The clouds move quickly in Okinawa. The ocean breeze, a hurried and constant attendant, herds them across the skyscape. The clouds rush on as if in childish opposition to the island’s leisurely lifestyle below. Misshapen cotton balls tumbling across a light blue countertop. The ocean breeze isn’t just playing with the clouds. It roams around the island looking for mischief like a playful omnipresent Oni (demon). It teasingly tussles the raven lacquer hair of the women as they make their way down the sidewalks. Their efficient strides and heels resound with a rhythmic *click click.* One of their hands constantly passes at their face attempting to reclaim order to the mess of stray hairs. The demon ineffectually tugs at the hats of old fishermen, long retired, as they sit along the shoreline casting lines and Orion beers in equal measure. It makes lustful inquiries at the skirt hems of high schoolers, clad in their identical black and white uniforms, as they make their way home. School-age boys, donning black slacks and white button-up short sleeves, equally prejudice to mischief, welcome the wind as a companion in arms. They watch eagerly as impish gusts play with the clothing of their female companions and passersby.
The fashion sense in Japan, especially in the realm of business attire, is unmistakably Western. “Salarymen” as they’re often labeled walk briskly in pressed button-down white shirts with accompanying blue or black slacks and jackets. The iconic wooden Geta sandals have been long replaced by black leather shoes. Women wear dresses and heels. The stereotypical Western imagining of kimonos and yukatas are a rare sight, especially on a weekday. One has to actively search for a dining establishment or specialty shop to find the colorful silks and bold obis. Alternatively, a celebratory festival, not an uncommon event in Japanese culture, may herald the display of the average person’s kimono, which had been long dormant in a closet. It’s hard not to stare when you find them. The traditional kimono for women fits snugly across the hips and legs resulting in small, measured steps. The accompanying Geta’s thick wooden heels are less a fashion statement and more a realist’s necessity to keep the kimono’s long hem from dragging across the ground. The combination results in a calculated and graceful glide by the women as they peruse the street vendors. As they lean over to inspect goods, they tilt their accompanying Wagasa, a colorful parasol made of bamboo and paper, behind them. Their black hair, done expertly in a top bun, no longer shaded by the Wagasa gleams in the noon sun. Their lips part slightly in a reserved exclamation at the array of food delicacies on display. In that picturesque moment, the foreign beauty transports you to an unfamiliar time and place.
In Okinawa prefecture, another step in the clothing evolutionary chain has taken place. Business suits that replaced kimonos are now giving way to Kariyushi attire. Kariyushi, translating to “happiness” in Okinawan dialect, entails wearing a collared aloha style button-down shirt. A typical pattern is a bold flower design of reds and whites, but unique Okinawan variants are not uncommon. Shirts decorated in goya (green bitter melon popular in Okinawa), dragon boats, and Shisa (guardian lion statues you’ve probably seen, but never knew the name of) abound. The fabric of the shirt is different than what you’re used to. The Aloha shirt popularized in your local stores are probably made with cotton, rayon, silk or a combination of those materials. In Okinawa, the more expensive Kariyushi are made from a local banana fiber. This shirt has gained increasing popularity over the last couple decades to the point of being the accepted style of dress for local government officials.
The casual wear of the younger generations (especially in mainland Japan) is where a visitor will witness the most noticeable deviation from their fashion norms. Blue jeans, yoga pants and t-shirt combos, and cleavage revealing crop tops are noticeably less prevalent in the crowds. The genetic disposition of Japanese people is a shorter and slimmer frame than an American (well, part of that formula can be attributed to genetics, but certainly credit must be given to a healthier diet, onsen culture, and more active lifestyle). Large hips and busts are not common and thus the desire to flaunt them in tight and immodest clothing is also absent. Clothes are wide and flowing. You might try them back home and get the impression of a parachute, but in Japan they are synonymous with street cool. A common outfit for a fashionable young Japanese man is casual slacks and undone button-up, both noticeably big for his frame. His hair, long enough so he has to occasionally move it from his eyes in a delicate motion, is done in a calculated mess of curls or straightened. They might even be wearing a small amount of makeup to accent their lips or eyes.
