Japan from the inside out

Okinawans: Were they pushed, or did they jump?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 29, 2007

IT WASN’T THE ORIGINAL PLAN, but this has turned out to be interview week at Ampontan. I’ve got several different posts underway, but keep getting interrupted by other good stories.

Today in Okinawa Prefecture, citizens will hold a rally protesting the decision by the Japanese Ministry of Education to remove a section from textbooks stating that the mass suicides of civilians during the Battle of Okinawa at the end of the Second World War resulted from “military coercion”.

We already know without being told what narrative the world’s media will adopt for this story—resurgent Japanese nationalism and militarism, denial of brutal behavior, failure to come to terms with the war, and–one suspects–a failure to recognize one’s place and stay in it.

Hidden behind this narrative is a different picture of Japan, and one that is all the more compelling because it is the truth—the Japanese conduct the most robust and wide-ranging debate on the planet about their role and behavior in the Pacific War, and always have.


The Japanese media, regardless of their political orientation, will sometimes present the other side of the story. In the Nishinippon Shimbun this morning, I read an article on the rally that went into detail about the textbook controversy and military involvement in civilian suicides.

In other words, none of this information is hidden in Japan. All anyone has to do is pick up a newspaper.

Next to the article was an interview with Toru Oto, a member of the Okinawan prefectural assembly. (On the left in the photo, in good company) How could anyone in Okinawa support the government’s position? You’re about to find out.

As with the other translations this week, this one was uncredited and not on line.

The Okinawa Prefectural Assembly has twice adopted unanimous resolutions calling for the restoration of passages in school textbooks stating that the Japanese military compelled the mass suicides of Okinawan civilians during the Battle of Okinawa, which had been removed from the textbooks during the Ministry of Education’s certification process. Why are you opposed to those resolutions?

Several municipal assemblies adopted the same resolutions, and there were increasing calls within the prefectural assembly for our own resolution. The opposition parties wanted it written into the resolution that the mass suicides occurred due to “military orders or coercion”. I was opposed, however, and one reason is that a court case on this issue is pending. Opinion was divided even in the Liberal Democratic Party. In the end, they settled on the expression, “military involvement”. When the second resolution was adopted, I left the chamber.

The pending court case is the lawsuit in Osaka in which the family of the former Japanese commander of the military forces on the Kerama Islands (next to the main Okinawan island) is suing (author) Kenzaburo Oe and publisher Iwanami Shoten, claiming there were no military orders. They are seeking to prevent Oe and Iwanami from publishing the book. It is odd for the assembly, a legislative body, to politically intervene in an issue that is being contested under civil law.

If there were no military orders, why were there mass suicides?

Before the Battle of Okinawa, during the Battle of Saipan (where many people from Okinawa had moved), residents of the island committed suicide after the American military landed by jumping off a site they called Banzai Cliff. The newspapers incited this occurrence by referring to them as “magnificent Japanese” (rippa na nihonjin). The residents of Okinawa at that time had a strong fear of being taken prisoner. People in the upper levels of the local Okinawan government likely cooperated with the military. I wonder about the idea of blaming everything on the military without questioning the beliefs held by Japanese at that time.

The citizens of Okinawa have filed an objection seeking the restoration of the expression “military coercion”, and the movement has spread throughout the prefecture. As a backdrop to this, what about the deep-seated hatred of the Japanese military, which persecuted the residents during the Battle of Okinawa by either killing them or confiscating their food supplies?

Yes, that exists, but today in Okinawa this has become a political issue rather than a historical issue. Public opinion was manufactured by a series of reports in a media campaign, and as a result those who do not criticize the Education Ministry or the Japanese military are branded as being “anti-prefecture citizens” (hikenmin). The conditions are the same as before the war, when there was no freedom of speech. Even Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, who was initially hesitant about joining the rally, was unable to turn them down.

What effect will the certification issue have on Okinawan society?

