Okinawa Newcomer Survival Guide

Okay, My Guide is Not Quite This Good....

Okay, My Guide is Not Quite This Good….

“Learning is not compulsory…neither is survival.” ~W. Edwards Deming

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” ~Charles Darwin

We’ve now been on Okinawa for just over ten full days, the first mark of any significance to the military.  What mark, you may ask?  Ten days is all you get – automatically – for Temporary Living Allowance (TLA), monies that pay for temporary lodging, which can be extended out to thirty, but only upon asking and with proof of a good-faith effort in finding housing (off-base) or awaiting a housing offer or home to be made available (on-base).  I won’t go into too many Service-specific tidbits of advice here, because the Services are all annoyingly different…even though…we are on the same side…serve the same side…in military branches that all fall under the same Federal Department…with only one Commander-in-Chief…and are funded by US taxpayer dollars.  It’s the epitome of duplication of effort and non-value-added effort to watch distinctly parallel yet vastly divergent processes and programs that must be navigated, only to result in the exact same end-state.  While arguments can (and are) made as to why the services are so unlike, none really are pragmatic enough to stand up against even the least application of Lean principles, let alone logic in reducing waste (time, gas, money, staffing), while serving the customer.

It's Not this Bad, But Keep Calm and Hold On!

It’s Not this Bad, But Keep Calm and Hold On!

But don’t expect to be treated like a customer in the military-machine here!

Customer Service?  Hard to find in the Okinawa Military-Industrial Complex

Customer Service? Hard to find in the Okinawa Military-Industrial Complex

There are actually a fair number of people here who are really very helpful.  In any case, here is a few of the more salient points for helping YOU to survive your arrival and initial time on the island.

Cash-Cash-Cash! – money talks, but it doesn’t walk here.  That takes you, and it requires a lot more walking than back home in the states.  Although the Okinawan economy is MUCH better about credit cards than 15 years ago, it is still, compared to the US, archaic when it comes to electronic bill-paying.  Additionally, you should expect a cash outlay of 12-15K USD if you are required to live off-base, adjusted for your individual rank and number of dependents (the range given is for an O-4 with a single dependent renting at their cap).  Costs making up in this range are (at the high end):

  • Rental Agency Fee (1/2 month’s rent):  $1,290
  • Rental Security Deposit (month’s rent):  $2,580
  • Pet/Utility Deposits (gas, water, electrical):  $200-$400
  • Rent (prorated for current month + first full month):  $2,750
  • Purchasing 2 Cars (title transfer, car cost, insurance):  $8,000
Don't Call this Number - I think it's for Korea!

Don’t Call this Number – I think it’s for Korea!

Japanese companies here cannot cash American checks; many companies do not offer direct electronic billing or payment options, including EFT.  Most people are likewise limited in the amount of daily ATM withdrawals, which instantly limits your access to cash; be ready with mobile banking to help clear checks you write on-base to private parties (e.g., for car purchases), and bring voided checks/deposit slips to set up electronic bill paying service through two services offered on-island:  G.I. Bill Pay, and Easy Pay.  Or, as a further option, open up a local checking/savings account to assist in local banking involving large sums of cash/yen.  The bases here offer branches of Community Bank (owned & operated by Nations Bank) and NFCU.

Wheels = Freedom.  Purchasing cars, costs of which include purchase price, road taxes, title transfer fees, and liability insurance, requires about half your cash outlay.  Purchasing a car off-base will allow you to finance your vehicle, which may help with cash deficits if you are short.  Purchasing on-base through private sales vary depending upon terms; in our case, one individual traded his vehicle for a personal check, while the other wanted the check deposited/cleared (via mobile banking, USAA to be specific) prior to exchange of property.  The title transfer, liability insurance and other fees in taking ownership are done in Yen cash only, and run between $275-$400 depending on the engine size of the vehicle in question.

Typical Lemon-Lot Car Advertisement.  Cold AC?  Of course (wink)!

Typical Lemon-Lot Car Advertisement. Cold AC? Of course (wink)!

