JPRI Working Paper No. 48: July 1998
The Battle of Okinawa in Japanese History Books
by Koji Taira

In the summer of 1982, there was an international uproar over what appeared to be the Japanese government's attempts to revise, distort, or otherwise falsify the history of Japan's aggression in Asia by means of school textbook screening. Okinawans, too, were outraged by the perceived tendency of the Japanese Ministry of Education (Monbusho) to conceal the wartime atrocities of the Japanese armies in Okinawa. In 1981-82, the Monbusho deleted from a draft high-school history textbook (not Saburo Ienaga's) the following sentence:

About 800 civilians of Okinawa prefecture were murdered by the Japanese troops on grounds that they hindered the fighting.

The official (tatemae) reason for the Monbusho's action was that the cited figure was not based on reliable sources. But the real (honne) reason was that the Monbusho regarded the book's assertion as unthinkable. A Monbusho official reportedly declared, "It is inconceivable that Japanese could do such a thing to other Japanese."

Okinawans strongly protested. The prefectural assembly unanimously passed a resolution emphasizing the truth of the civilian killings by the Japanese army during the Battle of Okinawa and urged the Monbusho to reinstate the original textbook statement. In 1983, the Monbusho again unfavorably reacted to a statement about Japanese troop atrocities against civilians in Okinawa, this time in a revised edition of Saburo Ienaga's textbook. Later in the same year, Ienaga brought his third lawsuit against the Monbusho, questioning the constitutionality of textbook screening and alleging illegal excesses in the Monbusho's discretionary authority on a number of points, including the correction demanded on the Okinawa issue.

Ienaga won a partial victory in his third lawsuit in the High Court. He appealed to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court ruled on that appeal in August, 1997, ruling in Ienaga's favor on one of the four specific complaints. However, the court sided with the Monbusho on the point relating to Okinawa. For residents of Okinawa it was another disappointment on the heels of many in their unequal relationship with the Japanese state.

The Issue

The Okinawan reactions in support of the original Ienaga footnote and against the Monbusho's correction-order are freighted with perceptions of cultural, historical, and political relations between Okinawa and Japan. Rendering the issue in English is also difficult because of the almost untranslatable semantics of Japanese discourse on the issue, and because these have often been deliberately distorted, shaded, or nuanced for legal or public relations advantages.

Below are reproduced George Hicks's translation, as provided in his Japan's Wartime Memories: Amnesia or Concealment (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co., 1997), p. 116, together with developments which, although not mentioned by Hicks, are nonetheless important. The supplementary material is bracketed in this manner: {...}. The italics are also ours.

1. Original Ienaga Manuscript [footnote]: Okinawa became a theater of land combat and approximately 160,000 residents, old and young, male and female, met untimely deaths amid the conflict. More than a few of these were killed by the Japanese army.

2. Correction Comment {by the Monbusho}: {Although among the people of Okinawa Prefecture it was a fact that more than a few were killed by the Japanese army,} as mass suicides were the most numerous among the people of Okinawa Prefecture who fell victim, the whole aspect of the battle of Okinawa is not clear without adding an account of mass suicides.

3. {Resubmitted MS by Ienaga: Okinawa Prefecture became a theater of land combat and approximately 160,000 residents, old and young, male and female, met untimely deaths under the offensive of the American army, by mass suicide, by being driven out of the caves by the Japanese army to the crossfire on the battle-ground, or murdered [satsugai] as in cases of babies making noise or crying in the caves or persons suspected of being spies.}

4. {Second correction comment by the Monbusho: The correction submitted is too extensive and greatly exceeds the scope of our correction comment. We merely told you to include mass suicides because these were numerous.}

5. Account as qualified {i.e., approved by the Monbusho}: Okinawa became a theater of land combat and approximately 160,000 residents, old and young, male and female, met untimely deaths by shelling, bombing, or being driven to mass suicide. More than a few were killed by the Japanese army.

