Confusing the Okinawan Memoryscape: The organic memorialisation of the Battle of Okinawa

Matt Allen (JCU), Adjunct Professor (The Cairns Institute) and Rumi Sakamoto (Auckland), Senior Lecturer (Japanese)

Introduction

It has been said that in the second half of 1945, following the Battle of Okinawa, the decomposing bodies of those who were slaughtered there provided excellent ‘blood and bones’ fertiliser for the vegetables grown in the Mabuni region south of Okinawa. Given that tens of thousands of Okinawans, Japanese, and Americans died on the killing fields of Mabuni in the first six months of 1945, the visceral evidence of the violence – the anonymous and unidentifiable remains of the dead – remained in plain view to survivors well after hostilities had ceased. These organic remains, and the organic memories they engender retain considerable significance in assessing how war is remembered in Okinawa today. One of the aims of this paper is to highlight the distinctions between such organic memories and the formalised, ‘inorganic’ memories generated by the prefecture and the state.

  US Marines on an Okinawan Hill

US Marines on an Okinawan Hill

Okinawan memories of the Pacific War are surprisingly heterogeneous; there are hundreds of memorials and monuments of the Battle of Okinawa in evidence in Japan’s most recent and most southern prefecture, some commissioned by Japanese, some by Okinawans, and a few by Americans. In the first Allied landing on the Japanese ‘homeland’, the Battle of Okinawa was the penultimate battle in the Pacific War, and it played out as a dire war of attrition. More than 100,000 Okinawan civilians, [1] 50,000 Okinawans conscripted to the Japanese army, a further 50,000 Japanese military personnel and more than 12,500 Americans died in the hostilities. [2] Tens of thousands of Okinawan civilians were killed by US shelling, bombing and mortar attacks, burned to death with flamethrowers in the caves in which they had hidden, shot to death by both Americans and erstwhile Japanese ‘protectors’, and many thousands died at their own hands under the direction of the Japanese military to commit suicide. [3] While the victory for the US was won at enormous military cost, the cost to Okinawan civilians was immeasurable. Moreover, its strategic impact (to turn Okinawa into a staging ground to launch a land invasion of Japan ‘proper’) was effectively rendered moot with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, just six weeks after the end of the Battle of Okinawa.

Today when we look at how the Pacific War is remembered publicly in Okinawa, the focus is largely on Okinawans as victims of both the US and Japan, [4] and as part of the wider senselessness and tragedy of war in general. [5] In the years since Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese rule in 1972, after 15 years of US military control, it was the so-called ‘collateral damage’ – the deaths of more than one third of the total population, and the widespread displacement of the survivors – which was to have the most profound impact in forming public memories in Okinawa of the war. Moreover, the continued very substantial presence of the US military bases continued to reinforce Okinawa’s difference from mainland Japan. Mainland Japanese may have been bombed, but Okinawans were invaded, and they were betrayed and sometimes killed by those Japanese soldiers who were sworn to protect them. They were shot to death, burned to death, gassed to death, and forced to commit suicide by two enemies, often at close range. And in the immediate postwar settlement Okinawans were betrayed again by the Japanese government, which ceded the islands in the former prefecture to US military interests, transforming Okinawa effectively into a US colonial military state. While a legitimate prefecture of Japan once more since 1972, Okinawa still hosts many US military bases, and the population has to deal with the ramifications – political, physical, psychological, military, and economic – of bearing the weight of hosting the forces responsible for the security of both the Japanese mainland and the US’s foreign interests in East Asia.

  Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum

Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum

Okinawa has a political history clouded in ambivalence. It was originally an independent kingdom called the Ryukyu Okoku (Ryukyu Kingdom), with close cultural, linguistic and trade ties to China, and boasting trading relations with Korea, Japan and many nations in Southeast Asia. The reign of the kings spanned from the twelfth century to the early seventeenth. Its independence was compromised in 1609 by the Satsuma domain (today’s Kagoshima Prefecture) which invaded and enforced de-facto control over the Kingdom, while retaining the Ryukyuan monarchy in formalised power. [6] In 1879 the Ryukyu Kingdom became the first of Japan’s imperial possessions. Annexed in that year, it soon became the most recent, most impoverished, most backward, and most culturally and linguistically esoteric prefecture in Japan. Lagging behind mainland Japan in education, economics, resources, and being culturally and linguistically different led to a slow and often ineffectual process of assimilation. Discrimination from mainlanders, and from mainland administrators, educators and officials and a severe economic depression in the 1920s and 1930s led to a large number of Okinawans emigrating. Regardless of Okinawa’s location at the base of the prefectural hierarchy, they were subject to the terms of the 1938 Mobilisation Law [7]. Conscription applied to Okinawan men, and high school students (both boys and girls) were also drafted as soldiers and nurses in combat.[8]


