Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 24, June 2010

The Politics of Trauma:
Compulsory Suicides During the Battle of Okinawa
and Postwar Retrospectives

Steve Rabson

  1. This paper examines political, social, and ideological forces that contributed to what author Norma Field has termed 'compulsory suicides'[1] and other acts of self-sacrifice by civilians during the Battle of Okinawa. It also discusses how those forces affected later responses to these excruciatingly traumatic events. During the battle in the spring of 1945, Imperial Japanese Army officers told civilians that, if they were captured, the invading Americans would torture them for information, rape the women, then massacre everyone. As US forces closed in, Japanese soldiers distributed hand grenades and rounded up local residents at 'assembly points,' ordering these civilians to kill themselves rather than become prisoners-of-war. Published in 2001, the program guide for the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum explains, 'These deaths must be viewed in the context of years of militaristic education which exhorted people to serve the nation by "dying for the emperor".'[2] Okinawans cite the role of emperor-centred indoctrination for unquestioning self-sacrifice not only in compulsory group suicides, but also in many other deaths among the more than 120,000 local residents who lost their lives in the only Japanese prefecture subjected to ground fighting in the Pacific War.[3]
  2. Compulsory suicides must also be seen within the larger historical circumstances of Japan's forcible absorption of the Ryukyu Kingdom into the nation state as Okinawa Prefecture in 1879, and the discrimination and prejudice subsequently experienced by its people, who became an ethnic minority. Viewed by many in Japan as less than fully Japanese, Okinawans felt particular pressures to conform to majority cultural modes, and to prove their loyalty in wartime. The horror of compulsory suicides and survivor guilt among those who had witnessed them contributed to social pressures that discouraged open discussion for some three decades after the war. Moreover, public discussion of Japanese Imperial Army atrocities became politically counter-productive in the 1950s because the movement in Okinawa, under US military occupation until 1972, for reversion to Japan relied heavily on support from the Japanese mainland. In post-reversion Okinawa, the Japanese Education Ministry's efforts, starting in the early 1980s, to distort or excise accounts of compulsory suicides in public school textbooks outraged local residents, bringing forth eyewitness testimonials and critical retrospectives.

    What happened
  3. In 2007, author Kamata Satoshi interviewed 77-year-old Komine Masao, a survivor of compulsory suicides on Tokashiki Island:

      Mr. Komine showed me an evacuation cave dug into a hillside. He'd been fifteen at the time of the battle, and with the help of his younger brother who was in the first grade, had dug it for the family to take refuge from the fighting. The cave was about three meters wide and ten meters deep. Inside, Masao, his grandmother, aunt, and other relatives had sheltered from air attacks and naval cannon fire, but on March 28, the day after the US military landed on the island, they moved to Nishiyama, designated an 'assembly point'. On that day hand grenades were distributed to the people gathered. Masao and his relatives sat down in a circle. His mother and sister, who had gone on an errand, returned and they, too, joined the circle. His mother embraced her children in her arms like two young chicks. Then each family tightened their circle, pressing themselves together, and detonated the grenades. Ear-spitting explosions reverberated and people screamed. By this time, American mortar fire was raining down on them. As a child, Masao had not been given a grenade, but the local defense soldier next to him had one and it exploded.

      On the ground sprawled people covered with blood. Corpses lay one upon another. That day 315 people died on Tokashiki Island, equaling one-third the population of Awaren Village. People in families with grenades that failed to detonate killed each other with sickles or razors, by bashing heads with clubs or rocks, or by strangling with rope. Those still alive hung themselves.[4]

  4. Norma Field describes what happened on Zamami Island where 358 civilians died:

      There were usually not enough [grenades] to go around, so people huddled in groups for efficiency. On Zamami Island rat poison was the instrument of choice. The have-nots envied the haves while the latter gulped down as much of the substance as they could. It was misplaced envy, however, for the excess consumption led to vomiting and excruciating discomfort but not to death. For that, more active intervention was required, as illustrated by the case of a frenzied mother who held her baby by the feet and pounded it to pulp against a rock. Families often hanged themselves from single ropes. This worked well enough for those in the middle, but not nearly as effectively for those on the ends. Finally, there were the stones, farm tools, razor blades, and kitchen knives, the implements brought along with dishes, pots and pans to sustain life, or with kitchen knives, razor blades, or other household or farming implements turned into instruments of death.[5]

  5. Other killings in groups took place at Chibichirigama cave in central Okinawa, where 82 died, and in the island's southern district where 210 teachers and high school girls, drafted as battlefield medics, committed compulsory suicide, mostly with hand grenades, to avoid capture.
  6. Imperial Army officers told Okinawans that killing themselves was their patriotic duty because 'in war soldiers and civilians must die together.' In some cases, there was enough time before US forces closed in for people to write wills and for women to put on their formal kimono in preparation for death. Author Miyume Tanji notes, however, that army officers on Tokashiki and Zamami Islands failed hypocritically to practice what they preached. 'Local Japanese troop leaders ordered about seven hundred islanders to commit suicide…The villagers accepted the order…However, the leaders and core members of the Japanese troops survived and surrendered to the US soldiers after the villagers died.'[6]
  7. In a dispatch dated 23 April 1945, less than one week before he was killed in the battle, American war correspondent Ernie Pyle described how some civilians reacted:

