by Meg Flanagan
Konnichiwa and welcome to your beautiful Okinawa military base, your island home for the next three-ish years. Okinawa, the most southern prefecture in Japan, is a gorgeous sub-tropical paradise and your new favorite duty station.
Having spent three glorious, magical years here, I can assure you that you, too, can love Okinawa and may never want to leave.
Tropical paradise in Southern Japan
You’ve landed on a sub-tropical island surrounded by turquoise waters and coral reefs. Palm trees and colorful flowers are everywhere.
Here, every day is beach day.
Bonus: you’ll eat some the best food of your life. Ramen? Check. Super-fresh sushi? They’ve got it. International cuisines from around Asia and Europe? You betcha.
Basically, Okinawa is paradise disguised as a “job.”
Trust me. You’ll love this place whether you’re into swimming, scuba, hiking, biking, running or just chilling by some water. Now that I’ve sold you on the beauty of the island, let’s deep dive into what a PCS to Oki is actually like.
The long journey to this Japanese island is worth it
Y’all. I cannot sugarcoat the stress and awfulness of the actual PCS trip to Okinawa. It’s painful as an adult traveling without children. If you have one or more young people or pets with you, this trip is really hard. Whether you’re on the military flight (also known as The Rotator, the Patriot Express, MAC flight, AMC) or hopping a commercial plane, you’re in for a long journey with multiple layovers.
If you’re on the military flight, you’ll leave from Seattle and then stop twice in mainland Japan. One stop will be slightly longer, with enough time to de-plane, grab a vending machine snack, and walk your dog. The other stop will be relatively short and you may not leave the plane here. However, both stops will feel never-ending because you’ll be absolutely exhausted.
Food options on your military flight are provided regularly but without a lot of variety. There are two to three meals plus one to three snacks available. Expect food to be edible but not abundant. Think: chow hall meals or plane food circa 1990.
You’ll want to bring:
- individual entertainment devices (in-seat entertainment isn’t a guarantee)
- extra snacks (fruit, peanut butter sandwiches, etc.)
- electronics chargers
- books, coloring materials, games, or whatever keeps your children occupied
- blankets and pillows
On commercial flights, you’ll be stopping at major flight hubs like Seoul, Hong Kong, or Tokyo. The exact stop(s) will be determined by your specific airline and flight plan. You will have access to the terminal, including airport lounges and restaurants.
You’ll still want to bring:
- electronic chargers
- non-screen entertainment for children
- blanket and travel pillow
Even though the flight is long, remember: tropical paradise awaits you at the end!
Culture shock is real when you PCS to Okinawa
You are not in America anymore even though you may be surrounded by Americans. It’s weird and takes a minute to understand and adjust. You are officially an unofficial representative of America and Americans. Your every move will be used as a benchmark of our collective behavior.
Generally, there is a friendly relationship between the Okinawan people and US troops. You’ll be greeted with smiles and kindness at almost every turn. But some interactions may be colored by past ugly actions by Americans. Be aware that some Americans have created bad blood through rudeness, causing accidents or deaths of Okinawans, committing crimes, and infringing on local land or water.
It’s important to be polite and considerate. These are the basics of existing in Japan. Culturally, people in Japan tend to act in the best interest of the community instead of the individual. Keep this in mind as you move around the island.
Japanese laws are the law
Also, while you have Status of Forces (SOFA) protection, you must follow Japanese laws.
- no drinking and driving (yes, not even one beer!)
- no speeding (not even a little bit!)
- car accidents are almost always your fault as a “professional” driver
- marijuana and other illegal-in-the-US drugs are illegal in Japan
During our time in Okinawa, there were several major incidents involving military troops or civilian DOD personnel. The consequences for those Americans were swift and severe. All personnel were dishonorably discharged and lost benefits as military consequences, and they also faced criminal penalties from the Japanese government.
Even minor incidents or events involving dependents or civilian personnel have steep penalties. Dependents faced fines and loss or SOFA status, resulting in removal from Okinawa. Civilian DoD employees lost their jobs and security clearances and faced legal repercussions.
Basically, toe the line, follow the guidance at the welcome aboard brief and you’ll be okay!
Be aware on land and sea
Speaking of the welcome brief, you’ll be going with all your dependents over age 10. Child care is provided for younger kids. The welcome brief is mandatory. Do not try to skip out. Doing so can jeopardize your smooth transition, getting a car, and other necessary events.
There’s a whole section of the brief that I think of as “everything will kill you… now go have fun!”
