SAN FRANCISCO – As a 10-year-old girl, Alice Shikina learned about 222 young schoolgirls in Okinawa who were recruited to nurse wounded Japanese soldiers in caves on the island as they fought American troops in what became the bloodiest battle of the Pacific during World War II.
As an American university student, she felt the impact of their words as she read journals displayed at a museum dedicated to the Himeyuri Student Corps.
“When I returned as an adult, the stories stayed with me and I wanted to learn more about who these girls were and what kind of experiences they all had,” Shikina said, explaining that a lack of English materials on the subject frustrated her, leading her to write a play to educate audiences.
While based mostly on fact, “Okinawa 1945,” which was shown on weekends in June at San Francisco’s NOHspace Theater, centered on three fictional teens who were called to serve their country by tending to Japanese soldiers.
The three Miyamoto sisters formed part of a group of high school girls known in English as the “Princess Lily.” They were mobilized into service on March 23, 1945, shortly before the U.S. troops landed.
The story skillfully weaves into its scenes well-documented facts as recalled by survivors, now in their 80s, whom Shikina interviewed last year when she went to Okinawa for research.
Those experiences were transferred onto the stage when the three sisters — Keiko, Akiko and Yuko — and Naoko, their classmate, first encounter a severely wounded Japanese soldier who is brought to them for medical attention.
With little training, the distraught youngsters are at first horrified to see the wound infested by maggots. As many survivors did, the girls in the play use chopsticks to pluck them out, but the situation becomes worse when they must amputate his arm.
In the engaging story, Shikina paints each sister in a unique light — providing audiences with insights into the complex relationship the islanders had with Japan.
Although Okinawa is Japan’s southernmost prefecture, it was formerly known as the Ryukyu Kingdom and not part of Japan until it was forcefully incorporated as a colony in 1879. With its own culture and language, Okinawans frequently faced discrimination.
In the battle, during which 200,000 lives were lost, including 15,000 Americans, one-third of the Okinawan population perished as civilians were often caught in the crossfire.
While some people like Akiko, the middle sister, enthusiastically joined the war effort to serve their countrymen without question, others, including Keiko, the oldest, expressed reservations about committing to a cause she did not understand, preferring to stay behind with her widowed mother.
Yuko, the youngest, is aware of her position. Realistically understanding that she cannot walk away from her duty, she bravely joins her classmates and does her best.
Like the others, she not only suffers from the trying conditions, including living in a dank cave, surviving on one rice ball a day, suffering as she watches people die, but she also endures unwanted advances from a bigoted Japanese soldier.
Unlike the others, however, who take their own lives for fear of being raped and tortured by the enemy, she disobeyed the final command to kill herself.
Tragically, after the order to disband was handed down on June 18, the number of group suicides by teachers and students escalated as did the number of girls killed after being sent out from the caves. In the end, 136 Himeyuri students and teachers died.
In an interview with Kyodo News, Shikina spoke of the positive feedback she received by phone and letters from audience members who were greatly moved by the story and its enlightening content.
Paul Haase, who taught English in Okinawa in the late 1980s, said he was drawn to the play to better understand what happened. At the time he lived there he was unable to learn enough from either the older generation who seemed reluctant to talk about it or the younger population who did not seem to have an understanding of what transpired.
“So I appreciated your play all the more for my minor personal connection with the history and people it presents,” he wrote in a letter. “I feel Okinawans would be proud of the way you told this story of theirs.”
Elaborating on what audiences reacted most to, Shikina said: “I think they were surprised that the young girls were forced to take care of the soldiers. I also think that maybe what moved them was the fact that so many of them died.”
While some like Rob Shaw knew of the large number of American losses in the Battle of Okinawa, he did not realize schoolgirls were used or how it impacted their families.
“I didn’t realize how the whole situation reached into the families,” the Silicon Valley engineer said, remarking on the sad scene when the Miyamoto mother desperately pleads with the teacher to keep one daughter at home.
Another viewer, Sarah Cluff, echoed similar sentiments, saying: “It was totally shocking. I didn’t assume that citizens were called into the cause.” The schoolteacher was also surprised about the discrimination that the Okinawans endured despite their contributions to the war effort and heavy losses.
It is Shikina’s hope that her play shines a light on this tragic chapter of World War II so that it is not repeated or forgotten.
“I would like for them (audiences) to walk away with an awareness and to be inspired to find out more about the Battle of Okinawa,” Shikina said. “I think it is a large part of history living under the shadow of Hiroshima.”
Although the production closed after having sold out in its final days, Shikina now has her sights set on new possibilities. She has already been contacted by someone in Canada who wants to translate the play into Japanese and there have been suggestions it should be turned into a movie.
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