On the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, Natalie Allison explores the enduring legacy of the Second World War for Okinawa, Japan.
At the end of war – when the peace is won, the question of how nations should treat their war dead is a troublesome one. Normally the countries involved share responsibility to recover human remains following the end of conflict. However, political interests, the nature of the victory or loss often influences the progress of recovering and remembering those killed during the war. This leads to a tricky, disheartening realisation: which side should benefit from the recovery of human remains and how should the fallen be remembered?
The Battle of Okinawa
During the final stages of World War II, one of the fiercest land battles took place on the island of Okinawa, and the surrounding group of islands to the South West of mainland Japan. The battle between United States and Japanese troops resulted in over 240,000 deaths, including 143,000 Okinawan civilians. Yet, over seventy years later, the recovery of the war dead is still unfinished.
In 2015, records of a US Military Civilian Detention Centre burial site built in June, 1945 were discovered in Nago City archives. The burial site is located inside Camp Schwarb, Henoko, a relatively remote region of northern Okinawa. Any investigation for human remains on a US military base would be the first of its kind in Japan.
The US military constructed Ourazaki CDC in June 1945, one of 16 centres, to organise approximately 300,000 local and displaced people fleeing conflict towards the end of the Battle of Okinawa. Living conditions for citizens were poor and a lack of care resulted in many deaths from malaria, malnutrition and other diseases. The list of the war dead at Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum shows that 302 people died in the ‘Ourazaki/Oura’ area where the detention centre is located. Since this site has never been investigated, it is likely human remains are still buried there.
Government bureaucracy or a conflict of interests?
Investigation of Ourazaki CDC had to be taken up by members of the minority Communist Party in parliament to be heard, and it took a year to initiate the first investigation in June 2016. The team was led by a combined national and local group of experts accompanied by a witness. However, the results were inconclusive and the investigation closed. A source said that the surveyors did not look around nor dig into the ground because a building was constructed on the given location. The surveyors believed that any remains would have been removed when the foundations were laid.
However, Gushiken Takamatsu, a volunteer surveyor and campaigner for the recovery of human remains, believes that there is a case for further investigation. Firstly, there are several burial sites in the detention centre, not just one. Takamatsu has brought forward two more witnesses. These two witnesses are willing to guide a new survey team to the site. Takamatsu has petitioned for this widely, however there has been little will or interest to investigate shown by the Japanese Government and a guarded response by the US military. If there is substantial evidence to warrant further investigation, what could be stopping progress?
What’s next for Okinawa: a state of bad relations
No further investigation of Ourazaki CDC reveals the Japanese Government’s limited will to recover human remains from the Battle of Okinawa. The site’s proximity to the controversial development of a floating sea-base, opposed by a majority of locals, is a problem. Protests occur outside Camp Schwarb, where Ourazaki CDC is located, everyday. However, both the government and the US military insist it will go ahead in order to relocate troops at the ageing Futenma base. Investigating Ourazaki CDC could delay progress on an already politically sensitive action for both Washington and Tokyo. For Okinawans, recovering human remains in a US military base is also a bitter reminder of how US military presence has shaped their lives. If anything, how nations treat their war dead should be an act to remember and console those affected by conflict. However, in the case of Okinawa, it reveals the continued subjugation of Okinawan people’s interest by two distant powers.
Now more than 70 years since the start of the US invasion of Okinawa, the struggle to reconcile the past and to recover the war dead reveals the enduring legacy of the Second World War, and how as much as we would like to believe that the wounds of that time in human history have healed, these continue to remain with us as we step forward into the future.
Image Credit: Wikimedia