During the Second World War, when American soldiers invaded Japan’s critical stronghold on Saipan Island, the death toll continued to rise even after the fighting had ceased.
The brutal Battle of Saipan was a devastating blow to the Japanese front. Americans troops suffered thousands of casualties, while all but 942 of some 30,000 Japanese soldiers were killed. Adding to the tragedy, after it was clear the battle was lost a devastating number of Japanese civilian men, women, and children committed suicide by leaping off of a 600-foot cliff into the sea in order to avoid capture.
The total number of suicides is unknown, though most estimate at least several hundred, possibly more than 1,000 people took their own lives on that day. This collective suicide earned the cliff its new name, Banzai Cliff, as jumpers shouted “banzai” while they plummeted to their deaths, wishing the emperor 10,000 years of life. American soldiers with bullhorns tried to convince the civilians not to jump, and made rescue attempts at the bottom of the cliff.
By many Japanese people, the suicides were praised by as an act of bravery. Throughout the war, civilians and soldiers were encouraged by the Japanese army and emperor to take their own lives rather than submit to the “dishonor” of capture. Japanese propaganda painted a terrifying picture of how American troops treated their prisoners of war.
The peak at Saipan Island is now dotted with memorials to the bloody battle and its aftermath. The Japanese airstrip still stands, and a peace memorial nearby features Japanese Ha Go tanks. With its many obelisks and Buddha sculptures, Banzai Cliff serves as a grave reminder that the casualties of war are not limited to the battlefield. Each year visitors from Japan and elsewhere visit the shrine bringing gifts, flowers, and prayers to remember those lost at the cliff.