June 23 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa. Of the approximately 200,000 people who were killed after the U.S. military descended on Japan's southernmost prefecture in the final months of the Pacific War, about 94,000 were civilians.
The prefectural government has traditionally held a memorial ceremony in the Mabuni district of Itoman, the site of the last fierce fighting during the 1945 battle, now home to Okinawa's Peace Memorial Park.
But this year, the prefectural government contemplated holding the event at the national war cemetery of Okinawa, in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic, sparking an unexpected uproar from Okinawans, who raised their voices against the changing of venues.
The memorial ceremony has been held annually at a square near the "Heiwa no Ishiji (cornerstone of peace)" monument at Peace Memorial Park. The stone monument is inscribed with the names of the war dead without any distinction between troops and civilians as well as nationalities, and has taken root as a place from which people deliver prayers and messages of peace.
Meanwhile, the national cemetery houses the remains of over 180,000 people who fell during battle, and its official website explained it stores the remains of "war dead who sacrificed their lives in a time of national peril." Though the statement has been removed due to an uproar, many Okinawans are still vigilant about the glorification of the lost lives.
One of the members of an organization that demanded the memorial ceremony be held at its usual location said during a press conference, "It feels like the prayers for our families are being stolen by the country justifying the war. If we think it (the changing of venues) can't be helped because of the coronavirus, the meaning behind the memorial ceremonies will also change."
In the end, Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki had no choice but to scrap the idea of changing the venue.
The issue at hand is not just a problem with the location where the event is held. It comes with a sense of crisis among Okinawans that, during a time in which people are facing difficulties passing down war experiences, the true meaning behind the Battle of Okinawa could be rewritten for the national government's own convenience. In addition to the prefecture's history after World War II, the mixed feelings locals still hold against the relationship between Okinawa and the central government is a background factor.
During World War II, Japan sacrificed this southernmost prefecture to buy time for the protection of the mainland. Even after the war, Okinawans faced expropriation of land, and suffered from a series of crimes and accidents in the 27 years of U.S. military rule.
While the number of American military bases in mainland Japan has decreased, Okinawa is forced to deal with a greater burden. Based on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty and the Status of Forces Agreement, Okinawa now serves on the frontline to support the security framework.
Okinawa's future cannot be pictured without looking at its historical background. The national government and citizens of mainland Japan, benefiting from the Japan-U.S. security framework, which only comes with the excessive burden on Okinawa, should not remain indifferent to the issue.
As we remember the lives of those fallen in the Battle of Okinawa on this day, we should also reconfirm our responsibility of thinking about Okinawa's current state of affairs and its future, along with its people.