Lessons from the Battle of Okinawa

“Seventy-three years ago,/My beloved island was reduced to an “isle of the dead.”/Chirps of birds were turned into shrieks of horror./Sounds of sanshin (Okinawan lute) were drowned by roars of bombardment./The blue, vast sky was blocked by ‘iron rains.'”

by Keigo Nishio


[dropcap]J[/dropcap]une 23rd (the Okinawa Memorial Day) marked the seventy-third anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa. The poem quoted above is part of Rinko Sagara’s Ikiru (Live on), which the Okinawan junior high school student recited at the Memorial Ceremony last month, impacting many around the country.  She recited her poem as if she had been in the battle herself and many Okinawan attendants were moved to tears. The performance conveyed how the collective  memory of the ground combat has haunted the Okinawan population.

The Battle of Okinawa is Japan’s only ground combat that involved civilians. According to the Relief Bureau of Okinawa Prefecture, approximately 200,000 people lost their lives during the battle. This number is much higher  than the death toll of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima (around 140,000). More importantly, fifty-to-sixty percent of the victims were civilians, who, by definition, should not have been attacked.

Despite the enormity of the battle, the memory of it has not been shared nationwide. Although education in the Japanese mainland puts emphasis on passing down the memory of the scourge of war (such as atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and air bombings in large cities like Tokyo and Osaka), mainlanders are in general not willing to learn or teach what happened in Okinawa during World War II. Looking back on the education that I received in Osaka and Kobe, neither my teachers nor textbooks made as many references to the Battle of Okinawa as they did to bombings on the mainland. According to my own survey in two junior high schools in Osaka and Kobe, only seven students out of 297 knew the date of the Okinawa Memorial Day. In contrast, most teachers in the mainland necessitate their students to memorize the dates of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Memorial Day and the Memorial Day for the end of the Pacific War. Mainland media annually conduct surveys to examine what percentage of Japanese citizens know these dates; nonetheless, there are no such media surveys for he Okinawa Memorial Day. This symbolises that mainlanders do not regard the Battle of Okinawa as a historical event that must be passed down in memory throughout the nation.

Passing down the memory of the battle, though, would force mainlanders to confront their history as suppressors against Okinawa.  During the Battle, Okinawan civilians were tormented by double oppression by Japanese soldiers from the mainland and the US Army. Although the Japanese Army appointed itself as the protector of Okinawa, it aimed to utilise the island as a breakwater to strand Americans attempting to land on the mainland. Even if the US Army eventually reached the mainland, it would not be able to exert its maximum force if it had consumed most of its supplies in Okinawa. Therefore, the Japanese Army contrived to prolong the ground combat as long as possible. Even today, Okinawans argue  that the Japanese Army sacrificed Okinawa in order to protect the emperor system.

Lacking human and material resources, the Japanese Army adopted the policy that it should take advantage of everything, even a weed, in Okinawa. Many civilians, including students (both male and female) and elderly men, were forced to enroll in the Army. If not enrolled, Okinawans had to assist the Army to construct trenches and encampments or to provide their residences, food, and household belongings for the soldiers. Although Okinawans were sheltering in natural caves, the soldiers expelled Okinawan civilians out of their caves to take their food and occupy the caves as military positions or field-hospitals. Those civilians who were driven out of their caves had to run in jungles, exposed to strafing and naval bombardment.

Since numerous civilians engaged in operations of the Japanese Army and knew military secrets, the Army suspected that all Okinawan civilians were potentially spies. If they were captured and interrogated by US soldiers, the US Army would know the military secrets. Hence, the Japanese Army instructed Okinawan civilians to commit suicide when they were about to be captured by the US Army. In order to ensure their obedience to this order, the Japanese Army disseminated propaganda stating that US soldiers would tear men limb from limb and rape women to death. According to one of the war survivors I interviewed, Japanese soldiers committed the same torture in Manchuria. Due to this propagation, many civilians panicked when they heard US soldiers encouraging them to surrender and voluntarily chose to kill themselves. What is worse, in the caves where Japanese soldiers were living with civilians, the soldiers ordered the civilians to commit suicide or massacred them. After all civilians had been sacrificed, the soldiers occupied the caves and snatched the food that civilians stored there. Some war survivors testified that they had realized that Japanese soldiers had been more atrocious than Americans when they were rescued and put into internment camps by American soldiers.

In order to avoid admitting this sinfulness and responsibility, the mainland is reluctant to teach the reality of the Battle. For instance, the government did not give its approval to textbooks that referred to suicide encouraged and forced by Japanese soldiers. This tendency is not restricted to the Battle of Okinawa: Japanese students rarely learn the damage and anguish that the Japanese Army inflicted upon Asian countries it invaded. Instead, the mainland education focuses exclusively on teaching how the mainland was victimized during World War II.

Okinawans warn against this tendency. Virtually all Okinawans I interviewed, regardless of whether they experienced the Battle, emphasised that the Battle was not an independent historical event. Rather, they argue, it should be regarded as one of the events that constitute a sequence of the mainland’s oppression against Okinawa. When I asked them about the Battle, they always referred to Satsuma Domain’s (one of the Japanese domains in the Edo period) invasion of the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1609, Ryukyu’s annexation to Japan as Okinawa prefecture in 1879, the Treaty of San Francisco that determined that Okinawa should be governed by the US Military, and issues surrounding US military bases. Due to its geopolitical significance and advantage, Okinawa has been exploited, suppressed, and sacrificed by the mainland for more than four hundred years.

The Battle of Okinawa has not yet ended. The structure of US base issues resembles that of the Battle of Okinawa, namely the double oppression from the US and the Japanese mainland. Seventy percent of the US military facilities in Japan are jam-packed on the island which accounts for only 0.6% of the whole area of the country. Although the Japanese government is reluctant to relocate the bases to the mainland since it cannot gain the locals’ consent, the government proceeds with the construction of a new military base without the consent of the local residents. Due to the noise pollution, repeated accidents, and sexual assaults committed by the US soldiers, Okinawans’ right to live in peace, which is guaranteed by the Constitutional Law, is violated. If the mainland refuses to reflect upon and self-criticize its atrocities during the Battle of Okinawa, it will not be aware of how it has oppressed Okinawa. A sense of guilt and responsibility for Okinawa’s suffering that persists even today will be an incentive for mainlanders to try to change the asymmetrical relationship between Okinawa and the mainland.

Nonetheless, the mainland is becoming more reluctant to admit the guilty side of its history. In the name of the “future-oriented” policy, the mainland scorns efforts to self-criticize its history as masochistic. In 2015, Prime Minister Abe said in his statement, “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.” Corresponding with the government’s revisionism, one of the students in my high school asked me, “Why do I have to feel guilty of Okinawa’s suffering although I myself have never suppressed Okinawa?” However, mainlanders cannot say that they have nothing to do with the oppression tormenting Okinawa. Mainlanders’ peaceful lives are made possible in exchange of the violation of Okinawans’ right to live in peace. Therefore, even those who were born after the war should have responsibility to acknowledge  unresolved oppression against Okinawa.

In concluding her poem, Rinko Sagara said, “the future is an extension of the present.” Without the mainland’s efforts to reflect upon its own history and resolve the current injustices, Okinawa cannot enjoy peace that it deserves. Her poem is asking whether Japan can be a future-oriented nation in a real sense.


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