What It's Like Living in Okinawa
Whether you just found out you'll be moving to Okinawa, or debating to live here or not, there's a lot to know about living in Okinawa. Here's what you'll find in this article:
- Quick Facts About Okinawa
- Okinawan Culture
- Weather in Okinawa
- Driving in Okinawa
- Schools in Okinawa
- Things to Do in Okinawa
- Sports Teams in Okinawa
- Annual Events in Okinawa
- Important and Interesting Laws
- Social Rules to Know
- Housing in Okinawa
- Working in Okinawa
- Cost of Living in Okinawa
- Currency and Banking
- Challenges of Living in Okinawa
- Pros of Living in Okinawa
Quick Facts About Okinawa
- Okinawa is 1 of 47 prefectures in Japan
- Okinawa's main island is located 954 miles (1,536 km) from Tokyo
- Okinawa's main island is 66 miles (106 km) long and 7 miles (11 km) wide
- As of 2016, the population of Okinawa Prefectures was 1,439,000
- In 2018, Okinawa had 9.99 million tourists (that's a little more than Hawaii)
- Japanese is the main language in Okinawa
Okinawans are not Japanese; they are Okinawans and they have a lot of pride in their identity. At the same time, mainland Japanese culture does have a big influence here, and that influence is becoming stronger; especially as tourism grows and the Okinawan economy is relying more on the service industry.
Okinawan culture is more laid back than mainland Japan. The pace is slower and the people are less hesitant to speak their minds (though still far more reserved than Western cultures). The people here value crafts such as pottery and glass; and the music here is distinctively Okinawan.
Okinawan culture is also heavily influenced by American culture. In 1945, near the end of World War II, the U.S. invaded Okinawa, and in 1952, the U.S. and Japan signed an agreement for the U.S. military to stay.
Today, there are anywhere between 40,000 and 80,000 military personnel, accompanying family members, and civilian employees and contractors. The American influence is evident in things like taco rice (a tex-mex/asian hybrid), American Village (a tourist shopping hub), A&W fast food, and some dishes containing Spam. In fact, many tourists from mainland Japan come to Okinawa just to get a taste of American culture.
Though Okinawa has had a rocky history with the U.S., Americans who travel or live here, are generally treated with respect from locals.
The primary language in Okinawa in Japanese. There is also the Okinawan language, which has several different dialects, however, Okinawan is mostly spoken amongst the older population exclusively. Most of the younger generation does not speak Okinawan.
Most Okinawans speak a little English, however, they can be shy to use it. The central part of the island, close to the major U.S. military installations, is where you're most likely to interact with other locals who speak a decent amount of English.
Overall, navigating the language barrier is fairly easy to do here. Most restaurants have an English menu and if not, it's very common they have photos of the food on the menu.
Road signs are in Japanese and English, so navigating the roads is relatively easy, as well.
To learn about the language and speaking English in Okinawa: Do They Speak English in Okinawa? Using English in Okinawa
Weather in Okinawa
Okinawa has a subtropical climate and experiences cool winters and hot, humid summers. The coldest part of the year is in January and February with an average minimum temp of 55.2°F (12.9°C) and an average max temp of 65.1 °F (20°C). The hottest part of the year is July and August with an average minimum temp of 78.4°F (25.8°C) and an average max temp of 87.8°F (31°C).
December and January receive the least amount of rain, on average. In February, the average rainfall rises, steadily, up until the rainy season, which starts at the beginning of May and lasts until late June. After June, there is a sharp decrease in rainfall and slowly declines again.
Humidity levels in Okinawa are most comfortable in December - February. As it gets closer to July and August (which are the most uncomfortable months of the year), the comfort level quickly declines, and humid and muggy days become the norm.
As you can see from the graph below, "Oppressive" days can start as early as March and "Miserable" days as early as April.
Typhoons in Okinawa
What is a typhoon? A typhoon is the same thing as a hurricane; the only difference between the two is where they occur: Hurricanes occur in the North Atlantic and Northeast Pacific Oceans. Typhoons occur in the Northwest Pacific Ocean.
Okinawa is located in what's known as "Typhoon Alley," which is a region in the Pacific where the world's most powerful typhoons occur. In short, typhoons are the norm in Okinawa and they occur mostly between the months of June and November.
