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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Battle of Okinawa

Jun. 23, 2015

Peace Memorial Park is a place that was built by the will of local residents. 70 years ago, many people, not just soldiers but also civilians, found themselves trapped in the area, near the southern tip of Okinawa. In fact it is a place where thousands of civilians lost their lives. Some dived off cliffs to kill themselves. Others committed suicide with hand grenades.

5 searchlights called the “Pillars of Peace” illuminate the sky up to an altitude of 4-thousand meters. They represent the war dead from 5 countries and regions whose names are carved in the monument for peace -- victims from Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Korean Peninsula, and Taiwan.

Memories of the victims of the Battle of Okinawa are preserved at the Peace Memorial Park. Local people opened the Peace Memorial Park to remember those who lost their lives in the battle with US forces.

The park has a monument called the Cornerstone of Peace. It is inscribed with the names of military personnel and civilians who died in the Battle of Okinawa. The monument carries the names of soldiers from many nations--not just those from Japan.

Visitors will find the names of people from Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula. The monument commemorates those who lost their lives regardless of the side they took in the battle.

An American visiting the site says, “I think it’s great for me to come over here to see American names. It makes me think of our history.”

Some plaques are still blank. The battle here was so fierce that many people still remain unaccounted for. Their names will go on the blank plaques if their bones are recovered and identified.

Around the park, there are many battle scars that show how ferocious the fighting was at that time.

Anchor Sho Beppu walked into a natural cave on the island. "Inside, it’s dark and wet. Caves are scattered across Okinawa. Many Japanese troops and civilians fled into these caves."

As US forces stormed through the island, not just Japanese soldiers, but Okinawa residents hid themselves in the caves. Some were killed in battles, and some even committed suicide. The remains of these people are still in the caves today.

Sho Beppu met with Kosei Kyan. Mr Kyan was 7 years old when the Battle of Okinawa broke out 70 years ago. He wandered the battlefield with his mother and siblings. He fled into a cave and survived.

Beppu: Mr Kyan, welcome. Please tell us, what did you witness?

Kyan: My mother took me around the island to escape US attacks. My father was not with us that time. So I fled with my mother, younger brothers and sister. We found a cave and tried to get inside. But the Japanese soldiers told us they couldn’t allow infants because US forces would find them if they cried. So my mother had to make a decision right away. She left the cave with my 3-year-old brother and 9-month-old sister. Soon afterwards, she returned alone. She came back for me, and I still don’t know what happened to my siblings.

Because of my mother’s decision, I could hide in the cave. American forces showed up later and I remember that they called for us to surrender in Japanese. I ran out of the cave without thinking. My mother did the same to protect me from American soldiers. I think the US soldiers were surprised to see a mother-and-child. And they stopped attacking the cave. Everyone inside survived. An American soldier gave me a cup of water. I still remember how good it tasted.

Beppu: It was a very difficult experience for you, and also your mother--especially since she had to make a very tough decision. What was she saying about this?

Kyan: Even after the war’s end, my mother never said a word about what happened. She was 28 years old back then and died from a heart attack 10 years later. She must have suffered a lot from the ordeal. I would like to emphasize that it wasn’t just my mother who had that kind of experience. Many people here have similar stories.

Beppu: Did you arrange for the names of your brother and sister to be engraved here?

Kyan: Yes, but their remains haven’t been found. I don’t even know how they died.

Beppu: Do you sometimes think of them or maybe wonder if they are still alive?

Kyan: Sometimes I wonder if they are alive somewhere, but I just don’t know.

Beppu: So Mr. Kyan, 70 years after your experience, what are you thinking today?

Kyan: We have to question why the Battle of Okinawa took place. We paid a heavy price for the war, with the loss of many lives. I do not want those deaths to have been in vain. We must tell the world what happened here and speak of the peace that people in Okinawa are seeking. I will continue to tell the story of the tragedy that took place here 70 years ago.

Countless people lost family members during the battle. Even now, many are searching for traces of their missing relatives. NHK World’s Tomomi Hashimoto met two volunteers who have rolled up their sleeves, hoping to shed some light on the victims’ last moments.

Isamu Kuniyoshi is 76 years old. He has spent 60 years digging on his own time for the remains and belongings of people who died in the conflict.

As he digs in the soil, he finds something. "Here, there are grenades."

In one excavation, he found a medicine bottle and the charred remains of clothes.

Kuniyoshi lost five relatives in the battle, including his mother and grandmother. For him, searching for remains and articles is like looking for his loved ones.

"I bring them out into the light,” he says. “If I didn’t, they would all just return to the earth."

Most of what he finds he stores in his home. And anyone who wants to come and see the artifacts is welcome. His discoveries include glasses, a rusty sword, a water bottle and a cup. Most of the items probably once belonged to Japanese soldiers, some of them to local residents. He has amassed several hundred thousand items. Many have no name attached, so it is hard to trace them to an owner or descendants.

Despite the difficulties, some people are searching for these owners. One of them is Takamatsu Gushiken. The 61-year-old mechanic has been working with local college students to collect relics and try to return them to relatives of the original owner.

Gushiken says, "In an age that doesn’t know the war, I think evidence like this can help us to understand the reality of it."

These items bear the names of their owners, but Gushiken hasn’t been able to return them to their relatives yet. One of them is an old chopstick case. On it, they find the words, “Zenei Miyagi”. They suspect that to be the name of the owner. It is a common name in Okinawa.

