Memorial Service Brings Some Measure of Closure for Two Former POWs
Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
For the first time in nearly three-quarters of a century, 12 Okinawan prisoners of war who were captured during the bloody Battle of Okinawa in World War II and who died while imprisoned in Hawai‘i were honored in several memorial services held earlier this month.
But for two of their fellow POWs — retired businessman Hikoshin Toguchi, 90, and retired Okinawa politician Saneyoshi Furugen, 87, who survived their incarceration and returned home to Okinawa in 1946 — the quest to find the remains of the 12 will continue, along with their desire to end “senseless wars.”
To that end, Choko Takayama, co-chairman of the Hawaii Deceased POWs Memorial Service Committee in Naha, hopes the governments of Japan and the United States will cooperate in the search for the remains. According to Okinawa’s Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper, a law passed last year in Japan requires that the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare conduct the search and complete it by 2024.
A memorial service is held every June 23 in Okinawa Prefecture only to remember the more than 200,000 Okinawans who perished in the Battle of Okinawa. Known as “Irei no Hi,” it is held on the anniversary of the day the fighting ceased in Japan’s southernmost prefecture, the site of the only land invasion of Japan in the Second World War.
But, noted Takayama, “There is none to remember the 12 deceased POWs. This is the first time a memorial service for the 12 POWs was held in Okinawa or Hawai‘i,” he said of the Buddhist “Irei Sai” ceremony that was held at the Jikoen Hongwanji temple in Kalihi on June 4.
“It was the first time in 72 years,” Takayama said. “It was very important that we did this.”
Choichi Terukina, 85, a living national treasure of Japan in Ryükyüan classical sanshin, traveled to Hawai‘i with the 72-member delegation to perform the memorial song, “Janna Bushi.” He played the song on the sanshin that Okinawan issei Kamesuke Kakazu had brought to Hawai‘i as an immigrant in the early 1900s and passed to his POW cousin, Seisho Kakazu, after seeing the POWs plucking out Okinawan tunes on a kankara sanshin fashioned from a discarded metal can, scrap lumber and wire. Kamesuke Kakazu’s sanshin was a beautiful one, made from real snakeskin. It had consoled the homesick prisoners far away from home. When Seisho was allowed to return home to Okinawa, he took the prized sanshin with him. More than 70 years later, after Seisho had passed, younger brother Susumu felt it time to return the sanshin to their cousins in Hawai‘i and joined the Hawai‘i Irei Sai delegation.
Saneyoshi Furugen and Hikoshin Toguchi were teenagers when they were conscripted into the Japanese army in 1945 and then captured as prisoners of war just before the end of the 82-day battle. The two men said they lived in constant fear of being executed, even in Hawai‘i. The few bright spots during their imprisonment were their occasional contacts with local Okinawans who gave them food and emotional support.
The delegation’s nearly weeklong visit to Hawai‘i allowed them to meet with Hawai‘i Uchinanchu whose families had befriended the POWs while imprisoned here.
There were 13 prisoner of war camps in Hawai‘i — on O‘ahu, at Sand Island, Honouliuli, Schofield Barracks and Fort Hase in Käne‘ohe; and in Hilo and at the Kïlauea Military Camp on the Big Island. In all, 8,489 Japanese soldiers, Okinawan conscripts and civilians were housed in the Hawai‘i POW camps from 1943 to 1946.
CAPTURED IN OKINAWA
Toguchi was 18 years old when he was captured. Furugen was 16. Both were captured in the Mabuni area in the southern part of the island on June 22, 1945, the day before fighting ceased on Okinawa. Mabuni was the scene of the fiercest fighting on the island.
Toguchi had just graduated from Okinawa Prefecture Agriculture High School in Kadena in March when he was drafted and assigned to help aerial gunners. Furugen was conscripted into the Tekketsu Kinnotai (Iron and Blood Imperial Corps) after U.S. forces landed on Okinawa island on April 1, 1945.
After being captured, both were taken to the POW camp in Yaka (today Kin Town), where they were held for 10 days. They did not know each other at the time and only became friends after being imprisoned together in the Sand Island POW camp. Toguchi nicknamed Furugen “Shorty” because he was younger than Toguchi.
From Yaka, the prisoners were loaded onto a cargo ship that had brought bags of powdered cement to Okinawa and was returning to Hawai‘i. The men were ordered to strip naked before boarding the ship, Furugen told the Herald.
