NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – The children and grandchildren of a former Imperial Japanese Army soldier visit Ie Island in Okinawa Prefecture by ferry from Okinawa Island every spring.
The journey is both spiritual ceremonial: to attend a memorial service for victims of fierce fighting between Japanese and U.S. forces on the small isle seven decades ago, and to thank a banyan tree for saving their relative’s life.
“This Gajumaru tree was possibly our savior because my father was able to return home thanks to it, though I can scarcely imagine his strange experiences,” Mitsuru Sashida, 67, said during a visit April 21 to attend a ceremony marking 70 years since the U.S. military declared Ie Island occupied during the Battle of Okinawa in the closing weeks of World War II.
Mitsuru, a former worker at the Naha city office, is the second son of Shujun Sashida, who managed to climb up the tree after being shot in the leg during the fierce six-day firefight on the island.
U.S. forces landed on Ie Island on April 16, 1945, and bitter fighting with Japanese garrison forces ensued. The U.S. military declared its capture of Ie Island five days later. It was one of the conflicts during the Battle of Okinawa, in which 1 in 4 people in the prefecture died.
An estimated 3,500 Japanese were killed in the fighting on Ie, and 1,500 of them were local villagers, according to the Ie Village Office.
Shujun, who was born on Okinawa Island and drafted to take part in the defense of the tiny isle, was initially engaged in building up battle positions. But his unit faced U.S. airstrikes and naval bombardments even before the enemy’s landing, according to his personal notes and other materials.
Climbing a big Gajumaru tree in a desperate attempt to survive, Shujun laid out tree branches so as not to be seen from below. At night, he climbed down and ate food left over by American soldiers and emptied his bowels.
The most difficult part of life in the tree was when it rained, because he had no other choice but to dry his clothes with his own body heat and the wind. He also endured typhoons and a malaria infection, as well as encounters with U.S. soldiers on the occupied island.
Although World War II ended some four months later, Shujun continued hiding in the tree until March 1947 — for a total of nearly two years — without knowing about the war’s end.
Another Japanese soldier, Shizuo Yamaguchi, from Miyazaki Prefecture, had taken refuge in a tree nearby, and the two encouraged each other to keep going.
The two soldiers’ experiences later became the subject of a stage drama by playwright Hisashi Inoue.
After the war, Shujun led a happy life with his wife and five children in Okinawa, farming and managing a public bathhouse in a city now called Uruma.
But on June 30, 1959, a U.S. military jet crashed into an elementary school building near his home, killing 17 people, including 11 schoolchildren. Although Mitsuru and two other children from the Sashida family, who were students at the school, were unharmed, a girl who often visited the bathhouse died, recalled Kazumi, 63, one of Shujun’s daughters.
Local children, including members of the Sashida family, were shocked and plagued by nightmares. “We couldn’t talk about the accident after seeing friends totally burned,” Mitsuru said.
For Mitsuru, however, that changed after he turned 50, believing he must tell younger generations about what happened. His siblings followed suit.
Although Okinawa returned to Japanese rule in May 1972, it still hosts some 74 percent of the total acreage used for U.S. military bases in Japan.
Despite local opposition, the Japanese government is pushing ahead with a plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the prefecture, moving it to the Henoko area in Nago from Ginowan.
“The forced burden of hosting military bases on Okinawa is unfair,” Mitsuru said. “The postwar period has probably ended for Japan, but not for Okinawa.”
A series of accidents, including the 1959 crash, feels like experiencing the war again, he said.
The Sashida family’s campaign for peace traces its roots to Shujun’s call for “no war under any circumstances,” Mitsuru said.
Shujun used to visit Ie Island to fulfill his “duty of consoling the souls of comrades fallen there.” After Shujun died at age 91 in 2009, his oldest son, Tsutomu, 75, began visiting the island on his father’s behalf.
People in Okinawa consider that a spirit locally called Kijimuna resides in Gajumaru trees. The big tree used by Shujun as his hideout has been selected as one of the 100 “noblest trees” in Okinawa. The village purchased land around it to preserve the 100-year-old tree.
“We directly listened to our father’s experiences and it is our duty to pass them down to new generations,” Mitsuru said.
“We shouldn’t let future generations experience the fears our father went through,” Tsutomu added.
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.