The Japanese literature scholar Donald Keene might never have set foot in the country to which he has devoted his life if a suicide pilot had succeeded in his mission on April 1, 1945.
Keene, speaking to The Asahi Shimbun at his Tokyo home ahead of the anniversary of the official end of hostilities on Okinawa on June 23, said the troop transport taking him into the Battle of Okinawa could easily have been sunk before he even got ashore.
"A kamikaze aircraft came head-on toward my transport vessel. I stood rooted to the deck, not knowing what to do," the 90-year-old Columbia University professor emeritus recalls.
Fortunately for Keene, the kamikaze plane touched the mast of an adjacent vessel and crashed into the sea.
"I wouldn't be here if it hadn't been for the mast," he says.
Keene, then a 22-year-old interpreter in the U.S. Army's 96th Infantry Division, had another narrow escape later the same day.
Entering a shelter in Yomitan to try to persuade local people to come out of hiding, he encountered a seated Japanese soldier holding a gun. He immediately left the shelter and the soldier did not shoot.
"I never used (my gun)," Keene says. "That is because I believed I had no right to kill others."
Keene--who had previously been stationed on the Aleutian island of Attu, where the entire Japanese force fought to the death--landed on Okinawa near what is now the Sunabe district of Chatan and marched toward the Futenma district of Ginowan. His 96th Infantry Division then marched south via Ginowan and made a bloody attack on the Maeda Escarpment in Urasoe.
"In Futenma, we camped in a pigsty enclosed by concrete walls on four sides. I saw many books on farming in a nearby building," he says, referring to what was probably an experimental agricultural facility in Futenma.
His duties included interrogating captives taken in the area and using loudspeakers to call on Japanese soldiers to surrender.
"The broadcasts were not very effective," Keene says. "Japanese soldiers and civil defense forces charged at us with bombs on their backs, even if they had no chance of winning. Some women and children committed suicide."
Keene already knew, from his translation duties in Hawaii, that the Japanese military taught its soldiers that falling captive was the ultimate shame and Japanese military documents that he saw in Okinawa said women would be raped and children killed if they fell captive.
"That's why people who could have survived took their own lives," according to Keene, speaking angrily for the only time in the interview. "I really cannot forgive what the top brass of the Japanese military did."
Localized skirmishes continued on Okinawa even after all organized battles ended on June 23, 1945. A total of more than 120,000 Okinawans and 12,500 U.S. soldiers were killed.
Keene, who was born in New York in 1922 but took Japanese citizenship this March following the Great East Japan Earthquake, began his lifelong love affair with Japan five years before the Okinawan bloodbath, when he came across a translation of the 11th-century Japanese novel "The Tale of Genji" while studying at Columbia University. Eager to study the Japanese language, he joined the U.S. Navy's language school and read diaries and letters of Japanese soldiers at a translation bureau in Hawaii.
But he was not able to experience everyday life in Japan until after the Battle of Okinawa.
"The Japanese people I got to know after World War II were not belligerent," Keene, who remained posted on Okinawa until mid-July 1945, says. "Humans change their character when they become part of a mass. That happened to the Japanese during World War II."
The legacy of the fighting on Okinawa still marks the country. A large swath of land in Futenma, where Keene stayed in the pigsty, was turned into an air station by U.S. troops during the war and is still used by the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. The planned relocation of that base to the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa, and the proposed stationing of Osprey aircraft on the island are still major thorns in U.S.-Japan relations.
Keene, who plans to visit Okinawa to deliver a speech toward the end of this year, his third visit to the southern prefecture since the war, believes Okinawa has paid enough.
"What with aircraft noise and crimes committed by U.S. soldiers, Okinawa is being treated the worst of any region in Japan. Big U.S. military bases are there, but nobody explains why," he says.
"There will be no need for the military bases if there is no longer a fear of war, and if the United States and China get along on friendly terms with each other,” he says. “That will create a better world and that is my dream.”
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