Everyone knows that World War II did not end well for Japan, but the often overlooked plight of Okinawa is perhaps almost as tragic as the fates that befell Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While no atomic bombs were ever dropped on this particular island, its history as a victim of political suppression and exploitation stretches back much further than the 1940s. And after the war ended, the destruction wreaked upon it became a factor in why the American military base remains there to this day.
Okinawa was once an independent, thriving empire, brought under Japanese rule in 1879 and becoming the southernmost prefecture. With their king overthrown and their language standardized, Okinawans were treated for a long time like second-class citizens. As Japan's power grew and waned in the 20th century, the islands south of the mainland became stages for ill-fated stand-offs against the Americans. With resources tight, thousands of locals were unable to escape to safety, and thus were pressured into helping the war effort by digging tunnels, serving as messengers, and caring for the wounded - or else committing suicide, so as not to betray the homeland when captured by the enemy after victory was deemed impossible.
South of central Naha, the Japanese Navy Headquarters represent the remaining network of tunnels from this era. Dim, damp but remarkably well-preserved, the earthen stronghold offers a bleak hint at the struggle of wartime life; once the Americans landed on Okinawa, soldiers hardly ever left during the daytime. And, in certain areas, the tunnel walls are flecked with holes from when Rear Admiral Ota and members of his staff committed suicide, some using grenades. (By the museum's estimate, 4,000 men ultimately took their own lives down there). In one of his last telegrams to the mainland, Ota praised the perseverance of the Okinawans and implored the government to consider their wellbeing in future decision-making.
The nearby Okinawa Peace Prefectural Museum provides a more in-depth look at Okinawa's role in WWII and the severe impact it had on the island's people and environment. (It gets heavy; like Holocaust Museum heavy). I cringed when a giggling gaggle of girls passed us toward the end of the exhibit, because even though Okinawa was able to rebuild itself, there are countless people today who are confronted with the living hell of warfare and civil strife.
The massive park that sits between the museum and the ocean honors the dead with stone walls engraved with the names of the deceased and monuments donated from various prefectures adorned with strands of colorful paper cranes. But beyond the last of these stone monoliths lies a rarely-used pah that, cutting along rock faces and through swaths of otherwise untamed jungle, leads to a secluded, rocky beach.
With curiosity overpowering our fatigue, Poncie and I dutifully followed the path to the end (me freaking out internally because I've been watching too much of The Walking Dead lately and it seemed like the perfect setting for a walker ambush), encountering only one other visitor - an elderly Japanese man toting a DSLR. He had already reached the abrupt end of the path - the last bit of stone stairs having been ripped off in some previous typhoon, and stood admiring the beach before him as we approached. I had thought it strange that my earlier coughing fit had not caused him to turn around, but as we came closer it became clear why: he had ear buds in.
He did not notice us until we were right behind him, and although his face did not register much fear or surprise, he dropped his walking stick. He recovered quickly, and after a disjointed conversation in Japanese/English, asked if he could take a picture of Poncie and me for his blog. (His version of events in that post corroborates ours; i.e. that we scared the crap out of him on accident).
We wandered around the beach until dusk began to fall and Poncie suggested we turn back before the snakes would emerge from their daytime slumber. It was a quiet walk to the parking lot, both of us still thinking about the powerful images and words we had seen earlier in the museum.