Today marks the 70th anniversary of the end of organized resistance by Japanese military forces in the Battle of Okinawa. It is all the more important for Japan to remember not only the horror and cruelty that people in Okinawa suffered in the battle but also the hardships they have experienced due to the heavy presence of the U.S. military in Okinawa Prefecture in the postwar period. The anniversary should serve as an opportunity for Japan to resolve to make strenuous efforts to reduce the burden Okinawans continue to bear — as well as to renew its vow to never to start a war again.
The Battle of Okinawa, code-named Operation Iceberg by the United States, began on March 26, 1945, as U.S. forces landed on the Kerama Islands, about 10 km west of the main island of Okinawa. On April 1, they landed on the western coast of the central part of Okinawa Island. It was the only ground battle fought in Japan during World War II in which local residents were directly exposed to the terror of combat.
The casualties caused by the Battle of Okinawa were enormous. More than 240,000 combatants and non-combatants died, including some 150,000 Okinawans — about a quarter of the population. About 94,000 of the Okinawans killed were civilians. The U.S. lost some 14,000 servicemen while the Japanese military lost more than 70,000.
Hanson W. Baldwin of The New York Times, who covered the war in Europe and the Pacific, wrote of the Battle of Okinawa: “Never before had there been, probably never again will there be, such a vicious sprawling struggle.” The fierceness of the battle was underlined by the fact that the commanders of both U.S. and Japanese forces died. U.S. commander Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. died in action on June 18 and Japanese commander Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Isamu Cho committed suicide on June 23, leading to a cessation of Japan’s organized resistance.
Making the Battle of Okinawa even more tragic is the fact that local residents died not only from being caught in the crossfire but also as a result of the Japanese military’s indoctrination and behavior. For example, some 330 local residents in Tokashiki Island of the Kerama Islands died in mass suicides and murder-suicides on March 28 because the military had told them to kill themselves if they were likely to be captured by the enemy. On Kumejima Island, the Japanese garrison killed a total of 20 residents on suspicion of being spies on four occasions from June 27 to Aug. 20 — the last date being five days after Emperor Hirohito’s Aug. 15 radio broadcast declaring Japan’s surrender to the Allied Powers.
The experience of the Battle of Okinawa has led Okinawans to hold the view that militaries act in accordance with their interests, and that the protection of non-combatants is not a priority in their operations.
What is most tragic about the Battle of Okinawa is that it might have been avoided if Japan’s leaders had acted wisely and decided to end the war sooner. In February 1945, former Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe submitted a report to the Emperor, in which he said that Japan’s defeat in the war was inevitable and called on the Emperor to find ways to end the war as soon as possible so that the Imperial system would be maintained even after the war was over. But the nation’s leaders opted to continue the war. They are believed to have treated Okinawa as a “sacrificial stone” — a stone deliberately sacrificed in the board game of “go” to improve one’s chances. Japan’s leaders wanted to postpone as long as possible a U.S. invasion of the main islands of Japan and the possible demise of the Imperial system.
While the war concluded in 1945, Okinawans’ suffering continued during the 27 years of U.S. administration that followed. Okinawan residents were placed in camps immediately after the war’s end and the U.S. expropriated large tracts of land for use as military bases. Even after Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1952 and regained its independence, the U.S. continued its land grabs in Okinawa. In the 1950s, such land expropriations triggered an “all-island struggle” by local residents.
Okinawa was forced to play an important role for the U.S. forces as the “keystone of the Pacific” in the United States’ military strategy. Okinawans in particular felt the shadow of war during the Vietnam War when B-52 strategic bombers conducted sorties from Kadena Air Base.
While the Vietnam War brought an economic boom to Okinawa, residents of the prefecture harbored strong anti-war sentiment and many calling for the total withdrawal of U.S. military bases. But although Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, the basic situation of the American military presence there has not changed since. While the prefecture accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan’s land mass, about three-quarters of the military facilities solely used by the U.S. forces in Japan are concentrated there and they occupy about 18 percent of Okinawa Island. The Status of Forces Agreement between Japan and the U.S. continues to cause difficulties for the police in their investigation of crimes involving U.S. soldiers.
It is against this backdrop that the issue of relocating the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the central Okinawa Island city of Ginowan has been mired down since the mid-1990s. The Abe administration insists that building a new replacement facility in the city of Nago in the northern part of the island is the only solution for shuttering the Futenma base, but for a majority of Okinawans replacing one base with another is not an acceptable solution as the burden the prefecture is forced to shoulder will not change.
Okinawans’ prayers for peace and for the souls of war victims is sincere and strong — as symbolized by the fact that the monument built in 1995 to commemorate the Battle of Okinawa has the names of all those who died in the battle — Okinawans, other Japanese, Americans, Britons, Taiwanese and Koreans alike — engraved on it. The Cornerstone of Peace stands on the Mabuni Hill in the southern part of Okinawa Island, the scene of the last fierce fighting in the battle.
At the same time, Okinawans — who have suffered so long — have a strong will to achieve autonomy, as Gov. Takeshi Onaga said in his recent media interview. The Abe administration should not underestimate the determination of many Okinawans to halt the construction of the new U.S. military facility in Nago. It needs to sincerely listen to them and undertake a course of action that meets with their approval.
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