War memories drive Okinawa's most passionate peace activist
Fumiko Nakamura promoted militarism to her students in the 1930s. Now she's a pacifist icon.
Fumiko Nakamura, a 91-year-old former public school teacher, can't shake the profound remorse she feels for the loss of her students during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
Before Okinawa, a subtropical island in the Pacific, was turned into a killing field 60 years ago, Ms. Nakamura used to exhort her students to fight for the emperor and for the state. Her students were among more than 200,000 people, including 12,520 Americans, who perished during the Battle of Okinawa, which started in March 1945.
She is deeply ashamed of her involvement in the war. "I will carry this sin as long as I live," she says.
But her shame hasn't kept her silent. Ever since the war, this diminutive woman has fought for peace, protesting US military presence here, and becoming a pacifist icon.
As Japan expands its military roles abroad, her voice has grown louder.
"I see certain parallels between present situations in Japan and in the prewar period," she warns.
Nakamura grew up under a totalitarian ideology in the 1930s. "We were indoctrinated ... with patriotic songs, slogans, and army propaganda," she recalls.
As an elementary-school teacher, Nakamura played a part in that indoctrination. "In class [she] used to ask all of us if we could die for the state," recalls Fumiko Toyama, a student of Nakamura in 1937. "Whenever our 'yes' was not loud enough, she'd snap, 'Speak up!' "
Nakamura says she once lived without freedom of speech, so now she values that freedom.
"I continue to speak out as long as my mouth works," she declares. Since 1986, Nakamura has been a director of the Okinawa Historical Film Society, a group in Naha, the island's capital. In the 1980s, the organization bought unedited footage of the Battle of Okinawa from the National Archives in Washington.
The group presented the resulting video tapes around the world.
After a showing in Hawaii, one elderly woman told Nakamura that she had been reluctant to see a "Jap movie" about the war. Seeing the suffering of Okinawans, however, had changed her mind. "You should show this all over the world," she told Nakamura. Nakamura later presented the film to the United Nations.
Today, Nakamura devotes much of her energy to protesting the presence of the US military in Okinawa.
US military bases make up about 20 percent of Okinawa's mainland. American forces here remain central to the US security strategy in Asia. "We have been troubled by problems stemming from the [US military] presence," she says, stressing that she is not anti-American, but antimilitary and antiwar.
Concern about the US military presence here flared up in 1995, when the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan by three US servicemen incurred the wrath of islanders.
Many Okinawans share her sentiment, but others welcome the economic boost the bases provide.
For instance, the city of Nago in northern Okinawa, lured by lucrative government subsidies, accepted a plan to construct a gigantic offshore US military facility on the pristine sea.
The construction, however, has been opposed by locals and environmentalists.
"She puts people first and ideology second," says Ruth Ann Keyso-Vail, the American author of "Women of Okinawa: Nine Voices from a Garrison Island," which featured Nakamura. "Here she is, 91 years old, and she is still involved."
Now that some Japanese leaders want to turn the Self-Defense Forces into full-fledged military, Nakamura has become more vocal than ever, even giving two-hour speeches standing up to insist on peace.
"She continues to speak out about peace on the front line," says Hiroshi Hosaka, a professor of sociology and communications at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa. "That is precious."