The bone of contention was whether or not "mass suicide" should be mentioned along with the civilian killings by the Japanese army. The primary motive of the Monbusho apparently was to defend Japanese troop conduct in the Battle of Okinawa, which was consistent with the Monbusho's reaction to Ienaga's description of the Nanking massacre. At the 1980 textbook screening, the Monbusho flatly rejected Ienaga's description of the Nanking massacre. But when the same description reappeared in the revised text screening of 1983, the Monbusho acquiesced to the wording while raising new objections. A similar change of mind occurred over Okinawa.

The 1981 screening (not of Ienaga's book) deleted a sentence about Japanese army atrocities in Okinawa and, as we have mentioned earlier, provoked Okinawan protests. Perhaps as a learning effect of this experience, at the 1983 screening the Monbusho accepted Ienaga's statement that "more than a few [Okinawans] were killed by the Japanese army," but it demanded that he add "mass suicide." This again provoked widespread protests in Okinawa. At one time the court even moved to Okinawa for hearings from local witnesses and experts.

Why did Okinawans object so strongly to the concept and use of "mass suicide?" This is not a simple question. Ethics, aesthetics, semantics, deep-seated feelings, and ideologies are all enmeshed in the phrase "mass suicide." In English the meaning of the phrase sounds straightforward, but this is not the case in Japanese. What is rendered as "mass suicide" is the Japanese phrase shudan jiketsu, with "mass," or "group," corresponding to shudan and "suicide" to jiketsu.


The usual Japanese word for "suicide" is jisatsu. So to call the Okinawan suicides jiketsu implies that they were a special kind of suicide. Indeed, jiketsu is because of reason, motive, manner, place, timing, and so on, a heroic, awe-inspiring, splendid act of taking one's own life. To call someone's suicide jiketsu is to honor and glorify the person who had the extraordinary courage to kill himself or herself in this manner. Calling such cases jisatsu would amount to a blasphemy. (Another euphemism for suicide is jigai, or hurting oneself, understood to be hurting severely enough to die.)

In the Battle of Okinawa, many Okinawans killed themselves by their own hands or assisted by their relatives or friends. The scenes of such group acts [see George Hicks's book, p. 63, or Norma Fields, In the Realm of a Dying Emperor (New York: Pantheon, 1991), pp. 56-67] were anything but glorious. An unpublished memoir by an American who was an eye-witness to a couple of shudan jiketsu was recently discovered and published in translation in the Ryukyu Shinpo (June 3, 1996). His graphic descriptions of the carnage belie the glorification of shudan jiketsu by the Japanese Self Defense Forces.

Shudan jiketsu, then, is a misnomer for the kind of group deaths to which it refers. The group typically included older people, women with children, underage boys and girls, and babies. How would they, many of whom did not even know what it meant to kill or die, kill themselves en masse? Some had been given hand grenades by the army. Several persons huddled around a single hand grenade to enhance its killing efficiency and died by being blown to pieces. Under the circumstances, those who died instantly in this way were the lucky ones.

Hand grenades exhausted, there were no more instruments of killing save what they had with them or found in nature: strings, kitchen knives, razor blades, sticks, rat poison, rocks, stones, etc. Imagine a group of terror-stricken people totally untrained in the art of killing trying to assist one another to die (a euphemism in this case for poisoning, strangling, stabbing, cutting, slashing, or beating one another to death). If one witnessed the scenes in real time and place, even the most battle-hardened soldier would blink and instinctively cry out, "Stop! Stop! Stop!" This indeed was the first reaction of the American soldier whose memoir was recently found.

Descriptions of how Okinawans died in the so-called shudan jiketsu evoke no sense of nobility, glory, dignity, honor, or serenity--qualities implied in the idealized notion of the Japanese word, jiketsu. In hindsight and in view of postwar values, this so-called shudan jiketsu amounted to useless, meaningless deaths (inujini) of which Okinawans on the whole, including survivors of the horror, are deeply ashamed. Those who survived the horror simply clammed up, determined to bury the shame in the deepest recesses of their hearts forever. At some point, however, they began to talk, at first hesitantly and then torrentially.

