Woodcut of Japanese warrior about to commit ritual suicide

Wikipedia Commons

During the Pacific War, the Western attitude towards suicide was largely shaped by the Christian doctrine that suicide constitutes self-murder and is the ultimate rejection of God's grace. As a result, suicide was regarded as a deranged act by the Allied armed services, and servicemen who attempted suicide were generally assumed to be suffering from severe combat fatigue or other mental disorder. On the other hand, engaging in a military operation where the likelihood of survival was vanishingly small, such as the attack on 1 Air Fleet by Torpedo Squadron 8 at the battle of Midway, was often viewed as an honorable act of courage. The distinction was that the persons involved were not deliberately seeking death, but were killed by the enemy while attempting to carry out their military duty in the face of extreme danger.

The stigma associated with suicide likely meant that suicides were often not reported as such to family and in official records. An example is Charles Barrett, who apparently committed suicide after being told by Halsey that he was about to be relieved of command of I Marine Amphibious Corps. The subsequent inquest never even entered into evidence key circumstances surrounding Barrett's death, and ruled it an accident. Given the propaganda value his suicide would have provided the Japanese, and the likely effects on the morale of I Marine Amphibious Corps, the decision to cover up Barrett's suicide is hard to condemn.

Willful suicide was considered more acceptable when it was done to protect military secrets. Thus, Allied guerrillas sometimes made use of poison pills to avoid breaking under torture if captured. Likewise, Captain John P. Cromwell chose to remain aboard a sinking submarine, Sculpin, rather than be captured by the Japanese and risk being tortured into revealing Ultra intelligence. Cromwell was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

The Japanese attitude towards suicide was quite different. Under the ancient bushido code, a warrior could protect his honor by committing suicide rather than risk capture. A warrior could also redeem his honor following a dishonorable act by committing suicide. When time and circumstances permitted, the samurai would follow an elaborate ritual, seppuku, that ended with the samurai disemboweling himself with a short knife. This manner of suicide was originally chosen to be as painful and prolonged as possible. Later it became acceptable for a samurai to have a trusted friend or associate behead him as soon as the samurai had cut open his belly. This avoided the possibility of the samurai dishonoring himself by showing pain before dying.

Much of the bushido code made its way into the modern Japanese armed services, and suicide as an act of atonement was clearly a part of Japanese military culture. In addition, Japanese soldiers, enlisted as well as officers, almost always preferred honorable death to the shame of being captured alive. The most honorable death was one that caused the death of many enemies, as was the goal of the kamikazes. Ordinary death in battle came next in honor, followed by suicide to avoid capture. The former was reflected in the banzai charge, a suicidal attack made by desperate men who knew they would almost certainly be killed. The latter was reflected in the widespread use of grenades by wounded or trapped Japanese to kill themselves. When grenades were not available, Japanese soldiers sometimes killed themselves by placing their rifle muzzles under their chins and pulling the triggers with their toes.

The Japanese attitude is reflected in the reaction to the suicide of a junior officer ordered to destroy his mountain gun (Collie and Marutani 2009):

Takagi's men screamed, "Lieutenant Takagi's killed himself" and went running back to him. He took some time to die, but his action made a strong impression on those around. Imanishi says, "I was so impressed by his officer spirit."

"The news of First Lieutenant Takagi's final gesture ... did much to lift the flagging morale of the Japanese troops," writes Lieutenant Nakahashi.

This incident also demonstrates that not all Japanese military suicide was in response to the fear of capture. Suicides like that of Yamaguchi Tamon, who felt it his duty to go down with Hiryu at the Battle of Midway, were wasteful of highly trained men. Yamaguchi was not to blame for the Midway debacle, and his conduct of operations with Hiryu was that of a capable, aggressive commander facing an insoluble tactical problem. His suicide deprived Japan of one of its most talented carrier admirals. Senior Japanese officers had to exercise great care in disciplining junior officers, who might commit suicide if they felt they had lost face.

The largest banzai charge of the war took place on Saipan on the night of 6/7 July 1944. Over 3000 troops, many of whom were wounded or bore no better weapon than a bayonet lashed to a bamboo pole, found 105 Regiment, 27 Division unprepared in spite of a warning from Smith to its commander that such an attack was likely. The desperate Japanese soldiers found a 300 yard (270m) gap between two battalions and were not stopped until they ran up against a 105mm artillery battalion that expended its entire supply of shells before being overrun. Hastily organized rear-area troops then mopped up the surviving Japanese. Casualties were an estimated 4300 Japanese versus 406 Americans killed.

Most Japanese who committed suicide were in no position to go through the ritual of seppuku. However, a few of the highest ranking Japanese officers committed ritual suicide following defeat in battle. Examples include Saito Yoshitsugu at Saipan and Ushijima Mitsuru and his chief of staff at Okinawa. A number of senior officers also committed ritual suicide following the Japanese capitulation. These included Anami Korechika, then serving as War Minister; Onishi Takijiro, founder of the kamikazes; Sugiyama Gen, former Army chief of staff; and Tanaka Shizuichi, who had prevented a last-minute military coup. In some cases the basic elements of seppuku, a fatal self-inflicted wound followed by a coup de grace delivered by a second, took alternate forms, as when Saito cut an artery with his sword and was then shot in the head by his adjutant.

As the Allies began invading territories settled by Japan before the war, local Japanese civilians sometimes committed mass suicide. The worst such incident occurred at Saipan, where hundreds of Japanese civilians committed suicide, many by leaping off the high cliffs on the northern end of the island. Although another 15,000 civilians chose to endure American occupation, the Japanese Army put out propaganda claiming thousand had killed themselves and praising their cooperation with the Army. The clear implication was that the civilian population of Japan was expected to do the same in the event of an Allied invasion. A similar incident of mass suicide occurred on the islet of Tokashiki off Okinawa, where on 28 March 1945 an estimated 394 civilians killed themselves, allegedly on orders from the local Japanese military. These were some of the most horrible incidents of the war, and probably affected American thinking during the strategic bombing campaign against Japan.

Some 600 Japanese Army officers killed themselves at the time of the final Japanese capitulation in atonement for the Army's failure. These included just 22 out of the army's 1,501 generals.


Collie and Marutani (2009)

Drea (2009)

Hastings (2007)

Leckie (1962)
Morison (1953)

Rems (2008-8; accessed 2015-1-1)

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