Colin Sewake
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Almost eight decades have passed since the Battle of Okinawa and the end of World War II, but the memories of 136 teachers and students from a women’s school who lost their lives still remain.

Two women’s schools, Okinawa Daiichi Women’s High School and Okinawa Shihan Women’s School, were located in what is currently the Asato district of Naha City. Okinawa Daiichi Women’s High School was founded with the motto, “Ryösai Kenbo” (developing well-cultivated wives and intellectual mothers). Students entered the four-year school after successfully completing elementary school and passing an entrance exam.

Consisting of a three-year preparatory course and a two-year regular course, the focus of the five-year Okinawa Shihan Women’s School was to train future teachers. There were two paths for admittance to this school. Students could have completed both their study and the advanced course in elementary studies then enroll in the preparatory course at the school after passing an exam. The other way was to complete an exam and be enrolled in the regular course if they were a graduate of a women’s high school. 

Due to financial reasons, both schools were located as annexes to each other in 1916 and shared the same facilities. The students studied under the same teachers, and both institutions looked as though they had a sister-school relationship. The 28,500-square-foot property consisted of an auditorium, gym, library, farm, alumni hall, dormitory, and a swimming pool, which was the only one that existed in Okinawa at the time. Students came from all over Okinawa after passing the intense enrollment competition.

On April 1, 1945, the Battle of Okinawa began when the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific Theater by U.S. forces took place against the Imperial Japanese Army. Both male and female students at 21 secondary schools on island were mobilized for the war effort and sent to the battlefield. Most female students, ranging from ages 15 to 19, served as nurses. A group of 222 students and 18 teachers from the two aforementioned schools formed the “Himeyuri Gakutotai” or “Lily Princesses Student Corps,” named after their schools’ magazines. The one at Daiichi Women’s School was named “Otohime” (princess’s name from Urashima Tarö story), and the other at Okinawa Shihan Women’s School was called “Shirayuri” (White Lilies).

Contrary to what actually happened, the students were told that the Imperial Japanese Army would easily defeat the American invasion and that they would be safe from danger. Many of them brought their school supplies and uniforms with them in hopes of returning to school and continuing their studies. Despite being told they would be working in Red Cross hospitals away from the fighting, the students were instead sent to caves used as hospitals on the frontlines where they performed crude surgeries and amputations, buried casualties, and transported ammunition and supplies to troops while being under the danger of constant gunfire and bombings. Those that still remained towards the end of the battle had to endure malnutrition and disease while hiding in dark caves with injured and dead soldiers, civilians, and fellow students.

Entrance of Himeyuri Peace Museum, April 2021. (Photo courtesy of Himeyuri Peace Research Center)

On June 18, a rough order to dissolve and go home was issued to the unit that had experienced 19 student losses up until then. The next morning, American soldiers called hiding Imperial Japanese Army soldiers to come out of the Ihara Third Surgical Cave located in Itoman. When they received no response, they attacked with flamethrowers, unaware that teachers and students were also among them. As a result, four teachers and 38 students lost their lives. Another heartbreaking story involves one teacher and eight students who committed suicide by using hand grenades given to them by Imperial Japanese Army soldiers. Of the 240 Himeyuri Gakutotai students and teachers, 123 students and 13 teachers perished by the war’s end.

In January 1946, Mayor Washin Kinjö of Mawashi Village (present Mawashi district in Naha), who was a relative of a Himeyuri Gakutotai student who died in the battle, led an effort for villagers to collect the remains of the deceased. They erected the “Konpaku No Tö” (monument to the deceased spirits) the following month, which was the first memorial to be built after the war.

The “Himeyuri No Tö” (Himeyuri Cenotaph) was built on April 5 of the same year at the site of the Ihara Third Surgical Cave, where many students and others lost their lives, followed by an ireisai (memorial service) on April 7. On April 9, a third monument known as “Kenji No Tö” was built honoring male students who perished. These three monuments serve as memorials that express the strong desire for lasting peace.

Chiyoko Oyadomari in her preparatory school days in Tökyö, 1939. (Photo courtesy of Himeyuri Peace Research Center)

Although the story of Himeyuri is about a group and location on Okinawa main island, there are strong ties to individuals from Hawai‘i. The first is Chiyoko Oyadomari who was born on a Hawai‘i plantation in 1922 where her Issei (first generation) father operated a sugar business. In 1930, he relocated the family to Okinawa and opened the Oyadomari Gensei Store, a wholesale fish business, in Naha. Oyadomari was in the third grade in elementary school in Hawai‘i but was enrolled in the second grade at “Naha Shiritsu Köshin Jinjö Shogakko” (Naha Koshin Elementary School) because she was thought to have issues with the Japanese language. She later entered the Okinawa Daiichi Women’s High School; however, because of her gift of intelligence, she then continued on to what is now Ochanomizu University, one of the top schools for women in Japan. 

