Throughout her life, Yaeko Sunagawa’s mother never enjoyed the fireworks that illuminate Okinawa in the festive summer season. Her daughter’s and grandchildren’s faces would light up with joy, while Kikue Miyazato winced at the bright flashes and loud bangs.
Even though Sunagawa, too, had been there decades earlier, quietly clinging to her mother for every step of the family’s march through the hell of the Battle of Okinawa, she remembers nothing. Just a year old when the three-month ground battle broke out in April 1945, Sunagawa has been spared any memory of the near-death, starvation and injury she endured.
“I wonder if the flashes of light from the bombing were a relief to the eyes of a baby deprived of light from hiding in dark caves all day. Maybe that’s why I enjoy fireworks so much,” Sunagawa, 71, speculates with a smile.
Her mother must have hated hearing or seeing anything that resembled the sensory onslaught of war. It is not hard to imagine the Battle of Okinawa survivor — who lost almost everyone she loved, including her husband, mother and 3-year-old son — grimacing at the blissful ignorance of younger generations.
It was for their sake that in 1986, as the 69-year-old’s long-standing heart condition worsened, that she quietly began penning a memoir detailing her experiences. “For the grandchildren” — these were the only words written on the back of a large envelope containing her story that Sunagawa and her husband found under Miyazato’s bed after her death. No more explanation was needed.
“I cried a lot when I read it. I came to understand my mother’s experiences and feelings more, and the reality of the war hit me,” says Sunagawa, who later translated some of the old kanji into modern Japanese so the grandchildren could understand. In doing so, she helped fulfill her mother’s mission to remind today’s youth — who, Miyazato wrote, “are used to living rich lives” — of the horrible reality of war.
“I wish that young people, who shoulder the future, may look at the circumstance of today’s Okinawa, where military training exercises in preparation for the next war take place every day, without any thought of past mistakes,” she wrote.
While Miyazato’s bitterness about the ongoing U.S. military presence is clear, she also writes of her deep anger toward the late Emperor Hirohito, who she says dragged Okinawa and Japan into conflict.
She came to the same conclusion that many others who witnessed the worst of humanity during the Battle of Okinawa did: that war is a shared human evil that should never be glorified.
“Nothing is as terrible as war,” she wrote. “No more Hiroshima! No more Nagasaki! No more Okinawa! I long for a peaceful world and a society where we can live with no fear.”
Her words are like an ancestral voice in the ears of the living, her convictions difficult to ignore — all the more so knowing what this late war widow went through, and the sheer grit, courage and love that was required to pull through.
Even as she was buried under the debris of a bombed limestone shelter in the cruel battleground of southern Okinawa, “something” made her lift her only free arm to remove the heavy stones from her cousin-in-law Haru Nishimura, who, in turn, helped her. Sunagawa had been shielded by her mother, who, despite the force of the blast, had somehow fallen with her arms on either side of the baby.
“I am so thankful to my mother. I can still feel her supporting me,” says Sunagawa, who for many years has been attending sit-ins against the construction of U.S. military helipads in the rainforests of Yanbaru in northern Okinawa.
Travelling two hours from her home in Uruma up to Takae twice a week, Sunagawa is determined to honor her mother’s wish and speak out against war and the military presence in Okinawa.
“We have to think about future generations and work to prevent their involvement in any future wars,” she says.
Sunagawa’s own protective instincts have sustained her through years of involvement in peace activism. While she may not be living through a war like her mother did, Sunagawa, now in her 70s, has had to draw on her own grit and strength to keep going back to the sit-in.
“It has taken a toll on me physically, but I feel it’s my duty to do this. It is the right thing to do. Plus, I love the forest in Yanbaru,” she says, pointing out her favorite summer plants.
Having grown up playing in the ruins of war, Sunagawa recalls being surprised by the green shoots that began returning to the trees. “I was shocked and had to ask my mother what they were,” she says.
Ever since, she has cherished greenery — not least the “broccoli forest” of Yanbaru, where she shows me the slight variations between different types of foliage. Sunagawa’s joy at the vibrancy of life mirrors that of her mother a few years after the war.
Miyazato had to hand-make everything her children wore and used, even copying out textbooks for them. She stayed up late one night making a school knapsack out of kimono material sent from relatives in Hawaii. “Yaeko’s delighted face blew my fatigue away,” she writes. “I remember the child’s words as those of yesterday: ‘We have no money, but we are rich, aren’t we?’ ”
It was the possibility of such happiness for her children that gave Miyazato the energy and will to live during the war. Reading her mother’s memoir, Sunagawa learned of this part she played in her mother’s — and through that, her own — survival.
