World War II and Okinawa



A small group of islands in the Pacific Ocean ; geographically, they are the gateway to Japan .  No threat to anyone, this patch of meager land would never be a prize except for its strategic position in other nations' plans! Strategically, they offer a natural protection and possible battlefield for Japan . Ironically, Japan, like a dictatorial parent, has never recognized or appreciated the artistic, cultural, and historically strategic importance of Okinawa .

"It was called the land of the "happy immortals" centuries ago when the people traded far a field and occupied a delicate position between other powers, first paying tribute to China, later coming under the suzerainty of Japan, and finally seeing archives and historical monuments obliterated during WWII in the battle of Okinawa."

"Through all those centuries of accepting conditions they were powerless to alter, Ryukyuans (Okinawans) have learned to face an unhappy, even a desperate situation with a smile, and with an adroitness that has gone a long way to disarm their invaders." "And as the invaders have come and gone, Ryukyuans have never forgotten their ancient folk songs and dances, their own customs, foods and religion."

Unless we know of Okinawa and its beleaguered people, we know precious little of World War II.   They were war’s classic victims, caught between the rock and the hard place, between the Japanese and the  Americans.  It was a disastrous collision of three disparate cultures - American, Japanese and Okinawan.

There is a chronicle of natural disasters, especially crop-ruining and house-flattening typhoons, along with regular decimation by drought, plague and famine in Okinawa 's  recorded past. "the whole fragile, minuscule structure survived throughout the centuries at bare subsistence level," a Western historian summarized.

Soetsu Yanagi, the " father" of Japanese folk art, visited Okinawa in 1939 and extolled Okinawa 's simplicity.  "Naturalness and freedom from the corruption of the machine...  this tiny chain of islands adrift in the ocean has had a singular and independent cultural history of a thousand years," ..........  "Okinawans possess a richness of artistic inheritance in arts and crafts such as to put cultural values above the economic." Yangi concluded.

Shortly after their annexation in 1879, The Okinawans were forced to speak Japanese by the Japanese government.  However, Okinawa, the rebellious child, has retained its distinct language, culture, and philosophy.


"Presently, Japanese is the official language, the language taught in the schools, heard on the radio and on television and in movie houses, printed in newspapers, and used by official government agencies, but Ryukyuans still feel more at home in the familiar dialect of their own language. Consequently, most Okinawans are now bilingual, and some who have had extensive dealings with the occupying American forces have become trilingual.  As a result of contemporary methods of mass communications, it is unfortunately to be expected that within the next few generations the local tongue; "Hogan", will have given way altogether to standard Japanese.

On Dec. 7th 1941 ... with the attack on Pearl Harbor .... " Japan was to embark upon her dream, or her nightmare, of armed conquest, an adventure in which Okinawans were destined to play their unavoidable and tragic role."  Having fought China and won, then having fought Russia and won, Japan could foresee no limit to her future imperial boundaries, at least upon the Asian mainland and in the islands of the Pacific.  The Battle of Okinawa was A GREAT HUMAN TRAGEDY.

"On October 10, 1944 , American carrier-based planes made more than a thousand strikes over the city of Naha and the airfields and docks. The city was ninety percent destroyed....... The onslaught began in earnest the following March. "

"Long term preparations were initiated, and soon the military establishment had edged it's way into control of civilian life, Ryukyuans, who had frequently felt themselves treated as second-class subjects, of the emperor, were now commanded to prepare to give their lives for the greater glory of his empire."

"We will never permit a single enemy to step on the Emperor's soil.  The enemy has landed on the Philippines and some South Pacific islands but we will make Okinawa the last decisive battleground and destroy him.  Defending Okinawa means defending the land of the Emperor... Know that you will accept your fate in order to obey the Emperor's will." A Japanese colonel to Okinawan conscripts .

"During the first months of the war, the news was invigorating: Japanese troops were victorious where ever they went, and Ryukyuans shared in the general elation.  They felt no premonition of impending disaster but, as the war wore on, as American troops began retaking island after island.   As the energy moved ever closer toward Japan herself, there came a growing feeling of unease and apprehension, a feeling that was not abated when Okinawans saw high Japanese officials on the island send their families back home. "

"Every available Ryukyuan was conscripted: age limits were extended at both ends of the scale; those who were held unfit for military duty were drafted into a work force.  Food grew scarce.  Old women worked hard at building bomb shelters that all too soon were seen to be wholly useless."