      After a few days the grapevine carried the word to them that we were treating them well so they began to come out in droves and give themselves up. I heard one story about a hundred Okinawa civilians who had a [Japanese] soldier among them, and when they realized the atrocity stories he had told them about the Americans were untrue, our MPs had to step in to keep them from beating him.[7]

    Why it happened: the historical context
  8. There is no single explanation for why so many killed themselves. Field writes that 'Okinawans…had been imbued with the horror and shame–of falling into American hands'.[8] Tanji explains that 'most villagers believed dying for the emperor and the state was the right thing to do.' She adds that residents' belief that they would be killed if captured by enemy American forces was supported by what they had heard from Japanese soldiers who boasted of raping and killing civilians in China.[9] Whether one cites factors of fear or indoctrination, it is undeniable that the Japanese military bears ultimate responsibility for compulsory suicides. At places in Okinawa where Japanese soldiers were not deployed, civilians heeded loud-speaker announcements by US forces that they would not be harmed and came out of hiding.[10]
  9. Understanding the role of political, cultural, and ideological forces in these killings requires some historical background. What Japan's government renamed Okinawa Prefecture in 1879 was most of what had been the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, established in 1429 with the unification of three regional kingdoms. During the four and half centuries of its existence, the Ryukyu Kingdom maintained a formal tributary relationship with China. Although Ryukyu paid ceremonial homage and sent emissaries to the Ming court, China did not seek to exercise political authority there, and the tributary missions were highly lucrative for the Ryukyu court and merchants. Ryukyu also carried on a flourishing trade and cultural exchange with China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia.
  10. In 1609 Shimazu Iehisa, provincial ruler (daimyō) of Japan's southernmost Satsuma fiefdom (han), sent an army of samurai to assert his regional dominion over the Ryukyu Kingdom. For the next 270 years, the Shimazu daimyō levied taxes and imposed administrative controls in Ryukyu, but ordered that an appearance of Ryukyuan independence be maintained, particularly when Chinese diplomats and trade missions visited the kingdom. By imposing this contradictory policy in Ryukyu, the daimyō could reap benefits from the kingdom's international trade.
  11. In sharp contrast to the daimyōs' efforts to maintain the appearance of an independent Ryukyu, the Japanese government from the early 1870s moved to secure conspicuous control over what it renamed Okinawa Prefecture in 1879. Its purpose was to eliminate vestiges of the kingdom—material and symbolic—in order to absorb Okinawa politically, ideologically and culturally. China, which claimed suzerainty over the Ryukyu Kingdom as a tributary state, protested in vain Japanese claims of sovereignty.
  12. In March of 1879, the Japanese government publicly announced the 'Ryukyu disposition' (shobun) to abolish the kingdom completely, having previously reduced it to a fiefdom (han) of Japan in 1872. Shō Tai, the last king, was forcibly exiled to Tokyo. As Japan's central government appropriated more and more authority, residents of Okinawa bridled at the appointment of officials from the mainland who often showed disdain for local people and imposed harsh assimilationist policies. Furthermore, Okinawans shouldered a heavier tax burden and received fewer social services than people elsewhere in Japan. The prefecture remains today the nation's poorest in per capita income with the highest unemployment rate, about twice the national average.
  13. Yet, even in the face of such policies and attitudes, opinions among people in Okinawa Prefecture were divided at first over its future political direction. The Japanese government implemented a wide-ranging and repressive campaign against such local customs as the consulting of shamans, the wearing by men of topknots, and the tattooing by women of their hands to signify passage into adulthood. Government officials deemed these customs culturally, and therefore politically, incompatible with their conception of a unified and 'modernised' nation. But assimilation also brought significant economic and technological benefits to the small but influential Okinawan elite, who received higher education on the mainland. Some started businesses there, and growing numbers of Okinawan youth travelled there for employment that helped support their families back home. The local intelligentsia were split between what was called the 'stubborn faction' (ganko-tō), which opposed assimilation and favoured continued tributary ties with China, and the 'enlightened faction' (kaika-tō), which favoured increased assimilation.
  14. Japan's victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 convinced many Okinawans that identification with the victorious nation, rising in wealth and status, promised a better future. The pro-China faction rapidly declined, and newspaper editorials advocated thoroughgoing assimilation with Japan in areas ranging from education to styles of dress and grooming. Boys now voluntarily abandoned the traditional topknot and pin for the crew-cut hairstyle popular on the mainland, and girls began wearing mainland-style kimonos. Some people changed their distinctive Okinawan family names to common mainland alternatives. In the more prestigious schools, teachers and students alike encouraged the use of 'standard' (i.e., Tokyo) Japanese while students were punished and humiliated for speaking the local Ryukyuan language, even inadvertently, at school.
  15. In 1931 the Imperial Japanese Army incited the Manchurian Incident, which led to Japan's occupation and installation of a puppet state in northeastern China. By the time full-scale war erupted between the two countries in 1937, the Japanese government and press were daily exhorting adults and school children to show unwavering devotion to the emperor and willingness to sacrifice their lives for the Japanese state.
  16. Okinawans felt particular pressures to prove their loyalty. They were residents of a formerly independent kingdom, which had been incorporated late into the Japanese national entity. Furthermore, with a culture and language distinct in many ways from people elsewhere in Japan, they were viewed by many as less than fully Japanese and, therefore, as inferior in status. Those who lived in other prefectures met with prejudice and discrimination in employment, housing and marriage. For the sake of economic survival, many who moved to the mainland for work tried to downplay or conceal their Okinawan origins in public. Some sought to 'pass,' not only by changing their names, but also by transferring their family registers to mainland addresses.
  17. Eager to affirm their Japanese-ness, Okinawan journalists and academics joined in vigorous support of the war effort. An editorial in the 25 July 1938 edition of the newspaper Kyūyō Shimpō, published in Osaka by leaders of the city's growing Okinawan community, marked the first anniversary of its founding by noting that 'our newspaper's birth just after the outbreak of all-out war closely links it with the nation's destiny…To report the arduous battles of the Imperial Army is our patriotic mission.' The paper published detailed accounts of sacrifices made by Okinawans on the battlefront and the home front. It printed the names and brief biographies of men departing for and returning from the China front, and of Okinawan dead. Headlines extolled 'deaths with honor in battle' and 'the silent return of heroes.'[11] A lead article in the 13 February 1939 edition urged Okinawans to 'be ready to serve with honor as Imperial Army soldiers in this time of crisis, and to shoulder your rifles at a moment's notice if summoned by His Majesty.'[12] The article conveyed these exhortations in response to reports that some draft-age Okinawans, who had moved to greater Osaka, were avoiding or delaying conscription by failing to report their changes of address, suggesting that, like young men during many wars, not all were eager to become soldiers.
  18. Okinawans recall the exhilaration of the early years of the war. Most welcomed the opportunity to express loyalty as citizens of a modern nation that had already defeated China and Russia and was on the winning side in World War I. Fujioka Hiroshige remembers feeling dissatisfied at the age of eighteen with his status as a 'home front youth' (gunkoku shōnen) when he heard about the start of war in the Pacific, and decided to volunteer for the military:

