NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – Yoshiko Shimabukuro ended her career as a storyteller at the Himeyuri Peace Museum in Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture, earlier this year, confident that her younger successors can help visitors understand the misery of war and importance of anti-war efforts.
The museum opened in 1989 in dedication to a group of 222 students and 18 teachers from Okinawa Daiichi Women’s High School and the female division of Okinawa Teacher’s School. They were mobilized by the Imperial Japanese Army as a nursing unit on March 23, 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa in the closing months of World War II. The group was called Himeyuri Gakutotai (Star Lily Corps).
Of all the students and teachers, 136 died, most within a week after an order of dissolution was issued to the unit on June 18, 1945. The death toll included one teacher and nine students who committed suicide.
Shimabukuro, 87, is one of the survivors and has spoken to visitors about her experience as a member of the unit for 26 years, propelled by a sense of “mission” she feels when she thinks of her lost friends in the group.
“We were ordered to move out of a . . . cave, leaving injured friends behind,” she recalled. “I wonder what they (were thinking about) when they died. I’m sure they died lonely, without even being able to sip water.”
The museum stopped asking survivors to recall their experiences in March because of their advanced ages. Their ranks have dwindled to nine from 27 when the museum opened. Staff in their 30s to 50s have taken over their work since April.
During her final day of work in late March, Shimabukuro spoke to some 150 high school students and asked them to “become people who can say ‘no’ to war.”
Shimabukuro is worried that young people today are less concerned about war. Ten years ago, after listening to survivors’ experiences young audience members often said that they had not known about the misery of war and would talk about it with friends.
But these days, many of them say “You went through a lot of trouble, didn’t you?” according to Shimabukuro.
“I wonder if they think they won’t . . . have to go to war even if it occurs,” she said.
While the number of people who experienced World War II falls, the Diet is deliberating on security bills that would allow Japanese troops to fight overseas for the first time since Japan’s defeat in that conflict.
“I cannot help but feel that preparations for war are starting again,” Shimabukuro said. “I have been wishing for the advent of an era when people don’t need to talk about war experiences. But now we are at the most crucial period of time.”
Hiromi Onabe, 34, who has been with the museum for nine years, became a storyteller in April. “She will be all right because she has watched us (Himeyuri survivors),” Shimabukuro said.
“Unlike the survivors, I can neither attract visitors with my talk nor offer direct experiences,” Onabe said. “But I would like to tell as many people as possible of hardships the survivors have endured.”
During her talk at the museum to some 140 junior high school students from Kakogawa, Hyogo Prefecture, in early June, Onabe said: “It may be difficult but imagine what you would do if you had to leave an injured friend, next to you now, behind.”
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