Scenic Okinawan isles with tragic past

INTO THE BLUE YONDER: Aka Island, famous for its deer population, is part of the village of Zamami. The waters in this area are said to be some of the clearest in the world, and their colour is called Kerama Blue. US forces landed on the Kerama islands on March 26 and 27, 1945, sparking the Battle of Okinawa.


    May 06, 2015

    Scenic Okinawan isles with tragic past

    THROUGH the clear blue water, you can see beautiful white sand on the ocean floor. The beaches are crowded with young people diving and spending time with their families.

    This is Zamami Island, one of the islands that make up the village of Zamami, Okinawa Prefecture, to the west of Okinawa Island.

    Near the end of World War II, United States forces landed on the Kerama islands, which includes Zamami Island, on March 26 and 27, 1945, sparking the Battle of Okinawa.


    The Japanese military repeatedly told the islanders that if they fell into the clutches of American soldiers, women would be raped and men would be killed, a prospect that drove many to commit mass suicide. Across the islands, more than 600 people perished through suicide. Zamami Island saw 234 residents kill themselves - the second-largest number after 330 deaths on Tokashiki Island, also one of the Kerama islands.

    "The sea was filled with US ships," said Fumiko Miyamura, 89, furrowing her brow at her home near Zamami Bay on the island. "There were so many, it looked as if you could walk on them to get to the next island."

    Madam Miyamura was 19 at the time. She saw lines of US soldiers coming to her village after landing. She fled to a nearby cave to hide, where she found dozens of bodies of women and children.

    She realised instantly that her uncle, who was still in the cave, had killed his wife, children and grandchilden with his own hands.

    "Do you want to die, too?" he asked with a blank expression on his face.

    "Absolutely not," she said.

    The uncle then hanged himself after saying: "My children are waiting for me."

    Mie Tanaka, now 84, was 14 at the time. She escaped to another cave with her friends and a homeroom teacher.

    "Let's kill ourselves," the teacher said and pulled the pin of a hand grenade he was holding. However, it failed to explode. Madam Tanaka fled the cave, frightened.

    She told us the way to that cave, which is located on the shore of the north side of the island. At high tide, the cave cannot be accessed from land. About 100 people were packed into the cave of about 10 sq m at that time, according to Madam Tanaka.

    Frightened, they must have sat huddled together. The sound of the wind echoed throughout the cave, and it was like the wails of those islanders caught in a choice between life and death.

    The Tower of Peace stands along the side of Mount Takatsuki, 131m above sea level. It takes about 10 minutes to walk there from Zamami Bay. The tower is dedicated to those killed in the battle. Facing away from the tower, you can see the bay, Zamami village and, in the distance, Aka Island, which is part of the village.

    It is said that a unit of the Japanese military on Aka Island did not believe the war had ended on Aug 15, 1945 and kept fighting for seven more days.

    After 70 years, there are fewer and fewer people who remember such stories. Most of the 200,000 people visiting the island annually are tourists.

    After the war, many residents on the island opened inns for such tourists. Madam Tanaka is among them.

    "I had terrible, terrible experiences," she said. "Since our island is filled with smiles today, I don't ever want to have the same experience again, nor do I want any children to experience it."

    She then looked at the parents and children playing in her inn's dining room.


    The Kerama islands are made up of about 30 large and small islands, including Zamami, Akashima and Tokashiki. They were originally called Kirama.

    In the 1200s, the islands became important stops for trading ships travelling between Okinawa Island and China. In the early 1900s, bonito fishing made the islands prosperous.

    However, the islands were radically changed during World War II. US bombardment by sea and air destroyed houses and turned the islands into completely burnt-out ruins. The residents faced difficult times after that, but the islands have recovered with tourism as their main industry and now have about 1,500 residents.

    The waters here are said to be some of the clearest in the world, and their colour is called Kerama Blue. About 250 varieties of coral grow in the waters around the islands. You can enjoy diving all year round, and whale-watching is popular in winter as you can watch humpback whales at close range.

    The beautiful scenery and biodiversity of the Kerama islands are highly valued. In March last year, the islands and their surrounding waters were designated as Japan's 31st national park.

    However, there have been threats to the local environment. In 1998, rising water temperatures and other factors caused the bleaching and dying out of parts of the coral population. From 2001 to 2006, large numbers of crown-of-thorns starfish, which prey on coral, appeared. Local divers and fishermen battled the creatures every day.

    The villages of Zamami and Tokashiki have established a local council to promote ecotourism. They are trying to preserve the beautiful natural environment by limiting diving spots, among other efforts.