Is Okinawa Safe? Crime, Traffic, Drinking Water, and More


Is Okinawa safe? In short, Okinawa is a very safe place to live and travel. According to Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication and the United Nations, in 2017, Okinawa’s homicide rate was .3 per 100,000 people. That means, in regard to homicides, Okinawa is safer than 96% of the rest of the world. 

There are many other things to consider, however, when asking how safe Okinawa is. With the help of statistics and some experience living in Okinawa, I’ll do my best to give you the most balanced perspective I can.

What’s the Crime Rate in Okinawa?

Here are some interesting stats for Okinawa in 2016:

Source: Portal Site of Official Statistics of Japan website (https://www.e-stat.go.jp/)

To give some context, here are some stats for other regions outside of Okinawa [for 2016 (theft) and 2017 (homicide)]:

Sources: Portal Site of Official Statistics of Japan website (https://www.e-stat.go.jp/); The Global Economy (https://www.theglobaleconomy.com/rankings/theft/); United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (https://dataunodc.un.org/GSH_app)

Before doing this research, based on my own anecdotal evidence and general gut feeling, I would have easily said Okinawa is the safest place I’ve ever been. I think these numbers confirm this.

Okinawa is pretty darn safe. You’re not going to find too many places as safe when it comes to crime.

Theft from Vehicles in Okinawa

As a foreigner, I often get cautioned from locals and Japanese friends about keeping my car doors locked and not leaving valuables inside.

With that being said, look at the numbers above again. They are very low. I’ve never had my car broken into and I’ve never had anything stolen in Okinawa.

At the same time, I have heard of it happening.

When the rare theft happens, foreigners are the usual targets and unlocked cars are the usual situations. Easy target.

Many foreigners come to Okinawa knowing how safe Japan is. And when they get here, they can feel that safety. So, it’s very easy to let your guard down.

In certain areas on the island, you’ll see signs warning you to keep your car locked when away. Theft usually happens near popular diving and snorkeling spots, or where many foreigners live or stay. That’s where the easy targets are.

Most theft happens opportunistically rather than forced entry into the car. That is, leaving the car unlocked with some valuables that are visible. Rather than a thief smashing a window and breaking in.

Theft from vehicles is not something to be paranoid about. Even remotely. But, it’s also important to remind yourself that we’re all human. And humans can get tempted with a $1,000 camera sitting on your dashboard, with the window down, and nobody around.

Just use common sense and don’t let your guard down completely.

Is it Safe to Drive in Okinawa?

According to Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication and WHO, in 2017 Okinawa had 3 people killed per 100,000 in car accidents. There are only 6 countries with a lower rate than this. Combine this with the low-speed limits and polite drivers, Okinawa is very safe to drive. 

Here are some driving statistics comparing Okinawa to the rest of Japan for 2017:

Source: Portal Site of Official Statistics of Japan website (https://www.e-stat.go.jp/)

For some context:

Source: Portal Site of Official Statistics of Japan website (https://www.e-stat.go.jp/); World Road Safety Report, World Health Organization (WHO), International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers (OICA)

Again, before doing this research, I would have told anyone that driving in Okinawa is pretty darn safe. I think the numbers support this.

Why is driving in Okinawa so safe?

First, the speed limits are SLOW. On smaller streets, its 30 kph (19 mph); on main roads, it’s between 50 kph and 60 kph (31 mph – 37 mph).

On the expressway (that is, the tollway or highway), the speed limit is a whopping 80 kph (50 mph).

Okinawans often go over the speed limit; on main roads, it’s typical for cars to go 10 kph over the speed limit. On the expressway 10 kph – 20 kph over the speed limit.

Things to Be Cautious of When Driving in Okinawa

Okinawans aren’t perfect drivers, however. So, there are some things to be aware of:

  • Merging – Japanese aren’t great at merging. When merging on to a main road, they usually stop and use it more like a yield sign.
  • Not using child car seats – While driving in Okinawa, you’ll see kids loosely walking around the car; not using a car seat or seat belt. So, be extra cautious if you see a car with kids in it.
  • Slick roads – It’s common to hear the roads here are made with coral (I did some research; found some hints of truth, but nothing reliable). The important part is, when it rains, the roads can get extremely slick. Take it slow and give some space in between cars.

Quick tip: If you’ll be moving to Okinawa for military-related work, you’ll need pass a quick test provided by the military, to get your driver’s license (very easy test, but best to study up a little): Japanese Traffic Regulations for SOFA Licensed Drivers.

Does U.S. Military’s Presence Impact Safety in Okinawa?

There are 54,000 U.S. military personnel on the island and they often get a bad reputation from local, national, and worldwide media. If you watch that stuff too much, it’s easy to start believing that U.S. military servicemen and women are extremely dangerous folks to be around.

