Visiting Okinawa in person is always a little strange for me. It’s a beautiful place, and heavily invested in making it’s beautiful beaches accessible to the tourists who flock to Okinawa.
Being so close to Taiwan and mainland China, there’s a lot of historical ties there, and the interesting interplay between Okinawa, Okinawan culture, and Japanese and Chinese cultures is fascinating.
You can be sitting on a beach, watching a beautiful sunset, and then one of the USMC Super Cobras flies over, and it reminds you of that other patch of more recent history, the one that is featured in The Pacific, and a million other books, movies, documentaries, and television dramas. The battle of Okinawa was not pretty.
One of the things that surprised me the first time I watched The Pacific is how much empathy I had for the Japanese characters. I mean, I’m not a savage or anything, but we’ve all seen a lot of war movies. Probably my first experience with that was the civilians caught up in the Korean War as depicted in M*A*S*H*. It plays a pretty significant role in just about every Vietnam war movie, and even the European theater WW2 movies, but I guess it didn’t hit me until the civilian victims of war were speaking a language I understood, and I had personal experience with the culture.
Perhaps that played a role in my reaction when I watched The Pacific for the first time. And perhaps my own experiences with Japanese companies, governments, and bureaucracies gives me more empathy than a younger Tim might have had, walking through the tunnels of the Japanese Naval Headquarters on the southern end of Okinawa’s main island.
I’ve always insisted that visiting Hiroshima and walking through the town, walking through the Peace Park and visiting the museum is a necessary thing. It give you a perspective you can’t really get in any other way for the enormity of the atomic bomb. The underground tunnels here aren’t like that. There isn’t an enormity. Instead, it gives you an empathy for people caught up in enormous events.
When discussing the Pacific War, there is always a contentious point that you have to dance carefully around. The war crimes were horrific, and the fighting was savage. In the micro, you can investigate individual people’s actions and discuss the ethical questions in the macro. But it’s worth putting yourself inside those tunnels and thinking instead about yourself, about what you would have done if life had put you there, in that moment.
Empathy makes the world go ‘round, and I think introspection and empathy-building experiences like visiting the Japanese Naval HQ Tunnels are an important part of being a good human.
The tunnels are accessible by a bus, but car is really the easiest option if it’s available to you. Here’s their site, with hours and access information. It’s worth taking some time away from your beach trip to check it out.