Known for its white sand beaches and tropical climate, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, Okinawa, also possesses a confused culinary identity. It’s a fusion of Western tastes and local ingredients that will have visitors questioning where they’ve landed.
Okinawa was occupied by the U.S. for 27 years, from the end of World War II to May 1972. Today, despite the reversion back to Japanese rule, the island still has the largest presence of U.S. forces in Japan. So it is no surprise that this overwhelming presence has shaped the culinary identity of Okinawa’s islands and resulted in a unique fusion of local and foreign influences.
American soldiers sought to make Okinawa a home away from home and brought with them iconic U.S. brands. Blue Seal ice cream arrived in 1948, originally as Foremost Ltd., the U.S. company established a factory in Tengan Military Base, Uruma, to provide dairy products to the troops. Dairy products were not commonly eaten by Okinawans, but Blue Seal’s products spread beyond the military bases as locals acquired a taste for American ice cream. Ten Blue Seal stores are now located across the island. There is no escaping its iconic blue and orange logo, displayed in every convenience store, supermarket and restaurant. These signs proudly boast that the ice cream company was “Born in America, raised in Okinawa.” The brand’s more than 30 flavors prove it, mixing ice cream with local ingredients such as shikuwasa (a local lime), Okinawan sweet potato, Okinawan salt cookies made with the local Chatan salt and ta-imo (taro) cheesecake. Blue Seal’s ice cream is loved like a local food.
Similarly, American fast-food chain A&W introduced root beer, hamburgers and curly fries to Okinawa in 1963, when it set up its first franchise outside of North America. A true American diner, it quickly became popular with locals who enjoyed the novelty of the drive-in locations where they could park their cars, order from the interphone and —while waiting for their order to be delivered — listen to the American Forces Network radio station broadcast straight from the military base. There are now 26 A&W locations across Okinawa, each branch retains the 1960’s decor and all its classic charm.
It wasn’t just the presence of American fast food that changed Okinawa’s food culture, the Occupying forces were seen as a new market and locals quickly opened restaurants catering to U.S. tastes.
Now an Okinawan institute, Mexican restaurant Tacos Mexico initially opened to meet the American troops demand for tacos. Their soft corn tortillas (¥500 for four) are made fresh, topped simply with juicy ground beef, lettuce, cheese and tomato, and served with the house salsa. Help yourself to a chilled local beer such as Orion from the fridge in the corner and enjoy the laid back atmosphere and Mexican kitsch that adorns the small dining room. This wasn’t the only restaurant that found a culinary balance between Mexico, Okinawa and America: There’s also Charlie’s Tacos, which has been running since 1956, and more than a dozen other Mexican restaurants on the island.
An American staple that has penetrated deeply into the local diet is Spam. Pork is the most common meat in the Okinawan diet with the introduction of an easy, ready to use canned product such as Spam, it quickly became a pork replacement.
The local saying that roughly translates as “Okinawan cooking begins with pig and ends with pig,” could easily have been written about Spam. According to a 2014 report by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, the annual average consumption of luncheon meat per person in Okinawa is roughly 14 cans. Even more impressive is the fact that with only 1.1 percent of the total Japanese population, Okinawa is responsible for over 90 percent of the total luncheon meat consumed in Japan.
The adoption of Spam into the local diet has been taken very seriously — it’s used in onigiri (rice balls), tempura, goya chanpuru (Okinawan stir fried dish) and miso soup.
Perhaps the most interesting juxtaposition to the overwhelming influence of America food in Okinawa is the fact that elderly Okinawans have among the lowest mortality rates in the world and enjoy what may be the world’s longest life expectancy (especially for women). This is attributed to a very specific diet, one that does not include tacos, root beer or ice cream. The average diet of a Okinawan who is over 70 includes three servings of fish per week, lots of whole grains and vegetables —including indigenous varieties — and larger servings of tofu and konbu seaweed than anywhere else in the world, according to the ongoing Okinawa Centenarian Study (OCS).
This slow food diet is one that only the centenarians seem to be benefiting from — they age slower, are less likely to get cancer or chronic diseases such as dementia or coronary heart disease. And although women on the island still have the longest average life span of any group in Japan, the figures for men are falling. Lifestyle-related illnesses such as high cholesterol and heart disease are on the rise in Okinawa.
For the generations of Okinawans born after the war, a traditional slow diet is not easy to maintain when life is moving into the fast-food lane.