No matter your political views, if you look at the numbers, you’ll see a much different story than what the media portrays:

Crimes in 2010: SOFA (U.S. Military related personnel; includes all branches and all civilians) vs. Okinawans

source: Lost in Translation: U.S. Forces and Crime in Japan by Eric Robinson

Crimes in 2011: SOFA (U.S. Military related personnel; includes all branches and all civilians) vs. Okinawans

source: Lost in Translation: U.S. Forces and Crime in Japan by Eric Robinson

According to Eric Robinson, “Overall….[U.S. Military related personnel] appear to have disproportionately lower rates of crimes and accidents when compared to mainland Japanese and Okinawa residents.”

There are some bad apples in every culture. And according to this data, there are VERY FEW bad apples in the military population in Okinawa.

Does Being American Impact Your Safety at All?

No. Being American myself, I’ve never felt that my nationality, or the fact that I work on U.S. installations, has made me less safe. Okinawans are very kind and polite.

It’s also important to know, that for many locals, the U.S. Military presence is a love/hate relationship.

Who wants loud jets flying over their house all day? Not too many. Completely understandable. And at the same time, many Okinawans have very comfortable and secure jobs on base. They work right alongside U.S. Military servicemen and women, and civilian workers.

For many Okinawans, working on-base provides a nice comfortable lifestyle. And many locals want those jobs; they are extremely competitive. I’ve heard stories of Okinawan friends taking 8 years to finally land a job on base!

Why are they so competitive? Because if you work off base, for a Japanese company, you’re more than likely going to work much longer hours. Though Okinawa is much more laid back than mainland Japan, working long hours is normal here.

And when you work on base, you go home at 4:30 pm. Pretty much guaranteed. Going home that early and with that consistency isn’t easy to find in Japan or Okinawa.

So, there are always those bad apples, but most Okinawans will treat you with the same respect, regardless of you being American or not.

Can You Drink Tap Water in Okinawa?

Tap water is very safe to drink in Okinawa. The Okinawa Prefectural Enterprise Bureau is in charge of operating 5 purification plants in Okinawa. Water is treated by chlorination. According to OPEB, water sources in Okinawa are: 80.4% dams, 13.6% rivers, 4.7%  groundwater, and 1.2% seawater. 

Every so often, I’ll read a newspaper article regarding concern for the safety of consuming Okinawa tap water, long-term. But, isn’t that concern just about everywhere nowadays?

Typhoons

What’s a typhoon? The only difference between a typhoon and hurricane is where it occurs. Hurricanes occur in the North Atlantic and Northeast Pacific Ocean. Typhoons happen in the Northwest Pacific Ocean. Cyclones happen in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

Typhoons love to pass through Okinawa. In fact, Okinawa is nicknamed, “Typhoon Alley.” And because the island is so small, the land doesn’t break up the typhoon’s momentum. So, they stay intense.

If you’re traveling to Okinawa during the summertime (typhoon season) it’s almost guaranteed a typhoon will either disrupt your travel or barely miss you. It’s best to be prepared.

So, how dangerous are they?

Typhoons in Okinawa can get intense and dangerous. You don’t want to get caught outside during one.

When typhoons get big, cars can flip and debris is flying everywhere. Even during a small typhoon, just opening the car door can be a huge risk (the wind can easily slam shut on a limb or your entire body).

It’s best to assume every typhoon headed toward Okinawa is going to be big. Just to be on the safe side.

From my experience, the forecast of the typhoon’s intensity is very unreliable. It’s common to hear the big one is coming, and it turns out to feel more like a light storm than a typhoon. And vice versa: the typhoon might look small on the weather radar, but turns out to be intense and scary.

Okinawa’s infrastructure, in general, is well suited to manage big storms, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take necessary precautions.

The good news about typhoons is you usually have plenty of notice. You’ll see it on the news, online, and there will be plenty of buzz about it at your hotel or work.

Stock up on food, plan to be indoors for a few days (in case the big one hits), and make sure all your loose items outdoors are secure or brought inside.

Poisonous Animals in Okinawa

Okinawa does have quite a few dangerous critters. Some on land, but most of them are out in the ocean:

  1. Habu – The most notorious dangerous creature in Okinawa is the “Habu.” The Habu is a pit viper snake that is highly venomous. I’ve never seen one myself, but I’ve met many who have. It’s important to be very careful in dense vegetation. So, if you’re doing some hiking or exploring through the jungle, know where you’re stepping, and just be aware.
  2. Box Jelly Fish – They are mostly active during the summer and have long tentacles.
  3. Lionfish – These guys are well camouflaged, but not impossible to spot out. When they see you, they usually freeze and stick out all of their venomous spines.
  4. Sea snakes – Highly venomous, but attacks are rare, and they are non-aggressive. When snorkeling or swimming, I’ve never been bothered by one and they seem to have no interest in humans. Once, however, while paddling pretty quickly on my surfboard, one popped its head out of the water (seemingly unaware that I was paddling in its direction) and it had no choice but to pop on to my surfboard. I ditched my surfboard very quickly until it slithered off my board. Not fun, but I survived.
  5. Blue-ringed Octopus – It’s a small octopus with blue rings on it. I’ve never seen one, and I hope I never do. Just be on the lookout.
  6. Stonefish –  These guys are masters at camouflaged and are very dangerous.
  7. Geography Cone Snail – I’ve been snorkeling here for a while, and just learned about this one tonight, while writing this. One source I read claims that it’s the deadliest animal in the world!

