The Funambulist Correspondents 17 /// Listening to the Multi-national War Dead in Okinawa



Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts

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“It is unethical to use soil soaked in blood of the war dead from the Battle of Okinawa.”

Takamatsu Gushiken

The day of the commemoration of the battle marked Takamatsu Gushiken’s fourth day of hunger strike on June 23, 2021. This was in response to a government plan to use the soil for the construction of a U.S. base in Oura Bay in the Henoko district of Nago City. Gushiken, whose nickname is Gamafuya, “a cave digger,” has been manually excavating remains of the war dead with his teams of Gamafuya in the hills of the southern part of Okinawa Island in hopes of consoling the dead’s souls by bringing their remains home to their families. Gushiken’s repatriation of war casualties started over four decades ago. According to the Prefectural Government, 2,849 dead people are still missing. So far, his group has unearthed approximately 300 war dead, including Americans who were identified and repatriated to the U.S. In March, sixty college students from Okinawa published an “Emergency Statement,” demanding the Japanese government halt the base construction plan. Similarly, Okinawan diaspora communities worldwide came together in the shape of Okinawa Liberty Project and started a campaign “Stop using soil that contains war dead to build a military base” on, which has received 6,000 signatures so far. The campaign statement is in four languages: English, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese. Okinawans who have roots in Okinawa are voicing their demilitarization efforts to the world. But who is listening? 

For Gushiken, unearthing the remains is a delicate work that must be done with human hands, not bulldozers, because some particles of weathered bones can be easily mistaken for limestones and tree branches. For him it is a labor of listening, witnessing, and learning stories from the deceased people of the war. He says:

Let the battlefield tell its story — did they die on their stomach or on their back?

To manually excavate the remains in a way that grants agency to the dead in order to let them tell us their stories of war: some were alone, crouched in the cave; other civilians were forced to commit suicide; or infants who died in their mothers’ arms by the orders of Japanese soldiers to stop them from crying. “It reveals the truth of war,” Gushiken explains. Listening to the militarized and remilitarized lands, which we call home, generates deep cares, connections, and living with the memories of the past which continue to be present today. The war is part of the present-day landscape in our daily sights. For Gushiken, demilitarization is a work of care that allows for those living to listen, to “rescue” the dead from being used for a landfill to build the foundation of a new U.S. military base.  “The truth of war” knows no geopolitical boundaries, or nationalities. 

U.S. military soldiers are vernacularly referred to as G.I.s. G.I. is an acronym often used for “general items,” “government issue,” “general issue,” “ground infantry,” or “galvanized iron.” What these terms have in common is perhaps a sense that they are dehumanized as government-owned things, that they are mere commodities. Commodified “items” become disposable and replaceable, deprived of their identities. Once disposed, are they not “rescuable” Americans? When their own nation-states left them buried in Okinawa, the ones who gently and carefully “rescue” them indiscriminately are Okinawans. Gushiken reminds us:

To not look away, to reckon with what took place…fosters an understanding and friendship that we can build for the future.”

By exemplifying the work of care, he mobilizes repatriation as a transnational demilitarization work. This is no longer an Okinawan’s story, but a transnational story of the battle of Okinawa, rooted in Okinawa, where the battlefield of demilitarization still remains very much here.  

Cynthia Enloe defines militarization as “a step-by-step process by which a person or a thing gradually comes to be controlled by the military or comes to depend for its well-being on militaristic ideas.” Additionally, Enloe once remarked that what is militarized can be demilitarized. Her words gave me hope for a future of demilitarization as a graduate student and encouraged me to tackle this work from my own positionality. Yet, we witness in Okinawa that before Okinawa is demilitarized, it is being remilitarized — our grandparents’, great-grandparents’, aunts’, uncles’, neighbors’ bodies are bulldozed to literally solidify the foundations of a new state-of-the-art U.S. military base in Henoko. Militarization here is not just a present moment’s daily occurrence to be demilitarized, rather it is actively maintained by a simultaneous multi-directional remilitarization process. A member of a bereaved family exclaims with a quiver in her voice, holding her grandfather’s portrait:

Must he be killed three times, first by the war, then by the mining company, and then buried in Henoko [as a landfill of a U.S. base]?

In this respect, the lands are our ancestors, and in being exposed to the present, the lands that narrate the lives of our struggle reveal how militarization and the subsequent demilitarization effort is not a linear process, rather a cyclical chain, which reemerges as a present issue in a metamorphic manner. Colonized indigenous lands are yet to be returned to the indigenous peoples.

I wonder who the subject was in Enloe’s assertion that what is militarized can be demilitarized. Who is the agent of demilitarization? Although unarticulated, the implied nuance is those who are militarized and break their silence. However, from the vantage point of the militarized, the demilitarization process is foremost the work of those who have militarized us: the U.S. and Japan. Traditional frameworks of decolonization and demilitarization have held the militarized and the colonized solely responsible for undertaking any kind of demilitarization work. Okinawans have visited the U.S. several times to cultivate solidarity endeavors in order to tackle the issue of militarization. Okinawan governors, city assembly members, Congress members, social workers, as well as members of the Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence campaign traveled extensively to the U.S. on speaking tours and hosted meetings with U.S. Congress members to deliver messages to work towards mutual understanding and demilitarization. The work was always upon us: to write and speak in good English, to raise funds to travel to the U.S. Now, it is time to unpack the privilege of silence on the side of U.S. citizens as allies of Okinawans. Demilitarization has to be a co-deconstruction work of care. In many cases witnessed by the Okinawans on their visit, U.S. politicians were indifferent, and citizens had no clue what their troops have been doing and how their country’s largest sum of tax was being used, at least in part, to reinforce injustices in the nations burdened by the U.S. military against the local peoples’ wills. The very definition of “we” and “they” has to be reconstituted to combine the effort of solidarity, because surely, “we” have a common place in state-sanctioned oppressions. 

Ayano Ginoza Funambulist Corresponents
Takamatsu Gushiken can be seen in the center at a press conference hosted by Citizens’ Council for Peace (Heiwa Shimin Renrakukai) at the Okinawa Prefectural Government Office on March 3, 2021.

“Thinking about militarization,” Enloe observes, “allows us to chart the silences. It enables us to see what is not challenged or, at the very least, what is not made problematic.” The silence we charted is that of the U.S. We have never been silent in Okinawa. On the contrary, we have begun solidarity work with the U.S. servicemen. Koza Rebellion of December 20, 1970, was a great example of racialized Black soldiers and colonized Okinawans coming together in solidarity to foreground the shared systematic oppressions despite the differences of languages, colors, and nations. The spirit was carried forward to the Black Lives Matter March in Okinawa in June 2020, which was initiated by Okinawan people with multiple roots. It is time to build allyship across the nation-states to break their silence, to listen to the transnational solidarity of decolonization, and to join Gushiken’s forty years of labor of care started in Okinawa.