The town of Taketomi, population about 4,000, is spread out over six islands in the East China Sea. China is 400 km away, Tokyo 2,000 kms away. Residents fear the latter more than the former, says Josei Jishin (May 27).
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s determination to nullify the pacifist Constitution, coupled with his administration’s efforts to pressure the local school board into adopting an ideologically conservative junior high school civics textbook, brings back World War Two memories that are rawer here than elsewhere. As one mother of a third-year junior high school student put it, “My thinking is simple. I don’t want my son going off to war.”
The Yaeyama island chain on which Taketomi is situated is Okinawa Prefecture’s, and Japan’s, farthest-flung expanse. “Japan’s Galapagos,” it’s called for its subtropical forests and exotic, elusive wildlife (the iriomote cat being the most famous example). Tourists who love it for hiking and snorkeling may miss the undercurrents typified by 84-year-old Sadako Nakamura, famous locally as a “story-teller” or reciter. Her subject? War, whose ugly realities the Abe government’s moves make her fear have been forgotten in ruling circles.
The textbook row, simmering since 2011, began with Taketomi’s school board opting out of a regional board’s decision to adopt a civics textbook that lays no particular stress on Okinawa’s role as a front-line sacrifice in Japan’s doomed war against a far stronger enemy. The board chose instead another textbook that respects Japan’s postwar Constitutional pacifism and does acknowledge Okinawa as a victim not only of a climactic American invasion but of foolhardy and inhumane policy-making in Tokyo.
The legal argument over who has the last word in textbook selection – the local board or the wider regional entity – drags on. Nakamura, leading a campaign in defense of the more pacifist text, recalls for Josei Jishin her own wartime education.
She was born in Yaeyama in 1929. Her father worked in the local sugar factory. She remembers a poem she recited as a first grader: “Advance, advance, soldiers, advance.” “I never understood where they were advancing to.”
With the war in full swing, “Our teachers taught us that Japan could only win.” What defense does a child have against adult nonsense? “Nobody among my classmates ever doubted it.”
At a girls’ junior high school in Naha, the prefectural capital, lessons consisted largely of bamboo sword practice. Bamboo swords in the hands of every last citizen were to be the ultimate defense against an enemy fighting with planes and bombs. “We’d make straw dolls representing American soldiers and practice running them through.” Again, she tells Shukan Josei, no one doubted at the time that this was reasonable, or that Japan would win.
Her father, called up to the front in 1944, left her a parting gift – a sashimi knife with which, if threatened with capture, she was to kill the other family members and then take her own life. This was just before the October 1944 U.S. bombing raid that reduced Naha to rubble.
Nakamura and her family left the smoldering city (“I remember the smell of burning sugar”) and sought refuge in the nearby countryside. She was captured in May 1945 while hiding in a hut. She drew out the sashimi knife. Should she kill herself? “I was torn between a desire to die and a desire to live.” Her American captors offered her bread and jam. “Poison,” she thought. But no – “everything was totally different from what they’d taught us at school.”
Her point is clear. She and her fellow townspeople want no more of Tokyo-centric education that glorifies the nation and recognizes war as a just national expedient. They’ve seen where that leads, and they don’t want to go there again.© Japan Today