In short, you don’t need to be paranoid, just aware. Know where you are stepping, and know, without a doubt, what you are about to touch is 100% safe.

For a more complete list of dangerous ocean creatures in Okinawa: Okinawa Beach Dangers You Need to Take Seriously

Ocean Dangers

The ocean is one of the biggest attractions here in Okinawa. It can also be a very dangerous place (even beyond all the venomous critters that live there)

  1. Rip Tides – The ocean is constantly moving: wind, swell, shape of the sea bottom, shape of shoreline, and many other things all impact how fast and in which direction the water moves. Not a problem if the water is slowly pushing you back to shore, however, sometimes the water can move quickly out to sea or down the coastline. When that happens, you can get yourself in a lot of danger. If you don’t have a lot of experience in the ocean, it’s best to stay in spots that have lifeguards or have lots of other people swimming. And even if you do have lots of experience, don’t go out alone.
  2. Tides – Okinawa is mostly coral reef bottom, which makes it an amazing diving and snorkeling destination. However, it can also make entering the water very tricky, especially during low tide. When low tide arrives, the coral is exposed. Environmentally, it’s not the best thing to walk on coral, also, it’s not fun to do so anyway. It’s sharp and can easily cut your skin. Even with booties, it’s very easy to fall. So, know what the tide is doing before you get in the water. You can check the tide here.

More info on ocean dangers in Japan here.

Keeping Safe from Japanese Law

Laws are there to keep us safe, however, as a foreigner, we’re susceptible to getting in big trouble for something that is completely legal back at home. Here are some things to be aware of when traveling to Okinawa (and Japan, in general):

  1. Drugs – Drugs are not tolerated and hold BIG consequences. Don’t bring them, and don’t do them while you’re here. If drugs are that important to you, I’m very curious why you’d want to come to Okinawa and tons of jail time.
  2. Medications – Be aware of which medications you can bring. It’s best to check with the Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare to get the most up-to-date guidance and regulations. You can find them HERE.
  3. Cell Phones While Driving – Don’t do it. Japan just increased the fine from 6,000 to 18,000 yen. Even more important, if you’re involved in an accident (or could have caused an accident, the law is extremely vague), you could face jail time. Don’t touch your cell phone (maybe even put in the glove box to be extra sure you’re not tempted).
  4. Always Keep Your Passport on You – Though, personally, I’ve never been stopped and harassed by police in Japan, officially they can stop you for any reason and request ID. You could be arrested. Carry your passport or military ID.
  5. If You’re Involved in Car Accident, The Police Must be Called – The official law is that police must be notified no matter how big or small the accident. If not, you could get charged with a hit and run. It’s best to just call the police and notify them. They’ll give you directions from there.
  6. No Fireworks for SOFA Status – I’ve been here for years, and just learned this one. Buying fireworks and setting them off is perfectly legal here for locals or a non-SOFA via, but if you’re a SOFA member, it’s not allowed. Don’t buy them, don’t sell them, and don’t set them off. (Source: Stars & Stripes: Purchase or use of fireworks not permitted on Okinawa bases)
  7. .03 Blood Alcohol Level is the Legal Limit – Okinawa, just like the rest of Japan has no tolerance for driving while under the influence. If you have even just one drink, because of the low limit, it’s best to stay off the roads altogether. Something to pay close attention to is, many people get in trouble the morning after a night of drinking. They get up in the morning thinking they’ve slept it off. So, they get in their car, get pulled over, and still blow a .03. Ouch! 

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

Do Earthquakes Happen in Okinawa?

Yes, earthquakes are very much active here in Okinawa. And they’re unpredictable. The majority of them are small, but it’s best to be prepared.

Just be aware of where you hang things, especially around where you sit and sleep. No large mirrors over your bed or a statue on the bookshelf right next to your bed.

Also, the general consensus from experts about staying safe still seems STOP, DROP, AND COVER.

Here are some good resources on earthquake safety:

Ready.gov

Tokyo Fire Department

Conclusion

Just like every place in the world, Okinawa has some dangers, but you’re not going to find too many places in the world that are this safe!

So, my hope is that you enjoy Okinawa far more than you fear anything here. Because, indeed, there’s far less to fear here than most parts of the world.

Here are some other helpful resources to stay safe even more safe while you’re here:

Okinawa Disaster Prevention Information Portal 

Kadena Air Force Weather and Typhoon Monitoring 

Sources

Portal Site of Official Statistics of Japan website (https://www.e-stat.go.jp/)

United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (https://dataunodc.un.org/GSH_app)

The Okinawa Prefectural Enterprise Bureau (http://www.eb.pref.okinawa.jp.e.sa.hp.transer.com/)

U.S. Marine Corps Installations Pacific (https://www.mcipac.marines.mil/)

 

 

 

 

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