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June 1999 - Issue No. #35 (p.9 - 11)

Teaching Peace in Okinawa

by Jerry F. Burks

Prefectural Board of Education, Okinawa


Many years ago when I first arrived in Okinawa, I encountered a warm-hearted, peace-loving group of local people. Their behavior of hospitality and kindness toward me, a total stranger, was overwhelming. They were the real Okinawans I had heard so much about. Still to this day, I am constantly encountering these people in every part of the Ryukyu Islands

As I was interested in my new friends, I encouraged them to tell me about their Island's history and culture. The stories were so vivid that I found myself enthralled by their experiences and those of their families. You may be able to imagine how shocking it was when they began to tell me their stories of the Battle of Okinawa from World War II.

However, after several years of living on the island, I discovered myself listening to the same kind of stories. It seemed that each new generation had a story about the Battle, but it was similar to what I'd heard from the last generation and the prior one. I soon started to wonder about the sincerity of their stories: "Are they telling me this war experience, because they want to keep the history of Okinawa alive, or are they looking for sympathy from this American whose country was their ancestors' enemy?" I kept coming back to the questions: "Why does each generation repeat the same story in the same words? Is it something that the young have to memorize without fully understanding the real meaning of their words? Is it like other things such as the university entrance exam or the driver's license exam which one has to memorize in this society in order to get a pass into adulthood?"

These questions were the driving force behind my decision to develop teaching material in English as a Foreign Language to help students understand the words they were/are using in reference to the history of Okinawa. As one who has witnessed the results of real war, I felt that I had to do something to ensure my young Okinawan students understood the words they expressed to others, including myself, about the history of their islands.

Student Interview Project

I initially planned a class that would lead students to find out more about the history of their ancestors, and their relation with the Battle of Okinawa. I use this unit in composition class in both my senior high school and junior college courses. Its title is Memories of Okinawa. The following is a brief description of my lesson plan.

The Battle of Okinawa was disastrous in regards to documentation on the History of Okinawa (the Ryukyu Islands). Therefore, it is necessary to recover as much historical information as possible. It's more meaningful to gather "actual" information from the older citizens who lived through it. This must be done now, as these people are aging fast, which means this direct source of information will not be available to us much longer. Thus, I assign students to interview an older citizen of the islands and write a composition. A number of specifics go with the assignment. Some example factors are:

  1. The interviewee must be someone who truly experienced life in Okinawa prior to WW II and is willing to talk about it.

  2. The interviewer must secure personal information (name, sex, age, address, phone number, place of birth) from the interviewee as well as securing his/her permission to publish the story in an English newspaper and/or book.

  3. The interviewer and interviewee must provide their photos to be published.

  4. The interviewer must select only one topic from the many stories that he/she hears from the interviewee and write about it.

  5. The interviewer must return to the interviewee to confirm the story's content once it has been completed and before it is submitted for evaluation.

There are several essential language skills built into this activity, and each serves a special purpose. Getting information from someone who has lived in Okinawa before WW II is to ensure that the story of the "peaceful" time of its people is told. Personal information is necessary should the newspaper/book publisher need additional data to expand on the story.

As for having students focus on only one topic, this helps them develop their writing skills, as they have to provide as many details as possible to fulfill the writing requirements. Also, a reader finds it more interesting to discover a special event in the life of the interviewee. Having students follow up with a return trip to the interviewee to verify the information helps advance their language skills. In almost all cases, the original conversation took place in Japanese including some Okinawan dialect. Following that, the student translates it into English to write his/her composition. By requiring students to verify the data, they must reverse the procedure. This helps develop students' language skills farther.

You may ask, "Where's the peace education?" Well, if you talk with an Okinawan about his/her pre-WW II life in Okinawa, you are also going to talk about WW II. There is no way to get around this sensitive and important issue when talking with the friendly, elderly citizens of Okinawa. As a result, students soon learn about the advantages of having and living in a contemporary "peaceful" society.

English Speeches

Another teaching activity I apply is speeches. This takes place in my senior high school oral English class and junior college public speaking course. I assign five-minute speeches with such titles as Nuclear Weapons: Do They Keep the Peace?, Japan as a World Power, Refugees: Where Do They Go?, A World Without Nations, Japanese Imperial Influence, Food Distribution, Racial Discrimination: Does Japan Have It? The students have one week to research and prepare their speeches. They are not permitted to use notes while making the speeches. Although the speeches are usually personal opinion, the research has a tremendous impact on the students, and a majority of them realize the importance of democracy and peace through this process.

As you can see, the speech titles themselves lead to issues of war and violence which, in turn, leads to a desire for peace. The research, in itself, will lead the students to better understand that such violence, whether it is war or racial disharmony, will accomplish very little.

