For people of Okinawa Prefecture, June 23 carries a special meaning. On that day in 1945, as the Battle of Okinawa entered its last phase, the Imperial Japanese armed forces ended organized resistance to the U.S. armed forces in the Mabuni area on the southern tip of the main island of Okinawa.
Okinawan people commemorate the day as one for consoling the souls of people who died in the battle. An annual memorial service sponsored by the Okinawa Prefectural Government was held Thursday in the Peace Memorial Park in the Mabuni area.
June 23 should be a day when all Japanese join Okinawans in remembering the cruel battle, which lasted from March 26, 1945, to early September. It should offer an opportunity for everyone to squarely face the ugly effects of war and renew a resolution to make the utmost efforts to never again put Japan on the path of militarism.
The Battle of Okinawa was characterized as a fierce “storm of steel.” Following air raids and naval bombardment by the U.S. forces, fighting on land began. One of every four Okinawans died. The number of deaths among local residents, at least around 100,000, was larger than the corresponding figure for Japanese soldiers.
Interviews and research have shed light on the merciless behavior of Japanese armed forces that were supposed to defend local residents. There were residents who were executed, branded as spies. Others were forced to kill family members and themselves in the face of the U.S. onslaught. The Okinawan experience shows how a situation spirals into deepening tragedy once land fighting occurs amid or near residents.
Heiwa no Ishiji (“Cornerstone of Peace”), a large horizontally spreading granite memorial in the park, symbolizes the Okinawan people’s heart. In 1995, the Okinawa Prefectural Government under then Gov. Masahide Ota inaugurated the memorial in the hope it would contribute to everlasting world peace.
It is a remarkable memorial. It inscribes the names of all those who died during the Battle Okinawa, irrespective of their nationality or military status. This year the names of 720 people were added, pushing the total to 239,801. The number of foreign nationals whose names are inscribed on the memorial now stands at 14,550, including 14,008 Americans. The others include Britons and Koreans.
At a time when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine are causing conflicts with neighboring countries, especially China and South Korea, the spirit and concrete approach embodied in the Cornerstone of Peace provide an important example for Japanese, in general, on how to remember and console the souls of people who died in Japan’s modern war.
Yasukuni Shrine, which served as a spiritual apparatus for war mobilization during Japan’s war years in the 1930s and ’40s, enshrines those who died in war for the emperor (as an institution) and the Japanese state since the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1868). At present, it enshrines 2.46 million people, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and 13 other Class-A war criminals.
As World War II recedes further in people’s consciousness, it is all the more meaningful to hand down the experience of the Battle of Okinawa, the only land battle of the war fought on the Japanese archipelago, to younger generations.
In February, the high school attached to Aoyama Gakuin University, a Christian school, used in its entrance exam an English passage in which the author said a visit to Abuchiragama (Abuchira Cave), a well-known war-related site in Okinawa, was boring. Although the high school apologized later, this is a sad indication that some people cannot correctly understand the Okinawan war experience. In the cave, 136 members of Himeyuri Butai (Star Lily Corps), a unit of women student nurses, were killed or killed themselves.
There is a hopeful sign. A report by the Japan School Excursion Association shows that in fiscal 2003, Okinawa beat Kyoto, Nara and Hokkaido as the most popular school excursion destination for high-school students. The best 10 sites included five Okinawan spots, among them Shuri Castle, the Star Lily Corps Museum and Abuchiragama.
The legacy of World War II lingers in Okinawa. The area occupied by U.S. bases on the island prefecture accounts for 75 percent of Japan’s land area now dedicated to U.S. bases. Okinawa played an important role for U.S. military operations in the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War. Local residents suffer from U.S. military-related accidents and crimes. The government should work in all seriousness on the issue of reducing both the burden of the Okinawan people and the U.S. military presence in Okinawa.
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