Commentary

Haunting Memorial to Peace

OKINAWA, Japan — The Vietnam Memorial, with 58,000 names inscribed on a black granite wall, haunts Washington, D.C. But as painful as the Vietnam War was for America, the nation has generally been lucky in war. Rarely has the U.S. homeland been ravaged. Not so other nations, like Japan.

The Japanese prefecture on Okinawa has erected a monument modeled after the Vietnam Memorial. “The Cornerstone of Peace,” as it is called, contains nearly 237,000 names of everyone — Japanese, American, British, Korean and Taiwanese — killed in the World War II battle for the island.

The Ryukyu Islands, of which Okinawa is the largest, were long an independent kingdom. The residents were peaceful traders, with a reputation for civility and hospitality. Unfortunately, they were no match for warriors from the Satsumi clan from mainland Japan, which conquered Okinawa in 1609. The invaders left the local dynasty and social institutions intact, however. Only in 1879 were the islands formally absorbed by the Japanese empire.

But the Okinawans did not fit well into increasingly militarized Japan. The Ryukyus contained no valuable natural resources and their people retained a distinctive culture. Okinawans were considered to be insufficiently patriotic and loyal to the emperor.

Unfortunately, that didn’t insulate them from the ravages of World War II. As the conflict turned agianst Japan, the American military advanced ever closer to the Japanese homeland. The Ryukyus became Japan’s outer defense, the capture of which was a prelude to invading the mainland.

So the Japanese military took over the island, conscripting civilians to construct military facilities, man hospitals and serve the military. Then a 20-year-old student, Okinawa’s current governor, Masahide Ota, was mobilized by the army on March 31, the day before the invasion’s start. Entire classes of girls became nurses.

But Okinawans were still distrusted. Scores were executed as alleged spies. Simply speaking in the Okinawan dialect was considered evidence of treachery. Nor did the military evacuate civilians before the U.S. assault.


Many people seem to view war abstractly, as a kind of international game. But the human costs are always catastrophic. Okinawa’s experience offers a sober reminder of the horrors of war, something, sadly, that mankind constantly seems to forget.


Observes Ota, the Japanese commanders dragged “not only their line soldiers, but also the unfortunate civilians into the war.” Many thousands were caught in the open and left to fend for themselves. In fact, soldiers forcibly supplanted some civilians from their cave hiding places. Moreover, the military urged civilians to commit suicide to avoid capture, since. they were told, Americans would abuse and kill them.

The brutal battle, highlighted by the “typhoon of steel,” as the Japanese called the American naval bombardment, lasted nearly three months. Several mass civilian suicides followed the Japanese military collapse. The consequences for Okinawa were catastrophic: More than 220,000 Japanese died, as many civilians as soldiers.

The fight essentially destroyed the island. Buildings were blown apart, towns were leveled. Historic Shun castle, the leading cultural landmark of the Ryukyuan people, was reduced to rubble.

The scars remain. Older Okinawans still bristle over their treatment by the dying Japanese empire. As they see it, Tokyo sacrificed their lives in service of a militaristic ideology, and their island in a useless holding action. Even today, Okinawans treat American servicemen with greater respect than members of Japan’s Self-Defense Force. The evident bitterness still colors Okinawa’s relationship with the rest of Japan.

To commemorate Okinawa’s sacrifice in World War II, the prefectural government erected The Cornerstone of Peace in 1995, the 50th anniversary of the battle. Ota’s unique inspiration was the inclusion of the names of everyone who died in the battle. Thus, 14,005 American and 82 British names are also inscribed on the walls.

It is a moving tribute. Wall after wall of Japanese servicemen, average men dragged off by a militiristic empire for a war of conquest. Then many walls — fewer, but still too many — of allied soldiers, also normal citizens dragged off by their respective governments to stop Japan. And then so many walls with the names of so many helpless civilians caught in between.

The monument includes a museum, with a description of the fighting, combat relics and personal tales of Okinawan survivors. Stories that wreak of the sort of death and destruction that the American homeland has suffered only once, during the Civil War.

The goal of the monument is to commemorate, to make sure that no one forgets, what occurred on Okinawa. But it is much more than that. It is also intended to be a place for meditation and learning, a place for people to pray for world peace. As well they should.

Many people seem to view war abstractly, as a kind of international game. But the human costs are always catastrophic. Okinawa’s experience offers a sober reminder of the horrors of war, something, sadly, that mankind constantly seems to forget.

Doug Bondow is a senior fellow of the Cato Institute.