Wednesday, January 30, 2013

“Nuchi du takara” – Life is a Treasure: Peace Lecture by Hiroyuki Kunugi on the Battle of Okinawa

I recently attended a special lecture given by Hiroyuki Kunugi, Curator of the Okinawa Prefecture Peace Memorial Museum in Mubuni, Okinawa.  He was visiting Hawaii as part of the “Exhibition of Peace”.  It is a collection of peace messages, essays and poetry created by the children of Okinawa.  The goal is to demonstrate the children’s understanding of the horrors of war and to promote peace throughout the world.

Mr. Kunugi’s talk was “Peace Lecture – What we have Learned through the Battle of Okinawa.”  He summarized what happened in that battle.  More importantly he showed how it affected the people of Okinawa.  He gave the lecture at Hawaii Okinawa Center on Oahu. 

I knew that this battle had been fierce and bloody.  But Mr. Kunugi brought the experience to life using actual war photos and film footage.   It was a very moving experience.

The Battle of Okinawa

The Americans landed troops on Okinawa Island on April 1, 1945. By the end of May the Americans had the Japanese headquarters at Shuri surrounded.  If the Japanese had surrendered then, over half of the civilian deaths would not have happened.  But they didn’t.  Instead they retreated south and continued to resist. The battle lasted almost three months. It ended only after the Japanese commander committed suicide.  The fighting stopped on June 23, 1945.

The Japanese knew they would lose the battle from the very beginning.  They were outnumbered 5 to 1.  But their mission was to drag the battle out as long as possible to give Japan time to prepare for the “final battle” to protect the Japan Mainland.

The prolonged battle was devastating  to Okinawa. By the time the fighting ended, Okinawa had lost nearly 100,000 of its people.  (I have learned from other sources that this was nearly one third – 33% - of Okinawa’s entire population at that time.) 

June 23 is now Peace Memorial Day in Okinawa. 

Human Tragedy

Mr. Kunugi told heartbreaking accounts about people hiding in the natural caves on the island, called gama, for protection.  Retreating Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians often ended up together in the same caves.  Americans advanced on the caves one by one with grenades and flamethrowers. The civilians were trapped.

He spoke about mothers forced to kill their crying babies to avoid being detected in the hiding places.  And sometimes the Japanese soldiers would evict defenseless civilians from a cave altogether so they could use it to save themselves.  Some Japanese medics would give their own wounded soldiers a mixture of cyanide in milk to kill them, rather than allow them to surrender or be taken prisoner.

He told about how the Japanese soldiers did not want the civilians to surrender. They told the Okinawans that Americans would torture and kill anyone who surrendered.  They encouraged people to commit suicide instead.   Unfortunately, many did.  In reality the stories about American torture were not true.

Peace Memorial and Message

The heaviest casualties occurred at Mabuni in south Okinawa.  That is where the The Cornerstone of Peace monument stands, erected in 1995. It commemorates the lives lost in the “typhoon of steel” that took so many lives.   Inscribed there are the names of all fallen souls from that battle, some 240,000 names in all, including those of Americans and Allied forces.

Mr. Kunugi ended by expressing his sincere desire to hand down and spread the “Heart of Okinawa”, the “Heart of Peace” through the creation of these children’s’ works. He captured it in the Okinawan expression “Nuchi du takara”.  Life is a precious treasure.

Bringing it Home

After the lecture, one gentleman in the audience raised his hand.  His wife had been sitting quietly beside him throughout the lecture.  He volunteered to share his wife’s experience in that battle.

Here is her story:  When the battle started, she was 3 years old and living in Okinawa.  She was one of those who managed to survive the ordeal by living in the caves.  When American soldiers finally found her, she was suffering from diphtheria.  An American medic cut a hole in her throat so she could breathe, and saved her life.  She still has the scar today.

Life is truly precious.  Nuchi du takara.

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