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Typhoon of Steel: Fear of capture linked to group suicides in Battle of Okinawa (Pt. 7)

The natural cave "Chibichirigama," where 83 Okinawa residents died in group suicides during the Battle of Okinawa, is seen on Sept. 16, 2017, in the village of Yomitan, Okinawa Prefecture. (Mainichi/Keiichi Sato)

NAHA -- The Battle of Okinawa during the final phase of the Pacific War saw a high rate of civilian casualties. But the lives lost were not limited to residents caught in the crossfire between Japanese and American forces, but also included those who took their own lives.

    Question: What led to the group suicides by residents during the Battle of Okinawa?

    Answer: Residents took their own and others' lives in groups on the Kerama Islands to the west of the main island of Okinawa, in the village of Yomitan in the central part of the main island, in the southern city of Itoman, and other locations. In the forests or in natural caves called "gama," families or other groups would gather together and set off hand grenades, or take turns with razors or sickles, among other means. According to Okinawa prefectural history, it is believed that victims of group suicides on the Kerama Islands numbered 177 on the island of Zamami, 53 on Geruma Island and some 330 on the island of Tokashiki. Many young children were also among those lost.

    The military-perpetuated idea that being captured by the enemy and becoming a prisoner of war was an embarrassment had become entrenched in the minds of Okinawa residents. Furthermore, fear of the U.S. military had been sown by saying that if captured, men would be run down by tanks and women raped and murdered. These ideas are believed to be possible context for the loss of life. This is also why the term "forced group deaths" is also used to describe the tragedy.

    Additionally, on islands where there was no Imperial Japanese military presence, no group suicides occurred. In the natural cave "Chibichirigama" in the village of Yomitan, 83 civilians killed themselves. However, in the "Shimukugama" cave roughly 1 kilometer away in the same village, residents who had lived in Hawaii convinced the group to surrender and saved an estimated 1,000 lives.

    (Japanese original by Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

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