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1945 suicide order still a trauma on Okinawa

By James Brooke The New York Times

TUESDAY, JUNE 21, 2005
ITOMAN, Okinawa Clutching a hand grenade issued by the Japanese Imperial Army and driven by tales of what U.S. soldiers would do with a pretty young woman, Sumie Oshiro recalled, she fled into the forests of Okinawa during the World War II battle known here as the "typhoon of steel."
"At one place, we sat together and hit the grenade on the ground, but it did not explode," she said last week of her flight with friends after Japanese soldiers told them to kill themselves rather than be taken captive.
"We tried to kill ourselves many times, trying to explode the grenade we were given from the Japanese Army," she said.
The three-month battle for Okinawa took more than 200,000 lives - 12,520 Americans, 94,136 Japanese soldiers and 94,000 Okinawan civilians, about one-quarter of the prewar population.
Lieutenant General Robert Blackman, commander of the U.S. Marine forces in Japan, led a low-profile memorial ceremony on Friday, attended largely by American war veterans and relatives.
This Thursday, the 60th anniversary of the the last major battle of World War II, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is scheduled to attend Japan's tribute here.
On Sunday, he led a memorial service on Iwo Jima, a Japanese island where fighting ended in late March 1945, just as the Okinawa invasion began.
Okinawa's trauma over what happened after 545,000 U.S. troops attacked this small archipelago is still deep. People on Japan's southernmost islands want more recognition from Japanese society for their sufferings. But that conflicts with a growing nationalist effort to airbrush the past.
After winning battles to play down Japan's war-era history of forcing Asian women to work in military-run brothels and Asian men to work in Japanese factories and mines, Nobukatsu Fujioka, a nationalist educator, started campaigning two weeks ago to delete from Japanese schoolbooks the accounts of orders from soldiers to civilians here to choose suicide over surrender.
He said there were no such orders. "I confirmed this by hearing people this time," he said.
"People claimed that there was an order by Japanese Army because they wanted to get pension for the bereaved," he said.
Okinawa's trauma over the widespread civilian suicides has been sharpened by the deep belief here that soldiers from Japan's main islands encouraged Okinawan civilians to choose suicide over surrender.
In a display at the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum, a spotlight highlights a glinting bayonet held by a fierce-looking Japanese soldier who stands over an Okinawan family huddled in a cave, the mother trying to smother her baby's cries.
"At the hands of Japanese soldiers, civilians were massacred, forced to kill themselves and each other," reads the caption. Nearby, a life-size wall photo shows the grisly aftermath of a family killed by a hand grenade.
Soldiers seeking refuge from the naval shelling forced civilians out of limestone caves, according to wall captions.
About two weeks into the battle, the Japanese military commander sought to suppress spying by banning the speaking of the Okinawan dialect, a version of Japanese often unintelligible to nonresidents. Armed with this order, Japanese soldiers killed about 1,000 Okinawans, according to local historians.
"To prevent the leakage of secret information, civilians were ordered never to surrender to U.S. forces," read one wall caption inspected by a large high school group on Friday. "In many places, parents, children, relatives and friends were ordered or coerced to kill each other in large groups. These killings were in the wake of years of militaristic education, which exhorted people to serve their nation by giving their lives to the emperor."
Two Japanese history textbooks from the 1990s that talk of Japanese soldiers' "coercing" civilians to kill themselves are on display. Okinawans fear that this history will be dropped from the national consciousness.
"In many cases, hand grenades, which were in extreme shortage, were distributed to residents," Masahide Ota, an Okinawan who fought with the Japanese Army's Blood and Iron Student Corps, said in an interview. "I heard people say they were told by the military to commit suicide using the grenades rather than becoming captives."
After surrendering four months after the fighting ended here, Ota went on to become a leading local historian, then Okinawa's governor, from 1990 to 1998. Now, at 80, he represents the prefecture in Japan's upper house of Parliament.
Okinawans fear that the lack of a written suicide order by Japanese military commanders will prompt editors of Japanese history textbooks to drop all mention of the military indoctrination that soldiers and civilians had to live and die together.
On nearby Geruma Island, Takejiro Nakamura was a civilian, a 15-year-old student when the invasion started.
"For a long time, the Japanese Imperial Army announced that, on other islands, the women had been raped and killed, and the men were tied at the wrists and tanks were driven over them," said Nakamura, now a guide at a museum that bears bullet holes. "Japanese Imperial Army repeated that again and again, and we believed that announcement completely."
As Japanese defenses crumbled on Geruma in late March 1945, 58 of the island's 130 residents committed suicide, he said. Fleeing with family and neighbors, he said, he passed one cave where 10 villagers had killed themselves.
"I heard my sister calling out, 'Kill me now, hurry,"' Nakamura said, recalling how his 20-year-old sister panicked at the approach of U.S. soldiers. His mother took a rope and strangled his sister.
"I tried to also strangle myself with a rope," he recalled, lifting his now-weatherbeaten hands to his neck. "But I kept breathing. It is really tough to kill yourself."
Minutes later, the Americans took them captive.
"The U.S. soldier touched me to check if I had any weapons," he recalled. "Then he gave us candy and cigarettes. That was my first experience on coming out of the cave."
His mother lived into her 80s.
"We talked about the war," said Nakamura, who became a village leader. "But to the end, she never once talked about killing her daughter."
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