An Okinawan Woman's Life
It took many years to finally bring all the missing pieces together. Okinawa, known today as the Hawaii of Asia but her story begins in the days before the famous Battle of Okinawa. The story about an Okinawan woman who led a quiet life that was anything but that.
Okinawa was originally called the Ryukyu Kingdom and was its own nation for many years. That is until China stepped in with the traditional mob scam of offering protection for a cut of the profit, so to speak. Not long afterwards Japan stepped in with more firepower and took control of Okinawa. On a side note: for centuries, Japan and China shared the same kind of animosity for each other the same way England and France did.
World War Two starts up and as events lead to the American forces getting closer to the Okinawa Islands as the Japanese military constructed underground tunnels. Many of the Okinawan civilians began preparing for the coming invasion from the Americans, Japan and millions of insects.
Food was taken by the Japanese soldiers that led to mass starvation. Even people who spoke their native Okinawan language were killed as spies. Many people who did not make it to the natural caves before the battle began died from the constant American bombing. For those that did faced many obstacles. Millions of dangerous bugs inhabited the caves with them. Their bites were so painful that you wished you were dead.
The military worked the people into a frenzy to commit suicide rather than being captured by the Americans. Many did commit suicide but the Japanese military were responsible for a lot more of their deaths. Kazuko, who was nine at the time, remembers hearing echoes of gun fire inside the caves days before the Americans ever came ashore.
She remembers that the Japanese military was going to provide refreshments for everyone in the cave she was in. But as the US military came onto the island, the Japanese military never showed up. She later learned from her mother that those in the other caves who drank the milk had died.
The US military arrives as all the Okinawans did everything they were told to do. As everyone left the caves, they were shocked to see the landscape of the island. Trees, towns even the terrain was all gone. She said it was like a barren wasteland with so many US military personnel and vehicles everywhere. Ships off in the distance made her think that she would never see her homeland ever again.
Tents were set up for everyone and there were doctors and other medical personnel to help all those injured. My mother-in-law had bite marks on her and the doctors bandaged her up. She was also given candy by a few of the American soldiers. The military also provided meals for all the surviving Okinawans. As a result of this, to this day Okinawans really love pork and SPAM.
She got sick one day and the military nurses took care of her. She remembers there was plenty of food to eat and everyone took great care of her and the other injured people. A few years after the war ended the US troops continued to stay on the island. Many people from other Asian nations came to help rebuild Okinawa.
She met a man from the Philippines. They both fell in love and were married. They had a baby girl Kuniko and were making plans to move their family to the Philippines. As Kazuko waited for the immigration paperwork to go through he took their baby with him back to his home town. Not soon afterwards he had a heart attack and died. His mother called Kazuko to tell her not to come to the Philippines and that she was going to raise the baby as her own.
Kazuko kept that secret for decade. Her second husband Yoshi never knew that she had been married or even had a baby. Eventually they had two girls. Time passes and Yoshi passes away in 1984. Years later Kazuko was contacted by Kuniko who now goes by the name Carmen.
As Carmen was growing up she knew her mother’s name and was from Okinawa. But when Kazuko remarried made it difficult for Carmen to find her. My wife and her sister were shocked by what their mother had kept secret for years. Kazuko and Carmen talked as best they could due to the language barrier. Plus Carmen cannot leave the Philippines because she does not have a birth certificate. And therefore cannot get a passport to travel outside of the country.
Kazuko travels were restricted due to health issues with her kidneys. Eventually she had to undergo dialysis. It wasn’t too long afterwards that this led to her death. While in the hospital, her granddaughter Evelyn, Carmen’s daughter, came to visit for the first time. She works for a Japanese company and is currently learning Japanese. She wanted to be able to help her mother communicate with her grandmother. And know more about her grandmother and her family.
But when she arrived at her grandmother’s home, she met her Aunt Sonoko as she was preparing to go to the hospital. There Kazuko was starting to slip away. But she was able to meet her granddaughter and communicate in Japanese. Kazuko wanted to talk with her other daughters and grandsons. Sonoko called us as it was nearly midnight our time. Evelyn called her mother as well.
Kazuko’s hearing was going as we all had to scream into the speaker phone that we loved her. She finally acknowledged that she heard every one of us. The phone called ended but within two minutes Sonoko called us back. Kazuko had passed away. Evelyn changed her schedule and stayed for the funeral.
Many current and former Okinawan government officials came to the funeral. It was a surprise to Kazuko’s family and friends. These officials grew up with Kazuko as it’s a small island. Some of them were in the same cave with her during the war. Plus she worked in the days after WW2 to rebuild Okinawa.
As Okinawa was under American control there was talk that Okinawa would finally be able rule themselves again. Waiting for the moment of their declared freedom that other nations in Asia were enjoying. Instead they became a military base for the Americans during the Korean War and Vietnam War.
Afterwards they were handed back over to Japan where the Japanese government did all that it could to eliminate the Okinawan culture. Japan began to changing the history books, imposing the Japanese language and culture. Weakening their economy and their culture. Even today China still claims that Okinawa originally belongs to them. No one but Okinawans remember that Okinawa was a nation and not someone else’s property.
A simple woman who survived many obstacles such as: war, losing her first child and rebuilding her homeland. She even went against her doctor’s orders and came to America in 1999 and 2001 to see her newborn grandsons. This led to her undergoing dialysis when she returned to Okinawa. The final days of her life was going to the hospital every other day for dialysis treatments. Those treatments had blackened her body due to multiple needle marks.
But in those final moments of her life she was surrounded by her family in person and through cell phones. She died August 18, 2012 11:31 AM Japan time with the sounds of her children and grandchildren all expressing their love for her. I have just scratched the surface knowing that there is more about her. She was a private woman who kept many things to herself; secrets that went to her grave. But I put what I know to print in the hopes that others can remember her as well.
Picture taken in 2006
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