It’s usually a struggle for any country to preserve its own sense of “identity”. A country with multiple cultures faces an even more difficult task. Okinawa, though part of Japan, is an island so distinct that it maintains an identity all its own, yet, in protecting its culture from outside influences, it’s had little trouble.
Japan’s southernmost prefecture is relatively close to Taiwan and Mainland China, and they have influenced its music, food, art and architecture.
The largest of the Ryukyu Islands, Okinawa was part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom from the 15th to 19th centuries. It’s been part of Japan for a “mere” 135 years, so it’s not surprising that Okinawans are less attuned to the Japanese customs of the north.
“This is Okinawa’s uniqueness,” says Sen Tamaki of the Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We have a mixed culture, encompassing Japan, China, Korea – even Thailand – which you might encounter in our history and cuisine.”
Tamaki mentions awamori, an alcoholic beverage indigenous and unique to Okinawa. It’s distilled from long-grain indica rice rather than brewed like sake. More than 500 years ago the Siamese of the Ayutthaya Period were trading with the Ryukyu Kingdom and taught its people how to distil the colourless spirit.
Okinawans have long grown accustomed to the multitude of cultures that have washed up on its shores, says our guide, who calls himself Shoji.
“There’s a huge number of Chinese people living on this island, but there’s no ‘Chinatown’ like in Osaka and Tokyo,” he says proudly. “That’s because the Japanese and Chinese people here have blended so well in culture and lifestyle that we’ve become almost one nation.”
As is common across Asia – but not in Japan proper – Okinawans celebrate both the Western New Year on January 1 and Chinese New Year several weeks later, when the children in the fishing villages receive red ang pao envelopes containing money or some other gift, says Shoji. The Chinese influence is also evident in Shuri Castle, one of nine World Heritage sites on the island.
The 600-year old palace was the Ryukyu kings’ residence and administrative centre for several centuries before Okinawa became a Japanese prefecture in 1879. When American military forces waged the Battle of Okinawa against the Japanese in 1945, the castle was almost completely destroyed, but reconstruction began in 1992, using photographs and historical records.
The fortress is outstanding for its orange-red colour and its combination of Chinese, Japanese and classical Okinawan architecture. The central hall is red, reminiscent of Beijing’s Forbidden City. The right hall was rebuilt in the Japanese style and the left hall in the Okinawan style, with a roof of clay tiles.
Okinawa has for the past decade seen significant migration among urban Japanese from the main island, Honshu, especially from Tokyo and Osaka, says Shoji, who came from Osaka 30 years ago. “They flock here because they get tired of the chaos and crowding in the big cities and want to be someplace tranquil and peaceful. I felt the same way. But now it’s become a problem because the unemployment rate is so high.”
An outside observer might well notice that Okinawans appear less stressed than their northern countrymen, and perhaps that’s why they seem friendlier. Life runs at a slower pace and the food is healthier – go-ya (bitter melon), lots of seafood and simmering as the preferred cooking method are often cited. And these factors, combined with the overall mentality, are believed to be the reasons why Okinawans are famous for their long life spans.
Tamaki credits Okinawa’s stance near the top of world records for the longest life expectancy to the strong relationships among the people, not only family but also friends. It’s a community safeguarded against loneliness. He notes, however, that’s it’s only the males of the population who are still among the world’s longest-living people. Okinawan women now rank third.
Okinawans primarily eat rice, fish and vegetables, but also rafute, a dish made with pork belly. Their mimiga, though made from pigs’ ears, is low in fat and high in calcium, and the seaweed umibudo (sea grape) can only bring benefits too.
“One of the secret principles in Okinawa to have a truly healthy lifestyle is called hara hachi bu,” Shoji explains. “It is a tradition of self-imposed calorie restriction – you eat until you’re 80 per cent full, not 100 per cent full!”