Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Japan's kamikaze: suicide bombing, fear and loyalty

The road leading in to Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots is flanked by hundreds of stone lantern posts, each carved with a unique figure of a pilot. They are paid for by donations from around Japan, with an ultimate plan of 1,036 of them – one for every kamikaze pilot who flew out from the base at Chiran.

I went there with a Japanese friend in 2008. Outside the museum building stood two of the planes they had used for attacking or training kamikaze pilots. We walked past them down into a restored barracks, half-buried underground with cedar trees planted around to conceal the roof from Allied bombing raids. Inside the young men had slept on hard futons in the days before flying to their deaths.
The kamikaze missions were started in October 1944, when the Japanese forces were in retreat and the Americans had begun the reconquest of the Philippines. The Japanese First Air Fleet was ordered to attack the Americans, but with only 40 aircraft they knew there was scant chance of victory.

Three years earlier the Japanese had been stuck in a brutal imperial war in China. The Americans had slapped on embargos to block the flow of oil to Japan and, with few natural resources of their own, the Japanese were terrified that their war machine would simply grind to a halt. They eyed the oil and rubber of Indonesia and Malaysia, but knew that any drive south might bring the Americans into the conflict. The attack on Pearl Harbour was an ambitious plan to destroy the short-term ability of the US to project power into the Pacific Ocean, giving Japan enough time to grab South East Asian resources, defeat China, and prepare for eventual American engagement.

Instead the Americans rebounded rapidly and their strength of numbers and vast industrial output put the Japanese at a terrible disadvantage. By 1944 Japan's leaders were dismayed, and looking towards the supposed superiority of Japan's fighting spirit for a final hope: Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi ordered the pilots to deliberately crash into American ships.
Back in Japan, politicians christened the attacks kamikaze – divine wind. In the 13th century Japan was saved from two massive invasions of Mongols by timely typhoons that wrecked their ships at sea; Shinto clerics said that the gods, called kami, had sent this wind to save the country from foreign invasion. Among other things the storms had created the longstanding conviction that Japan could never be conquered, so the wartime politicians wanted to connect their desperate suicide attacks with that medieval confidence.

As 1944 drew on to 1945 the Japanese were becoming surrounded by death as the Americans firebombed their cities in attacks that killed tens of thousands at a go.
Death and destruction were everywhere, and some young men decided to choose a death which seemed noble and perhaps more effective than being burnt alive in Allied bomb raids. The pilots were promised that they would become Shinto gods in paradise after death.

Their bushido antipathy towards surrender (reinforced by an 1872 military code which made surrender punishable by death) meant Japanese troops had already taken hopeless charges against superior American forces in various battles – where they had been killed almost to the last man – or plunged planes into the path of American torpedoes to save their ships.

The Americans had no difficulty in portraying the new kamikaze bombers as fanatical lunatics, crazed berserkers with death wishes. In truth, many were sensitive and well-educated youngsters who wrestled with conflicting nationalist loyalties and their natural desire to live.
Near the barracks there was a stunningly beautiful temple, gleaming in the sunlight with an ornate statue of the Buddhist goddess Kannon placed in the centre. I saw a massive metal Buddhist bell nearby with a shining black marble sign reading:
We took a few photos and headed for the museum building. I was the only obvious foreigner among the crowds of browsing Japanese.

Inside the museum doors I stopped in astonishment before a huge painting of a kamikaze pilot in his plane, surrounded by beautiful angelic maidens in gauzy clothes. The implication was obvious: here was a pilot striking his target, dying and being taken by these sexy spirits into the next life. For a moment I cringed as I thought of the Islamist fanatics dreaming of their virgins in paradise after murdering hundreds of civilians with a suicide vest. For a Westerner the painting immediately suggested a crude symmetry between the disciplined self-destruction of the kamikaze pilots and that of the Islamists, both surrendering pleasure in this world in exchange for reward in the next.

In reality little connects the two. The kamikaze pilots were soldiers who died attacking foreign military targets, not civilians in mosques or markets. Many of the kamikaze pilots were conscripts, not volunteers, teenagers plucked early from college by the government and trained specifically for kamikaze flights. The government wanted them to appear to be volunteers, however, so young men were summoned to lectures on patriotism and then sometimes asked to step forward if they refused to become kamikaze pilots. They were left with little choice but to ‘volunteer’. Those who declined sometimes found themselves posted to distant islands where they would almost certainly die by American hands, or even found themselves signed up to kamikaze flights against their wills.

In training they were beaten savagely in an attempt to heighten discipline; instead it filled many with apathy and even contempt towards the people who had brought them to war.

Beyond the jarring painting, the Chiran museum was full of neatly-scripted letters pilots had sent to their families before flying to their deaths. Above the letters were photos of the pilots, and I saw the faces of my teenage students in them. They had the same frowning expressions as my sullen, irreverent boys and the same adolescent features. The youngest were only 17, barely more than children, and inexperienced pilots that the Allies would have little difficulty in shooting down from the sky.

