In April 1945, the Battle of Okinawa Touched the Lives of a Wahiawä Family
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
As a child, I remember seeing a photograph of a young man in what looked like a Japanese uniform next to the butsudan (Buddhist shrine) in my grandparents’ home in Wahiawä, where we lived. When we moved to our own home, the butsudan — and the photograph of the young man — came with us and was again placed next to the shrine. I often wondered: Who is this person, and why is his picture in a place of such prominence in our home?
I did not know it then, but a seed had been planted. Finding out who this person was and what happened to him became a quest later in my life. What emerged from that quest has been the most rewarding experience of my life.
My great-grandfather, Bunchu Nakasone, came to Hawai‘i in 1930 to visit his only child, my grandfather, Jiro — “Jian,” as we called him. Jian had immigrated to Hawai‘i from Okinawa at the age of 16 to work in the sugar fields. When she was 18, Kamei, our “Baban,” or grandmother, joined him in Hawai‘i. They settled in Wahiawä and had four children by the time Great-grandfather visited them.
When it was time for him to return to Okinawa, he took his two youngest grandchildren with him — 5-year-old Yoshino and Junichi, who was 3 at the time.
I’m told that Junichi was excited about sailing on a ship, not knowing that he would never see his parents, other siblings or his home in Hawai‘i ever again. For Yoshino, on the other hand, it must have been a heart-wrenching good-bye.
Although Yoshino was only 5, I believe she comforted her little brother in the days, weeks and months that followed.
Uncle Junichi’s Story
Growing up in Okinawa, Junichi excelled as a student. He passed the entrance exam to the prestigious Kenritsu Dai’ichi Chugakkou, originally a school for boys. Today, the school is known as Shuri High School.
Junichi did not come from privilege, so being admitted to Kenritsu Dai’ichi Chugakkou was the opportunity of a lifetime. Established in 1798 by King Sho On during the Kingdom of the Ryükyüs, it was one of Okinawa’s oldest schools and considered the top school for academics. Its mission was to cultivate young men of ability and encourage them to pursue higher education and gain work experience abroad. Ultimately, King Sho On wanted Kenritsu Dai’ichi students to return home with the knowledge and skills they had gained abroad and share them with the people of Okinawa.
In Junichi’s time, the school specialized in the English language and taught students to play American sports such as track and field events, basketball, volleyball and tennis. The school was preparing its students for a world beyond Okinawa — and America was the land of opportunity.
Ironically, for Junichi and his fellow students, that land of opportunity became the land of the enemy.
While on a trip to Okinawa in October 2017, I had the good fortune of meeting one of Uncle Junichi’s schoolmates, Yoshishige Takaesu, who was 88 years old at the time. As boys, Yoshishige and Junichi were close friends and roomed together in a boarding house.
On March 24, 1945, Junichi’s and Yoshishige’s lives as students took a drastic turn, from a promising future to sheer survival. On that day, students were sent home with a release form that had to be signed by their parent. Japanese law required that it be signed in order for the young men to be conscripted as student soldiers. Anxiety levels were running high in anticipation of the Japanese imperial army starting to mobilize students for battle. This was just before graduation, which came a year early for Junichi due to the impending battle.
On my 2017 trip to Okinawa, Takaesu-san told me that he, Junichi and two other schoolmates set out together for their homes. From Shuri, it was about a six-hour walk to their homes in what is today Okinawa City. American planes bombarded the island throughout the day. They walked for miles until Junichi parted company with his friends and continued on his way, alone, to his home in Aza Yogi. Takaesu-san and their other two schoolmates went on to Awase. It’s hard to fathom what these young men went through to get that piece of paper signed. Sadly, in most cases, that signed document meant giving up their lives.
Junichi made it home and took his elderly grandparents and sister, Yoshino, to relative safety in a cave up on a ridge near their home. Some of their neighbors also took shelter in the cave, including a young woman named Haruko Shimabukuro. Haruko had hoped to marry Junichi. As he turned to leave to return to his school, she grabbed his shirt and tugged with all her might, begging him not to leave. But she couldn’t hold Junichi back. He was joining his fellow students in battle.
