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.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Okinawa - Location is Destiny

Okinawa has always been important in the Asian region, both economically and strategically.  Why? Its location and its people have made it so.

 “Okinawa” defined

First, what does the term “Okinawa” mean? Actually, it can refer to:
  • The island of Okinawa itself
  • The prefecture of Japan called Okinawa
  • The entire Ryukyuan island chain (the old Ryukyu Kingdom)

Ryukyu Islands and Okinawa

The Ryukyu archipelago is a chain of over 150 islands. They stretch 700 miles from Taiwan to Kyushu, Japan, the westernmost island of Mainland Japan.  They separate the East China Sea from the northern Pacific Ocean.  The total land area is about 1,800 square miles. That is a little larger than Long Island (1,401 square miles).

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/U.S. Dept. of Commerce

The Ryukyu Islands are split into four groups.  The Amami islands are closest to Japan’s mainland.  Today, they are part of Kagoshima Prefecture.  The remaining three groups, Okinawa, Miyako and Yaeyama, make up what is now Okinawa Prefecture.  Miyako and Yaeyama are closest to Taiwan. 
Source: Wikipedia Ryukyu Island Map

Many of the Ryukyu Islands are too small to support life. Okinawa Island is the largest, and the main island where most of the population lives.  Even so, its land area is 454 square miles.  That is about the size of Los Angeles, which is 469 square miles.

Compared to Japan, Okinawa is less than 1% of Japan’s total land mass with a population of 1.4 million. Japan’s total population is 130 million.  The Okinawan climate is subtropical. It has clear blue skies, green vegetation, white beaches, and is surrounded by clear ocean waters.  Typhoons are frequent visitors.  It has rugged mountains and miles of shoreline with many good harbors.

Okinawa’s Importance

So why is Okinawa important to the Asia Pacific region, both in the past and today?

Its central location in the East China Sea makes it very accessible.  Okinawa is 400 to 500 miles from China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan.  That is roughly the distance from San Francisco to San Diego.

The islands also lie in the path of an ocean current called the” Black Current”, or Kuroshio.  The name comes from its deeper blue color than the surrounding water.  The Black Current flows from the Philippines north to Taiwan, then along the Ryukyu’s, and up to Japan.  Trading ships from Southeast Asia and other countries could easily reach Okinawa in this way. 

The Okinawan people’s gentle nature and welcoming attitude also has contributed to their central role in the area.  Historical reports repeatedly speak of visitors who landed on Okinawan shores being struck by the generous hospitality and kindness of the Okinawans.

Okinawa - A Bridge between Nations

From earliest times Okinawa has been a mixing pot of technology, arts and crafts.  For most of its long history, the Ryukyu kingdom was a separate country from Japan. 

Okinawa has embraced new ideas and developed its own unique culture. This is a result of the intermixing of many different influences - not just from Japan - but from countries throughout Asia.

The Okinawan people’s gentle nature and welcoming attitude have fostered a truly unique culture that sets them apart.  As was true in the past, Okinawa today is still the gateway to the Asia Pacific area, and continues to foster the spirit of being a “bridge between nations” for the world.

This sentiment was perhaps first expressed by an inscription written over 500 years ago on the “Bridge of Nations” Bell, which hung at Shuri castle:

The Kingdom of Ryūkyū is a splendid place in the South Seas, with close intimate relations with the Three Nations of China, Korea, and Japan, between which it is located, and which express much admiration for these islands. Journeying to various countries by ship, the Kingdom forms a bridge between all the nations, filling its land with the precious goods and products of foreign lands; in addition, the hearts of its people emulate the virtuous civilization of Japan and China.

(Translation based on Japanese summary given at Governor's Room; Okinawa Prefecture Official Site.  Accessed 5 September 2009. Source: Wikipedia)

Greetings and Hai Sai!

Welcome to, my blog about Okinawan culture, history and people.  I hope you'll enjoy it. 
My name is Mike Schoonover.  The first questions you are probably asking are: who am I and why am I writing this blog?

Who am I: My Story

I grew up on a small farm in upstate New York. I lived a typical rural life filled with long summer vacations, ice cream socials, and county fairs.    I knew very little about Okinawa then, or most other places in the world for that matter.  My small town was the only world I knew. That all changed for me one day when I went off to college.

I met a third-generation Okinawan-American girl who became my wife a few years later. Through her, I have become more and more captivated with the Okinawan people, their rich history, and unique culture.  But most striking of all has been to see and feel the true “Okinawan Heart.”
I recently retired from my career as a research scientist and am now a part-time consultant and writer. My wife and I live in Hawaii, which is home to one of the largest Okinawan populations outside of Okinawa itself. 
We are active in local Okinawan clubs, events, and fundraisers. At our family get-togethers we have celebrated the arrival into this world of two generations of nieces and nephews. We have also mourned the passing of older family members.  We have made many good friends and had many good times. 

And through all of this I came to realize that this wonderful knowledge about Okinawa is in danger of being lost to the younger generations as time marches on.

So - why am I writing this blog?

Many people have written about Okinawa.  Books, articles, websites are all around us.  But some can be very long reading.  Others may be out of print, or hard to find. For today’s busy person pressed for time, this can make it harder to learn about Okinawa. 

I created this blog with that busy person in mind. 
My goal is to do what I can to find information about Okinawa and share it with you in digestible bite-size chunks.  For those who want to dig deeper into a particular subject, I will also share references and sources when I can.

It is one small thing I can to do to give something back to this community that has given me so much.
This blog is for all of you who are curious to learn more about Okinawa and for everyone who is “Okinawan at Heart.”

I would love to hear from you.  You can contact me at: