Attending a protest is not the only way to gain understanding about the postwar reality of U.S. bases in the southern island prefecture of Okinawa. A museum adjacent to a key U.S. base has become an unlikely place where lessons about the roots of the base dating back to the 1945 Battle of Okinawa can be learned.

Michio Sakima, director of Sakima Art Museum — which sits on land that was part of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma in Ginowan in the central part of Okinawa Prefecture — says his museum takes on the role of teaching visitors, including younger generations, about the horrors of the Battle of Okinawa and its connection to the Futenma base issue.

The 70-year-old director says the museum, which shares a fence with the Futenma base built during the battle, sits on his ancestral land returned in 1992 by the U.S. military after three years of negotiation.

“Sakima Art Museum can offer an in-depth insight by looking into the Futenma base issue through the Battle of Okinawa. It is both history and current reality,” Sakima says.

The museum displays 14 panels of “Okinawasen no Zu” (which translates to “Pictures of the Battle of Okinawa”) depicting the devastation of the 1945 battle, where an estimated 200,000 people died. Of them, some 94,000 were civilians, meaning 1 in 4 people living there at the time fell victim to the months-long battle on the island in the closing days of World War II.

“The Battle of Okinawa clearly shows how Okinawa was sacrificed. It was a war that should have ended without using civilians as shields. … This situation or thinking by some leaders from mainland Japan that Okinawa can be sacrificed remains to this day,” he says.

The panels, which depict victims that are women and children, are the work of the late couple, Iri and Toshi Maruki, known for their collaboration on a different, famed series of panels, the so-called Hiroshima Panels, which depict the horrors of the August 1945 bombing of Hiroshima.

Sakima, an art collector and former acupuncturist, recounts how he was shocked and speechless when he first saw the Marukis’ painting of the Battle of Okinawa in 1984, saying, “Okinawa was beyond all help.”

Inspired by his meeting with the Marukis that same year and learning they wanted the 1984 Battle of Okinawa panels displayed in Okinawa, Sakima began looking for a place to build a museum. Growing close to the couple, he was eventually entrusted with the panels.

The centerpiece of his museum are the 4-by-8.5-meter panels, which were produced after extensive research and time spent listening to survivor testimonies.

Sakima also laments how Okinawa continues to be “forced” to host about 74 percent of the total acreage of U.S. facilities in Japan, despite the southernmost prefecture only accounting for 0.6 percent of the country’s land area.

He believes Okinawa “being sacrificed” can be seen in the long-stalled Futenma relocation plan. The central government is pushing this in line with an accord with the United States, but local residents are opposed to relocating the base to a different area, still within Okinawa, and want it outside of the prefecture.

Sakima’s own struggle in the lead-up to opening the museum in 1994 is in itself a success story of overcoming the barriers set by the Japanese government to regain what is rightfully his, and also speaks of the relationship between Japan and the United States.

“I wanted the museum to be surrounded by greenery and overlooking the sea from the rooftop. However, almost none of the privately owned land fit the bill until I thought of my 1,801 square meter ancestral land,” he said.

U.S. bases in Okinawa were built on land, including his ancestral land, expropriated from Okinawan people under the postwar U.S. occupation that lasted through 1972.

When he went to the then Defense Facilities Administration Agency’s Naha bureau, he was told that his request had to go through several Japan-U.S. negotiations, ending with so-called “two-plus-two” security talks involving the countries’ defense and foreign chiefs.

“It was an issue of a border between countries,” Sakima says, adding he was repeatedly told by the bureau that the U.S. military side was “reluctant” to meet his request.

Three years after filing a request, he asked where his case stood, and found to his dismay that it was not progressing at all. He realized that the bureau was not doing its job and was simply waiting for him to give up.

He approached the Ginowan city office, saying he wanted to build a museum. Through the support of a city official, he met an official of a U.S. military-linked real estate administration office who agreed to his proposed museum, citing the benefits for Ginowan.

In contrast to the delayed response of the Japanese government, the response of the official from the U.S. side was quick, making him realize that it was the central government after all that was hindering his plan.

“I thought before that Japan-U.S. ties were surely on equal footing, but I realized that was not so and that Japan was in a subservient relationship and held back from saying things to the United States,” he says.

Sakima, who opened the museum in November 1994 with the Marukis attending an opening ceremony, says he also wanted to use the museum to make the voices of Okinawans heard in mainland Japan, saying islanders often feel “discriminated” against by political leaders in Tokyo.

Recounting one of his conversations with the Marukis, Sakima says they were worried how many people in Japan would associate the war with air raids, overlooking the ground battles, and view Japan as a war victim, not an aggressor to its neighboring Asian nations.

He says they felt this line of thinking may lead Japan to go to war again.

In a bid to give a full telling of history to the young people who visit the museum, Sakima makes sure elementary and high school students on school excursions to the museum understand the link between wartime history and the modern-day conjecture with the bases in Okinawa.

Typically, Sakima guides school groups through the Battle of Okinawa, using the panels to demonstrate, before taking the visitors to the rooftop where they are briefed about the Futenma base while looking over the area.

The museum, which was placed on a U.N. list of peace museums in 1995, says 40,000 visitors come annually and hopes that more visitors, especially from other Asian countries, will come. The museum also offers a collection of other items with themes of peace and war such as works by German artist Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945).

As part of its international exchanges, the museum has lent some of its collection to museums in China and South Korea.

While looking toward expanding visitor numbers from outside Japan, Sakima says he finds it important to give Okinawans “space” to reflect on themselves and their identity.

Sakima Art Museum; 358 Uehara, Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture. 098-893-5737; www.sakima.jp.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.