Light One Candle

By Michael H. Kew

Saipan. Photo: Kew.

JULY 1944. Of the 71,000 US troops who landed on Saipan, 3,000 were killed; more than 10,000 were hurt. Of Japan’s garrison of 30,000 troops, 921 were captured. The rest died. Some 5,000 others, including the Japanese commanders, killed themselves.

I wanted to see what they last saw. With an hour of daylight left, I drove to Banzai Cliff. It was serene. No sounds but wind and slight muffle of surf sloshing against the crags. I watched seabirds swoop and swirl above the chop.

A red convertible Mustang broke the vibe. A group of brightly clothed Chinese got out and smoked cigarettes and took selfies and laughed. It was irritating. Disrespectful. I was unsure if they’d grasped the gravity of the place. Another few groups of visitors drove up, parked, walked to the clifftop overlook, took selfies, smoked cigarettes, and left. Nobody read the memorials. Some played loud rap music and peeled out, burning rubber.

Left in the dust of the soft gold of sunset, the grounds of Banzai Cliff felt sacred with the moving and haunting tragedy of the memorials—stones and obelisks and Buddhist figures pleading for world peace. It was a pilgrimage site for most Japanese tourists, particularly during Saipan’s Japanese-tourist heyday. Other Japanese memorials nearby were park-like, beautifully landscaped, clean, quiet. Goodness knows Saipan was loud in 1944, its three-week summer bloodbath.

Etched in stone at Banzai Cliff:

This memorial was erected on behalf of all people for the purpose of consoling the spirits of those many victims who lost their lives in the battles between Japanese and American forces in the Central Pacific during the Pacific War (Greater East Asia War) and as a prayer that our world be free of all such conflicts. —May 2008, The Head Temple of Nenpou Shinkyou Shousouzan Kongouji

I saw no Japanese visitors at Banzai Cliff. Annually since 1988, members of Japan’s Shikogakuen Mission visited to lead a Peace Ceremony to honor the war, the dead, and to pray for peace. Launched in 1945, Shikougakuen was a religious group that built the memorial on Banzai Cliff in 1988 not only for those who died there, but for people who died in wars worldwide.

Darkness fell. A white cat ambushed my feet. At the adjacent Japanese Memorial, carved on the monument, I found the touching words of Rev. Seizan Kawakami, Shikogakuen Mission’s founder:

Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.