Okinawa Island

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Okinawa Island
Native name:
Okinawa Island-ISS042.jpg
Okinawa Island in 2015
Okinawa Jima.jpg
Map of the island
Okinawa Island is located in Ryukyu Islands
Okinawa Island
Okinawa Island
LocationPacific Ocean
Coordinates26°28′46″N 127°55′40″E / 26.47944°N 127.92778°E / 26.47944; 127.92778Coordinates: 26°28′46″N 127°55′40″E / 26.47944°N 127.92778°E / 26.47944; 127.92778
ArchipelagoRyukyu Islands
Area1,199[1] km2 (463 sq mi)
as of 1 October 2018[2]
Area rank290th
Length106.6 km (66.24 mi)
Width11.3 km (7.02 mi)
Highest elevation503 m (1650 ft)
Highest pointMount Yonaha
PrefectureOkinawa Prefecture
Population1,384,762 [3] (2009)
Pop. density1,014.93/km2 (2628.66/sq mi)
Ethnic groupsRyukyuan, Japanese

Okinawa Island (沖縄本島, Okinawa-hontō, lit "Okinawa main island", alternatively 沖縄島, Okinawa-jima; Okinawan: 沖縄/うちなー, Uchinaa or 地下/じじ, jiji;[4] Kunigami: ふちなー, Fuchináa) is the largest of the Okinawa Islands and the Ryukyu (Nansei) Islands of Japan in the Kyushu region. It is the smallest and least populated of the five main islands of Japan.[5] The island is approximately 106 kilometres (66 mi) long, an average 11 kilometres (7 mi) wide,[6] and has an area of 1,206.98 square kilometers (466.02 sq mi). It is roughly 640 kilometres (400 mi) south of the main island of Kyushu and the rest of Japan. It is 500 km (300 mi) north of Taiwan. The total population of Okinawa Island is 1,384,762.[3] The Greater Naha area has roughly 800,000 residents, while the city itself has about 320,000 people. Naha is the seat of Okinawa Prefecture on the southwestern part of Okinawa Island. Okinawa has a humid subtropical climate.

Okinawa has been a critical strategic location for the United States Armed Forces since the Battle of Okinawa and the end of World War II. The island was under American administration until 1972, and today hosts around 26,000 US military personnel, about half of the total complement of the United States Forces Japan, spread among 32 bases and 48 training sites.


Early Okinawan history is defined by midden or shell heap culture and is divided into Early, Middle, and Late Shell Mound periods. The Early Shell Mound period was a hunter-gatherer society, with wave-like opening Jōmon pottery. In the latter part of this period, archaeological sites moved near the seashore, suggesting the engagement of people in fishing. On Okinawa, rice was not cultivated until the Middle Shell Mound period. Shell rings for arms made of shells obtained in the Sakishima Islands, namely Miyakojima and Yaeyama islands, were imported by Japan. In these islands, the presence of shell axes from 2,500 years ago suggests the influence of a southeastern-Pacific culture.[7][8]

The first Ryukyuan mission to Edo, the capital of Tokugawa Japan

After the Late Shell Mound period, agriculture started about the 12th century, and the population center moved from the seashore to higher places. This period is called the Gusuku period. Gusuku is the term used for the distinctive Ryukyuan form of castles or fortresses. Many gusukus and related cultural remains in the Ryukyu Islands have been listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. There are three perspectives regarding the nature of gusukus: 1) a holy place, 2) dwellings encircled by stones, 3) a castle of a leader of people. In this period, porcelain trade between Okinawa and other countries became commonplace, and Okinawa was an important relay point in eastern-Asian trade. Ryukyuan kings, such as Shunten and Eiso, were important rulers. An attempted Mongolian invasion in 1291 during the Eiso Dynasty ended in failure. Hiragana was imported from Japan by Ganjin in 1265. Noro, village priestesses of the Ryukyuan religion, appeared.

The Sanzan period began in 1314, when the kingdoms of Hokuzan and Nanzan declared independence from Chūzan. The three kingdoms competed with one another for recognition and trade with Ming China. King Satto, leading Chūzan, was very successful, establishing relations with Korea and Southeast Asia as well as China. The Hongwu Emperor sent 36 families from Fujian in 1392 at the request of the Ryukyuan king. Their job was to manage maritime dealings in the kingdom. They assisted the Ryukyuans in developing their technology and diplomatic relations. In 1407, however, a man named Hashi overthrew Satto's descendant, King Bunei, and installed his own father, Shishō, as king of Chūzan.

The last King Shō Tai

In 1429, King Shō Hashi completed the unification of the three kingdoms and founded the Ryūkyū Kingdom with its capital at Shuri Castle. His descendants conquered the Amami Islands. In 1469, King Shō Taikyū died, so the royal government chose a man named Kanemaru as the new king, who chose the name Shō En and established the Second Shō Dynasty. His son Shō Shin conquered the Sakishima Islands and centralized the royal government, the military, and the noro priestesses.

