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Should I Rent a Car in Okinawa? (Yes, and Here are Some Tips)


I highly recommend renting a car for most people coming to Okinawa, especially if you’ll be traveling outside the Naha area while in Okinawa. Though Okinawa has public transportation options, it’s definitely car culture here.

When to Consider Renting a Car in Okinawa

  • You’re planning on venturing outside of Naha (which I’d recommend for anyone traveling here)
  • You’re traveling any time between April and November
  • You’re traveling with kids (navigating the buses with kiddos will really test your limits)
  • You place a high value on flexibility and independence when you travel
  • Have zero to mild anxiety about driving internationally

When to Consider NOT Renting a Car

  • If you’ll be staying in Naha only
  • If you’re visiting between November and March and on an extremely tight budget
  • If you’re relocating here and have a sponsor or trusted friend to help get you around during the first month
  • Don’t mind arriving late to destinations due to missing a bus or misunderstanding bus schedules
  • Prefer to travel with locals and get a taste of the bus life
  • The thought of driving internationally causes you too much anxiety
  • If you’re the type of person that says, “Sun, rain, humidity…bring it on. I love to travel in the elements.”

In this article, I’ll first address renting a car vs. other options. Then I’ll go into what it’s like to drive a car in Okinawa and the pros and cons of renting a car here. Lastly, I’ll go into important things you should know when renting a car and driving in Okinawa.

Renting a Car vs. Other Options

The main reason I recommend renting a car in Okinawa is due to the limited amount of alternatives that you have:

Okinawa Urban Monorail (“Yui Rail”)

Okinawa has the laid back monorail system that serves the Naha area only. Its tracks are just 10.6 miles (17 km) long, with 19 stations. You can learn more about the Okinawa Urban Monorail here.

The monorail is a great option when you’re exploring Naha. In fact, if you’ll be sightseeing around Naha for the day, it might be better to ditch your car during that time.

With a rental car in Naha, it can be a pain to find parking, you’ll have to pay for parking, and traffic can get annoying. All of this can be avoided if you instead walk and use the monorail.

Outside of Naha, however, the monorail is simply not an option. You’ll have to find something else.

Bus

Okinawa does have an extensive bus system, however, if you’re just visiting, navigating the bus system can soak up a lot of precious beach and soba eating time.

The bus system will bring you to pretty much every city and village on the island, however in order to get to many of the worthwhile sites, you’re going to be walking a long way or taking a taxi for the final leg.

Another reason why I discourage taking the bus is because of the humidity. The wintertime is fine, but once the humidity starts hitting (usually May/April – October/November), you can find yourself drenched in sweat from just a five-minute bus-stop wait.

Another reason not to rely on the bus is beach gear and post-swim grime. If you’re hitting the beaches, you’re likely going to have a few things to lug around: a towel, snorkel gear, swimsuit, a change of clothes. This is a lot to carry around on a bus all day.

Also, when you get out of the water, you’re going to want to rinse off. If you don’t, you’re left with the grimey feeling of salt, sand, and sunscreen. That’s a long bus ride home.

Note for SOFA Status (military-related personnel): The Marine Corps. runs its own bus between the Marine bases on Okinawa. This might be a temporary option when relocating here. According to their homepage, the bus is open to military, military dependents, and civilian employees, but it’s for mission-related purposes only. Here is more info on The Green Line.

Taxi

A taxi is an option, but it’s expensive to rely on to go everywhere. Also, if you’re going to less populated locations on the island, you’re going to need to call a taxi. The wait can take a while.

I recommend a taxi for short trips, when you’re wanting to get back to your hotel quickly or when you want to get to and from a restaurant quickly.

Here is more information on how to get a taxi and what it’s like.

Bike

A bike is an option, however roads in Japan are very narrow. Even though Japanese drivers are known for being polite and driving slow, their tolerance for space is much different than the average Westerner’s.

What may be considered “pushing me off the road” back home, may actually be the norm here in Okinawa.

In addition to space tolerance, you also need to consider the weather. The heat, humidity, and sun can be intense in the summer months, and the rain is always a factor in Okinawa. It can come out of nowhere, and downpours can be intense.

A bike is a great option for a small day trip in certain areas, but not the best option to rely on for most people visiting and transitioning to Okinawa. At least, at first.

What’s it Like Driving in Okinawa (the Good)?

If you’re leaning towards renting a car, you may be wondering what it’s like to drive here. In general, the driving is pretty easy:

Slow Speed Limits

Okinawa has very slow speed limits. The expressway (the only highway on the island) has a speed limit of 50 mph (80 kph). Major roads have speed limits of around 30 to 37 mph (50 – 60 kph), and minor roads are typically around 22 mph (35 kph).

Slow speed limits are great for foreigners who are new to the island. For folks who have relocated to Okinawa, the slow speed limits are nice at first but it quickly becomes frustrating. Then after a while, it becomes the norm and easier to tolerate.

Polite Drivers

Okinawans are very polite, making it a great place to rent a car as a foreigner.

When you’re waiting to turn on to a busy road or needing to change lanes, drivers are usually great about letting you in. You’ll often see people turn on their hazard lights for a couple of seconds, which translates to “Thank you.” When someone lets you in, this a nice gesture to show your appreciation to the driver behind you.

Honking is Rare

Because Japanese culture is very much non-confrontational, you’ll rarely hear a horn here. Even if the light turns green and the car at the front of the line isn’t paying intention, more times than not, the cars in line will patiently wait until the person realizes the light is green.

Being a foreigner and new to the roads here, the lack of honking takes a lot of the pressure off. Even if you’re holding people up, most of the time no one will let you know. You’ll be met with patience.

Navigating the Language Barrier

With GPS and English road signs, navigating the island is relatively easy.

Google Maps is alive and well in Okinawa, and is generally pretty accurate. If you don’t have Google Maps on your phone or don’t plan to have wifi or cell phone access, most rental cars come with a GPS navigation. And most of them come equipped with an English option (make sure to double-check this when booking the car).

Most major intersections are in Japanese and English. So, you don’t have to be too worried about the language barrier. Also, most major roads are numbered, so even if the English name is too hard to remember, you have a number as a subsitute.

The hardest part about navigating is that Okinawa is not setup up in a square grid, like many U.S. cities. Instead, it’s curvey and a bit random. So, for people just arriving, you can get turned around easily.

If you want the flexibility and independence a rental car offers, but are still a little apprehensive about driving, you can read more about that here: Is Driving in Okinawa Easy? Tips from an American in Okinawa.

What’s it Like Driving in Okinawa (the Bad)?

Traffic

Traffic can get pretty bad in Okinawa. Especially in Naha and the central part of the island, where the major U.S. military bases sit.

For the most part, traffic is predictable. During the week, traffic starts to build-up around 7:00 am and goes until around 8:30 am. In the afternoon, traffic starts building around 4:00 pm and last until around 7:00 pm.

On the weekend, traffic doesn’t usually start until 9:00 or 10:00 am.

When you do hit traffic, you can expect your travel time to increase by 1.5 to 2 times.

Left-Hand Side Driving

In Okinawa (and all of Japan), they drive on the left-hand side of the road. For those of us used to driving on the right-hand side, just the thought of driving on the opposite side of the road can cause anxiety.

On the bright side, Okinawa is perhaps the best place to learn how to drive on the left. With low-speed limits and polite drivers, it’s a very forgiving place to drive.

Although traffic is generally a headache, as a newbie, this buys you more time to think and gives you more people to follow the lead of.

Narrow Roads and Small Spaces

A road that may only appear large enough for one car, is actually a two-way road. But, it works. Somehow.

Also, parking spaces are very narrow, making it difficult to park, getting in and out of your car can be tight, which means your chances of denting another car or vice versa is high.

Advantages of Renting a Car in Okinawa

Flexibility

If you want to go somewhere spur of the moment, you jump in your car, fire up the GPS and go. No need to wait for a bus or plan for a taxi.

You’ll See More

If you have a car, you’re simply going to see more in Okinawa. Outside of Naha and the central part of the island, public transportation is sporadic. In a car, you won’t be spending any time waiting or trying to figure out the bus system.

In addition, you’ll have access to those harder to reach beaches (which are usually the best beaches) and you’ll get to drive to the other nearby islands like Miyagi and Ikei.

Comfort and Convenience

When you have a car you can keep your entire day’s worth of supplies in your car rather than stuffed into a backpack. And in Okinawa, the list of supplies can be pretty long: water, sunscreen, change of clothes, snorkel gear, surfboard, hat, sunglasses, food, etc.

In the summer months, it’s also nice to jump in a car and have instant air conditioning.

Disadvantages of Renting a Car in Okinawa

Stress

If you’ve never been to or driven in Okinawa and you’re a normal human being, you’ll probably experience a little (or a lot) of stress when you first get behind the wheel. As mentioned earlier, the most common sources of stress when driving in Okinawa:

  • Driving on the left side
  • Narrow roads
  • Easy to lose your sense of direction because of the curvey, non-grid setup
  • Confusing intersection signals – some intersection lights aren’t the most intuitive, making it hard to know when it’s ok to turn and when it’s not

Cost

Depending on your travel itinerary, renting a car might not be the most cost-effective way to travel in Okinawa. For example, if you’re staying in Naha for a couple of nights and then spend a few nights at on all-inclusive hotel, you’ll probably just use the car a couple of times for a 5-night stay. Not the best use of money.

Also, the expressway is another added cost if you want to avoid traffic on the island. It can cost up to $10 for the longer drives.

Parking costs can also add up especially in more densely populated areas of the island that tend to charge you to park your car.

Responsibility and Risk

In most cases, all goes as planned. But, in case you get in an accident, it won’t be fun handling all the legal matters. Your vacation will be shot.

 

If you’ve decided that renting a car is for you, there are a few other things that are important to know.

 

License Requirements

To drive in Okinawa you’ll need:

  • 18 y.o. or older
  • International driving permit
  • SOFA license (for military-related personnel)

International Driving Permit

For American’s, you can get your IDP at any American Automobile Association (AAA).

To do it in-person all you need to do is:

  1. Fill out a quick and simple application
  2. 2 passport-sized pictures (which you can also get taken at AAA for a fee)
  3. Present your U.S. driver’s license
  4. Pay $20

If you want to do it by mail:

  1. Complete the application
  2. Obtain 2 passport-sized pictures and sign them on the back
  3. $20 check or money order
  4. A copy of your U.S. driver’s license (front and back)

More info on getting your IDP from AAA here.

You can also get your IDP from the American Automobile Touring Alliance.

SOFA License

If you’re in the military, a dependent of someone who is, or a civilian employee/contractor, you’ll likely be eligible to obtain a SOFA license.

To get your SOFA license you’ll need:

  1. Attend the newcomer’s orientation (USMC Newcomer’s Orientation Info | USAF Newcomer’s Info)
  2. Pass the test (make sure you study before, here are the materials)
  3. Present your U.S. driver’s license

You’re free to rent a car with just an IDP before you get your SOFA license or while you have your SOFA license.

What’s the Average Cost to Rent a Car in Okinawa?

Generally, you can expect to pay around $100 per day for a mid-sized rental car. You can find it a little cheaper during the offseason, and a little more during the high-travel season.

Renting a Car in Okinawa

Booking Your Car

Booking your car can easily be done online through major travel booking websites. Just Google “rental car in Okinawa.”

Also, here is a list of the major rental car companies in Okinawa:

Important Options to Consider

ETC Card

The ETC card is an automatic way to pay for the expressway in Okinawa.

With the ETC card you simply drive in the ETC lane when entering and exiting the expressway. The gate will automatically open, allowing you to pass through without needing to stop and pay.

When you turn in your rental car, you will pay what you owe for using the expressway.

The ETC card isn’t necessary to use the expressway though. Without one, you’ll just need to stop and take a ticket from the automatic machine. Then when you exit the expressway, you stop, give your ticket to the attendant and pay the amount on the screen. They take credit cards and cash.

