Okinawa’s Moment: Rethinking Japan’s hinterland

Oct 15, 2020

It doesn’t take a pandemic to make Tokyo a challenging place to live in the summer months. But when the trials of two people working from a tiny apartment in stifling heat got too much, I decamped to Okinawa and six weeks later am still here. If this sounds sybaritic, I am of course working no less than usual: I have merely joined the digital nomads who long ago understood how positive a move to Okinawa can be.

During my stay, I have noticed changes that are easy to miss during a weekend trip: changes that go to the heart of how we view Japan and Okinawa’s place in it. Too often the talk is of Okinawa’s problems: US military bases, the relative poverty of the prefecture, and frequent anti-government protests. But beneath the surface, the one-way flow of young Tokyoites to Okinawa, all seeking a new way of living and working, tell a different story. There is a flight of talent to these islands, and I suspect there is much more to come.

There are some obvious reasons: the sunshine, the space, the cheaper prices, closeness to family for some. As a recent article in the FT put it: second tier cities like LA are really coming into their own during this era of the pandemic: the ability to live more of life outdoors has suddenly become extremely valuable.

But more than that is the underdog status of Okinawa. This will always appeal to certain demographics who want to escape the prevailing culture and the uniform sheen of large-scale, capitalist success. To be a hybrid outsider, to do something novel and on a smaller scale: this is the hipster dream. As a result, coffee roasteries, bakeries and craft shops are increasingly to be found behind the colourful but peeling seaside shop facades.

Young people moving here are seeing a space, an opportunity: Okinawa is not a blank slate, but it does not already have too much of everything in the way that Tokyo so exhaustingly does. Newcomers can make an impact, find room for themselves, and most importantly take risks. And, to use less abstract language, it makes sense to become the owner of a café in a residential Okinawa neighbourhood with no competitors. It is certainly more appealing than the current struggle of running a café in what used to be a commuter hotspot in Tokyo before our apartments became our offices.

It was also extremely revealing to speak to Minei-san, who runs Tesio, an Okinawa-based butcher and sausage specialist. A native of Naha, he never wanted to chase the glitzy Tokyo dream, but he does supply top-end Tokyo establishments such as the bakery Bricolage. To do this, he chose to locate his factory/shop in the old town of Koza, once famous for its music and post-war nightlife until left to slide into a quaint dilapidation only rarely seen in pristine Japan. But what might seem like rust is now being reimagined by Minei-san and other inspired artisans as patina, and Koza is seeing the same creative revival as Berlin, Shoreditch or Tel Aviv. A prize-winning brewery, coffee roastery and chocolate factory have all recently been set up to capitalize on low rents and proximity to the ocean. In Tokyo, residential density and land prices would make this impossible.

Of course there is a potentially negative side to all this: the prospect of Okinawa becoming more like the mainland, and of increased wealth going to those who can invest the most in its gentrification – the Tokyoite rentiers. But there is so much local energy here, whether from the fertile music scene in Koza or from the young creatives speckled across Naha: fewer young people leave this prefecture for a life elsewhere than any other in Japan.

In this context, it is interesting to consider whether Covid starts to repopulate our largest cities with those long priced out, and whose absence it is fashionable to bemoan: the youthful creatives whose originality lent their neighbourhoods the aesthetics and appeal that the rich then colonized for themselves. This could be a renaissance moment: or we could all move to Okinawa instead.

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