Saipan: Japanese Civilians


Figure 1.--Cpl. Angus Robertson, a member of a Marine patrol on Saipan, on June 21, 1944 found this Japanese family hiding in a hillside cave. The mother, four children and a dog. The family took shelter from the fierce fighting and based on what they were told were terrified of the American soldiers. National Archives 127-GR-113-83266.

Unlike some of the islands which became World War II battlefields, Saipan was an inhabited island. There was a substantial Japanese civilian population on Saipan, including Japanese. There ws an indigenous population. In addition, Japan had colonized the island. There were Koreans, Okinawans and Japanese. No one knows the precise population at the time of the invasion. There were, however, about 23,658 people living on Saipan (4,145 were indigenous) in 1937 a few years before the war began. The population of Saipan in 1937 was over half of the entire population of the Northern Marianas which totaled 46,708 people. Japanese authorities told civilians that the Americans were barbaric and would bruttaly torture all prisioners, both military and civlian. The Japanese bushido code precluded soldiers from surrendering. Why the Japanese authorities did not want the civilians to surrender is unclear. They urged the civilians to kill their children and commit suiside. Many did. Hundreds of Japanes families committed suiside. Many civilians jumped to their deaths from the high cliffs along the island's most northern point, the last area of Japanese resistance. The suisides included mothers with babies in their arms. Americans and Saipanese used loudspeakers to try to disuade the Japanese civilians to surender. Most of the civilians on Saipan survived the invasion. An estimated 90 percent are believed to have survived. The occupation of Saipan was the first American encounter with Japanese civilians. The civilians encountered by the Americans were interned in camps. Here the military authorities could keep them away fromthe fighting as well as provide food and shelter as well as military care. fter the figting was over, authorities opened schools for the children. The camps held 13,954 Japanese, 1,411 Koreans, 2,966 Chamorros and 1,025 Carolinians at the end of the War (September 1945). Conditions in the camps were primitive, but food was adequate. as soon as the fighting ended, families were allowed to leave Camp Susupe during the day to raise vegetables. The camp had an improvised Buddhist temple which the Japanese also used for Shinto religious ceremonies. The Japanese on Saipan had a high birth rate. There were many Japanese orphans in the camps. These were children whose parents had committed suiside. Some had also killed their children. Others could not bring themselves to doing this.

Civilians

Unlike some of the islands which became World War II battlefields, Saipan was an inhabited island. The American campaign has begun in th South Pacific--Guadacanal in the Sollomons. The Sollomons and New Guinea were lightlh populated islands with very few Japanese civilians. Tarawa and Kwajalene in the Central Pacific were bsasically uninhabited coral atols. Saipan was different. There were substantial numbers of civilians on Saipan and this included Japasnese civilians. Japanese civilian population on Saipan, including Japanese. There ws an indigenous population. In addition, Japan had colonized the island. There were Koreans, Okinawans and Japanese. No one knows the precise population at the time of the invasion. There were, however, about 23,658 people living on Saipan (4,145 were indigenous) in 1937 a few years before the war began. The population of Saipan in 1937 was over half of the entire population of the Northern Marianas which totaled 46,708 people. They included Japanese, Koreans, Chamoros, and Carolinians. We think most of the chikldren were Jaanese and Chamoros, but there were apparently some Korean children as well. We have seen estimates of 25,000-30,000 civilians on Saipan at the time of the invasion.

Japanese Instructions to Civilians

Japanese authorities told civilians that the Americans were barbaric and would bruttaly torture all prisioners, both military and civlian. There was no bassis for this. It is uncleae if the soldiers wjo gave these instructions actually believed them. They may have been simply giving the instructions they were told to issue. And if so, just who gave such orders. The Japanese bushido code precluded soldiers from surrendering. Bushido did not preclude civilians fron surrendeing. Why the Japanese authorities did not want the civilians to surrender is unclear. They urged the civilians to kill their children and commit suiside. These instructions did not change as the battle developed. Finally the Japanese had nowhere to retreat (July 7). Gen. Saito made plans for a final suicidal banzai charge. It would be largest of the Pacific War. About the surviving civilians, Saito insisted, "There is no longer any distinction between civilians and troops. It would be better for them to join in the attack with bamboo spears than be captured." Such hearless views were not just a military assessment. Emperor Hirihito himself seems to have given considerable thought to the civilians on Saipan. He was disturbed with the possibility that the Japanese civilians would 'defect' meaning surrendr to the Americans. disturbing. Most of the Japanese civilian settled on Saipan lower caste. The Emperor seems to have believed tht they would be generously treated by the Americans--in sharp contrast to what they were being told. The Emperor was concerned that such defections would give the mericns a propaganda weapon to subvert the 'fighting spirit' of the Japanese poeople. The Emperor sent an imperial meant to encourage the civilians on Saipan to commit suicide so they would not be tempted to surrender. [Bergamini, pp. 1012–14.] He authorized the Saipan commander to promise civilians an equal 'spiritual status' in the afterlife with those of soldiers perishing in combat. General Hideki Tōjō intercepted the order (June 30). He delayed it, but it went sent the next day.