Car Size

It’s important to consider the size of your car and your luggage. A mini-car or compact car is probably best suited for two people with two pieces of checked luggage, at most.

Navigation

If you won’t have an internet connection on your smartphone or don’t have the Google Maps app, make sure you get a navigation system and make sure there is an English option.

Most car rental companies will show if the navigation has an English option.

 

 

Important Laws to Know

Carry Your Passport and Driver’s License at All Times

If you’re just visiting Okinawa, it’s the law that you have your passport on you at all times. And if you don’t have your International Drivers Permit or SOFA license with you, you’re going to get in some trouble if you’re pulled over.

No Turning Left on a Red Light

In the U.S. you can turn right on a red light. In Okinawa and the rest of Japan, red means stop, even if there’s no traffic coming.

Zero Tolerance for Alcohol and Driving

If you’ve had a drink, be very careful. In Japan and Okinawa, if you blow a .03 BAC, you’ll get handed a DUI. If you blow a .08 BAC, you’ll get handed a DWI.

Even more concerning is the morning-after scenario. Most foreigners get into trouble the morning after a night of drinking. They go to bed, wake up, and think they’re completely sober. But, because the BAC limit is so low, there’s still enough alcohol in their system to blow a .03.

Not fun! If you’ve had a drink, best to wait 24 hours to be 100% sure you’re 100% sober.

Don’t Drive in the Bus Lane

Base lanes can be found on a few of the major roads in Okinawa. You can identify them because the entire lane is painted in green.

Typically these lanes are closed to regular cars from 7:30 am – 9:00 am and 5:30 pm – 7:00 pm, Monday – Friday.

These lanes are regularly monitored by police and you’ll get a ticket if you’re caught.

In a Car Accident, Everyone Shares the Blame in Japan

In Japan, even if you’re rear-ended, you’ll share some of the blame for the accident.

This is very hard for many Westerners to understand because back home, there’s usually just one person to blame.

The only time you won’t share the blame is when you’re parked in a parking lot and someone hits you.

Don’t Use Your Cell Phone While Driving

Japan just stiffened its laws for using a cell phone while driving. If you’re caught, at minimum, you’ll be fined $180.

The law is also worded in a vague way, implying that you can face jail time if a serious accident COULD HAVE been caused.

You can definitely face jail time if you do cause an injury or death. Don’t touch your cell phone while driving.

General Tips for Driving in Okinawa

Get Used to the Car Before Driving it

Before you pull out on the street, take some time and get to know where the controls are and what they do.

In Okinawa, the driver sits on the right side of the car instead of the left. That takes a little getting used to.

Another thing that always gets me, is constantly getting the blinker and windshield wiper controls mixed up. The blinker is on your right hand, the windshield wiper is on your left. Most likely, you’ll hit the windshield wiper when you go to turn. It takes a while.

Prepare Your Directions Before Going

It’s best to minimize distractions as much as possible while driving. This is especially true when driving in a foreign country.

Get your address loaded before you get on the road. If you need to adjust directions, pull over.

Don’t Drive with Jet Lag

If it’s your first time driving on the left hand of the road, it’s probably best to spend the night in Naha if you’ll be getting off a long flight and experiencing jetlag.

Don’t overwhelm your brain with too many new things all at one time.

Fast Lane = Right Lane | Slow Lane = Left Lane

If you want to spot a foreigner driving in Okinawa, it’s usually the car in the fast lane driving slow.

An easy way to remember which is which, is if you’re in the lane close the curb, you’re close to the sidewalk, and people walk slow. So, you’re in the slow lane. If you’re in the lane closest to oncoming traffic, it’s more dangerous, and driving faster is more dangerous. So, you’re in the fast lane.

Watch Out for Motorcycles

There are quite a few motorcycles and scooters here in Okinawa. Sometimes they can seemingly appear out of nowhere and often times they’re driving is very risky.

So, be very careful when you’re pulling out on to a busy street or changing lanes. Best to check your mirrors, glance over your shoulder, and check twice.

Take Your Time When Pulling Into Traffic

Knowing which way to look is the hardest part of adjusting to driving on the left side of the road.

When pulling out into traffic or crossing roads, you need to look right first, as that’s where the traffic closest to you is coming from. This is opposite for folks used to driving on the right side of the road.

Look twice, maybe three times, because you’re going to look the wrong way quite a few times before you adjust.

Park by Backing In

Most Japanese park by backing into parking spots. This makes it easier to get out in tight parking spots.

Not mandatory, but definitely helps when pulling out.

Summary

In my opinion, the benefits of renting a car far outweigh the negatives in Okinawa. Your trip here will be far more enjoyable.

So, book your rental car, follow the tips above, and enjoy Okinawa!

Important Laws to Know Before Going to Japan


Knowing the law before you go to Japan is critical to staying clear of a justice system that doesn’t have a great reputation with the international community. Not so much because of the laws on the books, but because of how detainment and investigations are carried out.

For example, legally, anyone can be held in a Japanese jail for 23 days before charges are even filed. More on that at the end of this article.

With a little awareness to the laws below, you can save yourself a world of trouble and confusion with the Japanese justice system.

And just like anywhere else in the world, ignorance of the law is no defense.

Important: This article is not legal advice and I’m not a lawyer. This article is intended as a general guide only. If you have specific legal questions, it’s best to find someone who is qualified to give legal advice.

Always Carry Your Passport

According to Japanese law, you need to be able to prove you’re allowed to be in the country and if you’re just visiting Japan, only your passport can do this.

Though I’ve never been stopped in Okinawa or mainland Japan, and though I’ve never heard of other foreigners being stopped, it’s still wise to carry it with you.

Because Japan is so safe, you don’t need to be so concerned about getting robbed of your passport. Just use common sense, like not leaving it sitting out on a table and take normal steps to avoid losing it.

If you have a visa other than a visitor’s visa, you’ll likely be issued a residence card. This replaces your need to carry around your passport and proves you’re legal to be in Japan.

Bringing Medication into Japan

It doesn’t matter if it’s an over-the-counter medication back home and it doesn’t matter if you have a prescription from your doctor, if it’s illegal in Japan and the medication is in your possession, you’re likely to get detained and/or arrested. 

According to the Japanese Narcotics Control Department, the following are prohibited:

  • Heroin
  • Opium powder
  • Methamphetamine
  • Amphetamine
  • Cannabis
  • Ephedrine (more than 10%)
  • Pseudoephedrine
  • Methylephedrine (more than 10%)
  • Phenylacetic acid (more than 10%)
  • Norephedrine (phenylpropanolamine) (more than 50%)

Some common medications (over-the-counter and prescriptions) I have read to be illegal in Japan:

  • Adderall
  • Actifed
  • Sudafed
  • Vicks

According to the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare and NCD, it’s illegal to bring in narcotics and psychotropics into Japan. If they are prescribed back home, then you need special written permission (called “Yakkan Shoumei”) from the MHLW before leaving home.

Also, according to the NCD, even if the medication is allowed, if it comes in injection form, you need a “Yakken-Shoumei.”

I’ve also read the same to be true for inhalers on some websites, though I have not seen that on MHLW’s or NCD’s websites.

According to the U.S. embassy, even if your medication is not prohibited in Japan, it’s recommended to still bring a copy of the prescription from your doctor with an explanation of what it’s for.

Because laws can change, and more importantly because this stuff is a little confusing, I highly recommend making a list of any medications (prescribed or over-the-counter) that you’ll need to bring to Japan, and send an email to the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare to confirm you’re allowed to bring it.

I would also recommend carrying a physical copy of that email, in case there is any trouble.

According to MHLW, you should allow for a minimum of 2 weeks to receive the Yakkan Shoumei. The U.S. embassy says it may take several weeks. Best to plan ahead.

Here are some important links:

DUI = .03 BAC & DWI = .08 BAC

Though Japan is very accepting of drinking, when it comes to drinking and driving the country has very little tolerance. You should be very careful.

Drivers with a blood alcohol concentration of .03 or above are guilty of driving under the influence (DUI).

Drivers with a BAC of .08 or more are guilty of driving while intoxicated (DWI).

The most important thing for foreigners to be aware of is driving the morning after a night of drinking. Many foreigners believe they’re good to drive when they wake up the next morning, however, because their’s still alcohol in their system and the legal limit is so low, they get a DUI. 

Most foreigners here in Okinawa get a DUI, not because they’re being reckless, but because of the morning after scenario.

You should also be aware that if you’re a passenger in a car of someone who’s under the influence, you could be prosecuted, as well.  This is also true for someone who serves or encourages a driver to drink.

Punishments:

A DUI could land you in prison for up to 3 years and a fine of up to $5,000. A DWI could land you in prison for up to 5 years and a fine of up to $10,000.

If you injure someone you can be in prison for up to 15 years with hard labor, and if you kill someone, it’s up to 20 years with hard labor.

If you provide alcohol to someone or encourage a driver to drink alcohol, the sentence is 2 years in jail or a fine up to $3,000 if the driver gets a DUI.

Daiko Service:

There is no excuse for drinking and driving anywhere in the world. This is especially true in Japan where public transportation and taxis are so easy to come by.

In Japan, foreigners are often surprised when they learn of the convenient taxi service called  “daiko.”

A daiko is a taxi service that shows up to your location with 2 drivers: 1 who drives the taxi and the other who drives your car. The drivers shuttle you and your car home. You go to bed, and they both get in the taxi to go pick up their next drunk customer.

No excuses. Don’t drink and drive (even hungover).

Public Drinking and Intoxication are Legal

Though driving under the influence is illegal, pretty much anywhere outside of a car’s driver’s seat is perfectly fine in Japan.

That’s right, you can drink in the park, on the sidewalk, and on the beach. For many foreigners, this is a nice surprise.

According to every resource I’ve turned over, drinking in a moving car is perfectly fine, just as long as the driver is not drinking or under the influence. I haven’t confirmed this though.

Personally, I feel more comfortable playing it safe and avoid drinking in the car altogether. The benefit of drinking in a car doesn’t outweigh the risk of getting bad information. Not for me.

It should also be noted that just because it’s legal to be drinking in public, it doesn’t mean it’s always socially acceptable.

In general, it’s not acceptable to walk while eating and drinking, even though you’ll likely never get a stranger telling you to stop.

And drinking on public transportation is sometimes frowned upon. In general, the longer the trip, the more acceptable it is to eat and drink.

It should be noted though, public intoxication and disorderly conduct are not the same things. Just because you’re intoxicated doesn’t give you a free pass to disrupt and mistreat others; you’re going to get in trouble (rightfully so). 

In short, go ahead, be drunk in public, as long as you’re responsible and not loud about it.

No Smoking in Outdoor Public Places

Cigarettes can be bought throughout Japan however, laws are becoming more strict regarding where you can smoke.

In general, it’s illegal to smoke outdoors in many cities with exception to designated areas.

Smoking areas are marked with a large sign with a picture of a cigarette. You can also tell if smoking is allowed as there will be a standing mental ashtray.

Smoking is strictly prohibited on public transportation of any kind, as well as stations, though major stations will have designated smoking areas.

Smoking Inside

Smoking in restaurants and bars is up to the owner of the establishment and generally their pretty easy to find.

For hotels, many establishments still have rooms designated just for smoking, though it’s becoming more common to find hotels that don’t have any smoking rooms, and only allow smoking in designated areas.

Knives are Restricted

Getting consistent numbers on a legal knife size wasn’t easy. I’ve looked at a number of different resources, and most don’t line up.

So, if you absolutely need to carry a knife while in Japan, I highly recommend being extremely cautious and make sure you know the law for certain. 

From what I’ve gathered, it’s illegal to carry a blade longer than 6 cm (2.4 inches) without justifiable reason. It’s also illegal to carry scissors or foldable knives with blades longer than 8 cm (3.1 inches).

