The dish starts with a bed of Japanese white rice. Then comes a layer of spiced aibiki (ground pork and beef), red and greasy, followed by shredded cheese and lettuce, slices of tomato, and zigzags of spicy-sweet sauce. 

This is taco rice—at least the way Okinawa’s King Tacos makes it. Matsuzo Gibo, the late owner of the eatery, is said to have invented taco rice in 1984. Today the Okinawa original is ubiquitous across the main island of Japan’s southernmost prefecture. Find taco rice on the menu in traditional Okinawan restaurants, for sale at bento stands, served up as school lunch, and prepackaged as take-home souvenirs. In the American Village, a shopping and entertainment district where marines stroll around like Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, tourists wait for “omutaco,” taco rice topped with a Japanese-style omelet.

This food fusion is a product of Okinawa’s history of often-tumultuous international relationships. When it was the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, the chain of islands now known as Okinawa traded across Asia before being forced to become part of Japan in 1879. Since the end of World War II, it has endured the heavy presence of U.S. military bases. The story of taco rice is one of resilience and ingenuity in the face of Okinawa’s evolving postwar landscape.

(Photo by Michael Magers)

“It’s a lot deeper than just the food,” says Hideki Yoshikawa, an anthropologist and adjunct lecturer. Taco rice “really represents the different cultures somehow forced to live in the same place.”

In this story that particular place is Kin, a town in central Okinawa Island that hosts the Marine Corps base Camp Hansen. Outside Gate 1, where marines roll out in sleek cars, a grid of narrow streets features the kinds of businesses typical to areas outside the bases: bars, strip clubs, tattoo parlors, and cheap eateries.

But back in the early ’80s, most restaurants around here were pricier, sit-down establishments, says Sayuri Shimabukuro, Gibo’s granddaughter and the current head of King Tacos. As Shimabukuro tells it, Gibo, who passed away in 2014 at age 85, managed to ascend from postwar poverty by means of his work ethic and self-taught business acumen.

Gibo was a teenager when war came to Okinawa, and civilians were trapped on the battleground between raging American and Japanese forces. Like many survivors, Gibo never spoke about those years. “He didn’t tell me details about how he survived,” Shimabukuro says. He did recount what happened after.

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“It’s Mexican food,” Shimabukuro says, “but Americanized Mexican food that the American military brought here.”

Searching for a skill that would be profitable in postwar Okinawa, Gibo sensed that the future was with the American victors who now controlled the islands. He started hanging around with a friend from Hawaii. Gibo, who couldn’t read or write Japanese, started learning a few English words each day. At the base fences, he’d try to chat with American soldiers, offering his services as an interpreter.

Soon he managed to open a bar in Koza, the then racially segregated entertainment area outside Kadena Air Base. He moved around, chasing the most profitable base areas and borrowing money to start businesses, until he settled in Kin in the 1960s. There he made prophetic business decisions the townspeople dubbed crazy. “He had an eye for looking at the future,” Shimabukuro says.

In the already crowded business area outside Camp Hansen, Gibo bought a limestone hill no one else wanted to touch because it housed Kin family tombs. On that land he opened a successful bar. But when Okinawa reverted to Japanese control in 1972, the dollar-to-yen exchange rate raised prices for the marines. The young men started drinking on base, and Gibo realized he needed to adapt again.

In 1984 he opened Parlor Senri, a sit-down restaurant that served dishes like tacos.

(“It’s Mexican food,” Shimabukuro says, “but Americanized Mexican food that the American military brought here.”) Still, Gibo knew he could do better. The marines needed food that was quick, inexpensive, filling, and tasty. So he started experimenting. First he tried substituting potatoes for taco shells, but that was too time consuming. Rice, however, could be cooked in advance. He thought the combination tasted good, too. He dubbed his creation the self-explanatory “taco rice,” so nothing would be lost in translation between his non-English-speaking staff and the marines.

At first no one wanted to buy it. “Gibo-san started to sell weird food,” the neighbors gossiped. But soon the hungry marines who stumbled in late night, when nothing else was open, started coming back for taco rice for lunch, taco rice for dinner. They brought their friends. The parking area outside Parlor Senri grew packed. Nearby business owners who had questioned this strange dish started selling it, too. It became a phenomenon.

Gibo opened the first King Tacos in Kin in the mid ’80s, eventually expanding to a chain of seven restaurants across the island. U.S. military personnel, Japanese students from the mainland, and other visitors get hooked on taco rice on Okinawa and try to re-create it abroad, sometimes opening their own taco rice establishments.

On Okinawa the customers at King Tacos have shifted from mostly Americans to mostly locals and tourists. Guidebooks direct visitors from mainland Japan, Taiwan, China, and Korea to Kin, the birthplace of taco rice, a spot otherwise off the tourist track.

Kin has embraced this claim to fame. Entering town, drivers pass a banner commemorating Kin’s accomplishment of making the largest taco rice in the world in 2010, a 1,644-pound feat that earned the town a Guinness World Record. The town mascot is a cartoon boy wearing a taco rice T-shirt and a taro root, the area’s other main food product, on his head. Recently the Kin chamber of commerce collaborated with a local company to make a packet of seasoned taco rice meat to sell to tourists.

Many islanders see tourism as the future of the economy in Kin and across Okinawa. The prefecture has long been the poorest in Japan, thought to need the U.S. military presence for the Americans’ spending power, on-base jobs for locals, and hefty subsidies from the Japanese government. In recent years, though, economists have argued that the bases account for only about 5 percent of the local economy and that a more prosperous future lies with other kinds of development. Journalist Tomohiro Yara, a board member of the think tank the New Diplomacy Initiative, predicts that within the next five years Okinawa’s economy will transform due to trade with China and tourists flying over on direct flights from Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong.

“If Okinawan people realize we can survive by ourselves, I think the relationship between Japan and Okinawa will be changed,” Yara says. An economically and psychically stronger Okinawa could better stand up to the central government, which has long ignored locals’ demands for a reduced U.S. military presence in the islands.

A half-hour drive north of Kin, demonstrators clash with riot police daily outside the gates to Marine Corps base Camp Schwab. They are protesting the building of the new base on Oura Bay, construction that Okinawa’s governor Takeshi Onaga has tried to stop through legal and political means.

For many Okinawans an ideal future is one without the U.S. military presence. That doesn’t mean everyone thinks the connection would be easily severed. “Given that we already have the military bases and we have to live with them,” says Yoshikawa, “they are part of our communities, whether we like it or not.”

Shimabukuro, for instance, grew up in Kin outside the base, playing volleyball with marines who passed by her house. When she hears the bugle sounding from Camp Hansen with the raising and lowering of the flag, she thinks not of the U.S. military but of her hometown. America, she says, is “inside of our blood. America is already a part of us.”

As for taco rice, it may have originated to feed broke, drunk marines, but many now see it as separate from that history. “We cannot say it’s American food,” say Tomoyo Ajifu and Fumikazu Nago, two young government workers in Kin. “We were born here, and we know [taco rice is] from Kin. It’s Okinawan food.”