A considerable number of prefectural citizens are under the mistaken impression that the Education Ministry eliminated the textbooks’ references to mass suicide altogether. Even some of my supporters have asked me, “There were mass suicides, weren’t there?” The mass media have changed the points of the debate to manipulate public opinion.

Both the special attack squadron at Chiran (kamikaze pilots at their base in Kagoshima) and the battleship Yamato were thrown into the final battle, (because it was known that) if Okinawa fell, it was over for the main islands as well. But high school students believe that Okinawa was abandoned like some rock, or that it was sacrificed for the sake of the main islands, because that’s all they’re taught. As a result, the certification issue has increased the animosity of the prefectural citizens toward the military, the government, and the main islands.

Everyone has an agenda. Here’s a look at the agendas of some of those involved in this story.

Kenzaburo Oe
Oe was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. A far-left intellectual in the mold of Susan Sontag or Noam Chomsky, he was heavily influenced by Sartre, met Chairman Mao at the age of 25, defends Kim Jong-il, and works for the preservation of Article 9, the peace clause, in the Japanese Constitution. The author of this piece does not care for his recent behavior. For contrast, here is an interview with Mr. Oe in the Virginia Quarterly Review. This is what he says near the end:

In China a new nationalism is being born specifically in opposition to Japan, and if we Japanese create a new nationalism of our own it will be the biggest danger in Asia and—ultimately—in the world.

Toru Oto
Mr. Oto, 55, is a member of the Liberal Democratic Party and in his third term in the Okinawa Prefecture assembly. He also served on the Okinawa City Council.

He graduated from the National Defense Academy of Japan (the Japanese equivalent of West Point/Annapolis) and served as an officer in Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force until 1984.

Mr. Oto has a blog in Japanese, which you can read here. He seems to be a bit behind in his posting.

Here is an article on the Oe/Iwanami suit that appeared in the People’s Daily of China.

The Japan Times ran an op-ed that encourages the Okinawans to portray themselves as victims:

All Okinawans agree that people would have never killed their loved ones if it had not been for the Japanese military’s involvement (orders, pressure, inducement, indoctrination, etc.)

In other words, “the devil made me do it”.

Incidentally, the op-ed fails to mention that former Prime Minister Abe, the devil’s disciple, came to Okinawa this spring twice to campaign for the LDP candidate in an election to fill an upper house seat. It does mention that the LDP candidate won. Everyone in Japan knew Mr. Abe’s agenda from the day he took office, including the people of Okinawa.

Some Okinawans do not need encouragement to claim victimization, as this article in the American military newspaper Stars and Stripes shows:

“Besides the issuing of hand grenades, what else do you need to prove the army was responsible for the mass suicides?” asked Kosei Yonemura, 77…“The residents in Zamami were driven to commit mass suicide,” he said. “The cause of the tragedy was militarism and nationalistic education.”

Regardless of where the truth lies, it is certain that Mr. Oto makes some valid points. Every time and place has its prevailing emotional climate. There is no question that what seemed to some like the right thing to do in Okinawa then and the mood in Okinawa today are as different as a tortoise and the moon, as the Japanese would say. There is also no question that this dispute has become political (and driven by contemporary emotional urges), rather than historical.

It is telling that few of the survivors’ stories are of actual compulsion–they seem much more like stories of active encouragement. That would be congruent with the emotional climate in the country as a whole at the time, and not a phenomenon unique to the Battle of Okinawa. It is easy to imagine the continuous reenactment of those incidents throughout the Japanese archipelago, starting in Kagoshima–had it not been for the atomic bomb.

That brings us to the confluence of several agendas, some of which people would realize are contradictory, if they were to conduct a rigorous self-examination (hansei). Most people choose to avoid that option, however, regardless of the situation. It would deprive them of the opportunity for their turn on stage as the hero or as the victim. Or both.

