Takiechi Kakinohana can’t separate his feelings about his country’s recent bid to expand its military from his memories of the fortifications he watched Japanese troops dig as they readied for one of the last and deadliest battles of World War II.
Those long-ago tunnels were a sign to him that the Japanese soldiers he admired would protect civilians from the American “demons” he feared.
Instead, the battle for the southern island of Okinawa became a protracted fight that Japan used to delay an American invasion of its mainland. About 200,000 civilians died, many of whom took their own lives.
“We were sacrificed to protect mainland Japan,” said Kakinohana, 85. “We received that order. We fought for the country. And now again we are being sacrificed for the national defense.”
He’s part of an older generation of Japanese looking skeptically at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent lifting of restrictions on the nation’s military, which had constrained it solely to defensive operations since the end of World War II.
Their memories were set by the violent battles they witnessed and the scarcity that followed Japan’s surrender. The war turned them into pacifists and longtime supporters of the limitations Japan placed on its military while it was under U.S. control.
“We were starving,” said Ooshiro Yashitami, 77, who was too young to participate in the war but recalled a hardscrabble life on Okinawa after the fighting. Now he’s a Nago city council member trying to close an American military base near his community.
Abe and his supporters pressed for the change, a reinterpretation of Japan’s constitution, to better clarify that its self-defense forces can go to war if its close allies are attacked. It’s an expansion of powers beyond what Japan has undertaken with its peacekeeping deployments on United Nations missions and to support U.S. forces in Iraq.
“We are resolved to take yet more responsibility for the peace and stability in the world,” Abe said at an April address to Congress.
The distinction matters now, supporters say, because several East Asian nations are steeply raising their defense spending, and Japan’s interests may be harmed if it cannot respond to a crisis. Around the region, U.S. allies are monitoring China’s expansion into the South China Sea, where Beijing has been building military facilities on artificial islands in contested waters.
Until Japan’s Parliament adopted the reforms in September, it was unclear whether Japan had the constitutional authority to send troops to support crises that could include a North Korean attack on U.S. forces stationed near Japan.
Kakinohana, who worked for the U.S. Air Force after the war, doesn’t have a problem with a long-term U.S. presence in Japan to deter brewing threats coming from China’s rising military.
His doubts about Japan’s new policies center on his own government, which he calls “untrustworthy.”
During the war, he saw Japanese troops turn on local civilians, including his own family.
Back then, he was a teenager conscripted to support the Japanese army defending tiny Aka Island, west of Okinawa. At first, he was proud to help. Soldiers handed him a gun and told him to “shoot only when the Americans got in within 10 meters of you,” he said.
Fighter planes and naval artillery pummeled Aka in late March 1945, just before the main invasion of Okinawa the following month. Hundreds of civilians and Japanese soldiers endured the attacks by hiding in the crevasses of the island’s tallest mountain.
A small American infantry force followed on March 26, driving up the mountain and easily beating back Japanese forces. The U.S. troops did not complete the attack, though, instead choosing to contain the Japanese contingent on Aka rather than eliminate it.
For months, Japanese soldiers essentially held the civilians hostage as they dug in to avoid artillery. The officer in charge of the group refused to surrender until Aug. 22, 1945 – a week after Japan surrendered.
For Kakinohana, the depravity of the siege struck home when Japanese soldiers butchered his uncle and aunt when they fell under suspicion of helping the Americans.
“The Japanese soldiers I so admired were doing terrible things,” he said. “If anyone moved, they would shoot.”
He now lives in a home with a view of the beach where he once watched American soldiers land in the late days of World War II.
He’s been following news of Abe’s defense proposals and letting people know he has serious concerns about them. He noted that Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, served in the pro-military government led by Prime Minister Tojo Hideki that led Japan into World War II.
Kishi later was accused of war crimes but not convicted. He went on to serve as prime minster after the war and led his own campaign to build up Japan’s military during the 1950s and 1960s.
“It seems the Tojo government has been revived,” Kakinohana said.