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Nobel Prize-winning author wins book sales court case

Date Posted: 2011-04-29

Japan's Supreme Court has backed Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburo Oe in a suit that sought to halt sales of his book on World War II Okinawa.

The country's top court rejected an appeal by plaintiffs, who requested Oe and publisher Iwanami Shoten suspend sales of the book, "Okinawa Notes," and pay damages. The plaintiffs, including former Japanese Imperial Army Maj. Yutaka Umezawa, claimed that their names have been tarnished as the book falsely claims that people in Okinawa were ordered by the Japanese army to commit group suicide. The First Petty Bench appeals court, presided over by Yu Shiraki, ruled in support of an Osaka High Court ruling that recognized the army's deep involvement in the group suicides in the closing days of the war.

Oe published his book, Okinawa Notes, in 1970, a book of essays that the Japanese military forced civilians to kill themselves and others en masse during the Battle of Okinawa. Studies estimate that about 600 to 700 residents killed themselves, and others, by detonating grenades distributed by the military or clubbing each other with spades and sticks around March 25 to 28 during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.
In "Okinawa Notes," Oe, quoting a third-party publication on the battle, states that the tragedy stemmed from military orders urging civilians to commit mass murder-suicide so as not to hamper Japanese troops fighting U.S. forces and also to ensure troops had enough food.
The top court's five-justice First Petty Bench did not touch on whether the military issued an order for civilians to commit mass suicide, unlike lower courts that found the military was involved and thus adjudged Oe's descriptions as not defamatory. Justice Yu Shiraki, who presided over the trial, said the plaintiffs discussed only factual errors and violations of the law that do not satisfy the requirements for an appeal to the Supreme Court, such as a violation of the Constitution.

The suit was filed with Osaka District Court in 2005. Umezawa, now 94, was then head of the garrison on the Okinawa island of Zamami. The Osaka court ruled in favor of the 1994 Nobel laureate in Literature in 2008, saying the case did not constitute defamation because there were enough reasons, including the opinions of historians, to believe that Okinawa group suicides were ordered by the army at the time. The ruling also said the army was "deeply involved" in the suicides.

The Osaka High Court came to a similar conclusion in 2008, rejecting an appeal by the plaintiffs against the first verdict. The litigation affected the education ministry's annual school textbook screening. After the suit began, the education ministry requested high school textbook publishers delete descriptions that said the army forced Okinawans to commit suicide.

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