OKINAWA, JAPAN —
Gushiken Takamatsu balances his spectacles on the tip of his nose before switching on his headlight, revealing the blackened fragments on the floor of the cave. Using an old plasterer’s tool, he gently combs through the debris before picking out a jagged, triangular piece of bone.
“Zugaikotsu,” he says, in a gentle Okinawan accent. “Skull.” He points to the patterns created by blood vessels on the inside of the skull, clearly visible after nearly 80 years.
The 69-year-old speaks quietly to himself as he collects other pieces from the cave floor — fragments of finger bones and what appears to be a kneecap. “Is this dead person a soldier or a civilian?” he asks. “I think it was a flamethrower that did this. Everything is burned.”
The jungle caves of Okinawa hide the remains of thousands of civilians and soldiers, victims of the last major battle of World War II.
On April 1, 1945, American forces invaded the southern Japanese islands of Okinawa, triggering one of the bloodiest land battles of the Pacific. Takamatsu has spent decades searching for the remains of those who died. Now he fears Okinawa is once again caught in the crosshairs of potential conflict.
For decades, the bones of the victims have lain undisturbed as Japan tried to forget its wartime past. That shames the nation, says Takamatsu. The Okinawan native founded Gamafuya, or “cave digger,” a small group of volunteers dedicated to finding the remains of wartime victims and reuniting them with their living descendants.
“I’m often asked why I started doing this,” Takamatsu says. “I was born in Naha city [the Okinawan capital], and there were many remains of people who died in the war around my house. It was the kind of place where you would still see skeletons wearing steel helmets when you went out to play in the mountains. When I was a child it was just scary. But as I got older and matured, I wondered why the victims of this war were still there.”
Through 40 years of searching, Takamatsu has discovered the remains of over 700 people. The Japanese government does not provide financial help. Finally, in 2011, it agreed to offer DNA testing on the remains. However, the number of Japanese citizens registered on the database is small, while many relatives of the victims have likely already died.
“We are one or two volunteers,” Takamatsu tells VOA. “In reality, the government should be doing this. But even though we ask, they refuse. I want to show that if you look for the remains in this way, you can find them. This work isn’t finished yet.”
He gathers together the fragments he has found, before saying a short prayer — and promises that he will return to the cave to finish the search another day. “After about five hours, if I do more than that, I’ll get too tired. So I’ll do it next time,” he says. “This work is never-ending.”
Hacking through the jungle, Takamatsu heads to another site where he has found human remains. He climbs over the jagged rocks and into a shaded ravine. At the base, several long bones are neatly aligned beneath the decaying leaves and soil. Other remains are concealed beneath large rocks that have cascaded down the ravine, possibly as a result of the ferocious battles that raged above 78 years ago.
Takamatsu measures a radius, or forearm bone, and determines that the remains belong to an adult male, before jotting his discovery in a battered field notebook. He will have to return with other volunteers to help shift the rocks and remove the other remains.
Takamatsu notifies the police of each of his finds. The bones are taken to a makeshift morgue at the local peace museum before being sent for DNA testing.
So far, Takamatsu has been able to identify four bodies and reunite the bones with their surviving relatives. All were from the Japanese mainland — soldiers sent to Okinawa to fight the American invasion.
The families “didn’t believe me at first,” Takamatsu says. “They were suspicious and thought it was a scam. But I understand how they felt. For 70 years they didn’t hear anything, and then they get a phone call to say their relative had been found. It was like their father was coming home. They were very happy.”
Battle of Okinawa
The American invasion of Okinawa triggered three months of ferocious fighting. Around 90,000 Japanese soldiers and 12,000 U.S. troops had been killed by the time American forces seized the capital, Naha, in early June 1945. The United States feared such losses would continue if its forces invaded the Japanese mainland. Those concerns partly led to the decision to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki two months later. Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945.
The civilian toll in Okinawa was even higher, with an estimated 100,000 people killed — around a quarter of the prewar population of the islands.
The Japanese government told local inhabitants that they would be beaten and murdered by U.S. forces. Many hid in the island’s caves. Some committed suicide as the fighting approached.
“The inhabitants were not allowed to surrender. If you surrendered to the Americans and tried to walk out with your hands up, the Japanese would shoot you in the back,” Takamatsu tells VOA.
“They were told that no one would survive if captured by the U.S. military,” he says. “They said that women would be beaten and killed, while all the men would be lined up on the road and run over by tanks. So, the residents were very afraid of the American military. However, it wasn’t until after they became prisoners of war that they realized that wasn’t true. The U.S. military provided the residents with food and medical care.”
Fast forward to the present, and the United States and Japan are now close allies. Okinawa hosts almost 30,000 American troops, and it is among the most important U.S. military bases in the Pacific, seen by Washington as an increasingly vital deterrent amid growing Indo-Pacific tensions.
In the remote Henoko Bay on the east coast of the island, a new U.S. air base is being built. It’s hoped the new base will relieve pressure on existing facilities, especially the Futenma air base, which is located in a residential area north of Naha and has long created tensions with locals.
However, some of the earth used in the construction of the Henoko base is being excavated from the south of Okinawa — from battlegrounds where U.S. forces came ashore in 1945.
Local authorities insist the material is screened before it is dug up. Takamatsu says it likely contains the remains of Japanese and American soldiers. “This is blasphemy against the dead. I’m imploring them to stop doing it,” he says.
Meanwhile, as regional tensions escalate with China over Taiwan, and with North Korea over its missile and nuclear weapons programs, there are growing fears that these heavily militarized islands could once again be caught in the crosshairs of a Pacific war.
“Missiles will fly to Okinawa again. If there is a war, this place will be attacked. That’s what bothers me the most,” Takamatsu tells VOA. “Let’s all stand together. Let’s eliminate war from the Earth. I believe that if we ordinary citizens join hands, we can do it.”
A solitary figure searching through the caves, Takamatsu is trying to heal the wounds of Okinawa’s past; to offer the victims dignity where the state has failed to intervene; to show respect for sacrifice where much of the nation would rather leave the remains to decay undisturbed, along with that troubled period of Japanese wartime history.
Takamatsu’s painstaking work is also an act of protest against war — an appeal for peace — as the danger of conflict once again edges closer to these islands.