Okinawa is a Japanese paradise with its beautiful white sand beaches and crystal clear water. But with a heavy American military presence, its war-torn past isn’t easy to forget and the many monuments and memorials stand testament to the Okinawan peoples’ struggles throughout recent history.
Not only was Okinawa the only part of Japan to have had battles on land in World War II, the Okinawan people first suffered invasion by the Japanese themselves and have a history filled with oppression and conflict.
Prior to landing in Okinawa, we weren’t too aware of the history of hardships faced by the native Okinawans. We knew little about the cultural differences between them and the Japanese, or that they prefer to identify as Okinawan rather than Japanese. It seems, at least on the island, that there still exists the sense of oppression and division between these two groups of people.
It was when we were talking to native Okinawans that we learned more about their history. We were told that many atrocities were committed against them by the Japanese, first when they took over the island and again during WWII. They were also the primary casualties of enemy fire. It was during our time on the island that we decided to visit the Peace Memorial Park and the Peace Memorial Museum to learn more. What we learned left us shocked and saddened and we headed back to Naha at the end of the day with a heavy heart and a more well-rounded understanding of the battles fought on this side of the war.
This post is a little heavier than our usual travel stories but we feel this is an important part of history, especially for the people of Okinawa, and we wanted to share our experience at the Peace Memorial Park and Himeyuri Peace Museum.
The Peace Memorial Park & The Okinawa Peace Hall
About a 45 minute drive south from Okinawa’s largest city, Naha, will get you to the Mabuni Hill area of Itoman city. It is here, on the southern part of the island, where the final battle in Okinawa took place during World War II and it is here that you will find the Peace Memorial Park. Positioned on top of the cliffs overlooking the rugged southeastern coastline, visitors can not only learn about the scars that World War II left on this vacationer’s dreamland, but will also stop in their tracks to look out onto the oceans horizon in disbelief of the beauty of this location that was once a bloody battlefield.
We stopped first at the Okinawa Peace Hall, situated near the main entrance to this expansive park.
In front, stands the Bell of Peace, rung on memorial occasions when prayers of world peace are made. The inscription on the bell reads “Calm the souls of the war dead. Swear the permanent peace of the world. From the Hill of Mabuni in all directions, sounds everlastingly the Bell of Peace, in solemn prayers of all people’.
To the other side, a bronze statue, ‘A Boy”, looks out onto the park and is a memorial to the many young boys and girls who were killed in that final battle, the Battle of Okinawa.
The Peace Hall was opened with the Okinawan vision of “no more war” and houses a giant, 12m high peace prayer statue, which was definitely impressive, and various artwork in tribute to the Okinawan people. The Hall was a quiet and reverent place, dim lit and calling attention to the artwork displayed before opening up to the peace prayer statue.
The artwork around the statue was a series of 20 paintings by Keiyu Nishimura, entitled “War and Peace” painted on the theme of Okinawa and representing the dark past of Okinawa and the beautiful spirit and culture of the Okinawan people. We enjoyed reading the displays about each of the paintings and learning more about history by the descriptions of what each painting depicts.
We then headed to the butterfly garden which houses Ogomadara, the largest butterflies in Japan. It was a small area but a peaceful place and Carolann was patient enough and had one land on her hand!
The Cornerstone of Peace
On our way from the Peace Hall to the museum, we noticed a busy pathway leading away from the museum and decided to detour and take a look at where everyone was headed. The path opened up to, what we later found out was, the Cornerstone of Peace and the Peace Plaza.
The sprawling tribute was built to those who lost their lives in the Battle of Okinawa, both enemy and allied forces. We had moments throughout the day that left us saddened and heavyhearted but this spot was a truly moving area for a different reason. Seeing the names of Okinawan, Japanese, American, UK, Korean, Taiwanese casualties of the war, all together, was powerful and the strong desire for peace was evident.
In the centre of the Peace Plaza stands the Flame of Peace composed of flames from three other places of significance to World War II and Japan – the first landing site of U.S. forces in Okinawa and the two sites of the atomic bombings, Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
If the Cornerstone of Peace left us moved, the view over the cliffs, overlooking the coastline, left us speechless. The rough, rocky shoreline with the beautiful, clear blue water seemed to be a reflection of the emotions this place incited – raw, harsh, and sometimes jagged disbelief and sorrow mixed with the hopefulness of peace and the inspirational appreciation for all life, no matter the nationality, that was lost.