At that point, the entire issue transcends the war, Okinawa, and Japan today to become a metaphor for sociopolitical debate in our time and how people choose to participate in it.

That’s why–unfortunately–the issue today isn’t so much about the war but about how people want to emotionally perceive it, and be perceived as perceiving it.

And that brings us very close to an environment of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

21 Responses to “Okinawans: Were they pushed, or did they jump?”

  1. Overthinker said

    “the Japanese conduct the most robust and wide-ranging debate on the planet about their role and behavior in the Pacific War, and always have.”

    Please put this in bold, coloured lettering with pretty flashing lights and maybe some sound effects. Anything to draw attention to the fact. And one of the key words (well, two actually) is “wide-ranging” – it is so far from a monologue, either left or right, especially in the popular press.

    “Otoko-tachi no Yamato” made the point that sending the flagship was not exactly because Japan was determined to defend Okinawa at all costs: it was a suicide mission without backup, and the Yamato was intended to beach itself to become a fortress, using its massive guns to attack the Americans on land, and sending its sailors to become soldiers. Even if it had never been sunk by air power, it was never coming back to Japan.

    As to the pertinent question – was there military coercion in the Okinawa suicides? – I suspect much of the debate will revolve, like the Comfort Woman issue, on just how you define “coercion”. Oto’s statements seem like he is carefully avoiding the issue, saying in effect that no matter how strong the influence of the military on propaganda and thought control, without a direct order there was no “coercion”.

    Incidentally, my copy of Tokyo Shoseki’s “Nihonshi A: Gendai kara no Rekishi”, a 2003 text, says this about the issue:
    “Middle and High school students in Okinawa were formed into units like the Steel and Blood Imperialist Corps (鉄血勤皇隊) [“Steel and Blood” refers to the two things Bismark claimed allowed him to unify Germany – in other words, military weapons and military spirit] and the Himeyuri Student Corps, and ordinary citizens were mobilized to fight land battles. After three months of fierce fighting, Japan was defeated with the destruction of the defence forces. The victims from Okinawa prefecture totalled more than 150,000, including those who died from starvation and malaria after the fighting was over. Among them, there were ordinary civilians massacred (虐殺) by the Japanese Army as spies, and forced into (強いられた) “suicide” in groups.”
    (That last sentence in the original Japanese: そのなかには、日本軍がスパイ容疑で虐殺した一般市民や、集団で「自決」を強いられたものもあった).

    So the Tokyo Shoseki book is quite clear that these were not exactly suicides, and not exactly voluntary. They also have a sidebar, quoting from a book called “[Tell] the truth of war in the classroom” including some first-hand accounts.

    Incidentally, the Teacher’s Guide for the same text gives 120,000 dead, not 150,000. However it has a paragraph on IJA atrocities towards Okinawans, including such things as killing crying babies to keep them silent, and that Korean army workers (軍夫) were also killed on suspicion of spying. It ends by saying that “Some chose death from fear of the American Army or despair, but some half were also mass suicides forced by the military (半ば軍に強制された集団自決もあった).”

    These is the sort of statements that Oto and the LDP wish to suppress. His claims that “As a result, the certification issue has increased the animosity of the prefectural citizens toward the military, the government, and the main islands.” seem specious (I can think of a few more pressing issues that would make them dislike the central government) and why is it important to not feel “animosity” to the military? Hmmm. That, and statements like “The conditions are the same as before the war, when there was no freedom of speech.” just show his goals are political rather than educational.

  2. bender said

    The opinion of the Okinawana is definitely split. The vocal ones are the leftists who want US bases out and they get the attention of the media. But in elections, conservatives who agree with the US bases to remain win. I went to Okinawa once and one Okinawan asked me whether the Japanese government really intends to defend the Senkaku Islands- so I’ve learned that the Okinawanse really feel the pressure of Chinese territorial ambitions. Why should they not, with Chinese vessels constantly surveying seas right close to Okinawa claiming almost the entire East China sea to be theirs.

