** war and social upheaval: World War II Pacific Theater -- Okinawa civilians








World War II Pacific Theater: Okinawa--Civilians

Okinawa civilians
Figure 1.-- Okinawa was a template for what might bhve happened had the United States invaded the Japamese HimeIsland. Some 100,000-150,000 Okinawans were killed in the fighting or either convinced or forced to commit suicide by the Japanese soldiers. In some cases the Japanese soldiers actually killed civilians. That was something like a third or even half of the island's population. Here at the end of the 3-month campaign are two survivors. It was not immeduately understood at the time just to what extent that the Japanese Army was involved or the extent of civilian suicides. The press caption read, "Pedestrians, Okinawa style: Determined to get to a collcting point behind the 7th Division front lines, a young Okinawan lad, injured in the leg, uses the aid of a pole and an older civilan as the trek along." The photograph was fated July 10, 1945. Source: U.S. Army photo. .

Okinawa proved to be last and most bitterly fought bttle of the Pacifi war. It was notable because it was the only battle of the Pacific War in which large numbers of Japanese civilians were involved. In addition to the Japanese troops massed on the island, there were some 450,000 civilians. This was much larger than the small Japanese population encounteed on Saipan. Okinawa included an ethnically diverse group of people. Many Okinawans had multi-ethnic origins in contrast to the Japanese. Okinawa was a relstively recent addition to Japan. Japan seized the islands at an early point after the Mejii Resoration (1875). They immediately began a process of 'Japanization'. Becaise of their mixed sncestry, the Japanese looked down on the Okinawans and treated themn as second-class citizens. One historian writes, "With their greater racial 'deviance' than Koreans, Okinawans were made to suffer even more grievously for their failure to be pure Japanese, that most valued national quality." [Feifer] The Japanese had evacuated some civilians, but most were still on Okinawa when the Americans landed. From the beginning, civilins were caught in the crossfire. Trapped Japanese soldiers commonly urged or even forced civilians to commit suicide with them. Civilians were often ordered to commit mass suicide, although Japanese sources, especially the Ministry of Education, seek to deny this. {Masaaki] Okinawan sources want the truth told. In the final phase of the battle, what was left of the Japanese 32nd Army abandoned the Shuri Line south to Mabuni where they planned to make a final stand. Some civilians terrified of the advancing Americans because of the stories told them by the Japanese militry, followed the Japanese solders south. The tiny corner of the island became a chaotic mass of Japanese soldiers, American soldiers, and civilians caught in a deadly crossfire. Not only were the two armies fighting, but there was also intense air and sea bombardment. The civilians that fled with the Japanese not only had the deadly fire to contend with, but were let without food, water, or shelter. Horific tales emerged. One journalist writes, "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'. [Brooke] No one knows precisely, but some historians estimate that some 100,000 to 150,000 Okinawan men, woman, and children perished in the 3 months campaign for Okinawa. It is probably a template for what would have happened on the Home Islands had the United States been forced to invade.

Unique Battle

Okinawa proved to be last and most bitterly fought bttle of the Pacific war. It was notable because it was the only battle of the Pacific War in which large numbers of Japanese civilians were involved. Many Pacific island engagements occurred on uninhabited or lightly populated islands. Iwo Jima which was another bloody campaign was completely uninhabited. This was not the case of Okinawa. In addition to the Japanese troops massed on the island, there were some 450,000 civilians. This was much larger than the small Japanese population encounteed on Saipan. There were civilians involved im many Pacific War battles, bit only on Okinawa were thre large numbers od Japanese civilians involved. Countless civilians suffered as a result of the Pacific War, but only on Okinawa was it that large numbers of Japanese caught in the middle of the fighting.

