2022년 3월 3일 목요일

Interview with Professor Kirsten Ziomek on BOY SOLDIERS: THE SECRET WAR IN OKINAWA

Today’s special guest for  a discussion of  the devastating and illuminating Japanese documentary Okinawa supai senshi (Boy Soldiers: The Secret War in Okinawa) is Professor Kirsten Ziomek, Associate Professor of History at Adelphi University, and the author of Lost Histories: Recovering the Lives of Japan’s Colonial Peoples (Harvard Asia Center, 2019), a pathbreaking study of the ways the Japanese empire’s colonized population— mainly Okinawans, Ainu, Indigenous Taiwanese and Micronesians—  interacted with the metropole, astonishingly rich in detail and deeply challenging to today’s complacent notions of how the Japanese colonial empire actually worked. Her current book project is tentatively entitled The Disorder of Killing in the Pacific War:  the Colonial Soldiers, Laborers and Local Peoples at the Japanese Empire’s Edge, in which she seeks to examine the lives and experiences of the colonized and indigenous peoples during the Pacific War. This new book promises to be as powerful and upsetting to the status quo as her first, moving beyond the categorizations of the colonized and indigenous peoples as monochromatic victims or those who “joined the system” to become Japanese nationals. 

This interview was conducted in August 2, 2021 through Zoom. It has been edited and somewhat shortened for clarity and economy. The contents of this interview are copyrighted to Professors Kirsten Ziomek and Kyu Hyun Kim. Any reproduction of the contents therein without the explicit written consent of Professor Ziomek will be considered a breach of copyright laws as defined by the United States court system. “K” refers to Kyu Hyun Kim and “Z” refers to Kirsten Ziomek in the following interview text.


K: So grateful that you could join me today! To start off, could you tell me how you had come to hear about this documentary and your interest in the subject matter?

Z: I am writing a book, one of the chapters of which explores “spies” in wartime Okinawa. The more research I conducted, the more I have come to realize that these stories of Okinawans being subject to suspicion as spies by the Japanese military and executed are actually much more complex than previously thought, including a disturbing dimension of Okinawan civilian complicity in scapegoating or blaming fellow residents as spies. The rest of the chapter deals with the gokyōtai, the Okinawan youth who were mobilized to conduct guerilla warfare against the Americans, as “spies” by infiltrating enemy lines.  So not surprisingly, this film was extremely interesting and illuminating for me. For one, I had visited Iriomote and Ishigaki islands a long time ago, but I was then unaware of the terrible histories of relocation and violence told in the film. It was really shocking and powerful to listen to the testimonies of the survivors who had been children during this time, including that of Mr. Kudaka whose mother went insane after losing her son, a member of the gokyōtai (executed by Japanese officers), and his frank admission that he did not necessarily want his brother back but wanted his mother restored to normalcy.

K: The film draws upon two interrelated but distinct strands of discourses, one a more familiar anti-war message and another that specifically focuses on the sufferings of the Okinawans by the Yamatonchū or the “mainlanders (hondojin).” Do you feel these two strands are well integrated in the film?

Z: I feel that the first strand is always there, but whenever we deal with the modern history of Okinawa the question of colonialism is unavoidable. I cannot help but wonder if the Japanese wartime government would have treated the mainlanders the same way they had done with Okinawans as described in this film, for instance, forcibly and knowingly relocating a population of one island to a malaria-infested location just for strategic reasons. The directors’ main contribution to the discussion about the Japanese military’s treatment of Okinawan civilians during the Battle of Okinawa is to contend that how the Okinawans were treated- executed for being suspected “spies”- would have happened to Japanese civilians if fighting came to the mainland. Previous scholars have usually discussed the spy executions vis a vis the lens of colonialism; that is to say because Okinawans were seen as “others” they were viewed with suspicion, thus their mistreatment by the Japanese military. This film offers a different view, namely it was the military-civilian dynamic that took precedence over the fact that the civilians were Okinawan. It complicates the issue for sure, and I am torn whether what happened in Okinawa really could have been replicated on the mainland, as the filmmakers contend. 

