Okinawa: Group Suicide

Group Suicide on Okinawa 

By Christian Lackey

The Battle of Okinawa is widely regarded as the single most significant conflict taking place in the Pacific Theatre during World War II. Recognized as the bloodiest confrontation between the opposing American and Japanese forces, there has already been much written concerning the two main players in this fight[1]. The importance of the island for the U.S. came in the form of easier access to mainland Japan, as Okinawa’s airfields and proximity to the mainland made the island a valuable strategic location for the Americans as they prepared for a full scale invasion. On the same token, the Japanese military recognized that Okinawa was their last line of defense before the devastation of war officially reached Japan. At the very least, a valiant defense at Okinawa would allow the military to “gain time to prepare for the decisive battle on the mainland and negotiations for the conclusion of the war.”[2] Despite the prominent role played by the respective armies on the island during the battle, the civilians residing on Okinawa at the time have not received sufficient exposure to the international audience relative to other victims of the war. During the battle, Okinawans were not only forced to confront the horrors of war first hand but were also subjected to extreme cruelty at the hands of the Japanese Army, mostly in that Okinawan civilians were encouraged to participate in acts of “group suicide.”[3]


The Okinawan civilians that were unfortunate enough to remain on the island at the onset of the fighting experienced the destructive capabilities of a war and all of its horrors. During the battle, civilians were exposed to the devastation that accompanied the intense, non-stop bombardment of the island before and during the battle. Those who were not able to hide within the island’s extensive cave system had to watch as their homes and livelihoods were destroyed.[4] Okinawans were also forced to endure the losses of their friends and family, either losing them to the fighting or to the unintentional civilian causalities that come with an invasion[5]. These individuals were forced to live in an environment in which they never felt safe, having to scavenge for food and even fight others for their own survival. It is true that the Japanese military “recruited more than 25,000” Okinawan men to fight with the army to defend the island and that this did contribute to the astronomically high death toll of Okinawans in the battle, however, this does not tell the full story as to why Okinawan death totals were greater than American and Japanese deaths combined.[6]


In order to better comprehend the complicated events that transpired on the island, one must first understand the mindsets of the Japanese people about suicide during the war. One word that is often used in reference to this scenario is the ancient Chinese word gyokusai, which can be defined as “to die gallantly as a jewel shatters.”[7] The Japanese people, particularly the military, perceived this word as meaning to “die gallantly” rather than “suffer the shame of being taken a prisoner while alive.”[8] This compelled many soldiers and even some civilians to resist the American invaders with a ferocious, unrelenting intensity. Often times however, this idea of dying rather than becoming a prisoner led many to commit suicide in place of being captured. The most obvious example of this can be seen in the concept of Japanese Kamikaze pilots. When answering the question as to whether gyokusai was an official policy in Japan, one needs only to look at a quote from Prime Minister Tojo Hideki in which he says “ichioku gyokusai.”[9] This was essentially a notice saying that the entire Japanese population should be prepared to die.


Prior to the Allied invasion of Okinawa, the general sentiment amongst the civilians and military personnel preparing to defend the island was that a Japanese defeat was all but assured. Evidence of this can be found in a quote from the former Prime Minister of Japan before the battle in which he said that “defeat in the war has already become inevitable.”[10] Since the American forces prevailed at the Battle of Midway, they experienced a string of successes in their attempts to pacify Japanese occupied islands in the Pacific. However, surrender from the Japanese was absolutely out of the question.  Those living on Okinawa during this time had been exposed to different forms of “imperial subject education,” meaning that these citizens had been taught that dying for the emperor was honorable and that falling into an enemy’s hands should be prevented at any cost[11]. There have been numerous debates regarding whether or not there was an official order made by the Japanese military for the citizens of Okinawa to engage in acts of group suicide, however, it is now known that civilians on the island were given two hand grenades before the battle began.[12] Civilians were “directed to throw one of them at the enemy and the other to engage in gyokusai.[13] Whether or not an official order was issued or not, Okinawan civilians were encouraged to engage in group suicide through the direct use of grenades and other means, while also being encouraged through the core values prioritized by the people of Japan at this time.


