“We always seem to be at the tail end of history, dragged along roads already ruined by others.”

— “Memoirs of a Declining Ryukyuan Women,” Kushi Fusako

On a recent trip to the Pacific island of Guam, I came across a peculiar omission in the memorialization of war. During World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army used forced labor to dig shelters into cliffs whose entrances, with rusting grill doors bolted into rock, resemble cages.

The English half of a commemorative stone at one such site listed Koreans, Chinese and Okinawans among the corvee labor used in such constructions. The Japanese translation made no mention of Okinawans. Had the local inhabitants really been slave workers alongside other Asians?

In the confusion of war it was sometimes difficult to differentiate between volunteer and unwilling conscript. Seventy years on, the claim I often come across — that Okinawan villagers had been used by Imperial Army troops as human shields in their struggle with American ground forces — is similarly difficult to substantiate. On islands whose history, to quote the former governor of Okinawa, Masahide Ota, has essentially been that of a “poor ethnic group at the southernmost tip of the Japanese archipelago, expendable whenever national powers felt it necessary for their ‘larger’ purposes,” possibilities like these remained in the realm of the appallingly feasible.

Okinawans had no history of war, and did not make or carry arms. When told of this renouncement of militarism by an English sea captain laying anchor in Corsica, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have been stupefied. Now in the spring of 1945, Okinawans were awaiting the appearance of the largest amphibious assault force the world had ever known, a massive armada of ships, carrying more than 545,000 battle-tested soldiers and hardened U.S. Marines, a number considerably larger than the population of Okinawa and four times that of the defending Japanese troops.

Their tactical equipment alone made the rickety kamikaze planes Japan was about to employ, look like cranky medieval machinery. Trapped between two homicidal powers, there would be few places for Okinawans to hide.

U.S. forces landed on the Kerama Islands, to the west of mainland Okinawa, on March 26, 1945. During the skirmishes that followed, 329 civilians of Tokashiki Island killed themselves, allegedly on the orders of the Japanese commander who wished to conserve food for his men. Japanese propaganda, which contained lurid descriptions of American bestiality, was so effective that roughly 700 women, children and elderly inhabitants of the Keramas killed themselves when the 10th U.S. Army invaded.

On the main island, Japanese soldiers were already well dug in, hunkered down in caves, limestone gorges and along rocky corridors impenetrable to tanks. With the commencement of the invasion of mainland Okinawa, massive turret guns began flinging shells weighing between 12 and 800 pounds at the beaches. Carrier fighter-bombers soaked the sands with tanks of flaming napalm, a substance that the Americans would deploy to devastating effect in a later war in Southeast Asia. U.S. soldiers landed on mainland Okinawa on the morning of April 1, after a 2½-hour bombardment orchestrated from a fleet of some 1,300 ships positioned off Kadena and Yomitan on the southwestern coast of the mainland.

During the ensuing battle, less a defense of Okinawa than a delaying tactic to slow the advance of U.S. forces into mainland Japan, neither side were over concerned about the niceties of the Geneva Convention. Kamikaze planes exploded on the decks of hospital ships, while the Americans hurled shells and directed flamethrowers into the mouths of caves that had been turned into makeshift clinics, and released hydrogen phosphorous at entrances in order to asphyxiate those within. Holes dug as latrines outside the cave mouths swarmed with maggots and blowflies in the oppressive heat. In the ruins of homes, pigs foraged among the debris, picking at the entrails of the dead. In a culture where pig intestines were ritually consumed during festivals, the inverted spectacle of pigs feasting on human innards must have struck Okinawans as grotesquely ironic.

As the battle intensified, lost children wandered across the battlefield. It became second nature for them to dig into the pockets or prize open the rucksacks of dead soldiers in the hope of finding morsels of food. Many people managed to survive for weeks and months on imokuzu, a starchy substance made from grated potato, which was dried until it turned into flakes of starch. These were dissolved in water mixed with black, unrefined sugar.

One of the lost children was 7-year-old Tomiko Higa, who managed to remain alive through a mixture of scavenging, mobility and good fortune. Higa, in her book “The Girl with the White Flag,” recalled adults screaming out in fear of American combatants.

“They’re going to put us all in a big hole, pour gasoline on us and set us on fire!” one cried.

Another rumor claimed that U.S. soldiers were butchering children by ripping them open at the crotch. Accounts of Japanese soldiers stealing food from starving civilians, driving them from places of refuge, murdering alleged spies, and raping women, failed to inspire Okinawans with trust.

Goaded into self-annihilation, many Okinawans chose to leap to their deaths from cliffs. Others resorted to using razor blades, kitchen knives, strings, rat poison, stones and rocks to kill themselves and their children.

“Imagine,” historian Koji Taira wrote, “a group of terror-stricken people totally untrained in the art of killing trying to assist one another to die.”

Military historian Hanson W. Baldwin, reporting on the conflict for The New York Times, wrote that “the battle for Okinawa can be described only in the grim superlatives of war. In size, scope and ferocity, it dwarfed the Battle of Britain.”

Between 130,000 and 140,000 Okinawans were killed, almost a third of the island population. The battle had lasted for 83 days without respite.

The legacy of war is nowhere more apparent than in Okinawa. Returning to their homes at the end of the conflict, many people found that, under continued American occupation, their villages had simply vanished, land turned into airfields and military barracks, homes burned to the ground. The construction of U.S. bases accelerated with the outbreak of the Korean War. Indifferent to the fact that farmers who resisted giving up their land were being confronted with bayonet-wielding Americans, Japanese construction firms swarmed into the prefecture to build airfields, missile storage installations and highways designed to facilitate the swift movement of military vehicles and weaponry.