Following Japan’s surrender in June 1945, the US military took effective administrative and political control over Okinawa, a situation that continued until reversion to Japanese rule in 1972. In the 1940s and 1950s twenty percent of the land area of the Okinawan main island was requisitioned by the US military to build bases, acts that incited riots amongst displaced civilians. [9] The appropriation of this land led to many thousands of displaced Okinawans being forcibly resettled, often in areas in which battles had been fought, and where the bodies of the slain littered the land.

Within the context of changing government control, the ongoing presence of the US military bases, the marines and their families on Okinawa, and the vacillating responses of the Japanese state to the problems generated by their presence, the issue of memorialising the past has taken on considerable political importance.

Formalising Memory
The most prominent of the memorial sites today are the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Park (OPP) at Mabuni Hill and the Himeyuri Peace Museum and memorial, [10] also located nearby in Itoman. They attract huge number of tourists from mainland Japan, and their messages of the need for world peace are immediately accessible to visitors. OPP is a large memorial complex that contains the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum, and attached archives, a 45-metre tall Peace Memorial Tower, the Okinawan National War Dead Peace Mausoleum, as well as numerous memorials and monuments. Its museum and other associated buildings are substantive modernist structures, as is its statuary and the white stucco buildings with red tiled roofs. The extensive layout of the monuments and the manicured massive grounds reinforce that the Okinawa Peace Park is a modern, highly designed space – what could be termed ‘inorganic’. [11]

  Okinawa Peace Memorial Tower

Okinawa Peace Memorial Tower

A landmark memorial within the OPP is the Cornerstone of Peace (Heiwa no ishiji), erected in 1995 by the Okinawan Prefectural Government under Masahide Ota, then Governor of the prefecture, to ‘convey the Okinawan spirit of peace to Japan and the world’. [12] It is unique in its aspiration to move beyond the ‘enemies/foes’ representation of the war, and beyond even the idea that those who died in the war have sacrificed their lives in brave and honourable ways for the sake of the nation. While most public sites of war memories draw either explicit or implicit distinctions between victims and perpetrators, the names inscribed on the Cornerstone of Peace belong to ‘all who lost their lives in the Battle of Okinawa, regardless of their nationality or military or civilian status’ (emphasis added). [13] In representing those Japanese, Okinawans, Americans, and other Asians [14] who died in the Battle of Okinawa, the Cornerstone of Peace offers multilingual [15] and de-nationalised, multicultural acknowledgement of the cost of war, measured in human lives.

This does not mean, however, that the national and local identities are entirely absent, as the Cornerstone of Peace does list the names of the war dead according to their nationality and in Japan’s case, the home prefecture, from which each of the dead inscribed in the stone plinths originates. Indeed, despite the overarching theme of transnational messages of world peace that resists a common orientation towards ‘national’ or ‘Okinawan’ collective war memory, the Peace Park on Mabuni Hill as a whole is a more heterogeneous site than it first appears, that registers different vectors of war memory. For instance, the existence of the 45 prefectural monuments within the OPP, each with its own messages reifying and in some cases deifying their dead, suggests that parochial identity remains fixed in the act of such memorialisation. As these prefectural memorials and monuments preceded the original Mabuni Hill precinct (formalised in 1979), their design and intent are sometimes at odds with the overall transnational message of peace of the OPP. [16] And yet, many years after the original appearance of these memorials, they are now also incorporated within the OPP, with their ‘voices’ subdued and their existence secondary to the more formal message of world peace that is explicitly articulated throughout the Park.

The messages of world peace that are conveyed in the formal memorials that have been erected in the OPP and at Himeyuri, are somewhat undermined not only by the parochial orientations of some of the prefectural memorials and monuments but also by the narratives within the museums which emphasise not just the victimhood of those civilians and innocents who died in the conflict, but that those who died were killed by both the US Army and by Japanese ‘protectors’. This quite explicit critique of Japanese military as the ‘enemy within’ Okinawa, [17] and the inference that Japan was (and still is?) an untrustworthy ally sits uncomfortably with the overall message of striving for world peace. Unlike the discourses that surround Hiroshima and Nagasaki memorials in which the victimhood of Japanese is foregrounded, in this case Japan’s role is contrived as simultaneously both victim and victimiser.