      My blood had been stirred by the string of victories in the Manchurian, Shanghai, and China Incidents, and I firmly believed, as did most Japanese, that Japan, the eternal land of the gods, was sure to win the Pacific War…It made me want to be a soldier even more…I vowed to die in battle, and might even have volunteered to be a human torpedo if I'd had the chance…Of course, today when I remember such proclamations as 'victory is certain', issued by the 'national movement for spiritual mobilization' (kokumin seishin sōdōin), they sound like slogans for some fanatical new religion or lines from a kyōgen comedy.[13]

  19. Others who write in retrospect on this period describe different responses. Born in 1935, Yamashiro Kenkō recalls that his elementary school classmates found some unintended humour in the daily cacophony of slogans and admonitions:

      We were taught that Japan had a single line of emperors that would continue forever and that, as the country of the gods, it would never lose a war. The emperor was an all-knowing, all-powerful living god who controlled everything, so we were told that, when we died, we had to raise both arms and yell 'Long live the Emperor!' (Tennō Heika banzai). Jokesters among us would 'practice dying' on the way to and from school, falling down by the side of the road while yelling, 'Long live the Emperor!' Some students even said that the emperor's shit must taste sweeter than sugar.[14]

  20. Born in 1925, Takada Hatsu recalls feeling antipathy toward the indoctrination that filled her days at school.

      I first learned the meaning of war as a second-grader when I had to join a funeral procession to the shrine for a man who died at the front in China. After seeing his bereaved family, I found the increasingly militaristic curriculum at school hard to bear.[15]

    These diverse accounts all convey the ubiquitous intensity of wartime exhortation. Relentless indoctrination, starting in elementary school, would lead many to embrace the war effort with catastrophic consequences.
  21. In 1979, thirty-four years after the Battle of Okinawa, an American veteran from Rhode Island showed me a diary he had found in Okinawa shortly after organised Japanese resistance ended in late June of 1945. The writer, a sixteen-year-old Okinawan boy, had joined the local defence forces (bōeitai) to repulse the invasion of the American 'devil-beasts' (kichiku). His daily entries frequently mentioned his determination to show his Japanese spirit (Yamato damashii) and to die, if necessary, for the sake of the emperor. Published firsthand accounts of the battle, such as the late Jo Nobuko Martin's autobiographical novel on the Himeyuri High School Student Nurses Corps, confirm that such sentiments of sacrificial loyalty were frequently expressed and acted upon by Okinawan youth, including those in their early teens. Conscripted to serve as combat medics, most of the Himeyuri high school girls died in the battle, several killing themselves with grenades to avoid capture.[16] Close to half of the boys serving in the local defence forces and tens of thousands of Okinawan civilians who followed Imperial Army orders also died.[17]
  22. Ōta Masahide was a teenage member of the 'Emperor's Iron and Blood' youth corps, who later became a professor at the University of Ryukyus and governor of Okinawa Prefecture (1990–98). He wrote in 1953:

      I was one of those obedient students who believed unquestioningly what our teachers taught us and what we read in our textbooks—that we must give our lives for the emperor and the nation. We devoted ourselves completely to training our bodies and our minds in preparation for that day.

