When American soldiers invaded the critical Japanese stronghold of Saipan Island during the Second World War, 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 several hundred or over 1,000 people took their own lives. 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 the 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, and to aid this Japanese propaganda painted a terrifying and exaggerated picture of how American troops mistreated 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 don’t end on the battlefield. Each year visitors from Japan and elsewhere visit the shrine bringing gifts, flowers, and prayers to remember those lost at the cliff.
Update: A previous version of this entry incorrectly stated 8,000 civilians and soldiers committed suicide at Banzai Cliff and contained other errors of fact. We regret the error.