The easiest way to transfer vehicle registration & title is through Camp Foster, where vehicle registration AND an insurance company are co-located.  First, visit the base registration center for title transfer authorization, then walk next door to the auto-port where a title/insurance company actually conducts the transfer of title, JCI insurance, and road tax, and offers personal liability insurance as well (this should be purchased to limit your exposure while overseas; SOFA status offer little to no protection in serious vehicular accidents).  After this process, you must proceed back next door to vehicle registration for completion of paperwork.  The actual new title takes a week or so to come in, and you will have to return to pick up when ready.  This whole process takes about 45 minutes if there is no wait or line; however, do not go at lunchtime; early morning works best.  Note registration opens at 0730 but the Insurance/Title companies generally start 0800, but it’s still best to be early and first in line.  Before PCSing, request a “no claim/safe driver letter” from your insurance company (if you qualify) showing a clean driving record for the last three years and you get a 10% savings on insurance.  Road Tax for your vehicle is based on engine size, and must be paid every year in May; however, you can do so early to avoid long lines on-base.  JCI, the Japanese Compulsory Inspection for all vehicles, is required every two years, and can be conducted either on-base (Camp Foster), or with mechanics out in town qualified to do so.  Plan on spending a minimum of $400 for passing the JCI; putting lipstick on your pig will not work in Okinawa!

The base/Japanese SOFA driver’s test is administered by Camp Foster Safety, and is given at 8 and 10 am.  This is a test you must study for (not hard, mind you, but specific enough to really screw you over if you are unfamiliar), so be sure to get the driver’s handbook and read a couple of times on the flight over.  The test is also given at the conclusion of the Newcomer Orientation on Wednesdays, but this will add about two hours to an already long…and boring…day.  Take the test earlier in the week and your license will be ready on Wednesday.  Remember, your wheels, like at home, equal your freedom.  Public transportation is very weak throughout the island, and almost absent on-base.  There are no trains or subways in Okinawa.  Taxis, however, are plentiful and very professional, although at some cost.

Rental Cars cannot be rented if ordered to Okinawa or on SOFA status; only people on leave or TAD/TDY can rent vehicles (why, I have no idea), but believe me, the car rental agency doesn’t ask, and this policy is not clearly stated, at least for Navy personnel (not in orders), and there’s only a very small sign at rental desk that’s easy to miss where one could argue plausible deniability.  Car rental requires only an international driver’s license (get at AAA for $15) with valid state license; it does NOT require a SOFA driver’s license.  The cars are pricey, but the optional insurance is cheap; remember, life on the island is very hard until you have wheels – transportation should be a first priority on-island.  Don’t ask me how I know all this; renting a vehicle could be against military policy, punishable by the UCMJ for active duty personnel, and administratively handled as “misconduct” if committed by dependents.

The Suzuki Splash is an Awesome Rental Car...that I didn't rent....

The Suzuki Splash is an Awesome Rental Car…that I didn’t rent….

Government Provided Furniture.  Your furniture entitlement is based on JFTR weight allowance specified in your orders; if you on full JFTR, you only get furniture loaned and on a not-to-exceed 90 days basis.  If you are on reduced JFTR, you get loaner furniture for the duration of your tour.  However, some important points to remember:  the items and numbers allocated is not based on bedroom entitlement (which is a function of rank and number and age of dependents), but on dependents alone.  For example, we as a couple with no kids are entitled to a three bedroom dwelling at my sponsor’s rank, but we only get a single bedroom of furniture since we have no children.  Be Advised:  only full-sized beds are provided (except to “senior personnel”), so seriously plan on bringing your own bed if you are like us, two grown American-sized adults.  And finally, and perhaps most significantly, SINGLE OR UNACCOMPANIED get no furniture provided, on or off-base, even if on reduced JTFR, which includes most Navy/Marines members.  This can really screw you over if you aren’t aware, which a coworker of ours was this past week.  A good thing to remember is to have your full allotment of government furniture delivered to your residence as you are allowed a one-time free pickup of items you do not wish in the first 90 days.  There is a Family Readiness Center on Kadena Air Base (near the Housing office) that may be able to offer smaller (but no less essential) non-issued items (e.g., dishes, microwave) while awaiting your express shipment.  The government does not supply microwaves; bring your own!

She Doesn't Work at Housing

She Doesn’t Work at Housing

Housing.  Apply online prior to arrival on-island to allow for quick determination if you will live on or off-base.  The decision is based on occupancy rates of zoned living areas bounced off your entitlement (based on rank and number and age of dependents).  The island is under a mandatory on-base housing policy called “live where you work,” unless housing rates for your zoned workplace or zoned housing area adjacent are at 98% occupancy or better.  There are two briefs to receive at housing:  general housing centered for those residing on-base, followed by an off-base housing brief.  Arrive before August or as early in August as possible for the best off-base housing selection; PCS-season ends the 2nd or 3rd week in August and pickings are highly reduced the later in August you look.