  3. Overthinker said

    Just saw on Yahoo Japan News – the rally attracted 110,000 people, by far the largest ever such gathering. Seems to me that central govt attempts like this to prevent “animosity” towards the central government are backfiring big-time.

  4. bender said

  5. Overthinker said

    That Sankei article by Okamoto quotes Hata Ikuhiko (a respected but generally rightish historian – as opposed to the even more right wing who aren’t proper historians but just out to make a fuss) as agreeing that there were no “orders”, but there’s a big gap between official “orders” and coercion anyway.

  6. […] to Burmese military killing of  Japanese photographer.  –  Finding the truths about the WW II mass suicides on Okinawa.-  I had no idea Tommy Lee Jones was such a famous advertiser in […]

  7. ponta said

    but some half were also mass suicides forced by the military (半ば軍に強制された集団自決もあった).”

    Just to make sure, half/半ば modifies “forced”/強制、doesn’t it?

    I stated my opinion on Japan Probe. I’ll state it again. If there is controversy, a textbook should say there is a controversy and let students think about it. That makes history more interesting.

  8. Overthinker said

    The full sentence is 米軍に対する恐怖心や絶望から死を選択する人々もいたが、半ば軍に強制された集団自決もあった. When I posted late last night, I read that as “half” as in rough numbers, but on reflection that seems an unusual phrasing. Nakaba generally means “in the middle of” (numbers, actions, etc) and I read it as a more specific version of その中軍に強制された etc, but yeah, thinking about it now it probably does mean 半ば強制的. Found a couple of quotes from people who were there who suggest it was a case of no formal orders, but strong advice – eg:
    The last quote – “The army giving non-combatants weapons was in reality an order to commit suicide” is telling.

    “Teaching the Controversy” immediately brings Creationism and ID to mind…. While it sounds very fair, we need to establish that there is a genuine academic/historical controversy to teach, and not one pimped by extremists for political goals (eg teaching that the Nanking Massacre or Holocaust might not have happened). Of course students can be taught that these events have caused these controversies, but they shouldn’t be given all possible variations and asked to choose, like breakfast cereal.

  9. ampontan said

    Perhaps I’m hopelessly American about it, but if I were a non-combatant in a war and the enemy was coming ashore, and the military gave me a weapon or a hand grenade, my first thought would be to find a place of concealment and use it on the invaders.

    Even the idea of the kamikaze pilots was to take out as many of the enemy as possible.

    And this is probably hopelessly American, but if an officer gave me a hand grenade in that situation with the idea for me to use it on myself, I’d wait until that officer’s back was turned, pull the pin, throw it at him, and run like hell in the other direction.

    But that’s the problem. Very few people alive today are in a position to say what they would have done because they weren’t in that situation in that context. And for the ones who were alive, all the percentages lie in favor of following the line prevalent today.

    Only they know the truth, and I wonder how many of them are telling it, regardless of what they say.

  10. ampontan said

    Thank you Bender and Overthinker. There was more in my head about this issue that hadn’t fully formed yet and I couldn’t get down in writing. Your discussion here helped me do it.

    As a result, I wound up rewriting the ending. One advantage to writing with these tools is the ability to make improvements as they occur to one.

  11. Overthinker said

    I don’t think your idea is “hopelessly American” so much as “hopelessly modern” – I can’t think of too many Japanese these days who would do it either. The social and psychological manipulation in WW2 to create Death Before Dishonour is definitely not a uniquely Japanese idea, after all – doesn’t New Hampshire’s State Motto say the same sort of thing, after all?

    The quote from the late Mr Toyama I posted does indeed say they were given two – one to throw at the enemy and one to blow themselves up, but I definitely think I would have dropped both and run like hell (that is, without killing the soldier either – just get the hell out of there). Although when the army wasn’t looking, as they’d probably shoot me….

