Tribute to Pacific war dead stirs old passions in Japan

Ceremonies leave key questions unanswered, writes Richard Lloyd Parry in Okinawa
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The Independent Online
It was a moving occasion, the formal retreat at Torii Beach. As the sun set yesterday, the soldiers of the US Army 10th Area Support Group stood to attention on the white sand.

Facing them was a stand full of generals and colonels, the US ambassador to Japan, Walter Mondale, and 75 elderly veterans of the Okinawan campaign, in whose honour the ceremony is being held.

But few Japanese were present. This week is the 50th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa, the last and bloodiest of the Pacific War, which Japan has tried in vain to forget. On the morning of 23 June 1945 Commanding General Mitsuru Ushijima and, his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Isamu Cho, committed ritual suicide at the mouth of the cave that was their headquarters.

Fifty years later, the Japanese Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, Mr Mondale, and several thousand veterans of the war - American and Japanese - will gather in a nearby park to dedicate the Cornerstone of Peace, a collection of tablets bearing the names of 200,000 people who died in the three-month battle.

It will be the first time veterans from both sides will come together for single ceremony. Their meeting will no doubt go smoothly. But it has been fraught with tension.

The conflict arises from an unresolved question: what is the point of this week's commemorations in Okinawa? To the US military, it is the celebration of a costly victory, the prelude to Japan's capitulation on 15 August. To Mr Murayama it is a chance to make up for the mealy-mouthed "apology" for Japanese aggression which he squeezed out of the Japanese Diet last month. To the people of Okinawa, it is the anniversary of a great tragedy.

Okinawa, "the keystone of the Pacific", was the last stronghold of Japanese resistance before the invasion of the Japanese mainland. Some 182,000 troops, supported by aircraft-carriers and battleships, began the invasion on 1 April. At landing points like Torii Beach, they met little resistance. The 100,000-strong Imperial Army had holed up in pillboxes and caves in the south of the island, connected by defensive tunnels. Local people were conscripted to fight, and inculcated with propaganda about the consequences of capture by the enemy. In one incident, 250 student nurses, the Hineyuri or "Princess Lily" brigade, blew themselves up rather than submit to the marines. The Cornerstone of Peace bears the names of 14,000 US soldiers, sailors and marines, and 73,000 Japanese servicemen. But the largest group by far is Okinawan civilians - 147,110, almost half the islands' population.

Among the survivors, feelings for the armed forces are not warm. "It's understandable," says Colonel Walter Ford, Chief of Staff of the 3rd Marine Division on Okinawa. "When our marines come out here we tell all of them Okinawans are not anti-American, they are anti-military." The islands contain the biggest US military presence in Asia. About 20 per cent of the main island is taken up by US bases. The island's governor, Masahide Ota, has called for the reduction of the military presence, and polls show most Okinawans support him.

When the plans were laid for the Cornerstone of Peace, it was decided that it would be a civilian memorial. No ranks are indicated. The dead are recorded by name and country of origin. When army representatives were invited to today's ceremony, it was on condition that they attend in civilian clothes.

The US Army has been remembering a decisive victory. But Okinawa was just the stepping-stone to the invasion of the Japanese mainland. The ferocity encountered by the invading forces became an argument for the use of atomic bombs two months later on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These anniversaries lie ahead. If the Okinawa commemorations are anything to go by, they are also likely to be complicated by the politics of remembrance.