Life Comes from the Sea (Part 1)

Life Comes from the Sea

by Kyle Kajihiro

As an activist and researcher who has worked on issues related to U.S. military bases in Hawaiʻi and Pacific for some time, I thought I knew a thing or two about Okinawa. After all, I was friends with leaders in the Okinawan peace movement, kept up with news from the island, and helped to organize educational events and solidarity actions. But none of that sufficiently prepared me for actually living there last summer, where I saw, heard, and felt the constant oppressive presence of the U.S. military on the island, and experienced the love, determination, and creativity of Okinawans struggling for land and peace.

The purpose of my research grant was to study how the intensification of political conflict over the expansion of a U.S. military facility in Henoko may be affecting emerging political and cultural expressions of Okinawan identity. Needless to say, given the enormity of my research question and limitations of my time and language ability, I came away with only snapshot impressions instead of conclusive “findings.” Yet, on a personal level, it was a deeply meaningful experience. Okinawa gave me insights about how history dwells in the present, in both constructive and destructive ways, how it can be either a resource or an impediment for social change. It revealed how in island societies, the sea was a source of both life and catastrophe. And it provided a concrete illustration of the importance of geographic imaginations in the struggle for the future.

There is an Okinawan creation story that describes an ancient flood and a mythical land of the gods known as Nirai-Kanai, which lies beyond, or in some accounts under, the sea. Nirai-Kanai is believed to be a source of good fortune as well as disaster. Life comes from the sea. And when a person dies, their spirit returns to the sea. The story reminded me of accounts in Kanaka ʻŌiwi oral literature about Kahiki, the distant land of the ancestors, Kānehūnāmoku, Kāne’s hidden land floating in the clouds, Pele, goddess of volcanos who voyaged far in search of a home, and the Kumulipo, a creation story in which Papahānaumoku (Papa-who-births-islands) creates the Hawaiian islands. Gods, land, people, food, and knowledge come from the sea. In one way or another, all island peoples come from the sea.

iejima reef

Wajee spring on Ie-jima. Photo: Kyle Kajihiro


As I traveled around Okinawa, I envisioned ancient reefs rising up out of the ocean to form the limestone hills, history emerging from the depths into consciousness. I imagined the primordial Earth, life evolving in shallow seas, and countless generations of minute coral polyps living and dying over millennia to form massive reefs with their skeletons, now home to a kaleidoscope of marine life. According to geologists, the Ryūkyū Archipelago was formed by the folding of the Earth’s crust at the suture of the Philippines and Eurasian plates. They were once part of the Asian land mass until being cut off by rising seas. More than a hundred islands form a chain stretching nearly 1,000 miles from Taiwan to Kyūshū. Situated like stepping stones from tropical to temperate latitudes, the Ryūkyūs formed a bridge and crossroads for many species, including ancient humans. Okinawa, the largest and most populated island, has long been the political and economic center. It is nearly the size of Kauaʻi, but its narrow elongated shape, serrated shoreline, and hilly topography make the island seem much larger and more geographically varied than one would think from simply looking at a map.

The Past is Present

One of the first things that struck me about Okinawa was the extent to which the past is a sensible presence in contemporary Okinawan life. The past forms the topography of the present, a complex winding terrain through which Okinawans must navigate their futures. Traumatic cycles of invasion, displacement, dispossession, and war have been etched into the land itself. They loom as shadows in the consciousness of the people. By far the biggest specter haunting this land is the Battle of Okinawa. Everywhere I went in Okinawa I saw memorials to the war dead. Bones and unexploded ordnance are still revealing themselves. It seemed as if every inch of ground was once a battlefield or touched by the war and its afterlives in some way.

house of nuchidutakara

For many Okinawans, the war never ended. Photo: Kyle Kajihiro


The Battle of Okinawa, known as the “Typhoon of Steel”, lasted three months and was one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific War. The death toll included 14,009 Allied troops, 77,166 Japanese troops, and more than 120,000 Okinawan civilians, approximately 1/3 of the population. The battle was a last desperate stand by the Japanese military to delay the Allied invasion of mainland Japan. Many people spoke of the battle as Japan’s betrayal and sacrifice of Okinawa. Later, Japan sacrificed Okinawa again by letting the U.S. “keep” Okinawa for military purposes so that Japan could be “liberated” from U.S. occupation.

