Display tells the stories of 10 female survivors

WAILUKU – Pukalani resident Reiko Isagawa held back tears as she recounted her brother and other family members holding grenades to commit suicide during World War II on Okinawa, Japan.

“Japanese soldiers told us to pull them because they said the American soldiers would kill us and make us suffer more,” she said through an interpreter Friday morning at the Maui Okinawan Cultural Center.

Isagawa, 75, told her story alongside a handful of cultural center members, during a break from preparing hundreds of andagi – or fried Okinawan doughnuts – for today’s Maui Okinawan Festival.

“We were going to open (the grenades), but a lady who had just visited Hawaii told us to stop and wait until the Americans arrived,” she said. “If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be here today.”

The women surrounding Isagawa all had their own memories about growing up on Okinawa during the war, and their stories will be featured during the festival that runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Maui Mall. The display highlights nine Maui women and one woman living in Japan, who survived the war.

“We were shocked by some of the stories,” said Amy Shinsato, who helped organize the display. “When the war broke out and how they evacuated and how some of them had to take shelter in caves . . . the women and families that were farmers faired the best, but several of them lived where the (Battle of Okinawa) was fought and lost everything.”

The Battle of Okinawa was one of the largest and most deadly Pacific island battles of World War II.

According to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, Okinawa recorded more than 12,500 American military deaths or missing people and nearly 50,000 casualties – the highest ever experienced in any U.S. campaign against Japan. Imperial Japanese forces lost 110,000 troops in battles for the island, one of the last steppingstones of the American island-hopping advance to Japan during the war.

One of the survivors was only 10 or 11 years old when war ravaged Okinawa.

The survivor recalled that “it looked like daytime with the lights from the airplanes and bombs,” said Shinsato, who conducted interviews with the women to produce the display. “She saw both her parents and cousins die.”

Kiyoko Racoma, 80, of Kahului lived in the city of Shuri, in southern Okinawa, and was only about 12 years old when the battle occurred. She said she was forced to evacuate the area and was separated from her mother and father.

“She just walked northwards to Japan,” said Darren Konno, who translated for the group of women. “It was basically like walking from Kahului to Hana.”

Racoma spent about two months traveling and hiding inside caves and away from American troops before finally returning to her village.

“There was no more nothing,” she said. “No trees, no more home or anything.”

Her mother and father died.

“My brother and sister were the only ones (to) return,” she said.

Isagawa, who also spent time hiding in caves, recalled one family that was removed because their child would not stop crying. She said she never saw the family again.

Isagawa said her town suffered similar damage with houses destroyed. However, her home was still standing but occupied by another family.

“It was basically first-come, first-serve,” she said through Konno.

Toshiko Nishihara, 75, of Kahului was only 7 during the battle and although she recalled little of the war, she also remembered living in caves and moving to multiple American military camps.

“These women had very little and had to eat a lot of potatoes that they just dug up,” Shinsato said. “They ate anything they could find . . . but the common thread they had as a family is that they all pulled together with no complaints.

“They just moved on.”

June Konno, mother of Darren Konno and the youngest of the women gathered at the center, was only 2 years old when the war started, but knew of the struggles her family endured after the war.

“We grew up on the countryside so pretty much everybody farmed at that time to survive,” she said through her son.

June Konno said that her family carried whatever they could as they fled the southern area of Okinawa and that food was limited. She said she was relieved, though, when American forces provided shelter and food for her family.

The other women in the display include Maui residents Toyo Nakama, Nancy Kiyabu, Sherry Tamayose, Hideko Uehara and Fumiko Cup Choy, and Sumiko Arasaki of Japan.

Lori Shinsato, committee chairwoman for the display, spent the last two years putting together the project.

“We just feel it’s important to pass on these stories . . . and as these people get older and the generations pass away, if nobody records their stories then we won’t know them,” she said. “They’re very humble women, but very willing to share their experiences and encourage the future generations about where they come from.”

Aside from the stories of the 10 women, the display will include a timeline of Okinawan culture from the 13th century to modern day. Visitors can learn about Okinawa’s royal monarchy and view artifacts that show influences of Japanese and Chinese culture.

The exhibit also will include a re-creation of the caves that Isagawa and others lived in with sounds of bombs being played while visitors explore. The display will be located between Genki Sushi and The Pet Shop at the Maui Mall and will reopen from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at