June 23 marks Okinawa Memorial Day, which commemorates lives lost in the Battle of Okinawa, a major battle of the Pacific War fought in Japan’s southernmost prefecture. Seventy-six years ago to this day, organized fighting in the battle came to an end after three months.
Altogether, some 200,000 Japanese and American lives were lost in the intensely fought battle toward the end of World War II. The casualties included around 94,000 Okinawan residents. This was a result of the fighting becoming drawn out in the south of the island of Okinawa, where many people had evacuated, as the Japanese military tried to gain time for battles on the country’s main islands.
In the battle, the lives and livelihoods of Okinawa residents were trampled upon in the name of a national policy. And the structure of Okinawa being forced to bear an unreasonable burden remains unchanged today.
Since the reversion of Okinawa back to Japan in 1972, the southernmost prefecture has borne a heavy share of the hosting of U.S. military bases. And there have been countless cases of noise pollution from U.S. military aircraft as well as crimes and accidents caused by U.S. military personnel. Just recently a U.S. military helicopter made a forced landing in a field near a settlement in the Okinawa Prefecture city of Uruma.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government has overridden opposition from over 70% of Okinawa Prefecture residents to go ahead with plans to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the Henoko district of the city of Nago in central Okinawa. While there is no specific outlook for completing the job, even in technical terms, land reclamation work in the area is continuing.
Last year the southern areas of the main island of Okinawa, where fighting was intense and where the skeletal remains of many victims lie, was listed as a candidate for a place to retrieve earth for the landfill work.
What stands out is the Japanese government’s stance of making light of the history of Okinawa and its people’s feelings.
When Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was chief Cabinet secretary, he told then Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who had underscored the suffering of Okinawa during and after the battle, that it was not good to bring up history, on the grounds that he was born after the war.
Furthermore, at a Japan-U.S. summit in April, a joint statement formulated with China in mind underscored the “importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” The more deterrence against China is stressed, the greater the burden of hosting bases could become for Okinawa, which is situated on the front line.
The effects of the coronavirus also capture our attention. The number of schoolchildren traveling to Okinawa on school trips has fallen greatly as a result of the pandemic, and privately run facilities such as the Himeyuri Peace Museum are said to be facing a crisis in business terms.
Many who have spoken about their experiences in the battle are over 80 years old, and one outstanding issue is how to pass down their memories. It is important to establish opportunities for younger generations to learn about the history of Okinawa.
As people mark the Battle of Okinawa, we want to remember the despair and pain that Okinawans felt. The first step toward lightening the excessive burden on Okinawa is for a wide sphere of the public to come face to face with this history.