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'Making it my own issue': Tokyo high schooler educates peers on Okinawa war history

Participants are seen at a June 19, 2016 event in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward where university students from Okinawa discussed the Battle of Okinawa with junior high and high school students. (Mainichi)

With 18- and 19 year-olds attracting attention as they prepare to cast votes in the upcoming House of Councillors election for the first time after the voting age was lowered to 18, one 18-year-old Tokyo high school student is making issues related to the faraway prefecture of Okinawa a factor in his voting choice -- and he has also begun trying to educate his fellow students on the issue.

"The only thing that I learned at my high school in Tokyo about the Battle of Okinawa was one single sentence: that 'it was the only land battle to have taken place in Japan,'" explains Jun Ishii, a sixth-year student at the University of Tokyo Faculty of Education Secondary School (equivalent to a third-year high school student).

Jun Ishii (Mainichi)

"But within this sentence, there are so many unfinished truths," he continues. "And this is what I want people to feel."

Ishii made these comments during a June 19 event in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward -- the same day that a large protest was held in Okinawa's capital Naha against the recent murder of a woman in the prefecture by a former U.S. Marine.

Sixty junior high and high school students gathered at the event to hear Ishii explain 1945's brutal Battle of Okinawa, such as the mothers who laid hands on their own children for fear that their cries would give away their hiding place in underground cave shelters; as well as whole families who died in group suicides.

Ishii learned these details regarding the Battle of Okinawa two years ago, when during his first visit to the island prefecture on a school trip he visited places such as the underground caves and the Himeyuri Peace Museum.

The day before he returned to Tokyo, Ishii heard from a woman who lived in the private home where he was staying in the village of Yomitan that she was only alive because her mother had arrived too late to board the Tsushima Maru. More than 1,400 people including 780 children evacuating from Okinawa were killed when the Tsushima Maru was sunk by a U.S. submarine.

Ishii recalled the photographs of the deceased Himeyuri students that he had seen displayed in the museum -- and this brought together all he had seen and heard in Okinawa.

During the trip back home, he realized that he had to share what had happened during the Battle of Okinawa with high school students in Tokyo, lest this history go unlearned -- and thereby end up repeating itself.

Choosing Okinawa as the subject for his graduation research, Ishii sent off emails to individuals including former Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota, 91 -- who is also a Battle of Okinawa researcher -- saying "I would like to hear your story."

Doing an internet search using the keywords "Battle of Okinawa" and "the next generation," Ishii also learned about a group of university students in Okinawa that organizes talks about issues including the Battle of Okinawa and peace, with students from across Japan going on school excursions to Okinawa.

Ishii returned to Okinawa in December last year, at which time he learned that former Gov. Ota had referred to his own experience becoming a war-mobilized student.

Ishii also learned about peace-related issues from the group of university students -- and it was at this time that he decided to organize an event where he and the college students would speak jointly on the Battle of Okinawa.

He was in the midst of planning this event when the recent murder of the woman in Okinawa occurred. In his mind, the fundamental reason why this incident took place was the concentration of U.S. military bases in the prefecture.

Ishii received positive feedback from the event participants. He says many junior high and high school students were saying that they learned through the event that understanding what had happened would help them pass along the history of the Battle of Okinawa to the next generation.

What, then, does learning about -- and sharing -- information on the Battle of Okinawa mean for Ishii?

In his words: "Continuing to make it my own issue."

And he continues to believe that if only they have opportunities to do so, his fellow young people will make politics "their own issue," too.

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