In WWII, the Japanese invaded Guam. Now they’re welcomed as tourists.

Japan’s occupation of the island cost many lives. Despite lingering trauma, Guam has found a way to forgive the past.

Photograph by Nancy Borowick
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Tourists pose with a World War II-era torpedo at the War in the Pacific National Historical Park, in Apra Harbor, Guam. This year more than 600,000 tourists from Japan visited Guam, the American territory their country forcefully occupied 75 years ago.

Photograph by Nancy Borowick

In January 1972, Vicente Diaz was on his way to baseball practice on the Pacific island of Guam when a classmate stopped him to ask if he’d heard the news: Local hunters had discovered a Japanese soldier hiding in the jungle. The soldier, whose name was Shoichi Yokoi, believed that World War II continued to rage, 27 years after its end.

This discovery stoked a deep fear in the teenager. “Stories of the war were certainly passed down to us, and they were enough to give me nightmares,” says Diaz, who is now a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. “I still have them.”

For 32 months, the Japanese maintained a brutal occupation of Guam in which ten percent of the native Chamorros were killed. Yet, eventually, the people of the island found a way to make peace with the past, welcoming Japanese tourists to the island to experience, among other things, the exaggerated American culture celebrated by its residents after U.S. soldiers kicked the Japanese out.

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In 1944, after 32 months of Japanese occupation, Guam was liberated by American soldiers, like the one pictured. More than 7,000 Americans and 17,000 Japanese died in the fight.

“Uncle Sam, Please Come Back to Guam”

Only hours after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, nine Japanese airplanes appeared over the eastern horizon on Guam and battered the unincorporated U.S. territory with bombs. After two days of air raids, nearly 6,000 Japanese soldiers swarmed the island, which is roughly the size of Chicago, and overwhelmed some 400 American troops stationed there.

By sunrise December 10, 1941, the naval governor of Guam surrendered the island to Japan. All Americans and foreigners—military or not—were rounded up and shipped to Japan to be held as military prisoners. The remaining 13,000 native Chamorros, including those who fought for the U.S. during the invasion, found themselves under Japanese rule. Over the next two years, the occupation would escalate from mandatory Japanese classes to indiscriminate massacres.

Chamorros already had nearly 400 years of experience coping with colonial rulers. Spain first claimed the island in 1565 but lost it to the U.S. after the Spanish-American war in 1898. Although these administrations varied in severity—Spain reduced the native population by at least 75 percent, while the U.S. commandeered vast swaths of land—occupation by Japan was different.

Under Japanese rule, Chamorros were required to bow to practically all Japanese, with deadly consequences if done incorrectly. Local men were forced to work on Japanese military infrastructure, and Japanese soldiers commandeered buildings across the island. Secret police infiltrated communities.

“During the occupation no families were spared the grief of death, and everybody starved,” writes Diaz in his work on identity, history, memory, and war in Guam.

Throughout the occupation, the Chamorros longed for the U.S. to return. The wartime song “Uncle Sam Please Come Back to Guam” was so popular that the Japanese had to ban it.

The U.S. returned to reclaim the island in July 1944. During the intense pre-invasion bombing, the Japanese massacred scores of people in caves, forests, and on busses. The remaining were rounded up and marched to Japanese concentration camps (although there is some debate as to whether this was for their safety). By the end of the occupation, at least 1,170 Chamorros had died, nearly a tenth of the population.

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Gianni Que, 7, salutes his mother Genesa while visiting the War in the Pacific National Historical Park Museum in Guam in 2017. Guam islanders enlist in the military at a higher rate than any state; up to one in eight residents are veterans.

Almost immediately after reclaiming the island, the U.S. Navy brought charges against the Japanese involved in the occupation. However, since most of Japan’s leadership died in the final battles for the island, the public directed their anger toward local immigrant Japanese. This anti-Japanese sentiment saturated the community until the late 1960s, with biracial Japanese and Chamorro locals changing their surnames to hide Japanese heritage.

Welcome to Guam

Until 1962, any non-resident wanting to visit Guam had to apply for a security clearance from the navy. Once this barrier was removed, Japanese money started flowing into the island.

Investors saw an opportunity to turn Guam into an affordable Hawaii—and so did Guam. When the island was first marketed to tourists, it was advertised as the next Waikiki. Since Guam is only a few hours by plane from Japan, it became a cheaper alternative.

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On an average day, 45 flights fly in and out of Guam. The first tourists arrived from Japan in 1967.

The sudden influx of investment and tourists lifted the local economy and altered attitudes toward Japan. “Anti-Japanese feeling became weaker in inverse proportion to development of tourism targeting Japanese,” writes historian Wakako Higuchi to National Geographic.

During this time, Guam also established social and civic programs to promote cross-cultural relationships. High school baseball and football teams from Guam would regularly travel to Japan to compete and stay with host families. Local clubs for both kids and adults also organized trips. Diaz went on three such trips himself while in school, all of which he says he enjoyed.

“Within the same generation of people who survived the war, you have the return of the Japanese and a whole slew of social relations that, I think it’s safe to say, have generally been good,” explains Diaz.

Asian tourism and the growing U.S. military presence overshadowed memories of the occupation. “In the case of Guam, the U.S. post-war narrative of patriotism tends to dominate memories of the war,” says Keith Camacho, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. (Related: Why the ecological fate of Guam is in the hands of the U.S. military.)

This year, Guam welcomed more than 600,000 Japanese tourists to its shores—25 percent more than last year. However, Japanese visitors peaked in 1997 with more than 1.1 million arrivals. (Numbers dipped last year after North Korea threatened to nuke the island.)

Japanese tourists flock to the island for its beaches, duty-free shopping, and hyper-Americanized attractions. In a single day, tourists can impersonate cowboys, shake hands with Elvis, and take selfies in the biggest K-Mart in the world (a popular tourist spot). But tourists also acknowledge the past, taking selfies in front of rusted World War II relics and a reconstruction of the home that Shoichi Yokoi dug into the forest floor.

Guam, in turn, has adapted to Japanese culture. In touristy areas of the island, shop signs include Japanese translations, employees speak Japanese, and select businesses accept yen as payment. The island has even adopted some Japanese celebrations. Last month, more than 30,000 people gathered in Ypao Beach Park in Tumon, Guam, to attend the 40th annual Japan Autumn Festival. Traditional Japanese musicians and dancers performed on stage while children caught goldfish with paper nets and adults marched a heavy Shinto shrine around the park.

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The sun disappears over Tumon, the tourist-hub of the island. Guam is seventeen hours ahead of the closest point in the continental U.S. and embraces the slogan “Where America’s Day Begins.”

Even Yokoi, who spent nearly three terrified decades hiding on Guam, felt welcome enough to return to the island for several visits before his death. So did Akihito, the former Emperor of Japan. The emperor never issued a formal apology for the occupation, only his regrets.