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A banzai charge is the term used by the Allied forces to refer to Japanese human wave attacks mounted by infantry units. This term came from the Japanese cry "Tenno Heika Banzai" (天皇陛下万歳?, "Long live the Emperor"), shortened to banzai, specifically referring to a tactic used by Japanese soldiers during the Pacific War.
The banzai charge is considered to be one method of gyokusai (玉砕?, "shattered jewel"; honorable suicide), a suicide attack, or suicide before being captured by the enemy such as seppuku. The origin of the term is a classical Chinese phrase in the 7th-century Book of Northern Qi, which states "丈夫玉碎恥甎全", "A true man would [rather] be the shattered jewel, ashamed to be the intact tile." In Japan, since the Sengoku period, samurai followed the code called bushido, defining behaviors loyal and honorable. Among the rules there existed a code of honor that was later used by Japanese military governments.
With the revolutionary change in the Meiji Restoration and frequent wars against China and Russia, the militarist government of Japan adopted the concepts of Bushido to condition the country's population to be ideologically obedient to the emperor. Impressed with how samurai were trained to commit suicide when a great humiliation was about to befall them, the government educated troops that it was a greater humiliation to surrender to the enemy than to die. The suicide of Saigo Takamori, the leader of old samurai during the Meiji Restoration, also inspired the nation to idealize and romanticize death in battle and to consider suicide an honorable final action.
During the Siege of Port Arthur human wave attacks were conducted on Russian artillery and machine guns by the Japanese which ended up becoming suicidal. Since the Japanese suffered massive casualties in the attacks, one description of the aftermath was that "[a] thick, unbroken mass of corpses covered the cold earth like a coverlet.
In the 1930s, the Japanese found this type of attack proved to be effective in China and it became accepted military tactics in the Japanese army where numerically weaker Japanese forces using their superior training in bayonets were able to defeat larger Chinese forces.
In World War II
During the war period, the Japanese militarist government began disseminating propaganda that romanticized suicide attack, using one of the virtues of Bushido as the basis for the campaign. The Japanese government presented war as purifying, with death defined as a duty. By the end of 1944, the government announced the last protocol, unofficially named ichioku gyokusai (一億玉砕?, literally "100 million shattered jewels"), for the purpose of resisting opposition forces until August, 1945.
During the U.S. raid on Makin Island, on August 17, 1942, the U.S. Marine Raiders attacking the island initially spotted and then killed Japanese machine gunners. The Japanese defenders then launched a banzai charge with rifles and swords but were stopped by superior American firepower. The pattern was repeated in additional attacks, but with similar results.
During the Battle of Guadalcanal, on August 21, 1942, Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki led 800 soldiers to launch a direct attack against the American line guarding Henderson Field in the Battle of the Tenaru. After small-scale combat engagement in the jungle, Ichiki's army launched its banzai charge on the enemy; however, with an organized American defense line already in place, most of the Japanese soldiers were killed and Ichiki subsequently committed suicide.
The largest Banzai attack of the war took place in the Battle of Saipan in 1944 where, at the cost of almost 4,300 dead Japanese soldiers, it almost destroyed the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 105th U.S. Infantry, who lost almost 650 men.
Banzai charges were always of dubious effectiveness. In the early stages of the Second World War, a sudden banzai charge might overwhelm small groups of enemy soldiers unprepared for such an attack, but by the end most were completely useless militarily, costing the lives of most of the participants with little damage inflicted in return. At best they were conducted by groups of surviving soldiers when the main battle was already lost, as a last resort or as an alternative to surrender. At worst they threw away valuable resources in men and arms in suicidal attacks which only hastened defeat. Some Japanese commanders, such as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, recognized the futility and waste of such attacks and expressly forbade their men from carrying them out.
- John H. Miller (2 April 2014). American Political and Cultural Perspectives on Japan: From Perry to Obama. Lexington Books. pp. 41–. ISBN 978-0-7391-8913-9.
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- Harold Goldberg, D-Day in the Pacific: The Battle of Saipan, Indiana University Press, 2007. pp. 167–194