EDITORIAL: The meaning behind June 23 should be shared beyond Okinawa
Okinawa recalled its horrifying experiences in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa and consoled the spirits of the victims on June 23, the 71st anniversary of the end of the bloody warfare. June 23 is a prefecture-designated holiday marking the end of organized fighting by Japanese troops deployed to the southern island prefecture.
More than seven decades since the end of the devastating battle in the final days of the Pacific War, many scars are left unhealed in Okinawa.
U.S. military bases, for instance, occupy 10 percent of the prefecture’s land. Unexploded shells are still discovered frequently in various parts of the prefecture. The remains of the war dead are found in road construction sites.
More than 100 sets of remains are uncovered every year. In the last fiscal year, which ended in March, the remains of 103 bodies were discovered. The numbers for the preceding two years were 194 and 263, respectively.
More than 200,000 people died in the Battle of Okinawa. By March this year, 185,224 sets of remains of Japanese war dead had been laid to rest at the national cemetery for people who died in the Battle of Okinawa in the Mabuni district of Itoman, the site of the last major fighting in the warfare, according to the prefectural government.
The remains of nearly 3,000 Japanese victims have yet to be found.
In the Battle of Okinawa, 66,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians in the military services from other parts of Japan died along with 28,000 from Okinawa Prefecture. In addition, an estimated 94,000 non-military residents of the prefecture, or a quarter of the prefectural population, were killed.
Although many remains are still waiting to be discovered, the task of gathering them has been left to private-sector volunteers. As a result, the work has been proceeding at a glacial pace.
A law mandating the government to collect all remains of the war dead finally came into force in April.
In response, the government has decided to make intensive efforts to collect the remains over the next nine years. The government should take this opportunity to make up for lost time.
The June 23 official memorial ceremony, sponsored by the prefectural government, was held at the Peace Memorial Park in Mabuni. But a spirit-consoling service was also held in front of the gate of Camp Schwab, a U.S. military base in the Henoko district of Nago.
Immediately after the Battle of Okinawa ended, the U.S. military established an internment camp for Japanese civilians. Many residents of the prefecture, ranging from an estimated 20,000 to 40,000, spent several months in the camp. A number of civilian prisoners of war died in the camp from malaria, malnutrition and other reasons.
The construction of Camp Schwab started around 1956. But a citizens group opposed to the proposed relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan in central Okinawa Prefecture to Henoko started holding the spirit-consoling service last year, believing there are still unfound remains within the camp.
With the law promoting the collection of war dead remains taking effect, the government has pledged to carry out such work in U.S. bases as well.
The U.S. military should cooperate with efforts to ensure an early completion of the project.
People in Okinawa are still suffering from the excessive burden of hosting so many U.S. military bases within their prefecture. The central government has stuck stubbornly to the Futenma relocation plan despite strong opposition among people in Okinawa.
The prefecture was recently shocked by the arrest of a former U.S. Marine working as a civilian at the Kadena Air Base in the prefecture on suspicion of raping and murdering a 20-year-old woman. Her body was found in a wooded area after she went missing in late April.
The suffering of Okinawan people due to the heavy U.S. military presence in the prefecture is inseparable from their memories of the Battle of Okinawa.
The central government and Japanese living in the mainland need to understand the full meaning of June 23 and reflect afresh on the history of suffering experienced by people in Okinawa.