Okinawa, Japan Report of what it's like to live there - 07/22/21
Personal Experiences from Okinawa, Japan
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No, I've also live in Spain, France, Germany, and England.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
When we left for Okinawa we had a transfer in Chicago. I think the flight was about 14 hours from Chicago to Japan but I don't remember exactly. We then transferred in Tokyo and that flight was about 2 or 3 hours. I am not sure of the exact times now.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
My house was pretty large. We had four bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, a large living room, and a separate laundry room. We had to drive to the Air Force in Kadena and that could take 20 to 45 minutes depending on the traffic. If you are part of DOD your house is tied to how much money you are entitled to according to rank and family size. If you are on active duty you will probably live on base. If you are civilian with DOD you will live off base. The housing companies know how much everyone gets for housing depending on rank so they will charge you accordingly. It is a lot cheaper for the japanese. It is different for contractors who don't have a housing allowance but you need to let the housing agency know that you they can give you a cheaper price. I am not sure how it works for consulate workers.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
If you are able to buy food on base prices are similar to the states except for fruit and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are extremely expensive on base. When I mean expensive I really mean it. I bought most of my fruits and vegetables off base and I was able to do okay. Forget about eating strawberries and watermelon unless you want to break the bank but you can eat other fruits at a good price. We ate a lot of bananas and pineapples that we bought in the supermarket called BIG. I would pay less than two dollars for pineapple and a dollar for four bananas. Those were the main fruits I ate since every other was really expensive. We bought our vegetables in the farmers market or in BIG and we did ok. We eat tons of veggies and as long as you buy what is on sale (cucumbers, daikon. cabbage, onions, potatoes, carrots at times peppers). I spent less on vegetables in Japan but I picked what was on sale. Fruit is extremely expensive. They have stores call Daiso which mainly sell things for a dollar and they will become your favourite.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
If you are tied to DOD somehow you will be able to purchase in the base so you will be able to buy almost anything you want. If you love certain brands then you might want to buy them but you can buy through Amazon. If you are not tied to the military then probably you want to bring the sauces that you like, cereal, condiments, make-up since a lot of their beauty creams have whitening components and not everyone likes that. Rice is expensive there but it is good. They have a limited variety of cereal so if you need to have a specific kind you might want to bring it.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
We did not eat out a lot but they have all sorts of restaurants and delivery options. Since the pandemic started more businesses are doing delivery. I like McDonald's better in Japan but the sizes are smaller. You will be able to find most types of food you like. On base, they have Charlie's sandwiches I think, subway, burger king, taco bell, pizza hut, one of the Chinese food franchises, Popeyes, Baskin Robbins, all you can eat at the club, and many other options.
Off base has domino, KFC, Mcdonalds, they have Mexican, Italian, Thai food, lots of burger places, pancake places, and lots of ramen and sushi places. You will love it.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Yes, we had a lot of issues with ants, geckos, and some caterpillars, which can be venomous, would be in the walls outside. We had some African snails which are problematic too outside in the yard.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
I used the mailing system on base. We did not order much on amazon but people on base seemed to love it.
There are post offices off base where you can send letters and packages as well but I am not sure how expensive they were. People off base order from amazon japan or from some online Chinese stores which are pretty cheap. Most people in Okinawa don't speak English so get used to using your google translate.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is not cheap so most people only get a few hours a month.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
If you are working there through DOD as an active duty, civilian, or contractor you will have access to the gyms that are great. They have all sorts of classes and most of them are free unless in the army base. There are outdoor swimming pools on most of the bases and some of them are open all year long even when cold.
I have not used any of the options off base for adults so I would not know.
I enrolled my kids in sports. On-base prices are comparable to the States and they have about all sports you would have in the States. There are waiting lists in gymnastics and ballet so you want to get on those right away.