While the Okinawan civilians remaining on the island for the battle suffered greatly due to their inclusion in this conflict, the worst of their grief came from the introduction of what is now known as group suicide. Even today, there remains a series of controversial debates that can be derived from questions regarding whether the Japanese military coerced Okinawan civilians into participating in different acts of group suicide.[14] It is known that there were many Okinawan civilians that did participate, however, whether or not it was done voluntarily is still up for debate.[15] According to sources, some argue that the military defending the island had planned for the group suicide of the entire island, evidenced by previous attempts to unite “the army, the government, and civilians that were living together and dying together.[16] However, those Okinawans who did not commit suicide or perish by other means during the invasion found out after the fighting had concluded that “only the residents engaged in gyokusai” and that on some islands “the military survived virtually intact.”[17] As mentioned above, one reason that these individuals might have taken their lives goes back to the Japanese policy of not falling into the hands of the enemy. This was coupled with the fears of Japanese civilians that they, upon being captured by the Americans, would be tortured and mistreated in horrible ways and believed death to be better than being captured.[18] One Okinawan survivor recalls thinking that Americans would “cut off our noses, our ears, chop off our fingers…”[19]This tremendous fear of Americans even led some to kill their own family members rather than have them end up being captured.


The introduction of group suicide tactics on the island of Okinawa represents one of the distinctive aspects of the battle that serve to make it so significant and unique. There are still unanswered questions concerning the motivations behind those that took their own lives and the lives of their family members and the role of the Japanese military in these events. Whether or not these suicides were forceful in nature or not does not change the fact the Okinawan civilians endured a sequence of tribulations that are unimaginable. The significance of this battle had led to an immense amount of analysis and has led many to study, in great detail, about the American and Japanese forces that clashed in this monumental engagement. However, there has not been enough said about the experiences of Okinawan civilians and soldiers on the island and much more can stand to be learned about the reasons behind these mass suicides.


[1] Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, Seven Stars: The Okinawa Battle Diaries of Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. and Joseph Stilwell, (United States, Texas A&M University Press College Station, 2004), 3

[2] Aniya Masaaki, Compulsory Mass Suicides, the Battle of Okinawa, and Japan’s Textbook Controversy, (Japan, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 2008), 4

[3] Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook, Japan At War: An Oral History, (New York, The New York Press, 1992), 364

[4] Tomika Higa, The Girl with the White Flag: A Spellbinding account of love and courage in wartime Okinawa, (New York, Kodansha USA, 1989), 41

[5] Higa, Girl with the White Flag, 50

[6] Masaaki, Compulsory Mass Suicide, 6

[7] Hiroaki Sato, Gyokusai or “Shattering like a Jewel”:Reflection on the Pacific War, (Japan Focus, Asia-Pacific Journal, 2008), 1

[8] Sato, Gyokusai, 1

[9] Sato, Gyokusai, 1

[10] Masaaki, Compulsory Mass Suicide, 6

[11] Masaaki, Compulsory Mass Suicide, 7

[12] Masaaki, Compulsory Mass Suicide, 7

[13] Cook and Cook, Japan at War, 364

[14] The Japan Times, Military “forced” Okinawa Mass Suicides, 1

[15] Masaaki, Compulsory Mass Suicide, 1

[16] Masaaki, Compulsory Mass Suicide, 6

[17] Cook and Cook, Japan at War, 366

[18] Masaaki, Compulsory Mass Suicide, 7

[19] Cook and Cook, Japan at War, 365

Oral History Summary

Kinjo Shigeaki, gives some insight on the concept of “group suicide” that was encouraged upon the Japanese civilians inhabiting Okinawa and its surrounding islands. Shigeaki’s account offers a perspective separate from those of the soldiers who were both attacking and defending the island and tells of the fears that the civilians had of being captured by the U.S. Army. For this reason, civilians on the island participated in acts of group suicide and even killed members of their own family out of fear of what would happen to them as prisoners. This oral history sheds some light on how the people of Okinawa were pressured by the Japanese Army to kill themselves in sacrifice to the Empire.



Cook, Haruko T and Cook Theodore F. Japan at War: An Oral History. New York: The New      York Press, 1992.

Higa, Tomiko. The Girl with the White Flag: A Spellbinding Account of Love and Courage in      Wartime Okinawa. New York: Kodansha USA, 1989.

Massaki, Aniya. Compulsory Mass Suicide, the Battle of Okinawa, and Japan’s Textbook             Controversy. Japan Focus, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 2008.

Sarantakes, Nicholas Evan. Seven Stars: The Okinawa Battle Diaries of Simon Bolivar Buckner   Jr. and Joseph Stilwell

Sato, Hiroaki. Gyokusai or “Shattering like a Jewel”: Reflection on the Pacific War. Japan          Focus, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 2008.

The Japan Times. Military “forced” Okinawa Mass Suicides. The Japan Times, 2007. 






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