The past hangs heavy over Japanese island of Okinawa. War legacy complicates long search for identity

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

There were no visitors at the stark granite memorial above the seacoast. Only an orange and an unopened can of beer were left as simple offerings to the tens of thousands who died in a ``typhoon of steel'' here. The past hangs heavy over Okinawa. Wherever one goes on this semitropical island, there are constant and sometimes unexpected reminders of a conflict the rest of Japan has swept carefully out of sight.

The Pacific war against the United States (1941-45) was a severe ordeal for all Japanese. But Okinawans experienced it in a special way.

In the rest of the country, the Americans arrived as occupiers after Japan's emotionally shocking surrender.

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But Americans came first as invaders to Okinawa, where the only land battle on Japanese soil was fought. A quarter of the civilian population died in the bitter struggle, many of them as cannon fodder for the Imperial Army.

The war officially ended for other Japanese in 1952, with the conclusion of the US occupation. But Okinawa's war went on 20 years longer. Finally, in 1972, Okinawa reverted to Japanese administration. Even then, a massive complex of American bases, occupying 20 percent of Okinawa's land area, remained.

Now, 15 years after reversion, Okinawans remain enmired in this history. They yearn to join Japan's bright future, but they are absorbed by their dark past. They still feel a deep conflict, as they did in 1945, and later under the American military rule, about their identity as Okinawans.

``Okinawans have always been unsure of their own identity,'' says historian Masahide Ota of Ryukyu University. ``This has been the tragedy of Okinawan history.''

Until the 17th century, the Ryukyu islands, including Okinawa, were an independent kingdom with close ties to China, even though they were culturally and linguistically linked to Japan. At that time, they were conquered by a Japanese feudal lord who coveted their lucrative trade in Southeast Asia. Islanders maintained relations with China, perpetuating a long history of separate identity from the Japanese mainland. In 1879, Okinawa became the last of Japan's 47 prefectures. Still, their food and dress show a distinct southern influence and their dialect of Japanese is unintelligible to other Japanese in its pure form.

``Ever since the 1800s,'' Mr. Ota says, ``Okinawans have tried very hard to prove that they are equal to mainland Japan.

``The local newspapers advocated that in order to prove this, we have to sacrifice our lives for the Emperor and the nation. ... The conclusion of that was the huge sacrifice of the people of Okinawa [about 150,000 lives] during the Battle of Okinawa. ...

``That is the reason why Okinawan people don't want to sing the Japanese national anthem and raise the national flag.''

Moriteru Arasaki, president of Okinawa University, is a leader of the movement to remove the US bases from the island.

Mr. Arasaki, whose long hair curls below his ears, disdains the standard Japanese blue suit in favor of a khaki safari jacket. He cultivates an air of casualness, but his manner is cool and distant.

``We don't want our land used for war preparation. We want it back as soon as possible,'' he says. His cause is to organize and support the landowners on whose land the bases sit. A small number of them refuse to acquiesce to the rent of their land, although the reversion agreement granted the Americans the right to use it anyway. The Japanese government, Arasaki says, uses subtle pressures, including monetary inducements, to reduce the number of holdouts.

``At that time, we were told we would be the same as the mainland. ... The Japanese and US governments chose the system of going over the head of the people and saying that the government would be run by Japan and the bases by the US.

``Whereas before the people would confront the US Army, and sometimes even win their way, now it is not only the US, it is also the Japanese government.

``So if you ask me how I look back on reversion, as a process it had to happen [the way] it happened. But if you ask me what has to happen now, there has to be more self-expression of Okinawa as an independent prefecture, with more of an independent voice than other prefectures.''

Nagahiro Kuniyoshi, military affairs editor at the Okinawa Times, shares a feeling of discomfort about the American bases.

He also feels the same ambivalence about their former occupiers.

``It was better with the Americans,'' this veteran journalist says. ``They were more direct. The government of Japan is more sneaky. They try to find ways to hurt your pride.''

He points an accusing finger at the mainland companies that today staff their branches here with men from Tokyo, almost like colonizers. He compares their role to that of the feudal samarai who took over the islands in 17th century.

Yoshi Aguni was born two years after the war's end. He is part of a new generation of Okinawans, an accomplished telephone engineer working for NTT, the national telephone company. But for him as well, the past invades the present.

``My two older brothers were killed in the fighting of World War II,'' he said. ``I watched my parents cry every day. I know my father's sadness and I bear it in me. That is why I cannot accept anything having to do with war.''

Mr. Aguni's antiwar feelings have led to a commitment to aid development in the third world. Last year he returned from two years in Kenya, where he helped Africans to modernize their phone systems.

Aguni's strong emotional link to his past is not unusual.

``The past is not the past to us,'' says Professor Ota. ``It is a current and a future thing.''

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