  23. Nakadomari Yoshikane, another teenage member of the corps, wrote a will to his parents that was found in a cave after the battle.

      My body does not belong to me. I am his Majesty's subject. My life was bestowed by Imperial Japan, and I do not hesitate to give it for the nation. This is only natural. I have no regrets about dying, and have faith in our certain victory.[18]

  24. Most deaths were from enemy fire, but many resulted from the actions of 'friendly forces' (yūgun). After US artillery and infantry destroyed their fortified positions in central Okinawa, Japanese soldiers made a long, chaotic retreat south, often turning murderously on local civilians. They executed Okinawans as 'spies' simply for speaking to each other in the local dialect. They ordered people sheltering from the battle in underground caves to move outside into deadly enemy fire so the soldiers could make room for themselves. They seized dwindling food supplies, causing widespread starvation. And, as noted above, they ordered local residents, mostly women, children, and the elderly, to commit compulsory suicide to avoid capture by the enemy. Despite the countless battlefield sacrifices made by Okinawans, soldiers from the mainland repeatedly expressed doubts about the loyalty of people whose language and culture differed from their own. Then, as defeat loomed, they shot down Okinawan civilians as scapegoats out of sheer exasperation.

    Published accounts and memorials
  25. The first published descriptions of compulsory suicides appeared in the book Tetsu no Bōfū (Typhoon of Steel), printed in 1950 by the Okinawa Times Press.[19] Unlike earlier books about the Battle of Okinawa by soldiers from the mainland who wrote mostly about military strategy, this was an account from the perspective of local residents based on interviews of survivors, including those on Tokashiki and Zamami Islands. Interviewees also described other atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army. This book has been criticised, however, for idealising the 'humanism' of American soldiers, and ignoring crimes they committed, including the rape of women and teenage girls in villages and refugee camps. In retrospect, US occupation censorship probably would not have permitted its publication had such negative information been included.[20]
  26. One year later, in 1951, accounts of group suicides by high school student nurses appeared in Okinawa no higeki: Himeyuri no tō o Meguru Hitobito no Shuki (An Okinawan tragedy: diaries of the Himeyuri student nurses),[21] compiled by one of their teachers, Nakasone Seizen. This book became the basis for films, plays and television dramatisations which too often romanticised and eroticised the 'beautiful purity' of girls who gave their lives for the nation, determined to avoid shame and defilement at the hands of the Americans. However, the recent documentary film Himeyuri (2007) stands as a notable exception. It centres on interviews of survivors from the student nurse corps, which are juxtaposed with photographs of their student days and footage of wartime Japan and the battle. The women, now in their eighties, are filmed describing their experiences at the very sites, overgrown today with trees and flowers, where they had worked in field hospitals and cave shelters as combat medics under horrendous conditions. Another informative documentary, Yuntanza Okinawa (1987), presents interviews with survivors of the Chibichirigama killings in the context of historical footage of the battle.[22]
  27. Novelist Sono Ayako has expressed what remains the view of rightists in Japan regarding compulsory suicides. She claimed in her essay 'Aru shinwa no haikei: Okinawa, Tokashiki-jima no shūdan jiketsu' (The story behind the myth: group suicides on Okinawa and Tokashiki Islands), originally published in 1973, and in subsequent writings,[23] that the killings were carried out as 'beautiful martyrdom for the nation' and that the Imperial Army officers who ordered them are 'heroes'.[24] Vigorous rebuttals from authors in Okinawa and on the mainland prompted Sono to write a limerick ridiculing the survivors which contains the line 'You deserve to go to hell.'[25] In 1987, hostility from the right resulted in the destruction of the memorial 'Statue of Peace,' installed a year earlier to commemorate the compulsory suicides, in Chibichirigama cave at the site in Yomitan Village. The two vandalisers claimed they had exacted 'heaven's punishment' on the statue of a mother embracing her child by sculptor Kinjō Minoru because it 'embarrassed the emperor.' It was rebuilt in 1995.
  28. Violence was perpetrated from the other side of the ideological spectrum in 1975 when two university students from Okinawa and one from the mainland threw a firebomb at former Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko (now Emperor and Empress) during their visit to the Himeyuri Memorial honouring the high school student nurses who died in the battle. Neither the prince nor princess were hurt, but an Imperial Household Agency official was injured n the mêlée that ensued. Leaders of peaceful protests against the couple's visit denounced this act as terrorism damaging to their cause. However, it can be understood in the context of a widespread view in Okinawa that the imperial institution bears responsibility, which has never been officially acknowledged, for the Pacific War, including atrocities committed by the Japanese military during the battle. Aside from this attack on members of the imperial family, the Himeyuri Memorial has generated less controversy than the Statue of Peace at Chibichirigama, perhaps because it commemorates all the student nurses who died in the battle, not only those who committed suicide to avoid capture.