Guns are Heavily Restricted

In 2017, there were just 22 shooting crimes in Japan. 3 people were killed and 5 injured. And these low numbers have a lot to do with the extremely strict gun laws.

The only guns permitted in Japan are rifles, shotguns, and air guns. No handguns are allowed for civilians.

In order to possess a permitted gun, you need to go through extensive skills tests and shooting classes.

In order to get a rifle, a person must prove they are a professional hunter and have intent to get rid of invasive animals.

Punishment: possession of a gun will bring you a sentence of a minimum of 3 years in jail.

Possession of ammunition (or cartridges), you’re looking at a maximum of 5 years in jail or fines of up to $10,000.

Drugs are Illegal

The only drugs allowed in Japan are:

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco
  • Caffeine
  • Sugar

Everything else is strictly prohibited and comes with heavy penalties if caught.

Punishment: for stimulants, your sentence can be 1 to 20 years in jail. If the amount of stimulants you’re carrying is enough to be considered intent to sell, your sentence will be a minimum of 3 years.

For cannabis, it’s less than 7 years in jail. With the intent to sell, it’s less than 10 years.

For cocaine, it’s 1 to 10 years in jail. With the intent to sell, it’s 1 to 20 years.

Drones are Restricted

Given the popularity of drones and Japan’s high population density, it makes sense why drones are heavily regulated here.

According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, you must obtain special permission to fly:

  • In airspace around airports
  • At elevations over 490 feet (150 meters)
  • Within 98 feet (30 meters) of people, structures, or vehicles
  • At event sites
  • Above densely inhabited districts
  • During non-daytime hours
  • Without a visual line of sight of your drone
  • Transport hazardous materials
  • Dropping object from a drone

to get special permission from MLIT, you must submit an application and receive approval. You can do that here.

Also, according to MLIT, the following always applies:

  • Prohibited to operate a drone while under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Must conduct pre-flight actions
  • Fly in a way that prevents collision with hazards
  • Prohibited to fly in a careless or reckless manner

DJI has a great map that makes it clear where you can and can’t fly in Japan.

Penalties: up to a month in jail or $500 fine

Special notes for SOFA status personnel: to fly your drone in Japan, you must register it with base law enforcement.

For anyone and everyone flying a drone in Japan, if you’re caught violating the laws, you could be held liable for paying a $5,000 fine.

 

Common Legal Ages

  • Drinking: 20 y.o.
  • Smoking: 20 y.o.
  • Gambling: 20 y.o.
  • Driving: 18 y.o.
  • Voting: 18 y.o.
  • Marriage: 20 y.o. (18 y.o. for men and 16 y.o. for women with parent consent)

Curfews for Minors

Each prefecture in Japan has a curfew for minors. Regardless of a minor being accompanied by an adult or parent, minors are expected to be in their residence by a certain time.

Most prefectures have a curfew of around 10 pm or 11 pm.

Though curfews aren’t heavily enforced by police, most establishments will require minors to be out at the expected time.

Car Accidents in Japan

“Comparative Negligence”

In Japan, a car accident is not just one person’s fault, everyone involves shares the blame. Even if you’re rear-ended at a stoplight, you’ll share a portion of the fault.

The only time an accident is just one person’s fault is when a car is fully parked.

Required Action in Car Accidents

Regardless of the severity of the accident, and regardless if anyone is hurt or not, Japanese law requires drivers to:

  1. Stop and remain at the scene
  2. Assist any injured person and call emergency services 119
  3. Even if there are no injuries, it’s still required that you call the police immediately
  4. You must remain at the scene until the police arrive

Even if no one is hurt and even if both drivers agree to leave a scene, if you do leave the scene of an accident without notifying or getting approval from the police, you could be charged with a hit and run.

Witnesses to Car Accidents

Anyone who is a witness to a car accident is required to:

  1. Remain at the scene until their identity has been given to the police
  2. Give any assistance needed as directed by the police

No Cell Phones While Driving

In 2019, Japan increased its punishments for using cell phones while driving. If you’re caught just peeking at your cell phone while driving, you’re likely to be fined $180.

Even more important than a fine is possible jail time if you cause (or could have caused) an accident that could have caused injury or death.

All the sources I’ve read addressing this important piece of the law are very vague and subjective in their choice of words. It appears that even if you don’t cause an accident, but the accident COULD HAVE been bad, you might be serving some time in jail

Just don’t touch your cell phone. There’s too much to risk.

No Graffiti

Even though you may see graffiti in some spots, you should avoid it. In Okinawa, the Sunabe Seawall is covered in graffiti leading many people to believe it’s allowed.

Don’t do it.

How to Stay Out of Trouble

First, is, of course, being aware of the above laws. Next is keeping your mindset in check, while in Japan.

As a foreigner, we can easily succumb to the thought, “I’ll just play the ‘I’m a dumb foreigner’ card and get off the hook.”

Slipping into this mindset is especially easy in Japan, mostly because people here are non-confrontational.

For Westerners, it’s not that difficult to slip into the belief that we’ll never be confronted in Japan. No matter what we do.

We can start to feel invincible here. This is very dangerous.

Though “playing the dumb card” will work if confronted for breaking minor social rules, the mindset is an extremely risky strategy when breaking Japanese law. Especially given Japan’s harsh punishments. 

What Happens if You Get Arrested in Japan

Detention

Japanese police have the right to hold you for 48 hours before they present your case to prosecutors. Then prosecutors have 24 hours to decide whether to seek court permission to detain you longer in order to investigate further.

Prosecutors can request to detain you for 10 days while they investigate. And if that isn’t enough, prosecutors can then request another 10-day extension.

When you total it all up, you can be detained for 23 days before even being charged with a crime.

If you’re prosecuted, you’ll likely be held in jail until the end of the trial. And if you’re prosecuted, you have a more than 99% chance of being convicted.

 

 

Why is the conviction rate so high? Because prosecutors in Japan are extremely concerned with losing a case and ruining their reputation.

To maintain their reputation, prosecutors only pursue cases where it’s an almost guaranteed win. As a result, around 60% of cases are dropped and never brought to court. 

Interrogation

It’s likely you will be interrogated by police after you’re arrested. In Japan, you have the right to remain silent, however, I have read that interrogations in Japan are relentless, making it difficult to remain quiet.

Also, remaining silent may make the police more suspicious and more likely the detain you longer.

You will be provided an interpreter during interrogations, but a defense lawyer will not be allowed in during this time.

You have no choice of whether to be interrogated or not. However, you do not have to answer any questions.

 

 

Forced Confession

Japan is notorious for what’s called “hostage justice.”

Through tough interrogations, being held in isolation for long periods, threats of long punishments without a confession, or promises of no jail time by signing a written statement, many people are pressured into confessing to crimes they did not commit.

What to Do if You Get Arrested?

Once again, I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. The below is just a summary of the research I’ve done on this subject.

Contact the Embassy

It’s highly recommended to contact your embassy. Though they can’t bail you out, they will make sure you have proper care, to every extent possible.

Written Statements

Written statements are serious business, so you should be extra cautious before signing it.

You need to make sure you understand fully what you’re signing. Anything you sign is evidence and will be used against you.

Also, be very cautious of someone translating the statement for you. The police may offer you an interpreter, however, it’s important to remember the translator works for them, not you.

You should not sign a thing solely based on a promise by police. They are not the judge or prosecutor, and therefore have no control over your sentencing.

Victim Compensation / Settlement

It’s very common for the accused to compensate victims. According to Nakamura International Criminal Defense, if you make a settlement before being formally charged, and the victim withdrawals his/her complains, you will no longer be charged.

Once you are formally charged, however, even if the victim withdrawals the complaint, the trial will continue.

Even though the trial will continue, the courts are likely to consider the compensation, which will likely impact your sentencing, in your favor.

Summary

Most foreigners come and leave Japan without any legal trouble. So, enjoy Japan, there’s no reason to be paranoid about the law or its justice system. Just be aware of your actions.

References

Japan’s Drinking Law’s – nomunication.jp

Gun Crimes in Japan Remain Rare – nippon.com

Japanese Law Translation

Firearms-Control Legislation and Policy: Japan – Library of Congress

Criminal Cases in Japan – Q&A

ja.wikipedia

To Foreign Nationals Who Drive Vehicles in Japan – npa.go.jp

What’s it Like Living in Okinawa (an American’s Perspective)


Whether you just found out you’ll be moving to Okinawa, or debating to live here or not, there’s a lot to know about living in Okinawa. Here’s what you’ll find in this article:

Quick Facts About Okinawa

  • Okinawa is 1 of 47 prefectures in Japan
  • Okinawa’s main island is located 954 miles (1,536 km) from Tokyo
  • Okinawa’s main island is 66 miles (106 km) long and 7 miles (11 km) wide
  • As of 2016, the population of Okinawa Prefectures was 1,439,000
  • In 2018, Okinawa had 9.99 million tourists (that’s a little more than Hawaii)
  • Japanese is the main language in Okinawa

Okinawan Culture

Okinawans are not Japanese; they are Okinawans and they have a lot of pride in their identity. At the same time, mainland Japanese culture does have a big influence here, and that influence is becoming stronger; especially as tourism grows and the Okinawan economy is relying more on the service industry.

Okinawan culture is more laid back than mainland Japan. The pace is slower and the people are less hesitant to speak their minds (though still far more reserved than Western cultures). The people here value crafts such as pottery and glass; and the music here is distinctively Okinawan.

Okinawan culture is also heavily influenced by American culture. In 1945, near the end of World War II, the U.S. invaded Okinawa, and in 1952, the U.S. and Japan signed an agreement for the U.S. military to stay.

Today, there are anywhere between 40,000 and 80,000 military personnel, accompanying family members, and civilian employees and contractors. The American influence is evident in things like taco rice (a tex-mex/asian hybrid), American Village (a tourist shopping hub), A&W fast food, and some dishes containing Spam. In fact, many tourists from mainland Japan come to Okinawa just to get a taste of American culture.

Though Okinawa has had a rocky history with the U.S., Americans who travel or live here, are generally treated with respect from locals.

 

 

Language

The primary language in Okinawa in Japanese. There is also the Okinawan language, which has several different dialects, however, Okinawan is mostly spoken amongst the older population exclusively. Most of the younger generation does not speak Okinawan.

Most Okinawans speak a little English, however, they can be shy to use it. The central part of the island, close to the major U.S. military installations, is where you’re most likely to interact with other locals who speak a decent amount of English.

Overall, navigating the language barrier is fairly easy to do here. Most restaurants have an English menu and if not, it’s very common they have photos of the food on the menu.

Road signs are in Japanese and English, so navigating the roads is relatively easy, as well.

To learn about the language and speaking English in Okinawa: Do They Speak English in Okinawa? Using English in Okinawa

Weather in Okinawa

Temperature

Okinawa has a subtropical climate and experiences cool winters and hot, humid summers. The coldest part of the year is in January and February with an average minimum temp of 55.2°F (12.9°C) and an average max temp of 65.1 °F (20°C). The hottest part of the year is July and August with an average minimum temp of 78.4°F (25.8°C) and an average max temp of 87.8°F (31°C).

 

Source: https://en.climate-data.org/asia/japan/okinawa-prefecture/okinawa-4872/

Rainfall

December and January receive the least amount of rain, on average. In February, the average rainfall rises, steadily, up until the rainy season, which starts at the beginning of May and lasts until late June. After June, there is a sharp decrease in rainfall and slowly declines again.

Source: https://en.climate-data.org/asia/japan/okinawa-prefecture/okinawa-4872/

Humidity

Humidity levels in Okinawa are most comfortable in December – February. As it gets closer to July and August (which are the most uncomfortable months of the year), the comfort level quickly declines, and humid and muggy days become the norm.

As you can see from the graph below, “Oppressive” days can start as early as March and “Miserable” days as early as April.