Civilian Population

Okinawa had a substantial ethnically diverse group of people. Many Okinawans had multi-ethnic origins, in part because of their island location. There were indigenous islanders--the Ryukyuan people. They appear to have originated with migranys from Japan Kyushu and the Okinawans spoke a lannguage similar to Japanese. The location close to China and Japan meant that there were many transients and settlers on the islands as the Ryukyuans appeared to served as middlemen in trade between China, Korea, and Japan. China had been the dominant cultural influence, although the disinterest in maritime activity mean that the Chinese touch was light. The Japanese were very different. Okinawa was a relatively recent addition to the Japanese Empire. Japan seized the islands at an early point after the Mejii Resoration (1875). They immediately began a process of 'Japanization'. Because of their mixed sncestry, the Japanese looked down on the Okinawans and treated themn as second-class citizens. One historian writes, "With their greater racial 'deviance' than Koreans, Okinawans were made to suffer even more grievously for their failure to be pure Japanese, that most valued national quality." [Feifer]

Military Civilian Relations

The Japanese had evacuated some civilians. We do not have details as to how many and who ws evacuated or how the evacuees were chosen. Hopefully readers with know more about this. Most Okinawans, however, were still on Okinawa when the Americans landed. From the beginning, civilians were caught in the crossfire. Men of military age were pressed into service. Women, children, and the elderly were basically ignored. Little or no attention was given to them. Available provisions were seized and distributed to the fighing forces. The Japanese had been indicrinated in the schools as to how barbaric the Americans were. At first it was not that something that had much importance as the war was so far away. Gradually the War crept closer. And as the military began to prepare for an American invasion, they intensified their anti-American propaganda with invented horor stories. The same was occuring on the Home Islands as the Governmnt adopted the Ketsugo Doctraine.

Initial Encounters

Okinawan civilians went into hiding when the americabs began boming and shelling the island in preparation for the invasion. There wre few actual bomb shelter. Civiliand mostly hid in the island's many caves. Food soon ran out. water was in short supply. And by the time the Americans landed the civilians were in poor shape. Unlike the Japanese soldiers, there was no effort by the Japanese to move the cuvilins behind the fortified areas. They were essentilly own their own. And they were terrified of the Americans. One Okinawan writes, "We were taught that the Americans and the British were kichiku, or 'ogre-beasts.' The Americans were monsters and beasts, and not humans. So, if you were caught by them, you would have your ears and nose cut off, be blinded, and be run over by the tanks. If you were a woman, you would be raped." Most believed what they were told. Many civilians soon learned the truth. But in many cases Japanese soldiers were mixed in with the civilans. This often oroved a death sentence and the soldiers wereprepared to comit suiside and expected tge civilians to do the same. Mpre importantly they had the meanso do som gubs and grenades. Vivilians on their own geberally surrendered when the Americans approched. This is what tended to occur on the first few days as well as on the souther half of the island which the Japanese did not heavily defend.

Causes of the Casualties

Civilian casualties were higer on Okinawa than on any other populated Pacific Island Both the American and Japanese military played a role in the carnage. Assessing relative culpability is at this stage impossible, but intentions are possible to ascertain. The Americans hd nodesire to kill the civilins and made provision to assist the survivirs. The Japanese military authorities on the other hand basically believed that Okimawan civiliand should join them in death as they fouhjt for the emperor. The civilians killed by the Americans was largely a result of enormous fire power that the the United states brought to bear on the Japanese military forces combined with the combat situation. The United States had a huge advantage in men, material, artillery, armor, air power, and naval artillery. The basic problem for the Americans was in finding targets. Most of the Japanese military positions were as on Iwo underground. The Japanese also used civikian structures in their fefensive positions. The underground positions were hard to find. And the United States commonly found it difficult to diferentiate between the military and civilians. And because of the underground hard to find Japanese military emplacements, advancing American units not uncommonly found thnselves underfire from all sides, even the rear. In such circumstances, the American reacton was to blast everything in sight. As a result, one estimare suggests that 90 percent of the buildings on the island were destroyed. There was no desire to kill civilians. And civilians when found were moved to rear areas. Here the Japanese were different. They had much less artillery and had prepositioned and sughtd what they had. Thus they knew prescisely what they were shooting at and had already clculated ranges. This fewer Okinawan civilians were unintended victims of the fighting. The problem for the Okinawan civilins was trapped Japanese soldiers commonly urged or even forced civilians to commit suicide with them. Civilians were often ordered to commit mass suicide, although Japanese sources, especilly the Ministry of Education, seek to deny this. [Masaaki] Okinawan sources want the truth told. In the final phase of the battle, what was left of the Japanese 32nd Army abandoned the Shuri Line south to Mabuni where they planned to make a final stand. Some civilians terrified of the advancing Americans because of the stories told them by the Japanese military, followed the Japanese solders south or committed suiside. There were several instances of mass suiside as was reported on Saipan. The Okinawan Peace Museum was built at one such site. The tiny Manbuni corner of the island became a chaotic mass of Japanese soldiers, American soldiers, and civilians caught in a deadly crossfire. Not only were the two armies fighting, but there was also intense air and sea bombardment. The civilians that fled with the Japanese not only had the deadly fire to contend with, but were let without food, water, or shelter. Horific tales emerged. One journalist writes, "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'. [Brooke] Life or death for the Okinawan civilians meant whether they chose to sheek shelter with the Japanese soldiers or hide in caves where the Americans eventually found them. After the War, surviving Okinawans attempted to undertand the disater they experienced, especially why so many of their people committed suiside. Those who chose life rather than suiside blamed the masssuisides on the how they were indoctrinated in the Japanese schools. They report that they were taught to become 'more Japanese than the Japanese' and had the duty to prove it. [Saito]

