Ben Hills

That was the rock we used for the operating table.” The torch cuts a pale path through the dank darkness of the cave, illuminating the ghostly limestone stalactites.

“We ran out of drugs; there was no anaesthetic left; the doctors just had to saw off arms and legs with nothing to stop the pain. The men were screaming, ‘Kill me, please, kill me.’ ” The woman’s voice echoes around the underground vault, getting louder and shriller, verging on hysteria, as the memories come flooding back. Her name is Yoshiko Shimabukuro, and she was one of the Himeyuri girls, Hirohito’s child soldiers.

In 1944, as the iron circle of the mightiest invasion force in history closed on Okinawa, the Japanese Emperor’s generals shut all the high schools on the island, and drafted the children, as young as 15, into the military -the boys as Blood and Iron Scouts For The Emperor , the girls as nursing aides named after the school emblem of the Himeyuri, the Princess Lilly. There were more than 20,000 of them, an entire generation of Okinawa’s youth, and most were to die.

Shimabukuro, now 65 and working as a guide at a newly opened peace museum on Okinawa, was one of the few to survive, though she still bears the scars and has shrapnel buried in her body.

Of the 219 girls recruited from the elite teachers’ college which she attended, only 96 survived the “typhoon of fire and steel” which the Americans unleashed on the island.

The cave she has brought us to, unmarked and hidden under vines, is called Itokazu, and it is one of hundreds which honeycomb Okinawa. In preparation for the American invasion, the military dragooned everyone on the island – men, women and children – to excavate, to dig tunnels, to pour concrete, to turn the island into a subterranean fortress for the first battle in 2,000 years of recorded history to be fought on Japanese soil.

On October 10 – the 10/10 anniversary still commemorated at shrines throughout the island – Shimabukuro, a student aged 17, stood awestruck in the playground of her school as American planes dropped out of the sky onto the South Seas city of Naha, Okinawa’s capital. Within minutes, the wooden-frame buildings with their thatched roofs were ablaze, and 90 per cent of a town the size of Cairns was turned to cinders, along with most of its inhabitants.

“It never occurred to us even after that that Japan could lose the war,”she says. “We had been so brainwashed during our education – Japan was a godly country; the Emperor was God; he could never be defeated.” The Himeyuri girls were mobilised six months later, when half a million Americans stormed ashore from an armada of 1,400 ships. They were each issued with a military uniform and a little first-aid kit, and sent singing songs in praise of “Our Beloved Soldiers” to the caves to tend the wounded.

“Hell is not bad enough to describe what happened here,” says Shimabukuro, flashing her torch around the cave. In the darkness, someone has lit a stick of incense and hung a chain of paper cranes on a makeshift altar – today is the 48th anniversary of the invasion.

“They were brought here at night – it was too dangerous to travel by day -on carts and stretchers, and some with no legs dragging themselves along. First tens, then hundreds, with the most terrible wounds – both arms missing, both legs, no face, intestines hanging out … imagine the effect it had on us girls.

“There was no room to lie down, everyone had to sleep sitting or standing. Maggots were crawling all over the wounded; we had to brush them off to feed them. They got tetanus; their jaws became locked and they began to shake violently, begging for drugs which we didn’t have. Every now and then a man would go mad and start screaming, ‘Long live the Emperor. Never surrender’ … They were taken to the back of the cave and we didn’t hear them scream any more.”

As the Americans pushed south, the Himeyuri girls were ordered to evacuate the cave, abandoning the more serious casualties. “They all died,” says Shimabukuro. “Some may have killed themselves with potassium cyanide, the others … You could see the walls were black where the Americans threw hand grenades and poured gasoline in and set the cave on fire.”

In the 82-day battle for Okinawa, the Americans dropped more than 14 million tonnes of bombs, and fired seven million howitzer rounds, 400,000 hand grenades, 60,000 six-inch naval shells, and 30 million machine-gun, pistol and rifle rounds – more than 70 rounds for each human being on the island. On great areas of land, organic life ceased to exist.

