Historians battle over Okinawa WW2 mass suicides

TOKYO Fri Apr 6, 2007 6:04am EDT

A visitor mourns the victims of the Battle of Okinawa at Himeyuri Peace Memorial monument in Itoman on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa March 28, 2006. The fighting on Zamami, south of the main Okinawan island, was the prelude to three months of carnage that took some 200,000 lives, about half of them Okinawan men, women and children. Many civilians, often entire families, committed suicide rather than surrender to Americans, by some accounts on the orders of fanatical Japanese soldiers. Picture taken March 28, 2006. REUTERS/Issei Kato

A visitor mourns the victims of the Battle of Okinawa at Himeyuri Peace Memorial monument in Itoman on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa March 28, 2006. The fighting on Zamami, south of the main Okinawan island, was the prelude to three months of carnage that took some 200,000 lives, about half of them Okinawan men, women and children. Many civilians, often entire families, committed suicide rather than surrender to Americans, by some accounts on the orders of fanatical Japanese soldiers. Picture taken March 28, 2006.

Credit: Reuters/Issei Kato

TOKYO (Reuters) - Sumie Oshiro was 25 when she and her friends tried to kill themselves to avoid capture by U.S. soldiers at the start of the bloody Battle of Okinawa.

"We were told that if women were taken prisoner we would be raped and that we should not allow ourselves to be captured," Oshiro said on last month's anniversary of the March 26, 1945, invasion of the Japanese islet of Zamami.

"Four of us tried to commit suicide with one hand grenade, but it did not go off," Ryukyu Shimpo, a local Okinawa newspaper, quoted Oshiro as saying at a gathering of now elderly survivors.

The fighting on Zamami, south of the main Okinawan island, was the prelude to three months of carnage that took some 200,000 lives, about half of them Okinawan men, women and children.

Many civilians, often entire families, committed suicide rather than surrender to Americans, by some accounts on the orders of fanatical Japanese soldiers.

"The army ordered them to commit suicide," said Yoshikazu Miyazato, 58, who plans to publish testimony from survivors on Zamami, where he says suicides accounted for 180 of the 404 civilians -- about half of the islet's population -- who died.

The accuracy of such accounts, however, has been questioned by conservative historians who argue the suicides were voluntary.

Late last month, the education ministry ordered publishers of high school textbooks to modify references to Japanese soldiers ordering civilians to kill themselves.

The textbook revisions echo other efforts by conservatives to revise descriptions of Japan's wartime actions, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's denial that the military or government hauled women away to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers in Asia before and during World War Two.

Abe has sought to dampen overseas outrage over his remarks by repeating his backing for a 1993 apology to the "comfort women", as they are known in Japan, and offering his own brief apology.

"In every case, Abe's administration is saying there was no military involvement," Shoukichi Kina, an opposition lawmaker from Okinawa told Reuters in a phone interview.

"They are distorting history and it is unforgiveable."

"WORSE THAN DEVILS"

One reason cited for the revisions was a lawsuit by a former Japanese army officer and relatives of another charging the two men were was falsely described in works by publisher Iwanami Shoten as having ordered civilian suicides in Okinawa.

That prompted the publisher and Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburo Oe to send a letter of protest to the education ministry, criticizing the fact that only the views of the plaintiffs in the court case had been taken into account.

The Battle of Okinawa, which also took the lives of about 94,000 Japanese soldiers and more than 12,000 Americans, looms large in the collective memory of inhabitants of the island -- a separate kingdom until its monarch was exiled to Tokyo in 1879.

The battle, in which up to one-third of Okinawa's inhabitants died, has been described as a futile sacrifice ordered by Japan's military leaders to delay a U.S. invasion of the mainland.

Masahide Ota, a former governor of Okinawa who fought as a member of a "Blood and Iron Corps" of students mobilized to defend the island, says soldiers gave civilians two hand grenades -- "one to throw at the enemy and one to use on themselves".

Many historians and survivors blame military propaganda that sought to convince civilians they faced rape and torture if captured by Americans, as well as an education system that taught the virtue of dying for an emperor who was considered a living god.

"They were taught that Americans were fiends, worse than devils, and that if women were caught they would be raped and men would be killed," Miyazato said. "It was the same as ordering them to commit suicide. They were taught it was better to die.

Ota, a historian as well as a member of parliament, fears the lessons of Japan's wartime past are in danger of being lost.

"Education has the responsibility to convey history accurately to our children so that our country does not repeat the tragedy of the Pacific war," he said in a statement.

"Textbooks are one method of fulfilling that mission. I think that is being forgotten."

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