Gesture of Respect Helps Bury Historical Enmity: the case of the Okinawa flag

An 87-year-old former US serviceman, with help from his tenacious granddaughter, has returned an annotated Japanese flag to the son of its original owner who died during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

Fought between the 1st April and the 22nd June 1945, the Battle of Okinawa effectively served as the final stand by Japan’s imperial forces against the advancing US Army, which had swept across the Pacific during the previous three years. The brutality of the fighting on Okinawa cemented in legend the refusal of Japanese troops to surrender in the face of almost certain defeat and helped encourage the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a way to draw the war to a swift conclusion.

A massive American invasion force was required to uproot the Japanese from Okinawa
A massive American invasion force was required to uproot the Japanese from Okinawa

Atrocities committed by both Japanese and American forces on Okinawa have been widely-reported in history books and realised in brutal clarity in many war movies. Fighting in often humid conditions across difficult terrain, the battle for survival was immense and resulted in approximately 95,000 Japanese deaths and over 10,000 American fatalities.

Given such a brutal confrontation, it could be expected that a lasting enmity would exist between American and Japanese people. However, this has not generally been the case and the efforts of the former serviceman to return the Okinawa flag to Japan is a testament to the spirit of reconciliation that has developed between the two countries.

The Okinawa Flag Source: Asahi Shimbun
The Okinawa Flag
Source: Asahi Shimbun

In 1995, the Cornerstone of Peace monument was built on Okinawa at Itoman and it commemorates the lives of over 240,000 people who perished during the brutal battle, irrespective of their nationality, military rank or social assignation. When one compares these attempts to bury the hatchet over the past – whilst learning from the mistakes made – with Japan’s lack of progress in reconciling its wartime actions with its East Asian neighbours, the difference could not be more stark.

American and Japanese politicians and people have a more or less shared understanding of their wartime conflict, from the attacks on Pearl Harbour to the dropping of the devastating atomic bombs. This understanding has no doubt been fostered by America’s integral role in rebuilding and “westernising” Japan in the immediate post-WWII period.

When it comes to China, South Korea, or any other Asian country occupied by Japanese forces during WWII, however, such a level of mutual agreement on what happened is sorely missing. The result of this inability to confront the past with honesty and sincerity is a persisting mistrust between Japan and East Asia which hinders regional interdependence and cooperation.

Such a simple gesture as returning a long-forgotten flag helps reconcile the past for former enemies and their descendants. Similar sentiments between Japan and its neighbours remain disappointingly absent.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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