Following my week in Kagoshima, I spent a week or so in Okinawa. So much to say about my trip, and yet… Well, where to start? I was in Okinawa chiefly for an International Conference held by the East-West Center & East-West Center [Alumni] Association. But every time I try to write about East-West Center, I find it really difficult, and I end up rambling and second guessing myself, and just sort of going all over the place. My thoughts about, and relationship with, the East-West Center are quite complicated. I might end up putting up a post about that in the near future, if I ever manage to write one. We shall see.
But, in the meantime, maybe we should just start by focusing on everything but the conference. The conference ran three days, Weds through Friday, Sept 17-19. On the middle day, we had a half-day tour to the Peace Memorial Museum at Mabuni, and to Shuri Castle, the former royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, located in Naha (historically a separate city from Shuri, but which has now grown to gobble Shuri up), just a few short monorail stops away from the conference hotel.
Our half-day tour was a pretty lengthy one – 2pm to 7pm, if I remember correctly. And yet, somehow, within that space of time we only had one hour at the Peace Memorial Museum, and one hour at Shuri castle. Granted, it takes considerable time to drive from one place to the next, but, geez.. surely there was a better way to schedule this out, no?
Regardless, I’m glad to have gone. I’d never been to the Peace Memorial Museum at Mabuni, and now that I have a somewhat better idea of what it entails, at least I know what I’m getting into if and when I make my way back there. It’s a very well done museum, actually, telling the story of the Battle of Okinawa. Very sleek, professional, up-to-date looking, in terms of the style of presentation. Another museum I visited on my own, earlier in the week, the Battle of Okinawa Holocaust Photo Gallery (沖縄戦・ホロコースト写真展示館), operated out of a small corner building in Naha, has a very different aesthetic, being comprised of little more than photos hung on the walls. If one were to really take the time to really analyze both museums more closely, I’m sure a lot could be said for differences in their approach, and in their message. Are either more extreme in their politics than the other? I’m not sure. The chief message of both seems summed up well by a quote from the OPRI’s English website:
There are many problems in the world. But, war is not the answer to the problems. Look at these pictures. War creates another problem.
There is a great deal to be said about the Battle of Okinawa. Entire books, upon books, have been written about it. I, personally, am not sure that I would go so far as to associate it with the Holocaust (as this smaller OPRI museum does, and as some other groups are known to do), given that the Japanese government, for all its wrongs, for all its horrific atrocities, never made the explicit, intentional, directed, and highly coordinated effort to truly extinguish another people that the Nazi German government did. The Okinawans, by contrast, were less targets of genocide, than ignored, uncared for, collateral damage, as two great armies met one another in battle, trapping the Okinawan people between them, trampling their culture, their history, their land, and their lives, with neither side – not the Japanese government which claimed them as Imperial subjects and rightful citizens, nor the American government with its eternal rhetoric of bringing freedom and combatting oppression – doing nearly enough to watch out for, take care of, the Okinawan people and their interests.
I really struggled to find images to put here, looking for the one or two that would, by themselves, without any other images, convey what happened here, and convey the tragedy and the emotion of it. But in the end, I think it is difficult, if not impossible, to find individual images that can do that. It takes looking at tens or even hundreds of photos, a whole room full of photos, and reading about what happened, immersing oneself in the subject even if only for 10-15 minutes, but really surrounding oneself, immersing oneself, to really “get” it, to feel it for ourselves, to be emotional as if it were our own families, or our own people, to truly appreciate just how horrific this was, both for those killed, and those who survived, and all the impacts and implications that come as a result.
Or maybe it simply takes a conscious effort of thinking about it based on the stories and experiences of our own families, our own peoples. While I am not Japanese or Okinawan, and certainly cannot claim to understand or appreciate their own sense of their own identity in quite the same way as a person of Okinawan descent would, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I think there is something to be said for connections, similarities, in how that period of history impacted our families and our identities. It is not only by studying Okinawa’s history, and talking to Okinawan people, but also by reflecting upon my own exposure to stories, documentaries, and museum exhibits about the Holocaust, that I think, or I should like to think, I can appreciate something of the emotion, the experience, the impact upon Okinawan identity, that comes out of this. As I sat in Yom Kippur services a few days ago, in Yizkor services in particular, thinking about all those we have lost, about my own grandparents who went through so much, about all their friends, relatives, neighbors – my relatives, my people – six million of them, who died in the Shoah, I thought too about the Okinawans, their experiences, their suffering, their tens of thousands of deaths. And I felt a connection, rightfully or not, feeling a deep sadness, not only for those individuals who suffered through this, for their suffering, their terrible loss of potential, loss of happiness, and in far too many cases loss of life, but also a terrible sadness at the loss of potential at what Okinawa and its people might be today, might have been, if not for these terrible events. We are all each of us irrevocably changed by even the death of a single loved one; how much more so by terrible grand scale sweeping events such as these.
