10 Quirky Things in Okinawa that are Un-Japanese

10 Quirky Things in Okinawa that are Un-Japanese

Find out why Okinawa is so different from the rest of Japan – you'll definitely be surprised!

okinawaImage credit: Ippei & Janine Naoi

Japan is full of crazy things, granted. But even the Japanese themselves openly admit that Okinawa and its people have a very different culture compared to the rest of the country.

Not only are the 150 islands tropical in weather, but you will also find some quirky customs and activities that are very un-Japanese.

1. Eat Crap!

When sneezing in Japan, most people wouldn’t say anything to you. The equivalent of ‘bless you’ may exist, but most Japanese tend to react with silence. One Japanese friend once told me that it doesn’t make sense to the Japanese to acknowledge the fact that someone isn’t well – as in sneezing. On Okinawa things are vastly different.

okinawaImage credit: Tina Franklin

Like many other cultures around the world, the people in Okinawa believe that the soul will leave your body when sneezing. So, in order to prevent the evil spirits from eating up your soul, the local reaction to a sneeze is “kusuke”, which translates into “eat crap” in the Okinawan language – a very un-Japanese reply.

2. Surfing

The most popular sports in Japan are baseball and football. No average person would ever consider to go surfing. To be fair though, there are a few small towns on the east coast of Japan, but the waves are choppy and not very good for surfing.

okinawaImage credit: troy_williams

On Okinawa on the other hand, surfing is a big thing. These southern Japanese islands look really more Hawaiian than Japanese. Not every surf spot is without danger though. Certain places have big coral reefs, which can give you some scares when you fall off your board.

3. Hanging Cats

If you’ve ever been to Japan, you might have noticed that cats are considered ‘kawai’ – so cute. Hello Kitty, anyone? There are several cat cafes, in which you can spend time and cuddle with them.

Cats have a slightly different connotation on Okinawa. They are considered to be messengers from the netherworld. If a cat dies, it isn’t uncommon that someone will suggest hanging up the dead body of the cat – otherwise an evil spirit will take possession of it and return to life. Although not many people are actually doing it anymore, cats are not always just cats in Japan – sometimes kawai, sometimes evil.

4. Fart yourself to sleep

There aren’t any statistics of how many people actually do it, but there’s a saying in Okinawa that you should fart if you can’t sleep.

According to old beliefs there are tree spirits called ‘Kijimuna’, which are mischievous but also friendly. Kijimunas love to sit on your belly when you try to go to sleep – what they hate are farts! That’s right ladies and gentlemen! You should fart if you can’t fall asleep! I can’t imagine a traditional Japanese parent teaching their children to fart in their sleep though.

5. The Yuta doctor

Spirits are a substantial part of Okinawan life and its customs. Traditionally, women organise spiritual rituals. These female mediums are known as ‘Yuta’ and have a very respected position in the Okinawan life.

These Yutas are apparently born with special abilities and trained throughout their lives to communicate better with the spiritual world. For many traditional people, the Yuta women are just as respected and powerful as a doctor. This old tradition seems so far removed from Japan’s ultra modern life, but is a beautiful example of their unique culture.

6. The salty way

okinawaImage credit: stlbites.com

It isn’t just useful in the kitchen, salt is also used to fight off evil spirits. Homes in Okinawa used to have a spoonful of salt in every room in order to keep those ghosts away. Salt can sometimes still be seen in front of shops – it apparently keeps bad customers away as well.

There’s also an old superstition, still practiced today, that when you see something bad happening, you should lick some salt when returning home.

7. Shaking off spirits

Nope, this has nothing to do with Taylor Swift’s hit song, Shake it off! According to a legend, spirits can only run straight, which is considered a weakness. In order to prevent them from destroying people’s lives in Okinawa, the locals had come up with the idea to install stone tablets, called ‘shigandang’, at every junction or crossing. This will apparently exorcise the evil spirit. Similar traditions can in found in some regions of China and Southeast Asia.

8. Eating a pig’s face

Although I am a vegetarian, I dare to say that eating an entire pig’s face is a rather strange thing to do. In my experience most people have problems seeing any animal getting killed and find it hard to eat if it still resembles its original form. Just imagine slicing a little piece off the pig’s cheek – sounds delicious right?

Okinawans definitely don’t have a problem with it, as you can get it on the islands as a speciality. You might even see a pig’s head decorated with a pair of sunglasses in several shop windows.

9. Chopsticks

okinawaImage credit: iris

Don’t worry Okinawans eat as well with chopsticks. Perhaps you are even aware of several points of the chopstick etiquette. When in Japan you should never stick you chopsticks into a rice bowl and leave them there. It will remind people of death.

Something similar, but still very different exists on Okinawa. Passing food from chopstick to chopstick is something you will see regularly in Tokyo’s izakayas, but on Okinawa it’s a big no-no. It will create associations with the bones of cremated bodies.

10. Taking a break

The Japanese are not known to be generous when it comes to taking a break. We rather categorise them as workaholics. However, it’s all different around here. Locals take a break when they feel like it.

This especially applies to parking their cars on the side of the road. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a residential area or on the highway – if they feel like taking a break to enjoy the scenery, then feel free to stop by the side of the road and take in all the sights you want.


Did we miss out anything? Drop us a comment below.

About Author

Peter Schimke
Peter Schimke

Peter is a freelance writer and author of the novel ‘Beyond Blue’. He has travelled extensively over the past decade and for some reason ends up where there are no tourists to be found. Cocktail bars, bookstores and skate parks are the places you might run into him. He currently calls Singapore his home, as he his banned from Shinjuku, Tokyo (after publishing his book).