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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 "Tennōheika 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." 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 Saigō 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. 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. The Japanese here did not face massed automatic weapons but rather the bolt action rifle of the Chinese, which were slow to cycle the action.
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"), implying the will of sacrificing the entire Japanese population of 100 million if necessary, 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 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 charge 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 Pacific War, a sudden banzai charge might overwhelm small groups of enemy soldiers unprepared for such an attack. However near the end of the war, a banzai charge inflicted little damage while suffering horrendous casualties against an organized defense with superior firepower, especially if the defenders had automatic weapons and semi-automatic rifles. 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; indeed the Americans were surprised that the Japanese did not employ Banzai charges at the Battle of Iwo Jima.
- 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.
- Robert B. Edgerton (1997). Warriors of the Rising Sun: A History of the Japanese Military. Norton. pp. 167–. ISBN 978-0-393-04085-2.
- Robert L. O'Connell; John H. Batchelor (2002). Soul of the Sword: An Illustrated History of Weaponry and Warfare from Prehistory to the Present. Simon and Schuster. pp. 243–. ISBN 978-0-684-84407-7.
- U.S. Marine Corps Andrew A. Bufalo (November 10, 2004). Hard Corps: Legends of the Marine Corps. S&B Publishing. ISBN 9780974579351. Retrieved 26 February 2013.
- Staff (2000–2012). "The Battle of Guadalcanal". History Learning Site. HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
- Harold Goldberg, D-Day in the Pacific: The Battle of Saipan, Indiana University Press, 2007. pp. 167–194
- Derrick Wright, The Battle for Iwo Jima, Sutton Publishing, 2006. Page 80.
- According to military historian Shigetoki Hosoki, "This writer was stunned to find the following comments in the 'Iwo Jima Report,' a collection of memoirs by Iwo Jima survivors. 'The men we saw weighed no more than thirty kilos and did not look human. Nonetheless, these emaciated soldiers who looked like they came from Mars faced the enemy with a force that could not be believed. I sensed a high morale.' Even under such circumstances, the underground shelters that the Japanese built proved advantageous for a while. Enemy mortar and bombing could not reach them ten meters under the ground. It was then that the Americans began to dig holes and poured yellow phosphorus gas into the ground. Their infantry was also burning its way through passages, slowly but surely, at the rate of ten meters per hour. A telegram has been preserved which says, 'This is like killing cockroaches.' American troops made daily advances to the north. On the evening of 16 March, they reported that they had completely occupied the island of Iwo Jima."Picture Letters from the Commander-in-Chief, page 237.