The slender features, long hair, and youthful glow of the men culminate in an almost feminine charm. Western men might scoff at their girlish looks, but they’re not the target audience of this deliberate arrangement and so they can scoff in the corner with their wranglers and tank tops. The Japanese girls love it. If you don’t believe me, look at the all the popular hosts and boy idol groups. You don’t have to look online to find them. Peruse a bustling downtown area and you can find them posing on large billboards. These local celebrities all boast a similar appearance. It’s a close-up portrait of porcelain, unblemished skin. An uncalloused hand sensually reaches to brush at their cheek or hair. Their lips are slightly parted, inviting a kiss. Japanese women flock to them in droves. Muscle bound and square stubbled jawlines are out. Slim and light makeup are in.
In Okinawa, the large American military presence pervades and transmutes the local culture. Military facilities—small cities outlined in tall barbwire fences—seemingly spring up every few miles. Foster, Lester, Kadena, Schwab, Hansen, Futenma, Courtney, Shields, Kinser, Torii Station, training areas, auxiliary air strips, ranges, etc. dot the Okinawa landscape. Around the more populated ones, a comical biome had formed. Strip clubs, open late massage joints lurking in shadowy alleyways, used car lots, tattoo parlors, and drinking establishments flourish with the constant patronage of nearby 18 to 22-year-olds. The holy Mecca of the cultural blender can be found in between two of the largest bases: American Village.
American Village is a large American themed outdoor mall rife with shopping, restaurants, and drinking opportunities right along the seawall. There’s a large Santa Clause statue here. The bar Cheers is over there. A small replica of the Statue of Liberty sits atop the store American Depot, which boasts hordes of vintage American memorabilia. Nothing beats listening to your favorite record while wearing your bomber jacket. Despite American service members’ rougher disposition and penchant for causing trouble, local Japanese still flock to the area. The Western population is like the stray cats living along the seawall. Some people think they create too much noise and want to be rid of them. They even went to lengths to put up signs discouraging people from feeding them. This voice appears to be in the minority because the cats keep being fed and keep expanding. Their matted fur and unique mannerisms compared to the domesticated cats are an attraction. They are dangerous outdoor animals that likely have fleas, but they still have charm. They could be trained with a little bit of food. A nice bento and the stroke of a Japanese woman’s hand could get them to purr in a pitch that wasn’t unfamiliar. Their inclination to use their claws and teeth was known but accepted. Most the local nationals had seen the cats and were quite familiar with them. The older generations, with memories of the war and a much less regulated and aggressive American presence still lingering in the back of their minds and hearts, might cast a dirty look, but nothing outright hostile. The call for widespread euthanasia was an almost non-existent minority. The unique blonde and red furs or green and blue eyes didn’t attract stares or whispers. Only if one traveled to the far reaches of the island would you find an area unmolested by a Western presence. Here there were no English menus, and the waitress didn’t speak enough to guide you through it. Get out your Google Translate, download Duolingo, or take a semester of Japanese and then come back. You’re in rural Japan, don’t be shocked and don’t act rude.
It is always green in Okinawa. Dense forest stands to each side watching as you barrel down the single expressway. As you travel further North the city begins to give way to the trees. Yanbaru, the northernmost area, contains some of the largest remaining subtropical tracts in Asia. It’s within the enveloping green that Marines conduct their jungle warfare training. Nature’s presence isn’t limited to this small segment of the map. Japan, compact and reverent to its history, manages to seamlessly blend city life with idyllic nature vignettes. One day you are walking down a sidewalk. A medley of stores pass by on your right. You stop to admire British Beat, a vintage motorcycle store. Congested downtown traffic stirs behind you. A few of Japan’s iconic vending machines, seemingly always within reach, beckon you over with the promise of a hot coffee. You pass by them, sorely tempted but resolute in your decision. And then, you’re abruptly no longer in 2022. Out of the dense cityscape a large Torri gate has been erected. Inari (fox) statues flank the structure and the five concrete steps leading to a modest wooden shrine. The kanji for “heart” and “column” are emblazoned in red on two short stone pillars. It’s quieter there. Amidst the engines, footfalls, conversations, and music, you momentarily exist in a small alternative reality. Small shrubbery has been allowed to flourish in this area—the vibrant green contrasts with the lifeless gray. A thick red and white tattered rope hangs from a bronze bell. As custom dictates, you toss in some yen into the offering box and bow before tugging on the rope. The gong of the bell vibrates through your body. There’s likely a scientific explanation for how the bell and the structure of the gate manages to block the sound waves from the outside world, but it doesn’t feel wholly natural to your layman’s perspective. There’s an otherworldly sense to the feeling of ease that permeates your body. Your neck, stiff from hours hunched over a computer, feels loose. It’s likely because your head is lighter. The mental gymnastics your brain is unremittingly tumbling through ceases as you listen to the bell. The weight of the constant stream of consciousness dissipates leaving you feeling empty and relaxed. A couple steps and you’re back in the modern grind.
