Service honors war victims on day Battle of Okinawa ended 77 years ago

The Yomiuri Shimbun
People who lost their family members in the Battle of Okinawa offer prayers at the Cornerstone of Peace at the Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture, on Thursday.

ITOMAN, Okinawa — The Okinawa Memorial Day ceremony was held Thursday at the Peace Memorial Park in the city of Itoman to mark 77 years since the end of the Battle of Okinawa.

The brutal battle took place during the closing stages of World War II, pitting the Japanese military against U.S. forces. It was a horrific period for the people of the prefecture, with some of the fiercest fighting taking place in the Mabuni district where the peace park now stands on the main island of Okinawa.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki and representatives of a bereaved families association were among the about 330 people attending the ceremony, far fewer than the usual 5,000 or so attendees.

The annual service has been scaled down during the pandemic, meaning the public has not been allowed to attend. It was also the first time since 2019 that a prime minister has attended.

At noon, the attendees observed a minute of silence and offered prayers to the victims. During the ceremony, which was held the same year that Japan has been marking 50 years since the United States returned Okinawa to Japanese control, attendees renewed their pledge not to turn Okinawa into a battlefield again.

Tamaki, in his peace declaration, referred to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The lives of innocent civilians continue to be taken,” he said. “The situation in which they are forced to live side by side in fear evokes memories of the ground battle that involved the residents of Okinawa 77 years ago. I am shocked beyond words.”

Tamaki also said that even 50 years after Okinawa’s reversion to Japan in 1972, the residents of the prefecture have continued to be forced to shoulder the burden of hosting U.S. military bases.

He strongly called for the realignment and reduction of U.S. military bases further as well as a fundamental review of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement.

Kishida said in his speech that the central government will “work to reduce the burden of hosting U.S. bases.”

From early Thursday morning, the bereaved families of the victims were among people visiting the peace park’s Cornerstone of Peace, where the names of those who died in the Battle of Okinawa are engraved.

The names of 55 people have been added, bringing the total to 241,686.

After the war, with Okinawa heavily devastated by the battle, many residents lived in U.S. military camps for a while, delaying postwar reconstruction as vast areas of land were taken to create U.S. military bases.

In the 50 years since Okinawa’s return to Japan, social infrastructure in the prefecture has improved, but 70% of the U.S. military facilities in Japan have continued to be in the prefecture.

The central government is advancing its deployment of Self-Defense Forces personnel to the Nansei Islands, the island chain between Kyushu and Taiwan, to counter China’s maritime advances.

As the security environment has become more severe, the presence of the SDF in the region and U.S. military bases in Okinawa Prefecture has increased in importance.

In the Battle of Okinawa, U.S. forces landed on the Kerama Islands on March 26, 1945, and then the central part of Okinawa’s main island on April 1, turning these islands into battlefields.

After the 32nd Imperial Japanese Army, which was in charge of defending Okinawa, retreated to the southern part of the main island, the battle is said to have come to an end with the suicides of Japanese military figures including commanding officer Mitsuru Ushijima on June 23, 1945.

Dubbed by prefectural residents as the “Typhoon of Steel,” the battle resulted in more than 200,000 Japanese and American casualties, including about 94,000 civilians of Okinawa.