Okinawa, Japan 沖縄日本

ハイサイ! イチャリバ チョデ!  よろしく おねがいします。 きょ-ねん 那覇市に すんでいました と にほんご ちょっと べんきょしました。

In 2011-2012 I lived in Naha (那覇市), the main city of Okinawa Prefecture (沖縄県) in Japan (日本).

The soundtracks to these videos are snippets of live Okinawan music I recorded there, such as eisa drum dancing and shima uta island songs.  Spot me on sanshin (traditional 3-stringed banjo) and harmonica in the Iriomote one, and having a drumming lesson in Ishigaki – the two Yaeyama Islands, in the remote southwesternmost corner of Japan.

The Ryukyu Islands are a whole other world from mainland Japan – there’s no Mt Fuji, samurai, sumo wrestling, geisha or shinkansen.  They have a different culture, food, climate and music – more tropical and laidback, the Hawaii of northeast Asia, with jungle, sugar cane, beautiful sea and coral – umi to sango wa totemo kirei desu ne – and wonderful people and tragic history.

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Nat da Hatt and I recorded a track for our duo album ネオン列車の風景 Neon Train Landscapes there – our version of a traditional shima uta (island song)

As you can hear, the music of Okinawa is quite distinct from that of mainland Japan. It uses a different scale, and the sanshin is a distinctive instrument.

Special thanks to the staff and students of Naha Kokusai and Naha Kogyo senior high schools – Nifei daebiru!

Okinawa is the poorest part of Japan but there’s little extreme
poverty (I haven’t encountered any beggars here). That’s not to say
it doesn’t exist, unemployment is a problem and I have seen shacks
made out of tarps and scavenged wood in a few places, but not as
in-your-face as many countries.

In many ways it feels safer than NZ, there’s little risk of being
mugged, pickpocketed, burgled or having a bike stolen, and the only
aggressive drunks are US military who usually get shut up (or even
arrested) by their superiors. The only antisocial behavior I’ve
encountered from the locals is the loud motorbike gangs (yakuza
wannabes apparently) who cruise up and down the main road
(unfortunately right next to my apartment – it goes all the way to the
top of the island) at all hours, sometimes preventing a good night’s
sleep. Luckily public spitting, pushy crowds, staring at foreigners,
and air pollution are all much less prevalent than in China or Korea.
The alcohol limit for drivers is zero.

The Okinawan people are ethnically Ryukyu (or Uchinanchu, ‘sea
people’) not ‘Japanese’ and along with the Ainu people of Hokkaido are
one of the only native ethnic minorities in Japan.

The stereotypical Okinawan male has hairy arms and slightly darker skin than mainland Japanese, and wears jandals and bright karyushi shirts except in winter (when they’re wrapped up in layers of jackets even when it’s 16 degrees outside). The girls look like typical Japanese but are somewhat less repressed and more capable – a lot of people actually look quite happy here and society appears less sexist than on the mainland. The women do wear kimono for special occasions, which are bright yellow or blue with colourful hibiscus and water lilly designs.

Okinawans do have their own native languages (which vary from island to island) but mostly only elderly people speak them fluently and the languages are sadly dying out from neglect. They can all speak standard Japanese but identify culturally more as Okinawan than Japanese. These could be interesting areas to ask the students about.

A lot of typical Japanese things are missing here: not much Shinto or Buddhism, no sumo wrestling, no kabuki or bunraku theatre, no geisha or samurai images, no pictures of Mt Fuji, no shamisen and not much koto or shakuhachi music, no onsen, no Shinkansen, few deciduous trees (Okinawa does have the earliest cherry blossom season in Japan, right now, three months ahead of Honshu, but it’s on a small scale with just a few Sakura trees in some of the parks), few rice paddies (they grow sugar cane and pineapples instead), no snow in winter. Many Okinawans have never been to mainland Japan (though on the other hand some of my students have been as far as Europe or North America).

If anything they identify with Hawaiians of all people (hence the love of bright floral shirts?), as many Okinawans emigrated there in the early 20th century to find work, as well as to Brazil, Peru (Spanish is taught at my school) and even Russia. They may be curious about the close similarities between Maori and Hawaiian languages, and other Pacific Island topics.

Most of the students here live with their parents (until they get
married) in an apartment or small house, probably have their own small
room, spend ridiculous hours studying for exams (or in poorer
families, working part time), eat with chopsticks and sleep on a
tatami mat. The most popular sport is baseball. Here they’d be
confused by NZ things such as multiculturalism, rugby, op shops, and
eating lamb with a knife & fork (or the existence of vegetarians for
that matter), but they are more casual & down to Earth than, say, Tokyo people.

Typical local sights include a pair of shisa lion/dog guardian statues
at the entrance to each building, and a stone tablet with the word
‘ishiganto’ in kanji at each intersection to ward off evil spirits.

At first Naha seemed like Wellington as it has about 350,000 people,
but most of the cities on the island join together into one big
million+ sprawl, so it’s really more like Auckland. Luckily there are
enough trees, public parks and green spaces to not be overwhelming.
Outside the cities the countryside consists of small farms (the cows
are kept indoors, American style), sugar cane fields, banana palms, centuries-old graveyards, and subtropical jungle in the north that looks surprisingly like NZ, eg mostly evergreen with some similar trees and lots of tree ferns (but has
snakes & leeches to beware of, though mosquitoes are less of an issue
than I imagined). They even have an endangered flightless bird called
the yanbaru which is vulnerable to the introduced mongoose (related to
ferrets) – sounds very familiar.

