It is not uncommon for me to be asked about the relationship between the people of Okinawa and foreigners. This is likely due to the US military presence on the small island and the tension that is created from various situations that have happened over the years. This is why I was not surprised to be asked a variation of this question during my recent trip to Shizuoka to visit some friends. I answered the way I usually do ultimately saying that Okinawa is foreigner friendly for the most part. We continued to carry on with the visit and before I knew it I was on my way home.
Once arriving back in Okinawa, however, I started to see things in a different way. It was as though I had a new view of a familiar place. Everything was as it was before but somehow there was something different. Things didn’t feel as at home as I remembered them to be. Being that I had not spent even 24 hours back on the island I figured maybe it was just my imagination and moved on. Then later that afternoon while talking a walk through my neighborhood I did as I usually do and greet those who are in close proximity to me. The owner of a car dealership down the street was standing on the sidewalk facing me. I said a friendly konnichiwa but received no response. Then the antique dealer a few storefronts down was tending to her American surplus furniture outside. . . konnichiwa. . . no response. This continued for another 4 or 5 people during my 3 mile walk. This lack of response did not bother me. In fact I am not often greeted back despite how many attempts I make.
The follow day I decided to take another walk to the local FamilyMart to grab a bento for dinner. I passed by another car dealer who was outside with his very adorable bulldog. Konnichiwa. To my delight he responded with a greeting and a smile. Then I started to think about the day before. This was the first in about 7 people to acknowledge me in any way. Then I started to think about my short time in Shizuoka and Tokyo. Even on my last day I had a full conversation, all be it brief and challenging, with a woman at the train station and here in Okinawa I could barely get a “hello”.
Finally I arrived at FamilyMart, chose my dinner for the evening and made my way to the register where the woman cashing me out did not murmur so much as one word to me. Not a “¥750” or an “arigatou”. In fact she finished the transaction, put the bag on the counter and turned away before I had so much as returned my wallet to my purse.
These experiences over the past two days have really got me thinking about how it is that foreigners are treated here in Okinawa. Although there is no doubt in my mind that foreigners are treated well it is quite an interesting observation to see how different average everyday interaction can be in Tokyo, Shizuoka and Okinawa.