  12. […] has explored it at some length and his post includes background on the battle over the specific passages and […]

  13. Aceface said

    Oe Kenzaburo:
    A far-left intellectual?Not really,he is a modest Japanese liberal.He had been criticized by many radical journalists and critics like Honda Katsuichi本多勝一(Over anti-Vietnam war movement)and Takenaka Rou竹中労(over his book “Okinawa Note”) as “too elitist”or”too soft”.

    Oe did meet Mao along with the other members of Japanese writers visiting China led by Noma Hiroshi in the early 60’s.But he had protested China’s nuclear test in 1964 and hadn’t been to China until very recently.So he was not a Maoist nor fellow traveler like others.

    As for Susan Sontag,she criticized Oe for being “too naive”in opposing military intervention to stop ethnic cleanigng in Bosnia in their correspondence over Asahi Shimbun.So it may not be fair to her to add her name along with Chomsky and Oe.

    I was in Tokashiki last month,So I was interested how this issue would be treated by the local community,especially that now you have new testimony from ex-Ryukyu government official that Captain Akamtsu had never issued any order of suicide to the Tokashiki islanders.but as I see the mass rally and the reaction of MoE,this case has become another example of ideology and emotionalism overcomes the fact in historical representation like confortwomen.

  14. tomojiro said

    Of course, some western media will write about this as a resistance against the rising “ultra nationalism” in Japan, and I suspect Norimitsu Onishi is preparing a piece in which he is comparing contemporary political situation in Japan with Weimar republic.

    Maybe Aso is the “Hitler” of Japan in his piece.

  15. Aceface said

    That reminds me of a guy from Aljajeela.I was looking the home page of Ryukyu Independence Party during the Governor election and within the English discussion board there were lots of Chinese leaving comment for supporting Okinawan independenceand there was this guy named Julian Ryall leaving a comment saying “I’m doing story on Okinawa and looking for some story on independence activist.Let me know if any of you know about them,radical and extreme are better”.

    RIP is now run by a T-Shirt factory owner living in Chiba and basically a sort of joke and he is a strong supporter of holding the Senkakus as Okinawan territory.

    I was really looking forward for what would come out from Ryall’s research(?)but it seemed there was no report on Okinawan independence related story on Aljajeera as I see their English webpages.

  16. ampontan said

    Aceface: The reason nothing came of his research is that fewer people are interested in independence, particularly younger people.

    You might not have read this post. The info is in the second half.

    Chinese think Okinawa should be independent? We know what those posters would say if we suggested Taiwan should be recognized as an independent country.

    BTW, I’d like to see that link for the Chinese and Ryall if you have it handy.

  17. tomojiro said

    “Chinese think Okinawa should be independent?”

    Many Chinese (some in the millitary included) believe actually that Ryukyu island is (should) be part of China.

    The book by the Japanese journalist Tomisaka satoshi has a part in which he explains about this quite popular hold belief inside China.

  18. Aceface said

    I think it was here.

    By the way,Bill that survey was conducted by a Hong Konger professor of Univ Ryukyu.

  19. ampontan said

    Thanks Aceface. Unfortunately, the links to both the J and E message boards don’t seem to be working anymore.

    The author of the site had this to say:

    “Worked in the Middle East, the South East Asia and Balkan to help (a little) a nation rebuild itself anew after a ethnic conflict or a civil war. Concluded “an independence is not too difficult” from the experience.”

    I think he came to the wrong conclusion (g).

    Thanks too, Tomojiro. I liked this sentence by the blogger:


    He was talking about China, but the same is true for Japan.

  20. […] what Ampontan argues is still valid in a similar context regarding Imperial Japanese wartime behavior, regardless of one’s opinion about […]

  21. […] what Ampontan argues is still valid in a similar context regarding Imperial Japanese wartime behavior, regardless of one’s opinion about Yasukuni. Hidden behind this narrative is a different […]

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