Encounters with Americans

We are not entirely sure just how Okinawans came into contact with the Americans. It was dangerous because the Amricans were understanably trigger happy, especially at night. There was Japanese firing coming from all directions, even from the rear. And Japanese soldiers were likely to fire on the civilians if they saw then trying to reach Anerican lines. The Americans found civilians in caves as they were tring to clearout Japanese soldiers from hidden firing positions. Some Okinawans eventually energed from hiding places as the battle moved on. They had liitle choice because they needed food and water, especially water. Many were wary because the Japanese soldiers had taught them that they would be raped and tortured. As far as we can tell, most Okimawans believe what they were told. Something like half of the population in some ares committed suisude, although in many cases it was a morebof a forced suiside. We are not sure to what extent the Okinawan civilians actually sought out the Americans. We suspect that it was a small minority, but we do not have any actual data. A girl at the time, reports, "The call [from Americans] for surrender continued but we did not respond because we thought we were going to be raped or killed if we went out. We stayed in the cave for five days with only water. There was a Japanese officer in our cave. He disguised himself as a local resident by wearing a female kimono. This officer said to my mother, 'Tthe U.S. Army does not kill civilians. We cannot continue to live like this. Let's surrender.' He led us outside to surrender, and saved our lives." [Nakahodo]

Relief Efforts

The Japanese made little or no effort to aid civilians. There were various reasons for this. First they looked down on the Okinawans for racial reasons. Second, supplies were short even before the invasion and after the invasion supplies ran out. Fourth, much of the military believed that the civilians shouuld commit suicide and not allowed themselvs to fall into american hands. In numerous cases, those civilians unwilling to do so were duapacted by the soldiers. The U.S. military, in sharp contrast made considerable effort to do so. Individual soldiers shared their rations with civilians. The children were the first to discover that American soldiers were soft touches. Camps were set up to povide shelter, war=ter, fod, and medical treatment. The surviving civilian having been convinced by the Japanese military that they would be victimized and suffer terrible torture if they fell into Americans hands were according to one historian "... often surprised at the comparatively humane treatment they received from the American enemy." [Molasky, p. 16.] Another historian writes that the Americans "did not pursue a policy of torture, rape, and murder of civilians as Japanese military officials had warned." [Selden, p. 18.] U.S. Military Intelligence Corps aware of what had happened on Saipan prepared leaflets to drop in areaswhere civilians would finf them. Combat translators such as Teruto Tsubota also took the initiative in convincing many civilians not to commit suiside. ['Defiant'] Eventually civilians began to seek out the Americans and make their way to camps where they could be aided. The boy and elderly man here are examples of the survivors, many in dreadful shape (figure 1).

