SPECIAL REPORT: Peace Impulses from Okinawa

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By Ramesh Jaura

Living in Berlin, one tends to view the world from a European perspective, and focus only on the lessons Europe has learned from the Second World War in the last sixty-five years. Visits to East Asia, however, not only help to adjust one's lenses but also provide new insights. Japan is a distinguished example of a country that has been undergoing a bottom-up process of change.

The credit for this goes to the Japanese civil society, which is engaged in transforming the lingering anguish of the havoc wrought by the brute Battle of Okinawa and the nuclear bombardment of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki into a powerful peace movement transcending barriers of race, creed, colour and nationality.

A leading civil society organization involved in the process of transformation is the Soka Gakkai (Society for the Creation of Value), a lay Buddhist organization, which has come to be associated with the name of Daisaku Ikeda who joined the organization in 1947. He took charge of Soka Gakkai as its president in May 1960, two years after the death of his mentor and predecessor, Josei Toda, who opposed the policies of the wartime government and suffered persecutions and imprisonment.

Ikeda encountered Toda in the chaos of post-war Japan, when he was in the process of rebuilding the Soka Gakkai, which he had founded together with fellow educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi in 1930 and which had been all but destroyed by the militarist government during the war. Toda was deeply convinced that the philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism, with its focus on the profound potential of the individual human being, would be the key to bringing about a social transformation within Japan.

One of Ikeda's first initiatives after assuming the presidency was to establish an organizational structure to encourage and facilitate more frequent interaction between the Soka Gakkai members abroad. Within his first four years as president, he had travelled to North and South America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Oceania, laying the foundations for an overseas organization that today has 12 million members in 192 countries and territories.

It was against this backdrop that Soka Gakkai representatives from 51 countries and territories gathered on the island of Guam on January 26, 1975 and set up the Soka Gakkai International (SGI), with Ikeda as its founding president. The site of some of the bloodiest fighting of Second World War, Guam was symbolically chosen as the venue of this meeting to launch a new movement for peace.

Since then, the SGI has developed into a broad global network with affiliated, independent SGI organizations in 90 countries and territories. In addition to teaching the practice and philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism, local SGI organizations promote the causes of peace, culture and education in their respective societies, while the organization has also developed large-scale international public exhibitions on such issues as building a culture of peace, nuclear abolition, sustainable development and human rights.

YOUTH PEACE SUMMIT

The Soka Gakkai youth play a crucial role in fostering peace initiatives in Japan and abroad. A significant platform for interaction is the youth peace summit held every year alternatively in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Okinawa. Such summits provide young men and women an opportunity to discuss appropriate ways and means of promoting peace. These include antiwar publications, video recordings of atomic booming and war victims' experiences as well as peace education exhibitions, lectures and surveys.

Soka Gakkai's Youth Peace Conference (YPC) and Young Women’s Peace and Culture Conference (YWPCC) provide an impressive platform for young people. Encounters with them in Hiroshima, at the Soka University in Tokyo, and at the Okinawa Training Center gave me an idea of the passionate and unflinching dedication of young men and women to promoting peace in both word and deed.

BUILDING BRIDGES

Peace activities by the youth have been supplemented by SGI president Ikeda's staunch commitment to building bridges with wartime Japan's antagonists in the Pacific War as part of the Second World War. He laid the foundation for such efforts on September 8, 1968. During an address to some 20,000 members of the Soka Gakkai's student division, Ikeda called for the normalization of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations and outlined steps toward achieving this.

The backdrop to this was that Ikeda's eldest brother, Kiichi, was drafted, to be followed by three other brothers as the years passed. Kiichi was killed in the war, but his description of his disgust at the Japanese military's treatment of the Chinese people left a lasting impression on Ikeda.

China was still perceived as an enemy nation by many within Japan and was isolated within the international community. Ikeda's proposal drew condemnation, but it also caught the attention of those, both in China and in Japan, who were interested in restoring relations between the two countries.

Ikeda also began to engage in dialogue with political figures during the 1970s. This was a time of deep tensions between the superpowers, with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over humanity. During 1974 and 1975, he visited China, the then Soviet Union and the USA, meeting with Zhou Enlai, Soviet Premier Aleksey Kosygin and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in turn, in an effort to break deadlock and open channels of communication in order to help prevent the outbreak of war.

Such interactions -- undertaken as a Buddhist leader -- are unique but evoke memories of the policy of reconciliation pursued by Germany's legendary social democratic leader Willy Brandt in his capacity as foreign minister and chancellor of western Germany, which not only resulted in a thaw in bilateral relations between the erstwhile aggressor and perpetrator of holocaust on the one hand and its victims on the other, but also paved the way for the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequent peaceful unification of two German states.

A hallmark of Ikeda's peace philosophy is his commitment to dialogue. He has met and exchanged views with representatives of cultural, political, educational and artistic fields from around the world. Among the individuals with whom Ikeda has published dialogues are the British historian Arnold Toynbee, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, theologian Harvey J. Cox, futurist Hazel Henderson, Brazilian champion of human rights Austregésilo de Athayde, Chinese literary giant Jin Yong and Indonesian Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid.

