5 reasons why Okinawa is so un-Japanese and why you have to go there

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.

Mr & Mrs Romance - why Okinawa is so different

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.

Mr & Mrs Romance - unusual things Okinawa - 21 Okinawa Beach

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.

Mr & Mrs Romance - unusual things Okinawa - 13 okinawa coffee

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.

Mr and Mrs Romance - Postcards from Okinawa Japan - Nago Castle

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.

Mr and Mrs Romance - Postcards from Okinawa Japan - susnet Okuma

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

Mr & Mrs Romance - why Okinawa is so different

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!

Images by Mrs Romance.

4 Comments

  • Reply April 21, 2022

    MARTHA DOWNING

    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.

    • Reply April 22, 2022

      Mr Romance

      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. 🙂

  • Reply April 28, 2023

    Phyllis

    As a military family, we lived on Okinawa for two and a half years 30 + years ago. I look at the pictures of Okinawa now and can’t believe the change. We lived in Okiyamaton (quiet sure the spelling is wrong) when we first arrived on the island. Spending time with the locals was quiet an experience, the older generation were very respectful and I was amazed at the amount of food they could raise on a 5 X 5 piece of land. Nothing prepared us for not having heat or air conditioning, and in order to have a phone you had to find a house with one already installed, otherwise it was a 5 year wait. The biggest joys were visiting a glass blowing family business and going to a toy store with the children. I am so glad we were living there before it became such a tourist island and was able to shop in the small mommasan and popasan shops and live in the small village.

    • Reply May 1, 2023

      Mr Romance

      Wow! It must have been so interesting seeing Okinawa like that back then. There’s still that almost mystical ‘olde worlde’ vibe to the place but it sounds like that was really dialled up when you were there. Your phone line comment made me chuckle though – I can imagine things still move just as slowly there now. There’s a real ‘island time’ sense to how things operate in beautiful Ryukyu. Thank you so much for sharing your memories, Phyllis.

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