NEW YORK — I was thinking once again about the intractability of Japan’s part in the Pacific phase of World War II when the news came: Okinawans had staged a huge rally to protest the Japanese government’s downplaying in textbooks the military’s role in “group suicides” among civilians during the Battle of Okinawa.
According to some reports, a single examiner at the Japanese education ministry, with dubious outside connections, made the change. To explain it, he pointed to a recent complaint brought against writer Kenzaburo Oe’s 1970 assertions.
The examiner, if he was thinking at all, took an action as improbable as the war itself. Yes, Japan was pushed up against the wall by America’s compromise-be-damned approach to international complications. But the Japanese leaders who started the war did so in the perfect knowledge that the odds were overwhelmingly against them.
After the initial series of unexpected victories, Japan had its first big defeat in the Battle of Midway, a mere six months after Pearl Harbor. From then on, it was all downhill, for reasons many had foreseen. And as things turned bad, then disastrous, the military leadership’s reactions became ever more irrational.
With the annihilation of its 2,500-man force on Attu Island, in the Aleutian Archipelago, a year after Midway, the Japanese military used, for the first time, the ancient Chinese word gyokusai, “a jewel shatters,” meaning “dying gallantly,” rather than surviving.
The official announcement stated that those unable to take part in the final attack because of wounds or illness committed suicide in advance. But the Japanese populace, instead of regarding it as a horrible military failure, seems to have accepted the euphemism as ennobling.
Less than three months later, as a matter of fact, when the commander of the 5,200-man force on Kiska, another Aleutian island, pulled a complete withdrawal before U.S. bombardment began, the Japanese press treated it as a disgrace, as did the Japanese people, one assumes, although it must be said that, long before then, the press had been under harsh military control.
Each gyokusai after that saw the numbers of “shattered” soldiers increase: the Battle of Tarawa, 4,700; the Battle of Kwajalein, 7,900 out of 8,100; the Battle of Biak, 10,000 out of 15,000; the Battle of Saipan, 29,000 out of 31,000, and so on.
The defeat at Saipan, which felled Gen. Hideki Tojo’s Cabinet, included 5,000 suicides, many among civilians — many coerced by the military. But as the iconoclastic writer Helen Mears (1900-1989), who famously won the ire of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, pointed out, most such coercion and suicides were the result of the frenzy and hysteria created by the furies of war: bombing, bombardment, strafing, machine-gunning.
Four months earlier, in February 1944, Tojo, in his “emergency declaration,” had called for ichioku gyokusai, “100 million shattering like a jewel.” It was a demand that the entire Japanese population be prepared to die. Japan’s population at the time was 70 million, so he was also ordering Taiwanese and Koreans to meet the same fate.
When news about the Okinawa rally came, I happened to be looking at the Senjinkun, “The Code of Conduct on the Battlefield.” Issued in January 1941 in the name of Tojo, then minister of the army, it is famous for a single article — the one that has been interpreted as urging soldiers to commit suicide rather than allow themselves to be taken prisoner.
I needed to ascertain what it really said for a book I’m working on. I was doubly surprised, however, when I read the code, along with an account of how it came into being. First, I learned that the Japanese Army prepared it in an attempt to counter the widespread loss of military discipline on the Chinese front: “violence against superior officers, desertions, rape, arson, pillage” — the kind of criminal acts “not seen on the battlefields during the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars,” wrote Takayuki Shirane, one of the small group of officers tasked to write it.
By then, evidently, the Imperial Rescript to the Soldiers, issued in 1882, had lost its hold. So, most of the document was devoted to reminding the soldiers, in much greater detail than the rescript, of the importance of upholding the honor of Imperial soldiers. Don’t get drunk, don’t get carried away by lust, treat noncombatants with kindness, and so on.
What surprised me equally was the article in question. As Shirane put it, after Japan’s defeat, the code as a whole won notoriety “from the humanistic viewpoint” because of it. But its wording confused me. A sentence with two parts in apparent parallelism, it did not entirely make sense to me. It said, as I saw it, something like, “Thou shall not suffer the shame of being taken prisoner while alive; thou shall not leave the infamy of crime and penalty when you die.”
In short, it did not seem to say, “Rather than be taken prisoner, kill yourself.” Put it another way, it seemed to say, “Do your best not to be taken captive.” Minus “shame,” the same injunction occurs in the Code of the U.S. Fighting Force.
So I asked my erudite friend at Cornell University, Kyoko Selden. After carefully parsing the two-part sentence, she concluded that the original does not seem to say what it has always been taken to mean. The traditional interpretation may have been deliberately encouraged, she suggested, or the existing idea led to that reading. I can readily support the latter possibility.
Masahide Ota, a prominent historian of the biggest gyokusai, the Battle of Okinawa, has cataloged the “group suicides” coerced or forced by the Japanese military. He takes the view that Japan forced Okinawa to become part of the Japanese Empire and, in the end, sacrificed it for mainland Japan. His grief and anger are understandable.
Nearly 200,000 people were killed, half of them Okinawa civilians or one-third of the island population. To quash the Japanese forces defending that fragile island, the U.S. amassed 550,000 soldiers — far greater than the defending forces and the resident population combined — with a vast armada.
Island people called the American assault “an iron storm” — a series of “shock and awe,” if you will, that lasted for three months. The government structure quickly disintegrated, the military command system rapidly splintered. With the idea of death over retreat or surrender prevailing, it would have been a miracle had no Japanese soldiers forced civilians to kill themselves or killed them outright in that chaos and madness.
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.