Living to Tell the Story of War and the Importance of Life and Peace

Jodie Chiemi Ching

On June 23 in Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, people will pause to remember those who died in a bloody battle that lasted only three months, but took over 200,000 lives. “Irei no Hi,” as it is referred to honors all who died — Okinawans, Americans, Japanese and other Allies. All lives are precious, they believe.

And in Hawai‘i, Janice Suetomi, who was born Fumiko Tamaki in Okinawa, will remember, too, what she saw and what she experienced 73 years ago in her homeland.

Janice Suetomi with her younger brother, Kiyonobu Tamaki, in Okinawa.
Janice Suetomi with her younger brother, Kiyonobu Tamaki, in Okinawa.

A Young Girl’s Dream

As a young girl of 11, Suetomi dreamed of becoming an elementary school teacher. With the encouragement of her teachers, she studied hard and was the only student from her neighborhood of Taira in southern Okinawa’s Tomigusuku village to pass the entrance exam to the Okinawa First Girls’ High School. Of the 400 applicants from throughout the prefecture, only 40 students were accepted, and she was one of them. The school’s motto, “Aim for the Development of Highly Intellectual and Well-Cultivated Women,” inspired young Fumiko to pursue her dream. Everyone, except her parents, praised her achievement.

“I was the eighth child of 10 children from a poor family. After finishing elementary school, all my brothers and sisters went to work as housekeepers for other families and contributed to our family’s income,” explained Suetomi. Finally, at the urging of her teachers, her parents allowed her to continue school. The future looked bright for her . . . until the spring of 1945.

Preparing for War

On April 1, 1945, U.S. forces came ashore on Okinawa. On the eve of the Battle of Okinawa, the imperial army’s Okinawa Defense Unit was already on the island and had drafted civilians into the war effort. Their goal was to contain the invasion and prevent the Americans from bringing the land battle to the Japanese mainland. Japanese soldiers hid in underground caves from the Americans, who possessed far more firepower. The U.S. naval bombardment from offshore came to be known as the “Typhoon of Steel.” It would last only three months, but claim the lives of over 200,000 combatants and civilians.

School buildings were converted into barracks. Students, male and female, at 21 secondary schools were mobilized for the war effort. Class hours were reduced. The students assisted the Japanese forces in building encampments and gathering food supplies. Their role then expanded and they soon found themselves on the battlefield.

Anticipating further mobilization of the students to work in army hospitals, military surgeons began training female students between the ages of 15 and 19 to work as nurses. They came to be known as the Himeyuri, or the Lily Corps. The Tekketsu Kinötai — Blood and Iron Loyalist Student Corps — included male students between the ages of 14 and 19. They exposed themselves to heavy bombardment daily while transporting supplies, repairing bridges and electric cables and delivering telegraphs.

The Okinawa First Girls’ High School and Okinawa Female Normal School were situated next to each other in the Asato district of Naha City. From these two schools, 18 teachers and 222 students were sent to the Okinawa Army Field Hospital in Haebaru Town. Suetomi and her teachers and fellow students had no clue of what awaited them.

The field hospital turned out to be about 30 cave tunnels that had been dug into the mountains. A typical cave tunnel was dark and damp, about 6 feet high and 230 feet deep, lit only by candles. The “walls” were bare dirt and rock.

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The Hawaii United Okinawa Association will observe “Irei no Hi” on Thursday, June 21, at the Hawaii Okinawa Center. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m. with the program to start at 6 p.m. The program will include the sharing of personal experiences from the Battle of Okinawa. HUOA’s “Irei no Hi” program is open and free of charge to the public.

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