Between 2009 to 2019, the yearly average number of typhoons that approached the Okinawa was 25.2. That's a lot. Most typhoons do not hit Okinawa directly, but a handful come close enough to bring significant weather.
Even when Okinawa is hit head-on, the island is pretty resilient. The infrastructure is built to last and because residents are usually aware days in advance of a typhoon, there's plenty of time to prep. Data source: Kitamoto Asanobu
Okinawa has tons of great options for food. I'll start with the food it's most famous for.
Okinawa soba contains thick wheat noodles in a hot soup broth. Traditional soba contains pork belly, pickled ginger, and fish cake. Many restaurants serve different types of soba with other options like vegetables or tofu instead of pork.
Goya champuru is a very popular stir fry dish that contains goya, Okinawa's bitter melon superfood. Goya is known to cool and cleans the body. It also stimulated digestion and is high in vitamins. In addition to goya, champuru has egg, tofu, carrots, sprouts, and either pork or Spam. Yes, Spam.
Taco rice is unique to Okinawa and is more evidence of America's influence. In the 1980's a local restaurant decided to experiment with a Mexican styled dish to cater to the American's taste. The product was a dish with white rice, topped with ground beef, lettuce, cheddar cheese, and salsa. Definitely not Mexican, but still pretty good.
Everything in Between
Ultimately, Okinawa has just about anything you want to eat. It may not be the exact taste you're used to, but it's close enough. Common food from home you can find here include pizza, steakhouses, fast food (McDonalds, Burger King, A&W, and Kentucky Fried Chicken), pasta, and Indian food.
My biggest struggle, however, is the lack of authentic Mexican food in Okinawa. If you're a big fan of Mexican food, though you can find restaurants that get close, they usually leave you a little disappointed.
Other food popular for foreigners is: ramen, Japanese curry, and sushi go round:
Driving in Okinawa
Quick Facts About Driving Here:
- Okinawans drive on the left side of the road
- Max speed limit is 50 mph (80 kph)
- The average speed limit on main roads is 35 mph (50 - 60 kph)
Okinawa has much more of a car culture than mainland Japan and if you're going to be living here, life will be much easier with a one. Okinawa's public transportation is far more limited than mainland Japan. Though it has a rail system (the Okinawa Urban Monorail or "Yui Rail"), it's limited to the capital, Naha. Okinawa does have a bus system, however, it can be pretty slow, and in the humid months, waiting for the bus means you're drenched in sweat.
Traffic in Okinawa can get backed up. Especially between the hours of 7:00 am and 6:00 pm, during weekdays. On the weekend, if you get an early start (before 9:00 am), you can usually avoid traffic.
Just because there's traffic, doesn't mean drivers are impatient or rude. In fact, Okinawans are very polite and patient. On top of that, with the low-speed limits, driving in Okinawa is pretty safe.
Schools in Okinawa
If you're moving to Okinawa with kids, you have plenty of options for schools.
Okinawa is home to 13 U.S. Department of Defense schools (spread across 5 U.S. military installations on Okinawa) and around 15 international schools that provide learning in English classrooms.
To get more details on English-speaking schools in Okinawa and their costs, check out our Schools in Okinawa resource page.
There is, of course, public schools in Okinawa, and some children who are non-Japanese citizens attend these schools. Transitioning to Japanese public schooling can be challenging. Though there are quite a few foreigners in Okinawa, most don't go to public schools and, as a result, bullying occurs. It's less of a problem and less intense in Okinawa than mainland Japan, but something to keep on your radar.
In addition to bullying, the workload and time commitment is intense compared to the West. Especially, starting in middle school, where 12-hour days are common, rigorous tests are often, and sports clubs require practicing on the weekend.
For a list of on-base and off-base schools, go here.
Things to Do in Okinawa
Snorkeling & Diving
Okinawa is home to a wide variety of tropical fish and rare coral reefs. The ocean here also has plenty of flat days, making it perfectly clear and comfortable to snorkel and dive. There are plenty of dive shops on the island to purchase or rent gear from. There are also plenty of dive shops that will teach you how to dive and offer guide services for both diving and snorkeling.