  Tourists at Himeyuri Memorial

Tourists at Himeyuri Memorial

Organic Memory: Konpaku no tou
In contrast to the official sites of memorialisation are the numerous, mostly small ‘organic’ memorials that were built by Okinawan villagers immediately following the end of hostilities. There are literally hundreds of memorials to those who died in the Battle of Okinawa particularly in the south of the main island where much of the most intense fighting took place. [18] Many of these memorials were built during the early period of US occupation (1945-60). [19] Small and ‘organic’ [20] in the sense that they were spontaneously made by local villagers as local sites in which to place the bones of soldiers and other victims of the war they had collected that were scattered along beaches, in clearings, in the fields, and in the caves. [21] Today these memorials stand in contrast to the high profile memorials produced by Japanese prefectures, the national government, the Okinawan prefectural government and Okinawan cities and towns. Built by Okinawan villagers, by resettled Okinawans who had to work the land on which the bones lay, and by relatives of the dead and missing, some memorials were also ossuaries – repositories of the bones of the dead. [22] They were monuments to anonymous individuals whose blood had soaked the land on which the villagers walked, and whose last mortal remains deserved appropriate burial, according to Okinawan custom. These were the earliest monuments for those who died in the Battle. [23] They were low profile and were rarely inscribed with much text, their symbolism as sites of interment and memory locally rather than regionally or nationally known. The conspicuous exception to the above is the konpaku no tou (Monument of Floating Spirits) which is well known throughout the prefecture, and indeed holds considerable significance today for many Okinawans.

konpaku no tou is one memorial that captures both the ‘organic’ approach – in the sense that its original incarnation was complete with human remains, and that it was built through necessity and by the spontaneous acts of villagers relocated to Mabuni – and the more public face of the Okinawan memoryscape. Originally a repository of more than 35,000 remains deposited from the southern killing fields, in 1975 the bones were taken away by the Japanese Ministry of Welfare (koseisho) and deposited in the Okinawan National War Dead Peace Mausoleum at Mabuni Hill. [24] Although now without the bones, its symbolism as the site at which the bones of those killed in the conflict is closely marked with local Okinawan nuances, and the story is available for all to read.[/ref]The mortuary rituals in Okinawa involve complex arrangements to ensure appropriate passing of the dead. These include specifically removing the bones from interment after a lengthy period (usually seven years), and washing the bones then reinterring them for another long period. In the sense that the actual bones of the dead hold significance for Okinawans culturally, the process of gathering them and then interring them has a strong cultural connection to Okinawans. See Kitamura, Shisha-tachi, Chapters 2-5, and Allen, Identity and Resistance Chapter 5 for more information on this topic.

  Cornerstone of Peace, Okinawa Peace Park

Cornerstone of Peace, Okinawa Peace Park

The circumstances in which konpaku no tou was built highlight some of the disjunctures concerning memoryscapes in Okinawa that occurred in the aftermath of the battle. Faced with being forcibly relocated by the US military, who had claimed the land as part of one of the US military bases being built on the island, [25] villagers from Mawashi in the south of the main island were sent to farm land that had been the site of horrific fighting near Mabuni. As the text on the monument itself states today:

‘… this area was covered with bodies. Mr. Kaneshiro, facing this painful situation, was determined to mourn for the dead, and with his wife and villagers began collecting the remains with much care and respect. With a firm belief that there is no enemy or foe at such time, he made an ossuary to enshrine more than 20,000 deities of both sides. In the same year, on the 27 February, Mr Kaneshiro named it konpaku, and with his own hand inscribed ‘konpaku’ (floating spirits) on the stone monument with ink.’

