Okinawa at a glance
Okinawa is the southernmost prefecture in Japan and is the country’s premiere resort destination. Noted for its subtropical weather, local cuisine, and numerous beaches, visitors from mainland Japan flock to the islands to enjoy its relaxed pace of life.
Okinawa was formerly the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, whose language, cuisine, music, and culture differed significantly from that of Japan. The Ryukyu Kingdom flourished as a tributary state to China for hundreds of years, and its sea traders were known throughout SE Asia as being honest and hardworking. The kingdom’s success caught the attention of the Satsuma clan, the feudal lord of present-day Kagoshima Prefecture, who invaded and took economic control of the kingdom in 1603. By leaving its name in tact, Satsuma was able to siphon off significant profits from Ryukyu’s trade with China at a time when foreign trade in Japan was heavily restricted by the Tokugawa government. The Ryukyu Kingdom was finally annexed by Japan in 1872 after the Meiji Restoration, and was renamed Okinawa Prefecture in 1879.During the end of World War II, Okinawa became the last stand for the Japanese military in holding off American and Allied forces from an invasion of the mainland. The Battle of Okinawa was the bloodiest of any in the Pacific, with over 200,000 people losing their lives. While sovereignty was returned to Japan in 1952, the US military occupied and retained control of Okinawa until 1972.The US military bases on Okinawa remain a controversial issue today.
Located in the Pacific Ocean, Okinawa Prefecture consists of more than one hundred islands and stretches from southwest Kyushu almost all the way to Taiwan. Some say that on clear days, you can see Taiwan from Yonaguni Island, the westernmost point in Japan.There are three main island groups in Okinawa Prefecture: the Okinawa Islands, the Miyako Islands, and the Yaeyama Islands. These island groups are classified by local language as much as by location, with each one having their own dialects. While most modern linguists outside of Japan agree that the indigenous language of the Ryukyu Kingdom is a separate language from Japanese, some insist that the ‘dialects’ of the Okinawa Islands, the Miyako Islands, and the Yaeyama Islands are actually three different languages. None of them are mutually intelligible with each other, let along with Japanese.Today, Japanese is spoken by everyone and few young people know more than a handful of words and phrases in the local languages.
The Okinawa Islands (Okinawa Shoto) are named after the main island of Okinawa, which is the prefectures transport hub and home to Naha, the prefectural capital. Islands in this chain include Okinawa, Iejima, Ikeijima, Kumejima, and the Kerama Islands of Tokashiki, Zamami, and Aka.Naha is the capital of both the prefecture and Okinawa Island. The easiest way to get to the city from the airport is by monorail or taxi. The monorail can also be used to get to most of Naha’s attractions, which are located near the city center.Kokusai Dori is the city’s main street and is home to many cheap Naha hotels and hostels. It is also just a short walk to the Tsuboya Pottery section and Heiwa Dori market. Shuri Castle, the Main Place shopping district, and other sites are just a short ride away on the monorail.
The Miyako Islands are named after Miyako, the biggest island in the group. Other islands include Irabu, Shioji, and Tarama. The Miyako Islands are famous for otori, a local drinking ritual, and for being the only islands in Okinawa with no poisonous habu snakes.The center of Miyako is Hirara, which is said to have more drinking establishments per capita than any place in Japan. It is also where you will find most of the Miyako hotels, hostels, and restaurants.
The Yaeyama Islands are arguably the most beautiful in Okinawa, with lush jungle, exquisite beaches, and traditional Ryukyuan houses. Yaeyama is also well-loved for its beautiful folk songs and the prowess of its local singers – many of the most famous musicians from Okinawa were born in Yaeyama, including the members of Begin, Yasukatsu Oshima, Tetsuhiro Daiku, and Kosei Miyara. Ishigaki Island is the most populous in Yaeyama. Other major islands include Iriomote, Ishigaki, Taketomi, Hateruma, and Yonaguni.