Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, October 31, 2011

The 2011 Okinawa Trip, Day Three

First...a Bit of History
After Emperor Meiji succeeded in removing the shoguns from power and reasserting imperial control toward the end of the 19th century, he set in motion a plan to reconstruct the country along more Western lines. The dialect of Tokyo was made the official language, and systems of administration and education were established based mainly on the British model. Efforts were made to adapt western technology and ways of thinking. One of the more significant of the latter was the concept of nationalism, i.e. loyalty to the nation and its sovereign rather than to a local lord. For perhaps the first time in Japanese history, the whole concept of being "Japanese" became a serious issue...and in some cases a divisive one.

Surprise military successes against China and Russia at the beginning of the 20th century caused the new nationalism to become even stronger and more militant. Ironically, though Japan entered WWI on the Allied side against Germany under newly-crowned Emperor Taisho, his weak rule gave rise to an explosion of democracy and intellectualism...and foreign debt. This changed quickly with the rise of Emperor Showa (Hirohito) at the end of the 1920's; determined not to let Imperial Japan fall under Western colonialism, he set the boots of militarism marching again, and democracy was quickly trampled underfoot. Soon the government was dominated by the military (as it had been under the shoguns). Schools were gradually turned into patriotic brainwashing camps. Harassment of people who spoke anything but the national tongue (i.e. Tokyo dialect) was institutionalized. Intellectuals and dissenters were often brutally intimidated if not accused of treason. The Shinto religion, including the worship of the Emperor as a god, became obligatory. Dissent in the occupied territories was cruelly crushed, which also helped feed the imperial ambitions of the military government.

In 1931, in response to a staged provocation, Japan invaded and occupied Manchuria. Then it began a series of border wars with the Soviet Union. The West responded by imposing sweeping economic sanctions on Japan coupled with a demand that the Japanese military be vastly downsized. Japan refused to give in, resulting in a decade of economic hardship and growing poverty which only fed the militarist sentiment. Finally, on December 8, 1941 (Japan time), multiple attacks were launched against the Pacific forces of the US and Britain. Thus began the Pacific War.

At first the forces of Imperial Japan were virtually unstoppable, and they claimed victory after victory against the Western colonial powers in the Pacific. However, only half a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Yamamoto's dire predictions came true; the "sleeping enemy" woke up, and with the somewhat miraculous victory at the Battle of Midway, the US turned the tide of the war for good.

Now America was unstoppable, and as the flag of the Rising Sun fell inexorably closer to home, the Japanese reasoned an invasion on their soil was inevitable. They also reasoned correctly that the Americans would try to take Okinawa first to use as a staging ground. Thus began a major defensive operation that was never meant to succeed. Indeed, Imperial Japan intended to use Okinawa only as a giant land mine, sacrificing it and its people in a hopeless war of attrition meant only to delay the enemy while defensive preparations were carried out on the mainland. Only a relatively small, token Imperial Army force remained in Okinawa. Meanwhile, the Okinawan Defense Force was organized in desperation...and often in violation of Japan's own laws. Guns (mainly obsolete surplus rifles dating from WWI) were given to any male members of the population able to carry them regardless of age or physical condition. Girl students and young women were pressed into service in support roles, often on the front lines. They were poorly trained, poorly equipped, and regarded by their Imperial Army superiors as little more than cannon fodder.

When the American attack force arrived, Japan sent thousands of planes to meet them (most of them kamikaze attack planes), but more than 90% were shot down before they got there. Similarly, the Imperial battleship Yamato, arguably the most powerful of the war, was sent to Okinawa with a one-way supply of fuel but was taken out by US aircraft before even getting close. Effectively unchallenged, the Americans started off with a heavy campaign of bombing and naval bombardment. Then the troops started landing on the beaches near Kadena. The Okinawan Defense Force was outnumbered, hopelessly outgunned, and had little in the way of support, and yet it dragged on through a battle that lasted three months...and became the one of the worst bloodbaths of the entire Second World War. And if the toll on the battlefield was bad...

* * *
The Cave of Life and Death, pt. I
The day I have long dreaded has finally arrived. It has very much to do with the principal theme of this whole trip, and as an American cursed with a conscience, I'm not relishing this. I will say that I have always intended to make this trip; as an American, I consider it an obligation. It doesn't make it any easier. None of my many visits to Hiroshima ever seemed to get easier. In some ways, this one might be even harder.

For the first part of the day's dark itinerary, our classes separate and go to different locations that are more or less the same thing. They all served the same function during the battle. They all saw the same atrocities. They are all "gama".

2011 Gama 1
Not surprisingly, the one we visit is in a really eerie crevasse...

The "gama" are those among the many natural caves on the Okinawan coast which were designated as survival shelters. Their tunnels were expanded and rooms dug out in order to accommodate people during typhoons or other natural disasters. As it turned out, they wound up housing women, children, and the elderly during the battle plus Okinawa Defense Force members charged with caring for well as deserters from the Imperial Army.