“We were stark naked for more than two weeks. We were put in the bottom of the boat. There were no windows. There were three rooms with 30 guys to a room. We were fed two meals a day, given no plates and utensils — just a handful of rice with okazu (foods such as meat, fish or vegetables) on the top.”
Both men believed that they were going to be thrown off the ship once it left Okinawa, or that they would be executed when they arrived at their destination.
Propaganda from the Japanese military had warned them that the worst thing that could happen to a soldier was to be captured as a prisoner, said Furugen. “If you got caught, your face and nose would be cut off and you will become a slave,” they were told. “You will not be treated like a human being,” Furugen said he was told. As a result, he lived in constant fear in Hawai‘i that one day, he would be executed.
“One day, there was a celebration. We went to the fence and found out that Japan had surrendered. We found out that we weren’t going to be killed. Our lives had been saved.”
INCARCERATION AT HONOULIULI
Toguchi and Furugen were held at Honouliuli for about 10 days after arriving in 1945. They were then transferred to the Sand Island POW compound, where they imprisoned for the remainder of their time in Hawai‘i.
Hidden away from civilization in sugarcane fields, the Honouliuli camp is located in a hot, humid, mosquito-infested gulch six miles from Pearl Harbor. It opened March 1, 1943, and was the largest and longest-running World War II internment and POW camp in Hawai‘i. Some 4,000 prisoners were incarcerated there. The prisoners nicknamed it “Jigoku Dani,” or “Hell Valley.”
For Toguchi and Furugen, Honouliuli was indeed a “jigoku dani.” Toguchi recalled their first day there. “We were all exhausted and couldn’t work. We were so young we didn’t do anything except to eat and sleep. We didn’t have any hope at all,” he said, recalling that he thought he would be executed.
Both men recalled that there were 12 cots in each tent. “Everything seemed really organized,” Toguchi said. “We could take showers, and that helped a lot.”
Today, only a few remnants, such as building foundations, remain of the camp site, which is surrounded by the invasive haole koa brush, guinea grass and other jungle foliage.
On Feb. 19, 2015, President Barack Obama designated Honouliuli as a national monument.
TRANSFER TO SAND ISLAND
Toguchi and Furugen said their lives improved after they were transferred to the Sand Island POW compound, largely because of the kindness of the local Okinawan community. “During those sad times in our lives, the people from Okinawa living in Hawai‘i came to visit us with gifts. While working outside in the sun, they gave us some food or cigarettes. This certainly encouraged us, both openly and secretly. You showed us the light to live again,” said Toguchi.
He said he remembers talking with local Okinawans residents and the food and encouragement they shared. “Though it wasn’t a lot, it was good to receive food. More importantly, it was good to receive emotional support.”
Toguchi was interviewed in Okinawa prior to embarking on his most recent pilgrimage to Hawai‘i. Speaking through a translator, he said the U.S. government provided their food and clothing while incarcerated. Much to his surprise, the POWs were paid 10 cents an hour for the labor they performed. He said it was unbelievable that they were being paid by the American government while being held as prisoners. They worked eight hours a day from Monday to Saturday and had Sundays off.
When Toguchi returned to Okinawa in late 1946, he had accumulated $200 from working at Hickam and Fort Armstrong.
Furugen recalled that because he was so young, he wasn’t allowed to leave the camp to work in civilian areas. He especially remembered a work detail at then-Hickam Airfield. “We were told that there were planes flying from Hickam to Okinawa,” Furugen said. “I had the job of cleaning inside the planes and the toilets. After cleaning, I thought I could be a stowaway.”
Throughout their time in Hawai‘i — 18 months for Toguchi and about 15 months for Furugen — the POWs were kept in the dark about Okinawa, which had been decimated in the Battle of Okinawa, claiming nearly 240,000 Okinawan, Japanese, American and allied lives.
Toguchi said he has both “cherished and complex memories” of his Christmas Eve 1946 departure for Okinawa. “Many Okinawans living in Hawai‘i came to the pier, disregarding the traveling distance, to see me off.”
IREI SAI: FOR THE 12 WHO NEVER RETURNED
After returning to Okinawa, Toguchi reclaimed his life and enjoyed a successful business career, starting Hijagawa Gas Company, Yomitan, which is now led by his eldest son, Hikonori. But he could never let go of the memory of the 12 POWs — Taihei Afuso, Shinso Akamine, Anso Asato, Seitei Ganaha, Ryokotoku Ishikawa, Yeiho Kinjo, Kenpo Kudeken, Jiro Miyasato, Noritaka Taba, Masao Tonouchi, Matsuei Uema and Seikei Yamashiro — who had died in Hawai‘i, so far away from their families and their homeland. Their remains had been interred in the cemetery at Schofield Barracks. That memory has haunted Toguchi for over seven decades. Hawaii United Okinawa Association executive director Jane Serikaku noted that Toguchi made several trips to Hawai‘i and even hired a private investigator to try to locate the remains of the 12.
