The expression, “gyokusai,” which literally means “jewel smashing” but came to mean “dying an honorable death,” was used for the first time in the case of Japanese troops on the island of Attu at the western tip of the Aleutian Islands in the U.S. territory. The climate there was severely cold. The mountains were covered by ice and snow even during the summer.
Japanese forces occupied the island in June 1942, as part of its Midway operation, and embarked on the construction of an airfield there. The aim of the occupation was to monitor U.S. forces which might attack from the north and to use the island as a base for Japan’s defense. The U.S. forces started a landing operation on May 12, 1943, to recapture the island, mobilizing 11,000 infantry. The Japanese troops who faced them were only 2,600 in number.
Japan received a report on the U.S. landing operation, but was unable to send reinforcements because sea transportation had become extremely difficult by then due to bombardments from U.S. ships and attacks by U.S. planes. Also, fuel stocks were running out, and Japan gave up on rescuing its troops.
On May 23, Kiichiro Higuchi, Commander of the Northern Army, sent a telegram to the troops on the island: “We hope you have the determination to utilize one hundred measures to destroy the enemy troops and shatter into pieces honorably to become a good role model for showing the spirit of Imperial warriors.” Colonel Yasuyo Yamazaki, who led the garrison which was apparently abandoned by the commander, telegraphed in response, “We are determined not to subject ourselves to the humiliation of captivity by remaining alive.”
Another telegram read, “As for the sick and wounded in the field hospital, those with minor wounds have managed [killed] themselves on the spot, and those with heavy wounds were dealt with by the surgeon [before the troops made a final charge on the enemy].” Japanese soldiers dashed straight at the enemy, screaming, and chose to kill themselves with their own hand grenades once they accepted the fact that resistance was useless. Emperor Showa ordered Sugiyama, Chief of the Army General Staff, to send a telegram message to the Yamazaki unit on the island. “Send a telegram that reads, ‘You have persevered well until the end. I am proud of you,’” the Emperor said.
Sugiyama told the Emperor that the troops’ communication tools had already been destroyed, but the Emperor said, “Send the telegram anyway, even if it won’t reach anyone.”
Why did the Japanese soldiers make suicidal runs at the enemy camp instead of becoming prisoners of war? On January 8, 1941, War Minister Hideki Tojo introduced the “Senjinkun” (Imperial Japanese Army Field Service Code), which taught the ethics of a soldier and lessons for the battlefield. One of the provisions of the code was titled, “Value honor.” “Those who know a sense of dishonor are strong. Care for the prestige of people back home and your family at all times and live up to their expectations by making strenuous efforts. Never subject yourself to the humiliation of capture by remaining alive and leaving the disgrace of a sin on your name after death,” the code read, thereby prohibiting soldiers from becoming prisoners of war.
The May 31, 1943, issue of the Yomiuri-Hochi newspaper, which reported on the devastation on Attu Island, carried a comment by Suezumi Nakashiba, an Army reserve Major General and the head of Soryokusen Gakkai (academic society of all-out war), as a behind-the-scenes contributor to the drafting of the Senjinkun code. “A real-life Senjinkun is shown here vividly. We should have this Senjinkun live in our hearts and never let the 2,000 plus several hundred souls of the fallen heroes of Attu Island die in vain,”he said.
Masayasu Hosaka, a historian, points out that the United States told soldiers during their training that becoming a prisoner of war is acceptable because it would make the enemy expend extra labor. The exact opposite conduct of such a notion was gyokusai—dying an honorable death. According to Hosaka, “Under the self-intoxicating atmosphere and the social climate that praised an esthetic value of a sort, such military conduct of extreme irrationality came to be justified.”
From then onward, the tide of war turned further against Japan, and troops were decimated one after another on Saipan, Tinian, Guam and Iwo Jima in the Central Pacific.
The U.S. forces landed on Saipan Island, a mandated territory of Japan, on June 15, 1944. The Imperial Headquarters decided to abandon the island after Japanese troops were driven to the northern corner of the island. On July 6, Naval Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the Commander-in-Chief of the Central Pacific Area Fleet, and Army Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito, Commander of the Forty-third Division, killed themselves. The remaining troops launched a final all-out offensive the next day and were wiped out.
Soldiers were not the only ones who perished. Many Japanese residents who fled north for safety as the front line moved northward, threw themselves off a cliff at Puntan Sabaneta—now also known as Banzai Cliff—at the northern tip of the island. One estimate of the number of deaths among 20,000 Japanese residents was between 8,000 and 10,000.
Ulrich Straus, a former U.S. Consul General in Naha who also worked for the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers in Tokyo after the war, wrote, “The Senjinkun demanded unlimited service to the state and a romanticized and moral notion of death,” and “Their fate did not just happen; it was a consequence of the policies pursued by the Japanese government.”
The U.S. forces captured one island after another, as if they were walking through the area on steppingstones. They moved strategically from one island to another, located within the combat radius of a fighter plane, thereby expanding the area of air control.
In contrast, according to a former intelligence staff officer, “Japan placed garrisons on 25 islands, large and small combined, of which the U.S. forces landed on and occupied only eight; the other 17 islands were simply ignored. On those eight islands, 116,000 men fought to their death, while 160,000 were abandoned on isolated islands, where nearly 40,000 died from starvation, malnutrition and tropical diseases, without engaging in a single battle with U.S. troops.”