ITOMAN, Okinawa Pref. — Stepping out of the dark exhibit room, visitors to the new Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum are overwhelmed by a view of the ocean bright blue under a blazing sun.
The tour portraying Okinawa’s tragic history during and after World War II closes with this breathtaking view of the subtropical landscape of the island’s southern coast.
“Some people have asked us, ‘Are you trying to white out all the memories (of the war) by showing this beautiful landscape?’ ” said a museum official. “But it is not like that. There is a reason for showing this place.”
This, he explained, is where the flight of many Okinawa civilians and Japanese soldiers ended 55 years ago.
Still, one could well be skeptical.
It was first reported by the local press last August that the prefectural government had revised the original blueprints for displays drawn up by the curatorial committee of the museum, which took over from its predecessor in April.
The prefecture’s apparent aim was to play down the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers against their fellow citizens.
During the fierce ground battle between the Imperial Japanese Army and the Allied Forces in 1945, nearly 100,000 civilians — about one quarter of Okinawa’s population — were killed, according to the prefecture.
Others were forced to commit mass suicide ostensibly to maintain their honor as “the Emperor’s subjects.” Some were slaughtered by Japanese soldiers, who were supposed to protect them.
Included in the committee’s recommendations was a life-size display of an Imperial soldier pointing his rifle with fixed bayonet at a woman to get her to hush her crying baby in a cave civilians were using as a hideout.
Prefectural authorities had the weapon removed from the blueprint.
Some explanatory signs were also targeted for modification. Local civilians, the prefecture insisted, were not “slaughtered” but “victimized” by their own soldiers.
The prefecture also intended to remove other displays altogether, many of which related to acts of aggression by the Imperial army in Okinawa and abroad, including the slaying of residents who were forced out of shelters.
No explanations about the prefecture’s modifications were given to the curatorial committee, which had discussed details of the exhibits for more than two years.
“To say nothing of freedom of speech, (the prefectural authorities) intended to revise history,” said Etsujiro Miyagi, a former director of the Okinawa Prefectural Archives and chairman of the curatorial committee of 13 intellectuals.
“It was characteristic of the Battle of Okinawa that (local civilians were killed) by their own soldiers,” he said. “We designed the exhibition displays to send a message that the organization called the military would do anything in extreme circumstances.”
Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine has consistently denied involvement in the alteration of the displays. However, a local newspaper obtained minutes of a meeting with prefectural officials during which Inamine said that the atrocities Japanese soldiers committed against civilians “are facts, but (the displays) should not be anti-Japan.”
Harboring suspicions against the administration, the curatorial committee asked the prefecture to set up an independent panel to run the museum and include on it members from the curatorial committee.
In March, however, the ruling camp in the prefectural assembly adopted a resolution submitted by a local nationalists’ group calling for the exclusion of members of an antiwar organization from executive posts in prefecture-affiliated organizations.
Hitotsubo Hansen Jinushi no Kai (Society of Antiwar 1 Tsubo Landowners) was formed in the early 1980s to support landowners refusing to provide land for U.S. bases. It has more than 2,000 members, including academics, politicians and citizens both within and outside Okinawa who share ownership of some U.S. base land.
Miyagi said some members of the now-dissolved curatorial committee, including himself, belong to the group.
Although the resolution is not binding, the move attracted criticism from various circles who felt it trampled on the principle of democracy.
“(Adopting such a resolution) denies the freedom of creed that the Constitution guarantees,” said Miyagi, a former reporter for Stars and Stripes, the U.S. daily newspaper serving the military.
He also said Inamine could have been subject to “pressure from Tokyo” to have the museum exhibits altered.
Inamine defeated his predecessor, Keiichi Ota, in the 1998 gubernatorial race, pledging to restore relations with the central government — which had become strained during Ota’s administration — to gain economic support from the national government.
His election is just one sign of a trend of central government appeasement in Okinawa prompted by promises of economic support.
In March, University of the Ryukyus professor Kurayoshi Takara presented a paper at an international symposium in the prefecture in which he gave a positive re-evaluation of the role U.S. bases play in Okinawa.
The controversial paper, the “Okinawa Initiative,” has since drawn attention in the prefecture.
“It is a grave concern that we Okinawans willingly accept bases,” said Miyagi, criticizing the paper by Takara, a close aide to Inamine and a former member of a special panel to the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.
Amid this atmosphere, criticism and suspicions about the museum’s exhibits still smolder.
While the public outcry that followed media reports of the prefecture’s alterations prompted officials to more closely follow the committee’s original plans, these are not widely considered sufficient.
The missing weapon in the cave display, for example, was returned, but the rifle is no longer pointing at any one person.
Some visitors went so far as to say that the soldier threatening the civilians is meant instead to appear as if he is protecting them.
Upon seeing the display, one woman who at age 15 survived the Battle of Okinawa commented, “I heard Japanese soldiers shot all the children who were crying.”
Another 70-year-old woman at the museum added, “Facts should be told as facts.”
Still, some visitors appeared to be having difficulty understanding the meaning of some displays because they lack written explanations.
There is also suspicion that phrases in captions unfavorable to the United States were deliberately omitted in their English-language summary.
For example, in exhibits on the Vietnam War and Okinawa, the English summaries mention that U.S. bases in Okinawa were used as staging areas for the war, but do not include the Japanese entry that “Residents of Okinawa were forced to take part in the U.S. war effort against their will.”
Museum curator Seiji Hokama strongly denied that the omission was intentional, pointing out that English-language explanations are not direct translations but summaries.
The fuss over the exhibits, however, had a positive effect on the museum, Hokama said. The museum has had over 100,000 visitors during its first two months, more than half of what its predecessor saw for all of last year.