Okinawa («ê§, Okinawa-ken) is Japan's southernmost prefecture, consisting of a few dozen, small islands in the southern half of the Nansei Shoto, the island chain which stretches over about one thousand kilometers from Kyushu to Taiwan.
Okinawa Prefecture can be divided into three major island groups, the Okinawa Islands (Okinawa Shoto) around Okinawa Island (Okinawa Honto), the Miyako Islands (Miyako Retto) around Miyako Island and the Yaeyama Islands (Yaeyama Retto) around Ishigaki Island.
Okinawa's climate is subtropical, with temperatures barely falling below 15 degrees in winter. The seas surrounding Okinawa's islands are considered among the world's most beautiful with coral reefs and abundant marine wildlife. Consequently, snorkeling and scuba diving are among Okinawa's top attractions.
The islands making up Okinawa Prefecture, are also known as the Ryukyu Islands, named after the native culture, which is distinctly different from that of the rest of Japan in terms of language, cuisine, arts, etc.
An independent kingdom and tributary state to China for several centuries, the Ryukyu Islands came under control of the Satsuma feudal fief (today's Kagoshima Prefecture) in the 17th century, and were made a Japanese prefecture in 1879, accompanied by efforts to assimilate the native population. But despite these past efforts, the Ryukyuan culture survived and is now Okinawa's other main attraction.
Towards the end of World War Two, Okinawa became the stage of one of the war's bloodiest battles, when American troops invaded the islands. Okinawa remained under US administration until 1972, while several thousands of US military members remain stationed on the spacious and controversial US military bases on Okinawa Main Island today.