    Breaking the silence: survivors come forward
  29. 'The survivors of the compulsory suicides in Chibichirigama cave left this story buried with their dead relatives for thirty-eight years', explains Norma Field:

      Those who tried to unearth the secret met with a silence surpassing the conventional reticence of country folk. It was only in 1983 that it was broken by the devoted, even driven efforts of three men. They were a local World War II veteran, Higa Heishin, an artist and writer from Tokyo, Shimojima Tetsuro, and a mainland filmmaker, Sugiyama Toshi. They joined other local residents who persuaded survivors to meet in groups and tell their experiences into a tape recorder.[26]

  30. Why survivors have belatedly come forward to tell what happened seems to vary among individuals and according to the contemporary context. In his 1974 novel Kamishima (Island of the Gods),[27] based on actual events, Okinawa's best-known writer, Ōshiro Tatsuhiro, depicts a retired school principal who, many years after the battle, reveals to another teacher that he had relayed the military's order to his fellow villagers to commit suicide with hand grenades. Critic and translator Davinder Bhowmik describes the principal's confession as an effort to atone 'burdened with enormous guilt for his…role in the killings' and for surviving them when the grenade he was issued failed to explode. Bhowmik notes that the principal expresses particular shame for the 'animal-like obedience' (dōbutsu-teki chūseishin) he displayed in the presence of imperial soldiers during the war.' She adds that Ōshiro's narrative reveals 'the shallowness of Japan's pre-war emperor-centered moral education.'[28]

    Japanese government's proposed textbook revisions ignite massive protest and bring forth more eyewitness testimony
  31. The Japanese Education Ministry's periodic efforts in recent years to eliminate or whitewash accounts in public school textbooks of Imperial Army atrocities during the Battle of Okinawa have also motivated survivors of compulsory suicides to come forward and tell what happened. In 1982, the Ministry sought to delete references in school textbooks to the killings of civilians in Okinawa by the Japanese military. The Ministry claimed that, because descriptions of the killings in books on Okinawan history were 'stories of people's experiences' (taiken-dan), these books did not qualify as 'research works' (kenkyū-sho). A 29 March 2007 editorial in the Okinawa Taimusu argued that:

      This excuse represents the worst kind of documentarianism (bunsho-shugi). Documents are valuable as historical sources, but it is impossible to know the actual circumstances of the Battle of Okinawa by relying on them alone.[29]

  32. Then on 29 September 2007, 110,000 people demonstrated in Okinawa to protest the textbook revisions announced in April by the Education Ministry that would have deleted references to the Japanese military's role in compulsory suicides. The Ministry tried again to justify the deletions by asserting that documentary evidence, in the form of written military orders for civilians to commit suicide, was lacking. Speakers at the protest included survivors of the battle who had witnessed the military rounding up civilians at 'assembly points,' and distributing hand grenades with orders to kill themselves to avoid capture. This massive protest, the largest in the prefecture's history, was joined by supporters from Tokyo, including writers, activists, and members of Parliament. In addition, the textbooks' publishers lodged complaints seeking restoration of the deletions. Finally, the Ministry agreed to include a slightly revised wording of the passage. The sentence 'civilians were forced by the Japanese army into committing mass suicides' was amended to 'civilians were driven to commit mass suicides using hand grenades and other means distributed to them with the involvement of the Japanese army.' Okinawans found this compromise less than fully satisfactory, but it showed that public protest in Japan could thwart government efforts at textbook revision. The most powerful component of this protest had been the testimony of those eyewitnesses who had survived the killings.

    Court dismisses defamation suit against Ōe Kenzaburō, validating survivors' testimony
  33. On 28 March 2008, the Osaka District Court dismissed a lawsuit against Nobel Prize-winning author Ōe Kenzaburō and his publisher for printing accounts of the Japanese military ordering group suicides. The plaintiffs, a former garrison commander and the brother of a late former commander, had claimed these descriptions in Ōe's Okinawa Nōto Okinawa Notes) published in 1970,[30] and in the late Ienaga Saburō's Taiheiyō Sensō (The Pacific War), published in 1968,[31] were defamatory. Ienaga wrote that 'Garrison commander Akamatsu Yoshitsugu on Takashiki Island ordered local residents to turn over all food supplies to the army and commit suicide before US troops landed'.[32] Ōe wrote that the group suicides of civilians on Zamami and Tokashiki Islands at that time were ordered by the Japanese military stationed there. Umezawa Yutaka (91), former commanding officer on Zamami, and relatives of the late Akamatsu Yoshitsugu, former commanding officer on Tokashiki, contended that this assertion was false, and filed a defamation lawsuit against Ōe and his publisher seeking twenty million yen (roughly equivalent to $US200,000) and a ban on further printing of Okinawa Nōto. The court dismissed their suit in its entirety.[33]
  34. In his verdict, presiding Judge Fukami Toshimasa noted that Japanese soldiers had distributed hand grenades to local villagers, telling these civilians to kill themselves rather than be captured by US forces, and that group suicides had occurred only in places where Japanese forces had been stationed. 'The Japanese military was deeply involved,' he said. 'It is reasonable to believe that they ordered them.' The verdict cited testimony of surviving witnesses and recently published research.[34]