If it hadn’t been for the little life in her arms, Miyazato wrote, she would have given up many times — particularly in the final days of the battle, which were an awful climax to this dark chapter of her otherwise happy life.
Throughout the 82-day battle, her family had fled from cave to cave seeking safety.
“Why did we have to repeat this so many times,” she asked, 43 years later.
Miyazato and 13 relatives and neighbors had evacuated together from Shuri, then a city separate from the capital of Naha in the south, walking hand in hand so they would not be separated.
“At first we were heading north, but before we left Shuri, we were interrupted by a group of people retreating from the north,” she wrote.
They were told it was too late to go north as the U.S. Army had already landed there. Instead they would have to head south, right into what would become the decisive battleground. While some people had already fled north, the Miyazatos had stayed behind because Jinri, Sunagawa’s father, was a schoolteacher and had been ordered to look after the students by the Japanese Army.
“We left home while the neighborhood houses were bombed and engulfed in flames one after another,” Miyazato recalls. Carrying basic first aid supplies, matches, rice, and with the children wearing special hoods that their mother had made to protect them from rain and blast debris, the family marched away from the once-picturesque ancient city burning behind them. They survived for months on very little food, frequently having to move to safer shelters as the battle caught up with them.
During that time, there was one moment of relief Miyazato never forgot. A Korean soldier, whom Miyazato’s husband enjoyed chatting with, sent a junior soldier to get a chicken for the family, which they cooked and ate together.
“We barely survived on raw sweet potatoes and sugar cane. Vegetable and chicken dishes were the special dinner we never dreamed of,” she wrote. “I can never forget that day’s delicious meal and the soldier’s kindness. He saved our lives.”
But the family’s respite was short-lived. The group soon had to move again as the battle worsened and injured soldiers began filling up the cave. Makabe Village, known as one of the worst-hit neighborhoods in the battle, was their next and final destination.
“The scenes I saw there were horrible and I could not believe them to be the real world we lived in,” wrote Miyazato.
A child was clinging to its mother, whose body had swollen like a balloon. Another child was suckling its mother’s breast, which was infested with maggots. The memoir lists gruesome images of death and gore, all told in a disturbingly matter-of-fact way, as though Miyazato was eager to get them out of her head and onto the page for the sake of the historical record.
All 14 members of the group had so far survived despite the chaos around them. In just three days the fighting would be over. But, as Miyazato writes, those last days were “the crossroads of their fates.”
“The bombs and shells were fired from a short distance like a shower over us . . . the 14 people who had always moved together lost their lives one by one.”
On June 17, Miyazato’s husband and son were injured by shellfire — Jinri on the arm, and Hitoshi in the head.
“First my husband, who suffered severe loss of blood, breathed his last breath, leaving me with the words, ‘Look after the children,’ ” Miyazato wrote.
Hitoshi hung on for three more days, but eventually bled to death. The boy was supposed to have evacuated to Taiwan with his older brother, Masaki, and other relatives, who all survived the war, but the 3-year-old cried uncontrollably and his parents couldn’t part with him.
“Fate is a strange thing,” wrote Miyazato. “I never anticipated that Okinawa could be such a hard-fought battlefield of hell.”
The loss of her son, and her mother later the same day, was more than Miyazato’s mind and body could bear.
“I completely lost my head,” she wrote. “I wanted to die with my mother and son.”
Holding little Yaeko in her arms, she walked in the direction of the shelling. Not one hit her.
Then, with Nishimura, her cousin-in-law, calling her to safety, she awoke from her dazed state and rushed to shelter with her baby.
“In my arms , there was a young life to live,” Miyazato wrote. “Without milk or food, it would be gone before long.”
That day the three of them — the only survivors of the group of 14 — were picked up by U.S. Army trucks and taken to a military camp, where they received medical treatment and slowly began rebuilding their lives. The recovery was long and hard, and Miyazato was delirious, haunted by images of Hitoshi. But she was kept going by her baby and Nishimura, whom she remained close to into old age.
While in the camp, despite having a leg injury, Yaeko had already begun trying to walk. Her mother, too weak to chase after her, tied a string between them so that they would not be separated.
“In Japanese we say kizuna, which means a bond or rope of kinship onto which we are all tied,” explains Sunagawa, 70 years later, on the anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa.
She wants people to know this word.
“When this rope is strong, we will do everything in our power to protect each other, and each other’s children, from war.”