Waves in Okinawa are inconsistent, which is why Okinawa will never become a surf travel destination. At the same time, when there are waves here, they can get world-class.
You can find waves to fit any type of surfer; from beginning surfers to highly-advanced surfers. So, if you already surf or wanting to learn, Okinawa will be a great place for you.
Whether you like deep-sea fishing or prefer to fish from dry land, Okinawa is a great place to fish. You don't even need a fishing license. There are a few simple regulations to be aware of, and other than that, all you need is fishing gear and a desire to go.
The Churaumi Aquarium is the largest aquarium in Japan and has one of the largest tanks in the world. Some of the highlights at the aquarium are the whale sharks, dolphin show, and its deep-sea exhibit.
The aquarium building is around 107,000 square feet (10,000 square meters) and has plenty of outdoor area (the entire grounds it sits on is around 204,500 square feet [19,000 square meters]) with some incredible views.
You can learn more from the Churaumi Aquarium's homepage.
9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
The Ryukyu Kingdom ruled Okinawa from the 15th to 19th century and is responsible for building the numerous castles around Okinawa. Castle ruins are spread throughout the island and offer a great way to pass the time for anyone interested in a little history or a nice hike.
AEON Mall (Rycom Mall)
The Rycom Mall is fairly new with 5 floors and 210 shops, including restaurants. Some of the more well-known shops here are: Billabong, Giordano, UNIQLO, mont-bell, NEW ERA, Gap and GapKids, Oakley, Forever 21, H & M, and American Eagle Outfitters.
The mall is located in Okinawa City, which is in the center part of Okinawa, very central to where most Americans live and work.
Here is a link to the mall's homepage, with all the details.
PARCO CITY Mall
PARCO CITY Mall just opened its doors in 2019 (Okinawa is growing quickly these days). The mall is 3 floors of shops and restaurants: ESTELLE LUXURY, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Blue Seal Ice Cream, Armani Exchange, H & M, A&W Root Beer, Quicksilver, Guess, COACH, Baskin Robbins, The North Face, Champion, Tommy Jeans, Birkenstock, LACOSTE, Levi's, Crocs, Starbucks, Panda Express, UNIQLO, Lego.
Here is a link to the PARCO CITY Mall website.
One of my favorite spots in Okinawa is Yomitan Village, which is a small village of pottery and glass artists. You can find all sorts of pottery, glass, and Shisa statues on display and for sale. It's quite, and there are some great views from the nearby castle, Zakimi.
Sports Teams in Okinawa
Okinawa Ryukyu Golden Kings is a Japanese professional basketball team. The Golden Kings even have a few players from the U.S..
The Golden Kings currently play in the Okinawa City Gymnasium, which only holds a little over 2,000 people. However, soon, the Okinawa Arena will be completed, just down the street.
The Okinawa Arena will be the largest in Okinawa, have a 510-inch video screen, and have VIP entrances and suite seating. It will be able to hold 8,000 people for basketball games.
FC Ryukyu is the professional soccer team in Okinawa. They were founded in 2003 and play in the second division of the Japan Professional Football League. Their home stadium is found in the central part of Okinawa, at Tapic Kenso Hiyagon Stadium.
Every year, starting in February, professional teams from mainland Japan make Okinawa a temporary home for their spring training. Each team declares a certain field their own, and spectators can watch practice for free. And for a reasonable price, you can watch pre-season games.
In 2019, it was announced that Okinawa would finally have its own professional baseball team: The Ryukyu Blue Oceans. Though they aren't in the big leagues yet, their goal is to reach the top league, the National Professional Baseball Organization in Japan.
Annual Events in Okinawa
- Okinawa Flower Carnival
- Okinawa Marathon
- Yomitan Pottery Festival
- Cherry Blossom Festivals
- Okinawa International Movie Festival
- All Japan Triathlon Miyakojima
- Ie Island Lily Festival
- Okuyanbaru Carp Streamer Festival
- Hatoma Island Music Festival
- Naha Dragon Boat Race
- Itoman Dragon Boat Race
- Yonabaru Great Tug-of-War Festival
- 10,000 Eisa Dancers Parade
- Okinawa Zento Eisa Matsuri
- Orion Beerfest
- Itoman Great Tug-of-War
- Naha Great Tug-of-War Festival
- Okinawa Octoberfest
- Okinawa Industrial Festival
- Okinawa International Festival
- Naha Marathon
- Ryukyu Lantern Festival
Important and Interesting Laws
DUI = .03 BAC
That's right. Just blowing a .03 BAC (.15 mg/L) will get labeled a DUI, which could land you in jail for up to 3 years and a fine of up to $5,000.
