Japanese court rejects suit against novelist over WWII mass suicide claims
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By MARI YAMAGUCHI
Associated Press Writer
TOKYO (AP) — Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe won a major court battle Friday over a book he wrote more than 30 years ago detailing how Japanese soldiers persuaded and sometimes forced Okinawan civilians to commit suicide rather than give themselves up in the closing days of World War II.
The topic is a hugely sensitive issue on the southern Japan islands, where battles raged from late March through June 1945, leaving more than 200,000 civilians and soldiers dead and speeding the collapse of Japan’s defenses. The U.S. occupied Okinawa until 1972.
The ruling was also a high-profile setback for a vocal lobby among Japanese conservatives who have long sought to discredit or censure materials documenting Japanese excesses during the war, including government-supported prostitution, the rape of the Chinese city of Nanking and other incidents.
In his book, "Okinawa Notes," Oe chronicled accounts of group suicides on Okinawa, and alleged that Japanese soldiers persuaded and at times coerced civilians to kill themselves rather than face what they were told would be horrible atrocities if they gave themselves up to the invading U.S. troops.
Historians generally agree that hundreds of Okinawan civilians killed themselves under such circumstances, and there is a wealth of testimony from survivors and their relatives to back that up.
But Yutaka Umezawa, 91, and his brother Hidekazu Akamatsu, 75, argued that Oe wrongfully accused them — though not by name — of ordering suicides on the Okinawan islands of Zamami and Tokashiki in March, 1945.
The two denied the military ordered any suicides and demanded Oe and the publisher pay them $200,000 in compensation.
In a closely watched ruling Friday, their complaint — first filed in 2005 — was rejected.
The Osaka District Court held that "there are reasons to believe" the military was responsible for such atrocities on Okinawa and other nearby southern islands, said spokesman Masakatsu Yatabe.
The court noted that the sites of Okinawan group suicides overlapped with Japanese military posts, and said testimony by survivors that Japanese soldiers handed out grenades gave solid evidence of "the military’s deep involvement in the group suicides," Kyodo News agency reported.
"It is reasonable to say the book presented rational resources and evidence, though we cannot determine whether the two were the ones who issued the suicide orders as described in the book," it found.
Oe, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994, welcomed the decision.
"I felt strongly that the judge accurately read my ’Okinawa Notes’ to hand down the ruling," he said. "I was most strongly impressed by that."
The plaintiffs are expected to appeal.
A government decision two years ago to delete textbook references to the Japanese military role in the forced suicides brought the issue to a boil on Okinawa, culminating in a protest by more than 100,000 people in September last year.
Accused of trying to whitewash Japan’s wartime history, the Education Ministry soon afterward agreed to restore to textbooks accounts of the military’s involvement in the suicides.