The Peace Memorial Museum
We headed to the Peace Memorial Museum. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take any photos – so we only managed to get a couple at the end of the museum which depicted the years after the war during the American occupation. Each chamber of the museum was a walkthrough of the war and the switching of government powers during the many years of hell that the Okinawans suffered.
The locals were not only negatively affected by the Americans during the invasion (the US invasion was called “The Typhoon of Steel” and the 3 month assault saw over 6 million shells fired), and after they took power of the island, but were also killed, enslaved and left to starve by the Japanese army. The Japanese army took what little food and supplies they had, forced them out of safe-havens like caves and ancestral tombs into the ensuing battle or to malaria-infested mountains, and killed, or forced to kill themselves or each other. The testimonials of the survivors of the Battle of Okinawa are the most haunting of the exhibits and were incredibly difficult to read.
There were an estimated 240,000 casualties during the Battle of Okinawa. Of that, over half were Okinawans.
Himeyuri Monument and Peace Museum
A few miles down the road, just southwest of the Peace Memorial Park, sits a cave. During the war, this cave, and the circuit of connecting smaller caves, were used as field hospitals. Here you’ll find a memorial and Peace museum dedicated to the 200+ teachers and students who were killed during the Battle of Okinawa. Himeyuri is the nickname for the 2 Okinawan schools for women.
These students, aged 15-19, and several teachers, were recruited as nurses to work in the caves, assisting the injured. The conditions were harsh and they were often sent outside the caves, into dangerous situations, to pass on messages, bring in food and water and bury the dead. Schoolboys were also used during the war effort, aged 14-19, for labour and, later, as soldiers and suicide bombers.
Three months after they were first deployed as field nurses and soldiers, a deactivation order was issued. They were forced out of the caves and other bunkers and left to fend for themselves. It was during this time that the majority of the casualities occurred. The monument and museum serves as a tribute to those young girls and boys who lost their lives. In one section, black and white pictures of the young students-turned-nurses line the walls. Their faces a stark reminder of just how great a toll war takes.
We are sure we’ll visit more war memorials as we travel through Japan but this memorial was a complete surprise to us. The struggles of the Okinawan people through the war was a new lesson, one we had not heard about before, and we are happy to have been able to honour their memory by visiting the memorials and sharing this post.
Have you ever heard about the troubles Okinawans faced during World War II? Comment below and let us know where! If not, why do you think this is something that is not so frequently mentioned when discussing casualties of World War II?
You Can Do It Too:
If you are in Okinawa, we highly recommend making the trip to visit these war memorials. It will likely be a full day excursion if you’re starting in Naha – we left around noon and returned after 6pm – but there are places to purchase food and drink along the route. Here’s how to get there and what it will cost:
Getting to the Peace Memorial Park
From Naha Bus Terminal, take bus 89. It runs fairly regularly, several times an hour. Get off at the last stop, Itoman Bus Terminal. The total price is about 580 Yen per person and the trip takes about 45min-1 hour.
From Itoman Bus Terminal, take the 82 bus. This bus runs less frequently – once an hour to once every 2 hours. There is a CoCo convenience store down the road should you need to kill some time and grab a snack. (head away from the water, or turn left, if you are walking out of the terminal, and follow the road until you see the CoCo (pink sign) on your left.
It takes approximately 20 minutes from Itoman Bus Terminal to Heiwa-kinendo-iriguchi stop, the Peace Memorial Park. The cost is approximately 470 Yen per person.
The Okinawa Peace Hall
Admission to the Peace Hall costs 450 Yen each, children are free.
The Peace Memorial Museum
Admission to the Museum costs 300 yen ($3usd) for adults and 150 Yen for children. The museum is well planned and organized quite impressively. It was built to thoroughly explain the true hell that the people witnessed. While all of the exhibits are in Japanese, with a couple of paragraphs of English, there is a free audio guide with your purchase of admission. Simply ask when you purchase your ticket and get a English guided tour with 39 audio sections. They have also translated the testimonials of the survivors into English.
If travelling with children, some of the photos and displays may be a bit disturbing. There is a children’s section downstairs meant to educate the future generations and may be a bit easier to handle, depending on age.
Himeyuri Monument and Peace Museum
If you’d like to head to the Himeyuri Memorial after the Peace Memorial Park, get back on the 82 and head towards the Itoman Bus Terminal. Get off at Himeyuri-no-to stop. It takes about 10 minutes to get there from the Park and costs about 290 Yen each.
The Himeyuri Peace Museum costs 310 Yen each.
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