In order to understand Okinawa you must first understand this islands fascinating and sometimes tragic history. I’ll start from when Okinawa was called the Kingdom of Ryukyu and functioned as a powerful trading kingdom that traded with both Japan, China, and later the West. On the other islands in the Okinawan archipelago such as the Miyako islands and Yaeyama island chain one can find varied dialects and alternate cultures. One very interesting cultural practice occurs during rice harvest festivals Miruku the god of bountiful harvest is venerated and given rice wine in hopes of a bountiful harvest. Many of the islands have separate and unique gods. My personal favorite is Oh Ho Ho a god with “European features” that is depicted as a dancing man with a long beard and pointy nose. During one ritual Oh Ho Ho proceeds steal the local native women away from their husbands. The locals must throw money at Oh Ho Ho to appease this greedy god. I personally think this practice may have been developed based on past experiences with European traders in the medieval period but there is no conclusive evidence to back up my claim.
Okinawa used to be called the Kingdom of Ryukyu and due to it’s convenient geography of being nestled directly between Taiwan and Japan it became a wealthy trade hub. During the medieval period the Satsuma clan of Southern Kyushu occupied and conquered the islands of Ryukyu and united them in the name of the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Thus the Kingdom of Ryukyu become the Japanese province of Okinawa. Okinawa literally means “off coast rope” in Japanese and is still sometimes seen as the “Japanese Hawaii”. Indeed Okinawans may speak Japanese but they have their own unique culture, customs and heritage. In fact, the reason why the Okinawan dialects have become nearly extinct is because during the Meji period (Pre war 1900’s) Japan had enforced hardline assimilation policies on the Okinawans and punished students for not speaking Japanese in schools. During WorldWarII these practices became even more harsh and Okinawans caught speaking their native dialects were often accused of being spies and executed.
World War II
After years of increasingly aggressive nationalist policies Japan had succeeded in colonizing Okinawa’s neighbor Taiwan and many other Southeast Asian countries. Any non Japanese sentiments were brutally crushed and Okinawans began to forget they had not always been Japanese. After the brutal fighting on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima and raising of the flag over mount suribachi the U.S. fleet set it’s sights on Okinawa. Japan knew that it had to prevent the forces from landing on Honshu and prolong the battle of Okinawa as long as possible. Japan also knew that it was fighting a loosing war but hoped to create as much battle fatigue in the U.S. soldiers and public as possible. They hoped to hold off a full scale invasion of the homeland and have more favorable peace talks. The sheer brutality of the Battle in Okinawa is often considered as the catalyst for the Truman’s decision to drop the Atomic bombs. Japan had throughly spread propaganda warning and scarring Okinawans out of surrendering to American troops. Propaganda stated that the American troops would kill civilians immediately and even eat the bodies. The Imperial Japanese army also armed civilians with bamboo spears and sent out a national wide order to “fight to the death!”. Before the Americans landed they spent two weeks bombarding Okinawa with naval artillery fire to weaken Japanese defenses. This bombardment became know as the “typhoon of steel” and turned the battlefield into a muddy and bloody mess. Of course this bombardment also indiscriminately killed countless civilians. During the invasion itself American troops landed in the middle of the island and pushed southward towards the main city of Naha. The north of the island was relatively peaceful compared to the hell that the South had become. There are countless stories of horrible tragedies that took place during this desperate battle. Many Okinawans and Japanese chose to commit suicide rather than surrender. Japanese soldiers even distributed hand grenades to children and told them they were “gifts from the Emperor”. The soldiers told civilians it was better to die than give themselves up to the Americans. Many people who didn’t have hand grenades threw themselves of the “suicide cliffs”. The tragic battle ended up being the last battle of the pacific before the surrender of Japan. The United states ended up occupying Okinawa until returning the island to the Japanese in the 70’s after mounting unrest broke out across the island. I have heard stories about the celebrations that occurred when suddenly the currency was changed to yen from dollars and cars drove on the Japanese sides of the road. U.S. bases on the island were used heavily as staging grounds during the Vietnam and Korean conflicts and continues to be a controversial issue.
“Green grass dies in the islands without waiting for fall,
But it will be reborn verdant in the springtime of the homeland.
Weapons exhausted, our blood will bathe the earth, but the spirit will survive;
Our spirits will return to protect the motherland.”- General Mitsu Ushijima suicide letter before committing seppuku
I suggest watching “Hacksaw Ridge” and the Okinawa episode of the HBO series “The Pacific”
I hope this post helped you gain a brief understanding of the History of Okinawa I will go into specifics of historical locations and my travel experiences in future posts. It is ironic how a place that is so unimaginably beautiful was also home to such a degree of pain and suffering. When I am in Okinawa enjoying the beach or strolling through a luxurious mall I often find my mind drifting to the stories of those who died so savagely here in the 1940’s. I don’t usually believe in ghosts but when your out in the darkness of night at Okinawa you can defiantly feel the spirits. Americans and Okinawans have become connected through history and as an american I feel a connection to this place. Perhaps I feel it even more because my girlfriend is Okinawan and I find it abhorrent to imagine her going through the brutality of that time. I also find it miraculous that a mere 70 years later I am able to walk freely down the streets of Okinawa with her as a couple, where our ancestors had once tried to desperately kill each other. This very fact gives me hope that deep seated hatreds can be left behind and nations that once so brutally clashed can achieve peace and amity between one another.