I put them in some Japanese sports but you need to speak Japanese and they are more intensive. Soccer was four times a week and karate was twice a week. You can do gymnastics four times a week and it is cheaper than in the states. It is hard to find places that speak English. You can choose to only do it twice a week but Japanese take the sports seriously. They love baseball and practice almost every day of the week.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
I was able to pay with my credit card in supermarkets and some restaurants but a lot of places only accept cash. There is an envelope system that you need to get used to. I had to pay school and so on with an envelope where I would put my cash.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Catholic, nondenominational. I am not sure what else is available. Buddhist.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
It was hard to find Japanese that spoke English or felt comfortable speaking English so I found myself using Google translate a lot. Even at the airport, it was hard to find staff that spoke english.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Depending on the disability since you would need to speak Japanese for some of the services. The base has some services but depending of the disability it might be hard to find. There is a therapy clinic, called TELL, off base where most of the therapists are American.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
We used the bus a few times only. They were average price. We bought a cheap used car and drove everywhere.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
We bought one there for 2000 dollars. Due to the typhoons, heavy rain, you might not want to bring your own. My car got full of mold while we were on leave.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
it did not take long and it was good.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I did not keep our American and got a Japanese. I did not have a lot of issues other than the notifications being in Japanese.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
They had on and off base. I did not have pets so I did not use.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
It is hard to find a job off base since you need to speak Japanese. If you find a job in an international school you will need to pay taxes. If you are a sofa holder and work off base I think the rate is 28 percent but I can not remember the exact rate. There are jobs on base for civilian or contractors.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Some people volunteer at the animal shelters. I volunteered by reading English to the kids at school once a week. I went into the school and offered and that is how I got in.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Japan is conservative so for work you are expected to dress professionally. Japan is not very keen on tattoos so there are places where people with tattoos can not enter and in some places they need to be covered. It is changing and you see more Japanese with tattoos.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
I have never felt safer for me and my kids.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
If you are linked to the base somehow there is great medical. if you are not part of the DOD then you would have to use off base. I had no issues other than not understanding what they were saying which can be challenging. Off-base is a lot cheaper. I went to ER in the middle of the night and they did different tests and paid only 300 dollars so that was great.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
There is a lot of mold so you need to be vigilant in the home or cars. We were extremely careful and yet we needed mold in both places. My daughter has eczema and I was told that it is one of the worst places for people with ezcema. Some people have issues with allergies there.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
I don't have allergies so I did not have to worry much about this.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Most of the people I met were happier because of the sun and being able to be outdoors so much. Beaches everywhere. Off base, there is a clinic called TELL that sees English speaking and whose therapists are mainly American. There are other clinics but are smaller. There are limited services for autism.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
I was surprised that it actually gets pretty cold in winter. It is very humid and hot during the summer.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
If you are linked to DOD you will probably attend schools on the base which are great and have lots of sports and extra curriculum activities. If you are a contractor with DOD you might have to pay yourself for the school which can be very expensive. Some of my friends had to pay and it was over 20,000 dollars a year. There are a couple of international schools. I know a lot of kids that went to Okinawa Christian School and loved it. I think it is pricey around 800 to 1000 dollars a month per kid but I could be wrong. My kids were small so I put them in a Japanese public school which was great. Enrolling the kids can be challenging so you might want to hire a translator to do so.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
On base, they would do similarly that in the States. I am not sure of international schools and public Japanese schools.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
They have a few international preschools but I am not sure of the price. I put mine in a Japanese one.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
If you are affiliated with the base there are lots of activities. My kids went to the Brazilian soccer club and loved it. My daughter also did dance and gymnastics on base and loved it but there was a long waiting list. The base has about everything. Off base, they also have lots of activities. If you go to an international school they do have most sports. If you go to Japanese public schools they also have a lot but they speak in Japanese and expect high attendance. Some of the sports are practiced four times a week for two hours a day. They love baseball and soccer. There are a few gymnastics places off base. The ones that are run by Americans work as if they were in America but the japanese ones expect kids to practice a lot more.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Most of my friends absolutely loved it because they went exploring all the time and visited the beach a lot. If you don't explore you might get island fever but if you start venturing out you will love it!!!
There are many American bases so there are a lot of expats. I am not sure how many are from other countries. There is a big university called OIST and I think a lot of the people are expects.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
I think it is hard to socialize with Japanese because of the language barrier. I was lucky and socialized a lot because I put my kids in Japanese public school so a lot of their friends were Japanese. I also put them in a local Japanese club so that helped a lot. I volunteered in the school and got to meet a lot of the mothers and fathers which I loved even when I had to use google translate. I love Japanese people so if you have a chance to mingle do it. Japanese are private but i have made amazing friends there.
It is easy to socialize with other ex-pats if you have kids or you have some hobbies. People meet at church or through kids. Some people do sports together such as biking clubs and so on. You do need to come out of your shell and try new things.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
There are a lot of clubs and many opportunities to meet.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Language is the main barrier. I did not have any issues and met lots of local people because my kids went to Japanese public school, local karate with Japanese kids, and I volunteered at the school. I have a biological kid who is white and an adopted daughter who is a pacific islander and we did not experience any issues at all. We felt very welcome.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
I did not experience any. Husband white, me Hispanic, kids white an Pacific Islander. We felt extremely welcome and loved.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
I loved every second of my time there. I could live there forever.
I loved the Japanese culture of mindfulness and caring for others. I love how honest Japanese culture is and the low crime rate. I felt so at ease at parks and supermarkets when kids ran away which at times do. I loved hiking the hills or mountains and visiting all the amazing beaches. I loved trying all the different foods. We travelled also to many Asian countries while we were there which was a plus. I could go on and on about how much I loved my little island. My kids feel the same way. Of all the places we have lived and it has been a lot Okinawa is my favourite,
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Hiking, beaches, travel to other countries through the cheap airlines when covid settles.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Ceramic and glass mainly but it is pretty expensive. You can fly to Thailand easily and buy all you can not buy in Japan. At times you can fly one way to Thailand for 60 dollars.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
At first, I did not think it was beautiful because the buildings are grey due to so much rain. I expected japan to be really modern and that was not my experience in Okinawa. I do love it though and would not change it a bit.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Be prepared to fight mold. Beaches have dangerous creatures so you have to wear some special boots for the water. Most people wont speak english.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
In a heartbeat.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Fancy clothes, high heels,
4. But don't forget your:
Flip-flops, sunscreen, appetite, and desire for adventure.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
You can find many videos in youtube that will give you an idea of what to expect.
6. Do you have any other comments?
I love this place so my review might be biased.