Below is the column I wrote for him honoring his life and legacy for the Pacific Daily News.
Adios Governor Ota
Michael Lujan Bevacqua
Pacific Daily News
July 14, 2017
Last month a noted figure for peace and demilitarization in the Asia-Pacific region, former Governor of Okinawa Masahide Ota passed away. He was 92 years old.
Ota had been governor of the Okinawan islands in 1995 when the community’s long-held resentment over the US military bases there exploded following the rape of a 12 year-old girl by three US servicemen. Close to 100,000 people demonstrated to show their outrage over not just this particular atrocity, but decades of similar crimes against women in Okinawa at the hands of US troops. As governor and later as a private citizen, Ota undertook a number of activities aimed at promoting peace and also facilitating the demilitarization of Okinawa, which to this day has nearly 20% of its land mass occupied by US military bases and training areas.
I had the honor of meeting Governor Ota in October 2015. Through an interpreter I interviewed him in the office of his Peace Institute in Naha. When he learned I was Chamorro from Guam, he mentioned several Chamorros (including Robert Underwood who he had met while he was still a member of Congress) he had met over the years and inquired as to how they were doing. He told me many stories, about the war, the struggles to survive after thousands were displaced from their lands to build postwar American bases and then the continuing fight to close and limit the expansion of those very bases. I have long written that Okinawa and Guam/The Marianas have very similar histories of colonization, militarization and also resistance. This meeting was more profound evidence of those connections. In light of his recent passing, I am thankful I was able to spend that afternoon learning from him.
One of Governor Ota’s most poignant accomplishments was the Cornerstone of Peace, which sits at the southern end of Okinawa and is part of the Prefectural Peace Museum. The Cornerstone is a large outdoor memorial built for all the souls, Japanese, Okinawa and American that were lost during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Ota himself was part of that fighting, after being drafted into the Japanese military. That battle was known as a “typhoon of steel” where 1 in every 4 Okinawans perished.
As a result of the death and the destruction from the war, many Okinawans, including Ota, came to firmly believe that their island should be an instrument of peace and not war. In the Peace Museum, you will see many artifacts from the Battle of Okinawa, but scattered throughout are profound poems, reflecting on the nature of peace and justice. One such poem reads,
Whenever we look at / The truth of the Battle of Okinawa / We think / There is nothing as brutal / Nothing as dishonorable / As war. To be sure / It is human beings who start wars / But more than that / Isn’t it we human beings who must also prevent wars? To acquire / This / Our unwavering principle / We have paid dearly.
It is during this month, that we on Guam spend the most time reflecting on our own wartime legacy. But ours is far more complicated. Chamorros saw their island destroyed and their family members killed, but there isn’t as strong of a desire to be an island of peace. As our connection to the US has long been one defined by strategic interests and military service, it is hard to see ourselves as an island of peace, and far easier to accept our lot as an American weapon of war.
But it is never too late for us to reframe those legacies and lessons from the past, especially in the light of increased tensions in our region.