Yet in 1945 the US military occupation did not permit Okinawans to remove bones and body parts from the beaches, the fields, the roads etc. Such acts were seen to be potentially seditious in that they would raise anti-American sentiments among the villagers. [26] These initial fears were dispelled in the face of spontaneous political pressure from the villagers, and in early 1946 authorities relented, though villagers had continued their work in an unauthorised manner. The villagers did indeed collect the bones and bodily remains from the land, and deposited them in their largely unmarked ossuary, which became kompaku no tou. While today the Okinawan main island is the site of many memorials, monuments and other formal edifices that recognise the deaths of many during the war, konpaku no tou occupies a special significance in Okinawa. Indeed it is still the site for Okinawans throughout the archipelago to meet and acknowledge the deaths of Okinawans on Irei no hi (Memorial Day). Through the organic act of bone collecting, the people of Okinawa were able to acknowledge the humanity of the loss of all life on the killing fields, in a way that naturally moved beyond any national boundaries, and in the same moment recognising the devastating and visceral impact of war on the local people. In a spontaneous act that was arguably more significant than any formal governmental approach to commemoration of the war dead, the bone collecting and the construction of the monument retains its symbolic significance to Okinawans, even though the Himeyuri Memorial and the Peace Park remain two of the most visited tourist destinations in Okinawa today.

  Konpaku No Tou

Konpaku No Tou

Conclusion
In the case of Okinawan memories of war the memoryscape is politically controversial and culturally complex as we have noted, rather simplistically, in this brief introduction to the topic. The ambivalence of representation reflects the ambivalence of both the war itself, and the postwar environment in which Okinawans have been located. Yet the organic production of memorial sites, in particular the konpaku no tou, retain their significance to new generations of Okinawans. Institutions like the OPP and Himeyuri Peace Museum and memorial, which cater mostly to tourists from the mainland of Japan, continue to be prevalent in defining how Okinawa presents its experiences to others, emphasising the importance of peace, and the terrible cost of war, seen in the waste of so many lives. Their narratives discuss the horrors of war and the impact of violence on people, but to a large extent eschew discussing the legal and national responsibilities for this particular battle, instead talking of world peace and of never repeating the same mistakes (though what those mistakes are remain muted).

In contrast, the organic memorials, such as konpaku no tou, are highly significant markers of local memory; the act of collecting the bones and remains of those slaughtered on the beaches, in the towns and villages, in their fields, and on the roads a visceral reinforcement of the almost unimaginable horrors of the US invasion. In this act of collecting without discrimination the remains of the dead, and by interring the bones together in one repository, villagers of necessity mixed nationalities, cultures and histories together. This reflected the reality of the consequences of the battle; one set of bones was very much like others, but each represented a dead human being. And in order to recognise the deaths of so many unknown people, villagers expressed their common sense of purpose in opposing the wars that destroyed so much of their (still) compromised homeland. Today, etched on the monument and in signage surrounding it are the stories of those who gathered the bones, who drove the process, and the stories of how they were able to overcome significant political opposition to put in place the memorial to the unknown civilians, marines, nurses, and other military personnel who died in this place. The immediacy of the location, the understanding that this monument held the actual bones of the dead, the spontaneity of the actions in building it, the determination to override political concerns in the name of humanity, and the integrity and equanimity with which the site was constructed speak to visitors – locals and others – in many emotional registers. The significance of konpaku no tou to Okinawans and to other visitors cannot be underestimated today, even in this era of high profile memorialisation.

 

Contributors

Matt Allen has a Ph.D. from the University of Sydney, and has taught at the Universities of Sydney, Auckland and Wollongong. He is currently adjunct professor at James Cook University in Queensland. Rumi Sakamoto has a Ph.D. from the University of Essex, and is Senior Lecturer in Japanese at the University of Auckland. Together they have written on memory and museums, Japanese popular culture and identity, and Japan and food globalization. This piece comes from their current project looking at several memoryscapes of the Pacific War in Japan, Australia and Hawaii.

 