K: Indeed. I was too surprised to see a direct acknowledgement in the film of the fact that the Japanese military had never really sought to “protect” civilians, that they really did not care how many ordinary Japanese citizens ended up dying in the course of protecting the emperor and the “national body.” This point is somehow not clearly conveyed in some of the more conventionally pacifist, anti-war films made in Japan. 

Z: I am looking at the Japanese military mobilization of the native population in New Guinea in my new book, and historically I could chart the relationship between the occupying Japanese and the native population that had begun at least with the stated intent of friendly cooperation and progressively deteriorated into something abjectly cruel and exploitative as conditions of war worsened. And again, this narrative reminded me of the Okinawan experience since it seemed so opposite. Namely, there was no pretense of civilian protection in Okinawa. In some respects, the Japanese military treated their own compatriots in Okinawa on par with or worse than how they treated foreign populations they forcibly occupied during the war.

K: In my research on the Japanese wartime mobilization of Koreans, I have come across time and again the characterization of Koreans by the colonial state and the Tokyo headquarters as “human resources” (jinteki shigen). Equally disturbing is the fact that this view of regarding its own population as resources has been squarely adopted and even flourishing in today’s East Asian nations— China, North and South Korea, Japan.

Z: Yes, and there is almost a kind of pointlessness built into the whole mentality behind seeing the population as exploitable resources. Exploit them towards what ends?  The answer the film provides-civilians were utilized in order to protect the nation’s power hierarchy is unsatisfying. Were soldiers so devoted to the emperor that they unquestionably saw civilians as resources to be utilized and disposed of as they saw fit? It is often told that when Japanese soldiers died they called for their mothers and did not say the emperor’s name. It is hard to believe this cruel attitude toward civilians was so simplistically conveyed and embraced. My previous research has found bonds of friendship between Okinawans and Japanese soldiers- not enough to combat the   view of the Japanese military as aggressive perpetrators, but enough to question if it is historically accurate to view the Japanese military with having such a single-minded and unified aim that could be executed during the war. I wonder to what extent the treatment of  Okinawans  during the war was due to the circumstances of war and how much it was due to specific military orders. The flimmakers want us to believe it was only the latter, but I am not certain.

K: I have also not seen in any other film the argument against operations of the Self-Defense Forces in Okinawa presented in this one, that the latter will not protect the Okinawan population against an external threat, whether it is China, North Korea, or whichever “enemy,” because that is not what they are set up to do. Do you feel that the filmmakers are attempting to expand the scope from the Okinawan experience to address the larger issues of Japanese geopolitics and do you think the attempt was successful?

Z: I think they are attempting to link what happened during the Battle of Okinawa to present day Okinawa with the SDF bases but they talk about the SDF bases without mention of American bases. The situation in Okinawa is obviously very complicated. Their attempt to link what happened to Okinawans during WWII to Japan’s current geopolitical position (Japan being an outpost of American empire) I think was halfhearted and not satisfying. That being said, I still think this film is very much an Okinawan story. The Okinawans I have encountered, from academics to cab drivers, continued to make a distinction between Uchinānchū (Okinawan natives) and Yamatonchū. The Nagano School agents sent to Okinawa were able to draw upon the ambivalent and complex relationships between Okinawans and Japanese in order to mobilize the youth as soldiers.  This film made me think of Matthew Allen’s “Wolves at the Back Door” (See references) where he describes a group of civilians, including some Koreans, who resided on Kumejima island and were killed in August 1945, after the war had officially been terminated, by a group of Japanese soldiers who had suspected the former of “working with the enemy.” The commanding officer, a man named Kayama Tadashi, survived well into the postwar period.  In media interviews he was completely unrepentant, assuming the attitude of “we did what had to be done.” While the Kumejima massacre is one of the most well-known cases of Okinawans being executed as spies, the filmmakers do not discuss this event. Instead they offer many examples of how and why Okinawans were executed as spies including how Okinawan civilians worked to root out other Okinawans as “spies.”

