Naha – In his lifetime, Zenichi Yoshimine has seen Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, burn twice.
The building was destroyed by fire during the Battle of Okinawa, a fierce ground battle in southernmost Japan during the final phase of World War II.
“Shuri Castle wasn’t built for wars. It’s a symbol of peace,” said Yoshimine, an 87-year-old Naha resident. He hopes the iconic castle, which was heavily damaged by fire in late October last year, will be rebuilt quickly.
During the war, Yoshimine was a student at an elementary school located within the castle premises. For him and his friends, the castle was a playground.
Then in April 1945, when he was 12 years old, Yoshimine watched the castle being engulfed in fire for nearly half a day, after it was attacked by U.S. forces.
At the time he didn’t pay much attention to the damage, as his neighborhood was also severely attacked, but he remembers his grandmother shedding tears, saying, “The castle is burning.”
He and his family evacuated with neighbors to Mabuni in Itoman, about 14 kilometers away from his hometown. But when they arrived, they heard people’s cries and screams for help as the area was attacked by U.S. tanks and warships. Bombs fell from the sky like rain, Yoshimine recalls.
From behind a rock Yoshimine was hiding behind, he heard the screams of an Imperial Japanese Army soldier who was struck by a U.S. bomb. When he emerged from behind the rock, the body of the soldier had already turned into ash.
After the war ended and Okinawa came under U.S. control, Yoshimine went back to Shuri. He took a correspondence course to learn English and worked at a U.S. base, which offered many job opportunities.
Yoshimine says the idea that “there are no enemies or allies among human beings was the most important thing I learned” from talking with U.S. servicemen at the base.
He also worked for an airline and a travel agency, where he had opportunities to interact more with U.S. troops.
In 1985, he started to speak with former U.S. servicemen who had fought in the Battle of Okinawa, after some attended a memorial service for war victims held in Mabuni. Yoshimine took them to former battlefields, and met with them multiple times.
He said he was shocked when one of the former servicemen showed him a “Jap Hunting License” that had been given to U.S. troops at the time of the battle.
“People killed people indiscriminately because they had a license to do that,” said Yoshimine. “Everyone was going crazy and the war was to blame.”
After spending time with former U.S. servicemen, Yoshimine started telling people stories about his experiences. He said he now understands why his grandmother cried seeing the burning castle.
“She was proud of the castle as a symbol of peace, not of war,” he said. “I believe the castle was something that supported her heart.”
Yoshimine is determined to see the castle reconstructed again, and continues to share his stories.