Current Issues

A third method is current issues. At junior college, my course is called Current Issues I and II, and at senior high school, it has a fancier name, English Expressions in Foreign Affairs. I use the same material for both, with minor differences, so students can complete the course successfully.

I start by selecting newspaper articles that deal with conflict in the world where there exist approximately 70 wars or civil wars at present. Then, I formulate questions to get students started in what I consider the "right" direction of study: finding out what is really happening in the world today. In most cases, I ask basic questions - who, what, when, where, why and how. I prepare about 10 questions for each article. This allows me a good selection for the quiz and/or test.

In the first class, students are divided into groups of 5 or 6, and receive the prepared handouts. Each group is assigned one article, but every student is responsible for all the articles used in class. In other words, all students must know the basics of all the articles as well as details of their own. Students are responsible for researching their assigned article, writing a report about it, then giving an oral report.

To begin, students are first told to find the answers to the questions. If they finish in class, great, but this usually results in homework. The finished product is completed by a specified date which allows me time to check the answers, correct them if necessary, and make copies of the article with the correct answers for the next class. Students then write a report on their article of 1,000 to 1,500 words (200 to 300 words per group member) due the next session.

In the following period, each group must stand in front of the class to answer the questions on their article. Although this only requires reading the answers, it gives the students exposure to a much-needed skill for their next task (oral reports). During this, other students are allowed to ask follow-up questions to ensure their understanding of the article. The instructor may also add information or comments. Students must also learn important vocabulary on the blackboard, and know definitions and synonyms for key words for the quiz.

The third session comprises oral reports. This requires two minutes of oral English from each student for a group report of 10-12 minutes total (5-6 members per group). This must follow standard report format - opening, information and closing. After the oral report, other students are permitted to ask questions for clarification.

Students are also asked to compare and contrast their article with the situation of Okinawa present and past. This helps them to learn the genuine value and importance of keeping peace in Okinawa as well as in other parts of the world. In addition, it develops all four language skills - listening (to the instructor's comments, classmates' answers, oral reports), speaking (answering questions, oral reports), reading (articles, research), and writing (written reports).

The questions I listed at the beginning of this article still plague me, yet I'm beginning to feel more at ease with hearing about the Battle of Okinawa. I now know that my students of English understand the importance of that battle, and the impact it has on them, their ancestors, and the history and future of the islands. The students have found, like myself, that peace should be the ultimate goal of mankind, because, without it, we can accomplish nothing, but with it, there are no limitations to the accomplish-ments we can produce for humanity.

Background Reading on Okinawa

Belote, J., and Belot W. (1970) Typhoon of Steel: Battle for Okinawa. New York: Harper & Row.

Feifer, G. (1992) Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa. New York: John Wiley.

Higa, T. (1995) The Girl With the White Flag. trans. by Dorothy Britton. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Hitchock, J. (1994) Folktales of Okinawa. Naha, Okinawa: Ryukyus International Foundation.

Jenkins. W. (1997) Speaking out on Okinawa. Naha, Okinawa: Hirugi.

Kerr, G. (1960) Okinawa, History of an Island. Tokyo, Vermont: Charles Tuttle.

McCune, S. (1975) The Ryukyu Islands. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole.

Nakachi, K. (1996) Ryukyu Islands and Okinawa.

Ota, M. (1984) The Battle of Okinawa.

Ota, M. (1991) Genocide.

Randall, W. (1987) Okinawa's Tragedy.

Sanchez, A. (1993) Okinawa, Past and Present. Los Angles: E. M. S. Glenny.

Warner, G. (1985) The Okinawa War. Naha, Okinawa: Executive Link.

Warner, G. (1998) The Okinawa Reversion Story. Naha, Okinawa: Executive Link.


Test your students' knowledge of Okinawa!

1. Okinawa's original name was the islands.

2. Okinawa was a famous nation in the 15th C.

3. Okinawa was invaded by Japan in .

4. Its name was changed to Okinawa (by force) in .

5. Okinawa's nickname is the islands.

6. The capital city of Okinawa Prefecture is islands.

7. What danger annually threatens Okinawa? .

8. Which martial art was developed in Okinawa? .

9. Each year, Okinawans remember WWII on .

10. Aside from Okinawa, how many places in mainland Japan experienced land battles in WWII? .

11. In total, people died on Okinawa in WWII.

12. How long was Okinawa occupied by the USA? .

13.After 1951, Okinawans needed to visit Japan.

14.When did Okinawa revert to Japan? .

15.How much of Okinawa's total area is occupied by American military bases? .

16.What percent of all US military bases in Japan are located in Okinawa? .

17.What event was held in Okinawa in 2000? .



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