Data and graph adapted from: weatherspark.com

Typhoons in Okinawa

What is a typhoon? A typhoon is the same thing as a hurricane; the only difference between the two is where they occur: Hurricanes occur in the North Atlantic and Northeast Pacific Oceans. Typhoons occur in the Northwest Pacific Ocean.

Okinawa is located in what’s known as “Typhoon Alley,” which is a region in the Pacific where the world’s most powerful typhoons occur. In short, typhoons are the norm in Okinawa and they occur mostly between the months of June and November.

29 typhoons near Okinawa in 2018

Between 2009 to 2019, the yearly average number of typhoons that approached the Okinawa was 25.2. That’s a lot. Most typhoons do not hit Okinawa directly, but a handful come close enough to bring significant weather.

29 typhoons near Okinawa in 2019

Even when Okinawa is hit head-on, the island is pretty resilient. The infrastructure is built to last and because residents are usually aware days in advance of a typhoon, there’s plenty of time to prep. Data source: Kitamoto Asanobu

Food

Okinawa has tons of great options for food. I’ll start with the food it’s most famous for.

Okinawa Soba

Okinawa soba contains thick wheat noodles in a hot soup broth. Traditional soba contains pork belly, pickled ginger, and fish cake. Many restaurants serve different types of soba with other options like vegetables or tofu instead of pork.

Goya Champuru

Goya champuru is a very popular stir fry dish that contains goya, Okinawa’s bitter melon superfood. Goya is known to cool and cleans the body. It also stimulated digestion and is high in vitamins. In addition to goya, champuru has egg, tofu, carrots, sprouts, and either pork or Spam. Yes, Spam.

Taco Rice

Taco rice is unique to Okinawa and is more evidence of America’s influence. In the 1980’s a local restaurant decided to experiment with a Mexican styled dish to cater to the American’s taste. The product was a dish with white rice, topped with ground beef, lettuce, cheddar cheese, and salsa. Definitely not Mexican, but still pretty good.

Everything in Between

Ultimately, Okinawa has just about anything you want to eat. It may not be the exact taste you’re used to, but it’s close enough. Common food from home you can find here include pizza, steakhouses, fast food (McDonalds, Burger King, A&W, and Kentucky Fried Chicken), pasta, and Indian food.

My biggest struggle, however, is the lack of authentic Mexican food in Okinawa. If you’re a big fan of Mexican food, though you can find restaurants that get close, they usually leave you a little disappointed.

Other food popular for foreigners is: ramen, Japanese curry, and sushi go round:

 

Driving in Okinawa

Quick Facts About Driving Here:

  • Okinawans drive on the left side of the road
  • Max speed limit is 50 mph (80 kph)
  • The average speed limit on main roads is 35 mph (50 – 60 kph)

Okinawa has much more of a car culture than mainland Japan and if you’re going to be living here, life will be much easier with a one. Okinawa’s public transportation is far more limited than mainland Japan. Though it has a rail system (the Okinawa Urban Monorail or “Yui Rail”), it’s limited to the capital, Naha. Okinawa does have a bus system, however, it can be pretty slow, and in the humid months, waiting for the bus means you’re drenched in sweat.

Traffic in Okinawa can get backed up. Especially between the hours of 7:00 am and 6:00 pm, during weekdays. On the weekend, if you get an early start (before 9:00 am), you can usually avoid traffic.

Just because there’s traffic, doesn’t mean drivers are impatient or rude. In fact, Okinawans are very polite and patient. On top of that, with the low-speed limits, driving in Okinawa is pretty safe.

If you’ll be driving in Japan and are concerned, take a look at this article: Is Driving in Okinawa Easy? Tips from an American in Okinawa.

Schools in Okinawa

If you’re moving to Okinawa with kids, you have plenty of options for schools.

Okinawa is home to 13 U.S. Department of Defense schools (spread across 5 U.S. military installations on Okinawa) and around 15 international schools that provide learning in English classrooms.

To get more details on English-speaking schools in Okinawa and their costs, check out our Schools in Okinawa resource page.

There is, of course, public schools in Okinawa, and some children who are non-Japanese citizens attend these schools. Transitioning to Japanese public schooling can be challenging. Though there are quite a few foreigners in Okinawa, most don’t go to public schools and, as a result, bullying occurs. It’s less of a problem and less intense in Okinawa than mainland Japan, but something to keep on your radar.

In addition to bullying, the workload and time commitment is intense compared to the West. Especially, starting in middle school, where 12-hour days are common, rigorous tests are often, and sports clubs require practicing on the weekend.

Things to Do in Okinawa

Snorkeling & Diving

Okinawa is home to a wide variety of tropical fish and rare coral reefs. The ocean here also has plenty of flat days, making it perfectly clear and comfortable to snorkel and dive. There are plenty of dive shops on the island to purchase or rent gear from. There are also plenty of dive shops that will teach you how to dive and offer guide services for both diving and snorkeling.

 

 

Surfing

Waves in Okinawa are inconsistent, which is why Okinawa will never become a surf travel destination. At the same time, when there are waves here, they can get world-class.

You can find waves to fit any type of surfer; from beginning surfers to highly-advanced surfers. So, if you already surf or wanting to learn, Okinawa will be a great place for you.

 

 

Fishing

Whether you like deep-sea fishing or prefer to fish from dry land, Okinawa is a great place to fish. You don’t even need a fishing license. There are a few simple regulations to be aware of, and other than that, all you need is fishing gear and a desire to go.

Churaumi Aquarium

The Churaumi Aquarium is the largest aquarium in Japan and has one of the largest tanks in the world. Some of the highlights at the aquarium are the whale sharks, dolphin show, and its deep-sea exhibit.

The aquarium building is around 107,000 square feet (10,000 square meters) and has plenty of outdoor area (the entire grounds it sits on is around 204,500 square feet [19,000 square meters]) with some incredible views.

You can learn more from the Churaumi Aquarium’s homepage.

9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

The Ryukyu Kingdom ruled Okinawa from the 15th to 19th century and is responsible for building the numerous castles around Okinawa. Castle ruins are spread throughout the island and offer a great way to pass the time for anyone interested in a little history or a nice hike.

Shopping

AEON Mall (Rycom Mall)

The Rycom Mall is fairly new with 5 floors and 210 shops, including restaurants. Some of the more well-known shops here are: Billabong, Giordano, UNIQLO, mont-bell, NEW ERA, Gap and GapKids, Oakley, Forever 21, H & M, and American Eagle Outfitters.

The mall is located in Okinawa City, which is in the center part of Okinawa, very central to where most Americans live and work.

Here is a link to the mall’s homepage, with all the details.

PARCO CITY Mall

PARCO CITY Mall just opened its doors in 2019 (Okinawa is growing quickly these days). The mall is 3 floors of shops and restaurants: ESTELLE LUXURY, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Blue Seal Ice Cream, Armani Exchange, H & M, A&W Root Beer, Quicksilver, Guess, COACH, Baskin Robbins, The North Face, Champion, Tommy Jeans, Birkenstock, LACOSTE, Levi’s, Crocs, Starbucks, Panda Express, UNIQLO, Lego.

Here is a link to the PARCO CITY Mall website.

Yomitan Village

One of my favorite spots in Okinawa is Yomitan Village, which is a small village of pottery and glass artists. You can find all sorts of pottery, glass, and Shisa statues on display and for sale. It’s quite, and there are some great views from the nearby castle, Zakimi.

Sports Teams in Okinawa

Basketball

Okinawa Ryukyu Golden Kings is a Japanese professional basketball team. The Golden Kings even have a few players from the U.S..

The Golden Kings currently play in the Okinawa City Gymnasium, which only holds a little over 2,000 people. However, soon, the Okinawa Arena will be completed, just down the street.

The Okinawa Arena will be the largest in Okinawa, have a 510-inch video screen, and have VIP entrances and suite seating. It will be able to hold 8,000 people for basketball games.

Soccer

FC Ryukyu is the professional soccer team in Okinawa. They were founded in 2003 and play in the second division of the Japan Professional Football League. Their home stadium is found in the central part of Okinawa, at Tapic Kenso Hiyagon Stadium.

Baseball

Every year, starting in February, professional teams from mainland Japan make Okinawa a temporary home for their spring training. Each team declares a certain field their own, and spectators can watch practice for free. And for a reasonable price, you can watch pre-season games.

In 2019, it was announced that Okinawa would finally have its own professional baseball team: The Ryukyu Blue Oceans. Though they aren’t in the big leagues yet, their goal is to reach the top league, the National Professional Baseball Organization in Japan.

Annual Events in Okinawa

  • Okinawa Flower Carnival
  • Okinawa Marathon
  • Yomitan Pottery Festival
  • Cherry Blossom Festivals
  • Okinawa International Movie Festival
  • All Japan Triathlon Miyakojima
  • Ie Island Lily Festival
  • Okuyanbaru Carp Streamer Festival
  • Hatoma Island Music Festival
  • Naha Dragon Boat Race
  • Itoman Dragon Boat Race
  • Yonabaru Great Tug-of-War Festival
  • 10,000 Eisa Dancers Parade
  • Okinawa Zento Eisa Matsuri
  • Orion Beerfest
  • Itoman Great Tug-of-War
  • Naha Great Tug-of-War Festival
  • Okinawa Octoberfest
  • Okinawa Industrial Festival
  • Okinawa International Festival
  • Naha Marathon
  • Ryukyu Lantern Festival

Important and Interesting Laws

DUI = .03 BAC

That’s right. Just blowing a .03 BAC (.15 mg/L) will get labeled a DUI, which could land you in jail for up to 3 years and a fine of up to $5,000.

Blowing a .08 BAC (.4 mg/L) is considered driving while intoxicated, which is up to 5 years in jail and up to $10,000 in fines.

Even after learning about this law, many foreigners get a DUI. Not because they drove home after drinking, but because they woke up the next morning and drove, thinking they’re good to go. They were hungover and still blowing a .03.

Be careful.

Drinking in Public is Legal

Drinking and driving is very strict, but drinking in public is perfectly legal. You can drink in the park, on the street, pretty much anywhere except a vehicle.

You cannot drink in public on U.S. installations, however. As for SOFA status personnel drinking in public off-base, I have not seen any written guidance. It’s probably best to check with your command on this.

Cell Phones While Driving

In December 2019, the Japanese government passed stricter rules on cell phone usage while driving. If caught using your cell phone, you’ll be faced with a $150 fine and could potentially end up in jail if it’s judged the incident could have resulted in a dangerous incident (this seems too subjective for my comfort).

Regardless of the potential run-in with the law, it’s best not to use your cell phone, at all, while driving.

“Comparative Negligence” in Car Accidents

In Okinawa (and all of Japan), rarely is a car accident just one person’s fault, in the eyes of the law. Instead, a percentage of fault is assigned to each of the parties involved in an accident.

It’s said, even if you’re stopped at a red light and are rear-ended, you’re going to walk away being partially at fault. In the eyes of Japanese law, maybe you could have done something to prevent it or minimize the damage.

The only time where an accident is not partially your fault is when you’re fully parked and another vehicle hits you.

No Guns or Knives

The only guns you’ll find for sale in Okinawa and Japan are airsoft guns. Other than that, guns are strictly prohibited.

Knives are heavily regulated, as well. If you have a knife, you need to have a good reason to have it. According to TokyoWeekender, you need permission to own a knife longer than 5.9 inches (15 cm); pocket knives are legal as long as the blade is shorter than 2.4 inches (6 cm). Exceptions are made for kitchen knives or hunting/fishing knives. If you must own a knife in Japan, the law is a little grey. It’s best to do your research and know the specifics.

More on Important Japanese laws to know and how to stay out of trouble here. 

Social Rules to Know

No Tipping

That’s right when eating out, riding in a taxi, or receiving any sort of service, you don’t need to tip. In fact, even if you try, chances are you’ll be met with confusion and refusal for taking more money.

Honking

Honking is not common in Okinawa and most of Japan. You’ll hear a horn every once in a while, but in general, you should avoid using your horn.

