Okinawa: Remembering the dead

Listen to this article

Photo above: Okinawa Cornerstone of Peace Park by mdid with Flickr Creative Commons License

This article first ran July 5, 1995 in the Towson Times and other Patuxent Publishing newspapers in Baltimore County. It is part of a package of four stories marking the 70th anniversary of the biggest battle of the war in the Pacific.

By Len Lazarick

OKINAWA — Unlike some Okinawans, Masahide Ota does not want to forget the battle. In 1945, the 20-year-old Ota was mobilized as a member of the Blood and Iron Scouts for Japan’s emperor.

He was with the headquarters staff to the bitter end at the southern tip of Okinawa, surrounded by American troops.

“When the commander of the defense forces (Gen. Ushijima) committed suicide I was with him,” Ota said in an interview.

But Ota refused to surrender. With other stragglers, he survived in caves, eating American garbage and stealing from American tents. One day, a friend who could read English stole a Life magazine. It clearly described what Ota had refused to

believe. The war was over. In fact, the war had been over for three months.

Ota surrendered in November 1945.

“Fifty years ago, we were young students,” Ota said. “And we blindly followed what the national government … and whatever the school teacher told us. They emphasized the sacrifice of your life for your country, your emperor.

“But we have suffered due to that blind following. “

After the war, Ota continued his studies, first in Tokyo, then at Syracuse University. He has written books on the battle of Okinawa as well as on Japanese atrocities during World War II.

Since the war’s end, he said, “I’ve been feeling that never again (should) they repeat war on this island and if possible the rest of Asia and the world, so I’ve been working very hard to that effect.”

Inscribing the names forever

In 1990, when Ota was first elected governor of Okinawa, he began pushing for a memorial to Okinawa’s war dead.

“I decided that we inscribe the names forever, since that is the only proof that they existed in this world. All the records were destroyed.”

On Friday, June 23, the acres of black granite tablets with 234,183 names in Japanese and English were unveiled in a solemn ceremony by the cliffs of Mobuni, where so many died.

This Cornerstone of Peace is reminiscent of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, except that all of the dead, Okinawan, American, Japanese and those from other countries, are named.

Ota had invited the American military to attend — but without uniform. No national anthems were played. No flags were displayed.

An orchestra played “America the Beautiful” and traditional Japanese songs. A baritone sang “Amazing Grace” and a soprano sang a mournful tune in Japanese especially written for the occasion.

In an interview, Ota said, “Okinawan people were so grateful to the American soldier during wartime. The U.S. brought in special teams to take care of the Okinawans. They brought in food and clothes. During the wartime, the military government personnel tried to save the lives of the noncombatants.

“Without this, I don’t know how many would have survived. So many Okinawans had their lives saved by the enemy soldiers. Right after the war, Okinawans were so grateful to the American soldiers.”

Changing attitudes toward the Americans

But 27 years of U.S. military rule that didn’t end until 1972 soured the populace.

“During the 50s, with the Korean War, they confiscated the farmland of the local people. These things changed the image of the local people toward the soldiers.”

Half the 58,000 U.S. forces in Japan are now on tiny Okinawa. American military bases occupy 20 percent of Okinawa’s land, most of it developable in the heavily populated south. The bases contribute just 5 percent of the island’s economy and employ 7,800 native people out of a population of l.3 million.

Three million tourists, mostly from Japan and Taiwan, now visit Okinawa annually to use its beach resorts. to play on its golf courses and to see its coral reefs. That’s the kind of industry Ota wants flourishing.

Last year (1994), he was overwhelmingly reelected on a reform platform that seeks to toss the military, both Japanese and American, off Okinawa. Ota treks to Washington to make his case. Closing the bases is his ultimate goal.

“But that’s not good for both governments,” he concedes. For the moment, he wants to stop the live firing exercises and parachute drops, and to regain the military port area for development.

In World War II, Americans saw Okinawa as a staging area for the invasion of Japan. For the Japanese military, it was sacrificed to slow the threatened invasion.

Ota doesn’t want its strategic position to make it another target in any future Asian conflict.

“We don’t want to bring the tragedy on this island again.”

Related stories

The final battle
Kill or be killed
Revisiting the final battle