The letters, diaries and notes left behind by the pilots show a wide range of reactions by these young men, from patriotic determination to cynicism and terror. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s Kamikaze Diaries quotes many examples:
I dreaded death so much. And yet, it is already decided for us.... Mother, I still want to be loved and spoiled by you.... I want to be held in your arms and sleep.
- Hayashi Ichizo, April 12 1945
Ohnuki-Tierney also quotes Kasuga Takeo, a draftee assigned to looking after meals, laundry etc of the pilots, describing the scene on the night before they had to die:
At the hall where their farewell parties were held, the young student officers drank cold sake the night before their flight. Some gulped the sake in one swallow; others kept gulping down [a large amount]. The whole place turned to mayhem. Some broke hanging light bulbs with their swords. Some lifted chairs to break the windows and tore white tablecloths. A mixture of military songs and curses filled the air. While some shouted in rage, others cried aloud. It was their last night of life.
They reacted, in other words, like humans, not brainwashed killing machines as depicted in American wartime propaganda.

We saw snapshots taken around the barracks of the boys relaxing. Like my students, sometimes they tried to look tough and macho, but when their guards were down they reverted to laughing and joking about like children. I saw one picture with the smooth-cheeked boys giggling over a puppy: Japan’s ferocious kamikaze warriors.
My friend was absorbed by the displays and tried to translate occasional letters to me. She pointed out a pilot who had broken his arm and so was exempted from flying. Instead he begged his friends to tie him into the plane so that he could fly to his death anyway. A flight instructor who did not have to fly kamikaze nonetheless volunteered, but he had a wife and two children. His wife wrote: ‘Alive I am only in your way, I will go before you and wait’, and drowned herself with their children so that her husband would have nothing keeping him attached to life and could contentedly die as a kamikaze pilot.

God. Not all went to death so willingly, though. This is from Elise K. Tipton’s Modern Japan:
Who do you think I am; a fool who has come to realise how dear this thing life is only three days before my death? A rainy day gives me another day of survival today – a bonanza. How delightful it is to scare my friend that I’d become a ghost tomorrow and will probably wake him in the midst of the night. My co-pilot is sound asleep beside me. Could this silly face of his be the face of a war-god tomorrow? How funny to listen to jazz music on the night before going out to kill the jazzy Americans! How funny, too, is the servant who just came up to me to ask how many beds he should make tomorrow!
One pilot was shot dead for returning to base nine times after claiming he could not find the enemy. It was clear their ‘volunteering’ had become mandatory. Towards the end of the war the government announced that all pilots would be kamikaze pilots, and planes were given only enough fuel to make a one-way trip out to battle. They were more effective on individual attacks against American ships than conventional attacks, but the Americans quickly learned how to neutralise the threat and most planes were shot down before they ever reached their targets. By the end of the war the Imperial Japanese Navy had lost 2,525 kamikaze pilots while the Imperial Japanese Army had lost 1,387. It was the cream of Japan’s youth.

After a while we left the museum and visited another small museum, formerly a restaurant in Chiran town where the young pilots had often eaten at. The owner during the war was a middle aged woman named Tome Torihama, who the pilots referred to as okasan – mother. She grew close to many of the boys, weeping on their deaths and secretly bypassing the military censors to send messages to their families or lovers at home. One pilot, a 20-year-old called Saburo Miyakawa, promised to return to her restaurant after his death as a firefly. Indeed a firefly did enter the restaurant the next night and Torihama exclaimed to the guests that he had returned. My Japanese friend pointed the exact spot where the firefly had landed on a wooden beam to me.
After the war, Chiran was all but forgotten by a nation trying to recreate itself. The kamikaze pilots were written off as failed fanatics. Torihama refused to let the memory die, however, and campaigned to put up some kind of memorial. One over-reaction followed another and now Chiran attracts Japan’s far-right nationalists, blaring nationalist messages from loudspeakers on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender.


I WASN’T sure what to make of it all. Too much is made today about the bravery of certain groups, which is meaningless since bravery is morally neutral. The firemen who ran into the World Trade Centre and died saving lives were brave, but so presumably were the hijackers who died destroying them.

Sure the kamikaze pilots were brave men. I pitied them, really, many were good, honest and idealistic boys forced by a brutal system to throw their lives away, for nothing. Had Japan won, however, had they forced the Americans into a final bloody stalemate and ceasefire, the pilots would have become heroes to be celebrated in Japan and around the world as evidence that national spirit can overcome any technological or economic disadvantage. So their deaths are only considered wasteful in the context of Japan losing the war.

For the government to have forced these men into ‘volunteering’ was terrible, though little different in result from the forced conscription of troops in other countries, which sent millions of soldiers to probable death. If I thought their lives were wasted, it was no more than the lives of millions of others who have been forced to build empires.

