The Okinawan Culture: American and Japanese Influences

By: Kristin Ronzi

May 9, 2015

There’s an identity in Okinawa that’s not quite like mainland Japan. My flight there from Tokyo is full of Japanese-Americans and Western tourists and I haven’t heard this much English in a while. When I get off the plane, I’m greeted by Japanese people in English, and I find that this is not an exception at the airport. Attitudes in Okinawa are different. Perhaps it’s because of the tourism, or maybe it’s just a more laid back area, but there is a warm, welcoming feel in many places. Restaurants often have musicians come to play every night and share the traditional Okinawan songs and instruments with customers, and most have staff trained to speak some English. Despite only being a four hour plane right away, it feels like Okinawa isn’t a part of Japan. The American influence on the island is undeniable.

Many Japanese media companies have discussed the controversy of the American military base in Okinawa. Since Japan has been allowed to maintain defense forces in recent years the necessity of American troops has come into question. Recent sexual assault allegations on the island have made many skeptical of the US Navy, and even more recently a right wing advocate sent bomb threats to the United States embassy in Tokyo over the removal of the naval base.

Since the end of WWII, American presence has remained in Okinawa and the Pacific region. In WWII, Okinawa was largely decimated by the bombings and air raids, but a large chunk of Okinawans are missing because the Japanese troops recruited them in the war. The United States occupation formed a new sort of neo-colonialism in Okinawa. As the navy employed Japanese people, the tourism grew around it. It is not uncommon for Americans to now visit the island. The culture is an odd mix of Japanese and American, combining to form a mix that resembles something similar to Hawaii.

Without a doubt, though, the Okinawan economy relies too heavily on the American military right now for any short-term changes to occur. As Okinawa continues to rebuild from after WWII and develop an economy separate of the United States military, it will be possible to transition into a sustainable community; however, right now, all of the Okinawan complaints seem to be getting very little acknowledgement from non-media outlets.

In mainland Japan—particularly in Tokyo—there’s a misunderstanding that Okinawa can thrive without American military presence. But as Okinawa was rebuilt alongside the naval base on the northern part of the island, so was the Okinawan economy. Okinawa’s two main industries are tourism and military services. There’s an agricultural sector as well, particularly in the more rural areas outside of Naha, the prefectural capital, but it’s not enough to sustain the Okinawan economy.

There are aspects of Okinawa that are exceptionally modernized. The monorail system uses QR codes for tickets, but most of the island still relies on buses as the main form of transport. Going to the Okinawan prefectural museum and the former Japanese Navy HQ, it’s clear to see that Okinawan history has occurred parallel to the mainland of Honshu. Okinawans didn’t become a part of Japan until fairly recently, and the evidence of that is clear as many parts still have less infrastructure than on the mainland.

Though there are arguments to be made for the removal of the American military, it’s not a feasible reality at this point. Too much of the Okinawan economy relies on the revenue gained from having a military base on the island. Because of this presence, the American influence has pervaded the local culture as well. However, since it is so different than the Japanese mainland, it’s become a very popular tourist destination both for Japanese people and tourists.

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