Okinawa’s prefectural capital, Naha, is a city of modern buildings constructed after World War II. The buildings were designed to withstand the ravages of seasonal typhoons. Photo by Sean Pavone
By Aya Toyama, Shina Miyagi, Makiko Tasato, and Nicole Lima Nucelli
More than two hours away from Tokyo by plane, Naha sits on the southwestern coast of Okinawa Prefecture’s main island, which is located in the East China Sea. Flying into Naha, one can also see the prefecture’s many smaller islands, which are surrounded by the bright blue-green glow of coral reefs. Mensore (Okinawan for “Welcome!”) to sub-tropical Japan!
With a population of 318,000, Naha is Okinawa’s prefectural capital. It is a city of modern buildings constructed after World War II and designed to withstand the ravages of seasonal typhoons. At the same time, Okinawa retains its historic traditions and culture from the time when Okinawa’s main island, and surrounding smaller islands, comprised the Ryukyu Kingdom. From the 15th to the 19th centuries, this independent kingdom prospered through a web of trade networks that stretched across Asia, including modern-day China and Japan, as well as Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
During the same period, the kingdom welcomed many Chinese settlers, adding to the unique tapestry of the prefecture’s culture. This past can be heard in the sanshin’s lilt, a snakeskin-covered banjo-like instrument. It is seen in the shisa—lion-dog figures that appear in pairs to guard homes and businesses. One shisa has a closed mouth to keep out evil spirits, while the other sports a gaping mouth to let in all that is good.
Registering high on the list of all things good—or delicious—is Okinawa’s unique cuisine. Heavily influenced by geography, pork reigns supreme, supplemented with a steady abundance of fresh fish, tropical fruit, and fresh vegetables such as goya, or bitter melon, which is considered by many to be the world’s healthiest vegetable. The ultimate veggie-lover’s caviar—umi budou or sea grapes, a type of seaweed—rounds out the Okinawan culinary experience. One can enjoy a traditional meal that includes these ingredients, accompanied by Okinawa-style soba noodles, and washed down by a crisp local Orion beer or awamori, a local firewater made from Thai rice.
A walk along the coastline also reminds a traveler of the island’s somber and not-so-distant history. Okinawa was incorporated into Japan in the 1870s, and the decades of “Japan-ization” leading up to WWII deemphasized the Okinawan language and culture in favor of mainland Japanese traditions. WWII is still fresh in the minds of elderly Okinawans, who experienced a ground war unseen in other parts of Japan with around 94,000 civilian deaths over the course of nearly three brutal months of fighting, or nearly a quarter of the civilian population. Today, Okinawa hosts one of the highest concentrations of U.S. military forces outside the United States, who protect not only the United States and Japan, but also the region’s security, stability, and prosperity.
This May, Okinawa marked 50 years since the end of post-war American administration and its reversion back to Japan. Many Okinawans still remember the day in May 1972 when the currency changed from dollars back to yen, and in July 1978 at the stroke of midnight, when cars started once again driving on the left-hand side of the road. This year also marked the beginning of the U.S. Consulate General in Naha in its current form. Today, more than 20 Department of State colleagues at ConGen Naha are engaged in strengthening the U.S.-Japan Alliance through cooperation with a diverse array of partners, including the U.S. military.
Naha’s consular section comprises a vital part of that team. In addition to providing non-immigrant visa services to students and researchers seeking education and scientific collaboration in the United States, the section’s work supports 50,000 U.S. military servicemembers and their dependents stationed on Okinawa for two- and three-year rotations. This support is provided through passport services, I-130 petitions (a part of the immigrant visa process that eventually lead to a green card) and immigrant visa services for military members’ foreign-born spouses, contributing to U.S. service members’ readiness and morale.
Supporting newborn American citizens is a mainstay of the mission in Okinawa. Across town, on a weekly basis, one will find Consular Chief Susan Dunathan at Okinawa’s U.S. Naval Hospital, the largest U.S. naval hospital overseas. There, she accepts applications for Consular Reports of Birth Abroad and passports for babies born to U.S. service member families. In more sobering circumstances, the consular team’s efforts may involve a race against the clock, as they issue emergency travel documents for babies born with complications who require emergency medical evacuation to the United States.
To assist in communicating with the large number of American citizens residing in Okinawa, the consular section maintains a robust consular liaison volunteer network through which it sends updates on a wide range of issues, from health to voting and federal benefits, and even weather-related emergency information during typhoon season.
Given the islands’ geographic position at the center of Northeast Asia, political-military issues remain at the heart of the consulate’s mission. For example, from the prefecture’s southernmost island of Yonaguni, visitors can see Taiwan on a clear day as they stroll the windswept pastures populated by wild horses. The consulate’s political-economic and public affairs teams have also broadened collaboration with Okinawa to include education and environmental cooperation—all with the goal of promoting the island’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery and future prosperity, as well supporting its resilience to climate change.
Supporting these policy and public engagement efforts is Naha’s busy management section, with each of its staff members wearing multiple hats. Whether it is a peaceful protest outside the consulate, a short-notice representational event, a typhoon, or an emergency pouch delivery—Naha’s management section expects the unexpected. As a result, they tackle challenges with flexibility and patience, which in turn benefits the entire post.
When many people think of Okinawa Prefecture, they think of its large main island—also named Okinawa—which is home to the largest concentration of the prefecture’s population. However, the prefecture also encompasses the entirety of the Ryukyu Island chain, which stretches south and west from mainland Japan. The chain’s strategic location makes it a public engagement priority, and the consulate continues to find unique ways to connect with residents. ConGen Naha’s consular district also includes Amami Island, which lies to the north of Okinawa Island and outside the prefecture.
In 2010, to increase engagement in Okinawa’s outer islands, ConGen Naha set up an American Shelf at the gleaming, modern central library of Miyako Island, a dynamic municipality that features a small space port and ecotourism opportunities. In addition, the consulate works with the Okinawa Prefectural Library to support a Flying Library—an airborne bookmobile—to ensure residents of the prefecture’s smaller islands have access to a rotating selection of books. With the COVID-19 pandemic drastically scaling back inter-island travel for sustained periods of time, virtual outreach—particularly to middle and high school students interested in English-language learning and eventually studying in the United States—has become even more critical. Long after the pandemic recedes, public and consular affairs, and the broader ConGen Naha community will continue utilizing virtual outreach to ensure that programming is accessible to all of Okinawa’s residents.
Aya Toyama is the public engagement specialist, Shina Miyagi is the emerging voices coordinator, Makiko Tasato is the resource and strategic content coordinator, and Nicole Lima Nucelli is the public affairs officer in the Public Affairs Section at Consulate General Naha.