With its perpetual flame for peace and slabs of granite inscribed with the names of the more than 241,000 people who died on all sides during the Battle of Okinawa, the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park in Mabuni is the island’s most famous monument — but also one of its most controversial. Critics argue that it whitewashes responsibility for the war by listing the innocent dead alongside the soldiers who killed them; moreover, prefectural officials altered displays at the park’s museum in 1999 to downplay atrocities committed against islanders by the Japanese military.
Fortunately for visitors looking for alternative — and less sanitized — memorials, there are more than 400 other monuments to war and peace on Okinawa. Many of these pull no punches in chronicling civilians’ suffering during World War II — as well as cataloguing postwar injustices committed by the U.S. authorities and islanders’ ongoing dedication to nonviolent civil disobedience.
The best place to start a tour of these lesser-known museums is the House of Nuchi du Takara on Iejima Island, the birthplace of Okinawa’s peace movement. Upon entering, visitors are confronted with a small set of bloodstained clothes and the description that they belonged to an Okinawan child stabbed by Japanese troops to keep it quiet when U.S. soldiers were in the vicinity. Other displays record the postwar “bayonets and bulldozers” period when, in the 1950s, the Pentagon violently seized farmers’ land to turn the island into a bombing range. Exhibits include photographs of islanders’ homes razed by U.S. troops and several dummy nuclear bombs dropped on the island during Cold War training drills.
Due to the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the storage of nuclear weaponry on Okinawa has long been a sore point in Japan — to which the Pentagon responds with blanket neither-confirm-nor-deny statements. The Monument to World Peace in the village of Onna helps to lift the veil on this secret history. Housed within a former nuclear missile silo built by the U.S. in the early 1960s, the museum details the presence of more than 1,200 atomic devices on Okinawa prior to its reversion to Japan in 1972. Among its exhibits is a display based upon Japan Times interviews with former U.S. nuclear technicians stationed on the island during the Cuban Missile Crisis and their assertions that the Pentagon used Okinawans as human shields.
Further south, the village of Yomitan is home to Okinawa’s most famous sculptor, Minoru Kinjo, and dotted among the sugarcane fields are many of his statues which deal with historical events that some in the current Japanese government would rather forget.
One monument, Han no Hi, depicts the suffering of Korean laborers brought forcibly to Okinawa during the war to work for the Japanese military. Another at Chibichirigama cave commemorates the forced suicide of 83 Okinawans in April 1945; this memorial struck such a nerve with Japanese far rightists that they attempted to destroy it in 1987 and today it has been rebuilt behind protective bars.
To the east, within the grounds of Miyamori Elementary School in the city of Uruma, there is a reminder of why many Okinawans protest so strongly against the military presence on their island. On June 30, 1959, as the pupils sat down for their daily milk break, a F-100 fighter jet plowed into the school, killing 18 children and adults. The American pilot parachuted to safety. A simple stone memorial listing those who died stands at the scene of the crash — permission to visit can be obtained from the school office.
Proof of the ongoing risks of operating military hardware within crowded civilian communities is the charred tree standing on the campus of Okinawa International University in the city of Ginowan. Damaged in an August 2004 helicopter crash, today it is the scene of annual memorial services in which local residents call for the closure of the adjacent Marine Corps Air Station Futenma base — dubbed by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as the most dangerous in the world in 2003.
The Okinawan peace memorial most difficult to access is also the most inspirational. Located a three-hour drive from Naha in the northern Yambaru jungles, the stone monument in the village of Ada pays tribute to the hundreds of local villagers who, in 1971, blocked live-fire exercises in the area. Following their lengthy sit-in of the heavy gun emplacements and target areas, residents eventually forced the military to abandon its drills. Today, a large memorial near the scene immortalizes their victory — one of Japan’s only monuments to the power of people’s protest.