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The Okinawa Conundrum

Nick Capo: Estimates vary, but as much as a third of the population still on the island of Okinawa, somewhere around 142,000 people, including military conscripts, died during the fighting.
cornerstone of peace

The Cornerstone of Peace, a memorial that lists the names of the people of all nationalities who died in the battle for Okinawa.

Deep within the Peace Memorial Park on Okinawa sits a small rest stop and souvenir shop. Similar shops are sprinkled throughout the park, places where a tired tourist can massage aching ankles or a forty-something college professor can buy a Blue Sky ice cream cone.

I was conversing with my wife Beth, who had been teaching in Kyoto and Osaka on a Fulbright, when a tremulous, high-pitched voice called to us, in English.

“Papa-san! Mama-san!” A short, stooped elderly woman waved a book at us. Beth and I are English professors, and unbeknownst to the woman, this action was the single best way to capture our attention, like holding a plate of tuna in front of a cat’s nose. “Papa-san! Mama-san!”

Beth and I glanced at each other, and I nodded, saying, “Sure, let’s check it out.” I buy books wherever we go, and our running joke is that I’m a bloodhound who can find the trail to those hidden good bookstores anywhere in the world.

The woman stood significantly lower than Beth, who is two inches over five feet, so I towered over her as we drew closer. At six foot and two hundred pounds, I am average sized in the United States; in Japan, on buses, in crowds, in small groups, I often am the tallest and largest person. Farther into the narrow shop was another elderly woman, older, frailer. Possibly the senior partner, because she did not say anything but sat at the cash register.

The first woman was selling, we understood, this good book about the battle at a good price. Its title—This Was The BATTLE of OKINAWA—was printed in big, bold red letters at the top of the cover. Written by Masahide Ota, it was a thin book, just under one hundred pages, and oversized—heavy on pictures and light on text.

In other words, it was not the kind of book I generally buy; my tastes run toward 600-page magnum opuses like George Feifer’s Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb. But the price was good by Japanese standards—1,500 yen—and the cover picture and the author’s name captured my attention.

The picture showed two soldiers examining a battlefield through binoculars while crouching by a carved stone statue of a Shisar, a lion-sized dog guardian. A handful of other soldiers crouched near the observers, looking in the same direction or talking to each other. A caption in the book identifies them as soldiers in the U.S. Seventh Infantry Division, “observ[ing] enemy action near Mabuni, the last battlefield on Okinawa.” The photograph melds traditional Okinawan culture with the gritty reality of a ferocious battle.

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The author was Okinawan, which mattered because I had already read many U.S. accounts of the battle and was searching for accounts written by participants and historians from other countries. All narratives are shaped by the author’s cultural context, individual affiliations and loyalties, and political beliefs, and truth or true understanding, those elusive holy grails for intellectuals, surely must reside somewhere on the gray ground between multiple perspectives.

That afternoon, while walking away from the woman’s small shop, Beth and I pondered why she chose that particular form of address—Papa-san, Mama-san—and why she acted so much like a typical hard-selling American salesperson. For the second, a certain economic desperation, not just because of the global recession but also connected to the plight of the poorer elderly in Japan, suggested itself. Perhaps also the reputed cultural openness of Okinawans, compared to the mainland Japanese, or the proximity of so many Americans at the naval and airbases.

For the first, perhaps we are simply showing our age. Or perhaps we so obviously were Americans and, for once, were not hated.

Both women were old enough to have survived the battle, and when the Japanese, and particularly Okinawans look old, frequently they are very old. If the woman I talked to was eighty years old, then she was fifteen years old when the American soldiers and marines landed on the island, and the “typhoon of steel” began.

Hundreds of thousands of Okinawan civilians were trapped on this island where two armies engaged in a three-month battle of annihilation. Many survived by hiding in the mountainside tombs of their ancestors; most apparently experienced extremes of abject terror and giddy relief.

These Okinawans, the ones able to leave their flea-infested, overcrowded tombs and enter the confinement of internment camps, were the lucky ones. Estimates vary, but as much as a third of the population still on the island, somewhere around 142,000 people, including military conscripts, died during the fighting.

Add to that figure the Japanese, United States, and British combatant casualties, somewhere above 90,000 men, and the probable number of deaths creeps uncomfortably close to a quarter of a million, or about 2,800 people dying every day for three months.

nick capo

Imagine that nearly the entire population of Springfield, Illinois, died in two months, and then nearly the entire population of Peoria, Illinois or Green Bay, Wisconsin or Erie, Pennsylvania, died in the following month. That was the price in human lives of the battle on Okinawa.

The price of our long occupation of the island is one that its people are still paying.

Nick Capo