Reflection on the Pacific War
Published on JapanFocus.org, by Hiroaki Sato, February 9, 2008.
This past fall 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 banning of textbook references to the military’s role in “group suicides” among civilians during the Battle of Okinawa. According to some reports, a single examiner at the Japanese Ministry of Education and Science, with dubious outside connections, made the change. To explain it, he pointed to a suit recently filed against Oe Kenzaburo’s 1970 assertions.
The examiner, if he was thinking at all, took an action as improbable as the war itself. Yes, Japan may have been 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 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 down hill, for reasons many had foreseen. 
And as matters turned bad, then disastrous, the military leadership’s reactions became ever more irrational, as if starting the war itself wasn’t irrational enough. One of the more infamous examples of that irrationality is the use of the word gyokusai, the ancient Chinese word yusui pronounced the Japanese way, meaning “to die gallantly as a jewel shatters.”
With the annihilation of its 2,500-man force on Attu Island, in the Aleutian Archipelago, a year after Midway, the Japanese military used the term for the first time in a formal document. The official announcement on May 30, 1943 stated that those unable to take part in the final attack because of wounds or illness committed suicide in advance of it. The annihilations termed gyokusai after that saw the number of “shattered” soldiers increase: the Battle of Tarawa (November 21-23, 1943), 4,600 (17 surviving); the Battle of Kwajalein (January 30 to February 5, 1944), 7,900 (105 surviving); the Battle of Biak (May 27 to June 20, 1944), more than 10,000 (520 surviving); the Battle of Saipan (June 15 to July 9, 1944), 29,000 (921 surviving), and so on. …
… This brings us to the Battle of Okinawa, the biggest gyokusai as far as the military clashes to which the term is applied are concerned. To quash the Japanese forces defending the fragile archipelago, the U.S. amassed 550,000 soldiers with a vast armada of air and sea power. New York Times reporter W. H. Lawrence filed a report on the battle in June 1945, using blunt language that his successors at the newspaper 60 years later would not imagine deploying in reporting from Iraq, even though a vastly superior power does exactly the same thing: “Stated in its simplest terms we were able to announce the victory of Okinawa because the enemy had run out of caves and boulders from which to fight and we were nearly out of Japanese to kill.” A later official U.S. account put the number of Japanese soldiers killed in action at 110,070, with 7,401 captured. In addition, an estimated 100,000 civilians, between one quarter and one third of the Okinawa population, were killed.
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.
This substantially expanded version of his column, “Fatal deliverance from an ‘iron storm,’” which appeared in The Japan Times on October 29, 2007, was written for Japan Focus. Posted at Japan Focus on February 9, 2008. (full long text).
(Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York. His most recent book is Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology).
For other articles on the Battle of Okinawa, gyokusai and Japanese historical memory see:
- 1. Compulsory Mass Suicide, the Battle of Okinawa, and Japan’s Textbook Controversy, Aniya Masaaki, The Okinawa Times, and Asahi Shinbun. Translated by Kyoko Selden;
- 2. Shattering Jewels: 110,000 Okinawans Protest Japanese State Censorship of Compulsory Group Suicides, Kamata Satoshi, Shukan Kinyobi translated by Steve Rabson.