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Toward a New Era: Okinawa's struggle to accept imperial system

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are briefed on the Cornerstone of Peace memorial bearing the names of people who died in the Battle of Okinawa in the last months of World War II, at the peace memorial park in the city of Itoman in the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa on Aug. 2, 1995. (Mainichi)

NAHA -- "We were sacrificed by the horrors of war as well as the rule of another ethnic group," the Okinawa Times, a local newspaper in Japan's southernmost prefecture, wrote in its editorial on June 8, 1979, as it criticized the Era Name Act that was enacted two days ago.

The editorial pointed out that it is "of great significance" that the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly was the only prefectural assembly in Japan that did not adopt a resolution calling for the enactment of legislation on era names. It reasoned that views are prevalent that "the responsibility for the war is rooted in the imperial system." Therefore, the editorial said it was "emotionally difficult for prefectural residents to accept the fact that era names were linked to the imperial system."

The law was enacted seven years after Okinawa's return to Japan's sovereignty in 1972 following postwar U.S. occupation. Public opinion in Okinawa, which had tried to accept the Hinomaru national flag and the era name system before reversion, since changed.

The law once again made a legal definition of era names that had lost legal ground after the end of World War II.

Aichi Nakamoto, 83, a former Okinawa Social Mass Party member of the prefectural assembly, said even conservative politicians in the prefecture were reluctant to support enactment of the Era Name Act. "In Okinawa, even conservatives were negative about the matter. I have no recollection of having intense debate in the prefectural assembly just like that on the presence of U.S. bases," he said.

Masakuni Murakami, 86, a former ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) member of the House of Councillors who supported the secretariat of a campaign for a legal definition of era names, recalled that the party did not try to persuade the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly to adopt a resolution calling for enactment of the Era Name Act. "We understood there were special circumstances in Okinawa," he said.

Many Okinawa residents were disillusioned by the reversion of Okinawa to Japan's sovereignty. Tatsuhiro Oshiro, 93, the first novelist from Okinawa to win the prestigious Akutagawa literary prize, said, "I thought it'd be necessary for Okinawa to be returned to Japan's sovereignty if U.S. extraterritorial rights over sexual assaults committed by U.S. soldiers were to be rectified under the Constitution of Japan. But we learned that that condition wouldn't be met," Oshiro said. "I now want to say, 'damn it.'"

In March 1979 before the bill of the Era Name Act cleared the Diet, a monthly magazine article revealed a fact that heightened Okinawa residents' feelings of repulsion toward the Showa era. A researcher found a declassified U.S. document showing that Emperor Showa had sent a message to the United States via an aide around 1947, asking Washington to continue occupying Okinawa. In a way, it was a calm and realistic judgment to call for the continued presence of U.S. forces as a deterrence against the Soviet Union. However, the revelation gave Okinawa residents the impression that "the ties between Us (the Emperor) and Our people" that "have always stood upon mutual trust and affection," which Emperor Showa mentioned in his imperial rescript in January 1946, were severed by the Emperor himself.

Saneyoshi Furugen, 89, who was a Japanese Communist Party member of the prefectural assembly, said he had a feeling of repulsion toward the Showa era's name after the revelations. "In addition to the issue of responsibility for the war, my feeling that I didn't want to use the name of the era of the Emperor who agreed on continued occupation was heightened," he recalled.

A former official of the government of the Ryukyu Islands also said, "I wondered why we had to respect the Emperor who agreed to separate Okinawa from Japan."

The Okinawa Times and the Ryukyu Shimpo, two major local newspapers, began to indicate the year of the Showa era along with the dominical year before the reversion. However, since 1979 both papers have played up the dominical year more over the indication of the year of the era.

Emperor Akihito has visited the southernmost prefecture 11 times, although an extremist hurled a Molotov cocktail when the Emperor visited Okinawa for the first time in 1975.

Akio Oshiro, secretary-general of an association of people from Okinawa Prefecture living in Tokyo, said he was surprised when Emperor Akihito told him, "In the 15th century, it was the reign of King Sho Shin, wasn't it," when he first met with the Emperor in 1975. The Emperor was referring to the king of Ryukyu who was on the throne in the 15th century.

Oshiro, who has met with Emperor Akihito more than 10 times, said the Emperor "enjoys Ryuka, traditional poetry in Okinawa, and has profoundly studied the history and culture of Okinawa."

Ill feelings that lingered during the Showa era have considerably eased during the current Heisei era as Emperor Akihito, who has visited the prefecture to console the souls of the war dead, is on the Imperial Throne.


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