Postwar legacy holds key to identity of Okinawans

Hardships and benefits of U.S. rule remembered by those who lost everything but stayed alive


NAHA, Okinawa Pref. — Akira Hamamatsu, 75, recalls Emperor Hirohito’s surrender broadcast on Aug. 15, 1945, as little more than a garbled voice mixed with static.

“Defeat meant nothing to me,” said the hospital administrator born in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, who was serving at a Tokyo military base at the time.

Organized resistance by Japanese troops in Okinawa had officially ended on June 23, 1945, 80 days after the Allies landed.

While the brutal combat raged, which Japan’s leaders hoped would dissuade the Allied forces from invading the main archipelago, more than 10,000 American lives were lost as well as 110,000 Imperial troops.

The exact civilian death toll during the 80-day Battle of Okinawa is open to question, as are the causes of many of the deaths. The prefecture puts the fatalities at 122,228, or about one-fourth of the local civilian population. This figure is part of the 148,384 Okinawans, both civilian and military, killed during the entire Pacific War.

“I didn’t know if my father and brothers were alive. I knew my homeland was gone,” Hamamatsu said. “I had lost everything long before the surrender.”

Survivors are searching their memories in a bid to carve an identity as Okinawans, seeking lessons beyond the “no more war” mantra.

“It took a great deal of luck, but also resourcefulness and an immense will to survive to be here today,” said Fumiko Ikari, who teaches Okinawa dialects in Naha.

“People tend to forget that when you talk only about the horrors of war.”

The end of the war literally cut Okinawa off from the rest of Japan.

Forced to depend entirely on the U.S. military for jobs, resources, supplies and any semblance of order, Okinawans in the early postwar period began laying the foundations of their love-hate relationship with America.

“‘You aren’t Japanese — you’re Okinawan,’ ” Hamamatsu remembers a U.S. serviceman telling him while he worked as a refrigerator repairman on a military base in Naha in 1947.

Hamamatsu had to agree; evidence that Tokyo had essentially abandoned Okinawa lay all around him.

Hamamatsu had lost his two brothers, both Imperial army soldiers. His father — a doctor — had tried to commit suicide with a morphine overdose when a U.S. serviceman came to take him away.

But while Tokyo had nothing to offer Hamamatsu and his family in return for their loyalty, the U.S. forces saved his father’s life and let him run a hospital in the village of Chinen in southern Okinawa. They also promised Hamamatsu work, lodging and a daily food ration of 1,400 calories.

But during their 27 years under U.S. control, between 1945 and 1972, Okinawans read censored newspapers and local farmers saw their land seized to build bases, while the number of local killings and rapes rose.

Until March 1947, Okinawans were prohibited from venturing away from their communities without a pass. And, before Okinawa’s reversion in 1972, locals would have to wait three weeks to get the necessary vaccinations and documents to visit the main archipelago, even if relatives were dying there.

Still, Okinawans also recall acts of kindness by U.S. servicemen, as well as the livelihood they earned from the U.S. forces.

The civilian population in Okinawa was dispersed throughout the islands by the time the war ended.

Around 160,000 people had been evacuated to the main archipelago to live in repatriation camps, while most of the remainder were herded into 12 local internment camps — mainly clearings ringed by barbed wire in which residents erected tents or shacks for shelter during the rainy season.

All of the internment camps were not liberated until April 1949, when Okinawans were finally allowed to see what was left of their homes.

In addition to the internment camps, 85 areas known as “kanpan,” derived from the English word “compound,” were created near U.S. military bases.

Around 10,000 people working at the bases were living in tents in the compounds by December 1946, under strict supervision.

The compounds housed as many as one in five Okinawans in the most populous regions of the prefecture, including those who had found work as maids, mechanics, doctors, drivers or deliverers.

Already, the strategically situated prefecture was being transformed into a major Cold War military base.

Conditions in both the camps and compounds were dismal. Local civil government records show poor hygiene and malnutrition took their toll: between April and December 1946, 192,049 people fell ill with infectious diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis, and 954 died, according to conservative estimates by the Okinawan civil government.

