Language, Culture & Traditions


During the Ryukyu Kingdom era Okinawa gave birth to a rich and distinctive culture, which is quite different to that of mainland Japan. The history, and subsequently the art and culture of Okinawa, have been strongly affected by overseas influences unlike anywhere else in Japan. Through trade with China, Japan, Korea and other Southeast Asian countries in the Ryukyu era, Okinawa’s unique culture and traditions reflect a dynamic mix of characteristics and influences from various countries. The traditional performing arts of Okinawa are quite diverse, ranging from dance to music and plays. Many of these arts originate from a time when Okinawa prospered as the Ryukyu Kingdom, and have since been passed down through history to the present day. Here is an introduction to Okinawa’s traditional performing arts, which have evolved independently while also being influenced by ancient Chinese and Japanese cultures and customs.

Traditional Arts


Okinawan pottery, known for its colors and craftsmanship and referred to as yachimun in Okinawan language, are a functional and elegant part of everyday life on the islands. Introduced from China, and believed to have a history of about 800 years, the unique style of Yachimun is the result combining various ceramic influences from across South-East Asia. With designs predominantly based on patterns and colors found in Okinawan nature - both ocean and plant life - they exude the Okinawan vibe by presenting and aesthetic beauty that matches the surrounding physical beauty on which it is based.

Ryukyu Glass

Ryukyu Glass came to prominence after the war, when resources were scarce and locals began reusing discarded empty glass coca-cola and juice bottles from the US military to make cups, and other daily necessities. The art of Ryukyu galss making has become refined over time, and today, they are considered highly artistic pieces. Often thick and unevenly formed, Ryukan glassware is designed to reflect Okinawa’s cultural landscape, incorporating unique designs and vivid colors reminscent of the island's natural landscape and beauty.


Kijoka-bashōfu is the Japanese craft of making cloth from the bashō, or banana plant fibre. Most suitable for the Okinawan environment, as it does not stick to the skin and allows for air flow in hot weather, basho is also well known for its durability, and was traditionally worn by by both the common people to the warrior class. Over 40 leaves of the basho tree are used to make the thread needed to weave one standard roll, and because the work is done entirely by hand, it requires skilled technique and patience. While it is still popular in the prodction of summer kimonos, it is also widely used to make souvenier products such as accessories and bags.


Okinawa Bingata is a traditional dyed craft in Okinawa. In Japanese kanji, “Bingata” is “紅型.” “紅” can be read as colours, and “型” read as patterns. Combining stencil dyeing techniques from China with hand dyeing skills from Kyoto, various textiles are coloured with distinct and vibrant pigments and plant material. First produced in the 13th century, many Bingata were lost during World War II however, efforts to revive the craft were successful and Bingata was formally designated as a Traditional Craft Product in 1984. Bingata are easily recognizable by their bright, bold patterns and distinct imagery reflecting the natural beauty of the island region.


Often likened to a banjo, the Sanshin is one of the most prominent Okinawan performing instruments and consists of a snakeskin-covered body, neck and three strings. Believed to have been imported from China to the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 16th century, the sound of sanshin is still commonly heard daily around the islands even today, with it being said that every house in Okinawa has at least one sanshin! Originally used for court music, the sanshin is now regularly played in homes and is a staple of festival music - being played in Okinawan Traditional Dance and folk songs. More recently, it has also played a prominent role in Okinawan rock and pop music.

Traditional Performing Arts


The Kumiodori is a musical theater composed of words, music and dance. Created in the 18th century to entertain Chinese envoys sent by the Emperor to crown the new king of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Kumiodori is based on Okinawa’s indigenous fables and takes inspiration from Mainland Japanese performance arts suchs as Noh and Kabuki. In 1972, Kumiodori was designated a National Important Intangible Cultural Property as one of Japan’s superior performing arts, showcasing Okinawa's beauty and tradtions to the outside world.