Naha itself has only one tiny beach with a roped-in swimming area and
a view of an overbridge, but outside the city the coast is beautiful.
The beaches are different here, light sand covered in coral fragments,
the water is a lighter shade of blue than in NZ and much warmer,
snorkelling is awesome, surfing overrated (small waves and risk of
coral cuts which take ages to heal), the fish are brightly coloured
(but watch out for lionfish, stonefish, sea snakes and poisonous
jellyfish – each is potentially lethal and requires a different
treatment) and the surf usually breaks 100m offshore, marking the edge
of the reef. I’m looking forward to a whale watching trip in a couple
of weeks. There are over 100 islands, not all inhabited, and some of
the closer ones have bridges and/or commuter ferries out to them.
Life is much more rural on the other islands.

There is a winter and it’s usually windy, rainy or just gloomy but 12
degrees is the coldest it’s been and it still gets to 20 on a fine
day. In summer it’s a constant 32-33 degrees even at night, which
doesn’t sound that hot but it is extremely humid and sweaty (likewise
winter often feels colder than it actually is due to damp). Mould can
be a problem, everything needs to be packed with silica gel and aired
often, but I haven’t had mice or cockroach issues. Autumn is pleasant
but with risk of typhoons (there was only one big one last year, which
started the day after I arrived so we were all stuck indoors for the
first few days). Late spring has rain every day apparently.

Like many things, food is often ‘Okinawan’ rather than ‘Japanese’.
Along with more typical Japanese dishes (sushi, tempura, okonomiyake,
mild curries etc) they eat a lot of pork, especially in soup, and the
distinctive traditional vegetables are kumura and goya (bitter melon,
native to India and China). Local delicacies include pig’s face, fried seaweed
and rice with squid ink (all a bit lost on me). You can get good
coffee, usually served black, and there’s a small coffee plantation in
the north of the island. Taco Rice is a popular Mexican/Okinawan
fusion but usually just a bit of mince and lettuce on rice.
Traditional desert is a lump of raw sugar, or fruit such as pineapple
or mango. Surprisingly they don’t seem to grow or use coconut (or any
nuts for that matter) and food is not spicy like in southeast Asia.
They do occasionally use banana leaves as plates though. Supermarket
prices are expensive, but then they are in NZ too. ‘Western’ food is
way overpriced and not done well. As for alcohol, Orion beer is not
bad and the local liquor is Awamori, which tastes like sake and is also
made from rice, but 40% alcohol rather than 10% and served with ice
rather than hot… a bit too easy to drink on a hot day, approach with

As for Okinawan history, it’s quite sad, particularly given the Okinawans’ pacifist nature. Originally a separate country or at times part of China, the Ryukyu kingdom was invaded by the Satsuma clan of Kyushu in 1609, and the king ordered the people not to resist (he told them ‘nuchidu takara’, a native expression meaning ‘life is precious’). The people were forced to assimilate into Japan, speak Japanese etc, treasures were stolen and taken to Kyushu, and the islands were renamed Okinawa (= ‘sea rope’ in Japanese, referring to the chain of islands between Taiwan and Kyushu). The Okinawans invented karate not long afterwards, as weapons were forbidden except for the Japanese samurai – easily their most famous cultural export.

In WWII the Japanese used Okinawa to make their stand against the
Americans to prevent a mainland invasion, and 200,000 Okinawans became
cannon fodder or were simply murdered by both sides, and all the
castles and other historic buildings were destroyed (one, Shuri
castle, which I can see from my balcony, has been rebuilt and appears
on numerous postcards etc – the architecture is closer to Chinese than
Japanese). There are some huge limestone caves here (some are
kilometres long) including one where the Japanese officers and their
families commited suicide together rather than be captured at the end.
The Battle of Okinawa is known as ‘the typhoon of steel’.

Ever since, Okinawa has been occupied by the US military and 20% of
the main island is taken up by American bases, some the size of small
towns complete with streets, shopping malls, housing developments etc.
That’s quite a sore point for the locals, and there are about 40,000
Americans here who mostly have little interaction with the Okinawans
and usually don’t speak Japanese, but make a lot of noise with planes
taking off at all hours etc. The USA wants to keep an eye on China
and North Korea etc so won’t be leaving anytime soon.

One last thing is that it’s a bonus that one thing they have successfully preserved is their music, which is simple, based on a syncopated 4/4 beat and pentatonic melodies, and quite different from that of mainland Japan. The key instrument is the sanshin, a kind of three-stringed banjo, smaller than a shamisen and the main genre is called eisa. There are a number of local hits such as ‘Shima Uta’ (island song) and ‘Haisai Ojisan’ (hello grandad) which you hear everywhere. Seeing 200 eisa dancers drumming in unison is quite amazing even if the rhythms aren’t complex like, for example, Korean or Indian drumming. It’s more about the synchronized dance moves.

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