Last year, Toguchi asked Choko Takayama, head of the Okinawa-Hawaii Kyokai in Naha, for the association’s help in bringing closure to his quest by either locating the remains of the 12 POWs or, at the very least, holding a memorial service for them in Hawai‘i, where they died. The HUOA learned from the U.S. military that the remains had been sent to Japan, but exactly where in Japan remains is a mystery.
“They have no resting place,” Toguchi said through an interpreter at the Hawaii Okinawa Center shortly after arriving in Hawai‘i. “It is important to do whatever I can to make that happen.”
Toward that end, the 72-member delegation spent their time in Hawai‘i trying to connect the dots to find closure to this war-related episode. The delegation included Toguchi and Furugen, families of other deceased Okinawan POWs, Okinawa Vice Gov. Isho Urasaki, members of the Okinawa-Hawaii Kyokai, and journalists representing all of Okinawa’s print and broadcast media.
On Sunday, June 4, they began their long day with a morning visit to Schofield Barracks, where retired Gen. Paul Chinen had arranged for the group to visit the Schofield cemetery, where the remains of the 12 were originally interred. A short memorial service there concluded with members of the Okinawa delegation placing lei on the graves of the unknown.
Then it was on to Hickam Air Force Base for a quick drive-through the base. Some of the POWs, including both Furugen and Toguchi, did some work on the base. Their next stop was Fort Kamehameha at the mouth of Pearl Harbor, where some of the POWs removed barbed wire that had been installed along the shoreline in the event of a Japanese land invasion. After a quick lunch at the Disabled American Veterans hall at Ke‘ehi Lagoon, the group headed to RK Oshiro Door Service in the Sand Island Industrial Park, site of the compound that held Japanese, Okinawan, Italian and German POWs. Owner Ralph Oshiro, who was born in Okinawa, and his family warmly welcomed the delegation. The Rev. Shindo Nishiyama of Jikoen Hongwanji Mission held a short memorial service at Oshiro Door Service.
Rev. Nishiyama, with assistance from the Rev. Joshin Kamuro, conducted a formal memorial service at the Jikoen temple, where the delegation members offered oshöko (incense) while the two ministers chanted. Okinawa living national treasure Choichi Terukina-Sensei, joined by his Hawaii students, faced the Buddhist altar and together played their sanshin and sang the moving “Janna Bushi” to the 12 POWs whose names had been written on a scroll in Japanese.
The long day ended with a festive dinner celebration at the Pagoda International Ballroom.
Toguchi’s sons, Hikonori and Hikokazu, who accompanied their father to Hawai‘i, said he is “at peace” knowing that so many people are now involved in helping to find the 12 POWs’ remains.
Hikonori, 64, who is president of Hijagawa Gas Company, said his father “will always accomplish what he sets out to do.”
His brother, Hikokazu, concurred, and added, “The only thing he couldn’t accomplish by himself was this.”
“We should never use war to solve our problems,” Furugen said. “Because of this senseless war, I feel a responsibility to make sure these 12 soldiers are remembered and memorialized and these kind of senseless wars should not take place.”
RETURN TO HONOULIULI
The next morning, guided by volunteers from the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, Furugen, Toguchi, Takayama and others walked down a dirt road that winds through the remains of Compound 6, which housed the camp guards. They learned that the Okinawan POWs were held in Camp 3 and were shown the irrigation ditch that separated the four POW sections from the areas where Japanese Americans were interned.
At the conclusion of their emotional visit to the Honouliuli National Monument, Takayama told the Herald that besides finding the remains of the 12 Okinawan prisoners of war, the group also hopes to compile a list of the 3,000 Okinawan POWs who were imprisoned in Hawai‘i.
On that stiflingly humid June day, a haunting rendition of the Okinawan folk song “Hamachidori,” plucked out on a sanshin by 34-year-old Brandon Ing, took Hikoshin Toguchi and Saneyoshi Furugen back 72 years to a different time in Jigoku Dani. But only for a short while. This time, supported by family and friends from Okinawa, they scattered fragrant petals of gardenia, stephanotis and other blossoms with lighter hearts and in peace.
Gregg Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.