The battle for truth

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2007, 12:00am

Wearing only rags, and bandaged or hobbling, the old men, women and terrified children left the sanctuary of the cave in the limestone cliffs at the very southern tip of Okinawa. Standing out to sea were the warships of the US Navy, from where came calls relayed over loudspeakers for the survivors to surrender. Blinking in the bright sunshine of May 1945, the villagers began to cautiously make their way towards the American soldiers' lines.

Masahide Ota would often see the little groups start out on their journey into the no-man's land that divided the US Marines from what remained of the Imperial Japanese Army's forces in the Mabuni district of the disputed island. Most of the time, they were shot before they had gone more than a couple of hundred metres. They were not killed by the Americans, to whom they posed little threat, but shot in the back by their own soldiers.

'I saw it happen every day,' said Mr Ota. 'The local people wanted to surrender but the Japanese soldiers would not allow them to go and they killed them when they tried to escape. And they didn't just kill the civilians; there was no food and the only well had been contaminated by the bodies of the dead, so soldiers were killing each other for food or the contents of their water bottles,' he said. 'I saw Japanese soldiers throwing grenades at each other so they could drink.

'I had been conscripted into the army myself at that time, but I never thought I would see the day when friendly soldiers would be killing each other. The terrible things I witnessed every day changed my ideas completely.'

What Mr Ota, now 82, witnessed in the final days of the conventional fighting on the island changed his life. He went on to study in Tokyo and live in the US before winning election as the governor of Okinawa in 1990, a post he held until 1998. He then became a member of the Social Democratic Party in the Upper House of the Japanese Diet for six years up until July.

Throughout his private and public life, Mr Ota has dedicated himself to ensuring that what happened on Okinawa is never forgotten. Such a stance has made him highly critical of right-wing historians' reinterpretations of events in Okinawa in 1945, and he vehemently opposes plans announced by the Japanese government to rewrite history textbooks that are to be issued to students at the start of the new school year next April.

In March, then prime minister Shinzo Abe ordered that school-book references to the involvement of the Imperial Japanese Army in the suicides of Okinawan civilians be deleted.

Nationalist historians claim that suicide pacts were voluntary and not the result of orders. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science and Technology responded by decreeing that as there was disagreement among historians as to what happened in Okinawa, it would be unfair to state that the civilians had killed themselves as a direct order from the military. In response, a draft textbook prepared by publishing house Shimizu Shoin altered a passage that read some people 'were forced by Japanese troops to commit group suicide' to 'there were people who were driven into group suicides'. Other publishers similarly watered down Japan's official view of history.

The new government of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has made some conciliatory moves, with new Education Minister Kisaburo Tokai telling reporters: 'The ministry will deal with any applications for further revisions in a serious manner. A panel will be convened to make a fair judgment on the issue if necessary.'

Mr Ota remains incensed at official efforts to beautify history. Public outrage led an estimated 115,000 Okinawans to protest on September 29 in the city of Ginowan, marking the largest public protest since the prefecture reverted to Japanese control in 1972.

'It is truly a terrible thing to try to rewrite historical truth,' said Mr Ota. 'The people of Okinawa will absolutely not allow this to happen. Tens of thousands turned out to demonstrate against the plans and, in a very rare case of all the municipal assemblies joining together, 41 local authorities also protested.'

According to Mr Ota, who founded the Ota Peace Research Institute in Okinawa's largest city, Naha, the government is increasingly falling under the thrall of the right, and aims to win sufficient political support to rewrite a constitution drawn up after the war that renounces the use of military force.

'The main reason that they want to change the constitution is because they would like to drop the 'Self-Defence Forces' title and simply have a real and regular military,' said Mr Ota. 'They want Japan to be recognised as having military units that can go and fight wherever the government wants.'

But with the actions and excesses of the Imperial Japanese Forces in the 1930s and 40s still remembered by some and documented in textbooks, the right is having trouble winning over the majority of the public.

Mr Ota said their approach was three-pronged. Firstly, the nationalists are rewriting the events known as the Nanking Massacre, claiming that maybe a few hundred citizens of the city died in disturbances, a far cry from the 300,000 deaths China blames on the Japanese army. Their second target is the women who were forced into sexual slavery as 'comfort women' for Japanese troops during the years of expansion throughout Asia and the Pacific, with the right claiming they were mere prostitutes who volunteered to serve in frontline brothels and were paid for their labours. The third target is reversing the myth perpetrated by Okinawans that the military murdered civilians and forced others to commit suicide.

After his wartime experiences, Mr Ota knows that he is fortunate to still be alive. As the Allied invasion approached, the Japanese military headquartered beneath Naha's Shuri Castle conscripted all the students from the city's 12 boys' schools and 10 girls' schools. The boys were given a gun, 20 rounds of ammunition and two grenades, with the instruction that one grenade was to be thrown at the Americans; the other one was for themselves. The girls were given rudimentary first aid training and served as nurses.

Of the 460 students from Mr Ota's school, 305 were killed; of the 120 pupils in his grade, just 37 survived.

Known as Tetsu no ame (the 'rain of steel'), the US forces landed on the main island on April 1, 1945, in the largest Pacific theatre amphibious assault of the war. The Japanese defence was tenacious and made the most of the terrain and extensive fortifications. Nearly 80 Allied warships were destroyed or had to be scrapped due to enemy action - a good number of them victims of kamikaze attacks. The Allies lost 12,513 lives; the Japanese military lost an estimated 66,000. Well over double that number of civilians also died.

'In the very last days of the fighting, I was told to infiltrate behind the enemy's lines and to persuade local people to rise up against the US,' Mr Ota said. Indoctrinated not to surrender, he managed to evade the Americans and made his way with other stragglers to the rugged northern jungles of Okinawa. In small bands, they lived rough and scrounged from the Americans' dumps to survive.

On one occasion, he was among a group that chose to run instead of surrendering and was chased into the sea. After losing consciousness, he was washed ashore and found himself surrounded by the corpses of his colleagues.

Teaming up with another soldier one day, they came across a US magazine that proclaimed the war was over, yet it was not until a former officer in the Okinawa General Headquarters made his way to their hideout with a manuscript signed by the emperor that they decided to surrender.

'When I read that the war was over, I was not disappointed that Japan had lost,' said Mr Ota. 'I was more sad that I was so ignorant I could not read the magazine because English was the language of the enemy.'

It was at this point that he decided to educate himself to help the people of his native island. Okinawa was once the independent Ryukyu kingdom and still has many cultural differences with the country that effectively annexed it in the early 1600s. The Japanese military regarded islanders with suspicion and hostility, while local people hated being ordered to revere the emperor and to sacrifice themselves for the homeland.

In the years since the end of the conflict, research has indicated that between 800 and 1,000 Okinawan civilians were killed by the Japanese military during the campaign, although the chaos that enveloped the islands in the summer of 1945 makes it almost impossible to prove the vast majority of the cases. In cases that have gone to court demanding recognition of the atrocities that were committed, most have failed to provide the identities of those killed, the identities of the killers and witnesses. This same problem has given more ammunition to nationalists, who say there is no proof that the Japanese military was to blame for forced suicides or murders.

'Those who are trying to change the descriptions in textbooks that are to educate the next generation of Japanese say the local people misunderstood what was happening and that the Japanese military was there to protect their lives,' said Mr Ota. 'But that's not true.'