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Human face of war
Honourable death for Japanese soldiers
On 20 January 1943, Major General ODA, the commander of the South Seas Force after the death of Major General HORII, ordered the remaining troops to retreat from Buna towards the west as far as to the mouth of the Kumusi River. This meant that a decision had to be made about injured and sick soldiers. While commanding officers were agonizing, another order from ODA arrived and it stated to leave behind those who could not move. ODA’s intention was to relieve the officers’ from the pressure of making the agonising decision to abandon some of their own troops.

Major KOIWAI, one of the few surviving officers in the South Seas Force, wrote in his memoir that those who could not move bid farewell to the departing soldiers by saying, "Before the enemy arrives tomorrow morning, we will make sure that all of us will commit suicide."

KOIWAI tried to explain the psychology of those soldiers who were abandoned by their units and would certainly face death by their own hand. He wrote as follows:

Around that period, those soldiers did not know about surrendering. They regarded being captured as a more shameful act than death. They did not have any options other than to kill themselves. Namely, to kill themselves with the weapon which should attack the enemy was the same as to protect the nation, to honour their family, to be loyal to the Emperor and to be dutiful to their parents. Furthermore, by completing one’s life in that way, they believed that their spirits would be entombed in the Yasukuni Shrine for ever. (2:589)

OKADA Seizo, a war correspondent who had accompanied the South Seas Force had a more cynical view about the way some soldiers died. He wrote in his 1946 essay, "Lost Troops" as follows:
On the battle fields of New Guinea I saw many soldiers die shouting a phrase, "Tennô Heika banzai!" (Banzai for His Majesty the Emperor). I tried, for instance, to get to the bottom of this fact. But all that I could say in "The Battle in the Mountains" (which he published in 1944) was that in this unique country where ancestor worship had been the basic principle of government, the noble spirit of man to sacrifice himself for the sake of his community found its expression through the Tennô. No one was allowed at that time to go so far to say, as my study of human nature had led me to conclude, that dying cry of "Tennô Heika banzai!" was nothing but an instance of self-deception to alleviate the pains and loneliness of death.

In spite of their totally different roles in the campaign, both KOIWAI and OKADA agreed that the soldiers found some comfort in the face of death by believing their death would not be wasted as they sacrificed themselves for the nation, community and family. Yet, it is not possible for us to determine whether the soldiers felt peaceful in believing in eternity at the national shrine as KOIWAI wrote, or whether they were fooling themselves as OKADA asserted.

Contributed by Keiko Tamura (AJRP)

Bôeichô Bôei Kenkyûjo Senshishitsu (ed.), Senshi sôsho Minami Taiheiyô rikugun sakusen 2: Gadarukanaru-Buna sakusen (Official war history South Pacific Area army operations, vol.2: Guadalcanal-Buna campaigns), Tokyo: Asagumo Shinbunsha, 1969, p. 589.

OKADA Seizo, "Lost troops", AWM MSS0732, p. 37.

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