The Japanese Navy Caves

Okinawa is littered with vast cave systems that were created underneath the island. During the Battle of Okinawa Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians caught in the crossfire took refuge from the constant artillery bombardment in these caves.  Okinawans call these caves “gama” and they have become infamous as the places where many people committed suicide during the war. In the heart of Naha there is one such cave system situated directly under a large hill. When the Japanese military learned of the imminent American invasion of Okinawa they attempted to convert this cave system into a bunker that would act as the Imperial Navy Headquarters. They quickly amassed a troop of Okinawan laborers to excavate this cave and reinforce the roof with steel and concrete. As the situation became increasingly desperate more civilians and soldiers became clumped together in this cramped and soggy cave. The Imperial Navy Headquarters museum in Naha attempts to tell the tragic stories of those in the cave as the inevitable Japanese defeat loomed and the battle waged on.

This Museum as with all museums in Japan that focus on the topic of WWII, emphasize the importance of peace and how war is catastrophic to all those involved. I have noticed that war is always handled very delicately in all Japanese museums and they are careful in their wording never to demonize either side. This is directly opposite of my experiences in Vietnam where museums are very biased and occasionally reflect hatred that is still perceived at the “enemy”. Museums in Japan are not meant to display any sort of propaganda but instead memorialize the victims and factually display the atrocities of war committed by all sides. Every time I visit a “peace museum” I am increasingly impressed with the care and attention that goes into the wording and overall feeling of the exhibits. I always leave a peace museum with the solemn reminder that “war is hell”.

*The following information contains historical details of war that may not be suitable for all readers (Contains gruesome details collected within the museum)

My Experience:

Yuki, her brother Shintaro and myself climbed the seemingly beautiful mountain on a bright summers day to the entrance of the museum. As we entered we were shown a small exhibit that explained the chronology of the Battle of Okinawa and some personal stories of the navy officers in the cave. We saw several artifacts such as rifles and canteens that had been recovered from the cave. There is also information regarding how the caves were built and how soldiers and civilians survived on rats while hiding in the cave. Once we finished reading the brief information we entered the dark stuffy tunnel with stairs that led us deeper into the cave. Once you’re in there you can easily imagine the horror of those trapped in this cave while bombs were dropping off directly above. They must have been terrified that the cave would collapse upon them and kill them instantly, but perhaps that would have been a more humane end than their actual deaths.

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Shintaro entering the Navy Caves

As you proceed the cave becomes a maze of corridors and antechambers. At various locations, there are markers that explain what the room was such as “medical chamber” or “officers quarter”. In some particularly important rooms markers show illustrations of how life was during the war. One room that particularly left an impression on me is one in which faded stains and chipped concrete from shrapnel covers the walls. On a nearby plaque Yuki read to me that several officers had used grenades to blow themselves up to avoid surrendering. The Commander of the base Minoru Ōta had commanded all 175 soldiers to commit suicide rather than surrender he himself died via seppuku. We also learned that civilians were also sometimes “forced to commit suicide” and in turn murdered by the soldiers that were meant to be protecting them. All of these facts lead me to the conclusion that the Japanese soldiers often had sentiments of extremist nationalism and would rather have died than surrender. It also displays how the propaganda of the time had so successfully brainwashed the soldiers. Above all it is a testament to how horrific and brutal this war had become in it’s final stages.

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The room where General Ujishima and Navy  Commander Ota committed seppuku

Towards the end of the battle American troops stormed the caves and killed or imprisoned the remaining soldiers. I’m sure they were astonished by the gruesome scenes that awaited them deeper within. This site is an important testament to the human costs of any conflict and remains one of the most visceral experiences I have ever had in a museum.

It was at this sight that I also realized that almost every part of Okinawa had at one point been a battle ground where people brutally died. While a vacation to Okinawa is certainly fun and enjoyable I think it also important to recognize the tragic history of the island. It is truly amazing that the Okinawans were able to rebuild after such devastation and is a testament to the resilience of the Okinawan people.

Other information contained at the museum:

 

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map of the caves

We learned how U.S. troops would often lob grenades into caves with the intention of clearing out soldiers but civilians were often killed because they were too afraid to come out.

This is the location where General Ushijima died and has biographical information about him.

Minoru_Ota.jpg image from Wikipedia

Minoru Ōta was the last commander of Imperial navy who committed seppuku alongside Ushijima. He wrote a telegram to the emperor asking that special considerations be given in the future to the prefecture of Okinawa because of the Okinawans staunch defense and loyalty the “the Motherland”.

“Born as a man, nothing fulfills my life more than to die in the name of the Emperor.” Ōta’s death poem

If you’re interested in learning more about Okinawa please see my other posts about Okinawa

 

History of Okinawa

In order to understand Okinawa you must first understand this islands fascinating and sometimes tragic history. I’ll start from when Okinawa  was called the Kingdom of Ryukyu and functioned as a powerful trading kingdom that traded with both Japan, China, and later the West. On the other islands in the Okinawan archipelago such as the Miyako islands and Yaeyama island chain one can find varied dialects and alternate cultures. One very interesting cultural practice occurs during rice harvest festivals Miruku the god of bountiful harvest is venerated and given rice wine in hopes of a bountiful harvest. Many of the islands have separate and unique gods. My personal favorite is Oh Ho Ho a god with “European features” that is depicted as a dancing man with a long beard and pointy nose. During one ritual Oh Ho Ho proceeds steal the local native women away from their husbands. The locals must throw money at Oh Ho Ho to appease this greedy god. I personally think this practice may have been developed based on past experiences with European traders in the medieval period but there is no conclusive evidence to back up my claim.