    Retrospectives in political context
  35. The court's verdict in 2008 and the Japanese government's efforts to revise textbooks the previous year focused renewed attention on compulsory suicides. From the first published accounts of them in Typhoon of Steel, (1950),[35] the political and ideological environment in Okinawa has influenced whether and how these ultimate traumas are described and memorialised. Tanji writes that 'initially [after the war], the Okinawa People's Party welcomed US military rule as an opportunity to free Okinawa from Japan'.[36] With Imperial Army atrocities fresh in the memory of battle survivors, Typhoon of Steel poses compulsory suicides as examples of the Japanese military's 'brutality' in contrast to US forces' 'humanism,' exemplified by the aid provided to refugees. The book reflects early post-war feelings expressed in Okinawa of 'liberation' from imperial Japanese rule, but its failure to mention crimes against civilians, including rape, committed by American soldiers must be seen in the context of the censorship which was US occupation policy.
  36. By the time Typhoon of Steel was published, opinions in Okinawa were already turning against the US occupation. In what had become an American military colony, the US government seized privately-owned farmland for the expansion of bases, denied Okinawans basic legal and political rights, and subjected them to the unilateral authority of military commanders with little knowledge or experience in civilian governance. Understandably, concerns now focused on the daily dangers, disruptions, and indignities imposed by American occupation rule and the vast US military presence. Forcible land seizures and incessant GI crime, including the 1955 rape and murder of a six-year-old girl, sparked massive protests.
  37. By the early 1960s, Okinawans had organised a vigorous movement for reversion to Japanese sovereignty that attracted growing participation in mainland Japan. With frequent demonstrations in Okinawa against both dictatorial occupation policies and outrages inflicted by the American military, there was less specific discussion of Japanese atrocities committed during the battle. Instead, the teachers, journalists and labour union organisers who led the reversion movement cited the battle, along with America's massive military intervention in Vietnam staged in large part from bases in Okinawa, as reasons for opposing war and for bringing Okinawa under Japan's post-war 'Peace Constitution'.[37] Raising such issues as compulsory suicides could have been counter-productive at a time when movement leaders were seeking to build support in mainland Japan for Okinawan aspirations.
  38. By the mid-1960s, the reversion movement was inspiring such widespread sympathy on the mainland that even the conservative Japanese government, which officially supported US military intervention in Vietnam, adopted the cause. In 1969, the two governments finally negotiated a reversion agreement to take effect in 1972. However, the terms deeply disappointed people in Okinawa because they permitted US bases to remain there largely intact, breaking the Japanese government's oft-stated promise to reduce them to 'mainland levels.' Okinawans protested this betrayal as discrimination they compared to disproportionate sacrifices the government had imposed on Okinawa before and during the war, especially in the Battle of Okinawa.
  39. By the time reversion took place in May 1972, writers and educators in Okinawa were regularly expressing concern about Japan's school curriculum, which ignored or downplayed the Japanese military's aggression and wartime atrocities. Ōshiro Tatsuhiro's evocation of compulsory suicides in his 1974 novel Island of the Gods shows the catastrophic effects of education based on officially promulgated distortions. The Education Ministry's recent attempts to purge textbooks of references to the Imperial Army's role sparked protests from Okinawans and mainlanders alike, which were widely covered in the Japanese media. Thus, the ironic result of the Ministry's efforts was to draw public attention to the military's responsibility for compulsory suicides, and to bring forward more survivors in Okinawa who gave eye-witness testimony to it. The subsequent backing down of the Japanese government in restoring these references is an important political victory.