Advanced Overseas Housing Allowance (OHA) / Move-In Housing Allowance (MIHA) processing can start as soon as you have authorization to live off-base – make this appointment (with Housing) early since often it can take 1-2 weeks even to see get in to see a counselor.  Getting these monies flowing can really help with your initial cash outlays required on-island.  However, OHA/MIHA requires command approval and endorsement, which can take up to 3 days depending on service.  As an important point, MIHA reimburses you for the Agency Fee paid to lease off-base property.

On-base housing may be offered in 1-3 weeks, but your home may not be ready for up to 7-8 weeks even after getting an offer due to sequestration and reduced maintenance staff.  Dehumidifiers are a must on-base since AC is provided by chilled water and such systems do a very poor job of removing excess humidity, which averages 70-80%.  Note that the age and sex of your children determines whether they will share a bedroom; this may result in a modified entitlement mid-tour as your children age or you have additions to your family, for which the military will move you.  A current pregnancy is not counted into entitlement determination.

Internet (Off-Base).  The island is almost fully wired with very high speed fiber optics that truly kicks butt, with the fiber backbone provided by NTT, who utilizes various localized internet service providers (Sunny-net, Global, NTT).  Regardless of ISP, all must pay NTT a standard fee as the fiber middleman, which makes all the ISPs more or less comparable with one-another in terms of capability and pricing.  The speed & type of fiber optic depends on your actual dwelling address; many (older) apartment buildings have not been upgraded to the latest fiber, but homes and smaller duplexes can get the fastest 1 GbPS download capability.  In our case, we are “limited” in our building to 100 MbPS.  These numbers are orders of magnitude faster than ADSL in the states; a 2 hour movie downloads in less than 5 minutes.  Request an American IP address for a slight extra monthly fee (~$11/month), which can help avoid numerous internet hassles.

The Japanese Treated Cleo Very Well

The Japanese Treated Cleo Very Well

Pets.  I have blogged previously about getting your pets ready to PCS with you overseas (look here, “Feline Fiasco”).   Some additional notes of consideration are provided here.

We traveled commercial (see below on how we managed that!), but since we were traveling with a cat, our ticket purchase required the pre-approval of the airport, which happened to be Narita (Tokyo).  This took a few days, and was handled by the Japanese airline we were booking with, and had us on pins and needles until okayed.

Our cat leaving the states could not fly in the aircraft belly, which required a soft-carrier under the seat.  If this is your situation, see about purchasing “Economy Plus” if available for the trans-Pacific flight, which provides something like five extra inches of leg room – it’s well worth the money.  However, our pet was then required by ANA (All Nippon Airways) to fly in the cargo hold from Tokyo to Okinawa, so our strategy was to have an airlines-approved hard-case carrier, broken down and stowed in one of our large suitcases.  We then assembled he hard crate (plastic) in Tokyo after clearing animal import and customs.

Okinawa is severely limited in “pet-friendly TLF rooms” – only ten (10) are available, which obviously requires very early reservation.  There rooms are only on Kadena; if you are arriving with school-aged children, consider boarding your pet(s) so that you can stay at a TLF on the base/area where you expect to live.  In this way you can register your child for the correct school, and avoid a school change once more permanent housing is assigned or found.

Pets are required to be seen at the Kadena vet for paperwork verification, records creation, and a wellness check.  These are conducted via walk-in only and took us about an hour just after lunch when they reopen for business.  Be advised that the Japanese government requires yearly rabies vaccines even though such vaccines are good for three years back home.  These shots are provided on-base for a nominal fee (~$15).

Shopping for a Home - Be Persistent...and Patient

Shopping for a Home – Be Persistent…and Patient

Leasing Property Off-Base.  Housing will inform you if you are to reside on or off-base.  If pushed off-base due to housing non-availability, you will be given an authorization letter/memo as proof for rental agencies and other uses.  There are a whole host of property management and real estate agencies to choose from.  Call many, if not all of them!

Property listings on Okinawa work completely different than they do back home.  For starters, difference agencies “own” different properties, and while some may share listings and show for each other, this is not often and there is nothing equivalent or even close to our MLS system in the states.  For instance, individual apartments in the same building could all be controlled/managed by different companies, at different rents.  The housing availability listing provided by the base Housing office is at your in-brief, is, on the day it’s printed, woefully out-of-date.  It is better to go directly with the individual agencies to check current real-time availability of housing.  The agency’s own websites are little better (in my opinion); some appear to be updated only on a weekly basis.  This can make your housing search very frustrating, and you will most likely burn a LOT of time online only to find the homes you find no longer available.