Today, the overwhelming presence of U.S. military bases is a constant reminder that for Okinawa the war never ended. It is impossible to comprehend Okinawan anger towards the U.S. military bases without understanding this fact. Although Okinawa constitutes just 0.6 % of the total area of Japan, it hosts 74 % of all U.S. bases in the country. On the main island of Okinawa 20 % of the land is occupied by thirty-two U.S. military installations.

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A sign appealing to U.S. authorities to ease the burden of the bases on Ie-jima farmers, at the Nuchi Du Takara no Ie museum. Photo: Kyle Kajihiro


The Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum in Itoman overlooks rugged limestone cliffs and the blue infinity of the sea. This is the site of the final desperate battle where many Japanese troops and civilians alike perished in the vicious cave fighting or committed mass suicide by leaping to their deaths on the jagged rocks below. This museum tells a sweeping history of the war and its aftermath with the explicit aim of opposing militarization and remaking Okinawa as a center for peace.

Recalling the nationalistic discourses of the numerous U.S. war memorials in Hawaiʻi, I was impressed that this museum, a project of the local government, was so unabashed about its political aims and frank in its criticism of Japanese imperialism and U.S. bases. I was fortunate to have had as a guide Professor Masaie Ishihara, a retired professor of history, who had served on the committee that oversaw its planning and development. He explained that the concept of the museum was to convey the horrible reality of war as a reminder and a challenge for future generations to imagine a peaceful course for the future. Its philosophical core is the Okinawan proverb “Nuchi du takara” (life is most precious).

One display that unsettled me was a diorama of a gama (limestone cave) depicting Okinawans and Japanese soldiers in hiding. While I generally dislike dioramas because of how lifeless and fake they look, in this case, the creepiness of the mannequins worked well to create the haunted feeling of the gama. An Okinawan family huddles in the dim light. A woman smothers her crying infant as a Japanese soldier holds a bayonet menacingly over the family. The scene is suggestive of the violence used by Japanese troops to force Okinawans to comply with orders, including the directive for civilians to fight to the death or commit suicide to prevent disclosure of intelligence to the enemy. A few years after the museum was completed, the Japanese government objected to this display and had the mannequin of the Japanese soldier repositioned so that its bayonet pointed outward in a gesture of protection. But public outcry in Okinawa restored the scene to its original configuration. In the struggle over history, radically different trajectories can be a matter of a few degrees.

gama cave

The struggle over memory and history. A museum display depicting conditions inside gama (caves) during the war. Photo: Kyle Kajihiro


Cornerstone of Peace

Adjacent to the Museum is the Cornerstone of Peace memorial, on which the names of the war dead from all countries involved in the Battle of Okinawa are inscribed. The standing granite tablets are laid out in concentric rows around a central fountain and an eternal flame. The architecture is meant to represent “Everlasting Waves of Peace”. Many families bring flowers and pray at this site. For those war victims whose remains were never found, the memorial may be the only physical site where family members can visit their deceased loved ones. It is a serene and solemn space, a sacred space, reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But its inclusion of all the war dead and its explicit designation as a peace memorial sets it apart. I wonder how the Pearl Harbor memorial might be different if it was conceived as a peace memorial rather than a war memorial.

Even a sacred place like the Cornerstone of Peace can be a site of struggle over history and memory. I attended the “official” Irei No Hi (Okinawan memorial day) ceremony at this site in observance of the anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa. This was a special year, the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. It also coincided with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempts to undo Japan’s pacifist constitution, which has sparked massive protests throughout Japan. As Abe’s motorcade approached the park, angry protesters scuffled with riot police. The police used metal barricades to corral anyone with a sign, banner, or even a political tee-shirt.

abe war monger

Okinawan anger boils over. An Okinawan man calls Prime Minister Abe a “war monger” at remembrance ceremony. Photo: Kyle Kajihiro


The tension was thick as thousands of people gathered in the sweltering heat for the remembrance ceremony. Governor Takeshi Onaga and other Okinawan politicians pointedly expressed their opposition to the U.S. base expansion in Henoko, which got rousing applause. But when Prime Minister Abe rose to speak, an Okinawan man stood up and accused Abe of being a war-monger. Even as the secret service agents escorted the man out, other voices joined in from all corners of the crowd to heckle the Prime Minister. Observers told me that it was the first time that anything like this had happened at this event. It reflects the intensity of Okinawan anger about the military base expansion and war-like direction of the country.