In 1609, the Japanese domain of Satsuma launched an invasion of the Ryukyu Kingdom, ultimately capturing the king and his capital after a long struggle. Ryukyu was forced to cede the Amami Islands and become a vassal of Satsuma. The kingdom became both a tributary of China and a tributary of Japan. Because China would not make a formal trade agreement unless a country was a tributary state, the kingdom was a convenient loophole for Japanese trade with China. When Japan officially closed off trade with European nations except the Dutch, Nagasaki, Tsushima, and Kagoshima became the only Japanese trading ports offering connections with the outside world.

A number of Europeans visited Ryukyu starting in the late 18th century. The most important visits to Okinawa were from Captain Basil Chamberlain in 1816 and Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1852. A Christian missionary, Bernard Jean Bettelheim, lived in the Gokoku-ji temple in Naha from 1846 to 1854.

In 1879, Japan annexed the entire Ryukyu archipelago.[9] The Meiji government then established Okinawa Prefecture. The monarchy in Shuri was abolished, and the deposed King Shō Tai was forced to relocate to Tokyo.

American troops in Okinawa, June 27, 1945

Hostility against Japan increased in the islands immediately after the annexation, in part because of the systematic attempt on the part of Japan to eliminate Ryukyuan culture, including the language, religion, and cultural practices.

Okinawa Island had the bloodiest ground battle of the Pacific War from April 1 to June 22, 1945. During this 82-day-long battle, about 95,000 Imperial Japanese Army troops and 20,195 Americans were killed. The Cornerstone of Peace at the Peace Memorial Park in Itoman lists 149,193 persons from Okinawa – approximately one quarter of the civilian population – were either killed or committed suicide during the Battle of Okinawa and the Pacific War.[10] Very few Japanese ended up in POW camps. This may have been because of Japanese soldiers' reluctance to surrender. The total number of casualties shocked American military strategists. This made them apprehensive to invade the other main islands of Japan, because it would result in very high casualties.[11][12][13]

Japan became a pacifist country with the 1947 constitution, so America was obligated to protect Japan against foreign threats. During the American military occupation of Japan (1945–52), which followed the Imperial Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay, the United States controlled Okinawa Island and the rest of the Ryukyu Islands. The Amami Islands were returned to Japanese control in 1953. The remaining Ryukyu Islands were returned to Japan on June 17, 1971 . America kept numerous U.S. military bases on the islands. There are 32 United States military bases on Okinawa Island [14] in accordance with the U.S.-Japan alliance since 1951. U.S. bases on Okinawa played critical roles in the Korean War, Vietnam War, War in Afghanistan, and Iraq War.

In 2013, following escalating tensions following competing claims to the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, the People's Republic of China began questioning Japan's sovereignty to the island of Okinawa, citing its past as the independent tributary state of Ryukyu.[15][16] On 31 October 2019, the main courtyard structures of Shurijo were destroyed in a fire.[17] It marked the fifth time that Shurijo was destroyed following previous incidents in 1453, 1660, 1709 and 1945.[18]


Kokusai Street in Naha

As of September, 2009, the Japanese government estimates the population at 1,384,762,[3] which includes American military personnel and their families. The Okinawan language, called Uchinaaguchi, is spoken mostly by the elderly,[19] but several local groups promote the use of the Okinawan language by younger people.[20]

Whereas the northern half of Okinawa Island is sparsely populated, the south-central and southern parts of the island are markedly urbanized—particularly the city of Naha and the urban corridor stretching north from there to Okinawa City. The population distribution is approximately 120,000 in northern Okinawa, 590,000 in central Okinawa and 540,000 in southern Okinawa. It has a high population density of 1,014.93 people per km2.[21]

During the Meiji Period, Okinawan ethnic identity, tradition, culture and language were suppressed by the Meiji government, which sought to assimilate the Okinawans as Japanese (Yamato).[22][23][24][25][26][27] Many ethnic Japanese have since migrated to Okinawa. The modern inhabitants of Okinawa are mainly ethnic Okinawan, Japanese, half Japanese and mixed.

Five times as many Okinawans reach 100 years old compared to the rest of Japan. The Okinawan diet consist of low-fat, low-salt foods, such as whole fruits and vegetables, legumes, tofu, and seaweed. Okinawans are known for their longevity. This particular island is a so-called Blue Zone, an area where the people live longer than most others elsewhere in the world.[28] As of 2002 there were 34.7 centenarians for every 100,000 inhabitants, which is the highest ratio worldwide.[29]: 131–132  Possible explanations are diet, low-stress lifestyle, caring community, activity, and spirituality of the inhabitants of the island.[29][page needed]


Topographic map of Okinawa Island

Okinawa is the fifth largest island of Japan. The island has an area of 1,206.99 square kilometers (466.02 sq mi). The coastline is 476 kilometers (296 mi) long.[30] The straight-line distance is about 106.6 kilometers (66.2 mi) from north to south.[31] Okinawa is in the northeastern end of Okinawa Prefecture. Since 1972 over 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of land reclamation has been conducted.