Oyadomari graduated in 1943 and returned to Okinawa as a teacher at her alma mater. Because of her history with the school and her bright and lively teaching style, she became very popular with the students. She taught her subjects with an open rapport, bringing much joy to the classroom. Students would request her to sing songs, such as “Okashi To Musume” (Sweets and the Girls) in her beautiful alto voice. Oyadomari also became an elder sister to the student residents as the dormitory’s director.

As the Battle of Okinawa began and intensified, many teachers evacuated but Oyadomari chose to stay with her students. She lifted their spirits by singing songs to them and as they fled southward, she tended to those who experienced health issues and couldn’t take care of themselves. Oyadomari, at 23 years old, was among those that were killed in the Ihara Third Surgical Cave, where the Himeyuri Cenotaph is currently located.

Kikuko Miyagi, a 16-year-old student at the time, commented, “While the sound of battle roared, we had to continuously dig trenches even though our one daily meal was a single rice ball. Students who were enthusiastic at the start quickly became tired. During one break as we knelt close together, we heard the sound of Miss Oyadomari’s beautiful voice. When the last lines of the song, ‘…two Parisian girls enjoy sweets at the corner candy shop, bonjour!’ were sung, all of us listening burst into applause. Miss Oyadomari’s efforts to raise students’ spirits went straight to our hearts.”

Portrait of Harry Shinichi Gima painted by Seikichi Tamanaha, 1952. (Photo courtesy of Himeyuri Peace Research Center)

Another Hawai‘i individual with ties to Himeyuri is Harry Shinichi Gima, a Nisei (second generation) with Yomitan roots who worked as an engineer on a U.S. military base after the war. The Himeyuri Cenotaph that was built shortly after the war had no plan for its management and upkeep. 

Gima, one day, saw an elderly woman praying at the monument and was saddened when he noticed its neglected condition. He approached Seizen Nakasone, a former Himeyuri teacher who later became the first director of the Himeyuri Peace Museum, and asked, “Are we just going to leave the memorial in this state? Shouldn’t we keep up this area forever as a place of mourning for all of those young girls who died in the war? In Hawai‘i, we have Punchbowl (National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific), and we honor those who fell in the Pacific war.* Please, let me do whatever I can to help!”

Ihara Third Surgical cave where Himeyuri Gakutotai teachers and students hid and perished with Japanese soldiers. (Photo by Colin Sewake)

Gima began soliciting donations from friends and others and was eventually able to raise enough money for Nakasone to purchase a 6,600-square-meter area around the cave. He also raised funds for a wall around the memorial and constructed it himself by illuminating the area with his car’s headlights so he could work at night after he finished his daytime job.

The Himeyuri Alumnae Association later built a memorial in honor of Gima for his generosity, although he never boasted about his efforts and asked Nakasone not to mention his work to the public. 

“His personality impressed me,” Nakasone said. “Although humble, he was really an extraordinary man … an excellent, cheerful, and respectable person with a good heart.

Members from the Himeyuri Peace Research Center had the opportunity to meet with Gima’s Hawai‘i relatives in 2019. Most had no idea about his work regarding the Himeyuri Cenotaph because he never talked much about it. Gima was remembered as a quiet and unselfish person. When asked what stood out about him, his family said that, as an engineer, he loved all things mechanical. He enjoyed tinkering on cars and racing. The team discovered another side of Gima that was never revealed in stories about his work on the Himeyuri Cenotaph.

As Uchinānchu in Okinawa and around the world observe “Irei No Hi” (Okinawa Memorial Day) on June 23rd marking the end of the Battle of Okinawa, let us remember the lives lost and pray for lasting peace.

*The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific is a beautiful final resting place for those men and women who served in the United States Armed Forces and their dependents.

Colin Sewake is a keiki o kama‘āina from Wahiawā, who was assigned to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa in December 1994 to fulfill his U.S. Air Force ROTC commitment. There, he met his future wife, Keiko, and decided to make Okinawa his permanent home. Colin is now retired from the Air Force and the Air Force Reserves. He and Keiko have two children and live in Yomitan.

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