller – if you’ve had your fill of shrines and temples and want to check out some of Japan’s best beaches and dive sites or simply fancy a spot of winter sun, then Okinawa is well worth a visit.
The largest island in the group, Okinawa-Hontō, usually referred to simply as Okinawa, is the region’s transport hub and home to its prefectural capital, Naha. It’s also the most heavily populated and developed of the Ryūkyū chain, thanks largely to the controversial presence of American military bases. Okinawa-Hontō boasts a number of historical sights, many of them associated with the Battle of Okinawa at the end of the Pacific War. But the island has more to offer than battle sites, particularly in its northern region, where the old way of life still survives among the isolated villages.
To see the best of the region, you’ll have to hop on a plane or ferry and explore the dozens of outer islands away from Okinawa-Hontō, many of them uninhabited. Even quite close to Naha, you’ll find gorgeous beaches and fantastic dive spots around the Kerama islands, just 30km off Okinawa-Hontō. Divers and beach connoisseurs will want to visit Miyako-jima and Ishigaki-jima, way down the Ryūkyū chain. If you’re looking for an idyllic retreat, Taketomi-jima can’t be beaten, while the adventurous will want to explore Iriomote-jima, coated in thick groves of mangrove and steamy rainforest, and home to the elusive Iriomote lynx.
It’s on these outer islands that you’ll also find the strongest evidence of the much-vaunted Ryūkyū culture, born of contact with Taiwan and China, as well as the rest of Japan. The most obvious expressions of this culture are found in the islands’ cuisine and in a vibrant use of colour and bold tropical patterns, while the Chinese influence is clearly visible in the region’s architecture, traditional dress and the martial art of karate – the Ryūkyū warriors’ preferred mode of protection. Ancient religious beliefs are kept alive by shamen (called yuta) and, in central Okinawa-Hontō, there are sumo bouts between bulls. There’s also a Ryūkyū dialect, with dozens of variations between the different islands, unique musical instruments, and a distinctive musical style that has reached an international audience through bands such as Nēnēs, Diamantes and Champloose. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble on a local festival, such as giant rope tug-of-war contests or dragon-boat races, while the biggest annual event is the Eisā festival (fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month), when everyone downs tools and dances to the incessant rhythms of drums, flutes and the three-stringed sanshin.
Besides Hokkaidō, Okinawa contains Japan’s largest areas of unspoilt natural environment and its greatest biodiversity. Much of this wealth of wildlife is underwater, spawned by the warm Kuroshio Current that sweeps up the east coast and allows coral reefs to flourish. But there are a number of endemic species on land, too, including turtles, a crested eagle and the noguchigera (Pryer’s woodpecker), in addition to Iriomote’s wild cat, the yamaneko. A less welcome local resident is the highly venomous habu snake. It measures around 2m in length, is dark green with a yellow head, and usually lurks in dense vegetation or on roadsides, though rarely ventures into urban areas. As long as you’re careful – especially during spring and autumn – you should have no problems; if you are bitten, make for the nearest hospital, where they should have antiveni.
With its subtropical climate, Okinawa stays warm throughout the year. Average annual temperatures are around 23°C, with a winter average of 17°C and a minimum of 10°C. Winter lasts from December to February, while the hot, humid summer starts in April and continues into September. Temperatures at this time hover around 34°C and the sun can be pretty intense, though the sea breezes help. The best time to visit is in spring or autumn (roughly March to early May and late Sept to Dec). The rainy season lasts from early May to early June, while typhoons can be a problem in July and August, and occasionally into October.
In the fifteenth century, the islands that now make up Okinawa were united for the first time into the Ryūkyū kingdom, governed from Shuri Castle in present-day Naha. This period is seen as the golden era of Ryūkyū culture. Trade with China, the rest of Japan and other Southeast Asian countries flourished, while the traditionally non-militarized kingdom maintained its independence by paying tribute to China. But then, in 1609, the Shimazu clan of Kagoshima (southern Kyūshū) invaded. The Ryūkyū kings became vassals to the Shimazu, who imposed punitive taxes and ruled with an iron hand for the next two hundred years, using the islands as a gateway for trade with China when such contact was theoretically outlawed by the Togukawa Shogunate. When the Japanese feudal system was abolished in the 1870s, the islands were simply annexed to the mainland as Okinawa Prefecture. Against much local opposition, the Meiji government established a military base and tried to eradicate local culture by forcing people to speak Japanese and swear allegiance to the emperor, forbidding schools to teach Ryūkyū history.
By the early twentieth century, Okinawa had been fairly successfully absorbed into Japan and became a key pawn in Japan’s last line of defence during the Pacific War. Following the battle of Iwō-jima in March 1945, the American fleet advanced on Okinawa and, after an extensive preliminary bombardment, referred to locally as a “typhoon of steel”, the Americans invaded on April 1, 1945. It took nearly three months of bitter fighting before General Ushijima, the Japanese commander, committed suicide and the island surrendered. The Battle of Okinawa left 12,500 American troops dead (plus 37,000 injured) and an estimated 250,000 on the Japanese side, nearly half of whom were local civilians.
It’s estimated that one third of the population of Okinawa died in the war, many in mass suicides that preceded the surrender, and others from disease and starvation. But the islanders’ subsequent anger has been directed at the Japanese government rather than America. Most people feel that Okinawa was sacrificed to save the mainland – this was the only major battle fought on Japanese soil – and that they were misled by Japanese assurances that they were luring the American fleet into a trap. Compounding this was the behaviour of Japanese troops, who are accused of denying locals shelter and medical treatment, and ultimately of abandoning them to the Americans.
By comparison, the American invaders were a welcome relief, despite the islanders’ worst fears. They brought in much-needed food supplies – Spam was an instant hit in this pork-loving country, and a precursor of the processed luncheon meat found in pork champurū – and gradually helped restore the local economy. This wasn’t wholly altruistic, of course, since Okinawa was ideally placed for monitoring events in Southeast Asia. As the 1950s Korean War merged into the Vietnam War, so the American bases became a permanent feature of the Okinawa landscape.
In fact, Okinawa remained under American jurisdiction until 1972, when local protests led to the restoration of Japanese sovereignty. Since then, the two governments have colluded to maintain an American military presence on the island despite growing opposition, which reached a peak when three American servicemen were found guilty of raping a 12-year-old schoolgirl in 1995.
Okinawa has since borne witness to some curious political shifts. In 2007, local elections brought Aiko Shimajiri to power; interestingly, his focus was on the local economy rather than military issues. These were, however, to come to the fore in national elections two years down the line, with Yukio Hatayama elected Prime Minister on a pledge to remove, rather than relocate, the Futenma air base – his failure to do so saw him step down in disgrace less than a year later (see Underground Naval Headquarters and Himeyuri-no-tō).