There are many films, fiction and nonfiction, about the Battle of Okinawa, a conflict that, from April to June 1945, claimed an estimated 240,000 lives, including U.S. and Japanese military, and Okinawan civilians.

Many in the latter group had been drafted into home defense or labor units, the most famous being the Himeyuri Student Nurse Corps, 222 teen girls who served as nurses behind the lines. Of this number 123 died, most by suicide to avoid capture.

The focus of “Boy Soldiers: The Secret War in Okinawa,” a documentary co-directed by Chie Mikami and Hanayo Oya, is on the “hidden war” of spies and guerrilla fighters. Unlike the Himeyuri girls, who have previously been the subject of tear-jerking movies, this lesser-known side of the battle has been ignored by the local entertainment industry.

Boy Soldiers: The Secret War in Okinawa (Okinawa Supai Senshi)
Run Time 114 mins.
Opens JUly 21 (Okinawa), July 28 (tokyo)

Featuring interviews with elderly Okinawans who were children at the time, the film matches their witness testimony to period photographs and footage, creating a vivid document that strips away official lies and sentimentalized fictions. It also deepened my understanding of why, 73 years after the battle, so many Okinawans are vehemently opposed to war in general and the U.S. military presence on their island in particular.

Okinawan boys aged 14 to 17 were organized in guerilla units called Gokyotai, led by elite mainland officers. From the hills above the landing beaches they launched raids, including attacks on enemy tanks that often ended with the young attacker crushed under treads (illustrated with unsettling photographs). “I wished I had never been born,” says one survivor. “If I’d never been born I wouldn’t have to die and make my parents sad.”

Gokyotai boys were also used to execute real or imagined spies within their ranks, as well as the sick and wounded who had become a burden. One Gokyotai veteran remembers how an older brother he thought had died in battle was actually killed by injection after he had started behaving erratically. His executioner was a military doctor.

Meanwhile on Hateruma, an island off Okinawa, a young mainlander named Yamashita came to teach at a local elementary school and, as his former pupils warmly testify, was well liked. Then one day he appeared in public with a Japanese sword and stern expression and told the islanders they would have to evacuate to nearby Iriomote Island, which was infested with malarial mosquitoes. As researchers later learned, Yamashita was an undercover military agent, sent by superiors worried the islanders might aid invading Allied troops. Two sisters, aged 11 and 13 at the time, recall how all their family members died of malaria and the Iriomote beach became covered with bodies.

These and other stories — all pointing to the calculated use of Okinawans to further Japanese war aims, with no regard for their welfare -— are a powerful counter to the standard war narrative of Japanese-as-victims, noble (kamikaze pilots) or innocent (the aforementioned Himeyuri nurses).

Relayed with tears and anger, these stories also clarify why the survivors are skeptical about claims, repeated by generations of mainland politicians, that the large military presence on the island is needed for “defense”: “Those bases just make us a target,” says one woman. She speaks with the authority of the once-targeted, who can never forget the injustices — or the dead.

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