On March 27, the graduation ceremony for Kenritsu Dai’ichi Chugakkou was held under the cover of darkness. Okinawa governor Akira Shimada attended the ceremony and gave a speech.
“We are having this ceremony in front of the enemy,” he said. “We have no previous example of this in our history. This is the number one ceremony in Japan.”
The next day, Junichi was conscripted into the Japanese imperial army. His unit was the Dokuritsu Kohei Dai 66 Tai (Corps of Engineers 66 Unit) of the Iron Blood Corps for the Emperor.
On April 1, 1945, U.S. forces began their ground assault on Okinawa. The Battle of Okinawa, the largest amphibious invasion and the bloodiest battle of the Pacific, ended officially 82 days later, on June 23, 1945. Junichi never came home.
His family in Hawai‘i assumed he had been drafted into the Japanese army, but they didn’t know what had happened to him after the battle ended.
My dad’s sister, Fumie (“Aunty Sarah”) told me that night after night, she could hear Baban crying herself to sleep, clutching Junichi’s old school uniform tightly to her chest. That image is seared in my mind and is evoked with every conversation about Junichi.
My dad’s youngest brother, Satoru, said he remembers walking with Baban to a Japanese prisoner of war camp not far from our family home in Wahiawä. She brought along bentö that she had made and shared the food with the prisoners through the barbed wired fence. She asked all of the POWs whether they knew anything about Junichi. Her many visits never resulted in her learning anything about what had happened to her son.
My dad Seiei, Jian’s and Baban’s eldest child, had been inducted into the U.S. Army and was serving with the Military Intelligence Service in Fukuoka. His duties included interrogating Japanese prisoners, so he listened carefully for any clues that might lead him to finding Junichi.
A few years after the war, Dad’s sister, Aunty Shi-chan (Shizuko) took a federal job in Okinawa, hoping to learn what had happened to her brother. Nothing turned up.
And then in 1996, Dad’s sisters journeyed to Okinawa, again hoping to learn about Junichi’s fate. They returned home empty-handed. It was like Junichi had disappeared from the face of the earth.
And then in April 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, divine intervention stepped in. While working in Okinawa as a producer for the national PBS television series, “Family Ingredients,” I learned what happened to Junichi. Chizu Inoue, chief editor of Momoto magazine and the consultant for our Okinawa episode, saw a photo of Junichi that I had posted on social media. She recognized the emblem on his school cap.
Kenritsu Dai’ichi Chugakkou had built a museum with an archive containing information on all of the students who perished in the Battle of Okinawa. Chizu’s friend, Keiko, worked at the museum, so Chizu asked her to find out if there was any information about Junichi in the archives.
Junichi’s records were there. He died from American machine gun fire at Komesu Village in the southern part of Okinawa on June 22, one day before the battle officially ended at Mabuni.
After 70 years in the dark, Junichi’s story had finally come to light. Finally, our family could find closure.
The last stand of resistance at Mabuni was considered the “battlefield of hell.” It’s where the Japanese army commander Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima committed seppuku (suicide), marking the end of the battle. Before that hellish last stand, a 17-year-old student soldier had written: “I hope for three things before I sleep. First is to drink a glass of clear water before I die. Second is to sleep stretching in full length. Third is to die without pain.”
Uncle Junichi dreamt of becoming a schoolteacher. In his time, it was considered a “sacred profession,” a “holy order.” I have absolutely no doubt that he would have realized his dream had he survived another 24 hours.
I met Takaesu-san at the school’s museum in Shuri, Okinawa’s ancient capital. His son had accompanied him to our meeting. Others were there to listen and document his oral history: They included two retired teachers (now school historians), a young teacher who scribed his story and three local reporters, including Chizu Inoue, who had arranged the meeting.
Takaesu-san began his story.
“When I reached home, my father was prepared to sign my release form, but my grandfather said, ‘No.’” His grandfather had the final say, so Takaesu-san was not permitted to join his schoolmates in battle.
“Until this day, I fight a battle in my mind. Mothers who lost their sons would look down on me,” he said. A deep sadness fell over the room. It was like Takaesu-san was releasing a burden he had carried for over 70 years. In his son’s face, I could see that he felt his father’s pain. I can say with certainty that it was the first time his son had heard this story.
