Located in the southernmost, westernmost part of Japan, the Okinawan archipelago extends east and west 1000 kilometers and north and south 400 kilometers. It is composed of 160 small and large islands, 50 of which are populated. Only part of Japan located in the subtropical zone. The kingdom of Ryukyu ruled for 450 years, from 1429, when the first Sho dynasty was founded by Sho Hashi, to 1879, when the Meiji government made Okinawa a prefecture of Japan and ended the second Sho dynasty. From the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, Ryukyu made use of its advantageous geographical position and flourished from vigorous trade with China and Southeast Asia. Under the influence of its overseas trading partners, textiles, lacquerware, ceramics, and performing arts developed to shape Okinawa's distinctive culture.
At the end of World War II, Okinawa became the scene of a battle fought on Japanese soil between Japan and Allied troops. The island was occupied by the United States at the end of the war, but reverted to Japanese sovereignty in 1972. U.S. military bases cover 11 % of the total territory of Okinawa. The major industries are in the tertiary sector, mainly tourism. Pop.: approx. 1,325,000 (2001).