To some extent, misunderstandings and unacceptable interpretations of the tragedy of the Battle of Okinawa by Japanese governmental agencies, private authors, and movie makers were partly responsible for helping Okinawans overcome their hesitation and begin talking in their own defense. The Japanese said all kinds of things unacceptable to Okinawans, ranging from disingenuous idealization to devastating denigration. For example, the Self Defense Forces took the Japanese word jiketsu literally and fantasized that (to quote Hicks, p. 62), "earnestly praying for the fatherland's victory, they in all tranquility collectively dispatched themselves." To Okinawans, this is a blatant lie. Shudan jiketsu of civilians in the Battle of Okinawa was not like the story-book suicides of samurai after their last-ditch stand in a lost battle.

A Japanese novelist, Ms. Ayako Sono, romanticized the shudan jiketsu and claimed that she had no words, only profound respect for the Okinawans who died such heroic deaths. What should one make of such tender feelings of Japanese toward a people they habitually look down upon? Given the traditional Japanese attitude toward death, perhaps they are sincere. Japan is a country which deifies even its war criminals after death. Besides, jiketsu is the kind of word that evokes just such reverential reactions. But no gratitude should be expected from Okinawans.

On the other hand, there are also cynics among the Japanese. In the 1950s, the author Soichi Oya explicitly called the Okinawan self-executions inujini, deriving from the word inu, meaning 'dog,' and therefore often translated as a 'dog's death.' For Japanese a dog's death implies that it was a useless death; Americans, I believe, tend to associate with the phrase that the death was also ignominious and painful. In either case, while Okinawans recognize among themselves that many of them died in vain, they find it intolerable and callous for outsiders so to describe their deaths, particularly when they died in a war that the Japanese state brought to them.

The perceptual gap between Japanese and Okinawans about the war underlies the Monbusho's insistence on, and Okinawa's resistance to, shudan jiketsu being added to any description of the Battle of Okinawa. Safeguarding the honor of the Japanese state is the paramount motivation behind textbook screening. It fits the bureaucratic instinct to say, as an exhortation to all Japanese school-children, that the people of Okinawa died for the glory of the state and the emperor.

It is, of course, an ultimate dishonesty and opportunistic act for the Japanese government to hold up the Okinawans as a model of loyal citizenship. After their own country, the Ryukyu kingdom, was conquered by Japan, Okinawans were subjected to ferocious indoctrination and re-cast into subjects of the Japanese emperor. In the course of becoming Japanese, Okinawans also suffered indignities and discrimination in civil rights, economic opportunities and social standing. In light of this history, for the Japanese government to play with words and suggest that Okinawans are a model for the nation is either a cynical exercise in euphemism or a transparent attempt to cover up past wrongs.

Okinawans dislike the word jiketsu not only because it is the wrong word for the kind of deaths they suffered but, more importantly, because it conceals the true nature of the relationship between the Japanese army and the Okinawan population during the Battle of Okinawa. In the eyes of the Japanese army, Okinawans were not like themselves, not the same as people living in the rest of Japan. According to Masaiye Ishihara, professor at Okinawa International University and an authority on Okinawan war memories, the Japanese army was suspicious of Okinawans' loyalty to Japan and considered them potential spies for the enemy. Because of the labor shortage, however, the army drafted Okinawans for work on the fortification of the island. As a result, many Okinawans became familiar with the structure and quality of Japanese defense arrangements.

In order to deny the enemy the possibility of acquiring information on Japanese defense secrets from Okinawans who might surrender or be captured, the army undertook extensive propaganda to prevent such an outcome. The army terrified Okinawans with tales of extreme enemy cruelties and manipulated their minds and feelings in favor of killing themselves in the event they faced the danger of surrender or capture.