After risking their lives and surrendering property, Okinawans were inveighed in the postwar era to renounce their “backward” culture and embrace the national drive toward self-betterment. With the development of a base economy, unemployed farmers were subjected to the humiliation of seeking low-paid work on installations that had once been their own land holdings before they were expropriated.

Okinawans, pressed into sacrificing their birthright to protect the Imperial mainland, were now being called on to defend the free world. As a depot for the storage of chemical, gas and bacteriological weapons, Okinawa, now termed the “cornerstone of the Pacific,” would be used as a staging post for dry-run drills in counterinsurgency warfare on the Korean Peninsula, and as a surveillance post for spying on China and North Korea.

During the Vietnam War, roughly 100,000 soldiers and their family members were stationed at one time or another in Okinawa. As the island became a key base for American bombing missions in Vietnam, the number of military personnel increased and with it the need to provide facilities for young Americans on R&R (rest and relaxation). The immediate effects of hosting exhausted, traumatized young men fresh from the horrors of the Indochinese jungles, should have been predictable. The incidence of theft, rape, even murder, should have surprised no one.

The American occupation of Okinawa lasted 27 years, one month and 14 days. A second wave of protest, however, followed reversion to mainland Japan on May 15, 1972. The majority of Okinawans had supported reversion, believing it would bring an end to the bases and parity with the mainland. People who had planned to decorate the streets with flags, lanterns and bunting in the mistaken belief that the U.S. presence would end once the island reverted, now found themselves at the head of celebration parades that had turned into protest marches.

Okinawans continue to feel uncomfortable with a military presence that makes them appear to be in collusion with wars like those fought in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. “Watching all those planes taking off on bombing missions to overseas battlefields,” a man protesting the construction of a new military facility in Henoko told me, “we felt implicated in war, but we’re the most anti-war activists in the country.”

Naha’s Kokusai-dori (International Street), an animated shopping and entertainment strip, lives up to its name, attracting a polyglot mix of visitors. It also provides some salutary reminders of the confused legacy of war and occupation. Military surplus shops entice tourists in with advertisements for military souvenirs such as metal dog tags, brass bullet casings, olive-green flak jackets, and camouflaged pants and helmets. A billboard outside one store named Surprise Attack! depicts a naked woman grabbing a towel to protect herself.

Inside another store, moving among the green webbing and plastic assault weapons, I picked up a hand grenade from a basket full of ammo straps, only to find it was made of rubber. The shop assistant demonstrated how it could be bounced around like a squash ball. These affronts to good taste seemed to be popular among young Japanese. In a different shop, its doors open to a side street thronging with mainland tourists, a young Japanese woman grabbed a bayonet that had been treated to appear as if it were stained with gore, lunged forward and let out a blood-curdling cry, drawing howls of laughter from passers-by.

After inspecting the ancient walls of Shuri Castle, carefully reconstructed after heavy pounding in the war, I decided to walk the few kilometers back to central Naha via back roads passing between the great city of the dead that is the graveyard of Shikina. During the war, locals used the mezzanine levels of sarcophagi as shelters. Japanese soldiers requisitioned them as weapon storage facilities. Huddled in these damp chambers, known as kameko-baka (“turtle back tombs”), the elderly believed the spirits of their ancestors would protect them from the ear-splitting ordnance outside. In the tropics, though, spiritual purity and putrefaction are incongruously linked. The Okinawan expression “shimi kara munun shinun” (“things begin to spoil with the festival of tomb cleansing)” suggests that as soon as things are purified, they begin to decay.

The memory of death and decay stalked me through this southern part of the island. Memorializing the past is an abiding theme in Okinawa, war memories an inseparable part of Okinawan thought and culture. At Mabuni, site of horrendous carnage and civilian suicides, the Okinawan Cornerstone of Peace is the island’s most important war memorial. The long upright slabs of stone, inscribed with the names of the war dead, are clearly influenced by Maya Lin’s Vietnam War memorial in Washington, but with one significant difference. Where the Washington memorial confines its names to fallen American soldiers, the Okinawan site includes the names of all those who died: Americans, Okinawans, Japanese, Taiwanese, Koreans and others. It also lists the names of civilians who perished. The memorial makes no attempt to condemn or take a position on the conduct of the war.

A measure of the sensitivity to war-related issues, however, was apparent in the summer before the inauguration of the Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum on April 1, 2000. With the complicity of pro-Tokyo Gov. Kaichi Inamine, exhibition content was altered without the knowledge or agreement of the committee assigned to advise on the layout and captioning of items.

One telling instance was a diorama set in a limestone cave. Intended to show a Japanese soldier threatening a mother and child at gunpoint, members of the committee discovered that the soldier’s rifle had been removed. After complaints, it was reinstated, but when the final exhibition opened to the public, the bayonet was angled not at the cowering family, but over them, suggesting they were being protected. Likewise, exhibition organizers were ordered to change wording in the museum guide. Thus, the word gyakusatsu (massacre) was replaced by gisei (sacrifice).

The pressure put on the organizers of the exhibition to modify their representation of Japanese aggression toward Okinawan civilians reflects a divide between accounts by survivors of suicide coercion, rape and murder committed by Japanese soldiers and mainland representation, which emphasizes heroism and sacrifice.

Close to battle-scarred Mabuni, the Himeyuri no To has become a potent symbol of Japanese coercion in the war. The Himeyuri (Maiden Lily Student Nurse Corps), were high school girls dragooned into accompanying Japanese soldiers into battle as medics. Almost 600 female students were forced to serve as battle nurses. More than half these young people lost their lives.

It is never really possible in Okinawa to evade the war. In mainland Japan the clamoring voices of the war dead, although audible from time to time, are often treated as an embarrassment, silenced in the fluids of amnesia. In Okinawa, the horrors of the past, like an infection of the blood, are not so easily expunged.

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.