Last month, a noted figure for peace and demilitarization in the Asia-Pacific region, former governor of Okinawa Masahide Ota passed away. He was 92 years old.
Ota was governor of the Okinawan islands in 1995 when the community’s long-held resentment over U.S. military bases exploded following the rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. servicemen. Close to 100,000 people demonstrated to show their outrage.
As governor and later as a private citizen, Ota undertook a number of activities aimed at promoting peace and facilitating the demilitarization of Okinawa, which to this day has nearly 20 percent of its land occupied by U.S. military bases and training areas.
I had the honor of meeting Ota in October 2015. Through an interpreter I interviewed him in the office of his Peace Institute in Naha. When he learned I was Chamorro from Guam, he mentioned several Chamorros he had met over the years and inquired as to how they were doing.
He told me many stories about the war and the struggles to survive after thousands were displaced from their lands to build postwar American bases, and the continuing fight to close and limit the expansion of those very bases.
Okinawa and Guam/the Marianas have very similar histories of colonization, militarization and resistance. This meeting was more profound evidence of those connections.
I am thankful I was able to spend that afternoon learning from him.
One of Ota’s most poignant accomplishments was the Cornerstone of Peace, which sits at the southern end of Okinawa and is part of the Prefectural Peace Museum. It’s a large outdoor memorial built for all the souls — Japanese, Okinawan and American — lost during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Ota was part of that fighting, after being drafted into the Japanese military. The battle was known as a “typhoon of steel” — 1 in every 4 Okinawans perished.
As a result of the death and the destruction from the war, many Okinawans, including Ota, came to firmly believe their island should be an instrument of peace. In the Peace Museum, there are many artifacts from the Battle of Okinawa, but scattered throughout are profound poems, reflecting on the nature of peace and justice. One such poem reads:
Whenever we look at / The truth of the Battle of Okinawa / We think / There is nothing as brutal / Nothing as dishonorable / As war. To be sure / It is human beings who start wars / But more than that / Isn’t it we human beings who must also prevent wars? To acquire / This / Our unwavering principle / We have paid dearly.
During this month, we on Guam spend time reflecting on our own wartime legacy. Chamorros saw their island destroyed and their family members killed, but there isn’t as strong of a desire to be an island of peace. As our connection to the U.S. has long been one defined by strategic interests and military service, it is hard to see ourselves as an island of peace, and far easier to accept our lot as an American weapon of war.
But it’s never too late for us to reframe those legacies and lessons from the past, especially in the light of increased tensions in our region.
Michael Lujan Bevacqua is an author, artist, activist and assistant professor of Chamorro studies at the University of Guam.