Supported by the testimony of Okinawans, Ienaga argued in court that shudan jiketsu was caused by the coercion or instigation of the Japanese army and clearly differed from voluntary suicide. Ienaga viewed the Monbusho order to include it in his text as a ploy for minimizing the impact on the reader of the Japanese army atrocities and considered the imposition of such an order on him an illegal abuse of administrative discretion. In essence, he argued that the Okinawans who executed themselves were killed by the Japanese army and were already included in the statement that "more than a few were killed by the Japanese army." The Monbusho did not want that statement to stand alone for fear that it might leave the reader, or student, with the wrong impression about the Japanese army. For the same reason, the Monbusho wanted the description of the Nanking massacre toned down.

The Supreme Court Decision

In the course of the litigation, the Monbusho apparently retreated from its initial hard line based on the ideal image of jiketsu to a view substantially similar to what Ienaga and Okinawans had argued all along. In the final argument in defense of its position that shudan jiketsu should be added to the text, the Monbusho claimed (as reported in the press):

from the statement ". . . killed by the Japanese army" by itself, the reader would ordinarily understand [that all the victims were] directly killed by the army. Jiketsu [in this case] cannot be considered the same as direct killing by the army. Its parallel entry in the text [together with ". . . killed by the Japanese army"] would not cause a misunderstanding that it was a voluntary, noble, spontaneous death (nin'i de sukona jihatsushi) (The Ryukyu Shinpo, July 19, 1997).

Ienaga argued that the Okinawans' so-called jiketsu was by "coercion or instigation" of the Japanese army, and therefore implied in the phrase "killed by the Japanese army." The Monbusho obviously invented a stricter standard for being killed--i.e., "directly." Ienaga and the Okinawans argued that coercion or instigation was a sufficiently direct cause for the Okinawans' deaths. For example, the Japanese army, which had previously told Okinawans that they must never surrender and must choose death if they were faced with the prospect of surrender or capture, distributed hand grenades to Okinawan civilians whenever they could afford to do so. Moreover, the army demonstrated in numerous incidents what would become of Okinawans who tried to surrender to the enemy: they were shot or bayoneted to death. Given these examples of 'direct' killing by the army, it is not surprising that for most Okinawans the difference between being 'directly' killed and becoming one's own executioner was very thin.

The Supreme Court, however, sided with the Monbusho. On August 29, 1997, the five justices of the petty bench unanimously decided that in view of the prevailing academic opinion that two special phenomena characterized the Battle of Okinawa--that numerous people were driven to their deaths by the Japanese army, and that numerous people died of shudan jiketsu--it was not illegal for the Monbusho to issue a correction comment urging the mention of shudan jiketsu in the textbook (The Ryukyu Shinpo, August 30, 1997, p. 6).

This correction was one of four that the Monbusho issued in 1983 for Ienaga's text. The four had to do with descriptions of 1) popular resistance to Japan in Korea during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, 2) the Nanking massacre, with special emphasis on the violation of Chinese women by the Japanese army, 3) Unit 731, responsible for medical atrocities in Manchuria during World War II, and 4) the army atrocities in Okinawa. On top of these specific issues there was the overarching question of the constitutionality of textbook screening by the government.

In simplistic 'win-or-lose' terms, Ienaga lost on all counts except the third, relating to Unit 731. The Monbusho's opinion was that the whole reference to Unit 731 should be deleted. The Supreme Court ruled by a three-to-two majority that the correction opinion in this instance was an illegal abuse of the Monbusho's discretionary power in textbook screening.

Because of the disadvantages faced by textbook writers vis-à-vis the Monbusho are so overwhelming, Ienaga's modest victory in his third lawsuit was widely hailed as a great victory that stopped the march of the Monbusho juggernaut and reversed the losing streaks of authors and publishers over the last two decades. But in Okinawa, feelings of defeat were pervasive. The Supreme Court refused to expunge the hated expression shudan jiketsu and helped to conceal the real nature of it by the vague, potentially misleading statement forced on the textbook by the Monbusho.