  40. A combination of factors led to compulsory suicides during the Battle of Okinawa. The primary role of Imperial Army coercion is confirmed in the fact that they did not occur in areas of Okinawa unoccupied by the Japanese military where civilians surrendered to US forces. Wartime and postwar accounts attest to the influence of militaristic education and the resulting social pressures. Survivors remember hearing village leaders yell 'Long live the Emperor' just before grenades were detonated.[38] Yoshikawa Yoshikatsu, a battle survivor from Kakazu Village, recalled, 'After the mayor yelled "Long live the Emperor", hand grenades exploded all around us. I could hear the screams of the dying.'[39] Historian Kinjō Shigeaki cites 'the wartime merging of politics, religion, and education into a monolithic force for inculcating loyalty defined as "giving one's life joyfully for the emperor.".'[40] Compulsory suicides must also be viewed within the historical context of Japan's forcible annexation of the Ryukyu Kingdom as Okinawa Prefecture in 1879, and subsequent assimilation policies that were imposed at first from Tokyo and later embraced locally. As an ethnic minority with a distinct culture and history, Okinawans experienced prejudice and discrimination in Japan, especially when they travelled or resided on the mainland. Viewed by many as less than fully Japanese, and therefore inferior, they felt particular pressures to 'assimilate' and to prove their loyalty.
  41. After the war, both social pressures and political conditions affected public discourse—or the lack of it—on compulsory suicides. During most of the US military occupation (1945–72), authors and educators were reluctant to discuss them in the context of Imperial Army atrocities at a time when Okinawans were seeking support throughout Japan in their campaign for a return to Japanese sovereignty. Moreover, survivor guilt and feelings of shame for having cooperated in the killings prevented many eyewitnesses from coming forward until Japan's Education Ministry first attempted to revise school textbook accounts of them in 1982, sparking widespread outrage. Since then, increased public discussion has included survivors' published accounts, scholarly studies, documentary films, museum exhibits, and artistic renderings that depict this ultimate trauma.


    [1] Norma Field, In the Realm of a Dying Emperor: Japan at the Century's End, New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

    [2] Tsuha Kiyoshi, et al., (eds), Okinawa-ken Heiwa Kinen Shiryō-kan: Sōgō Annai (Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum: Comprehensive Guidebook), Naha, Okinawa: Okinawa-ken Heiwa Kinen Shiryō-kan, 2001, p. 72. All translations in this article are by the author unless otherwise noted.

    [3] Tsuha, Okinawa-ken Heiwa Kinen Shiryō-kan, cites a recorded 122,228 deaths. In July of 1944, a year before the Battle of Okinawa, an estimated 10,000 Japanese settlers, most of them from Okinawa, died rather than surrender to US forces (p. 90). Japanese historian Ienaga Saburō cites Time war correspondent Robert Sherwood's dispatch in his account of how 'the Japanese military forced civilians to withdraw to a cliff overhanging the ocean at the northern tip of the island. Some families blew themselves up with hand grenades. Young women sat on the rocks, carefully combed their black hair, and then quietly jumped into the ocean. Infants and small children drowned with their mothers.' See Ienaga Saburō, Taiheiyō Sensō (The Pacific War), Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1968, trans. Frank Baldwin, New York: Pantheon, 1978, pp. 197–98.

    [4] Kamata Satoshi, '"Gyokusai"' (Shattering Jewels), in Shūkan Kinyōbi, 12 and 16 October 2007, trans Steve Rabson as 'Shattering Jewels: 110,000 Okinawans Protest Japanese State Censorship of Compulsory Group Suicides,' in The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, 3 January 2008, online:, accessed 3 March 2010. The term 'shattering jewels' was a slogan in wartime Japan for suicides carried out for the purpose of mounting attacks on the enemy or avoiding capture.

    [5] Field, In the Realm of a Dying Emperor, pp. 61–62.

    [6] Miyume Tanji, Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa, London and New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 38. In other instances, Japanese soldiers mounted suicide attacks, including 'Kamikaze' air strikes on US warships, and killed themselves to avoid capture. At the end of the battle, the two Japanese commanders in Okinawa, Generals Uchijima Mitsuru and Chō Isamu, committed ritual suicide after ordering military units to disband and exhorting soldiers to continue armed resistance.

    [7] David Nichols (ed.), Ermie's War: the Best of Ernie Pyle's World War II Dispatches New York: Random House, 1986, p. 414.

    [8] Field, In the Realm of a Dying Emperor, p. 66.

    [9] Tanji, Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa, pp. 38–39.

    [10] Announcements were made in Japanese by Japanese American US soldiers who also served as interpreters in Okinawa. Japanese soldiers inside caves shot down civilians who tried to leave. In Shimuku-gama cave, Higa Heiji, an Okinawan civilian who had lived in Hawaii, persuaded the others to surrender to US forces. See Shimojima Tetsurō, Okinawa, Chibichirigama no 'shūdan jiketsu' ('Group suicides' in Chibichirigama Cave, Okinawa), Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2000, pp. 18—24. After surrendering, civilians and soldiers alike received food, clothing, and medical treatment, and were placed in refugee camps. US forces provided aid and shelter that saved tens of thousands of lives; however, as indicated below, American soldiers also committed crimes against them, including the rape of women and teen-age girls in refugee camps.

    [11] Kyūyō Shimpō, October 5 and 12, 1938

    [12] Kyūyō Shimpō, Februray 13, 1939.

