Marine Corps Aids Okinawan Delegation in Search for Cultural Artifacts

19 Oct 2000 | Staff Sgt. Keith A. Milks, Headquarters Marine Corps Public Affairs

Few things are as important to a nation as its cultural identity, and this uniqueness is often shown through artifacts.  These cultural artifacts provide a glimpse of a society's excellence in art, customs and other scholarly pursuits, and are a tangible reminder of a people's shared history.  When these items are lost, so too is a piece of that nation.

To this end, a delegation from Okinawa recently traveled to the United States in an attempt to locate cultural artifacts missing since the end of World War II. 

"Ryukyu (Okinawa) has a rich and colorful history," said Seishu Naka, a member of the Okinawan delegation and Assistant Director of Okinawa's Cultural Division, based in Naha.  "These items are very important to our people and culture."

Naku said that after World War II, the focus of the Okinawan people was on mere survival.  Devastated by battles waged on its soil, the task of rebuilding and forging a life from the horrors of war took precedence over their cultural history.  Fifty-five years after the war, Okinawa is coming into its own and working to ensure future generations can experience and understand the history of their nation.

The three-person delegation spent two weeks in the United States spreading the word about their quest.  Colleen Fleming, a program manager with the Institute of International Education, helped the delegation coordinate their search. 

"The purpose of this visit was to put them in contact with people who could help them in the future," Fleming said.  "We're helping them help themselves."

By giving the delegation access to points of contacts in various veterans' organizations and governmental agencies, the Okinawans can return home and use these connections to continue their search. 

The search began in May with a letter from a group of Okinawans to the Department of State who in turn queried a number other agencies, including the Marine Corps' History and Museums Division.  With the aid of the State Department, the Institute of International Education, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the delegation came to the United States with the expressed interest of locating items missing from the Okinawan Royal Crypt. 

"We were asked by the State Department to conduct a search for cultural property," said Jennifer L. Castro, registrar for the Museums Division.  "We did a preliminary investigation using existing personnel resources and found one item."

The item in question was a lid to an Okinawan burial urn.  Weighing nearly 70 pounds and intricately-designed, the lid was donated to the museum in 1972 by a now-retired Marine officer who had acquired the item from another Marine.

Traditionally in Okinawa, upon a person's death, relatives would construct a makeshift tomb out of stones into which they would place the body.  After a period of four to five years, the now-skeletal remains would be exhumed, washed and placed in the urn.  Inscribed onto the bottom of the lid would be the individual's name and the date the bones were washed.

The urn lid identified by the Museums Branch displayed such markings.  Toshiaki Hagio, Chief of the Okinawan Prefecture Board of Education's Cultural Assets Section, translated writing on the urn and deduced that the urn once contained the remains of Came Teuga, and that his bones were washed and interned in 1918, putting his death somewhere in 1914 or 1915.  Additional writing on the urn led Hagio to believe that the urn contained several other members of the Teuga family, but that additional research would be necessary to support this belief.

Upon its return to Okinawa, the lid will be placed on display at the Museum of Okinawa Prefecture near Shuri Castle, and descendants of Came Teuga will be sought out and notified of the recovery.

In a ceremony Wednesday afternoon at the Marine Corps Historical Center, Washington Navy Yard, the Okinawan delegation met with representatives from the Marine Corps History and Museums Division and Headquarters Marine Corps.  Lt. Col. Robert J. Sullivan, Head, Museums Branch, and Seishu Naka signed the necessary paperwork affecting the transfer of the lid back to the Okinawan people.

Officials from the History and Museums Division expressed their pleasure in being able to help the delegation and return the urn lid, as well as promising to assist in future recovery operations.

"We make every effort to assist in the recovery of any item from anywhere," said Castro.  Castro went on to say that they will maintain a file of the specific items the Okinawans are searching for and will take the necessary steps to return these items to the Okinawan people if the items become available to the Marine Corps.

Boukei Maehira, the senior Okinawan delegate and member of the Cultural Assets Investigation Committee, thanked the Marine Corps for their assistance now and in the future concerning the recovery of the cultural artifacts.

"Okinawa and America have a long history of friendship," he said, "and this helps keep that friendship strong."

Headquarters Marine Corps