Gushiken and the students head to the Memorial Park to search for the name. They check a list of the war dead on a database compiled by Okinawa Prefecture. They find the name and an address.

Looking at the chopstick case, student volunteer Yoshitaka Tomiyama says, "He probably had this when he died. I’d like to return it."

They go to the address listed for Zenei Miyagi. But instead of a family home, they find an elementary school. They say they will keep looking for Miyagi’s descendants in hopes of giving them back his chopstick case.

"This process is time-consuming, and you often find nothing,” says student volunteer Ruka Tokumoto. “It takes a lot of perseverance."

Gushiken also helped with a project to build a memorial to the battle. Spent cartridges and a gravestone with bullet holes found in the area are on display.

Gushiken says he hopes the monument will teach the next generation about the war. He says, "People who experienced the war have avoided things that would remind them of the harsh memories. But I think that we must preserve the things which tell us about the war, before those who experienced it are all gone.”

There are still lots of items waiting to be found. Gushiken and Kuniyoshi say they will keep digging up as many as they can, hoping to shed more light on one of the bloodiest battles that ever took place in Japan.

Treating the war as a thing of the past is no easy task for the people of Okinawa. But there is something else on the island today that makes it all the more difficult for people to move on. Sho Beppu sets out to discover the new problems.

I went to see one big painting. It’s well known for showing the savagery of the fighting.

It is a painting of the Battle of Okinawa. It starkly depicts every aspect of the battle: people dying from heavy artillery blasts and residents jumping off cliffs. There are piles of skulls. I was deeply moved by it. It really brings home the horror of the battle.

Outside the museum, I came face to face with the problem that Okinawa has to cope with: a US Marine Corps facility. A fence marks the edge of the base. Just next to it sits houses. So some might wonder which is surrounded by fences? Is it the station, or is it the community?

I went to a park to get an idea of the sheer size of the base. From there, the US Marine Corp Futenma air station comes into view.

A map at the park shows the area. It indicates there is an elementary school just next to the air station. There’s also a junior high school.

It’s known as the world’s most dangerous US base. Local people are living side by side with US military facilities. They complain about aircraft noise, and they’re worried about possible accidents.

One resident says, "When I was born, the US airfield was already here. It’s been 50 years since then. So we feel it’s only natural we have the base, but it sure is noisy. "

Another resident says, "We worry a lot when we hear about accidents, such as plane crashes, because we have children."

Sho Beppu met with Tomohiro Yara of Okinawa International University. He was born and raised in Okinawa and has been covering the impact of the US military presence as a journalist.

Beppu: So Mr. Yara, we’ve seen the situation, it’s as if the people are living surrounded by the US bases. How do the people see the current situation?

Yara: I grew up in a town that was surrounded by a military base. I have never seen scenery without the base. I have never seen the sky without military jets and helicopters flying over residential areas. Our life is very much affected by encroachment of the base. Ambulances and fire engines often have to take long detours around the base to get where somebody is in urgent need.

Accidents and crime are also a problem. A few years ago, a drunken marine came into my uncle’s house and hit him. This kind of incident has happened all over Okinawa. And the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl in 1995 by 3 US servicemen is still fresh in the minds of many Okinawans. I want people around the world to know that we make a lot of sacrifices because of these US bases.

Beppu: Well, about this point, at the ceremony today, both Governor Onaga and Prime Minister Abe touched on the subject of the US military bases. But there was a big gap between the two. Governor Onaga reiterated his position that he’s against the current government’s relocation plan, and he talked about the Futenma Air station. On the other hand, Prime Minister Abe did talk about easing the burden of the US presence in Okinawa, but he didn’t mention Futenma.

The people who support the relocation plan say that, “Well look, it’s a dangerous place, let’s move it to a less densely populated area, doesn’t it sound reasonable.” But why is it difficult for the opponents to agree with this opinion?

Yara: The problem is, how long should Okinawa alone host the bases? To the people of Okinawa, shouldering all of the burden is extremely unfair. Even after Japan regained its independence in 1952, Okinawa was separated from Japan and put under US military control. So American officials could proceed with plans to make Okinawa a military base. One fifth of land area on Okinawa Island is taken by US military even today.

According to US military documents titled Civil Affairs Handbook made in 1944 by the US Navy, the US government judged that people on mainland Japan wouldn’t really care about what happened in Okinawa. American officials knew there was a history of Japanese discrimination against Okinawa. The US government exploited these fault lines so it could keep the bases. About 10 years ago, a US Marine Corps helicopter fell on the grounds of a university where I teach, but news outlets in Tokyo didn’t pay much attention. This shows just how accurate the US analysis was.

Beppu: How strong do you think opinion is against the relocation plan in Okinawa? We have election results and candidates standing against the relocation plan have been winning elections. The governor did win the elections, and also Diet members.

Yara: Yes they have. And here I must emphasize that the issue of Futenma air station is a matter of democracy. The governments of both Japan and the United States are trying to build a US military base, against the wishes of the people. I want to ask Americans if it’s right to ignore the principal of democracy here in Okinawa.

Beppu: Seven decades have passed since the end of battles here in Okinawa. Some might say this: isn’t it time to move on?

Yara: No, because the war isn’t over. This is not just about we who are alive today. As long as this situation continues, the souls of the people who died as victims of the bloody battle of Okinawa won’t find peace.