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Inbound tourism, the act of foreign travellers coming to one’s country to travel, has been gradually increasing in Japan in recent years. Japan’s cultural history, technological wonders, and unmatched hospitality harmoniously fuse to create this phenomenon. Millions of tourists from all over the world visit Japan each year because of its vibrant culture, rich history, and varied landscapes. Tokyo and Kyoto have long been favored tourist destinations. However, Okinawa Prefecture has emerged as one of Japan’s most remarkable travel spots, offering visitors a unique and captivating experience. But what made it a tourist base in Japan, and how much has it influenced the nation’s tourist development policies?

The Tourist System in Japan

The tourist phenomenon in Japan dates back further than the beginnings of Westernization in the 19th century. As in most foreign countries, the first tourist practices in Japan took the form of pilgrimages made by several emperors between the 7th and 12th centuries, revealing high places of Japanese culture. When the nation’s capital was set at Nara, sites like Yoshino attracted a growing number of pilgrims.

Japanese Pilgrimage

Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

From the Edo era, the compulsory migration system for feudal lords in the direction of the capital moved to Edo, which led to the development of five main roads, and a network called Gokaido. At that time, the migrations between the new capital in the east and the old capital in the west, between which are located significant places of worship such as the Ise temple, democratized. 

Image Credit: Origami Japan

Modernization in the Meiji Era

As a result, hostels are set up along the main roads, and whole districts, called shukuba-machi (or monzenmachi, near the places of worship), are gaining momentum thanks to the arrival of pilgrims. Services to travellers in these places include meals included in the accommodation, homestay accommodation quarters by monks, associations of pilgrims, associations of restaurateurs, and even prostitution. Tourism practices in Japan are therefore the result of a double process of secularization and democratization of pilgrimages as well as therapeutic stays towards hot springs. Tourist areas were once concentrated in the Kansai region, around the Kyôto-Ise-Kumano triptych, which is home to important religious sites. However, migrations then affected the entire Japanese territory, which at the time consisted of the islands of Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku.

The Meiji era, marked by the forced opening of the country to foreigners and the rapid Westernization of techniques and social practices in Japan, will see the appearance of a more modern version of tourism.

Tourism Development in the Okinawa Prefecture

Okinawa is the most representative space of the tourist phenomenon in Japan, at least outside the Golden Route (a popular tourist itinerary from Kyoto to Tokyo, following the Tokaido Road). From the point of view of international tourism, Okinawa is experiencing the strongest growth in the country. The tourism developments taking place in Okinawa have a noticeable resonance across the whole country.

It is because of the phenomenon called “nationalized exoticism”, that tourism developed between the 1920s and 1940s. The first phase of implementation of tourism in Okinawa was then triggered by the modernization and increase in services between mainland France and Okinawa, by organizing the first package tours by the same society, not to mention an increase in publications describing the culture of Okinawa.

Image Credit: Kadena Air Base


From Pilgrimage Tours to a Thriving Economic Sector

In January 1960, a second phase of tourism began. It was initiated by the resumption of visits by metropolitans to Okinawa, with the main aim of reflecting on the graves of soldiers who died during the Battle of Okinawa. The offer begins with tourist bus tours for pilgrimages to the remnants of war in the southern part of the main island, called Nanbu, to later develop in the capital, Naha, around the Kokusai Dôri, the main shopping street.

Image Credit: Mapcarta

After the Retrocession of 1972, came the first period of massive construction of hotels around 1975, notably in Naha, Motobu, and Nago. In three years, the triple accommodation capacity. To encourage private investment in the hotel industry, the State is setting up a tax exemption scheme, called the Resort Law – which we will develop in the fourth chapter – based on calls for projects launched with local authorities.

The hotel industry, therefore, stands out as the central activity of the tourist sector in Okinawa. The monopoly situation of large hotels (more than 100 beds) was caused by the massive construction of resort-type hotels. In 2010, these establishments were concentrated near major urban centers (Nanbu, Nago) and near American bases. From these elements, we find that tourism is rapidly becoming the first economic sector of Okinawa.

