There are so many people who never leave their hometown. Never leave their state. Never leave their country. I was given the opportunity of a lifetime to not only travel across the world, but to reside in one of it’s lesser known crevices for multiple years. However, for all its beauty, I sure find myself condemning its flaws far more frequently than I bless its treasures.
Okinawa is… charismatic. There is something so alluring, charming, intoxicating about the leisurely way of life for the Ryukyuan people. In the United States, we are so quick to meet the deadline and punch that ticket. In that, we so quickly evade the beauty of life. We forget where we are, how we got here, and what it is we are doing.
As Americans in Okinawa, we truly need to remember the mark we left on this land, its people, and how fresh that wound truly is.
Recently, we celebrated Independence Day. My family and I had a spectacular celebration out here in Okinawa, thanks much in part to Kadena FSS’ Rockin’ the Block concert and firework display. This was El’s first year to see fireworks, and good glory did she love them. As I held her on our balcony and pointed at the pretties (technical term), I watched as her smile was illuminated by the sparkling explosions reminiscent of a war’s end. It was only then that the meaning of this celebration deeply impacted me. I have probably seen fireworks 347 times in my life, and I have never, ever, ever reacted emotionally. I definitely had to bite my lip, because I am totally that hardass mom that doesn’t ever leak a peep, but I was definitely moved to think of how truly lucky I am to be free, when so many others are not, and also to be happy, healthy, and here with my family.
Just the week prior, on 23 June, Okinawa celebrated their Memorial Day. This is the day Okinawans value as the day of the end of the Battle of Okinawa–a battle that will forever survive in the infamy of World War II. While I paused to be so thankful for my situation, I remembered how many others are not as fortunate. In the three years we have been here, I have often thought of what happened here. How I could literally be standing on a grave, no matter where I stood. Yet, again, in the midst of busy life, in the three years we have been here, we have failed to visit the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park.
Collateral damage is an infectious disease, and it is never fair.
Also known as “Peace Prayer Park,” this is an area marked by the final battle of the Battle of Okinawa. There is a large park, walking trails, a museum, and several monuments. One of the most well-known monuments, the Cornerstone of Peace, is a series of zig-zagged walls of granite, inscribed with the name of each individual whom perished in this battle. I find this so unique, in that everyone is included here. The creators of the monument recognized every soul as deserving of respect, regardless of origin. They acknowledged that all families were hurting, and everyone was missing someone. So powerful, and definitely absent in our current society.
The day after our Independence Day celebration, we finally made a trip to this park, and we were not disappointed. The sun had been shining, and there were hardly any visitors, which made for a much more solemn experience. When we approached the Cornerstone of Peace, clouds emerged, rolling through the shining rays and igniting a smooth breeze, all of which added to the ghoulish atmosphere embracing the area. I couldn’t help but stand with my mouth agape as I absorbed the panoramic view of names: military, civilians, mothers, daughters, brothers, husbands, fathers. As an American in Okinawa, I know that we are sometimes viewed negatively. We may look like troublemakers; the face of evil. I wish I could somehow express my grief for those who lost a love through that treacherous period, and let them know that this is not something we wanted, either. Collateral damage is an infectious disease, and it is never fair. As Americans in Okinawa, we truly need to remember the mark we left on this land, its people, and how fresh that wound truly is.
This was so different and much more significant given that these people literally passed where I was standing.
I watched as elderly women placed flowers near these large granite structures, knowing that they knew that person, raised that person, loved that person.
They had to explain to a little girl why her father was never coming home. (I’m not intentionally pulling at your heart strings, or maybe I am.) In America, we have been fortunate to escape war on our soil.
We have many cemeteries back home, many memorials, and even specifically veteran memorials, yet I feel that this was so different and much more significant given that these people literally passed where I was standing. Okinawa absorbed the full effect of arguably one of the largest battles on record, having everything—people, cultural, creations—entirely decimated. I am so thankful that the people of Okinawa understand what has happened, why it happened, and have created this monument as a cheers to an everlasting peace between our communities.
What a beautiful, forgiving people.
As we wound our way through the park, I looked up and down each stone, whether I could read it or not. It is so overwhelming to see the amount of people who passed in such a short period of time, in such a small location. There were names I recognized, and many I did not, but I felt that we were all connected at the barren roots of what it means to be human and trapped in a circumstance you simply can’t understand. Trails through the jungle brought us to the island’s edge where many caves, bore into the cliffside, lay untouched for countless decades. The storm clouds and breeze enhanced the experience, and you could almost hear and see the soldiers of the time, completely unsure of their next move. Deeper in the jungle, one trail led us directly to an inlet with a grave marked by a stone cross. Fresh flowers indicate a recent visitor, and the closeness of this discovery was very, very real.
If you made it this far into my post, I am appreciative of your devotion to a topic so many people overlook. How often do we take a break from our busy day to acknowledge our freedoms? To count our blessings? Our reasons to be thankful?
When I chose to study anthropology, and furthermore physical anthropology, and finally established that I wanted to recover remains of war dead for identity and burial, I thought I knew how I would feel. During my internship, I was able to aid in the preliminary identification of skeletal remains from the war era in Okinawa, but I did so through photos. Being at this monument, seeing these names, standing at the cliff that so many were forced off of, discovering the stone grave… it was very real, and all the confirmation I needed that I chose the right path.
Where are you? What is the history of your area? Your family? Your lifeways? Your adventure? I challenge you to remember. I challenge you to embrace. For the love of experience, I challenge you to explore.