Ryukyu Dance

Ryukyu dance can be categorized into Traditional Dance, Zo Dance and Creative Dance, all of which offer diverse performances and wow audiences with fascinating and extravagent stage shows. The dances performed for Chinese envoys during the era of the Ryukyu Kingdom typify traditional performances. Zo Dance adopts the music and culture of the common people and expresses the daily lives and feelings of ordinary citizens, while Creative Dance is ever evolving and choreographed by modern dancers. Originally performed only by men, since the Meiji era females have performed.

Folk Entertainment

Primarily originating and centering around seasonal and agricultural events - the harvesting of rice, giving thanks for the crops, and festivals to pray for abundant harvests - Folk Entertainment in Okinawa has been passed down through generations. The main forms of folk entertainment are Eisa; folk dances performed by young people during the Bon festival to honor the spirits of their ancestors, and Shishimai; the "Lion Dance" introduced from China and performed to expel evil and pray for productivity of grain and prosperity of a region. During the lunar Obon festival, eisa dances are prominently performed on the streets across Okinawa as part of festival parades.


Karate is the sport that Okinawa proudly calls its own. Thought to have originated in Okinawa, the history of Karate can be traced back to the era of the Ryukyu Kingdom, when it’s believed the Kenpo style was introduced from China. Okinawans incorporated Kenpo into their own indigenous traditions, eventually evolving it into karate and later sharing it with the rest of Japan and the world. The island region is home to many dojo and regular international tournaments and seminars are held in Okinawa. Karate Day is celebrated annually on October 25, the same day that the martial art was given its official name in 1936.

Fun Facts!

Unique Language
The indigenous languages spoken during the Ryukyuan Kingdom era are called the Ryukyuan Languages, and their variations and dialects were spoken in the entire region before the annexation to Japan. Today, the official language is Japanese. The standardised amd modernised Ryukyuan Language, called "Uchina-guchi" is also smoken among elders. A hybrid of Japanese and Okinawan lanhuage, known as Okinawan Japanese, is also widely spoken.

Why not test yourself on your travels and try some of these Okinawan phrases when interacting with the locals!

English Japanese Okinawan Japanese
Welcome! Yokoso! (ようこそ!) Mensooree! (めんそーれー)
Hello Konnichiwa! (こんにちは) Haisai! (はいさい) / Haitai! (はいたい)
Goodbye Sayounara! (さようなら) Guburii Sabira (ぐぶりーさびら)
Good morning Ohayo Gozaimasu (おはようございます) Ukimisoochii (起きみそーちー)
Good night Oyasumi nasai (おやすみなさい) Uyukuimisooree (う憩いみそーれー)
Nice to meet you Hajimemashite (はじめまして) Hajimiti wuganabira (初みてぃ拝なびら)
How are you? Ogenki desuka? (お元気ですか?) Ganjuu yami? (頑丈やみ?)
Long time no see! Ohisashiburi! (久しぶり) Nageesayaa! (長ーさやー)
Cheers! Kampai! (乾杯!) Karii! (嘉例)
Bon appetit! (Before Meal) Ittadakimasu (いただきます) Kwatchiisabira! (くゎっち一さびら)
Bon appetit! (After Meal) Gochisousamadeshita (ごちそうさまでした) Kwatchiisabiitan! (くゎっち一さび一たん)
Yes Hai (はい) Uu (うう)
No Iie (いいえ) Wuuwuu (をぅうをぅう)
Excuse me Summimasen (すみません) Guburii Sabura (ぐぶりいさぶら)
Sorry Gommenasai (ごめんなさい) Wassaibin (悪さいびーん)
Thank you Arigato Gozaimasu (ありがとうございます) Nifee deebiiru (御拝でーびーる)

The term yuntaku is Okinawan for "chit-chat" - however it is more commonly used to describe social interactions such as communication between guests at a minshuku, or at a drinking party. If you get the chance to visit a place where yuntaki us encouraged, alcoholic drinks are passed around after dinner. Guests spontaneously group up and drink together, and people sing along with sanshin. These events often occur night after night and being able to enjoy them is one of the real pleasures of travelling to Okinawa!