Okinawa is home to 55,000 US military personnel and their families. Okinawa Prefecture—the prefecture with the 4th smallest land area in Japan—hosts 75% of the US military bases in the entire nation of Japan that are exclusively used by US Forces (and not in conjunction with the Japanese Self Defense Forces). After WWII, Okinawa was a U.S. territory for 27 years. The U.S. dollar was the official currency and Okinawans needed passports to travel to mainland Japan and vice versa. Okinawa reverted to Japanese control in 1972, but under a special agreement with the mainland Japanese government, a very large military presence has been allowed to remain. Americans refer to Okinawa as the “keystone of the Pacific”. Many of the soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War were flown in and out of Okinawa.

Many Okinawans have voiced opposition to the bases for decades and there is an ongoing struggle to remove the bases from Okinawa. Okinawa also happens to be the poorest of Japan’s 47 prefectures and while the bases formed a vital part of Okinawa’s post-war economy, these large occupied plots of land are largely inaccessible to the public. Okinawa has devised several economic development plans to replace the bases, but they would require cooperation and monetary support from the Japanese government, which may be difficult for the prefecture to acquire. Today, the younger generation of Okinawans (aka, your students) have no living memories of Okinawa without the US military presence, and often express ambiguous feelings toward the military presence.

More information: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/okinawa.htm

Do I have to interact with the military?

Not if you don’t want to, no! If you live on Ishigaki, Miyako, or the outer islands you will never even have to see military or bases, since they are all on the mainland and a few of the closer islands. Even on the Okinawan mainland itself, there are good chances that you will almost never seemilitary if you live in the far north or south. You will still have special status as the local “gaikokujin” (foreigner).

Most of the military is concentrated in the middle section of Okinawa hontō (the main island). There, you will see them driving on the roads, possibly eating with you in restaurants or Starbucks, or walking down the street. But you will never be forced to talk to them or interact. For the most part they grocery shop on base, their kids go to school on base, and they go to the theaters on base. For JETs living in this area, people are probably used to seeing gaikokujin. There are certain cities that have a VERY heavy military presence: Yomitan, Chatan, and Okinawa City. Okinawans in these areas may assume that you are in some way related to the military upon first glance―which can be frustrating. As for nightlife, there are certain clubs where military personnel often go and others where they do not. Gate 2 street in Okinawa City, for example, is covered in military clubs and bars. You can avoid these or frequent them as you wish.

Can I go on base?

Yes. Bases are not impossible to access: if you have a friend who is in the military or who has a ‘base pass’ (a pass allowing you as non-military personnel to go on base with whoever you can shove in your car), you can go on base, regardless of whether or not you are American. A few JETs have base passes, but these are not easy to obtain unless you live way up north where there are less people and bases need a larger consumer pool. In the southern regionswhere bases and the population are very concentrated, it is not as easy to get a pass, though you can always go on with a friend who is military personnel.

Reasons you might want to go on base: to go to the movies ($3.50 USD on base, about $18 USD at a Japanese theater), to buy shoes and clothing in sizes unavailable to you in Japanese stores, to borrow English books from the library (through your authorized friend), to use free wireless Internet, to buy American snack foods, American products, American fashion magazines, to eat at Taco Bell/Subway/Applebees, etc. That said, there is not a complete lack of American food and culture off of the base. A&W, Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s run rampant across the island. Tons of western foods, snacks, and products can be found in the larger Japanese grocery stores. Many JETs never go on base, and couldn’t care less. This is Japan after all…

(FYI: even if youare on base with a friend or have your own base pass, you are never allowed in the grocery stores on base. The prices at military grocery stores are subsidized by the US government, and are thus substantially lower than in America itself. That’s why no one else is allowed to shop there.)

Do more Okinawans speak English than mainland Japan?

Not really. Just because there are many Americans in Okinawa does not mean that everyone speaks English. Of course in areas concentrated with military bases, there are many Japanese people who speak at least a basic-level of English (at least well enough to perform all of their job functions) working in the service industry.

However, in rural parts of Okinawa or for anyone who doesn’t come into contact with military on a regular basis, English is not commonly spoken.