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Photo: TARUMI Kengo

There is a saying, “In Okinawa, no part of the pig is thrown away except its grunts.” But even the grunting sound wasn’t thrown away in the past.

“For children, New Year’s is associated with ‘eating pork,’ and the gwaei; the cry the pig makes while it’s being bled whets the appetite” (Seibin Shimabukuro, Okinawa no Buta to Yagi1, 1989).

Every farm household had a pigsty, and once a year they used to slaughter a pig for the New Year’s celebration. Thus even the cries of the pig were used as a powerful stimulus for the appetite. 

Nowadays, you can hardly see pigs being raised in individual homes, but the fondness that the Okinawan people have for pork is still out of the ordinary. The quickest way to confirm this with your own eyes is to visit the Public Market in Naha. 

The butchers are all lined up in one mesmerizing row. Here, various parts of the pig are sold. The Chiragā is the skin that has been peeled off of a pig’s face. This is sliced thinly and used as an ingredient mixed with vinegar or other sauces and sometimes vegetables to make a dish called mimiga sashimi2

The foot below the knee (chimagū) is heaped in a mountainous pile. The leg is cut into random-sized pieces and boiled for a long time in fish broth (katsuo dashi). Then kombu3 pieces tied in knots and daikon radish are thrown in to make ashitibichi. This gelatinous stew that melts in the mouth is a favorite among Okinawans, so much so that there are even restaurants that specialize in making this dish.

The sanmainiku with the skin (the cut that bacon is made from) is left in a big lump. This is cut into squares and boiled for a long time in fish broth with sugar, soy sauce, awamori, and sweet sake added for taste to make rafutē which is the most symbolic pork dish of Okinawa. It is so soft that you can easily stick your chopsticks clean through the meat. Rafutē also uses the pork shoulder loin with the skin left on.

Stomach and intestines. The typical dish that uses this part is the nakami soup. You clean the organs thoroughly with water and boil them with ginger or the skin of bergamot to get rid of the smell. After washing it again, you make the soup with bonito broth.

Spareribs. You make soup with the sōki (sparerib). Noodles with this simmered sparerib soup, sōki soba, have been a recent popular dish.

Blood. You fry it with pork belly, daikon radish, and other vegetables to make blood irichī. This dish has become a food for special events. 

Finally, there is a large cut of red meat suitable for tonkatsu, of course. Besides that, this meat can be used to make high-end gourmet dishes such as minudaru, which is pork loin crusted with black sesame seeds and steamed, and inamuduchi, which consists of sanmainiku in a soybean paste soup miso soup. It is clear to see that Okinawa’s pork dishes are truly diverse and varied. 

However, pork was not eaten often in Okinawa historically, even though it was so much loved. In fact, people would turn their heads attentively whenever a “pig” was mentioned. Pork was definitely a rare delicacy.

There is a word, Wāsōgwachi, which can be translated as “Pig New Year’s.” Among farmers, a pig that had been raised with great care is slaughtered three or four days before New Year’s day. After butchering the meat into its various cuts, soup stock is made from its neck. From that moment on, various pig dishes will be made and eaten throughout the days to come during the New Year’s celebrations. The fat of the pig, anda is kept and the pork belly (sanmainiku) is preserved in salt. In any case, New Year’s was a time to eat pork. It was a special meal prepared once a year. Up until the beginning of the war, one pig per household was considered quite a luxury, and poorer households commonly shared a pig split in half or thirds.

Thus, pork was something one yearned and craved for. There’s a word, andagāki, meaning “lack of fat.” Working in the heat on just three meals of sweet potato and ‘nashiru results in a deficiency of animal protein and fat, resulting in a state of andagāki. You could say that the once-a-year Wāsōgwachi was a cure for this. Pork was not something you could consume anytime, and it was valuable beyond measure. In this way, the pig became a mainstay of the Okinawan diet. 

Pigs are said to have been brought in from China at the beginning of the 15th century, but there is no strong evidence for this claim. The Richou Jitsuroku4 of 1477 gives an account of pigs being raised in Okinawa. In terms of food history, this is relatively recent. After the mid-15th century when trade was established during the Ming Dynasty, Okinawans had to show hospitality to the envoys from China who came to confer their official recognition to the Ryukyuan king. This is when pig-raising began in earnest.

However, it is said that pig-raising only became widespread in Okinawa after 1605, after sweet potatoes arrived from China. The sweet potato became a daily staple in the farm villages- the potato skin scraps could be fed to the pigs, which provided the food necessary for raising them. Eventually, the farmers started the practice of slaughtering a pig once a year.

It is recorded that by 1880, 50,339 pigs were being raised in Japan. However, there is nothing to compare these numbers to since the custom of eating meat hardly existed in mainland Japan. After the war, there was a rapid increase in the number of pigs being raised in the 1960s, and there were 300,000 pigs by 1985. Per capita consumption in 1965 was 9.1kg (3.0kg was the national average). In 1985, the figures were 15.3kg for Okinawa and 10.3kg for mainland Japan. Since the figures do not account for processed foods, the difference could be even bigger. 

If you are of the opinion that people’s diet plays a part in fundamentally shaping their culture, then Okinawa indeed has a unique culture of its own. The pig has certainly left its mark and continues to play a huge role in Okinawan culture.

Editor’s Note:

  1. Okinawa’s pigs and goats
  2. A dish of sliced raw seafood or meat
  3. Kelp
  4. Chronicle of the Li dynasty