Grantee: Professor Wesley Ueunten in partnership with the Okinawa Kenjinkai of San Francisco and the National Japanese American Historical Society
In Sacramento, California, there are dozens of families whose lives were forever altered by the closing days of the 2nd World War. It was in their strategically critical home region of Okinawa that the US military waged its largest and fiercest ground campaigns in the Pacific theater, against Japanese Imperial forces making a last-ditch effort to defend the nation from foreign invasion and occupation. An estimated 100,000 civilians died as the fighting raged around them, and their city was flattened by a massive bombing campaign from the air and nearby warships. Countless women, the elderly, and children hid in caves and family tombs to survive the lethal downpour of explosives. Hunger and illness took the lives of many whom the fighting did not claim.
Fujiko Dandoy was a 16-year-old civilian hastily prepared as a battlefield nurse to tend to wounded soldiers, some of whom were her own friends and schoolmates. The scenes of destruction and bloodshed, the sheer magnitude of the war's terrible human cost, haunt her still today, 66 years later and thousands of miles away. Like all the survivors, her eyes well up with tears as she recalls the many young friends still buried under the rubble that lies beneath modern-day Okinawa - their bodies never recovered, their traditional funeral tablets never erected.
Toshiko Slagle was just a little girl at the time, but she has vivid memories of life in the cramped, hot burial crypt where her family hid for safety. Together with her own mother's recollections shared over the years, she recalls intensely as her terrified mother was pressed by other relatives to carry out the unthinkable act of killing her baby brother to keep his crying from revealing their hiding place.
Toshiko's mother cried that she would rather die with him in the rainfall of explosions than to kill him with her own hands. Toshiko's family left to find another hiding place. An aunt who followed them with her baby was fatally wounded along the way. Her baby died son after. The grieving family buried both of them that night, in the wet sands of a nearby beach.
Okinawans lived on as best they could after Japan's surrender. Fujiko went to work at a US military base, where she met a Filipino-American worker in the Occupation Government who stole her heart. She, Toshiko, and many other local women married stationed US soldiers or civil servants and moved with them to a new home and very different life. Despite strong family and social opposition to marrying citizens of the victorious enemy country, hundreds went to California with American husbands and raised families.
Toshiko and her husband had to settle in California, because his home state of Arizona had a law prohibiting marriage between Caucasians and Japanese. They and their mixed-race children learned to live with stares from American neighbors, stares that barely disguised disapproval and lingering anti-Japanese sentiment.
Both women's stories have now been preserved on film, thanks to a collaborative project with the National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS), the Edison Uno Institute of Nikkei and Uchinanchu Studies (EUINUS) and the Okinawa Kenjinkai (OKK) of San Francisco, and headed by Professor Wesley Ueunten of SF State's College of Ethnic Studies.
The Nuchi du Takara project was funded in part by a Community-University Empowerment grant from the Céar Chávez Institute. Ueunten and colleague Keiko Yamanaka worked with students to conduct background research and organize, conduct, film and edit interviews with local Okinawa survivors and their husbands.
As Yamanaka wrote in the initial project proposal, 65 years after the Battle of Okinawa, it is important to look again at it's horrible destruction and the incredible efforts of the culturally distinct Okinawans to not only survive and recover, but also to revive and restore their culture and communities in a foreign land. As Ueunten points out, the massive conflict was played out in Okinawa largely due to the fact that it was only a "semi-Japanese" area forcibly annexed by the Empire only 70 years earlier: Tokyo was willing to force Okinawans to pay the heavy front-line price in order to buy time for Japan proper.
While it is painful to revisit the past, this filming was a chance for healing for both Okinawans and Japanese-Americans - especially for women, who now have the almost-lost opportunity to view their diasporization from a much-needed gendered perspective.
We thank these women for sharing their stories with us.