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Okinawa, Japan

Updated on January 25, 2013

Okinawa is an island of Japan; in the Pacific Ocean about 350 miles (560 km) south of the main islands; in the prefecture of the Ryukyus. Area 454 square miles (1,176 sq km); island group 544 square miles (1,409 sq km).

Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu Islands. It extends for about 65 miles (105 km) from southwest to northeast and is 2 to 15 miles (3 to 24 km) wide. The northern part of the island has rugged hills that rise to more than 1,600 feet (490 meters). The southern part is lower and more rolling. Okinawa has a humid subtropical climate, with typhoons from May to October.

The people of Okinawa are closely related to other Japanese, but they are also partly of Chinese and Malayan ancestry. Most of the people speak Japanese, although English is widely understood. The main occupations are farming and fishing, and the chief crops are sugarcane and sweet potatoes. However, the economy of Okinawa depends to a very large extent on the huge U.S. military bases that are located on the island. The chief town of Okinawa is Naha, which has a population of about 276,380 (1970).

Before the transfer of the Ryukyus to Japan in 1972, the islands were governed by a U.S. high commissioner, who was appointed by the U.S. secretary of defense. Since 1968 the chief executive has been chosen by the legislature, which was itself elected.

Before the 14th century, the Ryukyus were an independent kingdom. From the 14th to the 19th centuries Okinawa paid tribute to China, and in 1609 it was conquered by the Japanese. However, Japan did not actually annex the island until 1875.

On April 1, 1945, U.S. forces landed on Okinawa in one of the major battles of World War II. The island was finally captured on July 2. The Japanese lost more than 90,000 men, and almost 100,000 Okinawan civilians were killed. U.S. casualties included more than 12,000 killed.

In 1951 the United States and Japan signed a peace treaty, which allowed the United States to administer the Ryukyus. The treaty provided that the United States could not annex or grant independence to the islands. In 1972, in accordance with an agreement reached earlier, the United States returned the Ryukyus to Japan. It retained the use of military facilities on Okinawa, which played a major role in the U.S. war effort in Indochina.


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