Talk with the Japanese a while about the Japanese and you’re going to hear the word shimagunikonjo. The breakdown is simple: shima—island; guni—nation; konjo—consciousness. In one word, it's the firm belief that people who live on islands are different from people who live on continents, and anyone who’s done both is likely to agree. American culture may be the strongest influence in Japan now, but the Japanese will understand the motivations of the Brits a whole lot better. Islands require a different mind-set than continents. Islands require manners.
But what if your island was never meant to be part of another bunch of islands? That’s what’s happened with today’s Okinawa Prefecture. The people who’ve always been there are Okinawan, one of the healthiest, longest-living people on earth. But now they’re part of Japan and seriously outnumbered by the Japanese. (And they’re not at all happy that the Japanese interlopers gave so much of their land over to U.S. military bases.)
Signs of Okinawan culture can be subtle but are easier to pick out in more remote islands of the chain, like Ishigaki. Traditional buildings are a mixture of Chinese and Japanese influences. In the markets, you’ll find fu chanpuru (an Okinawan stir fry dish) and whole-wheat soba, which the Japanese won't touch. The ryuso robe holds on despite crowded kimono stores. The few people left who speak Uchinaguchi are praying for a movement like the Hawaiian renaissance to bring the culture back. The tipping point is close. A trip to Ishigaki now is to witness either the beginning or the end.