PEACE PROPOSALS

In 1983, Ikeda started writing his proposals for peace, which he has continued to publish annually on the anniversary of the SGI's founding, January 26. These proposals offer a perspective on issues facing humanity, suggesting solutions and responses grounded in Buddhist philosophy.

They include specific agendas for strengthening the United Nations, including boosting the capacity for involvement of the civil society, which Ikeda regards as essential to the establishment of a peaceful world. The proposals frequently illustrate the crucial importance of dialogue as a means to break through deadlock in world affairs.

According to Ikeda's biography posted on the web, the inspiration for championing peace emanated not only from his wartime experiences as a young man but also from the declaration calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons that his mentor Josei Toda had issued in 1957, one year before his death.

Toda denounced nuclear weapons as the embodiment of evil, insisting that their use must be condemned, not from the standpoint of ideology, nationality or ethnic identity, but from the universal dimension of humanity and humankind's inalienable right to live.

OKINAWA WORLD PEACE MONUMENT

Along with the Soka University, the Min-On Music Museum and the Min-On Concert Association, the Okinawa Training Center and the Okinawa World Peace Monument are a tribute to down-to-earth spiritual excellence impacting day-to-day human life.

Masayoshi Toubaru's eyes glow as he explains that what is Soka Gakkai Okinawa Training Center today was built in 1977 on the site of a dismantled U.S. Air Force MACE B nuclear missile base. (MACE B is a tactical missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads. In the 1960s, the missiles were deployed at several sites in Okinawa.)

The U.S. launch pad was converted into the World Peace Monument in 1984. The colossal concrete mass measuring one hundred meter by nine meters, and with a wall 1.5 meters thick, was used as a launch pad for nuclear missiles targeted at China. "It was president Ikeda's idea to leave the site untouched as a perpetual reminder of the horrors of war," warm-hearted Toubaru adds. Since its establishment, several foreigners, including Chinese, have visited the centre.

PEACE MUSEUM

Okinawa also hosts the Himeyuri Peace Museum and the Himeyuri War Memorial, built in honour of the 194 schoolgirls and 17 teachers mobilized as assistant nurses during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Our guide has heart-rending stories to tell, which are hidden behind the bare fact that students from two girls' schools were joined together and named the 'Himeyuri' nurse corps, and sent out to work as field nurses during the battle. Tragically, only five of them survived the carnage known as "the typhoon of steel".

The Peace Museum shows a personal perspective of the girls' lives before and during the battle. Exhibits feature photographs of many victims, their personal effects, reconstructions of the appalling conditions, and testimonies from survivors in an appeal against the misery of war.

"The typhoon of steel" expresses the ferocity of the fighting, the intensity of gunfire involved, and the sheer numbers of Allied ships and armoured vehicles that assaulted the island. More than 100,000 civilians are reported to have been killed and wounded. Also, many civilians are reported to have committed suicide at the behest of the Japanese military which told them that they should do so rather than surrendering and being taken prisoner.

Eyewitness accounts which we heard during our visit to Okinawa in September 2010 confirmed that civilians were given hand grenades to blow themselves and their families up. Induced by the propaganda, many civilians also jumped off cliffs to kill themselves. Such cases are called 'mass suicide'. Approximately one-quarter of the civilian population died as a result of the battle.

WAR MEMORIAL

A visit to the Cornerstone of Peace (Heiwa no Ishiji), a secular war memorial for the victims of the Battle of Okinawa, provides an additional insight. Located in Mabuni, the area of the last fighting in the battle, it is one of the important monuments in Okinawa Senseki Quasi-National Park, erected in 1995 in memory of the 50th anniversary of the battle and the end of the war.

Similar to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., the memorial on the shores of the Pacific Ocean remembers the names of those that died in the battle. However, as our guide tells us, it is unique in that it seeks to list all the names, military and civilian, from all countries involved. As of June 23, 2010, the number of names inscribed in the granite stones in the shape of folding screens was 240,931.

We learn that Daisaku Ikeda has been documenting Okinawa's excruciating destiny in 'The Human Revolution', an epochal work that presents a novelized version of his reminiscences stretching over decades:
Ikeda writes: "During World War II, Okinawa had been sacrificed to protect Japan proper and, as the only site of battle to take place on Japanese soil, it experienced the horrible tragedy of losing nearly one-fourth of its population.

"After the war, Okinawa was once again sacrificed to the interests of the mainland when it was placed under the control of the United States and made the location of that nation's military bases. In some villages, nearly 90 percent of the land was requisitioned for that purpose. Furthermore, Okinawa was designated the 'Keystone of the Pacific' in accord with the U.S. Far East strategy, and had four MACE-B mid-range ballistic missile bases built on it. The island was also considered vital as a refuelling station for nuclear submarines.

"People living near the bases continue to suffer due to the environmental destruction caused by U.S. military manoeuvres as well as by the crashes of military jets and transport planes."

The opening passage of the epochal work reads: "Nothing is more barbarous than war. Nothing is more cruel . . . Nothing is more pitiful than a nation being swept along by fools." The underlying concept of the book is that "a great human revolution in just a single individual will help change the destiny of an entire nation, and, further, will enable a change in the destiny of all humankind" and to transform the former battlefields into a genuinely happy society.

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