Japanese Soldiers of Iwo Jima
Iwo Jima was a brutal battle that saw the death of 6,800 American soldiers and 19,000 Japanese soldiers. Iwo Jima was the first island that was officially part of Japan and meant a great deal to the Japanese. For the Americans, Iwo Jima was closer to homeland Japan for B-29 bombers to land on. The fighting began on February 19, 1945 and ended on April 4, 36 days of intense fighting. The Marines requested 10 days of initial naval bombardment but only received three. As seen in the movie Letters from Iwo Jima, Lt. Gen. Tadamishi Kuribayashi had his troops concentrate their defensive efforts on Mt. Suribachi and hills in the center of the island by building an expanse network of interconnecting caves to hold troops and weaponry. Four days after the initiation of the battle, Mt. Suribachi was defeated and the troops raised the American flag atop, becoming a symbol for our nation (history from The Navy Department Library). Not many stories are told of the Japanese soldiers that also lost their lives on Iwo Jima. The movie Letters from Iwo Jima is the story of the Japanese troops as the struggle to defend the Japanese island of Iwo Jima.
The story focuses on two characters, the General Kuribayashi (played by Ken Watanabe) and a private Saigo (played by Kazunari Ninomiya). Saigo is a lowly soldier who was drafted into the war, as was most at this late point in the war. He and his fellow soldiers are trying to survive and prepare for the coming war with no supplies, because the American submarines had sunk most of the Japanese maritime fleet (Roy, 2009), and no reinforcements. The Japanese fleet had been sunk in the Marianas battle and most of the air force had been pulled back to protect the homeland. Saigo talks with a buddy about how they shouldn’t fight the Americans and just go home, but his talk gets him punished, being termed unpatriotic because it does not fit with the Japanese code of Bushido, to honor the Emperor and fight to the death (Pyle, 1996). Later, his buddy dies of dysentery because there is no good water on the island and no medical supplies were coming in because there was no fleet to bring the supplies.
General Kuribayashi comes to the island and sees that the soldiers are building trenches on the beach and have not coordinated their attacks with the army. Kuribayashi had been to American and knew of the superior industry that could build warships at a ratio of 16:1 compared to Japan (Roy, 2009). With this superior might, the Americans would destroy the beaches and the soldiers there if they stayed. He had the soldiers pull back and spend their efforts building caves and pillboxes to confront to Americans.
Later in the movie, a new character arrives, Shimizu (played by Ryo Kase). The he joins Saigo’s company and the other guys ask him where he is from and where he was trained. He says that he was trained at Koho Kimmu Yoin Yoseijo in Tokyo, which is where the Kempeitai were trained. The Kempeitai were the military police, charged to make sure everyone was fighting and loyal to the Emperor (Roy, 2009). Saigo and his buddy suspect that he is there to arrest anyone caught with unpatriotic talk. Later, it turns out he was sent to Iwo Jima because he couldn’t kill a dog that his commander decreed was a disturbance to military communications.
When the American troops arrive, they quickly take Suribachi. Kuribayashi tells the commander to take his troops and retreat to the northern caves. The commander believes that this is not honorable because they are going to die defending Suribachi. The commander tells his troops to commit honorable suicide (hara-kiri) and he will meet them all at Yasukuni shrine. According to the code of bushido, you do surrender because that is dishonorable (Roy, 2009). Yasukuni shrine is the shrine that the war dead go to and are made into kami (Nelson). Saigo and Shimizu don’t kill themselves because Saigo convinces Shimizu that joining the other troops at the caves and continuing to fight would better serve the Emperor. When they get to the northern caves, the commander there tries to kill them, believing that the surrender and are dishonorable, but Kuribayashi stops him because he believes that they are more useful alive.
As the war is coming to a close, Saigo and Shimizu decide that they want to surrrended to the Americans. They believe that the propaganda that has been fed to them is a lie and that the Americans are barbarians. Shimizu leaves first and gives up to a squad of Americans. Another Japanese soldier is there and tells Shimizu that they will get food from the Americans. The Americans decide that they don’t want to guard the Japanese and shoot them. Not many Japanese prisoners were taken in the war (Roy, 2009). When the Japanese did surrender, it was usually a trap and the Americans would stop taking prisoners for that reason and also for the reason that there was deep racism and hatred of the Japanese (Roy, 2009).
Iwo Jima was a very bloody war for both sides, but especially for the Japanese. They had a code of dying in the service of the Emperor and they would not surrender or give up fighting. Only 14% of the Japanese troops lived through the battle. These soldiers had families and lives, too. Both sides could not get over their hatred and racism against each other, leading to the bloody battles and atrocities that happened during the war. The movie Letters from Iwo Jima gives a look at a side that is rarely seen and shows that there was good in the Japanese, too. They were trying to fight for what they believed was right, just like the American soldiers.
Nelson, John. Yasukuni excerpt.
Pyle, Kenneth B., 1996. The Making of Modern Japan Second Edition. D.C. Heath and Company. Lexington, MA.
Roy, Denny, 2009. The Pacific War and its Political Legacies. Praeger Publishers. Westport, CT.
The Navy Department Library, 2012. Battle for Iwo Jima, 1945. United States Navy.
Yamashita, Iris and Haggis, Paul, 2006. Letters from Iwo Jima. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Produced by Warner Brothers Studio.