Basically, there are poisonous plants, poisonous snakes, and deadly sea creatures on the island. Yes, it’s overwhelming to hear everything that could potentially harm you. Let’s not forget that you’ll be hearing all of this just a few days after landing. The jet lag is real!
However, do not be alarmed. Yes, there are things out there that could potentially cause harm. But if you are careful, you can avoid most danger.
Wear felt-bottomed shoes at the beach and in the water. Don bug spray, long pants, and long sleeves when in the jungle areas. Put on sunscreen daily. Don’t eat the giant snails. Yes, that’s apparently a thing.
Getting around Okinawa military bases
You’ll need a brand new driver’s license (as long as you have one in the US and meet certain other criteria). Luckily, you take the driving test at your welcome aboard brief. The test is pretty straightforward and there are study guides available.
You will be driving on the other side of the road, just like in the UK. It will take you a few days to get used to this. Take some time and drive around the Okinawa military bases where you are staying.
There are a lot of different types of roads, from multi-lane highways to very narrow lanes. You will need to navigate all types of roads–all while driving on the other side of the road.
To optimize your chances of driving success, try to purchase the smallest vehicle that can reasonably fit your family. All vehicles that you might be considering are used. You may choose to purchase from another American or from a dealership that caters to Americans. You may find a better deal when buying from an outgoing service member.
Finding your home on Okinawa
When you move to almost any other duty station, you can look at and often select the place where you’ll be living. Except Okinawa.
Try not to freak out. Everything will work out, I promise!
You will not know whether you’ll be living on- or off-base until after your welcome aboard brief and your initial visit to the housing office. After you find out where you’ll be living, you will learn more about your housing options.
On base, you will be give at least two choices. They will be at the base or bases geographically closest to your primary military work location. Your choices could be different: an apartment and a townhouse, for example. Or two similar housing options on different bases. Or your choices could be identical: two townhouses that are side by side or two apartments in the same building or on the same floor.
Off base, you’ll be working with a housing agency to locate a home in a local neighborhood that meets your needs. Your housing agency will help guide you to finding an approved house that meets your financial needs.
Here’s what’s great about living on Okinawa
Yes, the process of getting to your Okinawa military bases, getting a car, and getting acclimated is rough stuff. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s just a blip on the radar. It feels bigger and badder than it is in the moment, mostly because you’re so stressed and jet-lagged.
Okinawa is incredible. We have lived in San Diego, the DC region, and Okinawa over the last 12 years. And I would PCS to Okinawa again in a minute.
While living there you have all of Asia to explore! All. Of. It. You can get to Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong, and all of mainland Japan in under three hours by plane. Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia are about six to eight hours away. Australia is a haul, but I’ve been told it’s worth the longer flight!
Even if international travel isn’t in your future, you’re still on a sub-tropical island in the Pacific Ocean. Without leaving Oki, you can:
- lay on the beach
- try pottery-making
- DIY glass-making
- explore castle ruins
- buy fish fresh from the ocean
- learn about an ancient warrior kingdom
- visit World War II battle locations
- eat all the ramen, udon, and Okinawa soba
- try a sushi-go-round
- shop at the Daiso
- watch a sumo match
- see the koinobori during Golden Week
- eat shave ice
- try Blue Seal ice cream
- enjoy taco rice– a local favorite
- visit the Orion beer factory
- check out Pineapple Park
- see a whale shark up close at the aquarium
- play on a women’s only, military spouse kickball team
- run to outlying islands
- visit a salt factory
- go to a Buddhist shrine with a cool cave
- road trip to cute cafes
And doing just these things is really just the tip of all the Okinawa has to offer.
Now, clearly, I’m a big fan of Okinawa. Huge. But it’s true that there are people that really dislike this Oki and would refuse to go back.
Here’s the thing: you get out of Okinawa as much as you are willing to put into Okinawa.
If you stay on base, in your Americans-only base housing neighborhood, eating only American food, and not exploring, you might be miserable and hate your time here. But if you venture off-base, if you try some of the local food, learn a few words of Japanese, and explore the incredible place you’re lucky to have landed in, you will never want to leave.
No matter what else you learn about moving to Okinawa military bases, understand that you’ve got to be brave and you’ve got to explore. Once you step out your door, there’s a whole world of wonderful experiences just waiting for you!
Meg Flanagan is a teacher, blogger and military spouse. She owns Meg Flanagan Education Solutions, an education advocacy service dedicated to serving families on the K-12 journey. You can find Meg on Facebook. Meg is also available as a freelance writer and personal education advocate!