A Japanese process of coming to terms with the past
If you know the “The Germans”-episode of the British TV-series “Fawlty Towers”, you also know, that it’s best not to tackle subjects like the 2nd World War with some people. The episode’s slogan “Don’t mention the war!” is of particular value when meeting Germans.
It is more or less common knowledge that Japanese have a somewhat different approach when it comes to dealing with their historic past. The present territorial conflicts (which don’t even exist, according to official Japanese sources) may be an at least indirect result of this other way of coming to terms with one’s past. Though Japan is very well aware of the guilt it has burdened itself with during the war and even ultraconservative hard-liners admit it, the country has a rather weak tendency of coming to terms with it by enhancing awareness. Have a look into school books (not to speak of the envisaged editions of them) and it becomes evident: Japan is dealing with the history of World War II in a way that is somewhat the opposite of the German approach. Here as well as there everybody is entitled to his/her own opinion of how sins of our forefathers should be dealt with – this is not the place to judge it. However, being a German myself, I have the feeling that there are viable ways to reconcile with one’s neighbours. At least that’s what seems to have happened in Europe (even though not in every respect and probably also not for an eternity).
To cut a long story short: The memorial we are going to visit today, is one of the most impressive ones in Japan. It may not be as striking as the Peace Park in Hiroshima (広島平和記念公園 / ひろしまへいわきねんこうえん), but both sites have a completely different approach and purpose. I am of the opinion that especially the memorial sites in Okinawa should not only be viewed through the eyes of a “know-it-all” and “know-it-all-better”-German (Germans have become quite infamous – again – for believing that they know it all and know everything better than others), but also to take the particular historical background into consideration.
Okinawa was the only place on Japanese soil that saw actual combat during World War II (except comparatively smaller locations like the island of Iwojima / 硫黄島 / いおうじま, far away in the middle of the Pacific Ocean). The people of Okinawa haven’t forgiven that – the rest of Japan just as well as the wartime enemy. When Okinawa was devastated by months of battles, it had been just about 65 years after it was absorbed into the Empire of Japan (before then it was a – more or less – independent kingdom). The enforced “Japanisation” was something the people did not only see as blessing. And now it was the site of the most bloody battles and immense loss of lives. The facts that the islands of Okinawa remained under US-American administration for another 27 years after the war (they were handed back to Japan only in 1972) and that to the day strong military forces of the USA are stationed here (not all the Okinawans are happy about it – no wonder the relationship with the central government in Tōkyō is full of frictions) have led to a very distinct way of looking at the history. And that needs to be kept in mind when visiting the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park.
The Okinawa Peace Memorial Park (沖縄県平和祈念公園 / おきなわけんへいわきねんこうえん) dates back to an initiative that has its roots during the time of the occupation. It was finally “transformed” into reality after the islands were returned to Japan in 1972.
At the site of the last and most terrible battles of these islands, in the utmost south of the main island, a spacious garden and memorial landscape was created. It also opens the most marvellous view over the ocean the coast from the top of a steep cliff.
But, naturally, this park hasn’t just been placed into a beautiful landscape to give the visitors something to enjoy. It’s foremost intention is to make people remember the victims and the atrocities of war. One may be distracted by the fact that this remembrance is directed mainly at the victims (and I have to admit that I was a little bit offended by that at first). But for the people of Okinawa the concentration on their suffering and their own sacrifice may be comprehensible. After all, this is not a national memorial site but a prefectural one. Were it a national site, other criteria would have to be taken into consideration as well.
On the top of the Mabuni Hill (摩文仁の丘 / まぶにのおか), high above the cliff, one also finds 50 further memorial sites erected by other Japanese prefectures and organisations which bemoan the loss of lives. Some of these sites are rather pretty, but with some you can’t fight the (optical) impression that they are more a symbol of defiance than of a prayer for peace. Nevertheless, also these compounds have only one aim: the mourn for the victims of war and to yearn for world peace.
The example given below, the memorial site of the Aomori Prefecture, is not deemed to confuse you. No, it is not a advertisement for the products of well-known computer company – the apple it’s just happens to be the most famous product of this northern prefecture of Japan.