    [13] Okinawa Kenjin-kai Hyōgo Ken Honbu (ed.), Shima o deta tami no sensō taiken-shū (Collected war experiences of people who left the islands), Amagasaki: Okinawa Kenjin-kai Hyōgo Ken Honbu, 1995, pp. 178–80, trans. and commentary in Steve Rabson, 'Memories of Okinawa: life and times in the Greater Osaka Diaspora,' in Islands of Discontent: Okinawan Responses to Japanese and American Power, ed. Laura Hein and Mark Selden, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003, pp. 99–134.

    [14] Okinawa Kenjin-kai, Shima o deta tami no sensō taiken-shū, pp. 263–64.

    [15] Okinawa Kenjin-kai, Shima o deta tami no sensō taiken-shū, p. 198.

    [16] Nobuko Jo Martin, A Princess Lily of the Ryukyus, Tokyo: Shin-Nippon Kyōiku Tosho, 1984.

    [17] Tsuha, Okinawa-ken, p. 90. Of the 1,780 teenage boys mobilised for the Tekketsu kinnō-tai (Emperor's iron and blood corps), 890 lost their lives. Also See Arashiro Toshiaki, Ryūykyū, Okinawa-shi (History of Ryukyu and Okinawa), Naha, Okinawa: Tōyō Kikaku, 1997, p. 211.

    [18] Quoted in Nakahodo Masanori, Okinawa no senki (Accounts of the Battle of Okinawa), Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun-sha, 1982, pp. 81 and 93, respectively.

    [19] Okinawa Taimusu (ed.), Tetsu no Bōfū (Typhoon of Steel), Okinawa Taimusu-sha, 1950.

    [20] Nakahodo, Okinawa no senki, p. 48.

    [21] Nakasone Seizen, Okinawa no higeki: Himeyuri no tō o meguru hitobito no shuki (An Okinawan tragedy: Diaries of the Himeyuri student nurses), Tokyo: Kachō shobō, 1951.

    [22] Yuntanza Okinawa, dir. Nishiyama Masahiro, Shiguro Productions, 1987; Himeyuri, dir. Shibata Shōhei, Eishiya Productions, 2007.

    [23] Sono Ayako, Aru shinwa no haikei: Okinawa, Tokashiki-jima no shūdan jiketsu (The story behind the myth: Group suicides on Okinawa and Tokashiki Islands), Tokyo: PHP Bunko, 1992.

    [24] Sono Ayako, Aru shinwa.

    [25] Quoted in Kamata, '"Gyokusai".'

    [26] Field, In the Realm of a Dying Emperor, pp. 59–60.

    [27] Ńshirō Tatsuhiro, Kamishima, Nihon Hōsō Shuppan Kyōkai, 1974.

    [28] Davinder L. Bhowmik, Writing Okinawa: Narrative Acts of Identity and Resistance, New York: Routledge, 2008, p. 105.

    [29] Okinawa Taimusu, March 29, 2007, p. 3

    [30] Ōe Kenzaburō, Okinawa Nōto, Iwanami Shoten, 1970

    [31] Ienaga Saburō, Taiheiyō Sensō (The Pacific War), Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1968.

    [32] Ienega, Taiheiyō Sensō, p. 185.

    [33] Steve Rabson, 'Case dismissed: Osaka court upholds novelist Ōe Kenzaburō for writing that the Japanese Military ordered "group suicides" in the Battle of Okinawa,' in The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, 8 April 2008, online:, accessed 3 March 2010.

    [34] Fukami Toshimasa, quoted in Rabson, 'Case dismissed.'

    [35] Okinawa Taimusu (ed.), Tetsu no Bōfū.

    [36] Tanji, Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa, p. 56.

    [37] As a US Army draftee stationed in Okinawa for eight months during 1967–68, I observed almost daily protests, including marches, picketings, and sit-ins reminiscent of civil rights demonstrations in the US. Protesters opposed war in Vietnam, military occupation (gun-senryō), and rule by an alien people (i-minzoku shihai). They demanded 'reversion to Japan' (Nihon fukki), a nation described as a democracy governed under a 'peace constitution' (heiwa kempō). This characterisation seems oversimplified, considering the presence of US bases on the mainland, the Japanese government's support of US intervention in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and the constitutional issues raised by Japan's Self-Defence Forces. But it is easy to understand why status as a prefecture in a country where civilians governed and the standard of living was steadily rising seemed preferable to military rule and a third-world economy heavily dependent on US installations and purchases. Okinawa's main 'industry' then was the 'service sector' in which many worked menial jobs on the bases, such as truck driver, janitor, store clerk, waitress, and housemaid, or in such base-town occupations as pawnbroker, bar hostess, and prostitute.

    [38] Kamata, '"Gyokusai".'

    [39] Kamata, '"Gyokusai".'

    [40] Kinjō Shigeaki, 'Shūdan jiketsu no tanima kara' (From the valley of group suicides), in Okinawa ni totte tennō-sei to wa nanika (Okinawa and the emperor system), ed. Okinawa Taimusu, Naha, Okinawa: Okinawa Taimusu-sha, 1976, pp. 242–52.

Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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