Traces of War: Loyal Soul Monument of Yomitan, Okinawa


“Every memorial in its time has a different goal.” ~Maya Lin, Chinese-American artist and architect, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC

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“The only reason my mother didn’t kill me was that she never went to school,” smiled our Okinawan tour guide during a tour of the Ahasha shelter cave on Ie Island (blog to follow). “She was never brain-washed by the faculty and the government….”

We were visiting a cave where approximately 150 Okinawan civilians had committed suicide or murdered during World War II. At the time, Setsuko was less than a year old and was in hiding in another part of Okinawa. She remarkably had a chipper attitude about the whole thing; I guess there’s really no other way to really be once you’ve cheated death in such a destined way.

You see, in the lead up to the war, Japan had embarked on a full-fledged campaign to nationalize their people, far and wide. And perhaps it was nowhere easier to do just that on an island-nation where literacy was low and minds were easy to impress.  The Japanese taught their populace that, during WWII, the Americans would torture and kill all the men and boys, and would savage and rape their women.  There was no option of surrender; the expected and honorable thing to do instead was to kill your family and commit suicide….

But there were many decades of indoctrination that led up to such a dramatically unbelievable and sad conclusion to so many lives wasted in 1944 and 1945.  Two things the Japanese used to affect this militaristic paradigm shift in their population was the cenotaph and hoanden.

The monument in the 1960s.

The monument in the 1960s.

A cenotaph is, generally speaking, an “empty tomb” or a monument erected in honor of a person or group of people whose remains are elsewhere. The word derives from the Greek κενοτάφιον, Romanized as kenotaphion, with kenos meaning “empty” and taphos, “tomb.” In Japan, such memorials were erected beginning in the late 19th century, and continued throughout the 1920s and 30s. Almost all were dedicated to the memories of groups of soldiers and civilians lost in battle fought for Imperial Japan. Chukonhi as they are better known in Japan first began to be constructed during the Meiji Restoration period in honor of people who died in the Sino-Japanese and the Russo-Japanese Wars. As death in the Emperor’s name is the ultimate sacrifice these monuments emphasized the virtue of loyalty and was often used as a symbol of militarism in order to help form and formalize a militaristic ideology prior to the 1940s.

Cenotaph in better times in Yomitan, Okinawa

Cenotaph in better times in Yomitan, Okinawa

In Okinawa there are very few of these monuments left. Some were damaged beyond repair or outright destroyed during the war. Some were destroyed or removed after the war by locals and/or occupation forces as neither wanted such reminders of a warmongering nation or government. Only a handful have survived, and one survives in Yomitan village on Okinawa, just a few blocks away from the old Japanese aircraft shelter that I’ve previously written about (see Traces of War: WWII Yomitan Aircraft Shelter).

This “Loyal Soul Monument” was originally erected in 1935 on the grounds of an Okinawa school together with the Hoanden, which housed the sacred portraits of the Emperor and Empress, the Okinawans were taught to revere the nations’ war dead as true heroes, and made to acknowledge the divinity of Emperor Hirohito and his wife. This particular cenotaph was originally located adjacent to a national elementary school (Yomitan Mountain Senior elementary school), where the students every morning and afternoon would be required to bow deeply to both the cenotaph and hoanden. In this way, the violent perversion of the young minds of Okinawan children began.

The militarization of Okinawa's youth via hoan-den.

The militarization of Okinawa’s youth via hoan-den.

Hoanden were small structures, concrete houses that doubled as alters, which housed the emperor’s portrait and the “Imperial Rescript on Education.” Like the cenotaphs, they too were erected in most schoolyards. The Imperial Rescript on Education (教育ニ関スル勅語, Kyōiku ni Kansuru Chokugo) was signed by Emperor Meiji of Japan in 1890 to articulate government policy on the guiding principles of education. The 315 character document was read aloud at all important school events and students were required to memorize the text while the act of recitation took the form of an oath or pledge, much as the Pledge of Allegiance used to be recited by American students in American schools. The basis of the Rescript was based on Japan’s historic bond between “benevolent rulers” and “loyal subjects,” and that the fundamental purpose of education was to cultivate appropriately supporting virtues, especially of loyalty, above all else to the Emperor and country. A key passage of the Rescript, translated into English, reads, “…should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of the Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth.” It’s not hard to see how the seeds of tragedy were so easily planted and fully cultivated in a society bent on unquestioned loyalty, obedience, and sacrifice. After World War II, the American occupation authorities in Japan forbade the reading or teaching of the Imperial Rescript in schools, and the Diet (government) of Japan officially abolished it in 1948.

Todays damaged and defaced monument.

Todays damaged and defaced monument.

Pre-WWII cenotaphs were specifically erected for honoring the souls of “loyal” officers, enlisted and civilian employees that war died for His Majesty the Emperor of Japan. Such monuments helped to hammer the way to war for Japan, as it stressed that the most important meaning in death possible was what could be achieved for the Emperor and country. In this way, many were lives were scattered and wasted on far-away battlefields, while civilians were left to contemplate murder-suicide over capture by the allied forces.

Battle-Damage

Battle-Damage

Today the monument is now adjacent to a national worker physical education center. And the Okinawans are very careful to point out that this monument, left as a testament to times gone by, is in no way to be confused with a memorial. As it was explained to me, a memorial in the Okinawan culture is a place for mourning, prayer and contemplation that such horrific acts of violence would never again be repeated.

Today's Monument

Today’s Monument

According to some sources, the Loyal Soul Monument, although damaged during the war, suffered greatly in the post-war years. The placards and Japanese calligraphy that once adorned the monument has been stolen, defaced, or otherwise destroyed, a testament about how the local Okinawan survivors thought about the way they were treated in the 1940s. Not by the Americans, but more so, by their original occupiers, the Japanese.

What the Okinawans wish from leaving such silent witnesses of the past is that future generations never forget the horrific nature of the not-so-distant past, and admonish any attempts to glorify war or violence once again. For the more casual and removed observer, I leave it to you to reach your own conclusions.

The Girl with the White Flag.  Look her up....

The Girl with the White Flag. Look her up….

Peace is not a hard deduction to infer.

...if this is the alternative.

…if this is the alternative.