K: Unfortunately, I have seen this kind of dehumanization of the “local population as enemies” more than once when I was growing up in South Korea. There was, for instance, a military training instructor at my junior high school, a Viet Nam War veteran who used to reminisce with relish about his killing of “Viet Congs.”

Z: Yes, and I keep coming back to this terrible fact that all these horrors are known to us today because the eyewitnesses had experienced them as children.

K: I am conflicted about the pacifist messages prevalent in the postwar Japanese culture, many of which seem to be predicated on two premises: that the postwar Japan is so different from the prewar Japan that it will never engage in a similar type of behavior regarding its “outside” population or its own citizens, and that the Japanese people in general are exempt from “war responsibility,” however the “bad apples” responsible for the war might be defined.  I am in principle sympathetic to these pacifist sentiments and ideas but as a historian I cannot help feel that they miss out important stories and experiences as well as the broader picture of the Japanese empire. 

Z: I wholeheartedly agree.  The film we are discussing certainly locates a significant piece that fits into the larger puzzle picture constituting the war experience for Asians.  Having said that, it should remain a constant struggle for historians like us, journalists, artists and ordinary citizens, too, to try to find other equally relevant puzzle pieces and at the same time not to lose sight of the whole picture.

K: Any aspect of the present documentary that you had questions about, or any subject matter that you feel could have been covered in greater depth or detail?

Z: The relocation of the Hateruma island residents, for one, could have fleshed out more from my historian’s point of view, and there are other instances where I felt more corroborating evidence would have been helpful. However, I understand that  Mikami Chie has published her research in book form and I assume the book presumably answers some of my questions- I have not yet finished reading through it yet (see References). The stories about the Nakano School have been well researched. Stephen Mercado’s study (see References) deals with this institution but I was not aware that some 42 graduates were sent to Okinawa, a large number by any standard. The documentary also offered invaluable first hand testimony from former gyokyōtai, which Mercado’s study does not include.

K: This is perhaps a sideline point but the parallel between Okinawa during the Pacific War and Cheju [Jeju] island before and after the Korean War, as well as the islanders’ postwar struggles with the wartime legacies and subsequent militarization of the islands is quite striking.

Z: I have heard about what happened after WWII at Cheju Island but can you tell me a bit more about what you mean?

K:  Hyôn Kirôn (1949-2020), for instance, has written a story about a Cheju diver who is promoted as an anti-Japanese nationalist heroine, but she herself remains conflicted about the relationship with the “mainlanders” and questions others seeing her in such a light. The imposition of the nationalist narrative, compounded by the Cold War dynamics, on the Cheju population tends to obscure the semi-colonial or internal colonial relationship the islanders had had with the rest of the Koreans.

K: I am, then, not far off when I say you approve the current documentary for alerting the viewers to certain important aspects of the Pacific War and Okinawan experiences?

Z: No, I wouldn’t say you are far off. I would say it is a significant contribution that will offer new information to many who think they know the typical narratives about of how Okinawans suffered during the war.

K: Thank you so much for the insightful discussion! Let’s keep the discussion going about these and other matters of common interest.  

Z: Absolutely!



Allen, Matthew.  “Wolves at the Back Door: Remembering the Kumejima Massacres,” in Laura Hein, Mark Selden, eds. Islands of Discontent: Okinawan Responses to Japanese and American Power (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

Mercado, Stephen. The Shadow Warriors of Nakano: A History of the Imperial Japanese Army’s Elite Intelligence School (Washington D.C.: Brassey’s Inc., 2003).

Mikami Chie. Shōgen Okinawa supai senshi  (Tokyo: Shūeisha, 2020).

