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Exactly 72 years to the week after U.S. forces launched one of World War II’s bloodiest chapters — the Battle of Okinawa — Tokyo-based director John Junkerman is premiering his documentary film “Okinawa: The Afterburn” in Hawaii.
First completed in 2015, the award-winning film has been shown across Okinawa, Japan and North America. Now audiences on Kauai and Oahu have the chance to watch a newly updated version of the film and meet Junkerman at the island premiere on Kauai on Saturday and in Honolulu on Sunday.
Subtitled in English and Japanese, “Okinawa: The Afterburn” has been called the most comprehensive film of its kind and praised for its even-handed examination of the legacy of war, discrimination and sacrifice as it sheds light on the complex history shared by Okinawans, Japanese and Americans.
The two-hour film begins with rarely seen archival footage of the 1945 Battle of Okinawa in which some 240,000 people lost their lives, including one-quarter to one-third of Okinawa’s civilian population. Through clips of propaganda films and first-hand recollections of the women and men who fought and died on all sides of the conflict, the narrative leads viewers through seven decades of history from post-war U.S. occupation and Okinawa’s 1972 reversion to Japan to the ongoing struggle for justice.
The film closely examines the impacts of land seizures that led to a network of more than 30 U.S. bases that still occupy over 15 percent of an island almost 20 percent smaller than Kauai.
One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when Junkerman interviews one of the three U.S. marines convicted of gang raping a 12-year-old Okinawan girl in 1995, an outrage that reignited fury against the U.S. bases that continues to the present.
That anger poured fuel on longstanding frustrations over Okinawa’s outsized burden of hosting U.S. bases and troops (roughly half of more than 50,000 Japan-based U.S. forces occupy less than one percent of Japanese territory), and remains a major factor behind the ongoing protests against new U.S. military facilities being built by force today.
The film also pays tribute to the Okinawan people’s unwavering commitment to fostering international peace and the relentless struggle to preserve their culture, environment and values that center around the concept nuchi du takara, or “life is a treasure.”
Junkerman hopes the film’s Hawaii premiere will attract local Okinawan, Japanese and military/veteran communities, as well as general viewers. By watching the film together and being part of the post-screening discussion with its director, he says various communities that have experienced and understand Okinawa differently, can increase understanding and create a new dialogue in which alternative solutions can be considered.
Junkerman answered questions about his film below. His comments were edited for length and clarity.
Jon Letman: How did you decide to bring your film to Hawaii?
John Junkerman: When I first started working on this film I had the broader idea of triangulating Hawaii, Guam and Okinawa … because the three island groups face similar situations with heavy concentrations with the U.S. military as well as indigenous populations who have faced discrimination over the decades … There’s a strong solidarity movement among those three areas. That was one of the motivations (to show the film in Hawaii).
What kind of reactions have you had to the film in Okinawa, mainland Japan and in North America?
The audience’s response is very different in each place. The film has been very warmly received in Okinawa with a sense of gratitude. It’s the first film that presents a comprehensive picture of Okinawa from the Battle of Okinawa to the present, exploring that structural relationship between Japan, the United States and Okinawa in the long term.
In Japan the response has been one of people coming to terms with and realizing how the Japanese public has been complicit in a sense in that structural relationship and discrimination toward Okinawa. Many people say, “I never realized that I have that sense of discrimination myself,” and “watching the film makes me feel rather uncomfortable and responsible for that relationship and the continuing discrimination against Okinawa.”
How have American audiences responded?
I did show it to numerous audiences both on college campuses and community screenings. The overwhelming response I got from those audiences was, “we had no idea this was going on in Okinawa. It’s a situation that we feel shouldn’t be perpetuated.” There is a shroud of ignorance that lies upon Okinawa and its situation and it’s very difficult to break through that. I’m doing what I can to get people to pay attention to Okinawa and hopefully begin to address this issue.
What kind of response have you had from the U.S. military?
I have not had any success in getting the military to look at the film. I sent a copy to then-U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and I got a response from the military attaché saying it’s important for us to remember the sacrifices that were made in the Battle of Okinawa.
Have you found different age groups receive the film differently?
Historically Japan and its people tended to discriminate against Okinawans and look down on them. Young people, on the other hand, have a great deal of affection for the islands. Of course older people’s commitment is to the pacifist tradition of Japan and the long term with the involvement of the peace movement in Okinawa.
In terms of the United States, there are some older folks who have a strong sense that the U.S. military presence in Okinawa is justified and necessary. Young people who see the film don’t come in with that pre-conception and are instead somewhat shocked by the ways that the U.S. military essentially tramples on the rights of the people of Okinawa.
Beyond documenting the post-war Okinawa experience, what lessons does the film offer?
We have a great deal to learn from the people of Okinawa in that they suffered through a horrendous battle that left a total of something like 250,000 people dead. They developed, as a consequence, a very strong aversion of war and a commitment to living at peace with their neighbors in Asia and around the world. That’s an appeal that they’ve been making for the last 72 years but have been forced to live cheek by jowl with a U.S. military that uses its might to extend power around the globe. It’s a very small island where these two cultures come head to head into a clash.
Kauai premiere: “Okinawa: The Afterburn” is scheduled to be shown (followed by a discussion with the director) at the Kealia Farm Market across from the north end of Kealia beach in Kapaa, Kauai, on Saturday, April 8, from 7 to 10 p.m. There is no charge for admission. The film is being co-sponsored by the Kauai Alliance for Peace and Social Justice and others.
Honolulu premiere: “Okinawa: The Afterburn” is scheduled to air (followed by a discussion with the director) at the University of Hawaii Shidler College of Business, Room A-101 on Sunday, April 9, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. There is no charge for admission. The film is being co-sponsored by the UHM Center for Okinawan studies and others.