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Huge crowds gather at Peace Memorial Park for "Irei no hi"

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-06-27

This past Tuesday, on June 23, Okinawans around the island paid their respects to all relatives, family, and friends who lost their lives during the battle of Okinawa and at other places around the Pacific. The day, "Irei no hi", was established as a national holiday after the war, to remember and honor all the people who died, and to pass on the lessons learned from that tragic episode.

Fifty three years ago on April 1, Americans began to make their way to the beaches of Okinawa. Meeting little resistance at first, an ensuing battle occurred, described by many as one of the fiercest battles to be waged in the Pacific campaign. Caught in the middle of Japanese and American fighting forces were the Okinawan people, who were left defenseless to fend for themselves. The Japanese command had made no provisions to protect or evacuate the civilian population. Propaganda by the Japanese military told Okinawans they would be raped, tortured, and killed by the American soldiers. Fearful, the Okinawans either committed suicide or fled south, where unfortunately they became engulfed in the killing. When the battle finally ended on June 23, almost one third of the total civilian population had perished, and over 12,000 American soldiers were killed.

To commemorate the terrible loss of life, Okinawans prayed in their homes at their family altars, and also gathered together with other neighbors at many of the small village shrines. Each local municipality and village area had various ceremonies planned for the day. Places like Himeyuri Monument, dedicated to the hundreds of school girls who were hiding inside the caves and killed themselves, were also visited by thousands of mourners.

One of the most visited places of the day was Okinawa Peace Prayer and Memorial Park, located at the southern end of Okinawa. Three years ago the "Cornerstone of Peace Monument" was completed and dedicated on "Irei no hi" to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. It contains the names of everyone, including American soldiers and other foreigners who last their lives during the battle of Okinawa. Over 235,000 names hold their place on the huge slabs of stone that spread out endlessly across the park.

This year 663 newly discovered names were added during one of the many ceremonies that were planned by the Prefecture. Huge crowds came to honor their lost loved ones and take part in a mass prayer ceremony, which was held at 11 am. Later on in the day, students performed at the "Young Peace Festival", which featured music and dance. The festival was organized by the Prefecture to pass on the message of peace to young people. Although many tears were shed, the hope for a peaceful world rang out clearly through the hopes and voices of Okinawa's next generation.

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