International Travel to Okinawa Through the Years

Okinawa has long served as a key location for East Asian trade and cultural exchange. The Ryukyu Kingdom, which included the Okinawa islands, began conducting marine trade with China, Korea, and other nearby nations as early as the 14th century. This thriving trading network promoted cross-cultural and business connections, which boosted the island’s cosmopolitan vibe. The upshot was that Okinawa’s distinctive fusion of local traditions and foreign influences established the foundation for its eventual attraction as a cultural melting pot for tourists.

Image Credit: Vintage Everyday


However, Okinawa’s foreign tourism did not start to thrive until the years succeeding World War II. Following the Battle of Okinawa in World War II, the area was governed by the United States for several years. In addition to exposing Okinawa to a variety of cultures, the American military presence on the island brought a steady flow of foreign servicemen and their families, increasing demand for tourism-related services. The growth of hotels, restaurants, and other services catering to international preferences was driven by this influx of tourists from the United States and other nations.

From Japanese Control to Cultural Heritage

Japan’s formal return of Okinawa in 1972 increased mainland Japanese travel to the island. Okinawa’s infrastructure has benefited from investments made by the Japanese government, which recognized the islands’ potential as a tourism destination and made it simpler for foreign visitors to reach the islands. The region’s appeal as a vacation destination was considerably increased by the construction of airports, motorways, and contemporary resorts.

Image Credit: GW Today

Additionally, promoting Okinawa’s distinctive cultural history became a priority in drawing tourists from abroad. Travellers were treated to a unique experience by the old Ryukyuan culture, which was separate from that of mainland Japan. Traditional Ryukyuan dances, music, and handicrafts including ceramics and textiles were popular tourist destinations that highlighted the rich historical history of the Ryukyu Kingdom. 

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The historical sites, such as Shuri Castle, which was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, were also marvelled at by visitors.

Influence of Local and Foreign Tourism

Tourism has left an indelible mark on the culture of Okinawa. Visitors’ exposure to many cultures fostered a culture of tolerance and understanding among the local populace. It inspires Okinawans to uphold their cultural traditions while embracing outside influences. The combined impact of domestic and international tourism has been crucial in forming Okinawa’s culture, economics, and general identity.

Image Credit: Japan Guide

Local tourism has been a prominent factor in Okinawa’s tourism economy for many years. It is driven mainly by domestic travelers from mainland Japan. Therefore, Japanese tourists looking for a retreat from the rush of city life now have easy access to the area. It is thanks to its proximity to the mainland and improved transit infrastructure.

Naha Tug-of-War Festival

Image Credit: Visit Okinawa Japan

Okinawa’s Rich Cultural Heritage

Various festivals, dance performances, and crafts highlight the islands’ traditional Ryukyuan culture, which is distinct from that of mainland Japan. This has made the islands one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Locals and tourists alike can experience the area’s rich historical past. Through events like the Naha Tug-of-War and the Shuri Castle Festival.

Okinawa’s traditional arts, festivals, and historical sites attract foreign visitors looking for an authentic cultural experience. However, the region’s distinctive culture has developed into a conduit for cross-cultural communication. It promotes understanding between residents and visitors from abroad.

Image Credit: Map It! Okinawa

International tourism has also encouraged Okinawa to improve its English language offerings and cater to the needs of foreign travellers. English-speaking staff, translation services, and multilingual signage are becoming common in tourist destinations. Ensuring that foreign visitors feel comfortable and at home during their stay.

Tourism has significantly impacted Okinawa, Japan, changing the region’s culture, economics, and reputation worldwide. With a captivating experience that combines tradition and modernity. Okinawa has established itself as a top destination for tourists. Therefore there is a harmonious coexistence of these two forms of tourism. With careful management and environmentally friendly procedures, Okinawa’s appeal is certain to enthral tourists for many years to come.