Months later my friend sent me a DVD called Tokko, a documentary sold in the US as Wings of Defeat, made by a Japanese-American woman who discovered to her astonishment that her late uncle had been trained as a kamikaze pilot. Risa Morimoto decided to go to Japan to interview a few other remaining survivors. It is a calm, straight-forward film, with frank interviews that reveal the very human panic, disillusionment and sadness that filled the men on being given their death sentences.
One chosen kamikaze pilot remarked that when he heard about the catastrophic nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki he felt relieved, knowing that this would hasten the end of the war and save him from doom. Another walked through the ruins of Hiroshima days after the explosion. ‘In that place, my warrior spirit simply withered,’ he said. ‘It was as though I was baptised in the deep conviction that I must never engage in warfare again.’

In the documentary they are all old men now, as polite and neat as any I passed on the streets of Japan every day. But in remembering their boyish brush with death they show some bitterness, both at the militant force that had swept them along into war and their subsequent abandonment in peace, when the kamikaze pilots were hushed up and ignored as embarrassing relics of Japan’s disastrous experiment with imperialism.
I love Japan. But that Emperor, that Emperor... because of that Emperor we pilots were tormented and all those men had to die.
Most seemed to realise as the months passed in 1945 that their country was doomed in that war. They were being rushed to the front as trainees with no fighting experience at all and faced certain death with horror, not fanatical joy.
I thought, "Oh, I’m screwed. I have to die too, I have so many things left to do. But if my death will benefit everyone, then I guess I had no choice."
In Tokko, an old American Navy veteran whose ship was destroyed by kamikaze remarked:
We had people who would have done that. We were that patriotic. If we had to protect the west coast against Japan or the east coast against Germany, we would have had suicide missions.
Months earlier I had read Bushido: The Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe, a Japanese Christian who sought to be a ‘bridge over the Pacific’ connecting the rising Japan to the United States. Nitobe's focus was on bushido, the medieval Japanese way of the warrior. Published in 1900, Bushido is written with a kind of excited Victorian energy, an almost boyish conviction in the beauty and nobility of the samurai code. The samurai despised selfish, foolish violence, he said, but the right, courageous use of war was always to be embraced:
A dastard or a braggart was he who brandished his weapon on undeserved occasions. A self-possessed man knows the right time to use it, and such times come but rarely.
In many of these things Nitobe describes what today could be considered mainstream conservative ideals. He eulogises honesty, politeness and honour:
Modesty and complaisance, actuated by respect for others’ feelings, are at the root of that courtesy and urbanity of manners which has been noticed by every foreign tourist as a marked Japanese trait. Politeness is a poor virtue, if it is actuated only by a fear of offending good taste, whereas it should be the outward manifestation of a sympathetic regard for the feelings of others. It also implies a due regard for the fitness of things, therefore due respect to social positions; for these latter express no plutocratic distinctions, but were originally distinctions for actual merit.
Politeness out of regard for the feelings of others, and a special respect due to certain social positions – all this could have sat just as well in the Ireland my parents grew up in. So far we were dealing with ideals that merged comfortably with those of the West. The 1908 book Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship by founder of the Boy Scout movement Robert Baden-Powell said that one aim of the Boy Scouts was to revive some of the rules of medieval knighthood because those rules did so much for the moral tone of the West, just as ‘Bushido of the ancient Samurai Knights has done, and is still doing for Japan.’

Baden-Powell, along with Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, had read Nitobe’s Bushido.

Nitobe was describing an ideal man: brave and gentle, courteous and skilful, a self-controlled warrior with no fear of death. I was attracted to a lot of what he was saying, but his veneration for the soldier – and especially the value with which they held loyalty – disturbed me. He compared the rose of England - that slowly rots on its stalk - with Japan's cherry blossom that was ‘ever ready to depart life at the call of nature’, symbols of Japan's supposed fearlessness in the face of death.

At times it seemed to reek of the excited nationalism and militarism that would be discredited in the trenches of Europe in World War I and the Nazi extermination camps of World War II. He never meant this, no doubt, but I wondered if his conviction in the role of the obedient warrior was indicative of the fanaticism that would send millions of Japanese to die, kill and enslave in World War II.

A century later, watching elderly Japanese men reminisce bitterly about the fanatical nationalist warrior spirit that nearly sent them to certain death, I found Nitobe's stuff about the Japanese spirit and the cherry blossom being ready to die unconvincing. When individuals are called up to die for the cause, even when they step forward and prepare to take their places among the dead, they are still filled with fear, bitterness and regret.


  1. Hi Shane,
    I came across your blog while looking for graphics on gini coefficients and also read this post. I lived in Japan for three years and I appreciate the frank manner in which you have written about your experience in Chiran. I have also watched Wings of Defeat and thought it was excellent for portraying that essential human nature.

  2. Thanks very much Kevin, glad you enjoyed it. Yes, kamikaze was a tragic phenomenon. Interesting bit of history though!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.