Before the war there was a famous woman commonly referred to as Mrs. Inoue, though after the war people stopped talking about her.

Mrs. Inoue’s husband, an army lieutenant, was being sent to Manchuria, and, on the eve of his departure, Mrs. Inoue stabbed herself in the throat and died. In her suicide note she expressed joy at her husband’s assignment and said she was killing herself so that he could enter into battle without hesitation, the idea being that if he worried about never returning to see her again he couldn’t fight to the bitter end.

Local newspapers called Mrs. Inoue a hero. More than 1,500 people attended her funeral, and her alma mater closed for a day in her honor. Later, other soldiers’ wives formed home-island defense teams in her name. She became the subject of not one but two feature films.

According to historian Hisae Sawachi, there is reason to believe that Mrs. Inoue’s tale is not all it seems to be. For one thing, her husband remarried almost immediately. It was common during the war for the media to exaggerate “beautiful stories” (bidan) for propaganda purposes.

Mrs. Inoue was on my mind as I watched a series of documentaries aired on various NHK channels last week. Many were rebroadcasts of programs first shown a year or two ago, but the decision to broadcast them all within a week of the 62nd anniversary of Japan’s surrender gave them extra significance. People still argue over whether or not Japanese forces committed atrocities against Asian civilians, but what seems indisputable after watching these documentaries is that Japan’s leaders committed atrocities against their own people.

The military suspected it had lost the war sometime after the Battle of Midway in June 1942 but kept up the illusion it was winning in order to maintain morale. By late 1944, the end was well in sight, and in desperation Japan’s leaders reinforced the concept of gyokusai, which is usually translated as “fighting to the bitter end.” The English term implies fighting because there is no alternative, and while it is assumed one will die in the process, death is not the ultimate purpose. With gyokusai, however, death is the only purpose.

It is a central component of the Field Service Code (senjinkun), according to which a soldier must die rather than be taken captive. One of the NHK documentaries was about Japanese prisoners of war at Camp Cowra in Australia. Former POWs discussed how they were constantly thinking of ways to die, despite the fact that they were well cared for. In the beginning, the prisoners were mostly infantrymen, but as the war progressed more officers were forced into battle, and when they arrived at the camp as prisoners themselves, they were appalled that the soldiers had not yet killed themselves. They decided that everyone should attempt an escape — not to return to Japan or to the front, which would have been impossible, but for the express purpose of being shot while trying to flee. On the morning of Aug. 5, 1944, 1,100 Japanese prisoners tried to escape and 234 were killed.

The 21,000 Japanese stationed on Iwo Jima in early 1945 were there to carry out gyokusai. Clint Eastwood’s movie paints a gritty but sentimental picture of the battle. The tone of NHK’s version is different. The campaign lasted a month, but long before it ended the Japanese government was telling its citizens that all the soldiers had died honorably (1,000 survived). One survivor recalled it was anything but honorable: “We were killing each other over water.” Soldiers were told that if they were taken prisoner their family registers (koseki) would receive a red mark that branded them as cowards forever. Starving Japanese soldiers remained holed up in caves, refusing to come out. The Americans became impatient and just threw grenades inside. “Death had no meaning,” another survivor said.

Tokyo extended the idea of gyokusai to civilians. Three thousand residents of Saipan died, many at their own hands, when the Americans landed. According to another NHK documentary, they were ordered to do so. An old film shows an official telling citizens that it is their duty to fight to the death with sharpened sticks if necessary. “I thought I was a bad Japanese,” one woman said about her failure to die, and this feeling haunted the survivors long after the war was over and made it difficult for them to speak about their experiences.

This reluctance to come forward and go on the record has so far allowed the minority of outspoken revisionists to insist that the war was a noble cause fought nobly.

The residents of Okinawa have protested the government’s recent decision to remove references from history textbooks of military-ordered suicides during the American invasion. They know what happened to them, even if written evidence no longer exists.

The NHK programs show that gyokusai became the sole impetus for continuing the war. All frontline deaths, whether military or civilian, fueled the government’s perverse propaganda machine, which saw self-annihilation as the only recourse. As shown in the recent American-made documentary “Wings of Defeat,” the famous tokkotai (kamikaze) pilot program was developed not for strategic purposes — very few planes reached their targets, much less crashed into them — but rather as a propaganda tool, as an example to the people of Japan, who were expected to die just as “gloriously” (read: pointlessly).

Last week, NHK also aired a dramatization of manga artist Shigeru Mizuki’s memoir about his experience as a foot soldier in New Guinea, where gyokusai was the only battlefield option. Mizuki’s squadron is ordered to charge to their deaths, but they return after their leader is wounded and shoots himself to take responsibility. “If they don’t die,” says the commanding officer, “they’ll bring shame on our unit.” So he orders them to either commit suicide or go back and try again. Feel free to laugh if you can.

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