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Okinawa's Himeyuri Peace Museum renovation geared toward generations born after WWII

Former Himeyuri students take in the newly renovated displays at Himeyuri Peace Museum in Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture, on April 11, 2021. (Pool photo)

ITOMAN, Okinawa -- A museum here that describes and commemorates the experiences of female students who were mobilized to serve as nurses in the Battle of Okinawa was renovated with the renewed aim of communicating the horrors of war to generations that were born after it ended, and reopened April 12.

    Painstaking efforts were made to help visitors gain an understanding of the Himeyuri students, also known as the Lily Corps, by using illustrations in places where there were no photos, such as scenes of students helping medics conduct surgery on injured soldiers in bunkers.

    The newly renovated Himeyuri Peace Museum includes an exhibit that highlights the activities that former Himeyuri students took part in after World War II, pictured in this photo taken in Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture, on April 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

    Said the museum's director, Chokei Futenma, "It would be wonderful if the museum provides the younger generation an opportunity to think about what they can do not to repeat war ever again."

    During the Battle of Okinawa, from March 1945, the Himeyuri Students -- comprising students from Okinawa Shihan Women's School and Okinawa Daiichi Women's High School -- were mobilized and sent to the battlefield for some three months to nurse injured soldiers back to health. Of the 240 students and teachers that were sent out, 136 died from attacks by the U.S. military and for other reasons.

    The Himeyuri Peace Museum opened in 1989. Former Himeyuri students took the helm of the museum's administration, and told the stories of their experiences to visitors. The renovations that took place this time around were its second; the first took place in 2004. This time, the museum's curators, a younger group born after the war who took over the museum's administration from the former Himeyuri students, who were now getting older, dedicated the renovations to "generations that are at an even greater distance from the war."

    In a part of the exhibit portraying the lives of the students prior to the Battle of Okinawa, the curators used photographs of the students with expressive faces, and then portrayed the changes in uniforms and hairstyles they underwent during the war through illustrations. The activities the students took part in after they were mobilized in so-called "hospital caves," and their retreat to the south of Okinawa's main island to escape the U.S. military's attacks were also portrayed through illustrations after detailed discussions with former Himeyuri students and the artists. Name seals and school badges that were found after the war at sites where the students died are also on display.

    The photographs of the Himeyuri students who died in the war are displayed in a room; the captions were newly rewritten and English translations were added. Meanwhile, the exhibit showed what some of those who survived did after the war, such as work at orphanages and elementary schools. The final panel of the exhibit reads, "We went to the battlefield not knowing the truth. War is a brutal thing that kills all that have life. We will continue to pass down the truth about war."

    Visitors to the newly renovated Himeyuri Peace Museum receive explanations on the exhibits by museum staff in Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture, on April 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

    Masako Nakazato, 93, who is one of the surviving Himeyuri students and has told her story of being a Himeyuri member, said at the April 11 preview of the museum, "Everything from our fun school days to the process of entering into war, and the belongings that we had with us when we were mobilized, which we explained verbally, were exhibited through photographs and illustrations in a way that is easily understandable. I have been active in efforts to pass down my experiences to younger staff, and I am filled with gratitude."

    In fiscal 2020, the number of visitors to the museum fell by 86% compared to the previous fiscal year due to the spread of the coronavirus. Since 80% of operating expenses come from entry fees, the museum is confronting the issue of whether or not it can survive. Staff are calling on members of the public to see the renovations as a good opportunity to visit.

    (Japanese original by Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

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