Excavated Articles and Okinawa’s War Memory

By Keigo Nishio


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he memory of the Battle of Okinawa is fading away. The number of war survivors is decreasing. Contemporary Okinawan students are not as willing to learn the war history as were their older generations. Mainlanders, too, are reluctant to learn the history. Okinawa is in urgent need of a new means for passing down the memory of the Battle.

Okinawa has long depended  upon the testimonies and storytelling of war survivors. In Okinawa, war survivors annually visit schools and talk about their wartime experiences. For many of the schools which take their students to Okinawa for a school trip, listening to talks of survivors is an indispensable part of the trip even if such schools do not themselves teach the history of the battle in the classroom. Both  Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum and Himeyuri Peace Museum, two of Okinawa’s most-visited peace museums, have large exhibition rooms dedicated exclusively to the testimonies of war survivors. War survivors have played an essential role in handing down the memory of the Battle.

Nonetheless, this method  of passing down the war memory meets certain challenges. The biggest is the aging of war survivors. The utmost advantage of storytelling is that the real voices of survivors can vividly convey how dehumanizing the Battle was. . Now that the average age of war survivor has exceed eighty, however, there are only a few survivors who can still talk about their experiences. Their physical conditions are unstable , and their memory is weakening. In fact, Himeyuri Peace Museum ended its official program including oral war histories in 2015. One of the survivors I interviewed said, “Only three of my schoolmates are alive today: one is physically disabled, one has dementia, and the remaining is me.” Furthermore, since many of the survivors who are alive today experienced the Battle as  small children, they do not know or remember the details of what happened in the war. Aging becomes the biggest threat to storytelling.

Additionally, it is difficult to prove the truthfulness of survivors’ testimonies. Since war survivors’ experiences  usually lack objective evidence, they may be confronted by vicious, revisionist skepticisms. In the case where survivors are suspected to be telling lies, they cannot refute such skepticisms even if they are actually telling the truth. Given the contemporary rise of Neto-uyo, which literally means “online right-wingers,” who have been influenced by extremist and exclusivist propagandas rampant on the Internet, it seems that war survivors are not in a social environment where they can freely talk about what they experienced during the Battle.

The repetitive approach to peace education within schools also becomes a problem for many students. One college student I interviewed said, “We listen to the same, horrible stories every year and this is enough. I don’t want to learn about the war any longer.” When listening to the accounts of survivors, the listeners might become passive. It is necessary to figure out how to pass down the memory of the war in the way that is engaging to those who are not interested in studying the war.

One solution might include taking  advantage of wartime articles. During the Battle, Okinawan civilians and Japanese soldiers were sheltered in caves in the island, and things they left behind there have been excavated until today. Examples of the unearthed articles include: (i) belonging of civilians such as parts of wardrobes, earthenware pots, and rice bowls; (ii) munitions such as grenades, landmines, and guns; (iii) medical apparatus used in field hospitals established in caves such as syringes, tweezers, and ampoules. These articles imply the dehumanizing nature of the ground combat. For instance, some of them are deformed or carbonized due to blast and flame radiation. Since the shapes of the articles will not change, they can eternally show what happened in caves during the Battle. For instance, the excavation of condoms verifies survivors’ testimonies that there were underground comfort stations in caves. Furthermore, even when survivors’ accounts do not agree with the objective facts implied by the articles, this disagreement may reveal that the survivors have to make counterfactual testimonies since some parts of the reality of the war are too appalling for war survivors  to remember and talk about. By contrasting testimonies and wartime articles, one can infer the mindset of survivors who struggle to remember r.

In addition, these articles require viewers’ active engagement. For example, when one looks at a fragment of a wardrobe, one may wonder why there was a wardrobe inside a cave, why the wardrobe was reduced to fragments, or why such a fragment was excavated along with munitions. Each article hints the existence of its owner, and viewers are inspired to imagine how the owner was involved and victimised in the Battle. One Okinawan student said, “Since I know that my great-grandfather was suspected to a spy and killed by a Japanese soldier, I think using unearthed articles in peace education is interesting because it allows us to contemplate how our ancestors lost their lives.” Wartime articles enable viewers to actively ponder what scourge people went through during the war, instead of passively listening.

Mr. Isamu Kuniyoshi is a leading figure in unearthing and collecting articles left behind in caves. He has engaged in excavation almost every day for approximately sixty years until 2016 and has unearthed more than a hundred thousand articles. He experienced the Battle as a six-year-old. Around five years after the war, he went down into a cave near his house for a courage test and found there corpses and articles which were left behind. He thought to recover the remains and collect the articles in order to mourn for the dead in the caves (mostly Japanese soldiers dispatched from the mainland or civilians whose family were all killed in the war) and to return the articles to the bereaved families if possible. Although most of the unearthed articles cannot be returned as they have no clues to specify their owners, Mr. Kuniyoshi did not throw them away since he hoped that they would be useful in passing down the memory of the war. Nobody else but him has engaged in excavation for such a long time and with such intensity. Mr. Kuniyoshi emphasizes that he unearthed the remains and articles all by himself: no official sectors, whether municipal, prefectural, or national, ever assisted him in his work. But why, if his work is conducive to handing down the war history, were they unwilling to assist him?

In fact, Mr. Kuniyoshi’s work is not generally accepted by Okinawan locals. Since Japanese soldiers expelled civilians out of their caves and occupied them, the articles unearthed there are mainly those that soldiers from the mainland brought. For many Okinawans, collecting and preserving such articles means mourning for the soldiers who oppressed and massacred civilians. According to Mr. Kuniyoshi, when he was carrying excavated articles back home, an elderly local came up to him and grabbed him by the collar, shouting, “Five of my relatives were killed by mainland soldiers. How dare  you collect the belongings of such sinners?” Although Mr. Kuniyoshi says that mainland soldiers’ belongings are as important as those of civilians, military-related articles remind many Okinawans of their past misery of being exploited and suppressed by mainlanders. This is one of the main reasons for which Okinawans have focused exclusively upon war survivors’ testimonies for the means of handing down the war memory.

Faced with the rapid decrease of the war survivors, Okinawa needs to find a new means to pass down the memory of the Battle of Okinawa. Even Okinawan youths are struggling to be the next bearers of the memory. One Okinawan college student expressed his concern, saying, “I don’t think it’s possible for me to hand down the memory of what I have never experienced.” His remark demonstrates the need for a means that enables younger generations to sympathize with the scourge that war survivors went through and to pass down the memory with the same vividness as the survivors. Articles excavated out of caves have the potential to fulfill this requirement; however, they may open the old wounds of Okinawan locals. This conflict between the urgency to hand down the war memory and the need to be sensitive to the delicate minds of war survivors symbolizes, moreover, the social paradox imposed on Okinawa by the wartime oppression from the Japanese mainland.


Keigo Nishio is a sophomore in Branford College. You can contact him at keigo.nishio@yale.edu.