Further Interpretations

Masaiye Ishihara has tested how readers interpret the revised statement on the Battle of Okinawa in Ienaga's textbook. Underscoring the phrase "driven to mass suicide" in the final, Monbusho version (#5 quoted earlier), Ishihara asked "driven by whom?" and offered respondents two choices: a) the American army, or b) the Japanese army. Fifty-five percent chose a) and only 27% chose b). This is of course directly contrary to what Ienaga intended to communicate.

Why is the crucial phrase, "driven to mass suicide," likely to be interpreted as "driven by the American army?" Ishihara argues that since the "shelling" and "bombing" that directly precede the phrase in question were clearly being done by the American army, it is a natural inference from the logic of the sentence that the same army also drove Okinawans to mass suicide.

The Japanese original is also very vague compared to the translated English version. In fact, it is only one long sentence with words strung together by the ever flexible Japanese conjunctions. A less elegant, but more direct, translation might be:

Okinawa became a theater of land combat and and approximately 160,000 residents, old and young, male and female, met untimely deaths by shelling and bombing, being driven to shudan jiketsu, or by other causes, not a few among them killed by the Japanese army.

However one reads the statement, "mass suicide" appears to have been a different cause of death from "killed by the Japanese army." That is why Okinawans did not want an explicit mention of mass suicide along with "killed by the Japanese army." By forcing the revision of the text, the Monbusho has succeeded in completely falsifying an important part of the memories of the Battle of Okinawa, and the Japanese army is freed from the responsibility for driving people to mass suicide.

Ishihara and others have accumulated enormous quantities of historical material, documentary as well as oral, that leave no question that the Japanese army not only paid no attention to the safety of the civilian residents of Okinawa but encouraged, or in some cases actually ordered, them to die.

The wartime Japanese ideology dictated that suicide was the "duty" of the emperor's subjects when faced with the humiliation of capture by the enemy. This idea had been repeatedly driven into the Okinawans' brains by wartime indoctrination and propaganda. The implicit consensus had been formed among the people that when American troops came into sight it was time to die by charging the enemy or by their own hands. During the war, a massive loss of life after a hopeless battle was euphemistically called gyokusai (shattering jewels), aimed at creating a heroic, aesthetic delusion about the glory of massive dramatic annihilations. This is what happened at the Suicide Cliff of Saipan in 1944, and in many other hopeless battles. But these deaths were not called shudan jiketsu.

After the war, the wartime rhetoric was discredited and the entire Japanese language, grammar, and usage were reinvented. When Okinawans began to publish their own reports on the Battle of Okinawa in the 1950s, journalists and writers had a problem deciding which expressions to use for many unusual developments during the battle. The mass suicide phenomena would have been called gyokusai during the war, but the word had become too distasteful to many by then. Unfortunately, the new expression that replaced it was shudan jiketsu, coined by an Okinawan reporter, Ryohaku Ota of the Okinawa Times, in his classic Tetsu no bofu (The Storms of Iron, 1950).

Norma Field offers a helpful observation on the semantics of shudan jiketsu in her book In the Realm of a Dying Emperor (p. 61): "[T]he neutral translation . . . might be 'collective suicide.' In this instance, the neutral choice is inadequate. For if the end of life was 'self-determined, . . . the determination was made under duress, both in the form of the presence of the two armies [American and Japanese] and in the long discipline required for the production of Japanese imperial subjects. For this reason I think of shudan jiketsu as 'compulsory group suicide.'" I wholly agree with Field's choice of words.

KOJI TAIRA who was born and raised in Okinawa, is a professor of economics at the University of Illinois, Urbana, and editor of The Ryukyuanist. See also JPRI Working Paper #28 (January 1997). This current Working Paper was presented at JPRI's conference on Japan's War Memories: Amnesia or Concealment? held April 24, 1998, at the University of San Francisco.

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