Himeyuri no Tō, 1975: The Memorial that Nearly Killed a Crown Prince

The Inland Sea is perhaps my favourite book about Japan. Donald Richie’s journey might well be around “Japan’s Mediterranean” — does it still merit the epithet? — but I find some of his observations strike me regardless of geography. In one transcendent episode he stumbles upon a group of lepers, as we would have called victims in the days before political correctness gave us the better “Hansen’s disease”. These much-maligned people have suffered ostracism the world over but official segregation in Japan continued until relatively recently. Richie happens to find himself near a compulsory sanitarium and it leads him to reflect on the contrast of ugliness and beauty, how we are drawn to a natural landscape as a way to heal an absence.

Lepers are often sent to beautiful places, as if in compensation for the ugliness of their disease. Or, perhaps, it is just that, being sent to places far away, they naturally live where the hand of man has not as yet completely destroyed natural beauty.

Richie may be off here in terms of historical accuracy but his sentiments are not.

On a recent trip to Okinawa I had thoughts similar to Richie’s, though not as eloquent. The beauty of the place is hard to reconcile with its past. The 200,000 deaths in 1945. The continued bondage of the U.S. bases. The suppression and assimilation of Ryūkyū culture and language to Yamato (as an Englishman, I cannot but recall what “my” people did for centuries to their Celtic neighbours, to say nothing of the cultures and peoples in the far-flung corners of the world that arbitrarily became parts of the grand British Empire).

A trip to Shuri Castle seems pleasant until you realise that the entire palace is a reconstruction, built on the ashes of the original razed during the Battle of Okinawa. (And the said realisation also brings consternation: is ¥820 per person not a little steep for a simulated experience of history?) Likewise, those chips in the walls at the Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters are not mere wear and tear; they were caused by the hand grenades crudely employed by soldiers to blow apart their flesh and blood as the finale to a mad ritual of mass suicide. Their “honour”, as they so zealously believed (or were compelled to believe), is now written on the walls, albeit cleaned up so the callow visitor does not see actual blood.

himeyuri no to incident okinawa 1975 tower of lilies

In the south of the main island, the Himeyuri no Tō (literally, Tower of the Lilies) memorialises the Himeyuri students, a large corps of local students and their teachers drafted by the authorities to help in the war effort. For the most part, this meant serving as nurses to the wounded in make-shift field hospitals erected, if that is the apt word, in caves. Perhaps it is something about the primitivism of the use of caves by a modern war machine that makes the whole scenario feel so futile, so doomed and absurd. Teenaged girls tending to dying soldiers and helping with supplies under the ground, caught between an invading army and their occupiers — can their plight be any more pathetic?

Over any other place associated with the tragedy of Okinawa, the Himeyuri no Tō cult prevails. It has inspired multiple films as well as a recent manga by Machiko Kyō. Needless to say, there were numerous other student corps but none have entered the popular imagination as much as the Himeyuri girls. After all, the majority of the students perished and it was probably the largest corps of its kind. Plus we are suckers for wartime stories involving kids.

Today the Himeyuri no Tō is a sacred place. The monument is built at one of the caves in which the Himeyuri students served. The cave remains, a gaping, weird mouth into the bowels of the earth. In other circumstances it would be a natural curiosity — but surely formidably fenced off in fastidious Japan where any hint of danger is always unduly signposted — if not for the way it was utilized seventy years prior. And so the pit signals emptiness, a hole of hell. Flowers are purchased at the entrance, to be laid at the cave mouth like a religious offering. There is now a museum and various surrounding cenotaphs and monuments, added incrementally in the post-war period. One was unveiled in 1975, the same year as the Okinawa Expo.

himeyuri no to incident okinawa 1975 tower of lilies

Expo ’75 (also known as Okinawa International Ocean Exposition) was meant as a celebration of Okinawa’s 1972 reversion to Japan. Japanese sovereignty over its long vassal state had been re-established, generously returned by the American military, and what better way to commemorate than a series of spectacular pavilions in the north of the main island of Okinawa? In between the sensational events (Yodogō, Asama-sansō, the Oil Shock), these were still bullish days and the massive success of the Osaka Expo in 1970 seemed to define the government policy that remains little changed today: make a bonanza for the public and all is well.