Blowing a .08 BAC (.4 mg/L) is considered driving while intoxicated, which is up to 5 years in jail and up to $10,000 in fines.
Even after learning about this law, many foreigners get a DUI. Not because they drove home after drinking, but because they woke up the next morning and drove, thinking they're good to go. They were hungover and still blowing a .03.
Cell Phones While Driving
In December 2019, the Japanese government passed stricter rules on cell phone usage while driving. If caught using your cell phone, you'll be faced with a $150 fine and could potentially end up in jail if it's judged the incident could have resulted in a dangerous incident (this seems too subjective for my comfort).
Regardless of the potential run-in with the law, it's best not to use your cell phone, at all, while driving.
"Comparative Negligence" in Car Accidents
In Okinawa (and all of Japan), rarely is a car accident just one person's fault, in the eyes of the law. Instead, a percentage of fault is assigned to each of the parties involved in an accident.
It's said, even if you're stopped at a red light and are rear-ended, you're going to walk away being partially at fault. In the eyes of Japanese law, maybe you could have done something to prevent it or minimize the damage.
The only time where an accident is not partially your fault is when you're fully parked and another vehicle hits you.
No Guns or Knives
The only guns you'll find for sale in Okinawa and Japan are airsoft guns. Other than that, guns are strictly prohibited.
Knives are heavily regulated, as well. If you have a knife, you need to have a good reason to have it. According to TokyoWeekender, you need permission to own a knife longer than 5.9 inches (15 cm); pocket knives are legal as long as the blade is shorter than 2.4 inches (6 cm). Exceptions are made for kitchen knives or hunting/fishing knives. If you must own a knife in Japan, the law is a little grey. It's best to do your research and know the specifics.
More on Important Japanese laws to know and how to stay out of trouble here.
Social Rules to Know
That's right when eating out, riding in a taxi, or receiving any sort of service, you don't need to tip. In fact, even if you try, chances are you'll be met with confusion and refusal for taking more money.
Honking is not common in Okinawa and most of Japan. You'll hear a horn every once in a while, but in general, you should avoid using your horn.
Taking Off Your Shoes
It's expected when entering someone's home that you take off your shoes. Most restaurants and businesses in Okinawa do not require you to take off your shoes, but some do. In general, the more traditional the restaurant, the more likely it'll be expected for you to take off your shoes.
You can usually tell if you're expected to take off your shoes after you enter. Most of the time there will be a large shelf with other shoes placed in it. And it's common for staff to direct you to take off your shoes.
Housing in Okinawa
If you're moving from a Western country, the houses and apartments here are much smaller. Not such an issue if you're single or moving to Okinawa alone, but as a family, it can take a little getting used to.
I took a sample from Homes.mil, a U.S. DoD database of approved housing for military personnel in Okinawa. From the random 217 apartments and houses I selected, the average size of housing in Okinawa is 1,143.87 square feet.
Here is the average square footage, broken down for each type of apartment/house in Okinawa:
- 1-bedroom: 706.98 sq ft
- 2-bedroom: 975.17 sq ft
- 3-bedroom: 1,379.20 sq ft
- 4-bedroom: 1,684.13 sq ft
You can expect all the modern utilities: electricity, hot water, Internet, air conditioning, and heating (though you rarely need it here).
Common differences between homes in Okinawa and the United States:
- Very rarely will a house or apartment have a garage
- It's less common (if not rare) to have a dishwasher (about 32% of housing on homes.mil had dishwashers)
- It's rare to find ovens in homes
- It's rare to find homes with a yard or garden
- Most homes in Okinawa do not have a clothes dryer, but not impossible to find one
- It's rare to have central air/heating. Most (if not all) have units in each room
If you're interested in specific areas to live in Okinawa, you'll find a rundown of some of the most common places foreigners live in this article: Where to Live in Okinawa (and What’s the Commute Like)?