Ziomek, Kirsten. Lost Histories: Recovering the Lives of Japan’s Colonial Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Asia Center Publication, 2019). (For more information see: www.kziomek.com)



2022년 3월 2일 수요일

'We Never Treated These Civilians Unfairly'- DVD Review of BOY SOLDIERS: THE SECRET WAR IN OKINAWA

BOY SOLDIERS: THE SECRET WAR IN OKINAWA 沖縄スパイ戦史. Japan, 2018. A Tofoo Films/Documentary Japan Co-Production, with assistant from Ryūkyū shinpōsha, Okinawa Times Company, Okinawa Kiroku Eiga-wo Ōen-suru Kai. Aspect ratio 1.78:1. 1 hour 54 minutes. Directors: Mikami Chie 三上智恵, Ōya Hanayo 大矢英代 . Cinematography: Hirata Mamoru 平田守 .  Editor: Suzuo Keita 鈴尾啓太. Music: Fujii Yūji 藤井祐二   Interviewed: Sugeyama Ryōkō 瑞慶山良光 , Kudaka Eiichi 久高栄一 Tamazato Katsuzō 玉里勝三 Tamai Teiji 玉城貞二, Miyagi Kōji 宮城康二, Ōshiro Hirokichi 大城弘吉 . 

The horrible treatment that Okinawans received during the Pacific War, especially in its end stages, has been public knowledge for quite a while now, but of course there are stories from the Okinawan experiences that remain untold or insufficiently publicized. A committed movement in the postwar Japan against militarization of the Okinawan islands has drawn upon the tragic wartime history of the island population to remind the world that the horrors of wartime mobilization could repeat itself in the near future, if the Okinawans let the US-Japan international-security network in the Pacific that ultimately regard the local population as strategically “expendable” dictate their fates. One outcome of the concerted efforts to excavate the hidden history of the military exploitation of Okinawans is this documentary, co-directed by Mikami Chie (1964-), a veteran journalist at Ryūkyū Asahi Radio and director of such Okinawa-themed documentaries as The Targeted Village (2012), and Ōya Hanayo, a young former reporter for Ryūkyū Asahi Broadcasting Station and producer of the award-winning TV program The Terrorist Was Me (2016), about former US soldiers stationed in Okinawa who had become anti-war and anti-base activists.     

The film is far from a leftist screed, although some viewers who want to strenuously decouple contemporary global geopolitics from the histories of wartime Japan, Okinawa and the Pacific War might still find it “excessively political.” Mikami and Ōya ground their work firmly in the recollections of the septuagenarian and octogenarian Okinawan survivors of the Pacific War. Their accounts are told in an unhurried, minimalist manner avoiding dramatic emphases, rendering this film stylistically “conservative” compared to well-known non-fiction features dealing with memories of a war such as Erol Morris’s The Fog of War (2003).   

Harrowing, emotionally devastating yet ultimately hopeful, these stories contribute to the deepening of our historical understanding of not only the colonial and neo-colonial experiences of the Okinawans in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries but also the ways in which the Japanese wartime regime wanted to play the “end game” of their horrifying war.  The Army Nakano School established in 1938, the notorious anti-espionage and spy-training institution figures importantly in the narrative of establishment and deployment of Gokyōtai (The Hometown Protection Unit), a guerrilla paramilitary group specifically designed to attack and sabotage American troops moving into Okinawa and composed of young Okinawan boys aged fourteen to eighteen.  Some 160 boys perished in their combat actions against the Americans, and the filmmakers do not avert their eyes from graphic presentations of the horribly perforated and mangled remains of these children, captured in the photographs of the American soldiers.  A few of them were summarily executed by their “superiors” for their failure to be “good soldiers,” such as a boy named Takaesu who had apparently displayed symptoms of psychotic breakdown.  The “officer” from the mainland put a blanket over the hysterically laughing boy and summarily shot him dead, as recalled by a surviving Gokyōtai member.  Nakano School-trained counter-espionage specialists— 42 in total were sent to Okinawa, according to the filmmakers— infiltrated the Okinawan society, winning the trust of the locals, especially children: one such individual named Murakami Haruo played a charming, sophisticated “mainland” teacher to a group of schoolchildren, giving them pep talks and displaying warm smiles, only to take off his sheep’s skin once the American landing became imminent, organizing his “charges” into human grenades and mines and sending them to certain death.   

