Okinawa: Why They Chose Death

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tags: WWII, Okinawa



Jonathan Mirsky is a historian of China and was formerly the East Asia Editor of The Times of London.


Would the Japanese have surrendered without Hiroshima? For decades the question has lingered, as historians have challenged one of the most important American rationales for dropping the bomb. While we can never know what the Japanese would have done in other circumstances, the question comes freshly into view in Descent into Hell: Civilian Memories of the Battle of Okinawa, a remarkable new book based on Japanese eyewitness testimony from one of the bloodiest land battles of the war. 

Two things jump out about this big book. One is that it is unusual to read extensive personal accounts of civilians on the enemy side who suffered in large numbers during World War II. The second is that, at least to judge by the inhabitants of Okinawa, many Japanese civilians, together with their emperor, were unwilling to surrender. 

The huge US offensive in Okinawa—the only part of Japan where US forces fought on the ground—lasted eighty-two days in the spring of 1945 and cost about as many lives altogether as the atom bombs themselves. The US invading force of 1,050 ships carrying 548,000 men vastly outnumbered the 110,000 Japanese soldiers defending the island. But the Japanese held out with remarkable tenacity, and 77,000 Japanese soldiers and over 140,000 civilians would be killed before the US could declare victory. On the US side, more than 14,000 troops lost their lives, including 4,900 sailors felled by Japanese kamikaze—“divine wind”—suicide pilots, of which there were 3,050. As Hanson W. Baldwin, the New York Times war correspondent, described it, “Never before had there been, probably never again will there be, such a vicious sprawling struggle.” 

I was thirteen at the time and recall my feelings of pride that American soldiers were yet again beating the fiendish, barely human Japanese. This was bolstered by the press and by super-patriotic films like Wake Island, in which Americans lost but only temporarily. Later, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a new belief took hold among liberal and leftist Americans: that the reasons given for dropping the bombs—among them, above all, that the Japanese would never surrender unless pulverized—were self-serving and false. Because of this new book I am thinking again.

The survivors’ accounts contained in Descent into Hell were originally gathered in the early 1980s by the Okinawan newspaper Ryukyu Shimpo, in which reporters discovered that these civilian wartime memories had been repressed in postwar Japan. Nearly thirty years later, the translator and Okinawan specialist Mark Ealey, together with Alastair McLauchlan, secured permission from the newspaper to use these testimonies as the basis of a new, English-language account of the battle from the eyes of Japanese civilians. In assembling this nearly five-hundred-page book, the translators have incorporated the testimony into a chapter-by-chapter account of the battle that includes their own extensive commentary and analysis, as well as notes on specific themes, maps, and a timeline of the battle itself. In an introductory essay, the former governor of Okinawa, Ota Masahide, writes that, “The Battle of Okinawa was distinct from all other battles in the Pacific War in that it was fought…with the majority of the resident civilian population still present.” According to Ota, “The horrific death toll and the fanatical resistance by the Japanese soldiers affected the thinking of the American leaders and was a significant factor leading to the decision to drop atomic bombs on mainland Japan.” ...




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