Stephen Mansfield’s article, “Okinawa: In the Crosshairs of War” (Japan Times, 4 Apr. 2015), is troubling in the sense that it perpetuates a romantic myth about Okinawans that is repeatedly used for propaganda. For example, he claims that “Okinawans had no history of war, and did not make or carry arms.” A cursory review of Smits’ “Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism”2 quickly lays this myth to rest.
This pacifist image feeds the myth of the mainland Japanese as villains responsible for the annihilation of a third of the Okinawan population in the Battle of Okinawa. Lost in this innocent vs. evil scenario is the culpability of the U.S. forces in the suffering and loss of civilian lives. The fact that they treated civilians humanely outside the field of battle does nothing to lessen the fact that they’re directly or indirectly responsible for the overwhelming proportion of the carnage.
In “Learn Value of Peace by Studying Battle of Okinawa: Ex-U.S. Soldier” (Japan Times, 6 Apr. 2015), we get a firsthand account of the killing of civilians from a sansei, Harold Okumura, a former U.S. serviceman who fought on Okinawa. During the battle, “he helped call on Japanese soldiers and residents hiding in the caves to come out and surrender…. If the hiding Japanese troops and residents did not come out, U.S. troops mercilessly set fire to the caves, Okumura said, adding this was a terrible thing to see.”
This was war, and attempts by writers such as Mansfield to shift the burden of responsibility onto the “other guy” are embarrassing. The sad truth is that the Okinawan civilians got caught up in a battle that gave their lives little priority. The Okinawans were the hapless victims of a conflict between world powers then, and they remain so today.
Far from being pacifists in the war that impacted the world, the Okinawans were, like the rest of the Japanese nation, caught up in the fervor of patriotism as both citizens and soldiers. The following excerpts from Jonathan Mirsky’s “Okinawa: Why They Chose Death,” which is based on a review of Descent into Hell: Civilian Memories of the Battle of Okinawa,3 are from a collection of interviews published by Ryukyu Shimpo and translated into English by Mark Ealey and Alastair McLauchlan. The subjects were Okinawans who survived the 82-day battle that lasted from early April until mid-June 1945.
“We wanted to be of use to the country as quickly as we could,” the sole survivor of a signal corps unit made up of teenage boys recalls. “We were consumed by a burning desire to offer our lives in defense of the nation. We had no fear of death whatsoever.”
Another student remembers how those already sent to fight would write letters to friends saying they would “meet at the Yasukuni Shrine” on the mainland where people who died for the emperor were commemorated. “We always felt that, however grim things seemed, there was no way that our divine nation would lose the war….That’s because we were all more than happy to die for our country.”
From the late nineteenth century, Japanese education became highly nationalistic and militarized. On Okinawa, students were commanded to show total devotion to the emperor and therefore to the nation, and during the war most Okinawans obeyed military orders as though they had been given by the emperor himself.
They capture, for me, the spirit that pervaded the civilian Okinawan population. They were, like the rest of the nation, fiercely loyal and patriotic. Today, with hindsight, we can call it brainwashing, madness, or misguided zeal, but the fact remains that patriotism, wherever we find it, is ultimately irrational. People around the world throughout time have been willing to kill or be killed for their country, and right or wrong is not an issue. In this regard, the Okinawans were no different from the Japanese in other prefectures and certainly no different from the Americans.
Today, seventy years after the war, Mirsky, like countless other Americans, is still asking the question that haunts us as a nation: Were we justified in dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killing approximately 130-240 thousand, mostly civilians? In this review, Mirsky also appears to be asking, Were we justified in killing approximately 100 thousand civilians on Okinawa?
In a sane world, the answer is obviously no. But in a world ruled by patriotism, the emotion that fuels war, the answer is yes, and the reason is a simple one — to prevail. And critical to victory is minimizing our casualties while maximizing theirs. And if it means killing their women, children, and elderly to save more of our own troops, then so be it. And that’s the ultimate insanity of war.
1 On 1 June 2015, I expanded the original article to include the contents of a second article, “The Overriding Emotion of Okinawans in WWII Was Patriotism,” that was published on 8 Apr. 2015. I was originally planning to write a single article that combined both but decided to publish the first, in the interest of time, on the 7th and follow up with the second the next day, the 8th. This was a poor decision, resulting in articles that made little sense as stand-alones. -JS
2 Gregory Smits, “Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism,” Asia-Pacific Journal, 37-3-10, 13 Sep. 2010.
3 Jonathan Mirsky, “Okinawa: Why They Chose Death,” NYRev, 23 Oct. 2014. A review of Descent into Hell: Civilian Memories of the Battle of Okinawa, translated by Mark Ealey and Alastair McLauchlan, published by Merwin Asia, 30 June 2014, and distributed by University of Hawaii Press.