National Geographic : 1997 Jun
But by the 1930s Okinawan schoolchildren were worshiping the emperor, bowing to the Rising Sun, and singing "Kimigayo," Japan's haunting anthem. Then came the war. As American forces swept up the Pacific, Oki nawa stood as the last bastion between Japan's lost empire and its sacred home islands. The Okinawans were deceived. Japanese com manders told the people that the American fleet was being lured into a trap that would result in victory for Japan. Instead American guns laid down what Okinawans call a "typhoon of steel." The battle raged from March to June 1945. U.S. casualties totaled nearly 50,000, including 12,500 killed or missing. But Japanese forces lost roughly ten times that number, and 150,000 Okinawans-nearly a third of the population-died with them. "Everyone here lost someone," said Okifumi Komesu, a professor of English literature at the University of the Ryukyus, who lost two members of his family. "Not many people anywhere can say that." STORIES OF LOSS are as common as the traditional turtleback shaped tombs that dot the island. Shoichi Chibana, a modest 48-year-old storekeeper from the west coast village of Yomi tan, lost his grandfather, killed by American troops on the very first day of the invasion. He also lost the small plot of land his grandfather had left him. Chibana has been trying to get back the land, now part of a U.S. Navy communications installation, through the courts. But Chibana blames Japan, not the U.S., for the loss of his land. Ten years ago, at the national softball games in his hometown, Chi bana tore down and burned a Japanese flag. The crowd cheered. "Eight thousand Yomitan residents had petitioned against the flag," Chibana explained. "We saw it as a symbol of a war that destroyed Okinawa-a war that Japan started. "I'm against all war," Chibana told me quietly over tea in his tiny flower shop. "If you're Okinawan, I think you have to be. For me it stems from Chibichiri Gama-the 'endless cave.' " He led me to this place down a limestone stairway, into a grotto framed in ferns and palms. A group of Japanese tourists stood about, snapping pictures of each other. Atop a memorial at the mouth of the cave sat the carved figure of a man playing a sanshin, the Okinawan three-string lute, his face a shadow of agony in the lowering sun. The only sound was the drip of unseen water. As we entered the cave, I felt a chill. "Eighty-five people died here. Forty-seven were children," Chi bana said quietly. The tourists stopped to listen. "Japanese milita rism had imbued these people with the idea that suicide was better than capture and torture by American 'devils.' So mothers slaugh tered their children with knives, sickles, flaming oil from their oil lamps. The large bones are buried here near the mouth of the cave." He gestured to a burial site strewn with flowers and unlit candles. "But the interior is closed off. Because the smaller bones-the fin gers, toes, and teeth-are still there, and people walking on them will disturb the spirits of the dead." As Chibana spoke, an old Okinawan woman, wrinkled, stooped, and well past 80, hobbled down the stairway and into the cave to tidy up the burial site and take away dead flowers. As she started to leave, one of the Japanese visitors asked her her name. The woman turned and pointed to the cave's hollow darkness. "Ask my PUNCHING THE SKY, an F-15 jet fighter heads for Kadena Air Base. Ameri can icons welcome military personnel to hotels and apartment houses. But public opinion took a nose dive in 1995 when three U.S. servicemen were accused of kidnapping and raping a 12-year-old Okinawan girl. They were later convicted. Cleared of military housing ten years ago, a prime tract in Naha is poised for development.