The peaceful rhythms of Okinawa

TOKYO —On Dec. 6th, the Association of National Tourist Offices and Representatives (ANTOR) in Japan — the principal lobbying organization for the world’s tourist offices — held its annual Christmas event at Oakwood Premier Tokyo Midtown. Last year, with the support of Okinawa Prefecture and to the delight of those present from representative offices across the country and various international missions, they celebrated ANTOR-Japan’s 50th anniversary. As well as toasting a successful past year of travel in Japan and what’s in store for 2017, the event presented its vision of tourism as a “peace industry” due to the interaction of people from different countries as they immerse themselves in other cultures when traveling. In the coming year —and more importantly, the 21st century — ANTOR-Japan is committed to helping bring about international harmony through tourism with its campaign “ANTOR Peace Movement 21.”

In his remarks that evening, the chairman of ANTOR-Japan, Edouard Tripković Katayama, went out of his way to thank Okinawa Prefecture as a member and event sponsor, as well as to recount his recent trip to the prefecture that, for him, reinforced his belief in travel being a path to peace. To punctuate his experience, along with a stirring slideshow, Katayama also welcomed two performers of traditional Okinawan arts: musician Makiko Miyara and budo (martial) artist Akito Yagi.

Ms. Miyara entertained guests with two folk pieces she played on the sanshin, an Okinawan three-stringed musical instrument similar to a lute with a snakeskin-covered body. Afterward, Mr. Yagi gave a powerful demonstration of karate — a martial art with its origins deeply embedded in Okinawan culture — in celebration of Japanese budo karate being added as an event in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Besides its serene blue ocean and white sand beaches, Okinawa is famous for its sky. With very little light and millions of swirling stars visible to the naked eye from its warm tropical vantage points, gazing heavenward in the evening instills all with a sense of humanness. A reminder of our connection with all mankind — and all existence. It’s easy to understand Mr. Katayama’s comments about travel to the area being a portal to peace — and the Ryukyu Islands (as the archipelago is traditionally known) are a place to truly experience this.

At the event, Japan Today had the chance to sit down with Tadao Kadekaru, the enthusiastic and passionate senior executive director of the Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau, who needs no invitation to expound on why the world should visit.

“Okinawa Prefecture is the most beautiful destination in Japan,” he says. “Many islands with natural beauty and traditional cultures.”

When pressed on what he would most like to convey to Japan Today readers, he admits to the challenges facing the area in attracting visitors from further away. “Eighty percent of our visitors are Japanese and only 20 percent of inbound tourists are foreigners,” he says. “Four or five years ago, only five percent were foreign tourists, so that number has increased year-on-year. Of those people, 80 percent come from northeast Asia — China, Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong. It’s easiest to attract people from those countries.” The difficulty, he maintains, lies in attracting those from farther afield.

Currently, he wants to overcome the fact that Okinawa is seen as primarily an Asian resort destination. The OCVB would like to promote it as an international one. “We are now making an effort to attract more Western people, but it is more difficult to try to make a direct flight between Western countries and Okinawa because it is a bit far away,” he says. Their solution? In true Ryukyu fashion, they’ve decided to work with other destinations, rather than compete. “We are trying to do that by way of those Asian countries [that Western tourists are already visiting], those ‘hub’ airports [like Incheon, Korea].” The idea is to make Okinawa a follow-on, or “since you’re already here” type of destination. “We say to come visit those Asian countries first — and then come visit Okinawa.”

In effect, they are marketing the region’s substantive history and ancient cultural identity — one that has allowed them to flourish, make peace and absorb culture for generations.

“Okinawa has a deep history. Geographically, we are closer to other Asian countries — much more than Japan. Culture, food, people, language. We’ve been influenced by those Asian countries. So, we have developed our own exotic culture, different from mainland Japan. That is the attraction to welcome foreign people,” he says.

Kadekaru gets excited when talking about one of his favorite aspects of Okinawan culture. “Do you know karate?” he asks pointedly. “It is now one of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games events. Okinawa is the birthplace of karate. There are more than 60 million practitioners in the world — and they are all welcome to come to Okinawa! Yes, we have beautiful beaches — other foreign countries also have beautiful beaches. But the birthplace of karate? There is only one!”

One thing he won’t do is pick one specific place in Okinawa to visit.

“Okinawa consists of many small islands — there are 160 small islands behind the main one.  Among them, about 40 of are inhabited,” says Kadekaru. “Each one has their own history and own character and own culture. So please visit the small islands, also. Okinawa is one of the most popular destinations among Japanese, even mid-winter — we don’t have any snow!”

For the people of Okinawa, the simple act of receiving visitors is also a sign of peace. Its residents — whether urban Naha city dwellers or tropical and remote Ishigakijima islanders — welcome all with peace in their hearts and a vibrant hospitality that is hard to surpass. They’ve transformed centuries of tumult and turbulence and into a part of what makes them who they are as people — not “Japanese” people, but members of the ancient and distinct Ryukyu Kingdom. A people of peace.

Visit and discover for yourself what sets these islands and their inhabitants apart. As the people here are fond of saying: “Once we meet, we are all brothers and sisters.”



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