Unlike the surreal ambience of the shrine, summer in Okinawa is an entirely different matter altogether. There is no ambiguity concerning its existence or virility. The humidity hovers close to 90% in June. Combined with a temperature in the 80s, this dynamic duo liberally bakes any Marine foolish enough to exercise outside during midday. Despite what the Okinawan weather forecast might tell you, there was never a reliable time not to have an umbrella stowed away in your car. Heavy rains were expected in May and June. Typhoon season was often labeled as July to September. Even if there wasn’t rain coming down from the clouds, you couldn’t avoid the feeling of being wet as a wave of humidity slapped you across the face while exiting your front door.
Winter on the other hand is a nebulous concept. Unless you were coming from an area like Negril, Playa Tamarindo, or Rodney Bay, you would confidently say Okinawa doesn’t have a winter. When you first arrive in Okinawa, you even go so far as to be combative with anyone who proposes the wild notion of there being multiple seasons in Okinawa. You incredulously remark, “This isn’t winter! It’s still sixty degrees!” We nod to placate you. We get it. Back where you’re from it actually snows and you had to shovel your driveway growing up. Yes, that must have been very tough compared to the idyllic tropic that is Okinawa. Yes, your moral fiber and hardiness were undoubtedly bolstered in the winter hellscape you survived in. We nod to placate you in the interim. We long timers know the value of patience. The first year you’ll wear shorts and a t-shirt and make numerous annoying remarks about how warm it still is. You’ll scoff at your jacket wearing friend. But then you go out into town and see a premonition of your future self. The Okinawan people are wearing layers. Winter jackets, beanies, arm warmers, and Christmas themed hot beverages abound. It shocks and disturbs you. Are they really that cold? Fast forward to next year and you’re wondering why you packed a scarf to Okinawa to begin with. Nothing wrong with dusting it off. Better than leaving it unused after all. The color coordinates well with one your leather jackets too. It seems a little chillier this year than last. You can always take off the jacket if it warms up. You’re one of us now.
Any brief foray into historical text or local attractions will reveal that Okinawa’s ties to Japan are young. Originally known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, a Chinese tributary state starting in the 1400s, Okinawa was invaded and conquered by Japan in the early 1600s. It was only in 1879 when Japan formally dissolved and annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom and “created” what the modern world knows as Okinawa, a prefecture of the land of the rising sun. The language on Okinawa while sonorously Japanese carries its own accent and unique phrases. Americans often equate Okinawa and Japan’s relationship to Hawaii and America. The cultural influence of the latter has almost overgrown the former, but small pockets of their originality can be seen everywhere you look.
The business suits look the same as the ones worn in Tokyo. Heels against the sidewalk resound with the same *click click.* School children in the same identical black and white uniforms mill about and discuss the same shows. So many elements mirror their mainland counterparts, but it was simultaneously all categorically different. The *click click* follows a softer rhythm. There were no subways to rush to. Upon closer inspection, the business suit was made of thinner material and it was noticeably less prevalent among the working-age men. Instead, colorful Kariyushi brightened the walk to work. The short sleeves allowed the ocean air to permeate through to the body during the grueling summer heat. The students’ skin were shades darker. The multitude of surrounding gorgeous beaches were to blame. Buildings were marked with the same kanji, but their layout was more dispersed and free parking lots accompanied them. In contrast to the significantly smaller population, roadways were wider and filled with cars. Geography and proximity of buildings had been sacrificed for the Western love of cars. The occasional “Hi Sai” replaced “Konnichiwa.” And the clouds. The clouds moved quicker in Okinawa while the people below moved with an island leisure.
What makes Okinawa is the breeze.