Kerama Islands: Site of Japanese Mass Suicide:

On March 26th 1945, the US Army invaded the Kerama Islands, the outlying islands off Okinawa. A few days after the Americans invaded, hundreds of civilians on the island committed suicide in a mass event called Shudan Jiketsu. The civilians on the island had been told many stories by the Japanese military of the brutality they would face at the hands of the American and goaded them on with the ‘sacrificial spirit’ of suicide for one’s country.


An Army GI guards Japanese soldiers and civilians on Okinawa

The local governments of the islands had been taken over by the Japanese military who controlled every aspect of life. Colonel Akamatsu Yoshitsugu, the military commander of Tokashiki Island ruled with complete authority. Anyone who spoke against the military, spoke well of the Americans or questioned the suicide orders faced death as a ‘spy’.


An American GI shares his C rations with Okinawan children

It is alleged that Colonel Yoshitsugu decided on the mass killings to preserve the local food supply for his soldiers rather than share it with the civilians.

Families were given a grenade and told to stand in a circle around it to die. Others chose to kill family members with knives or farming implements. Villagers were lead to believe that killing one’s family, especially women, by their own hand rather than letting them be ravaged by Americans was an act of love.


A Marine coaxes a Japanese family out of a cave

One boy, Nobuaki Kinjo, was sixteen when the Americans invaded. His family was ordered to go to Nishiyama, in the Northern part of the island where the Japanese Army had a camp. Fueled by military propaganda, the village leader shouted out “Banzai” three times, which, though unsaid was the signal to commit suicide. The army handed out grenades and people began blowing themselves up. There were not enough grenades so people used rope, farm implements or stones to kill each other. Kinjo, with his brother, killed their mother and two siblings. Kinjo then went with other teenage boys armed with sticks to fight the American invaders knowing it would be a quick death. He was resigned to a “glorious death” in battle but was disillusioned when he came across Japanese soldiers who were still alive and not killing themselves. Kinjo hid, but was eventually captured by the Americans who gave him food. The Americans were initially hostile to him as they thought he was Japanese, but became friendly when he identified himself as Okinawan.

Another boy, Yoshikatsu Yoshikawa, was six years old when the village chief gathered the village together to kill themselves. Yoshikawa’s family of ten huddled in a circle, his older brother pulled the pin from the grenade and tossed it on the ground but it failed to detonate. A second one was tried but that too failed. Yoshikawa’s mother ordered the family to stand up and run away, which they did with other people. Soon after, American naval shells landed among them killing Yoshikawa’s father and wounding two sisters, but nine of the ten family members survived the war.


Two Marines on Okinawa guard an Okinawan boy until he can be re-united with his family

When the American’s came upon the suicides, those who had not killed themselves or had survived were shocked to see the Americans offering aid rather than slaughter, filling them with remorse and widening the distrust that already existed between Okinawa and mainland Japan. About 600 civilians died by mass suicide in the Kerama Islands before the invasion of Okinawa on April 1, 1945. Both mass suicides happened where the Japanese Army was present and none happened where the Japanese Army was absent.

As recently as 2007, the Japanese government created controversy by ordering school textbooks to be edited to downplay the role of the Japanese military in coercing suicides. Kenzaburo Oe, a Nobel Prize winner for literature wrote a book about the suicides in Kerama and was sued by the commanders of the Japanese Garrison and attacked by right wing parties for “fabricating” his work. An official in the Ministry for Education, Yumiko Tomimori, stated that “There are divergent views of whether or not the suicides were ordered by the army and no proof to say either way. So it would be misleading to say the army was responsible”.

Survivors like Yoshikawa and Kinjo have no doubt that the Japanese military, through psychology, education or force was the main reason behind the mass suicides in the Kerama Islands. The sorrow of the battle and the controversy of its history still remain present more than 70 years later.

For More Reading About Okinawa Check Out:

The Ultimate Battle: Okinawa 1945–The Last Epic Struggle of World War II

The Battle For Okinawa

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

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