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At Okinawa memorial, thousands gather to honor lost loved ones, ‘maintain peace’

The American flag. (U.S. Department of State/Flickr)

Haruko Arakaki was only a year old when her civilian father went out during the Battle of Okinawa and never returned.

On Saturday, the 74-year-old – with round cheeks and a wide, inviting smile – visited her father’s name carved in granite at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park’s Cornerstone of Peace memorial to be closer to him. His body was never recovered.

“I only know my father through story,” she said as she motioned to the offerings in front of the memorial marker, gifts of Okinawan bento, sweet bean cakes, fruit and drinks. “We don’t have my father’s bones, so I visit here every year to talk to him.”

Arakaki, from Makabi, Naha, was just one of 5,100 attendees at Saturday’s annual Irei no Hi ceremony, commemorating the 73rd anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa. Although this year’s ceremony had about as same number of attendees as last year’s, it is becoming harder to find firsthand witnesses to the tragic World War II battle.

The Battle of Okinawa began April 1, 1945, and lasted for 82 days. More than 14,000 Americans, about 110,000 Japanese troops and at least 140,000 Okinawan civilians were killed during or after the fighting, though the total number of civilian deaths may never be known.

The battle rendered large swaths of Okinawa a scorched hellscape, more closely resembling the surface of the moon than the idyllic tropical paradise it is today. Reverberations are still evident in the island’s passionate anti-war movement.

For the Allies, the battle was pivotal. With airfields near the Japanese mainland, troops could begin their final assault on the Japanese homeland that would end World War II. The war ended several months after the Battle of Okinawa.

Saturday’s memorial day began with a small group of Americans laying wreaths in the American section of the Cornerstone of Peace memorial.

Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, who was attending his third and final ceremony as the III Marine Expeditionary Force commander, lamented the tremendous loss of life and devastation caused by the battle as he gazed upon the thousands of names carved into granite.

Out of the ashes grew “one of the strongest alliances in the history of alliances,” between the United States and Japan, Nicholson told the U.S. Marines attending the memorial.

“Today, that alliance, over the last 73 years, has allowed for incredible and unprecedented prosperity in the entire region,” Nicholson said. “It is our obligation to ensure that this loss, this tremendous loss of life, is validated.”

The day was an emotional one for U.S. Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Christopher Moore, command master chief of the 3rd Marine Division. His grandfather, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class James Jones, was a Navy carpenter who served with the Seabees on Okinawa in 1945.

“Thinking back over the last 73 years at the loss of life that was experienced here on this island is absolutely amazing, and we can’t forget that,” Moore said. “As I look at these walls, I think of the men, the women, the children that were here during that horrific war, that gave of themselves and paid the ultimate sacrifice to allow us to have what we have today, and we’ve got one of the best alliances with the Japanese and the Okinawan people here bar none. It gives me hope for my children and their future.”

The wreath laying was followed by a peace march by the Okinawa Joint Association of Bereaved Family Members. Attendees then packed a large white tent for the ceremony. At 12 p.m., a moment of silence was observed.

Anti-base Gov. Takeshi Onaga, looking rather frail as he battles pancreatic cancer, used the opportunity to once again blast the American military presence on Okinawa.

“There are too many incidents happening on Okinawa because of U.S. forces,” Onaga said. “The Japanese government must take a serious consideration.”

The governor said Okinawa’s burden is too high. The tiny island hosts approximately half of the 50,000 troops stationed in Japan. His ire then turned to the relocation of Marine air operations from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the northern coastal base of Camp Schwab and a new runway being built into Oura Bay to facilitate the move.

“I am resolved, no new base construction in Henoko,” he said.

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke, boos could be heard from the audience.

“We must remember that today’s Japan wouldn’t exist without the many sacrifices that Okinawa made, and I offer my deepest condolences to all the family members,” Abe said. “As prime minister, I promise that we shall not repeat history and will keep the peace.”

Abe went on to discuss ways the government of Japan had reduced the military burden on Okinawa.

“Some operations [at Schwab] will be split between Kyushu and Iwakuni,” he said. “The central government will support Okinawa’s development to be the gateway to the Asia and world.”

After the ceremony, Abe told reporters that Futenma presents a clear and present safety issue, as it is located in a densely packed urban area. He said that it must be relocated to the northern coast.

“We will comply with all of the regulations to relocate Futenma to Henoko and return the entire Futenma base to Okinawa as soon as we can,” he said, according to the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper.

Not far from where the prime minister spoke, Mitsue Ishikawa, 80, gathered with her three adult daughters and 8-year-old granddaughter as is their yearly ritual. Ishikawa’s father had been drafted into the Japanese army during the war and died of malnutrition at a hospital in Kanagawa.

“It has been 73 years since the war and everyone is getting old. I see less and less people visit every year,” Ishikawa said. “My granddaughter started to join us last year, and it is very important to teach our young people to maintain peace.”


© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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