Driving watercraft in Okinawa
By David Higgins
While living on Okinawa you may have gazed out at the ocean and dreamed of navigating the high seas onboard your own boat. Whether you are interested in fishing, diving or just sightseeing, it is best to do some research before you purchase any type of watercraft as you will need a license to skipper it, and get it inspected through Japan Comprehensive Inspection (JCI).
A type of watercraft that requires no license is a small boat under three meters in length. These types of boats are usually dinghy-shaped boats that you can buy at major fishing shops in Chatan Town along route 58. Once you have your boat, you are going to need an engine. If you are not the bearer of a boat license, the largest motor on a boat that you can drive legally is a 2-horsepower engine. However, if you have ever ridden in a 3-meter-long dinghy with three grown men powered with a 2 hp engine, you will realize right away why getting your boat license is a good idea. Basically, you can swim just as fast as your boat would go!
Assuming you desire to travel faster in your boat than a swimmer would, obtaining a Class 2 License allows you to operate a vessel up to 20 tons/22 meters in length but restricts you to within 5 nautical miles of shore. The Class 1 license allows you to operate a similar size vessel but lifts the 5-nautical-mile restriction. With the exception of boats under three meters and engines of 2 hp, all boats and engines must be inspected by JCI; the same requirement as for cars. The inspection consists of stability, measurements and inspection of the engine to ensure ship safety laws. The Class 1 & 2 Licenses also include sailboats, but they do not include Jet Skis. A Jet Ski requires a PWC license, and you cannot operate any powerboat or sailboat with this license and are required to stay within 2 nautical miles of shore.
The ability to speak Japanese is not required but definitely very helpful for daily use in and around the water. The license tests are available in English but cannot be passed without proper study. Matt Lytle is an avid Okinawan sea lover and holder of a Class 2 License. He says, “Passing the test is easy if you have a lot of water experience but very expensive to fail as the test costs upwards of $1000 to take each time.”
Once you have your boat, you are going to need to park it somewhere. There are three options for boat parking. The first option is to pull your boat on a trailer attached to your car, and park it at your home if you have the space. The second option is to dry dock your boat at the marina. The third option is to moor your boat in the water at the marina. The second and third options are costly, and sometimes not available due to lack of space at the marina. The Kadena Marina offers mooring and dry-docking to persons with a SOFA status. There are also docking options in Ginowan and Awase harbors.
So before enthusiastically rushing to your nearest major fishing store and purchasing the first boat you see, do a thorough investigation of your watercraft options, your parking options, and which license you need to operate your watercraft legally. To obtain your license takes a bit of planning and some study, but it contains valuable information for use on the ocean and safety that is required for Japan waters. Once you are gliding across the sea in your chosen watercraft, safely and smoothly, you will be glad you put in the effort.