After the stunning defeat of the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway, the US has been slowly pushing the Japanese closer and closer to their mainland. US forces set their eyes upon Okinawa as the decisive final blow to a war that has gone on for far too long. From April to June, the Japanese fought a losing battle, being pushed to the south of the island, before finally being defeated.
Today, I learned about the Battle of Okinawa, nicknamed the Steel Typhoon by the Japanese people in reference to the constant shelling from American artillery and battleships. This battle featured 500,000 Americans simply overwhelming the 120,000 Japanese soldiers on the island. I visited two key sites that gave me some interesting information and insights I hadn’t considered about this battle before. As this is my last full day in Japan, it’s a bit of a downer to end on – it seems like it would have been more fun to switch today and yesterday – but the schedule and certain things dictated this be my last day in Japan.
Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum
Perched on the cliff overlooking the southern coast of Okinawa lies the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum. This museum, and the HUGE park that accompanies it are dedicated to those who died during the Battle of Okinawa. At the center of the park is the “Cornerstone of Peace”
This monument is surrounded on one side by the ocean, and on the other side by stone tablets listing all of the dead from the battle. It reminded me a lot of the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC.
I was surprised to find that not only are names of Japanese soldiers and citizens listed, but also names of soldiers from other countries who died in the battle.
Further up a hill there are memorials dedicated to those who died in the Battle of Okinawa given from different areas of Japan. It’s a large area filled with different types of shrines and monuments.
Down that next hill are a large series of stairs where you can find some of the caves that the civilians and soldiers made their last stand in as the fighting reached its conclusion. The Americans took the center of the island where the headquarters were and drove everyone south until they reached the coast.
It was very easy to imagine what the civilians and soldiers must have faced, being driven back until there’s no where else to go.
I then visited the museum where, sadly, no photos were allowed. The museum was very interesting and made me realize that there weren’t two perspectives to this, there were actually three. You see, the Okinawan people weren’t always Japanese. They were loosely connected for a while but for a majority of their history, they developed separately. Not until late in the 1800’s was Okinawa brought into the country officially. There were several exhibits indicating some friction between the Japanese and Okinawans, outlawing the Okinawan dialect from being spoken to ensure loyalty to the emperor (that seems like it might not work!).
Some of the most tragic things I saw were some written and video testimonies from survivors. Many of them had been told by the Japanese soldiers that if captured by the Americans, they would be raped and tortured. The citizens (and soldiers) were instructed that suicide was preferable to capture. There were stories of children whose father tried to kill them all but one survived, or the grenade didn’t go off like it was supposed to. The fact that the Americans weren’t exactly as described (they weren’t perfect, but they weren’t the monsters the Japanese made them out to be) is a bit glossed over in the museum.
Once the war was over, America retained control of Okinawa, as it provided a very convenient base close to the USSR, China, Korea, and Vietnam (all people we had/have issues with). The museum talked a lot about how the citizens tried to get rid of the Americans. They finally were allowed to return to Japanese rule, but the American are still here…and there is certainly still tension.
Here’s a fun game, try to spot where the American military base is in this picture!
These tensions have come to a head recently in Okinawa as some service men have been behaving very poorly, leading to more protests for their removal.
The Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum is very well done and paints a picture that is quite a bit more complex than I imagined it being.
It also had some great views!
Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters
As war was approaching Okinawa, several underground headquarters were built to protect against the US bombing and shelling.
High on a hill just a bit south of Naha stands a museum which has renovated and opened one of these underground headquarters to go exploring and see what life was like for the Japanese soldiers.
When you enter the headquarters, you go down a log set of stairs. Setting the mood even more for me was the constant dripping of water (it had been raining) – I could almost imagine being there hearing the thuds of bombs landing around it.
Once at the bottom, there were many areas to inspect…
One poignant room is marked with scars all over the walls. It is said that these holes are from a grenade that was set so some of the officers could commit suicide instead of being captured.
It was tough to imagine being in this headquarters building…knowing that there most likely would not be any escape as the US got closer and closer.
After the Underground Headquarters, I turned in my rental car (since I have an early flight in the morning and it’s just easier this way). When I got it to the rental place with no damage and a full tank of gas, I was sang the following Doxology under my breath…
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
While driving was fun – and I couldn’t have done almost any of the things I did on the island without driving, it was quite stressful – especially driving in a monsoon as I was earlier today.
I found in my research one more site that might be worth taking a look at. I was able to take the monorail to the really nice shopping area and climbed a hill to a water tower.
Now, it might not look like much in my picture – and it certainly wasn’t much to look at in real life – but during the Battle of Okinawa, this was a fiercely contested hill. The battle for Sugarloaf Hill (which has a good vantage point over the town) took 6 days and cost 2700 US casualties (and many more Japanese casualties I’m sure…).
It was weird about the struggle that US and Japanese soldiers went through for this hill – and I just had to walk up some stairs.
Wrapping up my Time
With sadness, this is my last blog post from Japan. I will continue with a few posts with some general thoughts on Japan, including advice for those who want to travel in the future.
I have had a full time here – while I may not have been busy every second, it’s tough to imagine me fitting more in. I think I got as much of Japan as I could handle in a two-week period of time.
I will miss the quirky things that make the just sigh and think – oh Japan! Things like this incredible toilet. For only $1600 you can have the kig of toilets (I’ll admit, I did try to think of some justification to get the Fund for Teachers people to include this my grant funds…but alas, I’ll have to forgo my super-toilet!
And also, what’s this sign talking about?
Oh Japan! You’re alright in my book!