"In the midst of final military preparations, the bewildered ordinary citizens were left to make ready for the crisis as best they could.  Families hurried to the countryside to conceal books and clothes and other goods in the family tombs or in pits dug in the ravines beyond the suburban settlements." George Kerr  "The fate of the astounding number of Okinawan civilians caught in the maelstrom of the war demonstrates this tragically....." George Feifer

A decisive struggle on which, for a time, the Japanese staked EVERYTHING... the last major campaign of WWII and the largest land-sea-air engagement in history.  "There have been larger land battles, more protracted air campaigns, BUT Okinawa was the largest combined operation; a 'no quarter' struggle fought on, under and over the sea and land." ...Hanson W. Baldwin military historian

"The natural fortress of Okinawa was the home islands' [Japan-Kyushu] only protection from invasion, and its defense was the key to whether Japan would survive as an independent nation...." George Feifer  

"The Ryukyus were not Kyushu or Shikoku or Honshu: Okinawa retained importance (for the Japanese) only as a potential field of battle, a distant boarder area in which the oncoming enemy could be checked, pinned down, and ultimately destroyed." George Kerr

"The Japanese knew it was the last engagement before the invasion of the Japanese homeland [mainland] ...Just 350 miles from mainland Japan and 500 from China, the " piece of offshore rope," as the name meant, was well positioned to cut off Japan from her occupied territories on the Asian continent while serving as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" for attacks on the home of islands.... and therefore a fine staging area for the American invasion, planned for late 1945."

"Okinawa, Japan's last important stand in the war, became virtually synonymous with kamikaze....... and because those tenets of Japanese culture with its emphasis on honor and its horror of losing face, their extraordinary intensity, insularity and zealous capacity to endure pain in order to serve their nation helps to explain how the Okinawan campaign was allowed to become A GREAT HUMAN TRAGEDY....a culturally damaging and devastating disaster."

A turning point in modern history; it was the first operation on Japanese soil and the last battle before the start of the Atomic Age.  Measured by sheer suffering as well as by devastation of national life, the battle of Okinawa was a greater tragedy... and had the war progressed to the Japanese mainland, the next battleground after Okinawa, the damage would have been  incomparable.

The Okinawan campaign ended on June 21, 1945 after 82 days of battle.  "The immense cost of capturing the island, in human and material terms, did undoubtedly have a considerable influence on the decision to use atomic weapons." Ian Gow.  The reason being that :  "If the defense of the Japanese home islands, with their immensely greater area and  enormously greater population, was going to take on the same  character of the defense of Okinawa, where and when and at what cost was it going to end?" James Jones  

On the first day of April more than thirteen hundred vessels landed on the beaches of Okinawa , and before nightfall over sixty thousand troops had landed virtually unopposed." "The opposition came later- the battle for Okinawa had begun, and before it ended June 21 the conquered island lay in ruins."

In three appalling months during which the Japanese lost the fight but refused to surrender , the death toll amounted to 23,000 Americans, 91,000 Japanese, and 200,000 OKINAWAN civilians, more than the losses of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined!  Conventional explosives on the island caused far greater damage to Okinawan tradition, culture, and well-being than the atomic bombs did to the Japanese culture.

As for the  "casualties": "Those who survived were for a time hardly aware of having done so. They had no houses to live in, no food to eat, no doctors to cleanse their wounds or treat their battle induced illnesses.  Never had they seen so much lice, lice that infested their matted hair and the seams of their unwashed rags of clothing; with horror they watched maggots crawling in and out of their putrefying wounds."  "...for Okinawans trying to survive, the blood soaked mud was their own fields and animal pens; it was home.

Subsequently:  On  September 7, 1945 Japanese forces in the Ryukyus surrendered at Kadena air base (location later renamed Stilwell Park ).  On March 6, 1946   Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, chief of naval operations, proposed that Army assume administrative responsibility for Ryukyu Islands .  On  July 1, 1946 , the U.S. Army assumed administrative responsibility for Okinawa .

On September 7, 1950 Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson signed memo establishing U.S. goals for a Japanese peace treaty. The two agree that the final document should "secure to the United States exclusive strategic control of the Ryukyu Islands ."

Finally on May 15th 1972 , Okinawa once again became a Japanese prefecture.



Okinawan ( Ryukyuan)  people: .... exceptionally peaceful islanders...  the bitterness has disappeared despite the grave damage to many bodies and minds, the majority remain largely as they were before the battle, easy going and amiable.  They endured far more than the Japanese and the Americans, yet remain as gentle and hospitable as before the battle."  

NOTE: I have borrowed liberally from previous publications:  

TENNOZAN by George Feifer

Battle of Okinawa by George Kerr

Okinawa by Clayton L. Hogg



Copyright ©April 2002 Marguerite Hess

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