Irei no hi: Okinawa’s Memorial Day

Everyone knows I live in Japan, but I’m pretty sure that most people’s vision of what it’s like where I live is very different than the actual case. I live in Okinawa, the southern most part of Japan, made up of 150+some islands. Geographically it’s closer to Taiwan (a 1-hour plane ride) than it is to mainland Japan (a 2.5-hour plane ride to Tokyo). Historically, culturally, and even linguistically, Okinawa and Japan are basically two separate countries. Long ago it was its own kingdom (the Ryukyu Kingdom) and a major trading post between Japan, China, and Southeast Asia, so it actually has influences from many different places. To compound a long history of being fought over and colonized by other Asian countries, in the 27 years following World War II, Okinawa was actually under the rule of the United States (and I thought Hawaii had it bad).

There are countless things that set it apart from the rest of Japan, but one of the most important is Okinawa’s notoriously tragic position in WWII. While of course Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered tremendously upon and following the atomic bombings in late 1945, Okinawans were to bear the brunt of the war’s ground battle in Japan (ultimately, more people died in Okinawa than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined). According to the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum:

In late March 1945, a fierce battle such as has rarely been seen in history took place on these islands. The “Typhoon of Steel” that lasted for ninety days disfigured mountains, destroyed much of the cultural legacy, and claimed the precious lives of upward of 200,000 people. The Battle of Okinawa was the only ground fighting fought on Japanese soil and was also the largest-scale campaign of the Asia-Pacific War. Even countless Okinawan civilians were fully mobilized.

A significant aspect of the Battle of Okinawa was the great loss of civilian life. At more than 100,000 civilian losses far outnumbered the military death toll. Some were blown apart by shells, some finding themselves in a hopeless situation were driven to suicide, some died of starvation, some succumbed to malaria, while other fell victim to the retreating Japanese troops. Under the most desperate and unimaginable circumstances, Okinawans directly experienced the absurdity of war and atrocities it inevitably brings about.

Today was Irei no hi (慰霊の日)
, or Okinawa’s Memorial Day, to commemorate the islands’ grave role in WWII. While it is the topic of another day to discuss the huge implications of past events in terms of ongoing U.S. military occupation, today is simply about remembering all the lives that were claimed in the name of war nearly 70 years ago. By some estimates, this included one third of the Okinawa’s entire civilian population at the time.

As a prefectural-wide holiday, I had the day off today. Regrettably, all of it was spent either inside my apartment finishing the last of Sunday’s hula costumes or at our 3 hour-long final practice tonight, which meant I didn’t really do anything special to pay tribute to Irei no hi. However, last year I was able to visit the Peace Memorial in Itoman on Irei no hi. Not only did I see Japan’s prime minister Naoto Kan standing a mere two meters away from me (albeit whom I believe Okinawans generally don’t like very much), but I got to check out some poignant art memorializing Okinawans who suffered during the war, as well as witness the most precious peace ceremony ever. A group of elementary school students was handed a bunch of butterflies, which they all released into the sky at the same time. I still remember how beautiful it was.

Some pictures from last year’s Irei no hi at the peace memorial.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan greets Okinawans…

Butterfly peace ceremony…

Peace bell…

For more information on the Battle of Okinawa and military occupation in the islands, go here, here and here.


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