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U.S. and Japanese servicemembers are welcomed during a cleanup event at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, Okinawa, Saturday, June 15, 2019.
U.S. and Japanese servicemembers are welcomed during a cleanup event at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, Okinawa, Saturday, June 15, 2019. (Carlos Vazquez/Stars and Stripes)
U.S. and Japanese servicemembers are welcomed during a cleanup event at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, Okinawa, Saturday, June 15, 2019.
U.S. and Japanese servicemembers are welcomed during a cleanup event at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, Okinawa, Saturday, June 15, 2019. (Carlos Vazquez/Stars and Stripes)
Reiji Maruno, chairman of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s Okinawa retirees association, left, and U.S. Army Col. Theodore White, commander of the 10th Support Group at Torii Station, lay flowers during a cleanup event at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, Okinawa, Saturday, June 15, 2019.
Reiji Maruno, chairman of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s Okinawa retirees association, left, and U.S. Army Col. Theodore White, commander of the 10th Support Group at Torii Station, lay flowers during a cleanup event at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, Okinawa, Saturday, June 15, 2019. (Carlos Vazquez/Stars and Stripes)
U.S. and Japanese servicemembers clean up Okinawa Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, Okinawa, Saturday, June 15, 2019.
U.S. and Japanese servicemembers clean up Okinawa Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, Okinawa, Saturday, June 15, 2019. (Carlos Vazquez/Stars and Stripes)
Seaman Jesse Lopez picks up debris at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, Okinawa, Saturday, June 15, 2019.
Seaman Jesse Lopez picks up debris at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, Okinawa, Saturday, June 15, 2019. (Carlos Vazquez/Stars and Stripes)

ITOMAN, Okinawa — More than 1,000 servicemembers from the U.S. and Japan gathered on Saturday to tidy up Okinawa Peace Memorial Park, a week ahead of the annual Irei no Hi ceremony.

The ceremony, which takes place at the park every year on June 23, is expected to draw thousands of residents, visitors and dignitaries to mark the day the Battle of Okinawa ended. The site is dedicated to the 250,000 civilian and military lives lost during the 82-day-long battle in World War II.

The U.S. Navy and Army joined Japan’s three Self-Defense Forces — air, ground and maritime — active duty and retired, along with their families, to sweep walkways, rake grass and leaves and share garbage bags for rubbish picked up on the grounds.

“The cleanup has been going on for 22 years,” Chief Petty Officer Takayuki Ota, command master chief of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Fleet Air Wing 5, told Stars and Stripes through a translator Saturday. “Every year I come here to clean to show respect to the lives lost; it’s something I feel I should do to commemorate them.”

The park includes Mabuni Hill, also known as Hill 89, where the battle came to an end. Among the monuments on the site is a series of black granite walls that hold the names of all the Japanese, American, British, Korean and Taiwanese soldiers who died during the battle, as well as the names of all Okinawans, civilian and military, who died throughout the Pacific during the war.

“It’s a great experience to see everyone working together no matter what’s happened before,” said Navy Seaman Jesse Lopez, a cleanup volunteer. “It’s a special type of feeling because I grew up learning about [the Battle of Okinawa] in high school. It’s a big part of history … and now I’m here cleaning up this park that’s in memorial for all those people that died.”

Ota said U.S. servicemembers have participated in the annual cleanups for the past decade, and he would like for that trend to continue.

“We did have history between the U.S. and Japan,” Ota said. “We would like to communicate better and build a better relationship, leaving the past behind and creating a new future together.”

vazquez.carlos@stripes.com Twitter: @StripesCarlos

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