Okinawa must be the most un-Japanese part of Japan. You won’t find Shinto shrines or torii gates here. There are no geisha, they have their own language, they even have their own kind of sake here called awamori. On the other hand, it’s like there’s a concentrated version of Japanese culture in Okinawa. It’s fascinating.
Mrs Romance and I have always loved Japan. Ever since our first visit to Tokyo in 2010, it’s a destination that holds a special place in our hearts. Its culture, its food, its history, its landscapes – Japan has so much to offer the inquisitive traveller.
However, even as we began to explore Okinawa, we had no idea what to expect from this distant, enigmatic island prefecture.
The otherworldliness that permeates the nation, the omnipresence of exquisite food and that odd feeling of being in both the past and the future when you’re in Japan exists in Okinawa in abundance.
Of course every part of Japan is different to the rest in some defining way, but Okinawa is still more different than that. The number of times we turned to each other and said: “this doesn’t feel like Japan.”
It’s probably only marginally more than the number of times we said: “this is so Japanese.”
It’s like this little island prefecture of around 1.5 million people is both a magnifying glass and stew pot of culture. And what’s bubbling away in there is a feast for the soul.
Here are 5 reasons we believe why Okinawa is so different to the rest of Japan:
5 reasons why is Okinawa is the most un-Japanese part of Japan
1. Okinawa used to be its own country
Okinawa wasn’t a part of Japan until the mid-1800s during the Edo Period. Before then it was its own nation known as the Ryukyu. The Ryukyu people had their own myths, religion and even language.
You can still see evidence of some of the stories from Ryukyuan history in the figurines called Shisa all over Okinawa. And their language is now recognised as an official dialect of Japan.
2. Okinawa is poor financially but rich spiritually
Okinawa is and has always been the poorest of all the prefectures of Japan, which is why you don’t see as much of the ornate architecture you find in other parts of the country.
In fact a lot of the buildings in Okinawa have a somewhat Soviet feel to them. Others look so run down they can even look a bit creepy. Don’t be fooled by this though – especially if there’s promise of food within. It’s the perfect example of judging a book by its cover.
3. The USA
There is a strong American presence here and has been since WWII. The US military still occupies 25% of the prefecture and though it’s a harmonious dynamic these days, the American influence has a firm footing here is easy to spot – especially in the southern part of Okinawa Island.
Naha Airport even shares its runways with American fighter jets. The further north you go on Okinawa Island, the more Japanese it gets. Not just Japanese – the more Okinawan it gets.
4. Okinawa is isolated yet influenced by its surroundings
Okinawa is very isolated. The 160 islands that make up the prefecture are spread out over 1000km of the South China Sea, and only 49 of them are inhabited.
Also most of its islands are closer to Taiwan than the rest of Japan – 520km to Japan compared to just 117km to Taiwan at the closest points. In its food, its ancient history, its art and its language, Okinawa has clear influences of Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean origins.
5. It’s a beach paradise
Probably the most obvious un-Japanese feature of Okinawa is its beaches and its tropical island ethos.
Okinawa Prefecture is said to have the best beaches in the country and I can see how that works. The sand is soft and white and the water is the most incredible blue colour. Plus it’s warm enough here to swim most of the year.
This translates to a much more relaxed culture. There’s definitely a more laid back feel to Okinawa and although everything runs like Japanese clockwork, there’s an element of ‘island time’ here. Things will get to you – but they’ll take a bit longer so you can enjoy the view!
For more on our coverage of Okinawa, check out these posts:
11 unusual things to do in Okinawa
Where to stay in Okinawa – Okuma Resort
How to drive safely in Japan
Have you ever been to Okinawa? Has there been a destination that you’ve visited that defines its nation yet breaks all of its own cultural stereotypes? Talk to us in the comments below!
I lived in Sunabe as a military child. Memories of sunsets, Koi fish, parades and festivals, water rationing, seawall, typhoons, and lovely people are etched in my mind and heart. Garbage trucks that sound like US ice cream trucks and public bathrooms sans toilets with feet diagrams for squatting spots will forever standout as the biggest contradictions to life as I know it now. I learned that all people essentially strive for the same things in life; peace, prosperity, and preservation of their culture.
I love that, Martha. What a life message. Definitely something to take into consideration with all the things going on in the world. And what a fascinating childhood you had. It seems to me that Japan is entirely a country and culture of contradictions, and that becomes ever clearer every time I’m there. It’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing your memories with us – and thank you for subscribing to our newsletter. I hope you enjoy it. 🙂