Working in Okinawa
Most jobs available to English speakers are located on U.S. military installations on the island. There's a large variety, however, they can be quite competitive due to the number of spouses accompanying service members. And for many Government Service positions, spouses get priority over other civilians. Great news if you're a spouse.
In general, the higher the education needed for the position, the less competitive it will be due to there being fewer qualified applicants.
As for off-base work, if you're bilingual, you'll have far more options for work. If not, options are limited, but it doesn't mean it's impossible. Most jobs are limited to teaching English, either at a private or public school.
If you're serious about finding work here in Okinawa, you might want to read, Can Americans Live in Okinawa? Living Legally in Okinawa, where I've outlined important information about working visas and places to find jobs, on and off base.
Cost of Living in Okinawa
Okinawa is very reasonable, especially when you consider the fact that you're never further than 3.5 miles away from a crystal clear tropical ocean.
According to Nomadlist.com the general cost of living in Okinawa for a middle/upper-class foreigner is $1,955 / month.
According to Numbeo.com, (not scientific, but these numbers seem accurate, from my experience). The biggest price difference compared with the U.S., is the price of produce:
|Meal, inexpensive restaurant||$6.18 (I would say this is probably more $9 to $10)|
|Water (.33 liter)||$0.92|
|Banana, 1 kg; 2.2 lbs||$2.76|
|Tomato, 1 kg; 2.2 lbs||$4.07|
|Onion, 1 kg; 2.2 lbs||$3.35|
|Lettuce, 1 head||$1.59|
|Potatoe, 1 kg; 2.2 lbs||$3.22|
Currency and Banking
Okinawa, just like mainland Japan, uses the Japanese yen (¥). As you get closer to the center of the island, where the two major U.S. military installations (Camp Foster and Kadena Air Force Base) are located, some business do accept U.S. dollars. However, the exchange rate is poor. It's always best to carry yen with you and assume where you're about to eat doesn't accept U.S. dollars.
Credit card is becoming more widespread in Okinawa and mainland Japan, however, it's still a cash-heavy culture. Most convenient stores, larger restaurants, and pretty much every hotel accept credit cards these days.
If you'll be working with the military, either active duty, civilian, or as a contractor, you'll have access to on-base banking: Community Bank and Navy Federal Credit Union.
If you won't be working with the military, getting a bank account will require you to be a resident of Japan. This means you need a work visa and a job.
Challenges of Living in Okinawa
If you're accompanying your spouse who has work or orders to Okinawa, work can be a challenge to find. Once again, not impossible, but it will most likely take you longer than it does back at home.
And even when folks find work, it's common to hear how challenging many work environments can be, whether on-base or off-base.
On-base, the constant turnover in staff and leadership can make continuity unobtainable and things get disorganized. On top of that, foreigners are generally under more stress here: they're away from their social support back at home, there are fewer resources here, and culture shock can last for months.
Working off-base, integrating and feeling truly part of the culture can be a challenge and take quite some time to adjust to.
Even if you'll have access to base, resources are fairly limited.
More Americans on the island mean more opportunities to make friends with fellow English speakers. At the same time, most foreigners in Okinawa are here for a limited time. Friends can come and go pretty quickly, and finding a long-term, tight-knit group of friends can take a while to build up here.
Okinawa has a large variety of things to offer foreigners who are serious about living here. And those who enjoy the ocean will probably fall in love with the island; you're never far from the water and the cost of living to be that close is very reasonable.
Pros of Living in Okinawa
- Cost of living is reasonable
- Easy-going and friendly culture
- Cool and mild winters
- Extremely low crime rate
- High-quality service
- Large variety of water sports
Cons of Living in Okinawa
- Not easy to find work
- Language barrier
- Muggy summers
- Public transportation is limited to public bus outside of Naha
- Small living space
Brian O'Sullivan is a California Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. He provides counseling services in Okinawa, Japan to the adult, english-speaking population on the island. He also offers counseling services to clients located in California and online therapy throughout Japan.