Legacy of war in Asia

‘Unforgiveable desecration’ of Okinawa’s shrine to war dead who chose suicide over surrender

The cave is seen as a symbol of the tragedy that befell civilians on Okinawa, with an estimated 10,000 people visiting to pay their respects every year

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 September, 2017, 7:30am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 September, 2017, 3:05pm

A cave in Okinawa Prefecture that was turned into a shrine in memory of 83 local civilians who committed suicide in 1945 rather then surrender to the invading US forces has been vandalised.

A villager from the nearby community of Yomitan visited the secluded cave on Tuesday with a foreign journalist and discovered water bottles that had been taken into the cave by the local people 72 years ago had been smashed and strewn over their remains.

Signs had also been torn down and destroyed, along with dozens of strings of origami paper cranes, a symbol of peace.

“This is an unforgivable act of desecration,” said Norio Yonaha, the head of a group of families that takes care of the cave. “I cannot understand why someone would do this. We, the bereaved will not tolerate such an act, but we will continue to appeal for peace.”

This is an unforgivable act of desecration. I cannot understand why someone would do this
Norio Yonaha, representative of families

Known as Chibichiri-gama, the cave was used as a refuge during the fierce fighting for the islands in the closing stages of the second world war.

To ensure they did not surrender, troops from the Imperial Japanese Army told island residents the invaders would rape the women before torturing and killing all the civilians. They were told the best way to avoid such a dishonourable death would be to commit suicide for the emperor.

Hand grenades and poison were given to local people, who were ordered to kill themselves rather than give themselves up to the American forces and, potentially, reveal the positions of Japanese troops.

When US troops entered Yomitan village, they attempted to coax about 140 people who had taken refuge in the cave to come out, promising they would not be harmed. Those vows were ignored, however, with parents forcing their children to drink poison before the adults detonated their grenades.

The cave is seen as a symbol of the tragedy that befell civilians on Okinawa, with an estimated 10,000 people visiting to pay their respects every year. Many of the visitors are students on school trips from across Japan.

A sculpture at the cave was extensively damaged in 1987 by nationalists, who claimed the memorial was an insult to the emperor.

“Relatives of the people who died have taken care of the site ever since the war and regularly hold memorial ceremonies there,” said Takako Sakugawa, a village official. “It is a holy place to them, a place where they go to remember their families, and this has come as a shock to everyone here.”

Local authorities are appealing for anyone with information on how the damage was caused to come forward.