It’s hard to think of Okinawa without conjuring up images of serene beaches, palm trees, and beautiful underwater exploration. If you visit the tropical island and follow a tour guide, you’ll likely get exactly that experience, but living there offers a different perspective. The same nature that drives people to the island does its best to destroy the facilities they enjoy.
Drive away from those sparkling beaches, hop in your rental car and drive anywhere else. Then wait to be inevitably stuck at a red light behind a rusty kei car that should have been put out of its misery years ago, and look at the buildings around you. You’ll mostly see reinforced concrete in desperate need of a pressure wash, sun-bleached commercial signs, and at least a few overgrown buildings that struggle with nature’s call to nature – many of which are still standing. used.
Okinawa receives an average of 1,817 millimeters of rainfall per year, contrasting with the Tokyo average of 1,482 millimeters. That puts Okinawa — an island almost half the size of Tokyo — at almost 20% more rain. It also happens to be the poorest prefecture in the country, so it doesn’t have the support that a metropolis like Tokyo enjoys. To top it all off, mainland Japan as a whole is hit by an average of three typhoons a year, with the island regions of the south-west being the main victims.
Okinawan? They get seven to eight.
With an environment like this, it’s no surprise that traditional Okinawan houses are surrounded by walls of coral and limestone, instead of trendy concrete. Stronger, denser limestone walls protect homes from typhoons for generations.
One of the main features of Japan that continues to shock the western world is that houses are depreciating here. This seems counter-intuitive for such a densely populated nation, where one would think housing would be a premium, and therefore more valuable. It would be if it weren’t for the fact that mother nature herself is actively trying to destroy everything we create by triggering a tsunami, earthquake, typhoon or volcano.
The answer to this harsh reality is to build wooden buildings. Flexibility is the key to strength and all that. The disadvantage of wooden structures (other than termites) is a limited lifespan, which is exacerbated by the fact that they largely exist in a humid subtropical climate. A house in Japan is expected to be worthless 20 years after it was built. Modern Okinawa houses, on the other hand, are mostly made of reinforced concrete, which can last twice as long or even longer. This means that buildings do not lose value as quickly as they would on mainland Japan.
The island found itself in the center of attention after World War II when concrete was imported in droves. As concrete is more resistant to typhoons, termites, and fires, it soon eliminated the design of wooden houses, setting Okinawa’s architecture apart from the rest of Japan.
One of the disadvantages of this type of construction, besides the limited Wi-Fi connections, is that once the temperature inside reaches more than 7°C cooler than outside, the concrete begins to sweat – yes, even buildings sweat here. This opens the doors to mold issues behind the ubiquitous textured white wallpaper. It doesn’t stay white for long.
In addition to this, you also have to worry about organisms growing outside the house. With the plentiful rains and year-round growing season, plants have no problem transitioning from innocent weeds to mini jungles – home to cockroaches, lizards and bats. And it’s not just mold, plants, and animals trying to take over: the humidity also matches the high levels of salt in the air due to Okinawa’s ocean environment. You’d think rust was a building material if you didn’t know better.
However, not everything is bad: perhaps the salt that is so good for skin and food but so bad for modern architecture has something to do with the incredibly long lives of Okinawans. There are over 400 centenarians in Okinawa, and it’s probably not the awamori to blame. At the other end of the spectrum, Okinawa has the highest percentage of children per capita, almost double that of Tokyo. Coupled with one of the longest life expectancies in the world, there might be something to this overgrown island life after all.