Taking Off Your Shoes

It’s expected when entering someone’s home that you take off your shoes. Most restaurants and businesses in Okinawa do not require you to take off your shoes, but some do. In general, the more traditional the restaurant, the more likely it’ll be expected for you to take off your shoes.

You can usually tell if you’re expected to take off your shoes after you enter. Most of the time there will be a large shelf with other shoes placed in it. And it’s common for staff to direct you to take off your shoes.

Housing in Okinawa

If you’re moving from a Western country, the houses and apartments here are much smaller. Not such an issue if you’re single or moving to Okinawa alone, but as a family, it can take a little getting used to.

I took a sample from Homes.mil, a U.S. DoD database of approved housing for military personnel in Okinawa. From the random 217 apartments and houses I selected, the average size of housing in Okinawa is 1,143.87 square feet.

Here is the average square footage, broken down for each type of apartment/house in Okinawa:

  • 1-bedroom: 706.98 sq ft
  • 2-bedroom: 975.17 sq ft
  • 3-bedroom: 1,379.20 sq ft
  • 4-bedroom: 1,684.13 sq ft

You can expect all the modern utilities: electricity, hot water, Internet, air conditioning, and heating (though you rarely need it here).

Common differences between homes in Okinawa and the United States:

  • Very rarely will a house or apartment have a garage
  • It’s less common (if not rare) to have a dishwasher (about 32% of housing on homes.mil had dishwashers)
  • It’s rare to find ovens in homes
  • It’s rare to find homes with a yard or garden
  • Most homes in Okinawa do not have a clothes dryer, but not impossible to find one
  • It’s rare to have central air/heating. Most (if not all) have units in each room

 

 

If you’re interested in specific areas to live in Okinawa, you’ll find a rundown of some of the most common places foreigners live in this article: Where to Live in Okinawa (and What’s the Commute Like)?

Working in Okinawa

Most jobs available to English speakers are located on U.S. military installations on the island. There’s a large variety, however, they can be quite competitive due to the number of spouses accompanying service members. And for many Government Service positions, spouses get priority over other civilians. Great news if you’re a spouse.

In general, the higher the education needed for the position, the less competitive it will be due to there being fewer qualified applicants.

As for off-base work, if you’re bilingual, you’ll have far more options for work. If not, options are limited, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Most jobs are limited to teaching English, either at a private or public school.

If you’re serious about finding work here in Okinawa, you might want to read, Can Americans Live in Okinawa? Living Legally in Okinawa, where I’ve outlined important information about working visas and places to find jobs, on and off base.

Cost of Living in Okinawa

Okinawa is very reasonable, especially when you consider the fact that you’re never further than 3.5 miles away from a crystal clear tropical ocean.

According to Nomadlist.com the general cost of living in Okinawa for a middle/upper-class foreigner is $1,955 / month.

According to Numbeo.com, (not scientific, but these numbers seem accurate, from my experience). The biggest price difference compared with the U.S., is the price of produce:

Meal, inexpensive restaurant$6.18 (I would say this is probably more $9 to $10)
Domestic beer$4.12
Coke$1.23
Water (.33 liter)$0.92
Milk$2.07
Banana, 1 kg; 2.2 lbs$2.76
Tomato, 1 kg; 2.2 lbs$4.07
Onion, 1 kg; 2.2 lbs$3.35
Lettuce, 1 head$1.59
Potatoe, 1 kg; 2.2 lbs$3.22

Currency and Banking

Japanese Yen

Okinawa, just like mainland Japan, uses the Japanese yen (¥). As you get closer to the center of the island, where the two major U.S. military installations (Camp Foster and Kadena Air Force Base) are located, some business do accept U.S. dollars. However, the exchange rate is poor. It’s always best to carry yen with you and assume where you’re about to eat doesn’t accept U.S. dollars.

Credit Cards

Credit card is becoming more widespread in Okinawa and mainland Japan, however, it’s still a cash-heavy culture. Most convenient stores, larger restaurants, and pretty much every hotel accept credit cards these days. You can learn more about using credit cards in this article: Are Credit Cards Accepted in Okinawa? (A Quick Guide on Credit).

Banking

If you’ll be working with the military, either active duty, civilian, or as a contractor, you’ll have access to on-base banking: Community Bank and Navy Federal Credit Union.

If you won’t be working with the military, getting a bank account will require you to be a resident of Japan. This means you need a work visa and a job.

Challenges of Living in Okinawa

Finding Work

If you’re accompanying your spouse who has work or orders to Okinawa, work can be a challenge to find. Once again, not impossible, but it will most likely take you longer than it does back at home.

And even when folks find work, it’s common to hear how challenging many work environments can be, whether on-base or off-base.

On-base, the constant turnover in staff and leadership can make continuity unobtainable and things get disorganized. On top of that, foreigners are generally under more stress here: they’re away from their social support back at home, there are fewer resources here, and culture shock can last for months.

Working off-base, integrating and feeling truly part of the culture can be a challenge and take quite some time to adjust to.

Even if you’ll have access to base, resources are fairly limited.

Social Support

More Americans on the island mean more opportunities to make friends with fellow English speakers. At the same time, most foreigners in Okinawa are here for a limited time. Friends can come and go pretty quickly, and finding a long-term, tight-knit group of friends can take a while to build up here.

Trash & Recycling

The trashman in Okinawa is very strict. There are certain trash bags you need to buy, depending on which city you live. And, there are strict rules on what can and can’t go in that bag. When the trashman finds a mistake (which is quite often when you first arrive), he’ll leave you a note and won’t pick up the trash.

Conclusion

Okinawa has a large variety of things to offer foreigners who are serious about living here. And those who enjoy the ocean will probably fall in love with the island; you’re never far from the water and the cost of living to be that close is very reasonable.

 Pros of Living in Okinawa

  • Cost of living is reasonable
  • People are more open and friendly to foreigners than mainland Japan
  • Cool and mild winters
  • Extremely low crime rate
  • High-quality service
  • Large variety of water sports

Cons of Living in Okinawa

  • Not easy to find work
  • Language barrier
  • Muggy summers
  • Traffic
  • Typhoons
  • Public transportation is limited to public bus outside of Naha
  • Small living space

Okinawa Beach Dangers You Need to Take Seriously


Though Okinawa’s beaches are generally safe, there are some important dangers to be aware of and certain precautions to take.

The safety issues to be aware of when going to beaches in Okinawa are:

  1. Dangerous Marine Life in Okianw (Venomous)
  2. Dangerous Marine Life in Okinawa (Non-Venomous)
  3. Staying Safe from Dangerous Marine Life
  4. UV Rays are Stronger in Okinawa than Mainland Japan
  5. Coral Reef
  6. Slippery Steps & Concrete Entrances
  7. Tides in Okinawa
  8. Rip Currents
  9. Dehydration

Dangerous Marine Life in Okinawa (Venomous)

There are quite a few number of sea creatures in Okinawa that have the capacity to inflict some intense pain. Let’s first start with the most dangerous: venomous.

Lionfish

Lionfish contain a number of spines surrounding their entire body which they use for defense against predators. The spines on the lionfish are fed venom

through 2 glands. When the spines puncture predators (or your skin!), the venom is pushed through the spines

and into its victim.

The venom can cause intense pain and sweating. How long and how strong is heavily dependent on your sensitivity to the venom and how many of the spines got you.

For help treating a lionfish sting, lionfish.co has a very detailed description, which I summarized below:

  1. Stay calm
  2. Gently remove any spines that may have broken off
  3. Flush the wound with fresh water and clean with antiseptic towels and antibiotic cream
  4. Control any bleeding with direct pressure
  5. Soak the wound in hot water (100 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit) which neutralizes and breaks down the protein-based venom.
  6. Seek medical attention who will provide you with pain medication and monitor for any complications that may not be apparent to you.

Box Jellyfish

The box jellyfish’s venom is one of the most deadly in the world. Pain can last for weeks and even worse, some humans have gone into shock and drowned; some have died of heart failure.

 

Box jellyfish are more common in Okinawa when the sea temperatures get warm (May to October). They can also be found in deep or shallow waters, hanging out near the surface.

Though the box jellyfish, is big (up to 10 feet including their 15 tentacles), they are still semitransparent like other jellyfish, which means they can be difficult to spot.

Unlike most jellyfish who just go with the flow of the ocean, box jellyfish have the ability to control their movement and can move up to 4.5 mph!

According to webmd, if you’re stung you should:

  1. Call emergency services immediately (118 for Japan Coast Guard and 098-911-1911 for SOFA)
  2. Get out of the water, do not rub the area
  3. Rinse the area with vinegar (do not use alcohol to clean the area)
  4. Remove the tentacles

Erabu Black-banded Sea Krait

This sea krait has venom that is 10 times more powerful than a rattlesnake. Yikes!

The good news is that bites are very rare. The sea krait is not aggressive and will only bite when it feels that it’s under threat.

It’s a common rumor that sea kraits can’t open their jaws wide enough to bite humans, however it’s more than able to do so.

Most reports of bites have come from fishermen who were unaware the krait was caught in their net when pulled up onto the boat. They either tried to free it by hand and got bit, or just didn’t see it.

In the rare chance, you’re bitten, initially, there are no symptoms or pain. To be safe, you should assume venom was injected, and that it was a black-banded sea krait.

You should seek medical attention immediately. Here are other important recommendations while on the way to get medical attention.

Stonefish

The stonefish is the most venomous fish in the world and one of the best at camouflage. It looks exactly how it sounds, and blends in with other rocks or coral, or covers itself with sand, making it mostly impossible to spot.

The stonefish injects its venom from one of the 13 spines on it’s back. Usually, victims accidentally step on the fish, which causes the spines to penetrate the skin and inject venom.

If stung, the pain is immediate and intense. Swelling is likely to happen, and sometimes the entire limb can experience swelling. Muscle numbness and trouble breathing may occur if you do not receive medical attention quickly.

According to paradisefirstaid.com, if stung follow these steps:

  1. Call emergency services immediately (118 for Japan Coast Guard and 098-911-1911 for SOFA)
  2. Do not remove any spines
  3. Soak the area in water as hot as the person can tolerate no longer than 30 minutes
  4. Assist with breathing if the person is unresponsive or not breathing normally

Cone Shell

The cone shell has a very impressive and quite sophisticated way of injecting venom into its prey. It has a harpoon-like protrusion which it shoots from its mouth and into its prey.

 

The venom also contains pain-killing properties, which can make it hard to be aware that you’ve been hit.

Cone shells are non-aggressive towards humans, and most encounters are accidental; either by stepping on them or when collecting shells.

Though death isn’t common, the venom is highly toxic and has the potential to kill humans.

The sting can cause intense pain and muscle numbness. To make it even more concerning, symptoms don’t always begin immediately, and in some cases, symptoms don’t start to appear until days later.

According to webmd.com, if you’re stung, follow these steps:

  1. Call emergency services immediately (118 for Japan Coast Guard and 098-911-1911 for SOFA)
  2. Soak the area in water as hot as the person can tolerate
  3. Use pressure immobilization techniques
  4. Avoid moving
  5. Use CPR and/or assist with breathing if necessary
  6. Do not cut into the wound and apply suction or a tourniquet

Scorpion Fish

The scorpionfish is very similar to the stonefish, however, the scorpionfish is less venomous. Don’t be fooled though, its sting is plenty painful.

Scorpionfish are more skittish than stonefish. Stonefish are more likely to stay put or move away slowly when approached, while scorpionfish will swim away fairly quickly.

The same steps as treating a stonefish sting are recommended:

  1. Call emergency services immediately (118 for Japan Coast Guard and 098-911-1911 for SOFA)
  2. Do not remove any spines
  3. Soak the area in water as hot as the person can tolerate no longer than 30 minutes
  4. Assist with breathing if the person is unresponsive or not breathing normally

Cockatoo Waspfish

These guys usually hang out on the Ocean floor and look very similar to a leaf from a tree. They can’t swim very well, but they can pack a mean venomous sting. The venom is injected into its victims by the spines on its back.

