Thursday, March 26, 2015

70th Anniversary of the U.S. assault on the Kerama Islands • Remembering the Kerama victims of Japanese military forced group suicide

Memorial service at Zemami this morning. (Photo: Ryukyu Shimpo)

Today is the 70th anniversary of the U.S. assault on the Kerama Islands, the first invasion of "Operation Iceberg", the last US land campaign of the Pacific War.  The Battle of Okinawa was not really a battle; it was an annihilation.  An armada of 1,500 US ships, carrying 548,000 Americans, faced the last dregs of the Japanese Army and gentle Okinawans who had no chance to resist the war into which Imperial Japan forced them. Poorly trained student Corp child soldiers, "Home Guard" militia, and student nurses made up the local conscripts in the Japanese 32nd Army's 110,000 members in Okinawa. The 32nd Army had no naval support: the Japanese Imperial super battleship Yamato, and five of nine small ships capsized after exploding from nonstop bombing by 300 U.S. planes before the Japanese fleet reached Okinawa, their one-way suicide destination. The four surviving ships retreated to the Japanese mainland.

"Mobilized" only a few weeks before the U.S. invasion, the conscripted Okinawan children and teenagers received no weapons training, only short-pants uniforms. The student soldiers and student nurses were told Japan would win the battle in a few days; so the girls and their teachers brought their books with them to keep up their studies. They had no idea that, in months, they would receive orders to give cyanide to wounded Japanese soldiers covered with maggots in the dark, hot cave battlefield hospitals, and, that, at the end of the Battle of Okinawa in three months, they would be pushed into the battlefield to fend for themselves.

Okinawans were not protected by the Japanese military during the Battle of Okinawa. 
They were used as laborers, conscripts, nurses,"comfort women," and human shields.

Caught in between the US forces and the pathetic, ragtag army: 450,000 Okinawan civilians whom the Japanese government did not evacuate or protect.  100,000 had been evacuated earlier, not to protect them, but to ensure a food supply for the 32nd Army which also numbered around 100,000. Many of the Okinawan civilian evacuees, including children, were killed en route to Japan when US warships torpedoed cargo ships carrying these civilian passengers.  The three-month battle sacrificed 150,000 Okinawan civilians, 77,166 of the Japanese soldiers and military conscripts, many whom were murdered by their compatriots upon being wounded or committed suicide, and 14,009 Americans.

70th Anniversary of the March 26, 1945 U.S. assault on the Kerama Islands.

The U.S. bombed the tiny islands southwest of the Okinawan mainland for several days before the March 26 and March 27 invasions.  The 300 Japanese "Sea Raiding" suicide torpedo boat pilots stationed at the Keramas were supposed to slow the U.S. "typhoon of steel and bombs", but they failed to carry out a single suicide attack on the American battleships bombarding the shore.  Instead, the soldiers joined civilians in hiding, where Japanese officers began implementing their only successful mission: terrorizing and killing the islands' civilians.

The tiny Kerama Islands are situated to the southwest of the Okinawa mainland.

By March 29th, the U.S. had seized nearly the entire Keramas, including the 4 tiny inhabited islands: Tokashiki Island, Zamami Island, Aka Island, and Geruma Island. During these battles, Japanese officers ordered the mass suicide (shudan jiketsu) of Okinawans on these Islands. The people were forced to commit suicide by the coercion (kyosei) and inducement (yudo). Handing out grenades and cyanide, the 32nd Army ordered the group deaths of the people who had lived in the Keramas peacefully for centuries until the Japanese military arrival. Only a few managed to escape and survive.

Some civilians on Toshiaki Island escaped the mass suicide order and surrendered to the US military.

The death toll from the forced group suicides was 330 people for Tokashiki-jima Island, 177 persons on Zamami-jima Island, and on Geruma-jima Island it was 53 people. 2 families are said to have killed themselves on tiny Yakabi Island. In addition to the Japanese military murdering residents whom they called "spies," 600 Korean laborers and "comfort women" (military sexual slaves) also lost their lives.

Exhibition of photographs of Toshiaki Island survivors of the forced mass suicide and their wounds. 
Courtesy of Mr. Hiroshi Yamashiro, Via Okinawa Peace Research Institute.

