Marie Teather explores the island’s historical significance through it’s monuments
Okinawa with its abundance of coral reef and marine wildlife, beautiful shoreline and a culture so distinctly different from the mainland of Japan, remains the top tourist destination for Japanese nationals. And while anyone who has visited these truly beautiful islands will wistfully reminisce over its beauty, the historical significance and events which took place on this striking island seem often to be overlooked, or at worse ignored.
Okinawa lies some 800 kilometers from the southern-most tip of Kyushu. The climate is subtropical and temperatures barely fall below 15 degrees, even in winter making it a great year-round holiday destination. Yet, in 1945, this small island found itself caught up as a pawn between US and Japanese troops after the stepping stone-like and strategic advantage onto the Japanese homelands was realized by opposing US and Japanese forces. The Battle of Okinawa was the final land-sea-air battle of WWII and the number of people who died during the battle outnumbered those killed during the bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together. No battle during WWII, except for Stalingrad (arguably the bloodiest battle in human history), suffered a massive a loss of civilian life—150,000 Okinawan civilians (a third of the island’s population) were killed. Read that again. Yet the battle’s significance in history seems to have been largely eclipsed by the war’s end in Hiroshima.
In remembrance of the battle and the cataclysmic loss of life that occurred, the Okinawan Peace Park and Memorial Museum was built on the south of the island, where most of the fighting took place. The Museum aims to preserve the memory of this tragic history, and in ensuring the experience is properly recorded for future generations it gives a very sobering rundown of events leading up to the war, the battle itself, and the step-by-step path to reconstructing the island. Around the park are around 90 monuments representing remembrance or peace, including the Cornerstone of Peace, which lists the names of all fallen soldiers and civilians. The Peace Park can be reached from Naha bus terminal and takes around 40 minutes. Alternatively you can go by car on Highway 331. Entrance is ¥300, open Tuesday– Sundays, 9am–5pm. www.peace-museum.pref.okinawa.jp/index.html.
Nearby on Manbuni Hill, otherwise known as the tragic “Suicide Cliffs”, stands the patriotically titled Monument of Dawn (Reimei-no-to), dedicated to two Japanese generals who committed seppuku by shooting themselves in the stomachs, rather than surrender to US troops. At the bottom of the cliffs are the Former Navy Underground Headquarters, some several hundred meters of underground corridors and rooms and where up to 4,000 Japanese officers and soldiers committed a mass suicide. Bullet holes and a hand grenade can be found in the Staff Officers room, which remains the same now as it did over 60 years ago. The Former Navy Underground Headquarters are just 25 minutes by bus from Naha bus terminal. Admission is ¥420 and the headquarters are open daily 8.30am–5pm. See www.japan-guide.com/e/e7105.html.
Civilians also, in the most desperate of circumstances, took matters into their own hands and threw themselves from these scenic and truly striking cliffs. Mothers jumped holding babies, a schoolteacher took her class to the edge of these cliffs and then singing the school anthem jumped with the students to their deaths. Another group of students; 194 schoolgirls and 17 teachers, had been mobilized by the Japanese army to form a nursing unit but were abandoned by the military unit they had been caring for when a shell was thrown in the hospital. The girls who survived the attack, feared rape and barbarity from US troops and decided it better to take their own lives with honor. A memorial is dedicated to them at the site at Himeyuri. Himeyuri-No-To is 40 minutes from Naha bus terminal and just before the Peace Memorial Park on Highway 331. The monument is open daily from 9am–5pm and entrance is ¥300.
The Battle of Okinawa ended on June 21 1945 when the island fell to US forces. The day is marked as Okinawa Memorial Day and every year several thousand people from the mainland attend ceremonies in remembrance of the fighting that took place making this an ideal time to visit and pay your respect alongside the islanders.
Naha Airport is easily reached by plane from all Japanese domestic airports. For more information about tickets call JAL Express on 0120-25-5971 or see www.jal.co.jp/en. For Skymark Airlines call 03-3433-7670 or see www.skymark.co.jp/en. Okinawa can also be reached by ferry from ports including Tokyo which takes the best part of 44 hours. For Okinawa Tourist Information see www.ocvb.or.jp.