 

Cockatoo waspfish are non-aggressive and really aren’t that great at swimming. They stay true to their leaf-like nature, and mostly just go with the flow. As a result, most victims get stung by stepping on one of these little guys.

Cockatoo waspfish are usually found in shallow waters and are under 6 inches in length.

I found very little information on how to treat a cockatoo waspfish sting. In one book, “Fishes of the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea,” it lumped all scorpionfish together (which this fish falls under). So, according to this book, it’s the same treatment as a scorpionfish and stonefish:

  1. Call emergency services immediately (118 for Japan Coast Guard and 098-911-1911 for SOFA)
  2. Do not remove any spines
  3. Soak the area in water as hot as the person can tolerate no longer than 30 minutes
  4. Assist with breathing if the person is unresponsive or not breathing normally

Spiny Devilfish

The spiny devilfish is a type of stonefish. Just like the stonefish, it has several spines along its back that deliver a very painful and sometimes lethal sting.

If stung, treatment is similar to stonefish:

  1. Call emergency services immediately (118 for Japan Coast Guard and 098-911-1911 for SOFA)
  2. Do not remove any spines
  3. Soak the area in water as hot as the person can tolerate no longer than 30 minutes
  4. Assist with breathing if the person is unresponsive or not breathing normally

Crown-of-Thorns Starfish

The sharp, distinct spines of the crown-of-thorns starfish should deter most ocean goers. And those who come in contact either on purpose or by accident will quickly learn the sharp spines deliver a painful and potentially dangerous sting.

Crown-of-thorns starfish hang out on the coral which they also eat. They can have as many as 16, 2-inch spines, which cover the top part of its body.

People stung usually report severe pain, swelling, and itching. More severe reactions including muscle numbness, vomiting, and paralysis.

According to webmd, if you’re stung, you should:

  1. Soak the area in water as hot as the person can tolerate for 30 to 90 minutes
  2. Remove any remaining spines with tweezers (symptoms will persist if spines remain)
  3. Clean the wound with soap and water and rinse with saltwater
  4. Seek medical attention as soon as possible

Fire Coral

Though Fire Coral implies this creature is actually coral and even though it looks like coral, it’s actually more closely related to jellyfish or sea anemones than anything else.

To feel the pain fire coral has to offer, all you need to do brush up against it. Victims who brush up against fire coral will notice a sting within a few minutes to a half-hour. The burning sensation can last several hours and is commonly accompanied by a skin rash.

According to liveabout.com, follow the steps below if you’re stung:

  1. Rinse with seawater. Avoid rinsing with fresh water as it will increase the sting.
  2. Soak with vinegar or isopropyl alcohol
  3. Remove any remaining tentacles using tweezers
  4. Avoid moving the are stung, to prevent the venom from spreading
  5. Use hydrocortisone for itching. Stop using if there are signs of infection.
  6. Seek medical attention immediately if you experience shortness of breath, swelling of the tongue, face, or throat, or any signs of an allergic reaction.

Blue-Ringed Octopus

The blue-ringed octopus is highly venomous and is one the most dangerous animals found in Okinawa. It’s pretty small, usually, 8 inches in diameter with its tentacles extended.

Though the blue-ringed octopus uses its venom mostly to hunt prey, it’s known to bite out of self-defense. Though it’s considered non-aggressive, you should still maintain your distance.

Human victims bitten (which is how it injects its venom) can experience muscle numbness, nausea, vision loss, and loss of motor skills. Muscles that control breathing can be paralyzed, leading to death.

Luckily, bites are rare and most bites occur due to accidental contact with the octopus.

According to emedicinehealth.com, if bitten follow these steps:

  1. Call emergency services immediately (118 for Japan Coast Guard and 098-911-1911 for SOFA)
  2. While waiting for emergency services:
    1. Use pressure immobilization techniques
    2. Use mouth-to-mouth ventilation if the person has difficulty breathing

Fire Urchin

The Fire Urchin is very beautiful but quite dangerous and you should keep your distance.

The Fire Urchin injects its venom in one of two ways: its spines and from its hundreds of jaws. Both of these methods can easily penetrate skin.

The painful sting is immediate and the venom can lead to paralysis and in some cases death. Also, because of the number of spines and jaws, it can inject quite a bit of venom into its victims.

Treatment for Fire Urchin was difficult to find. But, because of the possible lethal dangers of this creature, it’s best to seek medical treatment immediately:

  • Call emergency services immediately (118 for Japan Coast Guard and 098-911-1911 for SOFA)

Multiple sources I read said that you should be careful removing the spines yourself as they can easily break and be left under the skin. Safest to leave it up to the doctor.

Flower Urchin

Flower urchins don’t have the typical spikey look of other sea urchins, and with its flowery look, may tempt naive divers or snorkelers into touching it. This, of course, is a bad idea.

Instead of spines to inject venom, flower urchins have small claws that attach to its victims and inject venom.

The sting is instant and the venom can cause paralysis and difficulty breathing. In some cases, stings can be deadly.

Treatment specific to the Flower Urchin was difficult to find. Because of the dangers of paralysis and breathing difficulty, it’s wisest to seek medical attention immediately:

  • Call emergency services immediately (118 for Japan Coast Guard and 098-911-1911 for SOFA)

Bristle Worm (Fireworm)

The bristle worm, which is also known as the fireworm contains tons of hallow bristles or spines that are serrated at their edges. When the worm feels threatened, it will extend its bristles, making it more likely the victim will be stung.

If stung, it’s common to feel burning or numbness. It’s also common to experience swelling and redness.

According to webmd.com, if you’re stung, you should:

  1. Soak with vinegar or isopropyl alcohol
  2. Remove the bristles/spines with tweezers or using tape
  3. Apply hydrocortisone cream for burning and inflammation
  4. Monitor for signs of infection; seek medical attention immediately if there are signs of infection
  5. Never a bad idea to visit your doctor either way!

Eeltail Catfish

Eeltail catfish can get up to 12 inches in length. They can sometimes be mistaken for eels due to the shape of their tails. Larger eeltail catfish are usually found in deeper waters, while juveniles can be found around shallow seagrass and coral areas.

The eeltail catfish has one spine on the fin on it’s back, and one spine on each of its side fins.

According to liveabout.com, if stung:

  1. Get out of the water right away
  2. Soak the area in water as hot as the person can tolerate
  3. It’s best to seek medical attention even if there are no signs of infection or more serious reactions.

Sea Anemones

Sea anemones have venomous tentacles and are closely related to jellyfish. The tentacles inject venom using a harpoon-like spine. Stings are most common when diving or if a sea anemone is washed up on shore or shallow waters.

Victims stung can experience extreme pain, swelling, itching. In more severe cases, chest pain and difficulty breathing can happen.

According to dovemed.com, if stung you should:

  1. Remove spines using tweezers and being careful not to break them
  2. Clean the wound with seawater
  3. Use hydrocortisone cream
  4. If there are more severe reactions call emergency services immediately (118 for Japan Coast Guard and 098-911-1911 for SOFA)

Stingrays

Stingrays aren’t aggressive and most stings happen by accident. Though they generally don’t attack, the sting can be powerful.

Stingrays deliver their stings from their long, thin, whip-like tail. The end of their tails contain barbed spines that contain powerful venom. When they feel threatened, they can quickly whip their long tails in any direction.

When stung, victims will feel severe pain immediately. In some cases, people may experience muscle numbness and have difficulty breathing.

According to heathline.com, if stung you should:

  1. Unless stung in a critical area (throat, neck, chest, etc.) attempt to pull the barb out while in the water.
  2. Allow the seawater to clean the wound and apply pressure to release as much venom as possible
  3. Clean any other debris in the wound
  4. Soak the area in water as hot as the person can tolerate
  5. Apply antibiotic cream to the wound and cover it
  6. If you experience severe symptoms, call emergency services immediately (118 for Japan Coast Guard and 098-911-1911 for SOFA)

Rabbitfish

Rabbitfish can get up to 6-inches long and have a number of venomous spines along its back. It uses these spines for self-defense.

The sting can be very painful, but generally, death is not common.

According to okinawanaturephotography.com, if stung you should:

  1. Wash the area with soap and freshwater
  2. Remove any debris or spines
  3. Soak the area in water as hot as the person can tolerate no longer than 30 minutes
  4. Seek immediate medical treatment

Dangerous Marine Life in Okinawa (Non-Venomous)

Moray Eels

Moray eels can be found tucked away in the coral in shallow waters. It can deliver a very serious bite due to its strong jaws and sharp teeth. Sometimes they’ll bite and not let go.

Besides the pain, the other risk is infection after the bite.

If bitten, it’s best to get seen by a doctor as soon as possible to decrease the chance of infection.

Sea Urchin

Sea urchins can be found in shallow waters and sometimes above water during low tide when certain parts of the reef are exposed.

Sea urchins are covered in spines, which can easily penetrate your skin. The most common encounters happen by accidentally stepping on them.

It’s common for the spines to break off and be left under the skin. It’s best to see a doctor to minimize the risk of infection.

Needlefish

Needlefish are found near the surface of the water and are very common to see in shallow waters. They have a very thin beak and razor-sharp teeth that can easily penetrate skin.

Most needlefish I see are fairly small, around 6 inches and fairly thin, but every once in awhile I’ll see a nice sized one.

Needlefish can travel at very fast speeds, and do so when trying to feed on smaller fish. Though they are generally non-aggressive towards humans, accidental encounters are not unheard of when a needlefish unintentionally swims into its victim.

If you’re injured, it’s best to get out of the water, control any bleeding and see a doctor to minimize the risk of infection.

Tips to stay safe from dangerous sea life:

  1. Keep your hands to yourself. It’s just better to play it safe and assume what you’re tempted to touch is dangerous
  2. If you must touch it, be 110% sure it’s not dangerous (above is not a comprehensive list, by the way
  3. It’s best to avoid walking on the bottom of the ocean or on coral whenever possible. Not only to protect the coral, but to protect yourself from unknown critters.
  4. If/when you must put your feet down on the bottom, shuffle your feet and be sure to wear water shoes or booties to help protect your feet.
  5. Always swim with a partner; never swim alone.
  6. In Okinawa, there are a number of beaches with jellyfish nets during the summer. These areas are designated for swimming and have nets that protect against jellyfish and other dangerous marine life. They usually have lifeguards on duty, as well.

UV Rays are Stronger in Okinawa than Mainland Japan

The closer you get to the equator, the closer the sun is to the earth’s surface. In addition, the ozone layer, which is a friendly filter between you and the sun, gets thinner as you get closer to the equator.

Okinawa is about 1,811 miles from the equator, which doesn’t sound very close, but it’s far closer to the equator than it is to the North pole (4,408 miles) or South pole (8,031 miles).

This means UV rays here are stronger than most other places in the world.

In addition to Okinawa’s proximity to the equator, when UV rays bounce off surfaces like pavement and water (both of which Okinawa has a lot of), you’re exposed to more UV rays at one time.

Most people just think of their skin when thinking about UV rays. But, UV can wreak havoc on your eyes too. Especially at the beach.

If you’re on the beach for longer periods, you’re at risk of getting a sunburn on your cornea. Ouch. Also, long-term exposure to UV rays can lead to vision loss and cataracts down the road.

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to mitigate all of these UV risks in Okinawa.

