Not many people outside Japan know much about Okinawa other than it’s the southernmost territory of Japan. But prior to becoming a prefecture, Okinawa wasn’t always a part of Japan, in fact, it did have a separate religion, distinct culture and its own political system, which most likely contrasts the Japanese sphere (Taira, 1997, p. 142).
In the past, Okinawa served as an international meeting place for its neighboring countries such as China, mainland Japan, Korea, Philippines and other nations of Southeast Asia. The island enjoyed cultural relations from these countries while its trade industry flourished (Taira, 1997, p. 140). Variety is the hallmark of Okinawan culture, which is why it was also labeled a Chanpuru culture. Chanpuru is an everyday dish prepared by the Okinawans by stir-frying assorted vegetables along with Tofu and pork. This dish represents Okinawa’s historical willingness to borrow cultural elements from outsiders and integrate them with their own. Another symbolic representative of this cultural fusion is the magnificent Shurijo Castle, which incorporates Japanese and Chinese architectural features.
Okinawans are a mixture of Malay from Formosa and Philippines, Chinese from China, and Japanese (Yamato) from Japan. But culturally, they are closer to Filipino and Chinese than mainland Japanese (Minahan, 2002, p. 1458). Considerably the Chinese had profound influence upon the natives of Okinawa, this was in view of their adaptation of the Chinese lunar calendar, the annual cycle of festivals, feng-shui (geomancy) (Hidekazu, 2003), Confucian philosophy and practice of ancestral ceremonies and rites (Smits, 1999, p. 13). Okinawans observe “ancestral veneration” a ritual they’ve probably learned from the Chinese as well. Okinawan’s believe their ancestors have the power to intercede with destiny, which explains why they worship their dead ancestors—to give honor. Although most of what’s seen at the village is no longer part of the Okinawans’ life today, some traditions born in the Ryukyu Kingdom era have lasted through the years. Weaving is one example of their enduring tradition. This practice makes use of wooden looms to create designs and patterns that mirrors Okinawa’s simplicity. Growing sugar cane and exporting sweet crop is another long-standing custom on the island, which up to this day is scrupulously done by hand. Textiles like Bingata, Bashofu, Tsuboya pottery, Ryukyu lacquerware and Ryukyu indigo were just a few of their admired riches. It was however through Music, drama, literature, even cooking especially their diet, the Okinawans successfully highlights their strong cultural uniqueness.
Karate on the other hand, has been considered as the most notable cultural export of Okinawa. Karate is thought to be a combination of traditional Okinawan martial arts with Chinese kung fu. It is believed to be the outcome of its close ties with China and its great influence to the Okinawan culture (Byrd, 2003) Unlike the reserved Japanese, Okinawans, are known for their courtesy, warmth, generosity, and candor (Minahan, 2002, p. 1458). Perhaps the major distinction between Okinawans and Japanese can be drawn based on their gender relations. For the Japanese, especially in the past, everything revolves around man and his supremacy. On the contrary, Okinawan culture is built with a strong matriarchal orientation while the Japanese has strong patriarchal. In Okinawan culture the man held a “political hierarchy,” while the woman held a “religious hierarchy.” Together they work in harmony to raise a family or kingdom. In this island, a woman appointed as the chief priestess was nearly equal to that of the king (Sered, 1999, p.13). At present, Okinawa being a prefecture has not diminished its identity in the shadow of Japan. Rather, Okinawan vibrant cultural practices have contributed in multitude, fortifying the historical background of its mother country.
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