Only, this is Okinawa, where almost everything the national or provincial government does inevitably incites protest. And such was the case here, not least because the world fair was opened by the Crown Prince (the current Emperor). While not tainted with war guilt like his father — imagine the response if Hirohito had tried to preside — the choice of an Imperial Family representative was bound to incur the wrath of both ordinary islanders, so long enslaved by their Yamato rulers and so exploited during the final months of the War, let alone the Left, for whom the Emperor was as anathema as American foreign policy and capitalism. The organisers surely expected the Prince’s three-day trip to Okinawa to be met by protests, as the Expo was as a whole. Thousands demonstrated against the event right up until it closed in January 1976.

But no sooner had the Crown Prince arrived in Okinawa on July 17th, than he was facing his first sign of trouble. As his motorcade travelled from the airport it passed a hospital, from which two leftist radicals threw bottles and other items down at the vehicles. The damage their lèse-majesté caused was minor enough and they were arrested on the spot. One of the pair, Junji Kawano, a member of the Okinawa Liberation League, served three years behind bars but went on to have a more respectable political career. Today he is an assembly member for Nago City in Okinawa. Kawano, then twenty-five years old, and his accomplice had used fake names to stay overnight in the hospital as a patient with a supposed stomach upset and their visitor.

himeyuri no to incident okinawa 1975 tower of lilies akihito crown prince

But it was when the Crown Prince was attending a ceremony at the Himeyuri no Tō that something far more serious happened — and possibly (let’s speculate a little) the closest anyone has got to assassinating a member of the Imperial Family since 1945. Akihito arrived at the Himeyuri no Tō at a little after one o’clock, where he laid a wreath as part of a ceremony. During the pomp, two young men appeared, literally coming out of the cave itself like angry wraiths of the Himeyuri students.

“Crown Prince, go home!” they shouted.

They threw a single Molotov cocktail and a firecracker, which landed with a loud bang some two metres from the Imperial couple. Inventive radicals, they also had brought along a jerry-built weapon in the form of a strong insect spray, which with the help of a lighter suddenly became a mini flamethrower.

The two twenty-five-year-old assailants — Kō Chinen, another member of the Okinawa Liberation League, and a member of one of the Senki factions — had been hiding out in the eight-metre-deep underground bunker since July 10th, living off canned food and using a radio to listen to the progress of the imperial visit above ground.

himeyuri no to incident okinawa 1975 tower of lilies akihito crown prince

Chinen and his companion were inevitably arrested after the smoke had cleared, though they kept the cops at bay for a while with nunchaku, a traditional Okinawan weapon. Akihito and his wife, Michiko, were unharmed. Chinen was later offered the chance of liberty from his prison cell when the Japanese Red Army hijacked JAL Flight 47 in September 1977. His name was among the list of nine convicts demanded by the hijackers, though Chinen and two others refused to go. (One of those freed, Tsutomu Shirosaki, was recently deported to Japan.) Chinen instead opted to stay in prison, though he went on to write a book about the incident, published in 1995.

Today there are no firecrackers to greet you. The monument is quiet; except for some rowdy school groups, people gather around the cave and talk in hushed voices.

The visitor parks obediently next to the site and is given a “ticket” by the friendly attendant. Upon inspection, the stub you are told to hand to someone in the neighbouring building is merely an excuse to make you pass through a gift shop. After you are finished paying your respects at the Himeyuri no Tō, you duly give your ticket to someone inside, only to be presented with a discount coupon in return. Memorialisation is not immune to the trappings of tourism. I bought an Okinawan doughnut (apparently not covered by the discount) and, nibbling it on the way back to the car, pondered the flowers piled up in front of the oubliette. What do they do with the bouquets after the day’s pilgrimages are done?


Further Reading:

Vivian Blaxell, “Preparing Okinawa for Reversion to Japan: The Okinawa International Ocean Exposition of 1975, the US Military and the Construction State,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 29-2-10, July 19, 2010

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