Celebrate: Irei no Hi (Okinawa Memorial Day)

My recent trip to Okinawa and the importance of 2015 as the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II made me want to highlight this relatively unknown holiday on the Japanese calendar. It’s not an uplifting holiday, like many of the other celebrations I have mentioned (such as New Year’s or Girls’ Day) but it’s an important event to be mentioned nonetheless.

In the island hopping campaign of the Pacific theater of World War II, Okinawa was one of the final “stepping stones” before Allied troops would reach mainland Japan. Knowing this, the Japanese army moved in to the island early in the war (though Okinawa itself had been an official part of Japan since 1879) and entrenched themselves, preparing for the inevitable fight.

And it was a brutal one. The battle commenced on April 1st, with an unopposed beach landing (though the previous week had been marked by aerial bombardments of the island by US forces). Over the course of the next eighty-two days, both sides fought a relentless campaign in the southern half of the island, eventually resulting in the Japanese forces being pushed to the very bottom of Okinawa. On June 22nd, the remaining members of the Japanese military high command committed ritual suicide, thus technically ending the prolonged fight. (There were still skirmishes that occurred past this date, including the well-known killing of journalist Ernie Pyle by a Japanese sniper on Iejima, an island just off the northern coast.) Casualties on all sides were staggering – it’s estimated that over 77,100 Japanese were killed, around 12,200 Americans perished, and a horrifically saddening 94,000* Okinawan civilians lost their lives in the bloody conflict.

Today, the names of ALL those who lost their lives on Okinawa in World War II are engraved on the Cornerstone of Peace, a monument in Itoman. The location is meaningful, on Mabuni Hill, which is right near the sea on Okinawa’s southern tip where the Japanese headquarters once stood and where very heavy fighting took place. There are around 241,000 names engraved on the monument – which was erected in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the end of the battle – and they include both military and civilians in equal weight and not arranged by nationality. Even today, as new remains are unearthed and identified, names are continually added to the panels.

Memorial for ALL who died in the Battle of Okinawa
Memorial for ALL who died in the Battle of Okinawa

A ceremony is held here every year on June 23rd, and this year’s promises to be particularly notable, as many veterans of that generation are passing in greater numbers.Okinawa Memorial Day is NOT a national Japanese holiday, but it is treated as a government holiday in Okinawa Prefecture.

The Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum also stands on the grounds of Mabuni Hill. If you have time, this is an incredibly worthwhile museum to visit. Although the Japanese government has (often rightly) come under strong criticism for its revisionist history over the years – in textbooks and in museums such as Yasukuni Shrine’s Yushukan – the museum here is curated and run by the Okinawan government. As a result, the museum feels like a very accurate and fair portrayal of both sides involved, while also emphasizing the real “losers” of the battle – the civilians of this tiny island.

A view of the tiled roof (bottom of shot) and coast from a high floor of the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum
A view of the tiled roof (bottom of shot) and coast from a high floor of the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum

*While some sources (like wikipedia) claim a large range of casualties, this number is provided by the Okinawa Prefectural Government National Health Service and Relief Division.

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