The ongoing battle for historical memory in Okinawa – Analysis – Eurasia Review

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By Andre Kwok and Nathanael Kwon *

Okinawa is hailed as a first tourist destination for its tropical climate and maritime culture, but a deep dive into its past reveals a dark history encapsulated by the Battle of Okinawa. Although the battle ended in June 1945, an ongoing struggle for historical memory and commemoration continues. Reflecting on this battle highlights the continued exclusion of Okinawan voices in Japan.

The Battle of Okinawa was one of the most destructive episodes of WWII. The battle destroyed around 90 percent of the island’s infrastructure and claimed around 150,000 civilian lives – about half of the total population of the island at the time. The Japanese Imperial State has largely failed to protect the island’s population from this violence; in fact, the military has shown little mercy towards its own subjects.

Tales of Imperial Japanese Army Brutality (IJA) include stories of soldiers using locals as human shields and exposing Okinawans to heavy US airstrikes and lines of fire. Soldiers forcibly attacked homes and shelters for supplies, sometimes killing or savagely beating nonconforming Okinawans. Faced with an imminent Allied victory, Japanese soldiers also would have forced civilians to commit collective suicide.

This brutality stemmed in part from the prevailing view that Okinawans were not really “Japanese” and therefore one could not be trusted to serve loyally. Okinawans are indeed distinct from the rest of Japan, linguistically and culturally, having been part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom until its annexation by Japan in 1879. The actions of the IJA towards civilians support the idea that Okinawans were second-class citizens in the Japanese Empire. at the time.

There were also numerous accounts of sexual violence against civilian women during the battle, perpetrated by both Japan and the United States. Steve robson estimates that at least 10,000 women have been raped amid violence, by Japanese and US military – most Okinawans over the age of 65 today “know or have heard of a woman who was raped” during the battle.

The dark legacy of the Battle for Okinawa continues to be a source of collective trauma, but its commemoration has become a further source of resentment for Okinawans. Japanese conservatives have tried to establish a historical narrative focused on the “victim” of Japan, ignoring the atrocities committed by the Japanese state during wartime (including in Okinawa). Instead, their account promotes the idea that Japan, “the liberator of Asia,” was victimized by foreign Western powers.

For example, following Okinawa’s return from the United States to Japan in 1971, school trips from mainland Japan to the island were institutionalized. During this period, state-mandated tourist guides in Okinawa have been criticized for sensationalizing the “patriotic” Japanese and the people of Okinawa who sacrificed their lives to defend the homeland – an opinion that aligns with the narrative peddled by the conservative Japanese establishment. In response, activist “guides to peace” recounted grim testimonies and guided excursions to the ruins of the battle to promote understanding among the masses of Okinawa, denouncing the IJA, the US military and the war itself.

This tension between Okinawan and Japanese views on the battle still exists. Okinawans, alongside Koreans and Chinese, protested against the vast rewriting history textbooks. In 2007, the Japanese Ministry of Education ordered textbook publishers to remove references to Japanese soldiers who ordered civilians to kill themselves en masse. These revisionist tendencies have led nearly 100,000 Okinawans protest the same year.

More recently, the former Abe administration declared its intention to replace what it called a “masochistic view of history” with a revisionist view that inspires pride and patriotism. Between 2018 and 2019, “Moral education” was introduced as a formal school subject in primary and secondary schools. The topic teaches students to take the “correct” moral perspective and encourages schools to use state-sanctioned textbooks that marginalize Okinawan voices. For example, a grade six textbook includes a story called ‘The girl with the white flag’ (shirahata no shōjo). Through a moral article called “International Understanding – International Friendship,” this story emphasizes Japanese victimization instead of addressing imperial state aggression, settlement of Okinawa, and the wider Pacific War. .

This marginalization of Okinawan voices is intimately linked to the persistent problem of the over-concentration of US military bases on the islands. Okinawa makes up less than 1% of Japan’s landmass, yet 75 percent of US bases are located there.

Controversial move of US Marine Corps Air Station to Futenma in Henoko represents convergence of Japan’s pursuit disregard for Okinawa’s prospects and the continued dominance of the geopolitical interests of Japan and the United States over Okinawa. This project involved the construction of large-scale seaports, runways and military infrastructure. Despite a local 2019 referendum indicating 72% opposition to relocation, the project continued unabated.

Historical accounts are written by state institutions. Japan’s conservative account of the Battle for Okinawa, which views Japan as a victim, overshadows the experiences of the indigenous people of Okinawa and their descendants who bear the scars of the battle. In mapping the politics of remembrance, it is evident that the government’s efforts at reconciliation are undermined by a political logic that prioritizes the interests of the continent. Historic repair cannot be motivated by politics alone, but rather should be motivated by a willingness to unwrap the memory of events like the Battle of Okinawa.

* About the authors:

  • Andre Kwok is Associate Editor of New Mandala, based at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at Australian National University. He is also studying Asian Studies and Law at the Australian National University.
  • Nathanael Kwon is an Asian Studies and Languages ​​student at the Australian National University.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

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