The Reverend Shigeaki Kinjo, 78 years old and in failing health, no longer wanted to talk about that fateful day 62 years ago toward the end of World War II when he beat to death his mother, younger brother and sister.
Brainwashed by Japanese Imperial Army soldiers into believing that victorious U.S. troops would rape all the local women and run over the men with their tanks, Kinjo and others in his village here in Okinawa thought that death was their only choice. A week before U.S. troops landed and initiated the Battle of Okinawa in March 1945, Japanese soldiers stationed in his village gave the men two hand grenades each, with instructions to hurl one at the Americans and then to kill themselves with the other.
Most of the grenades failed to explode. After watching a former district chief break off a tree branch and use it to kill his wife and children, Kinjo and his older brother followed suit.
“My older brother and I struck to death the mother who had given birth to us,” Kinjo said in an interview at the Naha Central Church, where he is the senior minister. “I was wailing, of course. We also struck to death our younger brother and sister.”
Kinjo agreed to tell his story again because the Japanese government is now denying, in new high school textbooks, that Okinawans had been coerced by Imperial Army troops into committing mass suicide.
The proposed changes to the school textbooks – the deletion of a subject, the change to the passive voice – amounted to just a couple of words among hundreds of pages.
But the seemingly minor grammatical alterations have led to swelling anger in the Okinawa islands in Japan, cresting recently in the biggest protest here in at least 35 years, stunning the Japanese government and leading some publishers to say they are ready to restore the existing passages.
For the past quarter-century, Japan’s high school textbooks had included the accepted historical fact that Okinawans had been coerced into mass suicides by Imperial Army soldiers.
But six months ago, the Education Ministry said that government-endorsed textbooks would eliminate all references to Japan’s soldiers. According to the revised passages, the Okinawans simply committed mass suicide or felt compelled to do so. But by whom?
“If Japanese soldiers had not been there, the mass suicides would have never occurred,” said Kinjo, who said he decided not to kill himself after he saw that Japanese soldiers were not committing suicide.
The ministry said that it “is not clear that the Japanese Army coerced or ordered the mass suicides” but cited no fresh evidence to explain its change in policy. What was clear, though, was the timing of the announcement, which came a few months after the Japanese government passed a new law emphasizing “patriotism” in public schools.
In fact, for at least the past decade, nationalist scholars and politicians, including the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, had fought to cleanse textbooks of passages on crimes committed by Japanese soldiers. If the deletion of passages on wartime sex slaves or massacres angered Asian nations in recent years, this was the first time that the government’s whitewashing of the past had caused this kind of anger in Japan.
Some publishers are preparing to reinstate references to the military’s role in the mass suicides, according to NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster. The government would then review the changes before handing out a final decision.
The uproar presents a serious challenge for the new government of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who needs Okinawa’s consent to carry out the reconfiguration of U.S. military bases here. A moderate, Fukuda has signaled that he is seeking a compromise on the new textbooks, which are scheduled to go to the publishers in November and be introduced into classrooms with the start of the new school year in April.
But Fukuda is in a difficult position. Abruptly overturning the revisions would anger his party’s powerful right wing; it would also belie the government’s longstanding assertion that school textbooks are free of political interference.
Okinawa, which suffered the only battle on Japanese soil involving civilians during World War II, was an independent kingdom with its own culture and language until it was officially annexed by Japan in the late 19th century. During the war, Japanese soldiers distrusted Okinawans and feared that they would act as spies for the Americans.
After U.S. troops landed, Japanese soldiers expelled Okinawans from shelters and used them as human shields. Thousands are believed to have committed suicide in villages occupied by Japanese soldiers; mass suicides did not take place where there were no soldiers.
Nobuyoshi Takashima, a professor of social sciences at the University of the Ryukyus, said Tokyo’s initial reaction to the textbooks deepened Okinawa’s fury.
Local television stations showed how senior Okinawa politicians visiting Tokyo to protest the revisions could not get an appointment with the minister of education or even a vice minister.
Instead, they were met by midlevel education officials.
One of the visitors to Tokyo was Toshinobu Nakazato, chairman of Okinawa’s assembly. Angered by the revisions, Nakazato broke a 62-year silence and talked about his own wartime experiences.
Inside a shelter where his family had sought refuge, Japanese soldiers handed his family members two poisoned rice balls and told them to give them to Nakazato’s younger sister and a cousin, he said.
Instead, his family fled into the mountains, where his younger brother died.
“I’m already 70,” he said in an interview, “and the memories of those over 80 are already fading. So perhaps this time was the last opportunity for us to resist.” International Herald Tribune