And those whom the Americans didn’t kill were exterminated by the Japanese military in what remains one of Japan’s historical secrets nearly half a century after the war. George Feifer * , an American authority on Okinawa’s holocaust, writes: “Members of the (Imperial Japanese) 32nd Army robbed food, refuge and life from tens of thousands of Okinawans, chiefly women and children, they had come to protect. A small but significant number bayoneted and beheaded innocents, poisoning, choking, drowning and injecting babies to silence them, tossing hand grenades into caves whose civilian occupants had decided to surrender.” To this day, no-one knows for sure how many people died on Okinawa. In other parts of the world, children go mushroom-picking or blackberry-picking in the summer. In Okinawa they go bone-hunting … fossicking for human remains. They come back, even now, with sacks of skulls and other bones to be interred in the myriad of turtle-backed tombs that haunt the island. The tombs of the Unknown Civilians.

In the peace museum hangs a vast skein of small coloured paper cranes, lovingly folded by schoolchildren, each representing a prayer for the dead. There are 122,228 cranes, one for each Okinawan man, woman and child known to have died during the battle.

According to Okinawa’s governor, Masahide Ota (the author of a book called simply Genocide ), one Okinawan in three was exterminated by troops of both sides.

If you include the soldiers on both sides killed in that last, titanic battle of the war, the toll exceeds 200,000. That is more than the number who were killed in the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki two months later, and even more than the 197,000 civilians who Major-General Curtis LeMay boasted were “scorched, boiled and baked to death” when his Superfortresses torched Tokyo on the night of March 9, 1945.

Snapping in the warm breeze above the US Marine base, two flags fly side by side: the Stars and Stripes, and the Hinomaru, the blood-red sun on a white background that serves as Japan’s national flag.

It is 48 years since Emperor Hirohito told his surviving subjects that they must “bear the unbearable” and surrender. It is 21 years since the American occupation of Okinawa officially came to an end.

But those flags still fly over the island, and every time Yoshio Takara looks up at them he feels his blood boil. “Yes,” he says, “I feel that we are still occupied – by two foreign powers.” Okinawans have always regarded themselves as a separate and distinct people. Their stockier build and their unique dialect testify to their ethnic heritage from the South Seas and the Malay peninsula.

For three centuries the “islands of constant courtesy” as early European navigators named them – a chain called the Ryukyus, which stretches 1,000 kilometres from the south of Japan almost to Taiwan – were a successful trading kingdom, with much more in common with the Ming court, to which it paid tribute, than Japan.

To this day, distinctive Chinese-style dragons decorate the rooftops of the houses rebuilt among the rubble. There has been a renaissance of Ryukyu culture, and even the foundation of a movement for an independent Ryukyunesia, which would be larger than Oman, Bhutan or about 50 other members of the United Nations.

Yoshio Takara, now 65, has more reason than most Okinawans to loathe the”foreign” flags – he is an amateur war historian, a native Okinawan who was dragooned into the Blood and Iron Scouts during the battle.

“We were brainwashed under the Emperor system,” he says bitterly. “When they called for volunteers for the Kirokomi brigade (a suicide squad in which schoolchildren were trained to run into American positions clutching a hand grenade, then pull the pin out) all the boys wanted to be in it. Like the cherry blossoms, they wanted to fall young and be remembered at the Yasakuni Shrine.” Takara was also a witness to other atrocities by the Japanese soldiers, who tortured and executed civilians for such “crimes” as being in possession of a surrender leaflet or even speaking Okinawan dialect. He saw civilians driven out of caves to die on the killing fields of Okinawa, and he saw soldiers give families grenades and order them to commit suicide.

“This was like the Gulf War, except that was over in one day and on Okinawa it lasted for 90. Like Saddam Hussein, the emperor called it a holy war. Like Saddam Hussein he lost. Like Saddam Hussein, he caused enormous loss of civilian life.”

If any further proof is needed, talk to someone like Shoichi Chibana, who jumped into the headlines five years ago when he tore down the Hinomaru flag being flown at a softball tournament, and set fire to it. Chibana was not even born during the battle – he is 45 – and he runs a small supermarket near the town of Yomitan, where the first wave of Marines landed. What raised his anger with the emperor was the discovery only 10 years ago of a secret that the residents of the town had kept since the war.

In another natural limestone cave, the women and children of the town – the men had all been drafted or killed – were herded as the Americans advanced, told that the Akaoni (red-faced devils) would rape and torture them, and that they should take the honourable way out.

