‘LIFE ITSELF IS OUR TREASURE’: Remembering the Battle of Okinawa

Wesley Ueunten plays sanshin at the exhibit opening on Jan. 1, photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

On April 1, 1945, 75,000 American troops landed at Hagushi Bay, on the west coast of Okinawa. Eighty-two days of fighting followed in what became known as the “Typhoon of Steel,” resulting in 200,000 deaths and a decimated island.

The last major campaign of World War II, the Battle of Okinawa persists in the minds of those who lived through it. A new exhibit and program series give voice to their stories.

“Nuchi du Takara: Lessons from the Battle of Okinawa,” opened Jan. 15 at the National Japanese American Historical Society’s Peace Gallery in San Francisco’s Japantown. An inaugural symposium took place Jan. 29 at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.

a Ryukyu glass vase; photo by Dave Bartruff Blue

Curator Wesley Ueunten, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, hopes the exhibit sheds light on a little known topic. “People don’t know about Okinawa in general,” he said, “and how terrible the Battle of Okinawa was.”

Visitors to the Peace Gallery receive an overview of the subject through explanatory panels and artifacts. Some convey the realities of war — an excavated army canteen, for example, or a miso jar used by refugee families. In one corner, a replica of a cave illustrates the conditions faced by thousands of hidden civilians.

But Ueunten also wished to showcase a positive side of Okinawa. “We wanted to get across how the Okinawans were resilient, and how they kept their traditions and bounced back,” he said.

To that end, the exhibit contains several cultural artifacts. Some introduce Okinawan crafts like textile-weaving and pottery — longstanding practices that continued after the battle. Others show traditions adapted to the conditions of war. One display case holds a kankara sanshin, a scrap-metal version of the indigenous stringed instrument, while another holds an incense burner and a rice bowl made from melted U.S. airplanes.

the exhibit’s cave replica; Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

In one case, materials left over from the battle resulted in a new tradition. Ryukyu glassmaking, the art of melting scrap glass into items for everyday use, emerged in the wake of the war. A blue flower vase in the exhibit represents this style, a physical testament to Okinawan resilience.

That celebratory attitude carried over into the symposium, which opened with a performance of Okinawan music. Ueunten sang and played the sanshin, accompanied by saxophonist Francis Wong. One of the songs, “Tinsagu no Hana” (The Tinsagu Flower), fittingly urges Okinawans to remember their traditions: “Take the teaching of your parents, and dye it on to your heart.”

A heavy discussion followed, as four panelists offered their viewpoints on the Battle of Okinawa. The speakers included two Okinawan survivors, a former member of the U.S. Military Intelligence Service (MIS) and an American academic.

Their comments reflected far-reaching loss.

Frank Higashi, flanked by Ben Kobashigawa and Fujiko Dandoy; photos courtesy of the National Japanese American Historical Society

“I lost a lot of friends, and I can remember their faces,” said Fujiko Dandoy, who experienced the war at 16 years of age. “I remember soldiers asking for water before they died.”

Another survivor, Noriyoshi Arakaki, recounted the tragedy in his family. “Ten people in my immediate family died,” he said. “My sister, four years older than me, was killed by American airplane fire.”

And Frank Higashi, a Kibei Nisei who served in the MIS, recalled a personal side of the devastation. “When we were to report to Nago Headquarters, we were supposed to pass by the place where my grandmother had a store,” he said. “To my sadness, there was nothing there. The concrete wall was completely destroyed.”

Despite their grim stories, a couple of the speakers ended on uplifting notes.

Arakaki, a teacher of Okinawan dance, believes cultural traditions offer survivors a regenerative outlet. “After the war, people were really depressed,” he said. “But they started doing traditional arts like dance, theater and sanshin. Okinawan dance is a very strong part of our identity.”

the crowd at the Jan. 29 symposium; photo courtesy of the National Japanese American Historical Society

Added Higashi: “Our ancestors said, ‘Nuchi du takara’ — life is the most precious thing to us.”

That phrase, from which the exhibit takes its name, originated in a poem written by a former ruler of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Sho Tai, forcibly removed from his throne by the Japanese government in 1879, offered the following parting words:

“The time for wars is ending/

The time for peace will come soon/

Do not despair my subjects/

Life itself is our treasure (Life is the most precious thing to us.)

Like the poem, the exhibit and symposium emphasize life over death. Even the tales of destruction serve an immortalizing purpose, as one panelist explained. “I feel a duty to leave these stories behind,” said Dandoy. “A duty to those who died.”

Ueunten wanted to help local survivors fulfill this obligation. As a longtime member of the Bay Area’s Okinawa Kenjinkai, or prefectural organization, he knew that wartime stories abound here.

“The Bay Area is unique because most of the Okinawan immigrants here are post-war,” Ueunten explained. “Our kenjinkai is mostly women who went through the battle. Or if they didn’t directly experience the battle, they grew up in the period after the war.”

Yet the Battle of Okinawa is rarely discussed. “They have not been telling their story too much,” said Ueunten. “First of all because it’s painful. But second of all they’re not sure if they can say anything outside of their own immediate group.”

Frank Higashi MIS Nisei with father on Okinawa June 22, 1945

His friendships with survivors inspired Ueunten to seek an outlet for their memories. “Being with these women — sharing so much time with them laughing, crying, playing music with them, fighting with them — you kind of get attached to them,” he said. “That’s my community. And I wanted to allow them to tell their story.”

The opportunity presented itself in the form of an Okinawan Prefectural Grant. As a Goodwill Ambassador for the local Okinawan community, Ueunten applied for and received the funding. With additional help from the local Okinawa Kenjinkai, he raised the money necessary to put on the exhibit and program series.

Future events include a memorial service on Irei no Hi, or Okinawa Memorial Day, which will take place on Saturday, June 18. There will also be a closing reception on Sunday, Aug. 14. Ueunten said there may be additional activities including movie nights or speakers.

The entire series coincides with the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace with Japan. Signed in 1951 at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, the treaty outlined post-war relations between Japan and the Allied Powers.

Ueunten did not plan the timing, but he believes it makes a fitting backdrop for the exhibit. “The SF Peace Treaty was signed here,” he said. “And we forget that — that full promise of peace. We only talk about peace; but we don’t know what war is.”

Visitors to “Nuchi du Takara” can learn from those who do.

“Nuchi du Takara: Lessons from the Battle of Okinawa” will be on exhibit through Aug. 14 at the National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS) Peace Gallery, 1684 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown. For more information, call NJAHS at (415) 921-5007, e-mail njahs@njahs.org or visit www.njahs.org.

See event posting here.

Comments

  1. I was at Fujiko’s house this evening with my mom and other survivor’s along with Dr. Uenten and others involved in making a documentary about local women who survived the battle. Wesley showed us this article that just came out. Everyone was quite excited by this piece. Thank you for covering the events for the Nuchi du Takara symposium and exhibit. I am Mitzi Uehara Carter, the “American academic” that was on the panel on the 29th. I told my mother’s story about surviving the war and how the war stays with people and how memories of war pass down to their children.

    I would just like to add that this particular war is a difficult one to tell in this country because of the cultural context for talking about that particular battle and the way Okinawa has been positioned between the US and Japan. I write on this briefly in my blog: http://gritsandsushi.com/2011/01/18/warm-reception/

    • Erica Reder says

      Thank you for this thoughtful comment. Your remarks at the symposium were very moving, and I am glad you shared them here as well. I hope people who read this article have a chance to stop by your blog- the difficulty of speaking about the Battle is evidently a vital part of the story.

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