Islanders

     The islanders of Okinawa are considered much more relaxed than the people of the mainland, quick to have a beer and dance, with darker complexions than the mainland Japanese and plenty of foreigners in the mix.
     But it is a relative matter. Compared to the racial chaos of Los Angeles, with its enormous populations from Latin America and Asia, Okinawa is a deeply conformist society and, compared to the enormous girth of Los Angeles, the island population is small.
     The cars are small, the roads are small, the rooms in hotels are small. Americans stand out, for their contrasting size and for their dress. They are often young, military men in civilian clothes, walking in shorts, t-shirt and sneakers.
     Through much of Asia, Okinawa is considered a place to relax, a place to have a holiday apartment, to visit the beaches or to retire from the hustle and bustle of big cities. After the Americans, the other distinct groups of visitors are Chinese, considered by locals to be stiff and often rude, and Japanese mainland tourists, frequently seen as cold and distant.
     The mainlanders stand out in appearance as well, especially the women. As a rule, and it is truly a rule, they wear carefully applied, dark makeup and form-fitting jeans or moderately short skirts.
     They are startlingly pale, like alabaster, with uniformly thin, but not skinny, legs that, defying old stereotypes, are often long and without fail perched on high platform shoes that, in the style of the day, wrap around the ankle. They are reserved and walk along with purpose. The men are neat and casual in appearance, with knit shirts and shorts. Their accents are immediately recognizable, I am told, along with a certain haughtiness.
     Housing on Okinawa can often seem rudimentary, made up largely of small, concrete, two-story dwellings.
     But the architecture is an adaptation based on the dominant weather characteristic of the island, the powerful typhoons that regularly sweep up from the south and pass over the island before turning towards Taiwan or the Korean peninsula or continuing north to the Japanese mainland.
     The concrete house replaced the traditional house here, an elegant, open, wooden structure with nary a stick of furniture, a house of wood and straw, with tatami mats on the floor. Vulnerable to the howling winds of the typhoon, they were often by built amid groves of tough, short, thick Fukuji trees that have adapted to the winds.
     The houses are on display at Ryukyu Mura, a site for tourists and local school kids, that combines folklore, craft, a lot of salemanship and a bit of Disneyland.
     It is billed as a traditional Japanese village, with a dance performance at set hours, a shaman’s hut, a weaver’s house, a sake store, a snack stand where you can buy a beer, glass cages with the most evil looking and quite deadly snakes that inhabit the rural parts of the island, a water-wheel, a horse-driven mill, and lastly a big hall where you can buy sourvenirs.
     It takes a good part of the afternoon to wander through the place and ends up being a relaxed way to learn something about the local culture.
     Taking a ferry to Kerama Island, a tropical island with white beaches, clear water and tropical fish, I pass by “carpet rooms,” that are an adaptation from those traditional houses, with not a plastic chair, nothing, just a room with a carpet. A couple old women are laying down on their sides.
     On the ferry, the travelers fit into distinct groups.
     There are pairs of single girls in their early twenties walking along the deck, then a group of six or so guys around the same age with backpacks and loud voices. Interspersed among those talking a tour on the deck are a few couples in their early thirties, generally with one child, all of clear Japanese heritage. It is a society governed by rules, that include when to be single and when to no longer be.
     On the island, I take a break from the sun-blasted beach for a beer in a local, wooden store that sells drinks and snacks. In the back, a few plastic tables are set out on a concrete floor. A tiny old lady is the owner. She is going on 80 but spry and talkative. She brings free snacks to go with the beer and sits down to talk.
     Towards the end of my beer, the wind jumps and starts to whistle. She looks up and says, “typhoon.”

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