Mothers and daughters, says Chibana, combed each other’s hair for the last time. Then the women slit the throats of their children with knives and razors. Then most of them killed themselves the same way or by dousing themselves with petrol and burning to death. Eighty-four people died in this cave, just one of hundreds of enforced mass suicide shrines to be found all over Okinawa.

Underscoring the anger felt by many Okinawans such as Chibana, Takara and Shimabukuro is the spectacle of what has happened to their island since the war. There are only two places on Okinawa where the American and Japanese flags fly – above the American bases, and over the mainland-owned tourist resorts.

To mainland Japanese, Okinawa is Surfers Paradise, a downmarket mecca for package tourists, where scores of vast concrete resorts – no fewer than 40 new ones are planned – have already alienated kilometres of sandy beaches, and construction work and pollution threaten the once-scenic coral reefs.

For the Americans, the island has become the “unsinkable aircraft carrier”from which General Douglas MacArthur once planned to launch his invasion of mainland Japan. Although some of the bases are being returned, nearly 20 per cent of the entire land area of Okinawa is still occupied by the US military.

Away from the beaches, the island has been taken over by honky-tonk bars and Army disposal shops, Dunkin’ Donuts and the ubiquitous Colonel Sanders, catering for 50,000 US servicemen and their dependants.

This, it comes as no surprise, is the only place in the country where off-duty members of the Self Defence Forces are banned from wearing their uniforms in the street, following a nasty incident some years ago in which a group of soldiers was beaten up.

It is also the only place in Japan where flying the national flag or singing the national anthem may lead to violence.

That is why troops and riot police are pouring onto the island.

On a hill overlooking the expanse of the Pacific, guards with binoculars and two-way radios man watch-towers. Half-concealed in a hollow is an armoured battle wagon. Although it’s a weekend, scores of workers are building walkways and grandstands. On top of the hill a sort of sandstone reviewing post has been constructed with three flagpoles on it.

It will be from this vantage point next Sunday that – watched by millions of Japanese on live television – Emperor Akihito, son of Hirohhto and latest heir to the Chrysanthemum throne, will launch Arbour Day, planting three Ryukyu pines and making a speech. A total of $13 million is being spent on the ceremony and the creation of a 10-hectare park.

By itself, it is an innocent enough event – a national day when people all over the country will do their best to green Japan. It is the symbolism that is important – from one of the flagpoles will fly the hated Hinomaru, the national anthem will be sung, and the emperor, the man in whose name a third of the population of Okinawa was killed, will preside. This will be the first time an emperor has set foot in Okinawa, and the nation is waiting to see what happens.

Nearby is the spot where the fighting came to an end, with hundreds of civilians and soldiers throwing themselves over the cliffs a few days after the Japanese commander, General Mitsuru Ushijima, sent his men a last message exhorting them to fight to the end. Wearing full-dress uniform, the general then knelt on a sheet overlooking the sea and thrust his sword into his stomach.

The last time Akihito was here – as Crown Prince – students hid in a cave in the grounds of the Peace Park and hurled a petrol bomb at him. They said they were protesting at the “emperor system” and the carnage it had wrought on Okinawa.

This time the Government is preparing to use force to ensure his safety. All leave has been cancelled for the 1,500 local police, and a detachment of riot police has been flown in from the mainland. Even in Tokyo, the entire police force – 26,000 men – is on full alert. Left-wing groups have vowed to disrupt the visit, and the Ryukyu independence movement has called a major rally, and denounced the Emperor’s father as “Hirohitler” in its publications.

It is said that Akihito will officially apologise for the near-genocide inflicted in his father’s name on the people of Okinawa during his visit. But even if he does, that will not satisfy many of the survivors of the war, their children and grandchildren.

“Is an apology enough?” muses Yoshio Takara. “I don’t think so.”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 17 April 1993
Edition: Late
Section: Spectrum
Sub section:
Page: 43
Word count: 2550Keywords:
World War II Biog Emperor Akihito
Portrait: Emperor Akihito
1. Yoshiko Shimabukuro … “The men were screaming, ‘Kill me’.”
2. Hiroshi Gima’s woodblock print showing the island’s agony.* Tennozan, The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb, Ticknor and Fields