Japanese outraged by rewriting of Okinawa history

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Nobuaki Kinjo was 16 when he murdered his mother, six-year-old brother and four-year-old sister. Then he went looking for Americans to kill. "We went insane," he told a court recently. "We were told by the soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army that we should commit suicide rather than be captured."

More than six decades after those horrific events, Mr Kinjo is fighting another war against government censorship. Now a 78-year-old Baptist missionary, he will be one of about 50,000 people marching today in the tiny Pacific island of Okinawa, whose population has been angered by plans to censor school textbooks.

Mr Kinjo's experience, and others like it, is woven into the history of Okinawa, the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War. Locals still remember receiving grenades – known as gifts of love from the Emperor – to save bullets in mass suicides. But this year, Tokyo in effect declared that such events never took place.

In March, Japan's Education Ministry ordered publishers of secondary school history textbooks to delete references to coercion by Japanese troops. "There are divergent views of whether or not the suicides were ordered by the army and no proof to say either way," a ministry official told the Stars and Stripes, the US military's daily newspaper.

One passage in a textbook was changed from: "Japanese forces made [residents] commit mass suicide and kill one another using hand grenades that [the Japanese forces] had distributed." To: "Using hand grenades that Japanese forces had distributed, mass suicide and the killing of one another took place."

"It's an Orwellian move," says Doug Lummis, a local academic and former American soldier. "This is an attempt to send these peoples' memories down the plughole of history. They're not going to stand for it."

The Battle of Okinawa raged for three months in 1945 and took 200,000 Japanese and American lives, including about a quarter of the local population. Japanese troops were ordered to stall a full-scale invasion of the mainland. Mass suicides of families indoctrinated by military propaganda, including mothers and their babies, have been well documented.

The American invasion, and the presence of thousands of US troops as part of the US-Japan military alliance has had a deep impact on the area. Dozens of peace monuments dot the island and resentment at what many locals see as Tokyo's arrogance runs deep.

Okinawa's local government has reacted with fury to the Education Ministry directive, issuing an unprecedented unanimous statement in June demanding that the government reverse its decision. "It is an undeniable fact that mass suicides could not have occurred without the involvement of the Japanese military," said the statement.

More than 100,000 signatures have been collected against the directive and Hirokazu Nakaima, the island's governor and a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is taking part in today's demonstration, an embarrassing snub to the central government. School children will tell the protesters why they will not use the censored textbooks and witnesses of the battle will recount their stories.

"We need to bring together at least 50,000 people. Otherwise, the central government probably won't take our request very seriously," said Toshinobu Nakazato, the chairman of the Okinawa government assembly, last week.

Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister, has backed the revisionist moves on Japan's war history. He was said to have been taken aback by the anger when he visited Okinawa in June as part of war anniversary commemorations. "There are a lot of divergent views on what happened during the war," he said.

The island rarely makes news. The last time the world paid attention to this tiny speck in the Pacific Ocean was 1995 when three US marines kidnapped and raped a 12-year-old girl, sparking a huge anti-American demonstration in Ginowan Park, the same venue as today's protest. "I think this rally could be as big as that," said Lummis. "People are that angry."