It is roughly 640 kilometres (400 mi) south of the main island of Kyushu. Okinawa is connected to nearby islands near a land bridge: Katsuren Peninsula is connected via the Mid-Sea Road to Henza Island, Miyagi Island, Ikei Island, and Hamahiga Island. Similarly, from the Motobu Peninsula on the northwestern side, all of Sesoko-jima plus Yagaji Island and Kōri-jima are connected by bridges. Okinawa Island has several beaches such as Manza Beach, Emerald Beach, Okuma Beach, Zanpa Beach, Moon Beach and Sunset Beach (Chatan-cho). Mount Omoto, at 525.5 m (1,724 ft), is the highest mountain in Okinawa, with Mount Yonaha being the second highest.[32]

The Motobu Peninsula in the north has limestone layers and karst development.[33] In the center and south is mainly a Ryukyu limestone layer and mudstone.[33] The topography is flat, there are few hills over 100 m (328 ft) with very few rivers. The subtropical rains accelerates erosion so there are many drainages and uvala. The southern end of the island consists of uplifted coral reef, whereas the northern half has proportionally more igneous rock. The easily eroded limestone of the south has many caves, the most famous of which is Gyokusendō in Nanjō. The northernmost Cape Hedo is only 22 km (14 mi) away from Yoronjima. Cape Arasaki is the southernmost location of Okinawa island. It is sometimes confused with Cape Kiyanmisaki.

Flora and fauna[edit]

The northern half of Okinawa has one of the largest tracts of subtropical rainforest in Asia called the Yanbaru. There are many endemic species of flora and fauna.[34][35] There are a small number of endemic Yanbaru kuina (also known as the Okinawa rail), a small flightless bird that is close to extinction. The critically endangered Okinawa woodpecker is also endemic on this island. The Indian mongoose was introduced to the island to prevent the native habu pit viper from attacking the birds. It did not succeed in eliminating the habu but instead preyed on birds, increasing the threat to the Okinawa rail.


The island has a humid subtropical climate bordering on a tropical rainforest climate. The island supports a dense northern forest and a rainy season occurring in the late spring.


There are many local pubs (izakaya) and cafes that serve Okinawan cuisine and dishes, such as gōyā chanpurū (bitter melon stir fry), fu chanpurū (wheat gluten chanpurū), and tonkatsu (tenderized, breaded, fried pork cutlet). Okinawan soba is the signature dish and consists of wheat noodles served hot in a soup, usually with pork (rib or pork belly). This contrasts with the mainland soba, which is buckwheat noodles. Rafute, which is braised pork belly, is another popular Okinawan dish. American presence on the island has also led to some creative dishes such as taco rice, which is now a common meal served in bentos, and common use of spam.


Farmland in Okinawa

Among the prefectures of Japan, Okinawa has the youngest and fastest-growing population but has the lowest employment rate and average income. The island economy is primarily driven by tourism and the U.S. military presence, with efforts in recent years to diversify into other sectors.[36]

The Motobu Peninsula has a large-scale quarry and cement factory, taking advantage of the limestone in the area.[37] There is also agriculture with tropical fruit such as Malpighia emarginata.[38]


Tourist attractions include Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium (at one time the world's largest aquarium), Century Beach, Pineapple Park, the Orion Beer Factory and Hiji Falls. In recent years, Okinawa has become an increasingly popular destination for tourists from China and Southeast Asia.[39] In 2018, Okinawa attracted 9,842,400 tourists, a positive growth of 4.7% from 9,396,200 in the previous year.[40][41]

Military bases[edit]

The U.S. military bases account for 4 to 5% of the island economy, but the economic impact may be double-edged, as the presence of the bases may be hampering investment (and tourism potential). The bases have been of declining economic importance, especially after Okinawan sovereignty returned to Japan.[14][42] There are also a smaller contingent of Japanese military bases on the island. Several former U.S. military facilities on Okinawa have been re-developed as commercial areas, most notably the American Village in Chatan, which opened in 1998, and the Aeon Mall Okinawa Rycom in Kitanakagusuku, which opened in 2015.[39]

U.S. military in Okinawa[edit]

F-15C Eagles and an F-15D of the 18th Wing, Kadena Air Base
US military bases in Okinawa (2010)

The United States maintains American military bases in Japan as part of the U.S.-Japan alliance since 1951. Most U.S. military are in Okinawa Prefecture. In 2013, there were approximately 50,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan with 40,000 dependents and 5,500 American civilians employed by the United States Department of Defense.[43] About 26,000 U.S. military personnel are on Okinawa Island.

