It began on March 26th 1945, when the United States military landed on Kerama Island, and continued through late June when the Japanese military ended any organized attempts at resistance, though violence would continue through months beyond. It was the final stage in the Pacific War, and it is sometimes called the “Iron Storm.”
Following occupations of first the Philippines and then Iwo Jima, the United States military captured Okinawa, which was the final barrier between its forces and the main islands of Japan. But the Battle of Okinawa was not a sudden or unexpected incident; rather, it came as the inevitable consequence of Japan’s aggression in Asia, which began with the Mukden Incident in 1931 and continued for the next fifteen years.
U.S. forces included roughly 548,000 soldiers and support troops and 1,500 naval ships. The Japanese defense consisted of about 110,000 soldiers, which included a corps of hastily drafted locals. After overrunning the Japanese possessions in the Pacific, the U.S. military tightened the net around the Japanese mainland. Bypassing Taiwan, they targeted Okinawa for their bridgehead. The opposing Japanese forces already anticipated a loss and turned toward the Battle of Okinawa with a sense of despair, knowing that the looming clash was merely a delay tactic to protect the main islands. The Japanese military strategy was to draw the U.S. forces deep into its own territory and then launch a counterattack rather than fighting at the water’s edge.
The battle involved the local residents throughout. The tragedy of the Tsushima Maru served as a bellwether, and so children and the elderly who might hinder the fighting were evacuated to Taiwan or Kyushu. Roughly one hundred thousand were evacuated, the same number as those soldiers newly stationed in Okinawa. This also corresponds to the traditional Japanese military strategy of sourcing locally over securing supply chains.
This battle is characterized by the fact that it took place in residential areas where local civilians lived—it is often referred to as “the only land battle in Japan,” but strictly speaking, this is not true if one counts the battle of Iwo Jima. However, it was the only land battle to involve civilians. Roughly 65,000 Japanese soldiers lost their lives (and this figure does not include the Okinawan conscripts) while 12,500 U.S. soldiers died, but overwhelmingly, the largest casualties were the 120,000 Okinawa residents (including the conscripts) who were killed. Other victims included Taiwanese, North and South Koreans, and English prisoners of war taken in operations on Miyako and Yaeyama islands, all memorialized on the Cornerstone of Peace.
Human life was not all that was sacrificed in the battle of Okinawa. During the fighting, the Commander of the 32nd Army Headquarters issued the following order: “Effective immediately, all military personnel and civilian conscripts are banned from using any languages other than standard Japanese. Anyone speaking the Okinawan dialect will be executed as a spy.” The Okinawan people were coerced and beaten into war. Okinawa’s unique culture was fundamentally disavowed.
After the war, in the U.S., there was an awareness that many U.S. soldiers’ blood was spilled in the Battle of Okinawa, and in Japan, there was a sense of pride in how fiercely soldiers fought in spite of bleak conditions, but in the interstices, Okinawans are left with only conflicting circumstances and emotions.