NAHA, Okinawa Pref. – Toshie Asato still regrets that she could not save the life of her 9-month-old baby in the closing days of World War II 70 years ago.
The 94-year-old Okinawan left her home in the village of Kitanakagusuku in the central part of Okinawa island in April 1945, carrying her baby daughter, Kazuko, to escape from massive U.S. air raids that local people called an “iron windstorm.”
Before reaching a cave in the southern part of the island, Asato lost her mother and in-laws.
Asato, like others, became malnourished due to the shortage of food and was unable to breast-feed Kazuko, who starved to death in the cave on June 16, 1945.
“I could do nothing but stroke my dying daughter,” she said.
On June 23, when Japanese forces ceased organized military operations, Asato and her family surrendered to the U.S. military. She then lost her husband and eldest son, who both became ill while being held in a camp. “I wanted to die so that I could follow them many times,” she said.
On the 32nd anniversary of the deaths of her family members during the Battle of Okinawa, an important memorial event in Buddhism, Asato decided to speak publicly about her experiences for the sake of those who died in the fighting.
She has continued to speak out despite her age because of the magnitude of the losses during the battle — some 200,000 Japanese and Americans died, including roughly 94,000 civilians, or 1 in 4 of Okinawa’s population at the time.
Sadamitsu Ushijima, a 61-year-old elementary school teacher from Tokyo, visited Okinawa about 20 years ago for the first time as a member of a teacher group who held peace education classes at their schools.
Ushijima had long been reluctant to visit Okinawa due to his sense of unease at the praise accorded by relatives to his grandfather, Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima of the Imperial Japanese Army, who commanded Japanese forces in Okinawa.
Four days before committing suicide on June 23, the general ordered his surviving troops to continue waging guerrilla warfare to the last man in order to demonstrate their loyalty to the Emperor.
As a result of the order, the surrender of Japanese forces in Okinawa was delayed until Sept. 7, after Japan’s surrender in World War II.
Ushijima wondered why his grandfather had not tried to end the fighting, which inflicted a heavy sacrifice on the people of Okinawa. To find an answer to the question, he began to visit Okinawa almost every year.
On April 1, 1945, some 183,000 U.S. soldiers landed on a beach at Yomitan, a village in the central part of Okinawa Island, which was defended by 102,000 Japanese soldiers. Given the difference in strength, the Japanese military resorted to a battle of attrition from their main base in the Shuri district in the central part of the island.
Gen. Ushijima ordered a retreat to the southern part of Okinawa on May 22. While the fighting continued, the southern region was crowded with soldiers and civilian refugees. All were subjected to U.S. attacks.
“I wonder why my grandfather made the cruel and reckless decision on the retreat to the south, though he must have known it would increase casualties among civilians,” Ushijima said.
Ushijima teaches the Battle of Okinawa to children in his peace education class but has yet to find an answer to that question.
On May 27, an annual memorial service was held in Tomigusuku for Imperial Japanese Navy officers and soldiers who died in the Battle of Okinawa. Taosa Ochiai, 76, whose father, Minoru Ota, commanded a naval force during the battle, attended the service as he has done every year.
The Japanese military conscripted a large number of civilians in Okinawa, including minors, into service for the battle, and many of them killed themselves to avoid being taken prisoner.
Just a week before committing suicide on June 13, 1945, Ota sent an unusual telegraph from the underground command center in Tomigusuku to the vice admiral of the navy, calling for “special consideration” for people in Okinawa because of the huge sacrifices they were called on to make during the battle.
“My father probably wanted to express his gratitude to the people (of Okinawa) who devoted themselves to the state,” said Ochiai, a former Maritime Self-Defense Forces member.
Former Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota, 90, who was conscripted into service as a student, said, “Commander Ota was the only high-ranking military officer who described the hardships endured by people in the prefecture at the time.”
Okinawa people “still bear that telegram in mind and prize it,” Ota said.
Though 70 years have passed since the end of World War II, Okinawa hosts 73.7 percent of the total acreage of U.S. military facilities in Japan despite accounting for 0.6 percent of the country’s territory.
“I don’t think Okinawa has received the ‘special consideration’ mentioned in the telegram by the commander,” Ota said.