Additionally, the agencies do not project into the future to let you know what will be becoming available; they show move-in ready homes.  In fact, it is odd that there is no future tense to their thinking.  However, be advised that all properties must have a current housing inspection on file, and initial clearance, and then required every five years.  Again, due to shortfalls in summer hires and furlough days, inspections are backed up, and can take 1-2 months to schedule and successfully complete.

The “PCS Season” will have everything to do with off-base housing availability.  The quantity starts to drop in early August, while the quality drops at a much steeper rate.  By the 3rd week in August, the military moving season is coming to a close, and pickings are much more sparse than that in July.  If your report date is in August, I recommend you get on-island in late July or as early in August as possible to ensure the best possible selection of housing.  This also helps avoid major issues in registering your children for the (right) school and (correct) off-base bus route and pickup point; school on-island starts the 3rd week of August.

"Circuitous Travel:"  Avoiding AMC

“Circuitous Travel:” Avoiding AMC

Circuitous Travel.  We experienced MAJOR issues with AMC flight arrangements (see “Military Intelligence is a Contradiction in Terms”).  You may request “Circuitous Travel” from your Service, which allows YOU to make your flight arrangements, however you see fit.  This type of travel is generally intended for those taking leave en route, and allows for routing other than what AMC would require.  However, your Service must approve, AND, you will only be reimbursed up to the cost of what it would cost the government to fly you to Okinawa using whatever mode/means of travel is the cheapest (not most direct).  Although you are still required to make travel arrangements through the government travel agency in circuitous travel, you will be purchasing tickets on your own personal credit card (including a fee paid to the travel agency of $30/ticket), and will carry the balances until reimbursed.  Reimbursement requires a paid receipt(s) showing zero balance and can only be provided once you are at your destination command.

Mail.  Your sponsor should be able to set-up your PO Box well prior to arrival (30-60 days).  However, to get keys (we were only issued one), you must have and show your orders.  It is best to have your ORIGINAL orders for all appointments just to be safe; some locations (such as the Housing Office) will only accept originals for processing.

You Will Survive - and Cherish Keystone Okinawa

You Will Survive – and Cherish Keystone Okinawa

Getting Settled.  Please do yourself a favor and don’t schedule work-related things for at least a week (if residing on-base), and 2+ weeks if you find yourself having to secure lodgings out in town.  Your priority needs to be getting you and your family established on-island; you literally aren’t that important to the continuity of operations of the US military and your unit will be okay without you.  I promise.  I cannot stress this enough….

Cell Phones.  There are various providers on-island, and they all offer comparable services.  Our choice was driven by what worked well in the new Navy Hospital (Soft Bank), coupled with availability of iPhones.  The iPhones here tend to be cheaper than other smart phones (e.g., Razors), and “fives” are available…and pretty ding-dang nifty.  The GPS feature actually works, which will be a god-send for those of you not familiar with Okinawa.  There are a plethora of plans that are genuinely hard to understand, especially when explained in broken English; if there are unlimited plans like in the states, they are VERY expensive here (I didn’t see any).  In general terms, it’s free to receive calls/texts; however, when calling or texting another company’s phones/services, you are paying for those transmissions (think back to the old Ma’Bell days).  At the end of the day, we will be paying about 10-15% more for comparable service, but with a cooler phone…that allows Facetime (for free) to those in the states with iPhones/iPads.

Download an App called “Pinger” and you can get a US phone number, which allows you to text back home for free, AND, for those in the States to call and text you for free.  It’s a great service, and did I mention that it’s FREE?!?

I don't know what this is, but it's cool and "Are You Read?"

I don’t know what this is, but it’s cool and “Are You Read?”


For you Civilians and Dependents:  don’t forget to request and pick up your dental records from your civilian dentist prior to departure!

4 thoughts on “Okinawa Newcomer Survival Guide

    • Hey Bev, these comments are public so I don’t want to pass here. I have posted my “Pinger” number on FB which allows you to text and call me for free (it is a US-based number).

      I am glad you are enjoying the blogs. There are MANY more coming. Please pass the site to the rest of the family for me. I’m not sure they are as connected or as wired as you are.

      Let me know if you can’t find that posted number!
      Thanks & Love,

      • Hey Kevin, I did find the number and passed it on to Jan and will call Dad later today and give it to him also so that he can call you. Hope that you get settled in quickly and that Cleo doesn’t get too terribly confused at all the moves.  Give my love to Jody.

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