According to Japan’s Health Ministry, the average life expectancy on Okinawa is 81.2 years – 86 for women, 75 for men – the highest in the world. Okinawa’s average is significantly higher than that for all of Japan – 79.9 – which tops all countries in life expectancy. Hong Kong, at 79.1 years, is second.
Okinawa (the main island of a tropical chain of 160-coral islets) is the southernmost prefecture of Japan. It consists of hundreds of the Ryukyu Islands in a chain over 620-miles long. The islands extend southwest from Kyushu (the southwestern-most of Japan’s main four islands) to Taiwan. The Okinawa Prefecture encompasses the southern two thirds of that chain.
For centuries independent, Okinawa shared relationships with Japan, China and other south-east Asian entities and it became a prosperous trading nation (although China and Japan made claims to the islands through various dynasties.)
The islands became Okinawa Prefecture of Japan in 1879; after the end of World War II (1945,) Okinawa was under United States administration for 27 years, when (in 1972) the US government returned the islands to Japanese administration.
OK, so what about Hawaiʻi?
While Okinawa over the centuries benefitted from trade with its neighbors, and was described as a “connecting point” between China and Japan, the loss of independence saw growing hostility between Okinawans and Japanese immediately after its annexation to Japan.
Likewise, the islands of Ryukyu possessed only limited natural resources. Typhoons continuously destroyed crops. With increasing population, people faced the problem of inadequate food.
Out-migration was seen as a solution.
At about this same time, news was spreading about the 1885 agreement between the government of Japan and Hawaiʻi to export Japanese laborers to work on Hawaiʻi’s sugar plantations on the basis of a three-year contract. A large wave of Japanese laborers started arriving in 1885. Japanese also emigrated to Brazil and Argentina.
The economic depression in Japan (and into Okinawa Prefecture) made the prospects in Hawaiʻi more attractive; adding to the burden, it was the custom for the eldest son to inherit the farm, leaving the other siblings to fend for themselves; and others sought to avoid the military draft.
The similarity of climate of Okinawa and Hawaiʻi was an added attraction and enhanced the decision to make the move; Okinawa’s subtropical has an average summer temperatures in the mid-80s. Much of the year can also be rainy and humid.
Because of this climate, Okinawa produces sugarcane, pineapple, papaya and features popular botanical gardens; along the shore, Okinawa has abundant coral reefs. Hawaiʻi looked like home.
While Japanese from the four main islands were emigrating to Hawaiʻi, it took some time for folks on Okinawa to participate. Finally, under the leadership of Kyuzo Toyama (referred to as the Father of Okinawan Emigration,) on December 5, 1899, 26-Okinawans set out to sail from Naha Port and arrived in Hawaiʻi about a month later on January 8, 1900.
A statue of Kyuzo Toyama was constructed in Okinawa. He stands at the top of a long set of stairs, a globe is on his left side and he is pointing with his right towards the direction of Hawaiʻi. His vision was, “Let us set out and let the five continents be our home.”
But, life in Hawaiʻi wasn’t easy.
On most plantations, different nationalities were housed in separate camps. Although they adopted one another’s food, clothing, and speech, the various ethnic groups did not socialize with one another. Even within the same ethnic group, a separation of sorts existed based on regional and prefectural differences. (Yano)
Among the Japanese, the greatest distinction existed between the Naichi, people from the main islands of Japan, and the Uchinanchu, people of Okinawa. Uchinanchu were looked down upon by the Naichi and were assigned the hardest jobs. (Yano; Higashionna)
Adding to their problem was the Okinawan tradition of tattooing. Although outlawed with annexation with Japan, many Okinawan women had traditional tattooing of their hands and arms.
Tradition suggests this started in the middle of the last millennium; Okinawan women tattooed the top of their hands fingers with purple ink to repel the samurai, who considered the markings distasteful. Tattooing then grew into a sign of adulthood and was part of rites of passage at key moments in an Okinawan girl’s life, when she gets married, has children, becomes a widow, etc.
In Hawaiʻi, the Japanese from other prefectures considered tattoos to be a sign of low class or of a criminal element (yakuza.) This made many of the women ashamed and so they often hid their hands.
As the last prefectural group of Japanese to come to Hawaiʻi, the Okinawans faced additional difficulties integrating into the established community of Japanese who were predominantly from the southwestern prefectures of Japan. Before Japanese immigration would terminate in 1924, 20,000 more would follow from Okinawa. (Yano)
Plantation work was hard – 10-hour days, 6 days a week under the brutal sun. Okinawans also endured double discrimination from both the local population and their fellow Japanese workers who treated them as second-class citizens. At the peak, some 1,700 Okinawan immigrants had settled in Hawai‘i.
Many of the Okinawan Issei (first-generation arrivals) had planned to come to Hawaiʻi, work for a few years, and then go back to Okinawa with their riches. They sent money home, which helped the Okinawan economy.
However, conditions in Okinawa deteriorated, with a post war depression following the Russo-Japanese War and World War I and people were starving. Compared to immigrants from other parts of Japan, more Okinawans brought wives or sent for their wives and children; this made it easier for them to adapt to Hawaiʻi, so many of them ended up staying.
Certain character traits and behaviors helped the Okinawans to settle into their new homes in Hawaiʻi. Tege, meaning easygoing, is an adjective describing the Uchinanchu personality. Translated it means “almost acceptable” or “it will do for now.” (Higashionna)
The people of the Ryukyu islands operate on “Okinawan Time,” which means doing things on one’s own terms rather than someone else’s terms and schedules. It is an amazing lack of time-urgency, a sense of “What is the hurry? We have tomorrow.” (Higashionna)
About half of the Okinawan immigrants either returned to Okinawa or moved to the continental US in search of better opportunities.
Today it is estimated that there are over 50,000 people who can trace their roots to Okinawa. Legacies that remain (in spirit and presence) from the Okinawan immigration: Times Supermarkets, Tamashiro Market (Kalihi,) Zippy’s, Arakawa Store (formerly in Waipahu,) Hawai‘i Okinawa Center (Waipiʻo Gentry of Waipahu,) Haari Boat Races (Hilo,) Center for Okinawan Studies (UH-Mānoa.)