“Dying ain’t so hard for men like you and me, it’s living that’s hard; when all you ever cared about has been butchered or raped. Governments don’t live together, people live together. With governments you don’t always get a fair word or a fair fight. Well I’ve come here to give you either one, or get either one from you. I came here like this so you’ll know my word of death is true. And that my word of life is then true….” ~Josey Wales’ two tales of death and life, The Outlaw Josey Wales
“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 Ahashagama on Ie Jima. “She was never brain-washed by the faculty and the government….” (See Loyal Soul Monument for more on the militarization of Okinawa in the years preceding WWII) When war came to Okinawa, Setsuko was less than a year old and was hiding with her family on the main island of Okinawa. She had a remarkably chipper attitude about the whole thing; I guess there’s really no other way to really be once you realize that words of life and death can be spoken in such casual ways as they were on Okinawa back in 1945.
Okinawans continue to tell their wartime accounts least younger generations forget the appalling consequences of war. Like the oral traditions of just a few generations ago, such are the ways the Okinawans preserve the honor and memories of those who tragically lost their lives in such horrifically meaningless ways. With more and more of remaining firsthand witnesses to the carnage passing away, such frightful tales are necessarily being expressed more and more through memorial sites left for future contemplation. At the end of the day, to the Okinawans, the moral of all these chronicles and memorials is the same: the inescapable shocking costs of war.
Jody and I recently visited a nearby island to celebrate the beginning of the New Year. Little did I realize the traces of war that remain so blatantly palpable on that tiny piece of earth. Ie Jima, a small island off central Okinawa’s west coast reachable only by boat, memorializes a tale of two caves utilized by the locals as shelter during the Battle of Okinawa. One cave’s narrative involves words of life. At Niya-Thiya Gama (gama means cave), over 1,000 people, while seeking sanctuary inside, survived the invasion and fight on Ie Island throughout the second half of April, 1945. The locals still refer to this cave as Sen-nin Gama, which translates loosely to “The Cave of 1000 People.”
Because of this miracle of life during Okinawa’s Typhoon of Steel where roughly 1/3rd of all Okinawans died in a few short weeks, inside this cave is located a sacred stone, a fertility stone, sometimes called Kodakara-ishi (子宝石, “Child Stone”). Many come here to harness the “special power” that permeates such “Power Spots,” the phrase the very superstitious Okinawans use to describe such important locales. The stone here is believed to be imbued with a living god, and not only does it help those wishing to conceive new life, but it can foretell gender before birth. According to legend, if a woman who picks up the stone feels that it is heavy, her offspring will be a boy. If the stone feels light, the baby will be a girl.
According to the Japanese sign on the outside of the Niya-Thiya Cave, around March of the Lunar Calendar each year a prayer ritual lead by a female priestess is held inside the cave, although I have not been able to confirm this.
The tale, however, takes a dark, somber turn at Ahashagama (Ahasha Cave) where there are only words of death. Seemingly forgotten after the war, the cave was sealed during the war and left unmolested for over two decades. Many probably wanted to forget what happened there. But finally, and rightfully, the cave was opened and excavated in 1971, twenty-six years after the end of World War II. In short order, the horrific rumors that locals knew to be true was confirmed by forensic analysis: the remains of about 150 people – civilian villagers including men, women and children – were still there, serving silent yet inescapable witness to the mass murder-suicide which occurred there. The Imperial Japanese Army had given the civilians grenades and ordered everyone to kill themselves in order to evade capture. Even so, a few people realized such folly and survived their cavemates’ dreadful demise. Unfortunately, words of death like these are not uncommon on Okinawa where mass suicides and murders were perpetrated over surrender and capture, sometimes by choice, mostly through coercion, and even by force.
Okinawa’s anguish over these widespread civilian suicides is sharpened by the horrible realization that soldiers from Japan’s main islands always encouraged suicide over capture. Worse, they often used intimidation and bullying to pressure many into taking such drastic actions, and at times murdered civilians who refused. In a diorama at Peace Prayer Park, the Okinawa memorial to WWII, a spotlight glints off a bayonet held by a fierce-looking Japanese soldier who stands over an Okinawan family huddled in a cave, the mother trying to smother her baby’s cries. “At the hands of Japanese soldiers, civilians were massacred, forced to kill themselves and each other,” reads the caption. Nearby, a life-size photo shows the grisly aftermath of a family killed by a hand grenade.
On Geruma Island, part of the Kerama Islands just a few miles off Okinawa’s southwestern coast, Takejiro Nakamura attests first-hand to atrocities. In 1945, he was just a boy, a 15-year-old student when the American invasion started.
“For a long time, the Japanese Imperial Army announced that, on other islands, the women had been raped and killed, and the men were tied at the wrists and tanks were driven over them,” he states flatly. He claims that, as Japanese defenses crumbled on his home island in late March 1945, 56 of the 130 residents there committed suicide. Fleeing with family and neighbors, he ended up in one small cave where ten of his fellow citizens had already killed themselves. They decided to do the same.
“I heard my sister calling out, ‘Kill me now, hurry’, ” Mr. Nakamura said, recalling how his 20-year-old sister panicked at the approach of American soldiers. His mother took a rope and strangled her. Seeing this, he attempted the same. “I tried to also strangle myself with a rope,” he recalled, lifting his now weather-beaten hands to his neck. “But I kept breathing. It is really tough to kill yourself.” Minutes later, before his mother had time to kill him as well, the Americans took them captive.
His mother lived well into her 80’s. “We talked often about the war,” Mr. Nakamura said. “But to the end, she never once talked about killing her daughter….” The iron in such words of death would shatter her already broken heart, nor could it offer any lasting catharsis for her damaged soul. Instead, she, like all those who have suffered war, should always struggle to find words of life.
“I ain’t promising you nothing extra. I’m just giving you life and you’re giving me life. And I’m saying that men can live together without butchering one another,” Josey says through gritted teeth, squinting but looking the Indian Chief squarely in the eyes.
Ten Bears, in full war paint with his scouts and warriors surrounding Josey, contemplates such words. “It’s sad that governments are chiefed by the double tongues. There is iron in your words of death for all Comanche to see, and so there is iron in your words of life. No signed paper can hold the iron. It must come from men. The words of Ten Bears carries the same iron of life and death. It is good that warriors such as we meet in the struggle of life… or death.”
“It shall be life.”