Nov 21, 2017
Many people who visit Okinawa do so for the rich culture, delicious food, and, of course, the world-class beaches. Why wouldn't they? All of those things are fantastic and worthwhile reasons to make the trip.
Still, Okinawa has another side to it that demands remembrance no matter how tragic it may be: the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.
From April 1 to June 22, 1945, the Battle of Okinawa raged across the southern Japanese island. It was a bloody, traumatic affair that would forever shape the identity of Okinawa. By the time Allied forces reached Okinawa, the Japanese government had adopted a policy of gyokusai, or death without surrender. The purpose of such a strategy was to stage such a gruesome, hard fought defense that the Allied invaders would lose the will to continue their march towards Tokyo. The first island to bear that sacrifice with Japanese civilians alongside the Imperial military was Okinawa, and when all was said and done, tens of thousands of soldiers on both the US and Japanese sides had perished, along with one-third of Okinawan civilians.
Such tragic loss left an indelible mark on Okinawa's history, but it can be easy to forget that when you go to relax on the beach, visit a Blue Seal ice creamery, or interact with the cheerful, friendly people of Okinawa. Certainly, the best way to celebrate peace is to enjoy those fun aspects of life, but if you have time, there are two stops that you should check out during your visit.
Okinawa Peace Memorial
The Okinawa Peace Memorial is a sprawling complex located on the southern part of the island. One feature of the memorial is a museum that details Okinawa's history from the time of Japanese annexation to present day. The museum provides context for what you see today in Okinawa, while also telling the full story of the Battle of Okinawa.
In addition to the museum there is a large park that houses the "Cornerstone of Peace," a monument to the Okinawans who died in the Battle of Okinawa. The names of all who fell are etched on stone walls that zig zag through the park, and they give you pause for the sheer number of names present.
The Peace Memorial is located in Itoman city, and you can visit the website for more details.
Before Allied forces landed on Okinawa, Imperial Japanese soldiers and civilians alike took to caves both for refuge and for staging points for counter attack. Some of those caves are now open to the public, and they give you an appreciation for how difficult the Battle of Okinawa would have been, for the civilians who were hiding at the orders of the Imperial forces, fearing what the Allied invaders would do to them (thanks to Imperial propaganda), and the Allies who had to fight enemy soldiers who purposely hid out among civilians.
The best cave to visit is the Itokazu Abuchiragama in Nanjo city. If you visit, you'll get a hard hat and a flashlight and head into the caverns where you can see relics from the people that lived there for months during the Battle of Okinawa, including earthenware and other household supplies. The cave also has signs indicating where people slept, where the "hospital" section was situated, etc. For me, it was unlike anything else I've ever experienced, and left a deep impression on me. I have no doubt it would do the same for you.
For more information as well as interactive web-tour, visit the Abuchiragama website.
Note: If you are interested in learning more about the Battle of Okinawa, I recommend watching the recent Andrew Garfield film, "Hacksaw Ridge," you can catch a glimpse of how furious the fighting on the island was, but I prefer the 1971 Japanese docudrama, "The Battle of Okinawa," which gives a little better perspective of the broader historical aspects of the battle.
Hitting the books once again as a Ph.D. student in Niigata Prefecture. Although I've lived in Japan many years, life as a student in this country is a first.
Blessed Dad. Lucky Husband. Happy Gaijin (most of the time).