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Battle of Okinawa survivor and former child soldier tells of 74-year regret

Shoken Yoza is seen at the remembrance service for students and teachers of the former Okinawa first prefectural junior high school who died in the Battle of Okinawa, at the Icchukenji no To memorial in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, on June 23, 2019. (Mainichi/Tadashi Sano)

NAHA -- On June 23, Okinawa Memorial Day, the prefecture marked 74 years since the Battle of Okinawa, one of the bloodiest conflicts between Japan and the U.S during World War II, with prayers for peace and remembrances for the souls of those who lost their lives.

Even schoolchildren in their teens were deployed onto the battlefield, and many families tried to escape the destruction. Shoken Yoza, 90, was one of the school-aged children who served in the Tekketsu Kinnotai, known as the "Student Corps of Iron and Blood for the Emperor." Yoza greeted this year's memorial with remorse for a schoolmate he thinks of like a younger brother, who was sent to fight because of him.

On June 23, a ceremony to mourn the teachers and students of Okinawa first prefectural high school, now named Shuri High School, was held in front of the Icchukenji no To memorial for the fallen. At the monument, the names of 307 people who died are carved into stone. Yoza pointed out the name of a student, Shunichi Kinjo, who lost his life on the battlefield serving as a signaler. "He had real endurance and determination," Yoza said.

On March 29, 1945, three days before U.S. forces made landfall on the main island of Okinawa, Yoza attended a ceremony to join the military wearing a new uniform and ill-fittingly large boots. He was in the fourth grade of junior high school at the time. "We thought Japan, as a divine country, would win," he says.

Under orders from the military, Yoza submitted an application for Kinjo, two years junior to him, to join the military. Kinjo's older brother had been a classmate of Yoza's, and once the younger Kinjo started to attend the same junior high school, the pair would travel to school together.

When serving in the military, they worked shifts to dig the 32nd Army Headquarters Shelter underneath Shurijo Castle. There were times when commanding officers issued them irrational orders, and often beat them, but Yoza still had the resolve to die for his country. In a letter addressed to his parents describing his will to die, he wrote, "I have lived just a short time, but thank you for everything. Please take care of yourselves."

But following the fierce onslaught from U.S. forces in mid-April 1945, Yoza's company commander discharged him and 18 others on the pretext of a food shortage. "I was only 152 centimeters tall. I think he felt a paternalistic responsibility toward us," said Yoza.

He went back to his hometown and reunited with his father, who had evacuated to a shelter. They moved from place-to-place across the war-ravaged southern part of the main island, eventually surrendering and being captured as prisoners of war on June 14, 1945.

After the war, he learned that Kinjo, whose papers he had sent to the military, had lost his life in the battle. Kinjo's father and older brother also died, leaving only his mother and older sister.

Yoza lives with guilt from feeling responsible for Kinjo's death, "Among my classmates who were also ordered to submit military applications on behalf of younger students, some of them just told the authorities that no-one was home and got rid of the application forms. Why couldn't I do the same thing?"

While holding on to his feelings of self-reproach, a visit to the Ako Roshi's graves of samurai known as the 47 ronin in Tokyo gave him a new perspective on what happened. After the 47 samurai completed their revenge on Kira Yoshinaka at his residence for the death of their master Asano Naganori, all but one of their remaining company committed seppuku, ritual disembowelment. The surviving member was said to have been ordered to live and convey the truth of what happened.

Looking back on the 47 ronin and his own encounters with history, Yoza said, "I thought, couldn't my discharge from the battle have been because it is my role to tell the truth about what took place to the generations that came after?" From then on, he became able to actively tell his story to others.

On June 21, he gave a lecture at Shuri High School, telling the students about the follies of war and the importance of peace. "At the time I had no idea what was going to happen or what I should do. I want young people to think about what is true and act according to their own thoughts," he says.

So many lives were lost in the Battle of Okinawa 74 years ago. Yoza believes that thinking about what happened is the only way to stop another war from breaking out.

(Japanese original by Tadashi Sano, Kyushu News Department)

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