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.