Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Okinawa - Location is Destiny

Okinawa has always been important in the Asian region, both economically and strategically.  Why? Its location and its people have made it so.

 “Okinawa” defined

First, what does the term “Okinawa” mean? Actually, it can refer to:
  • The island of Okinawa itself
  • The prefecture of Japan called Okinawa
  • The entire Ryukyuan island chain (the old Ryukyu Kingdom)

Ryukyu Islands and Okinawa

The Ryukyu archipelago is a chain of over 150 islands. They stretch 700 miles from Taiwan to Kyushu, Japan, the westernmost island of Mainland Japan.  They separate the East China Sea from the northern Pacific Ocean.  The total land area is about 1,800 square miles. That is a little larger than Long Island (1,401 square miles).

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/U.S. Dept. of Commerce

The Ryukyu Islands are split into four groups.  The Amami islands are closest to Japan’s mainland.  Today, they are part of Kagoshima Prefecture.  The remaining three groups, Okinawa, Miyako and Yaeyama, make up what is now Okinawa Prefecture.  Miyako and Yaeyama are closest to Taiwan. 
Source: Wikipedia Ryukyu Island Map

Many of the Ryukyu Islands are too small to support life. Okinawa Island is the largest, and the main island where most of the population lives.  Even so, its land area is 454 square miles.  That is about the size of Los Angeles, which is 469 square miles.

Compared to Japan, Okinawa is less than 1% of Japan’s total land mass with a population of 1.4 million. Japan’s total population is 130 million.  The Okinawan climate is subtropical. It has clear blue skies, green vegetation, white beaches, and is surrounded by clear ocean waters.  Typhoons are frequent visitors.  It has rugged mountains and miles of shoreline with many good harbors.

Okinawa’s Importance

So why is Okinawa important to the Asia Pacific region, both in the past and today?

Its central location in the East China Sea makes it very accessible.  Okinawa is 400 to 500 miles from China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan.  That is roughly the distance from San Francisco to San Diego.

The islands also lie in the path of an ocean current called the” Black Current”, or Kuroshio.  The name comes from its deeper blue color than the surrounding water.  The Black Current flows from the Philippines north to Taiwan, then along the Ryukyu’s, and up to Japan.  Trading ships from Southeast Asia and other countries could easily reach Okinawa in this way. 

The Okinawan people’s gentle nature and welcoming attitude also has contributed to their central role in the area.  Historical reports repeatedly speak of visitors who landed on Okinawan shores being struck by the generous hospitality and kindness of the Okinawans.

Okinawa - A Bridge between Nations

From earliest times Okinawa has been a mixing pot of technology, arts and crafts.  For most of its long history, the Ryukyu kingdom was a separate country from Japan. 

Okinawa has embraced new ideas and developed its own unique culture. This is a result of the intermixing of many different influences - not just from Japan - but from countries throughout Asia.

The Okinawan people’s gentle nature and welcoming attitude have fostered a truly unique culture that sets them apart.  As was true in the past, Okinawa today is still the gateway to the Asia Pacific area, and continues to foster the spirit of being a “bridge between nations” for the world.

This sentiment was perhaps first expressed by an inscription written over 500 years ago on the “Bridge of Nations” Bell, which hung at Shuri castle:

The Kingdom of Ryūkyū is a splendid place in the South Seas, with close intimate relations with the Three Nations of China, Korea, and Japan, between which it is located, and which express much admiration for these islands. Journeying to various countries by ship, the Kingdom forms a bridge between all the nations, filling its land with the precious goods and products of foreign lands; in addition, the hearts of its people emulate the virtuous civilization of Japan and China.

(Translation based on Japanese summary given at Governor's Room; Okinawa Prefecture Official Site.  Accessed 5 September 2009. Source: Wikipedia)

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