The compounds were crawling with mice, food was often riddled with maggots and thefts and other crimes soared.

Between March and September 1946, there were 29 murders, 18 rapes, 16 robberies and 33 injurious assaults, according to Okinawa Gunto government records. 1946 saw 1,435 criminal arrests, mainly for theft, and 1947 saw 2,615.

The local government was the precursor of the Ryukyu Government, the local arm that operated under the U.S. Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands.

Fumiko Nakamura, 88, who started teaching elementary school in 1946 in what is now the city of Motobu, was curious about the ponchos that her students often dragged through the mud.

“I later found out those were ponchos discarded by U.S. troops, and that whole families would use them, sometimes as part of the roof in their shelters,” she said.

Eventually, the wealth of the U.S. forces attracted many of Nakamura’s fellow teachers, who set aside their college pursuits to take jobs on the bases.

Until July 1948, about 80 percent of food was supplied by the U.S., and the rest by local farmers. The U.S. oversaw all food distribution.

Smuggling and bartering outside the bases became common, with prices rocketing for the scarce resources.

According to statistics compiled in August 1946, rice bought off base cost 3.7 times that purchased on base, fish was given a 10-fold markup and tobacco a 6.3-fold hike.

Base workers saw it as their duty to distribute the supplies to which they had access around the community.

“Working alongside refrigerators meant I was always an arm’s length away from food,” Hamamatsu said.

He carried bags of supplies to villages that were rebuilt around the bases, where Okinawans ate out of bowls made from scrap metal.

Once, as he hoarded bags of dried cabbage, ice cream powder and concentrated Coca-Cola, he looked up and saw a soldier watching him.

The soldier started whistling and walked away.

“They probably let me get away other times as well. They knew the conditions we lived in,” Hamamatsu said.

His father was also indebted to the U.S. forces for the medicine and supplies he used at his clinic, which began as a small shack bearing a sign that read in English, “Japanese Hospital.”

“The U.S. soldiers were so happy to go home, they would dump truckloads of medical supplies in front of that sign,” Hamamatsu recalled.

The U.S. government also provided overseas study programs for Okinawans. Many of those who studied under them later took leading roles in Okinawa’s political and economic development. By 1950, 71 students had received funds from the U.S. forces to study at U.S. universities.

As of last October, more than 1,110 Okinawans had received U.S.-funded scholarships in Okinawa, according to the Association of Fulbright Scholars of Okinawa.

The list of those who studied in the U.S. includes 68-year-old Mikio Higa, a former vice governor and current president of Busena Resort.

Higa studied at two University of California branches in 1950, working on farms in the state during the summer.

“It was in the U.S. that I studied the ideals that the Americans champion: democracy, independence and efficiency,” Higa says. “I am grateful for the program. It gave me ammunition to fight back, using American words, American methods.”

Higa later helped compile the 1959 Conrad Report, which recommended to the U.S. Senate that Okinawa be returned to Japanese rule.

U.S. forces public relations officers in Okinawa sometimes wonder aloud why the local media focuses so little on positive aspects of the U.S. presence, and why locals snub gestures of goodwill.

Okinawan public schools until last year declined offers by U.S. service members volunteering to provide English-conversation classes. These rejections were partly based on antibase sentiments.

“If it weren’t for the U.S. bases, we wouldn’t have grown dependent on them and Okinawa’s economy would have flourished in the last half century,” said Matsusho Miyazato, a former vice governor of Okinawa.

In this regard, he cited Okinawa’s strategic location, claiming the prefecture could have become a center of trade among Japan, China and Southeast Asia.

Under U.S. rule, Okinawa did not reap the full benefits of Japan’s postwar economic growth. Many Okinawans expected life to be better after the 1972 reversion. But 30 years later, Okinawa remains the poorest prefecture, with per capita pretax income at 2.2 million yen, 70 percent of the national average, according to Okinawa Prefecture.

Although Miyazato wishes more Americans would acknowledge the damage he believes U.S. rule inflicted on Okinawa’s economy, he has grown discouraged.

“I have known many fine individual Americans,” Miyazato said. “But as soon as you start talking about U.S. military practices, you can see their minds shut down.”