Tips for staying safe from Okinawa’s harsh UV rays:

  1. Generally, UV rays are at their worst between noon and 4 pm. So, either stay out of the sun as much as possible during these times, or double up on sun protection.
  2. Clouds can be misleading. Just because there is cloud cover, doesn’t mean you’re protected. And in fact, clouds can sometimes magnify UV rays.
  3. Wear a wide brim hat that covers your face, head, ears, and neck.
  4. Consider wearing long sleeves. There are tons of light, long sleeve options out there. Though it may not be as stylish as short sleeves or your shirt off, your skin will love you.
  5. Consider wearing a neck gaiter. Not the best fashion statement, but the good thing about Okinawa, is people don’t care. Okinawans are very practical and all about covering up from the sun.
  6. Wear sunglasses every day.
  7. And…of course…wear sunscreen. Here is a helpful video on choosing the right sunscreen:

Coral Reef

Coral reef can be dangerous for a couple of reasons: some will sting you and the reef can be razor-sharp.

Tips to stay safe from coral reef:

  1. Don’t touch the coral reef. It’s not only hazardous to you, but it’s also fragile and important for the environment.
  2. Wear booties to protect your feet when entering and exiting the water.
  3. Never jump in water headfirst (even feet first). Even if the water is clear, judging the depth is very difficult to do.
  4. If you get cut, it’s important that you clean it to prevent infection. According to emedicinehealth:
    1. Scrub with soap and water, then flush with fresh water.
    2. Rise with vinegar or isopropyl alcohol if the cut stings.
    3. Flush the cut with 50% water and 50% hydrogen peroxide, which will remove any coral debris.
    4. Rinse the cut daily and use antibiotic ointment 3 to 4 times/day.
    5. If there are any signs of infection, seek immediate medical attention.

Slippery Steps Concrete Entrances

Places along seawalls often have steps to enter the water. Though it’s very convenient, algae builds-up quick and thick, which makes it extremely slippery.

It’s not rare to see someone fall when walking down the steps. This is very common for the unsuspecting tourist, but because it’s so slippery, locals and long-timers aren’t immune from falling.

Algae isn’t always easy to spot, but if the area is wet or even damp, it’s very likely there is algae, and it’s very likely it will be slippery.

Tips to stay safe from slippery steps:

  1. Assume each step will be slippery
  2. Try to step on lighter-colored areas. Black or dark areas of the concrete is usually a sign of algae
  3. Sit and scoot down the steps when entering the water

Tides in Okinawa

Tides are the rising and falling of the sea level at a current location. The tide is always moving up or down, no matter where you are. In general, you’ll get one high tide and one low tide each day.

The time of high and low tide changes every day, and so does the level tides.

A spring tide (occurs during full moon and new moon) means there’s a bigger difference between the high and low tide. In Okinawa, this difference can be as much as 6 feet!

Since there is a bigger difference, it means the tide changes quickly.

A neap tide (occurs during first and third quarter moon) is when there is a smaller difference between the two tides. This means there is less level movement throughout the day.

Dangers from tides in Okinawa:

Swimming Against the Tide

First, if the tide is going down, it’s going to be harder to swim back to shore. And, in general, a spring tide that is going down, is going to be harder. This is because there will be more water moving away from shore, which you have to swim against. How fast the water is moving away from shore will vary for each location and the ocean conditions for that day.

Walking on Razor-Sharp Coral Reef

Second, because almost all spots in Okinawa are coral bottom (that are razor-sharp), entering and exiting the water becomes difficult, if not impossible, during low tide.

This is especially problematic when you enter the water during a higher tide and then the tide becomes too low, while you’re in the water. If this happens, you’ll be forced to walk across the razor-sharp reef.

This picture was taken during low tide at Sunabe, Okinawa, Japan. The reef exposed in the picture is completely underwater during high tide, and deep enough to swim.

Getting Cut Off by High Tide

Lastly, in certain areas, there can be a risk of being cut off by the high tide. There are many situations where this can occur.

Take for example, the photo above. If the man in the picture was walking further away from the camera and the tide came up, the water would leave him stranded in the middle of the reef with water on all sides.

Cliffs are another area to be aware of. Perhaps during low tide, there is an easy entrance to the water below of cliff. During high tide, the water breaks against the cliff itself. Unless you’re a rock climber, you’re not getting out!

Tips to stay safe from tides:

  1. Always know what the tide is before you go swimming or even near the ocean. You can check that here: Tide Forecast
  2. Be aware of your surroundings. Locate 2 safe exit points before entering the water.
  3. Go to areas with long, straight stretches of shoreline to prevent getting cut off by high-tide
  4. Become familiar with specific locations’ highest high tide, and lowest low tide before you go out. or go with someone who knows the spot well.
  5. Wear booties in case you’re forced to walk on sharp coral.

Rip Currents

Rip currents (often mistakenly called “riptides” or “undertows”) is a section of water that is moving away from the beach or shore, out into the ocean.

These currents can be moving fast too. Sometimes at speeds of 5 mph (8 kph); the average swimmer swims at 2 mph (3 kph). That means you can be attempting to swim to shore at full speed, and still be moving quickly away from shore.

Rip currents are particularly dangerous because they can be hard to spot, and if you’re not paying attention, they can pull you out very quickly.

Rip currents are also very common. They happen in calm or stormy weather.

Tips to stay safe from rip currents:

  1. If you’re going to get in the water, never go alone.
  2. Always enter the water where there are many people nearby.
  3. Always pay attention to your location in the water by using landmarks. Look back to shore regularly to judge your position in the water.
  4. If you get caught by a rip current:
    1. Stay calm
    2. Resist your instinct to swim directly to shore. Remember the more you fight it, the worse off you’ll be: more tired and still not any closer to shore.
    3. Swim parallel to shore until you’re out of the current (typically rip currents aren’t very wide, 30 feet to 200 feet wide).

Dehydration

Keeping hydrated is especially important in Okinawa because of heat and humidity.

Did you know that high humidity can make it harder for your body to cool itself down?

Yes, that’s right. Though it may make sense that more water in the air means more water to cool down your body, this isn’t the case.

First, when humidity is high, the temperature feels hotter than it actually is. So, your body needs to work harder to keep it cool.

Second, your body cools itself sending water out your skin (sweat) and as it evaporates, it cools your body down. However, if the humidity is high (lots of moisture in the air), your sweat doesn’t evaporate and your body doesn’t cool down. So, your body pumps out even more sweat.

This means you need more water than usual.

To make things even worse, when you swim in the ocean, it’s impossible not to ingest some of the saltwater. And because the ocean has a high concentration of salt (much more than our bodies need), your body is forced to get rid of it.

Your body gets rid of excess salt by flushing it out with urine, which requires…you guessed it, more water.

All of this is a recipe for dehydration. So how do we prevent it?

Tips to prevent dehydration at the beach:

  1. Avoid alcohol
  2. Drink plenty of water before you get to the beach
  3. Bring plenty of water and sip it regularly while at the beach
  4. Find shade and take a break regularly
  5. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables (which all contain water and will help with hydration)
  6. Bring an ice chest to keep food and water cool

Conclusion

Though there are quite a few things to be aware of, it’s important to remember that Okinawa beaches are generally just as safe as any other beach in the world.

Most beachgoers in Okinawa have no issues spending a day at the beach snorkeling and sunbathing, with the biggest risk being a sunburn.

So, just be aware of the above, do a little safety planning, and enjoy yourself at the beach in Okinawa!

 

Can Americans Live in Okinawa? Living Legally in Okinawa


If you’re thinking about living in Okinawa, there can be a lot of things to consider and questions can pile up. And the first and most common one is: can Americans even live here?

Americans need a Japanese visa to live in Okinawa as it’s governed by Japan. U.S. military personnel are exempt from this. A person under specific orders or invitation by the U.S. DoD to work in Japan, they receive “SOFA status,” giving them permission to live here, along with other privileges.

Let’s first start with how to live in Okinawa with a regular Japanese visa. Then I’ll explain what SOFA status is and what it’s like to live in Okinawa as an American.

Types of Japanese Visas (How to Live in Okinawa if You’re Not SOFA Status)

If you’re not active duty military or don’t plan on working with the military as a civilian in Okinawa, you’ll need to obtain a visa issued by the Japanese immigration office. There are 27 different types of Japanese visas that fall into 1 of 3 different categories:

  1. Working visa (this type of visa allows you to work while in Japan and Okinawa)
  2. Non-working visa (for example, a student visa; you’re not allowed to work with this visa)
  3. Family visa (getting a visa due to certain family situations)

Here are the important things to know:

  • Japan only issues work visas for jobs that require a higher level of skill (there are 16 types of jobs you can do which are listed on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan’s website, under the “Working Visa” heading).
  • In most situations, if you want a visa, you’ll need to find a “sponsor.”
    • For a work visa, this means finding an organization that will “invite” you to work for them. They will help coordinate your visa.
      • Not all organizations will sponsor visas
    • For a non-work visa, you’ll still need a sponsor (for example, the school you attend will help coordinate your visa)
  • You can only have one visa at a time
  • You cannot have a Japanese visa and SOFA status at the same time. You must choose one or the other.

Getting a Japanese Visa

Unless you’re going to be a student or are married to a Japanese national, you’ll need to find a job to live in Okinawa. And this job will need to be with a company willing and able to sponsor your visa.

If your Japanese language skills are strong, there will be far more work opportunities for you in Okinawa. For most Americans, however, this isn’t the case.

For non-Japanese speaking Americans, finding work in Okinawa can be difficult. It’s not impossible, but you’ll have to dig a lot more, and it probably won’t be your dream job.

Here are the most common jobs Americans find in Okinawa:

English Teaching

English teaching is a very popular way for Americans to live and work in mainland Japan. It’s also possible in Okinawa. This can be a fun and rewarding experience.

Here are some sources to check:

GaijinPot Jobs – https://jobs.gaijinpot.com/job/index/lang/en

Google – Do a Google search for English schools in Okinawa. Cold calling and cold emailing is a great way to go, even if they aren’t advertising any positions.

Teaching at an International School

There are some jobs at the various international schools on the island. Not all of them will hire Americans, but some will.

Do a Google search for “International Schools Okinawa” and check their careers or hiring section. Even if they aren’t hiring or don’t have a career section, emailing them a resume is a great idea.

Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology

OIST is probably the second largest community of English speakers on the island (much smaller of course to the U.S. military community). OIST mostly has jobs for researchers, but you can occasionally find other positions:

OISThttps://www.oist.jp/careers

What is SOFA Status?

SOFA stands for “status of forces agreement,” which is an agreement between two countries, where one country allows the other to station its military forces within its borders.

The agreement between Japan and the U.S. gives U.S. military active duty and civilian personnel special privileges:

  • Exemption from Japanese visa and passport laws
  • Exemption from paying Japanese income tax
  • Driving privileges without needing to obtain a Japanese driver’s license
  • Reduction in automobile tax rate

Most people, but not all, who are under SOFA in Japan, also receive:

  • Access to U.S. installations and their facilities (pool, gym, etc.)
  • Access to U.S. postal services on installations within Japan
  • Access to U.S. grocery stores and department stores on installations
  • Military housing
  • Access to the U.S. Navy Hospital
  • DoD ID card

How do you Obtain SOFA Status?

According to the U.S. Marine Corps Installations Pacific, SOFA status means that you belong to one of the following groups:

  1. U.S. active-duty, given orders by the military to go to Japan
  2. U.S. civilian who is employed by the U.S. military or are employed by a private organization to do specific work for the military in Japan
  3. A dependent (spouse, children, step-children, adult children who are dependent, parent or parent-in-law who are dependent) of people who fall into number 1 or 2 above

In short, you need to be invited by the U.S. military to work in Japan. If you’re in the military, that’s through specific orders. If you’re a civilian, you need to find a job either working directly for the government or for a company that holds a contract with the military.

For civilians, once you get hired, you will receive an LOA (Letter of Authorization). This letter is your ticket to everything: SOFA stamp in your passport (giving you permission to be in Japan without a Japanese visa), DoD ID card, SOFA driver’s license, and any other privileges.

Where to Look for SOFA Status Jobs in Okinawa

In general, the higher the education required to get the job, the less competitive it’s going to be in Okinawa. Jobs that do not require a college education can be fairly competitive due to the amount of accompanying military spouses on the island.