Let’s have a look at some of the compounds on the premises of the Peace Memorial Park:
Surely, the most impressive installation at the park is the “Cornerstone of Peace” (Heiwa-no-Ishiji / 平和の礎 / へいわのいしじ), that consists of 116 memorial walls made of granite. These monument walls spread out in concentric arcs from the “Flame of Peace” at the center of the Peace Plaza. They are shaped liked folding screens and were handed over to the public on July 23rd 1995, on the 50th remembrance day of the end of the battle of Okinawa. In a way this installation reminds a bit on the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, Germany. However, the “Cornerstone of Peace” has a different message to convey: It seeks to covey Okinawa’s spirit of peace, which has developed through Okinawa’s history and culture, to the people of Japan and throughout the world. The walls are covered with about 2,200 metres of text, are containing the names of more than 240,000 victims of war (among others also including 14,o00 US-American soldiers).
The spacious memorial monument is committed to three main purposes. Here the visitors shall:
1. commemorate the victims of war and pray for world peace,
2. pass on the lessons learnt from war and
3. use the place for meditation and learning.
In the centre of the “Cornerstone of Peace”-installation you’ll find the “Flame of Peace” (see the cone-shaped piece in the centre of the picture below), which was brought here from three different places:
One flame came from the village of Zamami (座間味 / ざまみ), from an island about 50 km off the coast southwest of the main island, where US-American forces landed for the first time. And the other flames came from the Peace Parks in the two Japanese cities that were destroyed by nuclear bombs, from Hiroshima (広島 / ひろしま) and Nagasaki (長崎 / ながさき).
The Peace Memorial Park is towered over by the “Peace Hall” (平和祈念堂 / へいわきねんどう) that was built in 1978. It symbols the futility of war and the value of peace. The building itself, a 45 metres tall construction of steel and steel-enforced concrete, looks more like a tower than a hall. It has a the shape of a septilateral pyramid, which expresses the seven seas and the shape of hands joined in prayers. Of course, it takes a little fantasy to comprehend this inspiration.
However, the most dominant piece of architecture at the park’s premises is the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum (沖縄県・平和祈念資料館 / おきなわけん・へいわきねんしりょうかん).
Seen from far (but also from closer distances) it looks more like a high-class resort hotel, but in reality it is home to various halls and exhibitions that aim at illustrating the horror of war. Throughout the exhibitions, however, it continues what has been mentioned earlier:
- Room 1 shows the course of Okinawan history (incl. the annexation by the Japanese Empire) leading up to the Battle of Okinawa and its causes.
- Rooms 2 and 3 show the harsh realities of life during the battle of Okinawa and the atrocities of war.
- Room 4 displays eye-witness testimonies and documents of the suffering of civilians as well as soldiers.
- Room 5 gives an insight into the life in refugee camps and during the 27 years of occupation by US-American forces.
- Furthermore, there is an exhibition for children, as well as a library.
One of the newer ones of the sites at the Peace Memorial Park is the grand arch at the “Peace Hill“ (平和の丘 / へいわのおか), that was erected in 2001 as a symbol of a strong dedication to peace.
Some more administrative details:
Peace Hall (opening times & admission fees)
Daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm
Adults: 450 Yen
Junior High School and High School Students: 350 Yen
Elementary School Students (and younger): free
There is a discount for groups of 20 or more people
Peace Memorial Museum (opening times & admission fees)
Daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm)
(Closed from December 29th to January 3rd)
Adults: 300 Yen
Children: 150 Yen
There is a discount for groups of 20 or more people
Also available: A free audio-service in Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean and Spanish.
How to get there:
Lines 33, 46 and 89 of the Naha-Itoman line (from the Naha Bus Terminal to the Bus Terminal of Itoman). There is a bus about every 20 minutes.
Bus fare: 500 Yen
and after that take the
Line 82 of the Itoman-Gyokusendo line (from the Itoman Bus Terminal to Gyokusendo Cave). There is one bus every hour. Leave the bus at “Heiwa Kinen-Dou Iriguchi” (平和祈念堂入り口 / へいわきねんどういりぐち).
Bus fare: 400 Yen
A taxi ride from Naha to the Peace Memorial Park (more than 20 kilometres) will set you back for about 3,500 Yen. Tell the taxi driver to bring you to the “Heiwa-no Ishiji” (平和の礎 / へいわのいしじ / Cornerstone of Peace).