The ongoing battle for historical memory in Okinawa

The ongoing battle for historical memory in Okinawa

Andre Kwok & Nathanael Kwon

Okinawa is hailed as a top tourist destination for its tropical climate and seafaring culture, yet a deep dive into its past unveils a dark history encapsulated by the Battle of Okinawa. Though the battle ended in June 1945, an ongoing struggle over historical memory and commemoration continues. Reflecting on this battle sheds light on the ongoing exclusion of Okinawan voices in Japan.
The Battle of Okinawa was one of the most destructive episodes of the Second World War. The battle destroyed about 90 per cent of the island’s infrastructure and claimed an estimated 150,000 civilian lives — about half of the island’s total population at the time. The Japanese imperial state largely failed to protect the island’s population from this violence; as a matter of fact, the military showed little mercy towards its own subjects.
Accounts of the Imperial Japanese Army’s (IJA) brutality include stories of soldiers using locals as human shields and exposing Okinawans to violent US airstrikes and firing lines. Soldiers forcefully raided homes and shelters for supplies, sometimes killing or savagely beating noncompliant Okinawans. In the face of an impending Allied victory, Japanese soldiers also reportedly compelled civilians to commit mass suicide.
This brutality stemmed in part from the prevailing view that Okinawans were not really ‘Japanese’ and hence could not be trusted to serve loyally. Okinawans are indeed distinct from the rest of Japan, linguistically and culturally, having previously been part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom until its annexation by Japan in 1879. The IJA’s actions towards civilians support the view that Okinawans were second-class citizens in the Japane-se Empire at the time.
There were also widespread 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 were raped amid the violence, by both Japanese and US servicemen — most Okinawans aged over 65 today ‘know or have heard of a woman who was raped’ during the battle.
The Battle of Okinawa’s dark legacy continues to be a source of collective trauma, yet its commemoration has become an additional source of resentment for Okinawans. Japanese conservatives have attempted to establish a historical narrative centred on the Japan’s ‘victimhood’, glossing over the atrocities that the wartime Japanese state committed (including in Okinawa). Instead, their narrative promotes the view that Japan, ‘Asia’s liberator’, was victimised by foreign Western powers.
For example, following Okinawa’s reversion from the United States to Japan in 1971, school excursions from mainland Japan to the island were institutionalised. During this period, state-mandated tour guides in Okinawa were criticised for sensationalising the ‘patriotic’ Japanese and Okinawan people that sacrificed their lives in defence of the homeland — a view that aligns with the narrative peddled by Japan’s conservative establishment. In response, activist ‘peace guides’ recounted grim testimonies and guided excursions to battle ruins to promote the understanding of the Okinawan masses, denouncing the IJA, the US military and war itself.
This tension between O-kinawan and Japanese perspectives on the battle still exists. Okinawans, alongside Koreans and Chinese, have protested Japan’s ext-ensive rewriting of history textbooks. In 2007, Japan’s Ministry of Education ordered textbook publishers to remove references to Japanese soldiers who ordered civilians to commit mass suicide. These revisionist tendencies drove nearly 100,000 Okinawans to protest the same year.
More recently, the former Abe administration sta-ted its intention to replace what it called a ‘masochistic view of history’ with a revisionist one that inspires pride and patriotism. Bet-ween 2018 and 2019, ‘mo-ral education’ was introduced as a formal school subject in elementary and junior high schools. The subject teaches students to adopt the ‘correct’ moral perspective and encourages schools to use state-sanctioned textbooks that marginalise Okinawan voices. For example, a sixth-grade textbook includes a story titled ‘The Girl with the White Flag’ (shirahata no shojo). Through a moral item called ‘international understanding – international friendship’, this story emphasises Japanese victimhood instead of addressing the imperial state’s aggression, the colonisation of Okinawa and the Pacific War more broadly.
This marginalisation of Okinawan voices is intimately connected to the ongoing issue of the over-concentration of US military bases on the islands. Okinawa makes up less than 1 per cent of Japan’s landmass, yet 75 per cent of US bases are located there.
The controversial relocation of the US Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma to Henoko represents a convergence of Japan’s continued disregard for Okinawan perspectives and the ongoing dominance of mainland Japanese and US geopolitical interests over Okinawa. This project involved the building of large-scale seaports, runways and military infrastructure. Despite a local 2019 referendum indicating 72 per cent opposition to the relocation, the project has continued unabated.
Historical narratives are written by state institutions. The Japanese conservative narrative of the Battle of Okinawa, which sees Japan as a victim, is overshadowing the experiences of Okinawa’s native population and their descendants who carry scars from the battle. Charting the politics of memory, it is apparent that government efforts aimed at reconciliation are being undercut by a political logic that prioritises the interests of the mainland. Historical redress cannot be driven purely by policy but should instead be driven by a willingness to unpack the memory of events like the Battle of Okinawa.

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