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)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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