Here’s a list I compiled of the most consistent employers on the island that will sponsor your SOFA:

OrganizationWebsite
Air Force Civilian Service Jobairforce.usajobs.gov
Marine Corps Community Servicescareers.usmc-mccs.org
Army Civilian Jobsarmycivilianservice.usajobs.gov
Federal Service General Scheduleusajobs.gov
Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA)dodea.edu
Army and Air Force Exchange Services (AAFES)publicaffairs-sme.com
Community Bankdodcommunitybank.com
Navy Federal Credit Unionnavyfederal.org
USOuso.org
University of Maryland, Asiacareers.umgc.edu
Northrop Grummanngc.taleo.net
Booze Allen Hamiltoncareers.boozallen.com

There are many other employers that will sponsor your SOFA status than what’s listed above. Those companies are hard to list because it’s a revolving door. Private companies have to bid on DoD contracts and those contracts are for a limited time.

The nice thing about working for a private company and being SOFA, is that you’ll likely be able to use the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. If you qualify, it means you don’t pay tax to the U.S. government. And if your SOFA, it means you’re not a resident of Japan, which means you don’t pay taxes here either.

To find jobs with private companies contracted on base, your best bet is the major online job boards.

Here are a couple of job boards to check out:

Indeedindeed.com

For indeed, it’s best to search by typing “Okinawa” in the “What” field rather than the “Where” field. If you type in the “Where” field, it will most likely bring you to the Japanese version of indeed.com and all the jobs will be off-base jobs in Okinawa, for Okinawan residents.

Also, if you’re currently in Japan, you’ll most likely be taken to the Japanese version right away. To get back to the U.S. site, follow these steps:

  1. Type in “California” in the field furthest to the right (closest to the blue button)
  2. Press the blue button
  3. You’ll notice a link just under the search area and a little to the left; it will have a U.S. flag and read “California.” Click that link.
  4. You’ll be taken to the U.S. version of indeed.com
  5. Type in “Okinawa” in the “What” field and delete “California” in the “Where” field

Glassdoor – https://www.glassdoor.com

For glassdoor.com, it’s helpful to try a couple of searches: “Okinawa” in the “Title, Keywords, or Company” field and a separate search with “Okinawa” in the “Location” field.

SOFA and Japanese Visa Consideration

An important thing to consider is Japan’s permanent residence visa. For foreigners who want to live in Japan long-term, this visa is gold.

Once you receive permanent residencey, you’re free. You no longer need to find an organization to sponsor you, and you’re free to do any type of work.

There are a few ways to get this visa, however, the most common ways are:

  1. Get married to a Japanese national; after being married for 3 years and living in Japan for over a year.
  2. Live in Japan and hold a Japanese visa for 10 years

There are other ways, which you can learn about here.

The important thing to know, however, is that if you’re in Japan under SOFA, you’re technically not residing in Japan. So, you can’t use this time to count toward the 10-year requirement.

How Many Americans Live in Okinawa?

It’s important to distinguish between Americans who are residents of Okinawa vs those who are here with the U.S. military.

For the most part, active-duty military are in Okinawa anywhere from 6-months to 3 years. For civilians working with the U.S. military, it’s usually between 1 to 5 years.

There are some folks associated with the military who have been here more than a decade, but they are by far the exception rather than the rule.

According to the U.S. Marines, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, there are around 80,000 Americans here under SOFA: 30,000 active-duty military, 1,400 DoD civilians, 700 DoD teachers and staff, and about 25,000 accompanying family members.

However, if you add up all those pieces, it totals only 57,100; I’m not sure what categories the remaining 22,900 people fall into.

As for Americans who are residents in Japan, as of June, 2019, there were 2,744, according to the Ministry of Justice. Not so many.

How are Americans Treated in Okinawa?

Americans are treated very well here, which can be surprising given the negative image the media paints.

Watching both the local and global media, you’ll see plenty of stories of Americans committing crimes against Okinawans or deadly mishaps due to the U.S. military. There are smaller protests every week at most bases on the island and occasionally, there are huge protests.

Watching this, it’s easy to assume Okinawans would be rude, cold, and uninviting to Americans. This has not been my experience at all, and I think most Americans would agree.

Yes, there are protests at most bases on the island, however, as an American, I have never felt tension, one-on-one from locals. I’ve found locals to be very respectful and curious about where I’m from and how long I’ll be here.

And yes, Americans do commit crimes, and some of those crimes were terrible. At the same time, the data that I’ve found regarding the crime rate of the U.S. military in Okinawa paints a much different story than the media.

In fact, the U.S. military crime rate is far below that of the local population (which is already extremely low relative to the rest of the world). You can learn more about that from my other article: Stay Safe in Okinawa: Crime, Traffic, Drinking Water, and More.

From my experience, many Okinawans have mixed opinions about the U.S. military presence.

There are many locals employed on base, and these jobs are extremely competitive. One of the big perks for Okinawans, is most base jobs allow you to end your day at 4:3o pm. This is unheard of if you work for a local, off-base company (where working 6 days per week and 10 hours per day isn’t rare!).

Conclusion

It’s completely possible for Americans to live in Okinawa, but Okinawa is not U.S. territory. With a little digging, you can find some decent work here, experience a very interesting culture, and live on an amazing tropical island.

 

Are Credit Cards Accepted in Okinawa? (A Quick Guide on Credit)


Okinawa and Japan in-general have been known as cash-heavy regions, relative to the West. And this is still very true today. However, credit cards are becoming more and more common throughout the country and in Okinawa.

Credit cards are accepted in major establishments in Okinawa. Visa is the most common followed by MasterCard and American Express. It’s still recommended to always carry plenty of cash (yen) as many businesses are cash only. Also, many places have minimum purchase requirements to use credit cards. 

If there are any takeaways from this article, I hope it’s these two things:

  1. Always carry enough yen with you, no matter where you’re going
  2. If you plan on using a credit card, always ask before using the service, even if your credit card company’s logo is displayed

If you remember these two things, you’ll be good to go. Below are some more details to know about swiping your card in Okinawa.

Where are Credit Cards Accepted and Where are they Not?

Hotels

Credit cards are accepted at most hotels and hostels in Okinawa. Pretty hard to find one that is cash only.

Taxis

There are many taxi companies in Okinawa that accept credit cards, and there are many that don’t. So, if you plan on using a credit card in a taxi, you need to ask the driver before you get in.

If you’re planning to use taxis, get all the details from Okinawa Dork: Okinawa Taxis: How to Get One (with a Taxi Fare Calculator).

Monorail (Yui Rail)

The monorail does not accept credit cards. Best to come prepared with 1,000 yen bills or coins.

Bus

Credit cards are not accepted on buses in Okinawa. Make sure you have plenty of cash, and more importantly, make sure they are in 1,000 yen bills.

Convenient Stores

All Family Marts and Lawsons in Okinawa accept credit cards. These convenience stores are pretty much everywhere in Okinawa.

Restaurants

In general (and I stress, in general!), most larger, chain restaurants will accept credit cards.

Though there are many privately owned restaurants that accept credit cards, there are still plenty that are cash only.

Occasionally, even restaurants that display credit card logos in their windows, may not accept cards during certain hours, like lunchtime. It’s always best to ask before ordering.

Also, some restaurants may have minimum orders for credit cards. If your order isn’t over that amount, you need to order more or pay with cash.

Department Stores

Most major department stores will accept credit cards.

Grocery Stores

Large chain grocery stores like San-A, accept credit cards. Smaller, local grocery stores or vegetable shops are going to be cash only.

Souvenir Shops

In general, the larger the souvenir shop, and the closer it is to major tourist hubs, the more likely they are to accept credit cards. Smaller pottery shops are likely going to be cash.

Sightseeing Spots

There are all types of sightseeing locations in Okinawa, and the majority of them are cash only. This is especially common for parking in more remote parts of the island. They will not have the ability to accept credit cards.

How to Tell if Credit Card is Accepted

Just like most places in the world, many businesses will display the logos of the credit cards they accept. If you’re ever in doubt and don’t have cash on you (you should try not to let this happen though), just ask: “Credit card OK desu ka?” If you get an “OK” or “Daijobu” answer, you’re good to go.

If you’re not comfortable trying out your Japanese or the person doesn’t understand, just pull out your credit card to show the person, and ask “OK?”

International Transaction Fees

Before you start swiping your credit card in Okinawa, it’s best to figure out if your credit card company charges foreign transaction fees.

What is an international transaction fee?

An international transaction fee (or foreign transaction fee) is a fee charged to the card user any time they make a purchase overseas using their card.

International transaction fees are usually between 1% to 3% of the transaction cost.

Why do credit card companies charge international transaction fees?

There are a couple of reasons:

  1. It offsets the cost that your bank incurs when converting your money back into your home currency
  2. Banks incur greater fraud risk with international transactions. International transaction fees help offset their cost

How to check if your credit card company charges international transaction fees?

To be sure you don’t get charged a transaction fee, do a google search for your specific credit card company and card type. The terms and conditions should be laid out under the credit card product details.

To be extra sure, I would just simply call your credit card company’s customer support line and ask them. This eliminates the need to dig through their terms and conditions, and eliminates any second-guessing.

Where to Get Cash

Most ATM’s in Okinawa do not accept foreign cards. So, once again, it’s very important to make sure you have enough cash on you always. Never assume you’ll be able to access cash or pay with a credit card where you’ll be traveling that day.

Japan Post Office ATM’s are your best bet for getting cash using your foreign ATM card. You can find these at post offices, and you can also find them at major facilities like shopping malls and certain grocery stores.

Which Type of Cards Can be Used?

According to Japan Post Bank’s website, ATM machines will accept VISA, PLUS, Master Card, Maestro, Cirrus, American Express, JCB, Union Pay, and Discover.

Important Things to Know

  • Each ATM machine has specific hours of operation. Just because the facility the ATM machine is located in is open, doesn’t mean the ATM machine is operational.
  • In 2016, Japan Post Bank issued a withdrawal limit of 50,000 yen (around $500) on foreign ATM cards.
  • You may have read that Seven Elevens also take foreign ATM cards, this is true, however, as I write this, there is only one Seven-Eleven in Okinawa.

As mentioned before, there are many businesses in Okinawa that are cash only. It’s very important that you travel with plenty of yen and plan trips to ATM machine during normal business hours to increase the likelihood the machine is operational. Being stuck somewhere without cash is not only embarrassing and inconvenient, but it’s also rude.

Japan Post Bank ATM Finder

To make life much easier, I highly recommend downloading Japan Post’s ATM Finder App: App Store / Google Play.

This thing takes all the guesswork out of finding an ATM machine and hoping that it’s going to be open.

It also gives you directions on foot, in a car, or by public transportation, right there in the app itself. Lastly, the app gives you instructions in English on how to use the machines!

If you’re just visiting or just getting settled in Okinawa, this is worth the download. And it’s free.

Where to Exchange Cash

If you’re bringing along your own currency or have access to the U.S. bases, then you’re probably going to want to exchange it into yen.

Very few businesses will accept US Dollar, and the few that do, the exchange rate is very poor.

There are plenty of currency exchange facilities in the central part of Okinawa and at Naha International Airport.

Rather than placing a map on here and trying to keep them updated, I’ll leave it to the expert, Google. Have you heard of them before?: A simple Google map search with “Money Exchange in Okinawa” will do the trick.

You’re not going to find a big difference (if any difference) between the majority of these facilities. You might find slightly better rates out in town, vs the Naha Airport.

Conclusion

Most major establishments are happy to swipe your credit card in Okinawa. But, Okinawa still is a cash-heavy destination and accepting credit cards is still a fairly new thing here. Not all businesses have made that transition yet.

So, bring your credit card, but never leave your house or hotel without yen. Because the one time you do, that’s the time you’ll find yourself with a bill you can’t pay. Not fun!