I recently heard a story that I’ve heard a few times before:

The Battle of Okinawa was one of the bloodiest skirmishes of World War II. The 82-day battle claimed the lives of 14,000 Allied forces and 77,000 Japanese soldiers. Most tragically, somewhere between 100,000 to 150,000 Japanese civilians died.

There’s just one thing: that story is a bit of WWII era political propaganda. Or at best, a misunderstanding of Japanese geopolitics.

The horror of Okinawa was used in part to justify the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

The two bombings claimed at least 129,000 lives – including many civilians in Hiroshima. But ultimately, we are to believe, the act was just. The Battle of Okinawa showed that the Japanese were exactly the monsters our propaganda made them out to be – cold and bloodthirsty. Willing to sacrifice themselves and their civilian population for a cause they foolishly found to be noble.

Using that logic, the bombings were a mercy, really.

Some estimates put the cost of a land war at 400,000 to 800,000 American fatalities and a shocking five to ten million Japanese fatalities.

The atomic bomb may have been a drastic assault, but ultimately it ended the war faster leading to fewer fatalities for Americans and the Japanese alike.

Now let’s back up a minute.

Let’s put aside the fact that its hard to be precise about the number of deaths in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, in part due to the terrible health impacts from radiation exposure.

What exactly did happen in Okinawa?

The number of deaths cited above are about as accurate as war fatality counts are likely to be. Many American’s died, many more in the Japanese army died, and even more civilians died.

But they weren’t Japanese civilians. They were Okinawans . Even amongst the military dead many of those “Japanese” soldiers were Okinawan conscripts.

Why does that distinction matter?

For centuries Okinawa had been an autonomous regime with it’s own distinct culture. The Okinawans faced increasing encroachment from Japanese forces and was officially annexed in 1879 – a mere 66 years before the Battle of Okinawa.

All of that is to say – the Okinawans were not Japanese. They were Okinawan. Culturally distinct and treated as second class citizens or worse by their Japanese oppressors. The Okinawans had no military tradition and “frustrated the Japanese with their indifference to military service.”

Those were the people who died in Okinawa.

Not rabid Japanese nationalists determined to do anything for victory. Simply civilians and civilians dressed up as soldiers. Forced into service for a repressive regime.

Casualties were so high at Okinawa because the Japanese didn’t really care whether the Okinawans lived or died.

We’d be right to judge the Japanese harshly for their disdain for Okinawan life – but we must find ourselves equally wanting. The American government has always cared more for American lives.

Perhaps that is right. And perhaps the nuclear bomb really was the moral thing to do.

But let’s always dig a little deeper, try a little hard to understand a people apart from ourselves. And let us not base our understanding off a caricature or off an outdated piece of propaganda.

And let us remember: Okinawans died here.


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