Kyushu Region

Outline of Kyushu

The Kyushu Region includes the westernmost areas of Japan, and it consists of eight prefectures: Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Oita, Miyazaki, Kagoshima, and Okinawa.

Location of the Kyushu Region (九州地方の位置)

Roughly speaking, the Kyushu Region can be divided into two parts: One is the main island of Kyushu, the third largest of Japan’s four biggest islands, and the many small islands immediately surrounding it, most of which are concentrated on its western side; the other is a lengthy southern island chain extending from the southern coastal waters of Kyushu’s main island almost to the waters off of Taiwan.

Map of the Nansei Islands, including Okinawa, Japan. (沖縄と南西諸島の地形)
Okinawa and other southern islands in the Kyushu Region.

It spans over 1,000 km and is collectively called the Nansei Islands, which actually consists of five different island groups: They are, in the order from the northeast to the southwest, the Osumi Islands, the Tokara Islands, the Amami Islands, the Okinawa Islands, and the Sakishima Islands. Administratively, the former three belong to Kagoshima Prefecture and the latter two belong to Okinawa Prefecture.

Odon Beach on the island of Amami-oshima(奄美大島の尾鈍海水浴場)
Odon beach on the island of Amami-oshima.

Climate of Kyushu

The Kyushu Region generally gets a lot of rainfall, mainly because of the southern seasonal wind that blows in summer, bringing a mass of humid air. In particular, the rainy season, beginning in June (in May in Okinawa), sometimes means a cloudburst, which, in the worst cases, can lead to serious disasters entailing floods, landslides, and mudslides.

A view from Oranda-zaka, Nagasaki(長崎オランダ坂からの眺め)
A view from Oranda-zaka, Nagasaki.

When we speak of the winter climate on Kyushu’s main island (here, excluding Okinawa and its surrounding archipelagoes), we can say that it is relatively warm. This is mainly thanks to the two warm ocean currents that pass nearby: Kuroshio (Japan Current) to the south and the Tushima Current to the north. But if you visit here in winter for the first time from Tokyo, for example, you might be a little disappointed to find that it is not as warm as you expected it to be. At any rate, the winter temperatures of Kyushu’s main island are higher than those of Tokyo, but not that much higher.

Map of Kyushu, Japan (九州の地形)
Seven Prefectures on the main island of Kyushu.

The winter climate is slightly different even within the main island of Kyushu. And this climatic difference is mainly caused by its two big mountain ranges: the Kyushu Mountains and the Tsukushi Mountains. Called the “Roofs of Kyushu,” the Kyushu Mountains are dominant at the center of the main island, running from the northeast to the southwest. Some of its peaks exceed 1,500m in height, and the tallest one is Mt. Sobo at 1,756m. The Tsukushi Mountains run east-west across the northern part of Kyushu’s main island. But these mountains are not as high and steep as the Kyushu Mountains.

the city of Fukuoka and Hakata Bay from Atago Shrine in winter. (冬の福岡市)
Overlooking the city of Fukuoka and Hakata Bay from Atago Shrine in winter.

In winter, a humid seasonal wind blows from the northwest toward Kyushu. And, according to meteorologists, when it hits these central mountains, thick clouds form on the windward side. That is why the cities of Fukuoka and Kitakyushu in northern Kyushu (located on the northern side of these central mountains), for example, have a lot of cloudy days in winter, sometimes accompanied with the occasional snowfall. However, once the wind crosses these mountains, it brings dry air to the leeward side. So, the city of Miyazaki in southeast Kyushu, for example, enjoys a lot of dry and sunny days in winter.

A view of a fishing village in Miyazaki Prefecture. (宮崎県の漁村)
A winter landscape of Meitsu fishing town in Nichinan City, Miyazaki.

On the other hand, if you visit Okinawa in winter from the other areas of Japan, perhaps you will notice that it really is “warm.” Average winter temperatures in Naha City, the capital of Okinawa Prefecture, far exceed those in Tokyo.

History of Okinawa

Okinawa has a completely different history from the other seven prefectures located on the Kyushu main island. First of all, it was not part of Japan until the late 19th century. The area centered around the present-day Okinawa Islands was once governed by an independent nation called the Ryukyu Kingdom. Established in 1429, the kingdom developed through the intermediate trade connecting Japan, China, and other Asian countries, and a unique culture flourished there. But in 1609, it succumbed to the power of the Satsuma Domain of Japan, which included most of present-day Kagoshima Prefecture, and after the abolishment of the kingdom in 1872, it was eventually incorporated into Japan as Okinawa Prefecture in 1879.

The Main Hall at Shuri Castle taken in May 1945(戦前の首里城)
The Main Hall at Shuri Castle. Photo taken in May 1945 before the bombardment during the World War Two destroys it (Photo: Courtesy of the Okinawa Prefectural Archives).

Today, if you visit the site of Shuri Castle or other historical ruins that dot the Okinawa main island, you might be able to imagine some of the past glories of the Ryukyu Kingdom. In fact, all of these historical sites related to the kingdom were registered as UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2000 under the name “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu.”

The site of Shuri Castle in Okinawa (首里城)
A view from Shuri Castle, with the city of Naha and the East China Sea in the distance.

Okinawa’s hardships continued even into the 20th century. The Battle of Okinawa, which was fought between the United States and the Imperial Japanese Army from April to June in 1945, turned out to be one of the biggest and fiercest battles of World War Two. Not only the combatants from both sides but also a considerable number of local Okinawans were caught up in ground battles and lost their lives.

the battle of Okinawa in 1945 (1945年の沖縄戦)
US Marines going up to the front for the final battle on Okinawa on June 3, 1945 (Photo: Courtesy of the Okinawa Prefectural Archives).

For a little more than two decades after the war, the Okinawa Islands were occupied by the United States until they were eventually returned to Japanese control on May 15, 1972. But even today, a large portion of the land in Okinawa is still used as U.S. military bases, exerting a strong influence on the local industries as well as the lives of local residents.

Military ceremony in May 1972 at the US base in Naha, Okinawa (沖縄返還)
Military ceremony in May 1972 at the US base in Naha, Okinawa (Photo: Courtesy of the Okinawa Prefectural Archives).

In this way, Okinawa went through many difficulties, and this complicated history makes Okinawa different among the prefectures of Kyushu. People in Okinawa have been well aware of this and that is why the Kyushu Region is sometimes referred to as the Kyushu-Okinawa Region.

Photographs: Properties of Unfamiliar Japan,
unless otherwise noted.