Casualties

No one knows precisely, but We have precise details of American casualties, but the Japanese military casualties are less clear. We do know that more American and Japanese servicemen (including Okinawan conscripts) were killed on Okinawa than any other Pacific island. Details as to civilian casualties are virtually unknown, but Okinawan authorities and the U.S. military estimate 100,000-150,000 Okinawans perished. Historians agree that huge numbers of Okinawan men, woman, and children perished in the 3 months campaign for Okinawa. Some sources suggest lower estimates, but historians other than those with an interrest in underestimating the carnage tend to discount them. As the civilian population was something like 300,000, some where between one-third or one-half of the population perished. This was a higher percenatage than anywhere else with a sizeable poulation during World War II. The bloodletting on Okinawa is probably a template for what would have happened on the Home Islands, but on a much greater scale had the United States been forced to invade.

Occupation

Okinawans like civilians on the Home Islands were beginning to starve because of food shortages. The Japanese military understanding that the United States needed a base close to close to the Home Islands to support an invasion, sussed out that Kyushu, the southern-most island, would be target, and that Okinawa would be the needed base. As a result, the military began cramming soldiers on the island to defend it. There was simply not enough food on the island to feed civilans and the huge garrison. The soldiers had to seize food from the civiliaans. Thus the civilans were already in terrible shape even before the Americans landed (April 1). The island became a caledon of death and statvation. The island was turned into a sea of mud and devestation. Few buildings were left standing after nearly 3 months of savage combat. The civilians not killed in the fighting or murdered by Japanese soldiers were starving. The survivors were astonished that not onky did the Americans anot torture, rape, and kill them, but actually provided food, water, and medcical care. Camps were opened to care for them while the battle was raging. Civilians flocked to them. As was always the case, the first to approach the marines and soldiers were the children, mostly the boys. This occurred quickly when the children found that there were Hershey bars and bubble gum were on offer. We see many images of boys with the American GIs and the obvious affection that developed between them. An Okinawan, Ayano Shimojo, who teaches Japanese culture to American elementary students at Camp Kinser, describes how her father lived because the U.S. military provided baby formula to his family, who was hiding in a cave. “He was one of the few babies to survive the Battle of Okinawa. My grandparents always told me not to forget about the U.S. forces’ kindness.” [Ichihashi] And the camps were kept open until the Okinawans began going home to rebuild their homes and lives. This was delayed by the act that many men died in the War. They unliked the women were pressed into service by the Japanese soldiers. So women were the main breadwinners for many families. Okinawa one island of the Ryukyu group. They were treated differently than the main Japanese Home Islands. Provisions of the 1952 Treaty formally ending the War related to the Ryukyus. Formal control of the Ryukyus was returned to Japan two decades later (1972).

Sources

Brooke, James. "1945 suicide order still a trauma on Okinawa," International Herald Tribune (June 21, 2005).

Feifer, George. The Battle of Okinawa: The Blood and the Bomb.

Ichihashi, Aya. "Army captain’s photos of occupation-era Okinawa inspire oral-history project,"| Stars and Stripes (August 28, 2018).

Masaaki, Aniya. "Compulsory mass suicide, the Battle of Okinawa, and Japan's textbook controversy," The Okinawa Times and Asahi Shinbun.

Molasky, Michael S. The American Occupation of Japan and Okinawa: Literature and Memory (Routledge: 1999).

Nakahodo, Shige. Quoted in "Civilians on Okinawa," American exprience. Thisnis a PBS series, The artticle has no author or date. We accessed ir Mayb4, 2021.

Saito, Totu. "Pressure to prove loyalty paved way for mass suicides in Battle of Okinawa, " AJW by The Asahi Shimbun. Ajw.asahi.com.

Selden, Mark in Laura Elizabeth Hein and Mark Selden, ed. Islands of Discontent: Okinawan Responses to Japanese and American Power.

'Defiant soldier saved lives of hundreds of civilians during Okinawa battle,' Stars and Stripes (April 1, 2005).






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Created: 11:15 AM 12/12/2014
Last updated: 7:24 PM 4/16/2019