With first memorial service for Okinawan POWs in Hawaii, Japan is obligated to collect remains of fallen

June 6, 2017 by Ryukyu Shimpo

“The memorial service for Okinawan prisoners of war in Hawaii,” which honors the 12 Okinawans who were captured during the Battle of Okinawa, then taken to a prison camp in Hawaii where they died, was just held for the first time in Honolulu.

The twelve Okinawans survived the fierce battle, but passed away from illness or their injuries after being relocated. The location of their remains is unknown. Hikonobu Toguchi, co-representative of the memorial executive committee raised the importance of recovering these remains without delay during his memorial remarks.

However, there are limits on the ability of private citizens to search for these remains. In April, 2016, the Act to Promote the Collection of War Dead Remains was passed. The act specified that it was “the duty of Japan” to actively progress the collection of remains by 2024. The collection of information and the repatriation of remains is the responsibility of the party indicated by the government. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare have the responsibility to include the remains of these 12 soldiers. It will also take the efforts of Okinawa itself.

Over 3,000 Okinawans were captured during the Battle of Okinawa and taken to Hawaii. From 1945-46 the Japanese POWs were kept at either Sand Island Detention Camp, or Honouliuli Internment Camp on Oahu. Under order of the U.S. military they were forced to clean military facilities and parks, and labor at construction sites. Some prisoners were kept for as long as a year and a half.

The detention camp that held the Okinawan POWs was located close to the homes of many Hawaiians of Okinawan descent. These Okinawan-Hawaiians cared for the prisoners both from within and outside the facility, offering both psychological and material support.

According to testimonies, the worried Okinawan-Hawaiians would visit, and offer food and cigarettes to the prisoners. They would play music for them, and there is even a report of someone bringing a sanshin, a traditional Okinawan instrument. They also dug underneath the fence for children to sneak the rice balls to prisoners.

There is even one case where the Okinawan-Hawaiians negotiated with the American soldiers walking the track around the prison, allowing them to give 10 prisoners a home-cooked pork dinner.

The Okinawan-Hawaiian population is known for coming to the aid of Okinawa after hearing the horrifying tales of the scorched earth after the Battle of Okinawa. They sent food, clothes, medicine, and even some pigs and goats. The 550 pigs that were sent over at that time had in four years grew to over 100,000. It was the foundation of post-war livestock in Okinawa.

However, the support these same people gave to the POW who has been taken to enemy territory and who lived in fear is not known to the extent of the aid sent to Okinawa.
While there is an individual account of the Hawaiian prisoners, there is no record from the Battle of Okinawa itself. Testimonials and pictures are few, while mysteries such as why they were relocated are many.

There needs to be an official commemoration the hardships of the POWs taken to Hawaii and of the interactions with the Okinawan-Hawaiians who helped them. To that aim, the discovery of primary source materials and the recording of testimonials from those who experienced it and have now grown old needs to be done urgently.

The first memorial was just held, but it cannot be the last. Hereafter, Okinawa needs to get involved and look into holding a memorial of their own as well.

(English translation by T&CT and Sam Grieb)

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