Jun. 23, 2017
June 23rd marks the 72nd anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa. The engagement was one of the fiercest battles between Japan and the United States during World War Two. It was the only point in the Pacific War when Japanese civilians became involved in fighting on the ground. Over 200,000 people lost their lives. That total represented a quarter of Okinawa's residents.
On Friday, a memorial service was held in the city of Itoman, in southern Okinawa. Itoman was the site of the last fierce confrontation.
At the Peace Memorial Park in the city of Itoman about 4,900 people took part in an annual ceremony. Okinawa's Governor Takeshi Onaga and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were among those who attended.
The 1945 Battle of Okinawa killed more than 200,000 people. The exact number remains unknown.
The Japanese military's organized combat against US forces in Okinawa is said to have ended on June 23rd.
And the day brings bereaved families here to pray every year.
"My brother died in the battle," says Chouki Yoshihara. "I feel very sad when I come here. But I visit every year."
Nearly 90 percent of Okinawa residents alive today were born after the battle. They have few chances to hear about the battle directly from aging survivors.
"There's nothing good in war," says junior high school student Yuhei Chiba. "Many people die, and family members were forced to kill each other. I hope peace continues, and there's no more war."
One of the great tragedies of the battle was that many Okinawans resorted to mass suicide. On Tokashiki Island, it's been estimated that over 300 people took their own lives.
A former resident, now 85 years old, is the sole survivor of her family. Her family members participated in the mass suicides. She has rarely spoken of the experience with others, including her husband and children. But she agreed to share her story with us because she does not want a war to break out again.
“Everyone started shouting, ‘Long live the Emperor,’ and began killing themselves," says Emiko Kinjo. "I thought I should do the same. I was at the bottom of a valley, watching all the people killing themselves at the top.”
Emiko Kinjo was only 13 when she witnessed a mass suicide that left 330 people dead, including her mother, brothers and sisters. She is now 85, but she will always remember that horrific day.
On March 23rd, 1945, the US air raids began on Okinawa's Tokashiki Island, bombarding the Island day and night. After four days, the US troops started coming ashore.
Kinjo's father had been drafted to defend the island. She fled together with her mother and siblings.
Hiding in a valley, they began to fear they'd been cornered. As they sat there, they heard voices yelling "Long live the Emperor." It was a signal urging them to commit suicide. The Japanese military considered it shameful to be captured and expected civilians to think the same way.
"We were told that if the Americans caught us, we would be raped and killed, and that terrible things would be done to the men, too,” says Kinjo.
People used sickles and grenades to take the lives of their family members, before turning the weapons on themselves.
Kinjo says she was resigned to killing herself, until a woman near her said, "Let’s run away together." This brought her to her senses.
"At the time, my mind was completely empty. I wasn't thinking about whether I lived or died," Kinjo says. "We were totally out of our minds. That’s why people kill their own families like that."
Kinjo lost her mother in the mass suicide, and five of her siblings. After the war, she married, had children and tried to put the traumatic event behind her. But after her husband died six years ago, the memories started flooding back, tormenting her again.
"I was the only one of my family who survived," she says. "I have lots of regrets. I should at least have taken my younger brother with me. It should never have happened; this should never have ended in suicide. I will never forget this."
A lifetime of suffering and loss. For 72 years, Kinjo and others like her have borne their memories with them, always wondering what they could have done to save their families from this tragedy.
To this day, the bitter memories of war are still imprinted in the minds of the Okinawan people. Yet Okinawa hosts 70 percent of the facilities used by the US forces in Japan. This is because Okinawa's strategic location is considered to be integral to the maintenance of regional security.
Japanese government officials plan to relocate the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the Henoko district in the prefecture.
Earlier this year, the central government began reclaiming the coastal areas off the Henoko district. The move exacerbated tensions between the central government and the prefecture, which opposes the relocation.
During the memorial ceremony, Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga reiterated his call for a reduction of the burden on Okinawa. The central government and Okinawa remain divided over the plan to relocate the US air base within the prefecture.
NHK surveys show how deep the divisions are. The number of Okinawans who believe that people on the mainland don't understand their feelings has now reached 70 percent.
One woman is trying to further understanding between people on Okinawa and the mainland. NHK's Jun Yotsumoto covered her story.
Emi Tani focuses on rehearsal as her memorial day performance gets closer. Tani is a mainlander but she is determined to tell a story about the Battle of Okinawa.
Fumiko Niigaki is the reason why Tani is so committed. Niigaki was dragged into the war when she was 13.
Her older brother died in battle, but Niigaki and the rest of her family were able to flee.
However, Niigaki was struck by a bomb fragment. She underwent more than 10 painful surgeries, faced discrimination because of her injuries and even considered suicide.
"I wondered how I could keep on living with this face, it was terrible," says Niigaki. "Since I was little, it looked like nearly my whole face was gone."
Seven years ago, Tani met Niigaki at one of her performances. They struck a fast friendship and for the first time, Niigaki opened up to someone about her traumatic past.
"Despite her harsh experience, she never complained about her fate when she shared her story with me," says Tani. "On the contrary, she was so grateful about things she encountered in life. 'What an amazing woman,' I thought ".
Tani came to Okinawa to trace Niigaki's journey. She then wrote a one-woman play titled "Face".
The fierce battle and post war period is told through Niigaki's perspective. Tani has performed it more than 20 times across the mainland.
On one day, Niigaki is in the audience.
"I knew I was walking on dead bodies even in the dark from the feel of my feet sinking into them," says Tani in the play. "But you don't care about it. We continue to see bodies every day, our feelings become numb. A crying baby suckling their dead mother's breast. We just go past ignoring that and keep on fleeing. I didn't even feel sad."
Niigaki struggles in her old age, but wanted to see how her story resonates with the audience.
"I think we can consider Okinawa as our own issue by hearing actual voices from people who experienced the battle or storytelling from people of next generations like this," said a student in the audience.
"I think it's the best if a day comes when there's no separation when we think of Okinawa and the mainland," says Tani. "But if that's still difficult, I will keep up my work to connect people's hearts through cultural exchanges."
The two survivors introduced are both over the age of 80. But they say they want to share their experiences and the lessons they learned during the war for as long as they live.
The ceremony to mark the 72nd anniversary of the battle's end was held when there are still tensions in Asia. These episodes in the history of the war need to continue to be revisited as Japan tries to define its security policies.