People pray for their family members who died during World War II at the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, Itoman City, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan, 23 June, 2020 (Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun via Reuters).

Authors: Andre Kwok and Nathanael Kwon, ANU

Okinawa is hailed as a top tourist destination for its tropical climate and seafaring culture, yet a deep dive into its past unveils a dark history encapsulated by the Battle of Okinawa. Though the battle ended in June 1945, an ongoing struggle over historical memory and commemoration continues. Reflecting on this battle sheds light on the ongoing exclusion of Okinawan voices in Japan.

The Battle of Okinawa was one of the most destructive episodes of the Second World War. The battle destroyed about 90 per cent of the island’s infrastructure and claimed an estimated 150,000 civilian lives — about half of the island’s total population at the time. The Japanese imperial state largely failed to protect the island’s population from this violence; as a matter of fact, the military showed little mercy towards its own subjects.

Accounts of the Imperial Japanese Army’s (IJA) brutality include stories of soldiers using locals as human shields and exposing Okinawans to violent US airstrikes and firing lines. Soldiers forcefully raided homes and shelters for supplies, sometimes killing or savagely beating noncompliant Okinawans. In the face of an impending Allied victory, Japanese soldiers also reportedly compelled civilians to commit mass suicide.

This brutality stemmed in part from the prevailing view that Okinawans were not really ‘Japanese’ and hence could not be trusted to serve loyally. Okinawans are indeed distinct from the rest of Japan, linguistically and culturally, having previously been part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom until its annexation by Japan in 1879. The IJA’s actions towards civilians support the view that Okinawans were second-class citizens in the Japanese Empire at the time.

There were also widespread accounts of …continue reading