The oldest evidence of human existence in the Ryukyu islands was discovered in Naha and Yaese. Some human bone fragments from the Paleolithic era were unearthed, but there is no clear evidence of Paleolith remains. Japanese Jōmon influences are dominant in the Okinawa Islands, although clay vessels in the Sakishima Islands have a commonality with those in Taiwan.
The first mention of the word Ryukyu was written in the Book of Sui. This Ryukyu might refer to Taiwan, not the Ryukyu islands. Okinawa was the Japanese word depicting the islands, first seen in the biography of Jianzhen, written in 779. Agricultural societies begun in the 8th century slowly developed until the 12th century. Since the islands are located in the center of the East China Sea relatively close to Japan, China and South-East Asia, the Ryūkyū Kingdom became a prosperous trading nation. Also during this period, many Gusukus, similar to castles, were constructed. The Ryūkyū Kingdom had a tributary relationship with the Chinese Empire beginning in the 15th century.
In 1609 the Satsuma clan, which controlled the region that is now Kagoshima Prefecture invaded the Ryūkyū Kingdom. Following the invasion the Ryūkyū Kingdom surrendered to the Satsuma and was forced to form a tributary relationship with Satsuma and the Tokugawa shogunate, in addition to its previous relationship with China. Ryukyuan sovereignty was maintained since complete annexation would create a problem with China. The Satsuma clan earned considerable profits from trades with China during a period in which foreign trade was heavily restricted by the shogunate.
Though Satsuma maintained strong influence over the islands, the Ryūkyū Kingdom maintained considerable degree of domestic political freedom for over two hundred years. Four years after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government, through military incursions, officially annexed the kingdom and renamed it Ryukyu han. At the time, the Qing Dynasty of China asserted sovereignty over the islands of the Ryūkyū Kingdom, since the Ryūkyū Kingdom was a tributary nation of China. The Okinawa han became a prefecture of Japan in 1879, while all other hans had became prefectures of Japan in 1872.
Following the Battle of Okinawa and the end of World War II in 1945, Okinawa was under the United States administration for 27 years. During the trusteeship rule the USAF established numerous military bases on the Ryukyu islands.
In 1972, the U.S. government returned the islands to Japanese administration. Under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, the United States Forces Japan (USFJ) have maintained a large military presence. 27000 personnel, including 15000 Marines, contingents from the Navy, Army and Air Force, and their 22,000 family members are stationed in Okinawa. 18% of the main island was occupied by US military bases and 75% of all USFJ bases are located in Okinawa prefecture.
85% of the Okinawans oppose the large presence of the USFJ and demand the consolidation, reduction and removal of US military bases from Okinawa. Repeated accidents and crimes committed by U.S. servicemen have reduced local citizens' support for the U.S. military bases. The Japanese and the US government consider the mutual security treaty and the USFJ absolutely necessary and neglected the awkward situation in Okinawa for decades. The rape of a 12 year old girl by U.S. servicemen in 1995 triggered large protests in Okinawa. As a result, both the U.S. and Japanese governments agreed to the relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and other minor bases. However, at present, the closure of the bases has been indefinitely postponed. These disagreements also contribute to the relatively recent anti-Japanese sentiment and subsequently Ryukyu independence movement.
The set of islands belonging to the prefecture is called Ryūkyū Shotō (琉球諸島). Okinawa's inhabited islands are typically divided into three geographical archipelagos. From northeast to southwest:
Okinawa Prefecture includes eleven cities.
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The island is largely composed of coral rock, and rainwater filtering through that coral has given the island many caves, which played an important role in the Battle of Okinawa. Gyokusendo, an extensive limestone cave in the southern part of Okinawa's main island, is a popular tourist attraction.
Okinawa is said to have the most beautiful beaches in all of Japan and normally enjoys temperatures above 20 degrees Celsius for most of the year. Okinawa and the many islands that make up the prefecture boast some of the most abundant coral reefs found in the world. Rare blue corals are found off of Ishigaki and Miyako islands as are numerous species throughout the chain. Many coral reefs are found in this region of Japan and wildlife is abundant. Sea turtles return yearly to the southern islands of Okinawa to lay their eggs. The summer months carry warnings to swimmers regarding poisonous jellyfish and other dangerous sea creatures. Okinawa is a major producer of sugar cane, pineapple, papaya, and other tropical fruit, and the Southeast Botanical Gardens represent tropical plant species.
Having historically been a separate nation, Okinawan language and culture differ considerably from that of mainland Japan.
Other prominent examples of Okinawan culture include the sanshin—a three-stringed Okinawan instrument, closely related to the Chinese sanxian, and ancestor of the Japanese shamisen, somewhat similar to a banjo. Its body is often bound with snakeskin (from pythons, imported from elsewhere in Asia, rather than from Okinawa's poisonous habu, which are too small for this purpose). Okinawan culture also features the eisa dance, a traditional drumming dance. A traditional craft, the fabric named bingata, is made in workshops on the main island and elsewhere.
Okinawans eat low-fat, low-salt foods, such as fish, tofu, and seaweed. Okinawans are known for their longevity. Five times as many Okinawans live to be 100 than the rest of Japan, and the Japanese are the longest lived nationality in the world.
