For a man who once narrowly escaped a cold-blooded execution after being forced at gunpoint to dig his own grave, 102-year-old Okinawan Shoko Nagamine is doing remarkably well.
“I still have many years of life left in me,” insists the twinkly-eyed Battle of Okinawa survivor at his home in Nago, only a kilometer away from where the darkest moment of his life gave way to a miracle.
“It happened just over there, toward that mountain,” he says in a mix of Okinawan and Japanese, pointing through the window of the living room, where he and the two youngest of his six children, Atsuko and Masatomo, are hosting us.
It was towards the end of the war. Nagamine, 32 at the time, had already endured two months of terror, as the merciless land, sea and air battle engulfed the local population. With the Japanese military prolonging the fight to delay an attack on the mainland, and the American forces well prepared and mightily armed, Okinawa was plunged into a 90-day hell.
“We were utterly shocked. We did not expect it to be as big, as long or as deadly as it was,” he says of the ba.
Nagamine, who had been working as a farmer , says he was led to believe the Japanese military would triumph in a quick, strategic battle.
The extent of his ignorance became eerily clear with the arrival of an armada of 1,300 U.S. ships on Okinawa’s azure coastline — a gray swarm of steel etched on the backdrop of his childhood memories.
“I never imagined something like this could happen here, in the place where I grew up,” says Nagamine, who fondly recalls the simple subsistence lifestyle of old Okinawa.
The sea had long been a source of abundance for the fishing villages of Nago. But on April 1, 1945 — Easter Sunday — it brought what Okinawans call the “Typhoon of Steel.”
Within days, Nagamine, his wife, Teruko, their two toddlers and other relatives had to flee the modest bunker they had built naively close to the shore.
“We had to escape to caves farther inland. We kept running from shelter to shelter, usually at night. My heart was constantly racing,” he says, his hand drumming on his heart, eyes wide. “I felt I could be killed any second.”
Eager to convey the visceral reality of war to those spared it, Nagamine sits up alert on the edge of the sofa. He describes how he and a few others made a desperate attempt to find food in broad daylight, after the American troops had infiltrated the mountains and hideouts.
“We came across an American soldier. He thought we were Japanese soldiers or spies. We told him we weren’t, showing him our civilian clothing.”
Despite their protests, the men were captured. They were then handed shovels.
“The deranged soldier held us at gunpoint and made us dig our own graves.”
The next moments were the darkest of Nagamine’s life. There was no time for tears or prayers.
“I was just thinking about how to survive,” he says. “I kept watching the officer out of the corner of my eye, waiting for him to turn his back so I could hit him with the shovel and escape.”
Suddenly, another American military officer came rushing over on a bicycle, calling out “Stop!”
“The officer pedaled very fast toward us,” Nagamine recalls. “He ordered the soldier to drop his gun. And then he let us run away free.”
The rescue happened in a split second. But Nagamine has never forgotten his savior.
“I wish I had asked his name so I could have found out what happened to him, or contacted him and his family to say thank you.”
Nagamine recalls the officer as looking half-Okinawan in appearance.
“This man was much shorter than the others,” he says.
While he also feared the Japanese soldiers, who were notoriously harsh, instigated mass murder-suicides and forced locals out of overcrowded hideouts, the 5-foot (150-cm) survivor was even more afraid of the “huge” Americans.
“Having never laid eyes on an American before, I was shocked by their tall, big bodies, blue eyes and fair hair,” he says.
Since then, Nagamine has met many foreigners, and says he feels no resentment toward Americans for what happened in the war.
“He’s been onto one of the bases here to meet my friends,” says Atsuko, 59, who attends a church in Yomitan and interacts with people from the international and military communities on the island.
“We Okinawans don’t tend to feel resentment toward other nationalities or races. We take each person at face value and see them as a fellow human being,” she says, her father nodding in agreement.
“There is no point hating other people,” he adds. “This causes wars. On a personal level, we are all the same, all human. We have the same need for food, shelter, family. If we have these things, we should be happy and enjoy it, not make war.”
At his recent 102nd birthday party, the patriarch and his large extended family did just that.
“It was a lot of fun having everyone here in this house together. I love spending time with the grandchildren,” he says, beaming at the photos of the party.
“He feels comfortable with them because he still has the heart of a child,” adds his daughter.
Atsuko, also noticeably young for her years, takes pride in her father’s sunny disposition and good health. The two of them prepare his meals together.
“He mostly eats fresh traditional Okinawan food. Not fancy food. Lots of vegetables, fish and seaweed.”
He eats his fill three times a day, but says he doesn’t like eating snacks. He also doesn’t drink alcohol — he tried it once or twice, and says he didn’t fancy the taste. His vice? Okinawa’s delicious pork.
“He eats a lot of it,” laughs his son.
Perhaps surprisingly, Masatomo, 62, puts his father’s good health down to a life of little stress. Nagamine agrees.
“Besides the war, and rebuilding afterward, my life has been relatively stress-free,” he says.
Not only is this Okinawan elder calm and free of any major physical ailments, he is also mentally sharp and has a good memory. An eager talker, the great-great-grandfather readily recalls details about his childhood, wartime and a recent karaoke outing.