Notes

[1] Okinawa-ken kyoiku iinkai, The History and Culture of Okinawa (Naha: Sun Printing, 2000).
[2] Appleman, Roy E. et al., Okinawa: The Last Battle (Washington: US Army Centre of Military History, 2000), 473.
[3] The deaths of many of these civilians at the hand of Japanese soldiers who were sworn to protect them have been particularly controversial in the years after the end of hostilities. See for example Masahide Ota, Essays on Okinawa Problems (Gushikawa City: Yui Shuppan, 2000); and Haruko T. Cook and Theodore F. Cook (eds.) Japan at War: An Oral History (New York: New Press, 1992).
[4] We discuss this issue further below.
[5] And to a lesser extent the military deaths of Japanese and Americans too are included in this discourse.
[6] Satsuma exploited its proximity to Okinawa to retain trading control over the region, which had a tributary trading relationship with China. By subverting government control and the content of goods traded, Satsuma was able to circumvent the “closed country” [sakoku] policy introduced by the Tokugawa regime, and ensure a wealth of riches and information flowed through to Satsuma.
[7] See Ichiro Tomiyama, Kindai nihon-shakai to okinawajin: nihonjin ni naru to iu koto [Modern Japanese Society and Okinawans: About becoming Japanese] (Tokyo: Nihon keizai ronbunsha, 1990) for a detailed description of the implications of the Mobilisation Law for Okinawans. See also in English Ichiro Tomiyama, “‘Spy’: Mobilization and Identity in Wartime Okinawa,” in Japanese Civilisation in the Modern World XVI. Nation State and Empire, eds Tadao Umesao et al. (Osaka: Senri Ethnological Studies 51, 2000).
[8] Tomiyama, “Spy”, 123-4.
[9] Masahide Ota, Showa no Okinawa [Okinawa in the Showa Period] (Naha: Naha Shuppansha, 1990).
[10] The Himeyuri Peace Museum is one of the two most visited sites on Okinawa. It is built on the site of the himeyuri no tou [Himeyuri memorial], a memorial dedicated to the young women who lost their lives in the Battle of Okinawa. It contains multiple exhibits of the artefacts, stories, and historical narratives of the role of the group of high school girls who lost more than half their number in the fighting, while attempting to provide medical support for Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians injured in the US offensive.
[11] It is also a popular destination for middle school and high school group tours, and has the standard tourist concessions – T-shirts, ice-creams, Okinawan black sugar sweets, and other Okinawan cultural souvenirs sold at small open stores – and the requisite automatic dispensing machines for juice, tea or coffee conveniently located on the footpaths throughout the park.
[12] Peace Memorial Park, “Heiwa no ishiji: kensetsu no shushi [The Cornerstone of Peace: the intention of construction],” http://kouen.heiwa-irei-okinawa.jp/shisetsu-ishigi.html
[13] Ibid.
[14] Especially Koreans conscripted into the Japanese military have a separate monument within the Peace Park grounds.
[15] The monument title and names of the war dead are inscribed in Japanese, English, Korean and Chinese.
[16] As Ota discusses in his volume on war memorials in Okinawa, there were three major constructors of memorials: the Okinawan prefecture (after 1972) and cities, towns and villages in Okinawa; the prefectures and regions (from the 1950s) who recognised the sacrifices made by men from their region; and private groups who represented specific groups of people who died in the battle. These memorials memorialise the sacrifices made by individuals and groups, and many also claim the status of eirei (war gods) for the dead. Masahide Ota, Okinawa no irei no tou: Okinawasen no kyokun to irei (Naha: Naha Shuppansha, 2007).
[17] See in particular Tomiyama, “Spy” and Matthew Allen, Identity and Resistance in Okinawa (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002) Chapter 2 for discussions on the perception of Okinawans as the potential “enemy within” for the Japanese military, and the perception that Japanese were the “enemy within” Okinawa for Okinawans.
[18] See Masahide Ota’s 2007 account of Okinawa’s memorials, which describes many of the more prominent and politically relevant memorials erected in the years since 1945 on Okinawa.
[19] By 1962 more than 200 of these monuments were erected on Okinawa island. See Gerald Figal, Beachheads: War, Peace, and Tourism in Postwar Okinawa (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield 2012: 32)
[20] Figal, Beachheads, 32.
[21] After collecting them, villagers cleaned the bones, and buried them according to Okinawan custom, or burned them in situ.
[22] Figal, Beachheads, 32.
[23] In fact konpaku no tou is the earliest monument, erected by Kaneshiro Kazunobu, the village mayor in 1946. He also oversaw the erection of the Himeyuri monument, built to memorialise the young girls killed in the battle, in the same year.
[24] See Tsuyoshi Kitamura, Shisha-tachi no sengoshi: Okinawa senseki o meguru hitobito no kioku [A Postwar Ethnography of the War Dead in Okinawa] (Tokyo: Ochanomizu Shobo, 2010, 283) for a discussion of the political implications of the Japanese state removing the bones. He emphasises that villagers were unhappy with the move to consolidate all remains in the national mausoleum.
[25] Kitamura, Shisha-tachi, 283.
[26] Kitamura, Shisha-tashi, 286-288.