Like so many other islanders in Okinawa Prefecture, Masao Komine was eager to die for the emperor.
Educated to become more “Japanese” and told the ultimate shame was to surrender to advancing U.S. troops, the 15-year-old and residents of his village prepared to kill themselves in the mountains on Tokashikijima island on March 28, 1945.
The village leader screamed, “Long live the emperor!” The pins were then pulled from grenades that had been given to each family.
Shrapnel from the explosions ripped through the human circles made by various families. Severed limbs flew through the air. Internal organs spilled out of wounded bodies. Women who were dressed in their finest kimono were reduced to pieces of flesh and rags.
People groaned and screamed in pain. Elderly residents howled hysterically.
Komine saw survivors being hacked by their own family members wielding machetes and saws.
“Suddenly, a feeling welled up in me of not wanting to die,” he recalled. “I just wanted to run away.”
June 23 marks the 68th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa. Komine, now 83, still suffers from horrible nightmares of that experience.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint a single reason for the group suicides among civilians in Okinawa Prefecture during the final months of World War II, the atmosphere created on the southern islands made it easier for such tragedies to occur.
Okinawa residents were indoctrinated with the Japanese belief that being taken prisoner was the ultimate shame. The Okinawa government was also trying to discard its own unique culture and become more Japanese during the war, and residents felt they had to make an extra effort to prove their loyalty to the emperor.
The Imperial Japanese military played a role in educating the Okinawans to feel that way. But there are also reports that Japanese military officers believed that civilians in Okinawa would only be a hindrance when the U.S. military landed, and they issued orders to deal with the matter.
The Japanese military had ordered Komine and other residents on Tokashikijima island, one of the Kerama islands, to walk through heavy rain to the mountains near where Japanese troops were based on March 27, 1945.
The U.S. military had landed on the island on the morning that day and began burning homes. It was one of the first landings by U.S. troops during the Battle of Okinawa.
When gunfire from the U.S. military flew overhead the following day, the islanders started killing themselves with the grenades that the Japanese military had distributed to each household beforehand.
Komine was in a group of about 20 relatives, including his mother and younger sister, when he tried to set off a grenade.
His mother broke down in tears and said, “Although you are supposed to be flowers that will bloom in the future, you will all have to scatter today.”
Perhaps because of the wet conditions from the rain, the grenade did not explode. An uncle tried to smash it on a rock, but nothing happened.
Struck by fear at the sight of the bodies piling up around him, Komine fled the scene with other survivors.
Weakened by hunger while hiding in a bomb shelter in the mountains, Komine finally surrendered in August.
About 600 people died in group suicides on the three Kerama islands of Tokashikijima, Zamamijima and Gerumajima from March 26 to 28, 1945, after the landings of U.S. troops.
That tragedy was avoided on Akajima island because U.S. soldiers withdrew shortly before islanders could take their own lives.
Hidekatsu Nakamura, a 57-year-old resident of Gerumajima, said, “Except for a twist of fate, I may not have been born.”
During a group suicide on the island, Nakamura’s grandfather strangled his grandmother and then tried to kill his son, Nakamura’s father. But he survived.
Both his grandfather and father died without mentioning the group suicide on the island, leaving Nakamura with few answers as to why family members had to kill each other.
Komine and other survivors point to the education system of the time.
Around 1937, when fighting broke out between Japan and China, the children at the elementary school that Komine attended started a daily morning ritual. They were ordered to bow in the direction of Tokyo where the Imperial Palace was located.
The mountain where the group suicide was later held was also in the direction of Tokyo.
Other subjects at his school took on an increasingly military tone.
In an ethics class, the students heard the moving story of a bugler during the first Sino-Japanese War who continued to clutch his instrument even after he was hit by enemy fire and died.
In the history class, the students were taught about all of Japan’s victorious battles since the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Physical education classes often involved training with bamboo spears.
At that time, Komine dreamed of joining the Imperial Japanese Navy and dying for the emperor as a loyal subject.
Imperial Japanese soldiers were based on Tokashikijima island from 1944, and officers told the students that they should not experience the shame of being taken prisoner.
Rumors spread among islanders about the terrible fate awaiting prisoners of the U.S. military. According to the rumors, U.S. soldiers would cut off prisoners’ noses and ears and crush them to death using tanks. The women would be raped and killed.
Takeichi Kakinohana, 83, who lived on Akajima but attended a junior high school on the main Okinawa island, recalls a speech by a commander for the Okinawa defense troops in Naha in 1944 that left him with goose bumps.
With tears in his eyes, the commander told the crowd at a civic auditorium: “Okinawa will be next. That will be an opportunity to give up your lives in defense of the homeland.”
At that time, the local Okinawa government was pushing forward a policy to discard Okinawa culture and become more Japanese, including punishing those who used the local dialect.
A person using a term in the local dialect to call out to a friend would be forced to wear a heavy sign made of cedar for an entire day as a form of punishment and humiliation.
Japanese soldiers often belittled the local residents, saying, “Do you still consider yourself a Japanese when you cannot even speak the language properly?”
Kakinohana said, “The feeling of wanting to show up those who were biased as well as wanting to become better Japanese turned us into completely loyal subjects.”
After the war, Kakinohana said he heard from several high-ranking village officials that the Imperial Japanese military had given orders to have residents die so they would not get in the way during fighting against U.S. troops.
Although Kakinohana strongly feels the military order was the trigger for the group suicides, he also believes that the loyalty to the nation that was inculcated into islanders played a key part.
Before the fighting erupted with China in 1937, Komine helped out his family in catching skipjack tuna. Tokashikijima was such a tranquil place that some islanders said, “The war will never come to a small island like this.”
However, after the war spread, military draft notices came for Komine’s relatives, and teachers began talking about dying for the nation.
In his nightmares, Komine finds himself alone in a forest where the smell of blood fills the air. Piles of bodies surround him, and all he can do is to wait there for his own death.
Komine said a TV report on April 28 rekindled memories of the village chief’s final shout in 1945 before the islanders started blowing themselves up. The report was about a ceremony to commemorate the return of sovereignty to Japan through the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which went into effect in 1952.
The program showed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and others raising their hands while shouting “Long live the emperor” as Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko departed.
Komine said war comes without warning and forces everyone to face the same direction. When one realizes what has happened, there is no turning back.
He also feels uncomfortable about calls to revise Japan’s postwar pacifist Constitution.
“During a time of peace, we have to stop whatever might lead to war,” he said.
Komine now talks to children about his experiences during the war because he feels that is his duty as a survivor.
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