The Battle of Okinawa

When I initially started to write this article, I elected to give a full recount of the history of Okinawa.  About its prehistoric times, when a land bridge existed between Okinawa, Yonaguni (probably the time when the underwater ruins were above the waves) and China… about it originally being a separate country called the Ryukyu Kingdom, whose king believed in not fighting because “Life itself is a treasure”… about its invasion in the 1600s by Satsuma (the feudal domain in Japan, not the type of orange!)… about the Japan’s constant classification of Okinawans as second-class citizens (a practice which still occurs today).  But then I decided that the most influential time for Okinawa occurred in the first half of 1945, and the battle of Okinawa.

An excellent way to find out about this tragic battle and the aftermath here is to visit the Heiwa Kinen Kouen (the Peace Prayer Park) and the Himeyuri monument.  Both are located in the south of the island, very close to one another, and their vicinity to “Suicide Cliffs” might give you an idea of the dark past this beautiful island once had.  But before we talk about the Peace Prayer Park, let’s wind the clock back to the middle of March, 1945.  Iwo Jima was about to fall to the Americans, and Japan had suffered huge losses.  The Japanese defence force was 22,000 men, and the American army they battled against totalled 110,00.  Out of this force of 22,000, 20,073 were killed and 216 were captured.  (Incidentally, if you are interested in this battle then I can highly recommend seeing the film, Letters from Iwo Jima, starring the always-excellent Ken Watanabe).  Japanese soil had fallen to the Americans, and the Japanese defensive line had been breached.  Iwo Jima was fortified with the intention of fighting a war of attrition, and thereby giving more time for the defence of mainland Japan to be built up.  Following the loss of Iwo Jima, Okinawa was made the new boundary of the Japanese defensive line, and given this new holding role.  General Mitsuru Ushijima, the leader of the Japanese forces in Okinawa, knew that he could not fight off the American attack, but he was determined to make it as difficult for them as possible.

As part of the preparations for the forthcoming battle, the focus-point for the defences would be Shuri Castle, the historical capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom.  The steep enbankments and walls leading up to the castle meant that it could only be flanked by the sea, and provided excellent defences against a land-based attack.  However, as the huge Allied armada surrounded Okinawa Shuri Castle was pummelled, and on May 27th after 3 days of bombing, it was razed to the ground and the underground headquarters which had been created there was destroyed.  The citizens of Okinawa were also made to prepare for an invasion; this was to be very different from Iwo Jima where there were virtually no civilians.  The Japanese military made hogen (the traditional Okinawan dialect) illegal – this is one of the reasons why the language is so rare to hear now, and only usually spoken by the older generations.  All of Okinawa’s economic and material resources were put into preparing for this huge battle against the Allied forces.

On April 1st 1945, the game was set, the pieces started to move and the Battle of Okinawa began.  The 100,000 regular and militia (including many old men and children – people with no combat experience or training) of the Japanese forces against around 548,000 Allied forces.  To people who experienced this, the battle became known as “The Typhoon Of Steel” due to the ferocity of the fighting and the huge number of allied ships that surrounded the island.  I was lucky enough to visit the Peace Prayer Park 2 years ago and saw an exhibition of paintings and writings made by people who survived the battle.  Some of the paintings were very vivid and showed the waters a mass of warships and gunfire.  There were around 1,300 warships involved in this assault – and The Battle of Okinawa proved to be the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific during WWII.  The Japanese defences fought back but were sorely outnumbered.  Kamikaze fighters attacked a number of ships, but were often shot down before hitting their targets.  One of the ships that was hit was the USS Emmons – struck by 5 kamikaze fighters which badly damaged, but failed to sink it.  Eventually it was sunk by the Allies themselves (fearing it might be taken by the Japanese), and remains an official war grave and a fascinating place to dive.  Landings were made in the middle of Okinawa, basically cutting the island in 2.  The north of the island was relatively weakly defended, and was under complete Allied control by April 20th after very little fighting.

In the south of the island, the defences were much more formidable and fighting was at its most fierce.  Despite a huge defensive effort, the Allied attack was relentless and the frontline of the battle was continually pushed south, yard by hard fought yard.  As the battle raged on, the Japanese forces realised that they were fighting a losing battle, and around 4,000 troops and their commanders committed suicide in the Navy Underground Headquarters.  The Japanese forces retreated to the south-east tip of Okinawa, and took shelter in caves in the cliffs and hillsides.  This was to be the last stand for the Japanese troops.  Already hiding in these caves were Okinawan civilians trying to escape the fighting.  The troops held these civilians in little regard, taking their clothes so they would not be captured, and often forcing the Okinawans to go outside to collect water or find food.  In these caves the conditions were horrendous, and many civilians were forced to work in there for the troops, including the Himeyuri girls (who are a topic for another article).  The Allied forces knew that civilians were up in the caves and pleaded with them via huge loudspeakers to come out and that they would not be harmed, before bombings on the caves commenced.  Their intentions were good but the Okinawan civilians were told by the Japanese forces that they would be killed, mutilated, raped and even eaten by the “cannibal” American invaders if they surrendered, and that it was more honourable to commit suicide.  Groups of girls would huddle together around a hand granade, pull the pin and just wait for death.  Other stories include people throwing themselves and their family members off the cliffs to escape being captured.  Just take a second to imagine how scared and how dire the situation would have to be to even contemplate something like that.

The landscape in parts of southern Okinawa was literally bombed flat.  As you travel past the centre of the island, the land becomes much more hilly which I’m sure is, at least, party due to the continuous carpet bombing of southern Okinawa during the battle.  At the formal end of hostilities on June 21st, around 218,000 people had died.  12,513 of the Allied forces, and around 206,000 Japanese died.  Those numbers are staggering enough to start with, but then it is important to know that around 140,000 of the Japanese casualties were civilians.  Out of those Okinawans who survived the battle, over 1/3 were injured.  The Peace Prayer Park honours all of these people who died, both Japanese and Allied forces (including Americans, British, New Zealanders, Australians and Canadians).  All of their names are on marble monuments outside (see photo above) and you can search for names on a computer system in the museum building, which will tell you exactly where to find that person’s name.  This is an excellent feature for those who are looking for someone specific.  Another big focal point at the Peace Prayer Park is the Flame of Peace.  This flame and surrounding pool was built so that people can reflect on the wars and conflicts in the world.  When all wars have ended and nuclear weapons destroyed in the world, the flame will be extinguished.  Unfortunately, with the state of the world at the moment, that could be some time…

If you ever come to Okinawa and visit one place, I would plead for you to come to the Peace Prayer Park.  It is not the happiest of places, but rightly so; the history of Okinawa has been turbulent and very sad in many respects.  But it is one of the places that you should see.  I would class it in the same regard as visiting the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima – they are places that will make you feel sad/reflective/sick in parts, but in order to understand the country, they should definitely be seen.  Especially in Okinawa, visiting the Peace Prayer Park will give you an insight into Okinawa, and maybe make you start to understand the hostility that is sometimes felt between Okinawans and mainland Japan.  A number of times I have been corrected by students when I’ve called them Japanese.  “I’m not Japanese.  I am Okinawan” is the usual response.

Well, that’s it for this entry.  I hope there were some things in there for you to think about.  The next entry will cover the Himeyuri girls – a very sad story but another that should be told to understand Okinawa fully.

BOLA TANGKAS