There are 32 United States military bases on Okinawa Island.[14] Approximately 62% of all United States bases in Japan are on Okinawa.[44][45] They cover 25% of Okinawa island. The major bases are Futenma, Kadena, Hansen, Torii, Schwab, Foster, and Kinser.[46] There are 28 U.S. military facilities on Okinawa. They are mainly concentrated in the central area. At one point, Okinawa hosted approximately 1,200 nuclear warheads.[47] There were several nuclear weapons incidents on Okinawa and in the sea near the islands.[48][49][50]

Moving the bases[edit]

The 1971 Okinawa Reversion Agreement officially ended the U.S. military occupation on Okinawa.[51] The bases primarily exist to serve Japanese and American strategic interests but are unpopular with most local residents,[52] despite recent efforts to move the bases out of core areas following incidents involving military personnel and resultant protests (including the 1995 Okinawa rape incident).[53][54]

In 2012, an agreement was struck between the United States and Japan to reduce the number of U.S. military personnel on the island, moving 9,000 personnel to other locations and moving bases out of heavily populated Greater Naha, but 10,000 Marines will remain on the island, along with other U.S. military units.[46][55] Attempts to completely close bases on the southern third of the island, where 90% of the population lives (all but about 120,000 people) have been impeded by both the American desire that alternative locations be found where bases subject to closure could move to (e.g. Henoko Peninsula, mid-island), as well as by local Okinawan opposition to any suggested locations on the island (who demand no U.S. troops at all anywhere on the island).[52] Tokyo says the U.S. bases are important for national security. Locals complain that despite being home to less than 1% of Japan's population and area, Okinawa hosts the majority of the U.S. military presence in Japan.[56] In late December 2013, Governor Hirokazu Nakaima gave permission for land reclamation to begin for a new U.S. military base at Henoko, reneging on previous promises and furthering the effort to consolidate the American troop presence on the island, though away from urban Naha.[57]

In December 2016 the U.S. returned 10,000 acres (40 km2; 16 sq mi) of the Northern Training Area on Okinawa to Japan. This reduced the footprint of the U.S. forces by 20% on the island. It was the biggest land return since 1972.[58]


Okinawa has various historical buildings and monuments, such as feudal castles, ruins, UNESCO and other historical significant sites.






Shuri Castle Festival in Naha

There are multiple festivals on Okinawa throughout the year.[61]

  • Shurijo Castle Park New Year's Celebration - January
  • Cherry Blossom Festival - January, February
  • Naha Hari Festival - May
  • Orion Beerfest - August
  • Eisa Dancers Parade - August
  • Shuri Castle Festival - October
  • Naha Great Tug-of-War Festival - October
  • The Ryukyu Dynasty Festival Shuri - November




Naha Airport is the main transportation hub for the Ryukyu Islands and has an increasingly large role in regional logistics. All Nippon Airways opened a cargo hub at the airport in 2009, providing overnight freight service between Japan and other Asian countries.[39]


Okinawa Urban Monorail

The Okinawa Urban Monorail (Yui Rail) runs from Naha Airport to Japan's south-easternmost monorail station, Akamine Station, before heading to its final destination of Tedako-Uranishi Station (Urasoe) and back.[63]


There are multiple bus companies, such as Toyo Bus, Ryukyu Bus Kotsu, Naha Bus, and Okinawa Bus.


The Okinawa Expressway is a toll road that runs from Naha to Nago, and has a speed limit of 80 km/h (50 mph), the highest on the island.


There are many ferries to many of the nearby islands, such as Ie Shima. Tomarin Port in Naha, has ferries to nearby islands such as Aguni, Tokashiki and Zamami.

Regions and cities[edit]

Northern Okinawa[edit]

Yanbaru forest and Mount Yonaha

With Kunigami district, it has an area of 764 square kilometers (295 sq mi) and a population of about 120,000. There is much nature with subtropical rainforest.

Central Okinawa[edit]

With Nakagami district, it has an area of 280 square kilometers (110 sq mi) and a population of about 590,000. Most US military facilities are located here. Urasoe has strong connections with the southern municipalities, including the Southern Wide Area Municipal Area Administrative Association, Nishihara town, Nakagusuku village, and Kitanakagusuku Village. These belong to the Southern Wide Area Administrative Association. With Kunigami district or Yamabaru . It has an area of 764 km2 (295 sq mi) and a population of about 120,000. Rich nature remains.

Southern Okinawa[edit]

Matsuyama intersection in Naha

With Shimajiri district, it has an area of 198 square kilometers (76 sq mi) and a population of about 540,000. The capital is Naha.

Photo gallery[edit]

See also[edit]



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External links[edit]