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Painting depicting Shuri Castle the home of the Ryukyu Kings

Becoming Japanese 

Okinawa used to be called the Kingdom of Ryukyu and due to it’s convenient geography of being nestled directly between Taiwan and Japan it became a wealthy trade hub. During the medieval period the Satsuma clan of Southern Kyushu occupied and conquered the islands of Ryukyu and united them in the name of the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Thus the Kingdom of Ryukyu become the Japanese province of Okinawa. Okinawa literally means “off coast rope” in Japanese and is still sometimes seen as the “Japanese Hawaii”. Indeed Okinawans may speak Japanese but they have their own unique culture, customs and heritage. In fact, the reason why the Okinawan dialects have become nearly extinct is because during the Meji period (Pre war 1900’s) Japan had enforced hardline assimilation policies on the Okinawans and punished students for not speaking Japanese in schools. During WorldWarII  these practices became even more harsh and Okinawans caught speaking their native dialects were often accused of being spies and executed.

World War II

After years of increasingly aggressive nationalist policies Japan had succeeded in colonizing Okinawa’s neighbor Taiwan and many other Southeast Asian countries. Any non Japanese sentiments were brutally crushed and Okinawans began to forget they had not always been Japanese. After the brutal fighting on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima and raising of the flag over mount suribachi the U.S. fleet set it’s sights on Okinawa. Japan knew that it had to prevent the forces from landing on Honshu and prolong the battle of Okinawa as long as possible. Japan also knew that it was fighting a loosing war but hoped to create as much battle fatigue in the U.S. soldiers and public as possible. They hoped to hold off a full scale invasion of the homeland and have more favorable peace talks. The sheer brutality of the Battle in Okinawa is often considered as the catalyst for the Truman’s decision to drop the Atomic bombs. Japan had throughly spread propaganda warning and scarring Okinawans out of  surrendering to American troops. Propaganda stated that the American troops would kill civilians immediately and even eat the bodies. The Imperial Japanese army also armed civilians with bamboo spears and sent out a national wide order to “fight to the death!”. Before the Americans landed they spent two weeks bombarding Okinawa with naval artillery fire to weaken Japanese defenses. This bombardment became know as the “typhoon of steel” and turned the battlefield into a muddy and bloody mess. Of course this bombardment also indiscriminately killed countless civilians. During the invasion itself American troops landed in the middle of the island and pushed southward towards the main city of Naha. The north of the island was relatively peaceful compared to the hell that the South had become. There are countless stories of horrible tragedies that took place during this desperate battle. Many Okinawans and Japanese chose to commit suicide rather than surrender. Japanese soldiers even distributed hand grenades to children and told them they were “gifts from the Emperor”.  The soldiers told civilians it was better to die than give themselves up to the Americans. Many people who didn’t have hand grenades threw themselves of the “suicide cliffs”. The tragic battle ended up being the last battle of the pacific before the surrender of Japan. The United states ended up occupying Okinawa until returning the island to the Japanese in the 70’s after mounting unrest broke out across the island. I have heard stories about the celebrations that occurred when suddenly the currency was changed to yen from dollars and cars drove on the Japanese sides of the road. U.S. bases on the island were used heavily as staging grounds during the Vietnam and Korean conflicts and continues to be a controversial issue.

“Green grass dies in the islands without waiting for fall,
But it will be reborn verdant in the springtime of the homeland.
Weapons exhausted, our blood will bathe the earth, but the spirit will survive;
Our spirits will return to protect the motherland.”- General Mitsu Ushijima suicide letter before committing seppuku

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The Room in the Japanese Navy Caves where General Ushijima committed seppuku

 

 

I suggest watching “Hacksaw Ridge” and the Okinawa episode of the HBO series “The Pacific”

I hope this post helped you gain a brief understanding of the History of Okinawa I will go into specifics of historical locations and my travel experiences in future posts. It is ironic how a place that is so unimaginably beautiful was also home to such a degree of pain and suffering. When I am in Okinawa enjoying the beach or strolling through a luxurious mall I often find my mind drifting to the stories of those who died so savagely here in the 1940’s. I don’t usually believe in ghosts but when your out in the darkness of night at Okinawa you can defiantly feel the spirits. Americans and Okinawans have become connected through history and as an american I feel a connection to this place.

I also find it miraculous that a mere 70 years later I am able to walk freely down the streets of Okinawa. where our ancestors had once tried to desperately kill each other. This very fact gives me hope that deep seated hatreds can be left behind and nations that once so brutally clashed can achieve peace and amity between one another.

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A photo I took of the Suicide Cliffs from the Okinawa Peace memorial observation deck
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An english textbook hand printed in the Taisho period during the American Occupation