Pandemic hampers Battle of Okinawa remembrance

June 23 has a special meaning in Japan, particularly for the people of Okinawa. It is the day the southern prefecture remembers one of the deadliest battles of World War Two, when US-led forces took on the Japanese Imperial military there.

But this year's anniversary passed more quietly than usual, due both to the coronavirus pandemic and the dwindling number of witnesses left to tell their stories.

The Battle of Okinawa erupted in the final stages of World War Two and lasted more than three months. By the end of it, over 200,000 soldiers and civilians were dead.

Battle of Okinawa
More than 200,000 soldiers and civilians were killed in the Battle of Okinawa in the final stages of World War Two.

The prefecture holds a memorial ceremony each year on June 23 at the site of the battle's last major clash. The event usually draws thousands of people, but this year, with Okinawa under a coronavirus-related state of emergency, only 30 people were allowed to attend.

Pandemic challenge

Remembering the hardships of the war gets more difficult as time goes by and the number of people who lived through the conflict inevitably diminishes. And the pandemic has proven yet another challenge. The local Board of Education says the number of high schools holding events to mark the occasion last year was down 80 percent from the year before.

At the official memorial ceremony, Okinawa Governor Tamaki Denny read a peace declaration.
"Today marks the 76th anniversary of the last fierce ground battle of the Pacific War," he said. "We will continue to make constant efforts to abolish nuclear weapons, abandon war, and establish permanent peace, with the aim of connecting the circle of peace from Okinawa to the world."

Burden of US presence

He also referred to the US military presence on Okinawa, saying the prefecture accounts for about 0.6 percent of Japan's territory, but hosts about 70 percent of the US military facilities. He called on the Japanese and US governments to make visible efforts to reduce Okinawa's excessive burden.

Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide also broached the issue in a video message. "For many years, the concentration of US military bases has heavily impacted the people of Okinawa," he said. "We will continue to do everything we can to reduce Okinawa's burden of hosting US bases. We are determined to produce results one step at a time."

Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide
Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide delivered a video message at this year's ceremony, where participants were limited to just 30.

That military presence is a controversial issue in Okinawa. The US and Japanese governments have agreed to relocate the US Marine Corps Futenma Air station to a less populated area within the prefecture. Landfill work is underway at the planned relocation site off the coast of Henoko. But they face strong local opposition from people who want the base moved out of the prefecture.

It hasn't helped that the government is considering procuring soil from the southern part of Okinawa's main island — the site of that battle — for the landfill work. Several municipalities in the prefecture have passed written opinions calling on the government not to use soil that could contain human remains.

Looking forward by remembering

At the memorial event, junior high school student Uehara Miharu expressed the hopes of many. She read a poem she had written, urging people to learn from history: "Never forget the dark past, let us never make those mistakes again. We have a role to create a peaceful world."

Uehara Miharu reads a poem she wrote.
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