American Frontline Combat Soldiers

The Japanese knew from an early point that the Americans were coming. They had time to heavily garison and supply the troops and dig into the mountaneous teraine. As a result, despite the relatively small size of the island , it took weeks to slowly move from cave to cave and root out the well etenched and equipped Jaoanese defenders. This proved an extended, terrifying experience for the Japanese civilians. It also meant in additioin to being caught in the cross fire between the advancing Americans and defending Japanese, food and water supplies were quickly exhausted. And from an early point the American combat troops came into contact with the Japanese civilians who as the campaihn progressed wer in an invreasinly desperate state. It was the children who first realized that even hardened American combat soldiers ere not only not a threat, but willing to share theur water and rations with them. This happened at the frint line as the Amerian GIs were moved by the desprate state of the civilians, espcially the children. And this relationship only strenghened as the civilians were moved to rear area internment camps where water, food, shelter, and medical care were provided.

Americans Getting Civilians to Safety

Unbelievely, it was not the Japanese soldiers who wanted to save the civilians or even the Emperor, it was the frintline American marine and soldier. Not all the Japanese were that enamored with the idea of killijg themselves and their children. We have seen various estimates on the number of the Japanese civians who committed suiside. We have seen various numbers. There seems to have been some 25,000 civilians on Saipan mostly Japanese. The U.S. set up a civilian encampment with electricity and water (June 23). The civilians had to be escorted to the facility. Although a small island there was no way to be sure that they would find the camp. And some civilians were so afraid of the americans, they did not know what to expect and might run away and hide if not escorted. Others needed help to get to the camp, especially the childten. The Americans decided to leave the lights at the camp on overnight hoping that it would attract civilians with availability of clean water and warm meals. [Bergamini, pp. 1012–14.] We have seen estimtes that some 22,000 civilian perished. That would be a death toll of nearly 90 percent. Several sources say that they mostly committed suiside, but this is difficult to verify. Other causes was the massive American fire power brought to bear on the island and Japanese soldiers actully killing civilins too afraid to kill themselves. Other sources report that that over 13,000 Japanese civilians would up in the unternment camp. That would mean that about half survived. Once in the internment camp, their chances of living were virtually assured.

Civilan Suicides

It was not just the Japanese soldiers ho committed suiside. Many civilians followed intructions from the military and commited suiside. Hundreds of Japanese families committed suiside. The Americans wre used to the Japanese soldiers doing this, but not civiliansx, esodcially women and children. As the Americans moved into the last areas held by the Japanese, the Japanese civilan began commiting suiside, incluing mothers with small children. Many civilians jumped to their deaths from the high cliffs along the island's most northern point, the last area of Japanese resistance. The suisides included mothers with babies in their arms. Fathers threw their children to their death and then followed them. Motgers jumped with babied and todlers in hand. Americans and Saipanese used loudspeakers to try to disuade the Japanese civilians to surender.

American Reaction

The American soldiers who witnessed this were agast. They had never seen anything like it. It was one thing for Japanese soldiers to fight to the death. By this point in the War, the American soldiers expected this. But these were civilians. Many wondered if the enire Japanese nation was prepared to commit suicide. Not only were the Marines and Spldiers agast, but they did what they could to prevent the civilians from committing suiside. And they attempted to comfort the civiklians even while the fighting was still going on. The Pacific War is correctly portrayed as a bitterly fought war. The Japanese fromm when they first encountered American troops, treated them barbarically. And the American Marines when they first met the Japanese on Guadacal repaid savegry with savergy. There was, however, a major difference. The Japanese were not only barbaric with soldiers they captured, but also civilians. Their conduct in China belies belief. And the many accounts of Western civilian internees testify to the cruelty of the Japanese military. On Saiopan, American marines and soldiers behaved very differently toward the civilans. While they fought the Japanese soldiers to the death. The emption of hatrred was not transferred to the Japanese civiklians they encountered.

Survivors

Most of the civilians on Saipan survived the invasion. An estimated 90 percent are believed to have survived. The occupation of Saipan was the first American encounter with Japanese civilians. The civilians encountered by the Americans were interned in camps. Here the military authorities could keep them away from the fighting as well as provide food and shelter as well as military care. After the figting was over, authorities opened schools for the children. The camps held 13,954 Japanese, 1,411 Koreans, 2,966 Chamorros and 1,025 Carolinians at the end of the War (September 1945). Conditions in the camps were primitive, but food was adequate. as soon as the fighting ended, families were allowed to leave released from Camp Susupe during the day to raise vegetables. The camp had an improvised Buddhist temple which the Japanese also used for Shinto religious ceremonies. The Japanese on Saipan had a high birth rate. There were many Japanese orphans in the camps. These were children whose parents had committed suiside. Some had also killed their children. Others could not bring themselves to doing this.

Sources

Bergamini, David. Japan's Imperial Conspiracy (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1971)..







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Created: December 30, 2002
Last updated: 8:14 AM 3/3/2016