2011 Gama 2

It was apparently hoped that, by lying low in the caves, they wouldn't be found by the American soldiers. That turned out to be very mistaken. Whenever the patrolling American soldiers found a cave entrance, they would shout in Japanese, "If anyone is in there, come out! You will not be harmed!" That posed a two-edged sword for the Okinawan women, children, and elderly hiding in there.

2011 Gama 3

If they tried to surrender, the Imperial Army deserters hiding with them would shoot them, and the Americans would respond to the gunfire by immediately filling the cave with flaming napalm. If they didn't surrender, the Americans would flame-thrower them anyway...or pump the cavern full of tear gas which could still be very lethal. Many hundreds of unarmed civilians wound up dying that way.

As we enter the crevasse and approach the cave, I feel very cold. I do not want to be here. The students already know a bit of the story, and so I avoid their gazes and stay at the back of the group as we await our guide.

Gama 4

Our guide is someone who was actually there. He is a survivor. He was one of the Okinawa Defense Force members there to take care of the civilians hiding in the cave. Now old and frail-looking, he nonetheless speaks with resolve, and we can only listen. He leads us into the natural part of the cave, which served as an ancient tomb and thus includes a couple of very old graves, and brings us to a stop in front of the tunneled-out shelter area. There he begins the tale.

There were some 300 people in there when the Americans came, all packed into a tiny space. As they listened to the battle outside...and later the voices of the patrolling American troops..., they huddled in the darkness as their candles, food, and water ran out. The deserted Imperial Army troops with them demanded special privileges, snatched up the food and water, and treated the others like rats. Anyone caught speaking the Okinawan dialect was immediately branded a traitor and killed. Later, a young girl tried to go out in search of more candles, and she was shot dead by one of the Japanese soldiers. When the American troops inevitably came and spoke their demand to surrender, the Japanese soldiers told the Okinawans with them to keep silent or die. The Americans then flamethrowered each of the cave entrances and detonated large tear gas bombs inside the tunnel. Perhaps two-thirds of the people inside were killed.

The guide asks us to switch off our flashlights and observe a moment of silence there in the darkness. Then he leads us into the shelter tunnel, and as he does so, he defuses the tension by joking with the students, which surprises me. I guess this isn't all going to be doom and gloom after all.

After we finish our tour of the cave, we are taken up above to a nearby park, where we gather under a shelter overlooking the intensely blue ocean. Then the guide starts his speech.

"What were our leaders thinking?" he rails. "What business did they even have trying to pick a fight with a country that was clearly so much bigger, so much more powerful than us? And for what? What did it get us? They didn't care; they just kept their fat asses on their sofas drinking sake and ordering us to go and die for their stupidity! We shouldn't blame America for this. But we need to remember what's important. People are important. Life is important." He looks around at the kids. "You're the future! I'm asking you! Remember what's important!"

I have to admit that I'm surprised and more than a little moved. Despite the tragedy and the atrocity, there is none of the "America did it all" slather that I expected. No guilt trips in my direction at all. If anything, the guide shows far more anger and resentment toward the Imperial Army and the Imperial regime than the US forces. The black cloud over my soul dissipates, and I start to breathe a little easier.

But we're still just getting started...

The Cave of Life and Death, pt. II
As with all students in Okinawa at the time, the 222 high school girls of the Himeyuri Girls' Medical Corps were activated and pressed into service in support of the Okinawa Defense Force. They were assigned to an army surgical hospital located inside of a natural cave.

2011 Himeyuri 1
The memorial to the girls of the Himeyuri Girls' Medical Corps at the mouth of the cave.

The girls never had any doubt about what they were doing. They'd been steadily force-fed a diet of propaganda and patriotism throughout their school lives. They firmly believed that there was no greater honor than dying in the service of the Emperor and being enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine (the Shinto shrine honoring war dead). They firmly believed that the red cross flag over the cave would keep them safe. They also firmly believed that Japan would win the battle in a matter of days (so much so that many showed up for service with their school supplies).

2011 Himeyuri 2

As the battle raged on, they worked around the clock inside the cave assisting the doctors. Their surgical hospital was given the most serious cases, and every day they saw hundreds of soldiers brought in with horrific injuries, few of whom would ever recover. The girls' duties included bringing meager portions of food and water to the patients, trying to comfort them, helping dress wounds, carrying supplies, disposing of amputated limbs, and helping the most hopeless cases commit suicide.

2011 Himeyuri 1b
Offerings of paper cranes, a symbol of peace, next to a memorial for those killed in the American bomb attack.

The first girl died when she was sent up for supplies and was strafed by an American fighter plane. About a dozen others were caught in the crossfire as they performed various duties. It turned out that they were the lucky ones.

As the battle entered its final, most desperate days, the Himeyuri girls were suddenly given the deactivation order. Together with their teachers, they were told they were on their own and abandoned. Confused, they remained huddled just inside the cave...and were hit by an American bomb dropped directly inside. Those that survived the attack went crazy. Some went running madly into the battle zone where they were quickly cut down in the crossfire. Others killed themselves either by jumping off the nearby sea cliff or pressing grenades to their chests. A number ran into the caves and remained in hiding, some long after the war ended, some falling prey to disease, madness, or American weapons. Some were found by American troops but refused the orders to come out, resulting in their meeting their fate via grenade or flame thrower. In the end, out of 222 Himeyuri girls, only about a couple dozen survived.

