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Illustrations at core of reopened Battle of Okinawa museum lay bare the horrors of war

NAHA -- There is an image of high school girls in sailor uniforms chatting happily as they walk down a tree-lined road to their school gate. And then the scene changes, to one of those same girls, dressed in baggy "monpe" work trousers, making their way through a hazy moonlit night to an Imperial Japanese Army hospital, weighed down with heavy packs.

    This is just one set of the many illustrations now on display at the Himeyuri Peace Museum in Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture, after its post-renovation reopening in April this year. With so few photographs of 1945's Battle of Okinawa extant, the museum hopes the drawings have the power to impart the lessons of war to younger generations.

    An illustration of a school girl assisting with an operation in an Imperial Japanese Army dugout hospital is seen on display at the Himeyuri Peace Museum in Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

    Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa was the site of a long and vicious battle between Japanese and U.S. forces in the last months of World War II. And into the teeth of that battle were thrown 222 students and 18 teachers from the Female Division of the Okinawa Normal School and the Okinawa First Girls' High School, mobilized for some three months since March 1945 as the Himeyuri Student Corps, nursing wounded soldiers and performing other duties. Of the 240 Corps members, 136 were killed.

    The Himeyuri Peace Museum was opened in 1989 to convey the horrors of the Battle of Okinawa to subsequent generations, and the series of illustrations is a new exhibition, which starts with the image of girls heading to school.

    At the time of the war, the two girls' schools with their red tile roofs were side-by-side in what is now the Okinawan capital Naha's Asato area, near the Sakaemachi Arcade, lined with drinking establishments recently popular with tourists. The students at the schools were aged 13 to 19 girls hoping to stand at the head of their own classrooms one day as teachers.

    The museum's Exhibit Chamber 1 features illustrations of the campus, and photos of the smiling students. And it takes the visitor from these happy and peaceful school days through the dark descent into war. On March 23, 1945, with the U.S. invasion of Okinawa's main island imminent, the students were ordered to mobilize. And the Chamber 1 exhibit ends with an illustration of 200-plus students making the approximately 5-kilometer hike southeast to the army hospital.

    A visitor looks at an illustration of wounded soldiers in a dugout hospital and a schoolgirl nursing them, at the Himeyuri Peace Museum in Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

    Including a first makeover in 2004, the museum has now been renovated twice. Noriko Koga, head of the museum's curation department, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "There are no photos of the students during the battle, and it's hard to imagine what it was like with words alone. I want visitors to first imagine the scenes by seeing the illustrations and then proceed to the following exhibits."

    The illustrations are the work of 44-year-old artists Ken Kaizu and Keisuke Mita. Both live far to the northeast in the Kanto region, which includes Tokyo. However, their relationship with Himeyuri began in 2008 when the museum issued a call for submissions for an anime project, and they were selected as creators. Kaizu did the art for the anime "Himeyuri," completed in 2012, while Mita did the drawings for a "Himeyuri" picture book, published in 2011.

    For their work, the pair spoke to more than 10 former Himeyuri Student Corps members about what had happened at the time, and visited the spots the students had worked during the battle. Based on this, Kaizu created six new works including the illustration of the girls going to school now on display at the exhibit entrance, while Mita created 21 new illustrations of life at the school and other themes.

    The second chamber, "Himeyuri Students at the Front," starts with a work depicting a bunker that was turned into a field hospital, crowded with wounded soldiers in two-story bunk beds lining the narrow passage. A student assigned to help care for the wounded walks up the dugout, her expression grim as she holds a tin can full of a soldier's urine in both hands. The field hospital is dark, hot and muggy inside, the stench thick enough to choke.

    Artist Ken Kaizu is seen at work in this photo provided by the individual.

    "I drew this remembering the humidity of the bunker when I went into it myself, and imagining how it must have smelled at the time," said Kaizu.

    The next illustration is of a surgical operation in the dugout. An army doctor is slicing into a soldier's abdomen with a scalpel, while a student holds down the soldier's legs. Kaizu completed the work after having 93-year-old Masako Nakazato, a former Corps member who served as a nurse in the field hospital, look at his series of rough drafts.

    The artist's final piece in the exhibit is a scene from May 25, 1945. In it, Himeyuri students are seen retreating from the army dugout hospital in what is now the town of Haebaru to the southern part of the island.

    U.S. forces had landed on the main island on April 1, and by mid-May they were closing in on the headquarters of Japan's 32nd Army in Shuri (now part of Naha). The headquarters staff decided to withdraw south, and the Himeyuri Student Corps went with them, moving to Itoman and taking refuge in a series of natural caves.

    The Corps was officially disbanded on June 18, and the girls left to fend for themselves in the combat zone, bullets and shells flying. When the shooting stopped, 123 of the girls were dead, along with 13 of their teachers. Of these, 86% had been killed in the south of the island after being ordered to disband.

    The illustrations of the retreat south are not just of the Himeyuri girls, but also of locals fleeing the fighting, carrying their possessions and pulling their children through curtains of rain. At the side of the road lie collapsed people and horses. There is also a soldier with one leg missing.

    "I wanted to portray how, in war, you can't see what will happen next," said Kaizu. Just as with the Himeyuri girls, many Okinawans were bottled up in the south of the island by the U.S. advance, frantic to escape, and died there.

    An illustration of the Female Division of the Okinawa Normal School and the Okinawa First Girls' High School campus is seen on display at the Himeyuri Peace Museum in Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

    It has been just over a month since the Himeyuri Peace Museum reopened, and it is striking to see children on school trips or groups doing peace studies engrossed in the exhibition. The museum has received visitor comments including, "Through the illustrations, I really felt I was seeing a story unfold, and wondered 'What will happen next?'," and "I truly understood that their everyday life, which is the same as ours, was entirely destroyed by the war."

    Kaizu's works are usually on animal motifs, and exude warmth. Depicting the horror of the Battle of Okinawa seemed the exact opposite of that, but the artist told the Mainichi, "Both express the importance of life." He added that he learned the tragedy of land wars through his work on the Himeyuri anime 13 years ago, saying, "I understood that the extreme psychological state of people forced to flee over and over again, always feeling in mortal danger, is simply unimaginable."

    On April 11 this year, a day before the reopening, four former Himeyuri Student Corps members involved in the museum's operation visited the new exhibit for the first time. All now in their 90s, they were elated to see the illustrations of the girls going to school, exclaiming, "Oh, it's just amazing!" and "It's such a lively portrayal," among other comments.

    Listening to their reaction, Kaizu said with a sigh of relief, "I'm glad I made these." Not all the former Himeyuri girls who helped him with the work are still with us. All of them had their youth stolen, were forced onto a battlefield, and experienced untold horrors. Kaizu said, "I want people who learn about this to pass it on to the next person."

    (Japanese original by Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

    In Photos: Illustrations at core of reopened Battle of Okinawa museum lay bare the horrors of war

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