Okinawa Island is sometimes called Japan's fifth island (in addition to its 4 main islands). It is the largest of the Okinawa Islands. These islands are idyllic for those who would like to enjoy a humid subtropical climate in a Japan away from Japan so to speak.

Okinawa is also an important place to remember American history in WW2. It was the site of one of the largest battles in the Pacific - the Battle of Okinawa. Another place to the history of the War in the Pacific is in the tropical island paradises of the Solomon Islands - where one can find sunken naval wrecks and abandoned airplanes claimed by the jungle.


The Distinctive Island Paradise of Okinawa

Okinawa is just the largest of the Southwest Islands (or Nansei-shotō (南西諸島 in Japanese). They are made up of several chains of semitropical and coral-fringed islands far from the Japanese main islands (with Okinawa discounted as a main island).

According to the Lonely Planet, they offer a:

".... slow pace and unique cultural heritage of the former Ryūkyū kingdom endures, offering a vibrant contrast to Japan's focus on modernity and technology."

Visit Okinawa says

"...Okinawa is best known as Japan’s island paradise, and is a premier travel destination both domestically and abroad."

  • Length: 66 Miles or 106 Kilometers
  • Width: Average 7 Miles or 11 Kilometers
  • Size: 466 Square Miles or 1,200 Square Kilometers
  • Population: 1.9 Million

While one can find excellent shopping and honeymooning tourists on Okinawa Island, one can also find isolation and beauty on the smaller islands. Discover spectacular corals, turquoise waters, soft sands, dense jungles, and mangroves.

Temperatures in this subtropical zone rarely fall below 15 degrees in the winter (59°F). The seas around the islands are considered among the world's most stunning with their coral reefs and abundant marine wildlife. Some of the main activities are snorkeling and scuba diving.

  • Activities: Snorkeling, Scuba Diving, Food Tourism, Sunbathing

The native culture on these islands is known to be distinctly different from the rest of Japan including in arts, cuisine, language. The main city is Naha on the main island and the Greater Naha area has around 800,000 people.

Related: This Is Why So Many People Are Falling In Love With Kyoto, Japan

A Unique History Distinct From That Of Japan

For more than 400 years the Ryukyu Kingdom ruled these isles. The kingdom was characterized by booming trade with Japan, China, as well as other Asian countries like Thailand and the Philippines. It sat in the confluence of cultures and these gave rise to the unique traditions seen on the island today.

  • Ryukyu Kingdom: The Old Ryukyu Kingdom Was Under The Influence of China
  • Culture: The Culture Has Been Influenced By Other Countries And is Distinct From That of Japan
  • Japanese Rule: From 1606

For much of its history, Ryukyu was an independent kingdom but tributary state to China. This changed when the autonomous Kingdom of Ryukyu finally came under the rule of Japan in 1606 (after having been invaded by Satsuma in Japan in 1591).

The Ryukyu Kingdom was finally abolished in 1879 with the declaration of the Okinawa Prefecture. Since then it has been part of Japan proper (apart from American administration of the islands from WW2 to 1972 when rule was returned to Japan).

Japan embarked on efforts to assimilate the native population, but despite those efforts, the Ryukyuan culture has survived and is now one of Okinawa's main attractions. Today the residents speak Japanese (although with a distinctive accent).

  • Language: Distinctly Accented Japanese


Think you know Japan? Think again if you haven't visited Okinawa!

Related: Visiting Japan: The Essential Language Guide For First-Timers

The Battle Of Okinawa and American Presence

Okinawa has a special relationship with the US military. It was the site of the Battle of Okinawa during the War in The Pacific in WW2, was under American administration until 1972, and today hosts one of the largest concentrations of American forces outside of the United States.

  • American Bases: American Bases Take Up 25% of The Island
  • Battle of Okinawa: One Of The Largest Battles Of WW2

The Battle of Okinawa was one of the largest battles ever fought by the United States with the initial invasion taking place on 1 April 1945. It was the largest amphibious assault of the Pacific Theater of WW2.

It resulted in the loss of up to 20,000 American lives and several times that for the defending Japanese. About half of the Okinawan population perished in the battle - killed or committed suicide.

  • Duration: 82 Days
  • Date: 1 April – 22 June 1945

Today one enjoy the forgotten "fifth main island" of Japan and see the idyllic paradise of these southern islands - although the history of WW2 continues to loom large.

The best place to see the wrecks of the war is in Truk (Chuuk) Lagoon in the Federated States of Micronesia. Here there are scores of Japanese naval vessels sunken in shallow waters and are a favorite of shipwreck divers.

Next: Wondering What To Prepare For A Japan Trip? Here's Where To Start