Descent into Hell
Civilian Memories of the Battle of Okinawa
2014, 514 pages
ISBN 978-1-937385-26-2 Paper $35.00
ISBN 978-1-937385-27-9 Cloth $75.00
“What we learn from this profoundly disturbing and enlightening book is that tens of thousands of misled Okinawans died for nothing.”— “What we learn from this profoundly disturbing and enlightening book is that tens of thousands of misled Okinawans died for nothing.”
—The New York Review of Books
Concerned about the need to record and explain the experiences of Okinawans caught up in the Battle of Okinawa, in 1983 the local Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper carried out several hundred interviews with survivors. With explanatory comment added, this was published first in serial form, then later as a book. More often than not talking in detail about their experiences and visiting the caves and shelters where they spent weeks on end as the U.S. bombardment destroyed everything above ground was a cathartic experience for those who came forward to tell their stories.
The Battle of Okinawa affected every resident in some way. Ten of thousands of Okinawans were killed in the relentless bombardment by U.S. forces, ten of thousands more local recruits died in Home Guard units, thousands died of starvation and malaria in places away from the fighting, hundreds of young students died in the Blood and Iron Student Corps or as nurse's aides tending to wounded soldiers in hospital caves, and hundreds of evacuees lost their lives in ships sunk by American submarines or aircraft. There were even people who took their own lives, or the lives of loved ones, to avoid what they had been told by the Japanese Army would be a far worse fate at the hands of their American captors. Descent into Hell is the story of this apocalyptic struggle as told by those Okinawans who survived.
Mark Ealey is a freelance translator specializing in Japanese history and foreign affairs. His latest translation is Typhoon of Steel: An Okinawan Schoolboy's Quest for Martyrdom in the Battle of Okinawa, by Akira Yoshimura (2009).
Alastair McLauchlin is a leading expert on minority issues and discrimination in Japan. His latest translation is Where Are the Sunflowers? A Media Celebity's Depiction of Her Tragic Encounters with Anti- Korean and Anti-Buraku Prejudice in Japan, by Kurihara Miwako (2012).
“Two big ideas jump out of this big book. It is unusual to read extensive personal accounts of civilians who suffered in large numbers on the enemy side during World War Two. And it appears that many Japanese civilians, together with their emperor, were unwilling to surrender.
“Okinawa, where the war lasted from the early spring of 1945 to the end of the war, was the only part of Japan where US forces fought on the ground. The leading American military journalist Hanson Baldwin wrote in ‘The New York Times.’ Never before had there been, probably never again will there be, such a vicious sprawling struggle." [xviii]
“I was thirteen at the time and recall my feelings of pride that American soldiers were yet again beating the fiendish, barely human, Japanese. This was bolstered by the press and by super-patriotic films like “Wake Island,” in which Americans lost but only temporarily. Later, after the atom bombs were dropped, a new belief took hold among liberal and Leftist Americans: that the bombs were dropped for a variety of reasons- testing and intimidating the Russians were just two – but, above all, because the Japanese would never surrender until pulverized. We believed these reasons were self-serving and false. Because of this book I am thinking again.
“In the early Eighties, the Okinawan newspaper “Ryukyu Shimpo” began interviewing the elderly survivors of one of the bloodiest battles of WW2. Out of a population of 450,000, one third, or 140,000 were killed. Many of those killed were young teenagers, totally untrained but keen to scout, carry ammunition, and to nurse. The testimonies of the surviving young people and their parents are detailed, unrancorous, and poignant. Entire families were wiped out, either by American shelling and bombing, by suicide rather than surrender, or murdered by Japanese soldiers who feared they might surrender or were spies.
“In this English edition—the translation reads easily—bolstered by recent analysis, we read that from the late 19th century Japanese education became highly nationalistic and militarized. On Okinawa, a part of Japan, students were commanded to show total devotion to the emperor and therefore to the nation, and during the war obeyed military orders as through they were given by the emperor himself. ‘Any form of coercive message
from the Imperial Japanese Army carried a weight far stronger than can be imagined in modern times.’  This devotion took the form of determination to die rather than surrender, a determination heightened by what the soldiers told Okinawans, especially children: that the Americans would commit terrible depredations on anyone who fell into their hands. (The book suggests that Japanese soldiers were re-telling actual atrocities they had committed in China.) This explains why many civilians killed themselves after killing helpless but acquiescent members of their families. Such tale-telling by the military to encourage suicide was embarassing enough years later for it to be edited substantially from history textbooks.
“Throughout the terrific shelling and bombing of the island, the Americans called loudly on the Japanese to surrender; it was apparent from the outset that the US forces were overwhelmingly superior; survivors recall that enemy pilots’ faces could be seen.
“The book makes plain why the garrison on Okinawa, and many civilians, fought so bitterly and—although they didn’t know it—for a self-serving cause. In early 1945, the emperor rejected the prime minister’s recommendation that the war be brought to an end. Hirohito believed that one last military success ‘would force the United States and its allies to offer peace terms that would allow Japan to maintain its national polity, which of course hinged on the status and institution of the emperor.’ 
“Had the prime minister’s advice been followed, ‘there may never have been a battle for Okinawa, or atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki.’ [21i9] Indeed. General Douglas MacArthur urged that the emperor’s status be preserved, and there is a memorable photograph of the two recent adversaries standing side by side in Tokyo not long after the war ended. Hirohito’s descendants have remained on the throne to this day. What we learn from this profoundly disturbing and enlightening book is that tens of thousands of misled Okinawans died for nothing.”
—The New York Review of Books