After a few months of receiving some messages and reading comments of this nature I figured that it would be a great topic to discuss here in one of my Myth vs Reality posts. My thought is that if I can take some of the concerns that people have regarding traveling to Okinawa and shine some light in the right places, mainly the ones that remain dark to someone who has not spent a lot of time here on the island, those concerns can be eased at least a bit. With that said let's jump right in.
With the large US Military presence on Okinawa it is impossible to immerse yourself in the culture. Everywhere you will go is either a tourist attraction, English speaking or adapted to the lives of the US Military members and their families. This will make it hard to avoid being surrounded my US Military and their families therefore defeating the purpose of traveling here with the intent to experience the unique culture of the island.
There is no denying that there is a large US Military presence on the island and therefore there are a lot of military members and their families out and about enjoying themselves during the short time that they are here. Who could blame them, Okinawa is a tropical paradise! Naturally this results in some areas being more congested with US Military and their family members then others. Generally speaking these areas are around Camp Foster, Camp Lester and Kadena Air Base. However, it's not just the US Military presence which that has made these spots congested. The location being in the central part of the island is also very ideal for tourists from all over the world. Staying in one of the hotels in the central part of the island cuts down on the distance between all major tourist attractions and historic sites. As you might imagine with the bulk of tourists and the bulk of US Military other things fall into place such as English (which is spoken many times by not only the Americans but the tourists who travel to Okinawa and other parts of the world as a common language). Popular restaurants and other types of "tourist" type attractions pop up as well in these areas. For those who want to immerse themselves into the culture or those who simply are living here these areas are, simply put, places to avoid. It's not about any group of people in particular as much as it is about the fact that at least half of the people you encounter are not from around here which can make completing daily tasks that much more difficult.
Once you move yourself away from the areas which are designed as playgrounds for tourists there is quite a bit to see on the island. Many of the traditions and much of the culture which was here on Okinawa before the war has stood the test of time. Of course like anywhere else in the world times have changed and Okinawa has become more modernized but I think you would have to be kidding yourself if you didn't think that this would happen. Even with some areas becoming modern there are others which still look as they did years ago in the northern and southern parts of the island. In some cases people do not speak Japanese and continue to use the Ryukyuan Language. Rituals and traditional dancing also continue today although like other cultures they happen during certain times of the year.
Overall if immersion and experiencing the culture is your goal this is absolutely possible if you know where to look and where not to look. The unique culture of Okinawa is still alive and well even though there have been changes to the island over the years.
There has been a lot of news coming out of Okinawa regarding the US Military in recent months. Between the misconduct of some military members recently and the deployment of the Osprey to MCAS Futenma the number of protests and unrest among the people of Okinawa seems great. Traveling to the island will result in an uncomfortable situation because as I am American (or of European descent) Okinawan's won't distinguish between me and the Military. This may result in a negative experience.
There is a lot of history between the US Military and the people of Okinawa. Simply put: Some people are not a fan of the US Military and others are. No, not everyone is happy with the US Military bases on the island especially when governments (both US and Japanese) don't do what they promise they will do. When things get heated the people of Okinawa, much like people in the US, voice their opinions with things such as protest, stickers, posters and pretty much any way that they can.
Although there are people who have these feelings in my almost seven years (and yes there have been a lot of protest and unrest during these years) I have never been treated negatively because I was an American. This is not to say that you aren't going to experience the same types of strange looks that you might experience regardless who you are traveling through Japan. There are people out there who are going to see that you're an American and have thoughts regarding the stereotypes and experiences they have had with Americans in the past. However, what you will absolutely not find yourself being the target of aggression because MCAS Futenma didn't move to Guam like it was schedule to nor because of the recent misconduct of a Marine.
Understandably the idea of going over seas and being caught up in some sort of protest is still a bit nerve wracking so there are some things that you can do which will assist you in avoiding those protests. Most of the time the protests are centered around the main concerns such as MCAS Futenma, Kadena Air Base and the proposed location of the base at Henoko. All of these locations, believe it or not, can be avoided without hindering your trip to Okinawa. Another helpful thing to remember is that in many cases the protests are announced in advance which will allow the bases to prepare and others to gather in protest as well. This information can usually be found at various places on the internet and I find myself posting them on my ONK Facebook page as often as possible as well.
When All Is Said And Done:
Your experience in Okinawa is going to reflect your approach. If your approach to a trip to Okinawa is that it is going to be ruined because of the US Military presence on the island then it without a doubt will be. Yes if you curse every plane that flies by you will find yourself missing out. . . on a lot. Yes if you find yourself annoyed by every American family who is just trying to experience the island for the first time and isn't 100% accustomed to the culture you will not enjoy yourself.
The key is to approach Okinawa with the understanding that like yourself many others are trying to enjoy a place that is new and unique to them. If you keep that understanding and gear your trip to what it is you want to do, such as avoiding heavy traffic tourist areas, you will find your experience in Okinawa pleasurable.