One of them is in the museum at the Himeyuri memorial, and our students talk to her.

The museum, as expected, is gloomy, and yet there is no obvious blame game. It just shows what was, and what happened. I think what moves me the most is the room entitled "Requiem for Himeyuri". It is surrounded by blow-ups of the original class photos of the Himeyuri girls captioned with their names, birthplaces, hobbies, school activities, and how they died. Our students are far more interested in the collection of diary entries written by the girls, and as they pore over them, I walk around and look at each of the photos and read each caption. I glance around at my own students and realize that it could just as easily have been them. The only real difference is the era.

Tragedies have far more impact when they have a human face.

We have lunch after that, traditional Okinawan fare, and I'm surprised I have any appetite.

A Memorial to Peace?
Our next stop is the huge Peace Memorial.

2011 Peace Memorial 1

The peace monument is elegant but its impact seems rather muted...

2011 Peace Memorial 2

The Peace Museum with its Peace Tower pulls most of the focus.

2011 Peace Memorial 3

There is also the monument to those fallen in the Battle of Okinawa: a huge expanse of dark, granite slabs with the names of the dead carved into them, separated by location. Naturally, Okinawans account for the overwhelming majority.

2011 Peace Memorial 4

Over in the comparatively tiny Ibaraki section, I find a name or two that might be members of my wife's extended family. I may have to look into it.

2011 Peace Memorial 6

There are also a few names in the American part that might be related.

2011 Peace Memorial 7

After the obligatory group photos, we get a chance to look out over the sea cliffs where so much death occurred...cliffs that were literally blasted into a completely different shape by American naval guns. It looks so peaceful and beautiful now...

2011 Peace Memorial 9

Next we head up to the imposing museum, designed with traditional Okinawan roofs.

Inside, the museum is an impressive display not only of the Okinawa battle but of the history of Japanese warfare from the Meiji period onward. It also shows quite a bit of life in Okinawa when it was under US administration from 1945 till 1978.

Not surprisingly, it is quite crowded, mainly with students on school trips. It isn't nearly as bad as the aquarium was, but now I'm getting more than my fill of "Look! An American!" (followed by mimed shooting), punks speaking with mock American accents in my vicinity, or grade school kids recoiling from me with wide eyes. Fortunately, I'm not the only gaijin there, though one foreigner, a big guy speaking what sounds like Russian, is clearly railing on and on to his Japanese partner about how evil the Americans were (or are). It is the only real psychological warfare I've had to deal with so far on this trip, but instead of feeling depressed or guilty, now I'm just getting irritated. Still, I understand that it's par for the course and something that, as an American in Okinawa, I just have to deal with.

On the other hand, I also can't help noting with some cynicism that all the big peace monuments, including this one and the ones in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are located in countries that lost wars. By comparison, peace monuments in the US seem rather small and half-hearted. I guess people are only really interested in peace if they suffer defeat. What does this say about us as a civilization?

Okinawa World
The last item on the day's itinerary is a visit to the theme park called Okinawa World. It has two main parts.

2011 Okinawa World 1

The first, Gyokusendo Cave, is a half-mile-long natural cavern with some pretty impressive subterranean scenery including some really huge stalactites and stalagmites. (Of course, I'd enjoy it more if I weren't sharing the narrow catwalk with kids who are apathetically plowing their way through in a hurry to get back out.) The next part is a village constructed in old Okinawan style (No pics that I can post available...sorry) including a fruit market/juice bar, glassworks and potters, a traditional tea house/restaurant, traditional dance performances, and lots of street vendors. In other words, it's specially designed to get me to empty my wallet in a hurry. Fortunately, I restrict myself to only a few items of glass and pottery, a couple of small traditional musical instruments, and some juice while spending plenty of time watching the glassworkers and potters do their thing. Then I have to sprint to get to the buses at departure time. The students have a good laugh about that...

The International Street of Commercialism

2011 Kokusai Street

Naturally, our day in Naha is crowned by turning the students loose on Kokusai Dori (literally "International Street") to blow what's left of the money they've brought. I and some other teachers then follow on "patrol" (chuckle) so we can drop some yen, too. I have to hand it to the Okinawans, though; as crassly commercial as Kokusai Dori is, it's nowhere near as obnoxious as similar shopping streets in other parts of the country tend to be. It actually has a certain kind of class...though I can do without the street hawkers trying to get in my face. In the end, I come away with a couple of obligatory gift items, a couple of bottles of Okinawan sake to try, and no new musical instruments (not that the sanshin vendors make it any easier...).

The trip is almost at an end. Tomorrow we say goodbye.

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  • This series of posts is one of the most interesting that I've read anywhere. I am learning a lot and you are keeping me utterly fascinated with the details you offer. Great trip. Great posts. Thanks.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 4:15 PM  

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