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Mass Suicides


Chibichiri-gama at Yomitan-son where occurred a mass suicides of more than 80 villagers
Photo: KANO Tatsuhiko

Mass deaths that occurred on the violent battlefields during the Battle of Okinawa. Though the exact numbers are unknown, many took place in most of the sites with the bloodiest battles including the Kerama Islands, Ie Island, and the central and southern parts of the main island Okinawa. The majority of these mass deaths were civilians. Under the influence of wartime imperial education, they were afraid of being captured by the American troops. Stuck in a kind of panic, families and those in shelter caves took their own lives altogether, using grenades brought in by the Japanese defense army or volunteer corps. In some cases, families murdered each other using razors, ropes, and the like. It’s one of the characteristic events during the Battle of Okinawa, in which ordinary civilians were dragged into the land battle (as part of the Japanese military’s intentional military strategy.)

Recently, I was talking to my mother who is from Tokashiki Island1 and a certain TV show came up in the conversation.

That summer, a detective series was shot on Tokashiki Island. A remote Okinawan island was apparently set as the destination of the culprit on the run. Casually watching the program, she felt a sort of discomfort as the show reached its climax. Just like any other show of the same kind, the shooting scene when tracking down the criminal was filmed in the mountains on Tokashiki Island. The sound of heavy gunshots flying made her heart restless.

Only after the show was over, she realized that it was where the “mass suicides” had occurred. She, as a child, was in the exact same place 53 years ago. She apparently started trembling all of a sudden and burst into tears.

Why did they have to fire those shots in such a place? Did none of the islanders realize? And why am I so heartbroken? If it was somewhere else, even on the same island, I wouldn’t have felt so struck.

From the fact that she had not reacted when she was watching the scene in question, I was once more made aware of the gravity of the “mass suicides,” which had been buried in my mother’s memory. The following day, my mother received a phone call from one of her childhood friends who now lives in mainland Japan. She, too, had experienced the same shock. Not only so, but she was also furious against the TV show, as well as the islanders.

For me, having no experience of the war, the Battle of Okinawa is above all my mother’s memory of the “mass suicides.”  She never spoke of it directly, but I have always felt its presence in her from childhood.

The “mass suicide” on Tokashiki Island once caused much controversy. I felt the need to reflect upon it again that it is a fact yet in the present, as an “ongoing” personal experience.

Editor’s Note:

  1. An island from the Kerama Islands