This is why museums such as the one at Mabuni are so important, especially for outsiders – in this case, for non-Japanese. We have to learn one another’s stories, see the similarities, and sympathize. We have to learn to not see others – Jews, Okinawans – as Others, but rather as people just like ourselves. We have to imagine ourselves in their situation. Imagine losing your home, your mother, or your brother in such circumstances. Imagine losing your friends, your neighborhood, your school. Losing your livelihood, your entire world turned upside down, and losing perhaps even your life, where only years earlier, things were so much happier and safer. It is a story which repeats itself far too often, in far too many places around the world.
I plan someday to read more deeply, more thoroughly, about the Battle, what led up to it, and the aftermath. My specialty in the earlier period doesn’t allow for much opportunity to really take out time to study more in depth about these subjects. I hope, too, to someday post something more well-organized, more thoroughly thought through and planned out on the subject. But, for now, from my brief scattered notes from the exhibitions (there was no time to read, let alone copy down, everything), just a few scattered points and thoughts:
By 1944, the entire island was “mobilized” for development of airstrips and other military construction and preparations. On October 10, 1944, the Allies launched their first air raids against the island, resulting in 668 deaths, and leading to mass evacuations, with as many as 70,000 Okinawan civilians fleeing to Taiwan and Kyushu, where they thought they would be safer. In the meantime, the Japanese strengthened their positions, building a massive command center beneath Shuri Castle. As troops deployments to Taiwan increased, the Japanese stepped up their recruitment of Okinawan schoolchildren into the military. The Okinawan people were caught between conflicting expectations and demands, as the Japanese simultaneously treated them as full Japanese citizens, demanding them to sacrifice their livelihoods, their land, their very lives for their country and for their Emperor, while at the same time treating them as decidedly lesser, and Other. Okinawans were trusted enough to be impressed into military service, but were distrusted enough that those speaking the Okinawan language – not generally intelligible to Japanese – were often executed as spies. In the end, in some of the toughest fighting of the entire Pacific War, the Allies invaded Okinawa, and took the island, over the course of April through June 1945. Many Okinawans fled south, fled /towards/ the Japanese positions, believing their own country’s military would protect them from the Americans. Many, ultimately, found themselves pushed, between the two armies, with nowhere left to go but over the cliffs, to their deaths upon the rocks in the sea below. The cliffs right behind the Peace Museum are one of a number of locations where this took place. Only in retrospect, in hindsight, is it clear that had they stayed in the north, so many more might have survived. Just over 12,500 Americans lost their lives, along with 188,136 Japanese nationals, including roughly equal numbers of Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians. Roughly 1/4 of the civilian population of the island was killed, and nearly all, at least in the southern half, were rendered homeless. Shuri Castle and all the historical sites surrounding it were pounded into dust, and countless irreplaceable documents and artifacts of Ryukyuan history and culture went up in flames. Around 10,000 Koreans, most of them laborers, were also killed. Today, nearly 70 years later, around 3,000 tons of unexploded ordinance remain on the island, and it is expected it will take another 35 years at least to finish clearing it all away.
The museum itself reminds me, as one might expect, of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Most of the rooms are quite dimly lit, and combined with the 1940s photographs themselves, it gives a black and white and grey feeling. A few rooms are built up to look/feel like the inside of caves, where so many Okinawans hid from the fighting, and where so many died, convinced by the Japanese that they should commit suicide, gloriously sacrificing themselves for their Emperor, like so many shattered jewels, rather than allow themselves to be captured by the Americans. A few spaces had latticed bars which reminded me of the Japanese-American National Museum in LA. One of the later rooms of the exhibition feels like a chapel, or a schoolroom, with rows of desks, each of which bears a book filled with firsthand accounts. Towards the end of the exhibits, the narrative switches to the post-war story. The United States continued to occupy Okinawa, the entire string of islands under US control, until 1972, twenty years after the Occupation had ended in the remainder of Japan. A photo of Roger Baldwin, one of the founders of the ACLU, is from his 1959 trip to Okinawa, during which he heavily criticized the US Occupation. It was only after much protest, and indeed some rather violent riots, that the US finally released its grip upon Okinawa, returning it to Japanese sovereignty (as demanded by the Okinawan people; relatively few pushed or voted for independence) in 1972, but continuing even today to hold roughly 20% of the land area of this tiny island as military bases.
We did not get a chance that day, during our far too short visit, to see anything of the park itself which surrounds the museum. I understand it is filled with numerous memorials to all those killed in the battle, regardless of their nationality. Now that I have been there once, and have some better sense of what the site is, I look forward to going back some day to see it again more fully.
In my next post, Shuri castle.