Another lesser-known episode that filmmakers discuss is the forced relocation of the residents of Hateruma island, one of the Okinawa’s many islands, to a section of the bigger Iriomote island. The residents were told to slaughter all of their livestock (Okinawans, unlike the sometimes ridiculously misleading “Blue Zone” characterization of them as nature-loving rustics living off fish and seaweed, were consuming much red meat prior to the advent of McDonalds and KFC in the postwar, US-military-dominated periods) so that the Americans, a “carnivore race,” could not make use out of them, but the meat was of course filched for the consumption of the Japanese soldiers.  And many residents knew that the relocation to Iriomote could expose them to malaria, already established to have been circulating in that section of the island.  The Nakano School agent named “Yamashita Torao” overruled these objections and pushed through the relocation.  As a result, many Hateruma island residents perished following prolonged suffering, having contracted malaria without availability of an adequate medical assistance. “Yamashita,” whose real name was Sakai Kiyoshi, did quite well as a civilian businessman after the war, becoming a factory owner, and the documentary records a chilling telephone interview with him by an Okinawan journalist, wherein he punctuates his complete denial of ever having “mistreated” the locals with smooth aizuchi (“yes, yes,” “of course, of course”) and personable guffaws.    

While the film is not short, clocking at nearly two hours, and some of the local details, such as names of the individual islands, could be a bit confusing for those unfamiliar with Okinawan geography, history and culture, it admirably holds the viewer’s interest and plays scrupulously fair to all participants, never lingering on any one particular issue for dramatic effect. It also does not merely focus on “human interest” stories and makes an attempt to reach out to historians and academics in order to make sense out of the eyewitness accounts in the context of modern Japanese history. Kawamitsu Akira, a specialist of Nago City history and author of numerous academic studies on the Gokyōtai and war orphans, and other historians argue that the Japanese army in truth never wanted to protect the civilian population of Okinawa, or for that matter, the civilian population of Japan, from the ravages of the war. Their objective had always been “protection of the kokutai,” the mythical “national body” embodied in the person of the emperor: the rest of the Japanese population was, in a word, “expendable.” The historical sources explored in the documentary illustrate that the plans to continue combatting, via guerrilla warfare and sabotage, the American forces should they end up landing and occupying Japan were in the works, and Okinawa was regarded as a prefatory stage for this eventuality.    

Can It Be Used in Class?   This documentary is currently uploaded with English subtitles as a paid rental service at Vimeo: you can access it from this URL.  The curated VOD channel MUBI has the present title in their catalogue with a trailer, but the film itself appears unavailable.  Taking into consideration difficulties of navigating such a dialogue-heavy film, you could assign this work as a supplementary material in a course covering modern Okinawan history, history of Japanese militarism and/or the end stages of the Pacific War. So often the American historical perspective about Okinawa is rigidly bifurcated between that of a particularly brutal battle theater in the late stages of the Pacific War and that of an exotic tourist spot with some sideline knowledge about the US military presence. The present documentary forces the viewers to recognize the immediacy and urgency of the history of the ongoing (neo-)colonial relationship between Japan and Okinawa and how such a history is also unavoidably intertwined with the ongoing presence of the US military stemming from the postwar US-Japan security partnership.  

The Japanese DVD (NTSC and all-region, so it should play in American and non-Japanese Asian players), issued from Kinokuniya Bookstore is well-produced with three rather substantial supplementary videos. For me, the first segment (clocking in around 17 minutes) regarding the post-production, marketing and the screening of the film for the local Okinawan viewers, is the most interesting and illuminating, the extremely fresh-looking director Ōya— looking hardly aged from her college student days— leaving a striking impression as an ethnographer-historian. The second video, longer at 37 minutes, is the longer version of the fieldwork footage involving the Cherry Blossom Sightseeing Society organized by the Gokyōtai survivors. The last short (19 minutes) is an edited recording of more eyewitness accounts at a public symposium discussing the Gokyōtai’s suppressed history.  All in all, this is an excellent presentation of a soft-spoken but provocative documentary that deserves to be seen by many viewers with more than a passing interest in the history of Japan, Okinawa and the Pacific War.