A highlight for me was interviewing former Okinawan Governor Masahide Ota, whose administration initiated the peace museum and memorial park. He is regarded as a symbol of the spirit of Okinawan pacifism. I asked him how he came to embrace his philosophy of peace. He said that as a high school student he was mobilized for war as a member of the Blood and Iron Student Corps. A product of Japanese indoctrination, he truly believed that the highest honor was to fight and die for the Emperor. But this idealism quickly vanished when his squad was decimated by an artillery blast. Having been given a second chance at life, he saw the world with new clarity. The turning point for him was when he witnessed Japanese troops fighting each other like dogs over scraps of food. At that moment he realized that he had been indoctrinated with lies and that he needed to pursue the path of peace.

During his term as Governor, Ota sensei initiated a three-part peace program which included a memorial park to remember the deceased, a museum to educate about the history of the war, and a peace research institute that would advance peace internationally. He regretted that he was only able to achieve the first two objectives during his term. So he founded the privately funded Okinawa International Peace Research Institute to fulfill the third objective.

ota sensei

Meeting former Governor OTA Masahide who initiated the Cornerstone of Peace memorial. Photo: Kyle Kajihiro


After World War II, the U.S. military called Okinawa the “Keystone of the Pacific,” a name which reduces Okinawa to an object of military strategy. Ota sensei sought to reframe the geographic imaginary of Okinawa as a “Cornerstone of Peace,” which flips the geostrategic image on its head to situate Okinawa as a foundation for an alternative regional order. This idea draws on the history of the Ryūkyū Kingdom (1429-1879), which turned its geographic location into economic opportunity by developing itself as a tributary state of China and a crucial hub of a vast trading network that connected ports from the Indian Ocean to Northeast Asia. Recently, Governor Onaga revisited this theme, arguing that Okinawa’s economic future depended on having peace within Okinawa and friendly relations with its neighbors, both of which are threatened by the presence of U.S. military bases.

camp schwab block

Every day protesters block the entrance of the Marine Corps base Camp Schwab in Henoko to oppose destruction of the sea.  Photo: Kyle Kajihiro


But we should also be careful not to romanticize the “golden age” of Ryūkyū. Just as the “unification” of the Hawaiian Kingdom by Kamehameha I was accomplished by violent conquest, I was reminded that the formation of Ryūkyū in 1429 entailed the violent subjugation of neighboring kingdoms. So the “myth” of an essential Okinawan pacifism and the nostalgia for things Ryūkyūan may reflect certain elite interests as well as modern activist and tourist narratives. Nevertheless, despite the uncertain origins of Okinawan pacifism, it has clearly become a real contemporary political and cultural phenomenon. We can see this in the use of the expression “nuchi du takara,” a popular Okinawan saying meaning “life is a treasure,” which is represented as the philosophical core of Okinawan culture. King Sho Tai supposedly uttered these words in 1879 when he was forced into exile by the Meiji government. But many scholars think that this story is probably apocryphal. Instead of chasing the elusive origin of this sentiment, what matters more is that the principle of nuchi du takara has become a core value in Okinawan society and an animating spirit in their contemporary peace movement.

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A bust of SHOKO Ahagon carved from limestone by famous Okinawan artist KINJO Minoru. Photo: Kyle Kajihiro


Ahagon Shoko, commonly referred to as the “Okinawan Gandhi,” may have been the first to use the expression “nuchi du takara” in modern political struggle. When the U.S. military began seizing farmers’ lands in the 1950s, he organized the first nonviolent resistance movement against the U.S. military. I visited the Nuchi Du Takara No Ie (The House of Nuchi du Takara), a tiny museum in his former home on Ie Island. There, it struck me that Shoko’s revival of the expression “nuchi du takara” paralleled the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana’s use of “aloha ʻāina” (love of the land; patriotism) in the struggle to stop the bombing of Kahoʻolawe. After meeting so many amazing Okinawan activists on the frontline of struggle, nuchi du takara was on my mind a lot. Then, two days after Irei no Hi, news of the arrests on Mauna Kea flooded my Facebook newsfeed. It is hard to describe the upwelling of hope and pride I felt at that moment, alone in a dormitory thousands of miles from home, watching the first shaky video clips of the brave kānaka standing up to protect Mauna Kea. Riding waves of electrons, aloha ʻāina had reached Okinawa across the vastness of Moananuiākea. Life comes from the sea.

Takae MK solidarity

ABE Kosuzu, a professor at the University of the Ryūkyus and member of the Takae sit in protest expressing solidarity from Okinawa to Mauna Kea. Photo: Kyle Kajihiro


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