Historically, the area now called Okinawa Prefecture was known as the Ryukyu Kingdom as they were once autonomous. Since the 15th century, the Chinese exerted influence over this area and used it as a major trade center and a gateway to other Asian nations. At the beginning of the 17th century the area came under Japanese dominion but still retained quasi-independence. It was not until 1879 that Okinawa became an official prefecture of Japan. This was fairly short lived however as after WW2 Okinawa came under the jurisdiction of the US government. In 1972, Okinawa became once again Japanese territory, although there still remains a strong US presence. This remains a sore spot among many locals. At the moment there are large protests against a new heliport, which is due for construction. Locals believe it threatens the fragile coral ecosystem and the safety of the residents.
Though part of Japan, the Okinawa people have created their own cultural identity, one of acceptance and peace. There is music everywhere often using the sanshin, a traditionally Chinese three stringed instrument plucked as rhythmical accompaniment to unison singing. In mainland Japan, traditionally people have their family sword mounted in a special alcove of the house. In contrast, the Okinawa people often have their family sanshin proudly on display. The artwork, crafts, dance and traditional dress are very vibrant and colorful. There are many young people absorbed in these traditional arts and they continue to grow and flourish.
Okinawans love to eat, and the food has a heavy Chinese influence using pork, spices and a lot of cooking oil. In fact, Okinawa prefecture statistically has the highest percentage of obesity in Japan. Ironically they also have the highest life expectancy in all of Japan. Perhaps it is because of their relaxed nature and open hearts.
The climate of Okinawa is considered to be sub-tropical with many typhoons passing through during the late summer to early fall, abundant rainfall and often stormy winters. While we were there the weather was somewhat unstable, with north, or northeast wind blowing up large waves. The temperature ranged between 14 and 23, which was quite pleasant for paddling, but a little chilly for snorkeling.
For more information about Okinawa and the Yaeyama Islands check out:http://www.wonder-okinawa.jp/006/english/point/index.html