In February, Prince Konoe Fumimaro had advised the Japanese emperor to surrender and stop the continuation of deaths, suffering, and destruction of the Pacific War. The navy and  air force were practically wiped out.  Most of Japan's major cities had been destroyed by firebombing before the Battle of Okinawa. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians were dead, or wounded and starving. The Japanese government knew the Battle of Okinawa was lost in advance, that it would be a bloodbath; however the Ryukyuan people and their garden-like islands were cast as a last "sacrifice stone" simply to extend a war without mercy.  Okinawan civilians were used as laborers, and eventually human shields,  before the final sacrifices by forced group suicide. Korean military slave laborers and Korean and Taiwanese "comfort women" (military sexual slaves at the 145 "comfort stations" in Okinawa), erased from from the media and history books, as if they never existed, were also sacrificed.

Memorial service for the 600 people forced to commit suicide. 

The Japanese government has never apologized to Okinawans for the willful disregard of life in the planning of the Battle of Okinawa; the near-genocidal civilian death toll; the group suicide orders; the loss of homes, farms, means of livelihood, and near-total destruction of the culture of ancient Ryukyuan kingdom.

Okinawans had no part in formulating the Japanese military government decisions that led to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Pacific War. Yet Okinawans are still being punished, and have never been allowed to live freely and peacefully.  Under the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco, the Japanese government gave control of the islands to the U.S. military which continued the Japanese wartime pattern of property and human rights violations against Okinawans.  Okinawa Prefecture only makes up 0.6 percent of Japan's land mass, but has been forced to accommodate two thirds of the 47,000 US troops in Japan. Why? Because no other prefecture will take them, according to Minister of Defence, General Nakatani.

From 1945 to 1970 (especially during the notorious 1950s era of "Bayonets and Bulldozers"), the US military forcibly seized tens of thousands of acres of private property—entire villages, including cemeteries, tombs, sacred sites, and cultural properties— from over 230,000 Okinawans, to make way for the construction of massive military complexes that are now training bases for the US wars in Central Asia. People who resisted were pulled from their homes, assaulted, arrested and imprisoned.  The US allowed soldiers to engage in crimes against Okinawans with impunity and contaminated the islands with Agent Orange, depleted uranium, white phosphorus, and other radioactive and chemical weapons.

After the 1972 reversion of Okinawa to Japan, the U.S. did not leave Okinawa, as expected. In 1996, the US and Japan announced their plan to landfill the coral reef and dugong habitat at  Henoko, a beloved natural cultural heritage site and most important eco-tourism destination in Okinawa, to make way for another base. The critically endangered Okinawa dugong is a sacred icon and protected natural historical monument. The healthy coral reef is the last fully intact coral reef in all of Okinawa and Japan, and the most biodiverse in the Pacific Ocean, surpassing the number of species that inhabit the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  Okinawans, supported by global environmental and democracy activists, have been protesting the plan since that day.

For 70 years, Okinawans have struggled for Japanese and U.S. military recognition and respect for their human rights, property rights, cultural heritage, and right to self-determinacy. In 1950, the U.S. said it would make Okinawa a "showcase of democracy". However U.S. military rule remained authoritarian: implementing unacceptable policies with brute force, then, as now.  As Okinawans remember and pay their respects to those who died during the Battle of Okinawa 70 years ago, they are also engaged in a historic battle for Japanese and U.S. recognition of Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga's efforts to stop the destruction of the coral and dugong habitat, an ecoregion that is the living manifestation of what little remains of tangible Okinawan cultural heritage.


"Seventy years since U.S. landings on Kerama Islands – Memorial service to be held on Zamami on 26 March" (What's Going On in Okinawa, March 26, 2015)

"Remembering the Konoe Memorial: the Battle of Okinawa and Its Aftermath" (Herbert Bix, APJ, Feb. 23, 2015)

"Descent Into Hell: The Battle of Okinawa" (The Ryukyu Shimpo, Ota Masahide, Mark Ealey and Alastair McLauchlan, APJ, Dec. 1, 2014)

"Compulsory Mass Suicide, the Battle of Okinawa, and Japan's Textbook Controversy" (Aniya Masaaki, The Okinawa Times, and Asahi Shinbun, translation by Kyoko Selden, APJ, Jan. 6, 2008)


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