Media watch: Most famous witness to Okinawan mass suicide dies at 93

Shigeaki Kinjo (Tokyo Shimbun)

On July 19, Shigeaki Kinjo, a man who survived the Battle of Okinawa after killing his family in a mass suicide drive, died at the age of 93. Many media outets ran obituaries, with some going into more detail than others. 

On the web talk show No Hate TV, freelance journalist Koichi Yasuda recounted his only meeting with Kinjo in 2005, when he was in Okinawa covering the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa at the invitation of Akiko Yui, the editor in chief of the Okinawa Times. At one point Yasuda visited Tokashiki Island, where 300 civilians committed group suicide. The controversy over this tragedy has always been whether they were told to do so by local military authorities, something Yasuda wanted to determine in his research. 

At the time, Kinjo was a minister at a local church, though he was already well known among journalists because he had once testified in a court case involving a history text book whose content had been contested by the government. At first, Kinjo turned down Yasuda’s request for an interview, but later, when Yasuda showed up in person at the church, Kinjo relented, and told him his story.

On March 27, 1945, Kinjo was 16 years old. When it was reported that U.S. soldiers had landed on Tokashikijima, the residents of his village escaped to the mountains where they hid in caves. They brought with them grenades that had been distributed by the local village defense squad, who told them to use them to kill themselves if they believed they were in danger of being captured. Children should die first. When Yasuda asked him how the villagers felt when they were given the grenades, he said there was a mood of “elation.” Finally, they could die together “like good Japanese.”

When they learned that the U.S. soldiers were getting closer to their hiding place, the villagers separated into families. Each family took a grenade, which they attempted to detonate while huddling around it, usually by striking it hard against the stone floor. However, some grenades were duds, and in such cases, a family member would kill the others with an axe before killing himself. In Kinjo’s case, the grenade was also a dud, but he had no axe, so, being the oldest male, he went out and gathered large rocks, brought them back, and methodically bashed in the heads of his mother, brother, and sister. Unable to kill himself with rocks, Kinjo decided to commit suicide by charging the American soldiers, but they didn’t shoot him. They simply captured him and kept him as a prisoner, because they had instructions not to kill children. In captivity, he realized that the stories he’d been told by the Japanese military about the enemy—that they would torture and kill him—were lies, and he suffered greatly for what he did to his own family. It was this self-reflection that led him to the Christian faith. 

Over the years, Kinjo made it his vocation to tell this story to anyone who wanted to hear it, and was thus called upon as a witness in lawsuits having to do with writings that claimed the military “forced” civilians to commit suicide. In one case, a high school history textbook set to be published in 2008 was cited by education ministry screeners for mentioning this when it talked about the Battle of Okinawa. Though the ministry’s suggestion was not legally binding, without its approval it would have been difficult to sell the book. The writer sued the government, which claimed that no such order was given by the military and that academics had determined that group suicides were carried out due to the victims’ “mental state,” under which they may have believed they were ordered to kill themselves. Kinjo testified for the plaintiff. Moreover, in September 2007, about 110,000 people protested against the ministry’s citation in Ginowan. Eventually, the government gave in and the publisher was allowed to include the controversial passage. The ministry tried to save face by saying that its review of textbooks was not for the purpose of “determining historical facts,” but that it was “not apparent” that all group suicides were ordered by the military, or that there may have been some miscommunication. These were the reasons they suggested the change. In any event, the passage in the book was changed slightly, with Tokyo Shimbun commenting that its meaning was thus “weakened.” In addition, other publishers who had included something similar in their textbooks removed references to the military.

Kinjo also testified in the famous case that two former garrison commanders brought against Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe and his publisher in 2005 for saying that they forced civilians to commit suicide in his book Okinawa Notes, even though neither of the men were mentioned by name. One expert told Tokyo Shimbun that the two men did not bring the suit themselves but were persuaded to do so by “interested parties.” Though Oe eventually won, the publicity surrounding the suit gave these interested parties what they wanted, which was, again, to weaken the story regarding the group suicides.

According to Hiroshi Hayashi, a professor of modern Japanese history, the distinction being made by the government was pointless anyway. On Okinawa, civilians and soldiers co-existed in close proximity, and the constant talk about what invading troops would do to civilians after they landed was enough to persuade them that they should die rather than be captured. The field code for the Imperial Army dictated that soldiers should kill themselves rather than be captured, and any civilians who themselves were caught up in battle were expected to do the same, so the distinction of being “forced” was meaningless. As Yasuda pointed out on No Hate TV, the government successfully changed the terminology surrounding the Okinawan tragedy from “forced group death” (kyosei shudanshi) to “group suicide” (shudan jiketsu). Tokyo Shimbun also points out that the education ministry review that sparked the lawsuit and the Ginowan protest came in the wake of the first administration of Shinzo Abe as prime minister, thus suggesting that part of Abe’s plan to make Japan a “beautiful country” was to rewrite the story of World War II. Under such circumstances, Kinjo was one of the most persuasive actors against the whitewashing of the war, which only became more intense during Abe’s second administration starting in 2012.

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