Okinawa has many remains of a unique type of castle or fortress called Gusuku. These are believed to be the predecessors of Japan's castles.
Whereas most homes in Japan are made with wood and allow free-flow of air to combat humidity, typical modern homes in Okinawa are made from concrete with barred windows (protection from flying plant matter) to deal with regular typhoons. Roofs are also designed with strong winds in mind, with each tile cemented on and not merely layered as seen with many homes elsewhere in Japan.
Many roofs also display a statue resembling a lion or dragon, called a shisa, which is said to protect the home from danger. Roofs are typically red in color and are inspired by Chinese design.
Because the islands are close to China and Taiwan, the United States has large military bases on the island. The area of 14 US bases are , occupying 18% of the main island. Okinawa accounts for less than one percent of Japan's land, but hosts about two-thirds of the 40,000 American forces in the country. Two major bases, Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and Kadena Air Base are located near residential areas. One third (9,852 acres) of the land used by the U.S. military is the Marine Corps Northern Training Area in the north of the island. 85% of Okinawans oppose the presence of the U.S. military due to noise pollution from military drills, aircraft accidents, environmental degradation, and crimes committed by U.S. military personnel. The Okinawan prefectural government and local municipalities have made various withdrawal demands of the US military since the end of WWII, but any fundamental solution was never performed by both of the Japanese and U.S. governments.
It has been claimed that some US soldiers raped Okinawan women during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. While the number of Okinawan women raped by US troops is not known, historian Peter Schrijvers states that an Okinawan historian has estimated that the number may have exceeded 10,000, and that this is consistent with the incidence of reported rapes during the first 10 days of the Occupation of Japan. In 1998 the remains of 3 executed presumed rapists from the occupation forces were discovered in a cave.
In 1955 Isaac J. Hart was accused but not convicted of the rape and murder of six-year-old Yumiko . This is known as "The Yumiko Incident". Forty years later, on September 4, 1995, two U.S. marines and a sailor abducted and raped a 12-year-old girl. At the time of the incident, Japanese police could not arrest the men known to be involved because they had to remain with the United States Military until charged in a court, see U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement. Anti-military base emotions erupted in some of the largest protests in recent history. Eventually through political pressure, the soldiers were tried and convicted in early 1996. As a result of this incident the Status of Forces Agreement, which was criticized for being too protective of U.S. servicemen involved in crimes, underwent revision. A movement to reduce the size of US military presence on Okinawa gained popularity. In November of 1995, a group called "Okinawan Women Act Against Military Violence" was organized to raise awareness of crimes alleged to have been committed by U.S. military personnel on the island. Sentiments against the United States military presence in Okinawa were inflamed further by the Michael Brown Okinawa assault incident, in which a Marine Corps major charged with attempted rape (and later convicted of the reduced charge of attempted indecent assault) was not turned over to the Japanese authorities at their request. Okinawa authorities pressed for a modification of the Status of Forces Agreement in an effort to remove the military's unilateral right to determine whether it would turn over a servicemember charged with a serious crime.
Tensions increased even more following allegations of an assault committed by an American servicemen against a minor, a restriction was imposed to all U.S. military and Status of Forces Agreement eligible personnel at bases in Okinawa and Iwakuni in February, 2008. It has since been lifted.
In April 2008 the U.S. Military charged a Marine with raping a 14-year-old girl in Okinawa, pressing ahead with a case that spurred protests against the U.S. presence on the island. U.S. military charges against Staff Sgt. Tyrone L. Hadnott include rape of a child under 16, abusive sexual conduct, making a false official statement, adultery and "kidnapping through inveigling," or trickery. Hadnott was later cleared of the charge of rape and kidnapping and convicted on the assault charge with a prison sentence of three years.
There are wide range speculations that not all the weapons were removed from Okinawa. Edwin O. Reischauer, former US ambassador to Japan, in an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun in 1981, said that US naval ships armed with nukes stopped at Japanese ports on a routine duty, and this was approved by the Japanese government.
In the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in early 2000, Robert S. Norris, William M. Arkin, and William Burr wrote that the United States has placed nuclear arms on Okinawa. This is disputed by the American government.
The legality of the proposed heliport relocation has been questioned as being a violation of International Law, including the World Heritage Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in an article titled "Boundary Intersections of UNESCO Heritage Conventions: Using Custom and Cultural Landscapes to Save Okinawa’s Dugong Habitat from U.S. Heliport Construction" The article even questions whether the current use of Camp Schwab for amphibious training violates these three conventions.
As recently as 2003 the US was considering moving most of the 20,000 Marines on Okinawa to new bases that would be established in Australia; increasing the presence of US troops in Singapore and Malaysia; and seeking agreements to base Navy ships in Vietnamese waters and ground troops in the Philippines. Under plans on the table, all but about 5,000 of the Marines would move, possibly to Australia.
As of 2006, some 8,000 US Marines were being removed from the island and being relocated to Guam.
Okinawa has many types of private schools. Some of them are cram schools, also known as Juku. Others solely teach language such as the famous English school, Nova (eikaiwa). Since Nova’s collapse, more and more people are favoring small language schools . Japanese language schools for foreigners are also becoming popular in Okinawa.
There are 10 colleges/universities in Okinawa including the Asian Division of University of Maryland University College (UMUC).