Were mass suicides by civilians during the Battle of Okinawa ordered by the Imperial Japanese Army? Friday's Osaka District Court ruling on this issue has attracted public attention, as has the government's screening of high school history textbooks describing the Battle of Okinawa.
An army veteran and a brother of a deceased veteran filed the damages suit with the court against Nobel Prize-winning writer Kenzaburo Oe and Iwanami Shoten Publishers. They claimed "false" descriptions stating that the army ordered the civilians to commit suicide en masse during the Battle of Okinawa were defamatory and asked the defendants to pay compensation.
But, recognizing the "deep involvement" of the Imperial Japanese Army in the mass suicides, the ruling rejected the plaintiffs' claim.
At the same time, the court said it was reluctant to recognize that the army's involvement went as far as issuing orders as described in Oe's book and ultimately avoided passing judgment on the "order" issue.
Last year, in the high school history textbook screening case, a passage stating that citizens "were forced by the Japanese army into committing the mass suicides" was amended to say they "were driven to commit mass suicides using hand grenades and other means distributed to them with the involvement of the Japanese army."
Panel's stance appropriate
The opinion formed by an advisory panel to the education minister as part of the textbook authorization process was that as it was not entirely clear whether the army had "forced" the suicides to take place, a judgmental description should be avoided.
The panel's position not to permit use of phrases such as "the Japanese army forced mass suicides" as long as there is no clear historical evidence seems an appropriate one.
With regard to the mass suicides on Tokashikijima and Zamamijima islands in Okinawa Prefecture, for much of the postwar period it has been generally accepted that garrison commanders "ordered" residents to do this. The view is based on accounts given by survivors and local residents, some of which were recounted in the book "Tetsu no Bofu" (The Typhoon of Steel), a record of the Battle of Okinawa published in 1950 by The Okinawa Times.
But when writer Ayako Sono researched the mass suicides on Tokashikijima island for a book written in 1973, the paucity of evidence supporting the explanation that garrison commanders issued such orders became clear.
Account cut from history book
Taking this new position into account, a passage regarding the garrison commanders' suicide order on Tokashikijima was expunged in 1986 from the book "Taiheiyo Senso" (Pacific War) by historian Saburo Ienaga, originally published by Iwanami Shoten.
Also with relation to Zamamijima, in 1985 The Kobe Shimbun reported assertions by a former garrison commander that no such order for local residents to commit suicide was issued. A book was also published in 2000 that included testimony from a woman who said a garrison commander refused to hand over ammunition for her to commit suicide.
At the same time, there is also testimony stating that the Japanese army did distribute hand grenades to residents for that purpose.
However, there has been no discussion to date denying the "involvement" of the army itself with relation to the mass suicides.
The core point in the trial has been whether the army issued a specific "order."
The plaintiffs intend to appeal the ruling to a higher court. We will keep a close eye on developments in that court.