Japanese Man Comes to Terms with His Grandfather’s WWII Past

Here’s an article about the grandson of the Japanese Imperial Army commander, Lt. General Mitsuru Ushijima, who refused to surrender to advancing American forces in southern Okinawa during the American invasion in June 1945.  Preferring ‘honorable death’ to being captured alive by his enemies, Ushijima committed suicide.  Ushijima had been considered by his friends and associates as a humane individual who discouraged violence within the army’s ranks.

Article by Michiko Yoshida from The Asahi Shimbun, June 23, 2010

Sadamitsu Ushijima was told his paternal grandfather was a gentle man. How, then, could his grandfather have ordered his troops to fight to the last man during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945?

Hoping to find an answer to that question, Ushijima, 56, an elementary school teacher in Tokyo, has repeatedly visited the southern island prefecture since 1994.

His grandfather was Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima, the Japanese Imperial Army commander of forces on Okinawa, the site of the bloodiest ground battle of the Pacific War.

Ushijima committed suicide at Mabuni, on the southern tip of Okinawa’s main island where the last fierce battle was fought, on June 23, 65 years ago. He was 57.

Okinawa now marks June 23, when organized Japanese resistance to the U.S. forces ended, as a day to remember the battle’s more than 200,000 victims.

As a teacher, Ushijima long focused his efforts on integrated education that encourages children with disabilities to learn alongside their non-disabled peers.

But he stayed away from Okinawa as a subject.

He hated his name, which includes the same Chinese character as his grandfather’s. He was afraid he would be asked about the late commander.

His first visit to Okinawa in 1994, at the urging of colleagues, changed all that.

Ushijima visited a peace memorial museum in Mabuni to find his grandfather’s fight-to-the-last order on exhibit at the entrance.

The explanation said that because of that order, “more than 100,000 noncombatant civilians were left behind in the hail of shells and bullets.”

Ushijima stood petrified. But he soon realized the only way forward was to squarely face the past.

He talked to people who knew the grandfather he had never met. He entered the Mabuni cave where his grandfather killed himself. He read his death poems again and again.

“Mitsuru gave priority to defending the mainland, where the emperor resided. After all, he looked only to the emperor,” he thought at the time.

Discovering an answer of his own, Ushijima saw his mission as a teacher. He started a peace education class to pass along history to children.

He has given classes in Okinawa, as well as at his schools in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan.

On June 18, he again visited an elementary school in Okinawa, the seventh year he has given his class in the prefecture.

He talked about his grandfather, the war and Okinawa, and then concluded: “Armed forces do not defend civilians. That’s what we learned from the Battle of Okinawa.”

Ushijima has long hated his name. But he now understands how his own fate is tied to the name.


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