Passing on a Message of Peace
Apr. 14, 2015
Many countries will be commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two this year. In Japan as well, it's a time to remember the events that unfolded during the closing stages of the conflict.
Last week, the Emperor and Empress of Japan visited Palau to pray for soldiers on both sides who died at what was then an important Japanese outpost. April 1945 began with a huge amphibious landing on the island of Okinawa. The battle that followed took a tremendous toll on the local population. Almost 100,000 residents died.
The Imperial Japanese Army forced many civilians to serve on the frontlines. Among them was a unit of teenage girls called the Himeyuri Corps. The young women had been studying to become school teachers. Very few members of this unit are alive today. The survivors are determined not to let their story disappear with them.
Shinichiro Kuninaka of NHK WORLD's Okinawa bureau has the story.
The Himeyuri Corps was a unit composed of teenage school girls. They were sent to the frontlines during the Battle of Okinawa to treat wounded soldiers. 87 year old Yoshiko Shimabukuro is one of the group's survivors.
Shimabukuro is the director the Himeyuri Peace Museum. Looking at photos of the girls, she recalls, "That chubby one is me. Many of us died in the battle. This girl, and that girl... these ones are all dead."
The girls worked in makeshift hospitals set up in caves. As the fighting became desperate for the Japanese Army, the soldiers left the 222 teenagers to fend for themselves. More than half of them died.
For the decades since, Shimabukuro and fellow survivors have fought another battle to make sure the world wouldn't forget.
They built a museum and held regular sessions of storytelling to convey their experiences. 20 million people have visited their facility so far.
Shimabukuro recounts to one group of visitors, "Using the strength she had left, my friend managed to say 'I don't think I'll survive, so please treat the others first.' Her eyes and mouth were already closed. But when I told her I had brought water, she drank it... and she died a couple of minutes later."
Age has taken its toll on the survivors. In March, Shimabukuro and her colleagues decided to reduce their involvement in the storytelling.
But there's something else that worries them. Visitors to the museum are invited to write about their impressions. And recently, Shimabukuro found some troubling comments.
One person wrote, "Studying things like this is a waste of time."
Another left a remark saying, "War is inevitable."
"The world really has changed," Shimabukuro says. "If we stop doing this, people will forget, and war will return."
The foremost concern among the Himeyuri survivors is to ensure that their collective memory remains alive. That's why they have been training a new generation of women.
The new storytellers describe in vivid detail the ordeal of the Himeyuri Corps 70 years ago.
One of the speakers asks, "Please tell us what you think of our presentations."
"You did well today, you were relaxed," Shimabukuro tells her. "Keep up the good work."
Presenter Akiko Nakada says, "I'd like to be able to speak in a way that conveys how the survivors see their own experience of war."
The new generation of storytellers started taking over in April. Shimabukuro hopes their efforts will reach beyond Okinawa, and touch people who remain indifferent to what happened there during World War Two.
Shinichiro Kuninaka of NHK WORLD's Okinawa bureau spoke with Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya about the Himeyuri Corps.
Shibuya: Shinichiro, why were so many young female students dragged into the war?
Kuninaka: It was close to the end of the war and the Imperial Japanese Army was preparing for a battle on the mainland. The Japanese generals wanted to delay the Americans and exhaust them. So they enlisted everyone they could get. That's why so many members of the public, including students, were sent into battle.
25 percent of the Okinawan population lost their lives. The Himeyuri Corps is a symbol of that tragedy.
Beppu: It's shocking to see the notes, the messages that we just saw in your report. How common are these negative comments?
Kuninaka: Only a small minority of people write anything negative. But the museum workers say they never used to see it at all. Now they're starting to get a few comments like those.
Beppu: But apparently it will strengthen the determination of the staff at the museum to continue talking about their experiences. We are seeing some people of younger generations trying to do that task, but how can they transmit something that they have not actually experienced?
Kuninaka: It's not an easy task. They can't just parrot the stories of the survivors. They've spent several years preparing for this role. They've filmed the women describing what they went through in their own words. And they've immersed themselves in the stories, gathering as many details as they can. They've even visited the site of the battle with some of the survivors. They're trying all sorts of ways to keep these stories alive.
Shibuya: We hear that the new storytellers just started this month, how are they doing?
Kuninaka: I think they're doing well. Some of the visitors didn't seem particularly interested before the women started their talk, but they began to pay attention. Some were even crying by the end.
Beppu: To conclude, Shinichiro, what do you think this 70th anniversary of the end of the war means for the people of Okinawa?
Kuninaka: People have lots of emotions. The war may have ended 70 years ago, but it's not a thing of the past for the people of Okinawa. After the war, the Americans built most of their military bases on Okinawa, and many are still here.
One in particular has been a source of contention. Locals are campaigning to get the US Futenma base moved out of the prefecture.
People here are thinking about how much the events of 70 years ago are still affecting their lives.