Tokyo (AsiaNews) – Victims of one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of the Second World War, the inhabitants of Okinawa island now face a struggle to oppose attempts by the Tokyo government to rewrite the history of the battle which took place on the island, to negate the army’s responsibility, in forcing forced thousands of people to suicide.
On June 23 the citizens of Okinawa commemorated Memorial Day to remember the end of the battle for Okinawa 62 years ago. That battle described by Winston Churchill as “one of the most famous and intense battles in military history” lasted 82 days. Japanese nationalists view it as one of the greatest examples of loyalty to the Samurai code (Bushido), while historians consider it one of the cruellest and most useless massacres to ever have taken place.
It was nicknamed “Typhoon of steel” by the Americans and “Tetsu no bofu” (violent wind of iron) by the Japanese for the intensity of bombardments, the number of battleships involved and above all for the ferocity of the assaults. 12,513 American soldiers lost their lives, double the number of the sum of those killed in Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, and 66,000 Japanese soldiers. But it is the quantity of non military victims, those civilians killed that history demands be remembered, 140,000 people a third of the population of the time.
This year’s celebration took place beneath a melancholy and reserved shadow thanks to the government in Tokyo. In March of this year the Ministry for Education ordered that publishers of high school history books erase and correct the descriptions of the battle which imply that military authorities are involved in the mass suicide of thousands upon thousands of citizens.
The reaction of the island’s citizens was immediate and unanimous. 36 out of 41 town councils signed a declaration of condemnation of the government’s initiative and on April 21 the regional assembly unanimously voted a motion demanding the central government revoke the correction order.
“The description of the Imperial Japanese Army’s involvement (in the mass suicide) – reads the statement – must be maintained. Erasing or lessening such expressions negates the testimony of numerous eye witness accounts….The residents of Okinawa, who were subjected to inhuman and indescribable sacrifices, cannot accept that these expressions are cancelled or changed”.
The Ministry for Education justified the correction claiming that “it is not clear that there were orders from military authorities to induce a mass suicide”. In early April, Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe used a similar expression to exonerate the Imperial Army from the responsibility of the forced enlistment of “comfort women”. The harsh reaction by the government and South Korean media forced him to withdraw the statement and above all, to turn to Kono’s 1993 declaration recognising government involvement.
The Okinawa assembly motion. Read in an historical context, is a noble popular protest against Japanese oppression in act for over 300 years. Up to the XVI century the Ryukyu island chain, of which Okinawa is part, had been an independent kingdom and a wealthy one at that thanks to trade with China. In the XVII century the Satsuma clan, a shogun in Kyushu Island, vanquished the island and since then the Japanese have done all in their power to impoverish it, despising the natives as a barbarous population.
The 82 days of the battle for Okinawa were a climax of this oppression. Mitsuri Ushijima, commander of the armed forces on the island, clearly aware that the battle could never be won, imposed a defence strategy aimed to inflict greatest possible damage on the American forces, men and machines, in order to slow the invasion of the Motherland. This is why he dismantled the defence system in the north concentrating troops in trenches and caves in the south.
He also ordered general mobilization. “The civilians – wrote Masashide Ota, who went on to become governor of Okinawa – found themselves between a rock and a hard place, they were in miserable conditions”. Subjected to brutality at the hands of Japanese soldiers, they were often used as human shields, and were deprived of all forms of defence. In the war bulletins sent to Tokyo, the repeated lauding of the heroism of Imperial troops is in stark contrast to the absolute silence regarding the horrendous conditions of the natives. The only exception is a declaration by Admiral Minoru Ota written shortly before he committed “seppuku” (harakiri, ritual suicide). “Because of our negligence these innocent people have lost their homes and properties in our assault on the enemy”. All of the men were forcibly conscripted into the ranks to boost defence, while women, children and the elderly were forced to seek refuge in ill prepared shelters under the bombing from air and sea”.
Okinawa’s inhabitants, a meek people, have fought for their existence and that of their dear ones, because military propaganda had described the American troops as savages who raped women, ate children and killed men after having castrated them. Therefore suicide was better. When the first group of allied forces landed in the bay to the north of the island, without meeting any resistance, they found themselves before the terrifying spectacle of 700 bodies, women and children: they had committed suicide by throwing themselves of a cliff.
It is a cruel irony that Okinawa has been forgotten, because of this fierce battle. In 1945 the American Journalist Sid Moody wrote: “Long before Hiroshima there was Okinawa. And it was largely due to Okinawa that there was Hiroshima. And Okinawa has lost its place in history because of Hiroshima”. That is, on the evidence of the huge loss of life in that battle, Washington had decided to break Japan’s resistance with “technical means”. On July 2nd 1945, three weeks after the capitulation of Okinawa, in the New Mexico desert, American scientists successfully carried out the first atomic experiment. The “technical” means now existed. The rest is history.
What is less known is the suffering of Okinawa’s people did not end in 1945. The island was under the possession of the United States until 1972, where they built the largest military base in the Pacific, creating no few problems to the local population. The military installations were not dismantled when the island returned to Japan in 1972. 75% of the American forces stationed in Japan are on Okinawa, which geographically, occupies only 1.1% of national territory.
On June 23 during his speech commemorating the end of the battle, Hirokazu Nakayama, the current governor of the island said: “it is our crucial responsibility to pass on the lessons we have learned from war for future generations and to dedicate ourselves to peace, throughout the world”. But he knows only too well that hundreds of American army warplanes and battle ships left his island for wars in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan. And they still do.