“You should come to karaoke again. Last time was fun,” he says of a previous meeting some six months ago, when the happy-go-lucky hobby singer performed traditional enka ballads to fellow enthusiasts at a karaoke hall in Nago.
“I’m not very good at singing, but I love it,” he once confessed over jasmine tea at A&W, the American fast food chain that has become ubiquitous in Okinawa since the war.
The abundance of “convenience food” stores such as A&W, and of food in general, is the most noticeable change Okinawa has seen over the past century, according to Nagamine.
“Now it is so easy to get food. Everywhere you look, on either side of the road, there are places selling food.”
Pointing out the restaurants that line Nago’s Route 58 — the coastal highway built by the Americans after the war — Nagamine seems determined to send home one simple message: “If there is war, this is the worst thing.”
Nagamine’s niece died of starvation in the war.
“During and after the war here, there was not enough food because everything had been burned,” he explains. “People were hungry and desperate.”
The memory of hunger and malnutrition has clearly stayed with Nagamine, who sits back satisfied, relaxed and happy after finishing a meal.
“Oishikatta! (That was delicious!),” he exclaims after eating a bowl of Okinawan pork soup noodles, as if it were his first.
Nagamine’s appreciation of food owes not just to his personal experience of near-starvation in the Battle of Okinawa, but also decades of subsistence farming and fishing.
“If the weather was calm, we went out fishing,” he remembers. “If it was windy, we tended the farm.”
While he and his seven siblings had to work to get food on the table, Nagamine says life was good and carefree.
“We all worked together,” he says. “We never fought. Neighbors used to come around to our house because they liked the friendly atmosphere.”
Everything they used at sea or in the fields they made themselves.
“On a rainy day, we stayed home to fix fishing nets and make tools.”
They even made their own toys.
“It was more fun back then, when you had to had to make your own entertainment,” he recalls. “Money couldn’t buy that.”
The village hardly used coin currency in those days, when goods were mostly exchanged. But nevertheless, the Nagamine family felt wealthy.
“Some days my mother couldn’t sell all the fish we caught. So we had to preserve it.”
When asked to describe the ocean of his youth around modern-day Nago city, the centenarian gasps in delight.
“To—ttemo kirei desu yo! (So beautiful!) From the boat, we could see lots of coral, and many different kinds of big and small fish.”
As a teenager, Nagamine attended school — a big change from the outdoors education of an Okinawan fisher boy.
Under the Japanese education system, which sought to assimilate the Okinawan population into Japan, students were punished for using Okinawan languages in school. One little slip and you were put on cleaning duty.
“I did a lot of cleaning,” chuckles Nagamine.
The peers with whom he shared his treasured youth and many happy decades following the war, and his beloved wife, have all passed away.
“Sometimes, when nobody is around, I get out old photographs of my friends and reminisce and shed a few private tears,” he says.
While outliving peers can be lonely, Nagamine says his family are now his best friends.
“I care a lot about my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and their future children.”
Like many Okinawans, Nagamine speaks of future generations as if they are already family and have a direct stake in the present. He earnestly hopes that they never have to experience what he did in the war.
“We cannot let that happen again,” he stresses.
His face clouds over when the conversation turns to the recent history of proposed changes to Japan’s postwar “peace Constitution” and the saga over the planned relocation of the Futenma U.S. air base in central Okinawa to Oura Bay in Nago’s Henoko district, where Camp Schwab will be expanded to include a military port and runway.
“It’s very scary,” he says. “That base will be there hundreds of years into the future.”
While some analysts say the concern over Japan’s remilitarization is overblown and that the situation today cannot be compared to the buildup to World War II, Nagamine’s experience of war has made him extra-vigilant.
“I hope that politicians do not need first-hand experience of war to understand how to avoid it,” he says.
Round-the-clock protests currently occurring in Henoko against the project are taking a physical toll, with some protesters having been injured in clashes with the Japan Coast Guard and police.
But Nagamine, who has visited the sit-in, says much more is at stake than just the protesters’ health or safety.
“Not taking action would be worse, because their responsibility to protect nature and future generations weighs heavily,” he says. “They don’t have a choice. I understand why they are doing this, even if it is hard. They won’t give up.”
Coming from a man who remains strong in mind, body and spirit 70 years after staring down into his own would-be grave, the prediction seems prescient.
As quickly as it vanished, Nagamine’s broad smile returns, like an affirmation of what it is that Okinawans like him are not giving up on.
“Nuchi du takara. Do you know this Okinawan saying?” he asks.
It is an old phrase, meaning “life is a treasure,” which took on added significance during the war, when people used it to encourage each other to go on living.
“We should protect and celebrate life. Never destroy it,” says Nagamine, who is living proof of the health benefits of such a gentle philosophy.
As if to punctuate the interview, the centenarian shifts to the couch where we are sitting and proceeds to show off his black arm hairs to me and the photographer.
“Look. How many 102-year-olds still have black arm hair?” he laughs.
The war survivor is eager to share his amazing life story, which at this moment seems to be defined by joy — a world away from the 90-day nightmare that began 70 years ago.