Many survivors suffered from deep emotional wounds that would never heal. Through no fault of his own, Takaesu-san was haunted by the guilt of knowing that many of his schoolmates, including his close friend Junichi, faced unimaginable horror on the battle line and never came home.
Like other survivors, Takaesu-san persevered and led a productive life. He retired as a teacher from Bito Elementary School.
Aunty Yoshino’s Story
During the “mop up” phase of the battle, American soldiers, including Hawai‘i MIS soldiers, tried to persuade civilians hiding in caves to surrender and come out. Prior to the battle, Japanese soldiers had told the civilians that the Americans would rape the women and butcher them. The propaganda scared the civilians and many would not surrender. Japanese soldiers were also known to be hiding in the caves with civilians. If the people did not come out after repeated calls to surrender, occupied or not, the Americans set the cave ablaze with flamethrowers or tossed explosives into the cave, sealing the entrance.
Yoshino initially resisted and remained hidden in the cave. Her grandmother (my great-grandmother Kamado) came out and informed the American soldiers that her granddaughter was still hiding in the cave. Finally, Yoshino walked out. She said the American soldiers treated her and the others well. They were provided with food and shelter.
Two years later, Baban’s nephew, Uncle Edwin Nakasone, was an MIS soldier headed for his assignment in Japan. I was told that Baban asked him to go to Okinawa and find Yoshino. Fortunately, his commander was kind-hearted — he granted Uncle Edwin permission to detour to Okinawa to try to find Yoshino. It was a daunting task, as there were nearly 50 U.S. military compounds, or refugee camps, holding thousands of civilians.
In late 1947, Uncle Edwin, a very capable man, managed to locate her in one of the compounds. He wrote home: “I was able to pick up Yoshino via jeep and the driver took us to the Military Government’s Headquarters where I attested that she was my cousin, born in Hawai‘i and thus an American citizen.” Uncle Edwin secured Yoshino’s release and got her on a ship to reunite with her family in Hawai‘i.
After his service with the MIS, Uncle Edwin, now in his 90s, settled on the Mainland and became a college professor, a husband and the father of two sons. Now retired, he and his wife Mary reside in Minnesota.
Aunty Yoshino’s new life in Hawai‘i was not easy, but it fell into place when she met and married a wonderful man, Robert Seiyu Toguchi. They made their home in Pepe‘ekeo on the Big Island, where he was born. They worked hard to make a life for themselves. They raised five children, all of whom earned college degrees and now have families of their own.
Aunty Yoshino died in 2016 at the age of 90. She was a quiet and gentle woman who was kind to everyone. Unless you knew about all that she had been through in her life, you would not know how much she endured. She rarely, if ever, talked about her life. She was the epitome of the Japanese word gaman, perseverance in the face of so much adversity, never complaining, never feeling sorry for herself. Her perseverance enabled Aunty Yoshino to return home to her family and live the life she so rightfully deserved.
Her story tells us the importance of having a strong family in time of need. No matter how long they were separated, her family in Hawai‘i never gave up hope that Yoshino would return home safe. Having a strong family also means you can count on your extended family. Aunty Yoshino Toguchi’s story came to be because her cousin, Uncle Edwin Nakasone, fulfilled Baban’s desperate plea. Through no small feat, he came to his cousin’s aid.
This story taught me that my heritage is my inheritance.
The value of my inheritance is in the stories of my family and the people of our ancestral homeland. Stories of the past and how they inform the present. Stories of my family’s struggles and how they rose above them. These are the stories that enrich my identity.
I vow to continue growing my inheritance until the day I leave this life. And my inheritance will have far greater value when it is shared.
There are many reasons why family stories are not shared and are thus lost forever as each generation passes. Please, find your family’s stories and share them so present and future generations can learn from them.
Dan Nakasone is a Sansei Uchinanchu from Wahiawä. He is a marketing and advertising professional and most recently served as a producer/researcher for PBS’ award-winning food and culture series, “Family Ingredients,” which is based in Hawai‘i and hosted by Chef Ed Kenney.