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Kamikaze – Who they were, why they died

“Every time one country gets something, another soon has it. One country gets radar, but soon all have it. One gets a new type of engine or plane, then another gets it. But the Japs have got the kamikaze boys, and nobody else is going to get that, because nobody else is built that way.”
John Thach

Near the end of 1944, almost 10 months before the end of the 2nd World War, the Japanese had already realized that their military effort would lead them to defeat. Their weapons and armaments were short, the stock of soldiers was dramatically decreasing and morality was low. Their precious bombs, other than being too few, were missing their targets and their pilots could not contest the Americans. So, in a desperate last effort to revive the army, the Kamikaze Special Attack Unit was formed. The aim was to obstruct enemy planes from taking off from aircraft carriers. The conversion of pilots themselves into bombs would surely mean the decrease of the failed bomb attacks.

The plan was “one pilot – one aircraft carrier”. And if they indeed managed with a singular attack, and the minimal loss of one single soldier, to sink an entire enemy ship, they would achieve a formidable strike against the adversary. This line of thought proved rather too optimistic, but until the end of the war the kamikaze had invoked abhorrence and terror on the American soldiers and caused serious damage and many deaths.

Getting ready for the last flight (photo)
Getting ready for the last flight (photo)

The most surprising aspect of the phenomenon is perhaps how quickly the formation of such a unit was accepted, organized and materialized, and how easy it was to find willing Japanese to take on a mission from which they would surely not return. The foundations of such a mentality must have already been laid, and could probably be traced in the culture and the history of this idiosyncratic people.

In 1281, Kublai Khan attacked Japan with a Chinese-Mongolian fleet of one hundred thousand warriors. The Japanese were facing certain defeat, and the only thing that saved them was a storm which scattered the opposing fleet. This divine wind (kami = god, kaze = wind) was thought to have been sent by the sun goddess, Amaterasu, whose worship took on a special role in the world of the Shinto religion. Captain Okamura had surely this incident in mind –it was taught in every Japanese school- when he proposed the formation of the Special Attack Unit, later known as the Kamikaze Unit.

The resurgence of the samurai class had led to the development of Bushido (“the way of the warrior” or “the way of the samurai”), a warrior’s code of honor, which decrees suicide as an ultimate form of atonement and expression of decisiveness and loyalty to the samurai’s lord. With the passing from the feudal system to the nationalist dogma, which made its appearance in the 19th century, Shintoism and Japanese Buddhism (as we saw elsewhere) supported the complete submission of the will to the emperor and the needs of the state. As the Buddhists had been training the samurai for centuries, now they would train the kamikaze and dogmatize the soldiers and the civilians. The symbolic sword of Buddhism that was called to tear through the delusions of objectivity and the material needs, had been identified with the samurai’s sword and was now tearing through the throats of the lord’s or the state’s subjects and enemies.

The kamikaze that would hit the USS Essex – 25 November 1944 (photo)
The kamikaze that would hit the USS Essex – 25 November 1944 (photo)

Now, Zen taught the denial of the soldiers’ earthly life and suicide was presented as the ending of a life that had completed its course and served its purpose. The denial of the material world, the apathetic complacency for physical pain and the disdain for life were the appropriate tools for them to touch on the absolute Knowledge, Truth, Enlightenment and Nirvana. As the samurai had found usefulness in the teachings of the Buddhist thought control during confrontations with the enemy, so did the kamikaze turn to Buddhist monasteries before their final flight. Zen priests told the aspiring kamikaze that through their actions they would improve their karma for many lives to come and that they basically had nothing to lose, since life is non-real anyway and there is no difference between life and death. A Buddhist scholar deified them saying: “The source of the spirit of the Special Attack Forces [i.e., kamikaze] lies in the denial of the individual self and the rebirth of the soul, which takes upon itself the burden of history. From ancient times Zen has described this conversion of mind as the achievement of complete enlightenment”. Zen Master Suzuki said “Our soldiers regard their own lives as being as light as goose feathers while their devotion to duty is as heavy as Mount Taishan [in China]”. Suzuki is the one who made popular the idea of the “sword that gives life”, a symbolism that was used even for the rationalization of killing. As Nantembo says, there was “no bodhisattva practice superior to the compassionate taking of life”. And Soen: “…sometimes killing and war become necessary to defend the values and harmony of any innocent country, race or individual”. It seems like, for the Japanese, religion and militarism became indiscriminate.

A pilot dashes towards the already hit by other kamikaze USS Sangamon, but misses and hits the waters just moments after the photo was taken – 4 May 1945 (photo)
A pilot dashes towards the already hit by other kamikaze USS Sangamon, but misses and hits the waters just moments after the photo was taken – 4 May 1945 (photo)

This willingness for martyrdom is the fruit of 1,500 years of Shinto, of the total devotion to the glorious tradition of the ancestors, of the deeply rooted belief they are the keepers of the greatest –the only true- civilization and of the certainty that by dying for Japan they would be resurrected in an epic world inhabited by heroes, honored and exalted by the mortals they would leave behind.

The admiral Takijiro Onishi, considered to be the ‘father’ of the kamikaze plan, addressed the 201 Navy Flying Corps saying: “Japan is in mortal danger. Someone has to save her, but it won’t be the admirals and the generals or the politicians, and certainly not higher officials like me. It will be done by exquisite, strong, young men, like you. You should look at me, standing before you, as the embodiment of all the 100 million of your compatriots asking for your help…Having taken this holy duty, you have all become young gods that will not have earthly desires anymore, other than the absolute natural desire to know whether or not you succeeded in your mission. As all of you will pass into long, beautiful sleep, I’m sorry, but you will not be able to know with certainty and surely we, the living, will not be able to tell you”.[1]

While the western morality (and the western religions) present suicide as a detestable action, that only rarely can be forgiven, in Japan the opposite was taught. The Japanese were taught that they ought to not be taken prisoners and the soldiers, officers, even the civilians, were intentionally kept in the dark concerning international treaties about prisoners of war; therefore, if a battle was lost, the Japanese soldier had to commit suicide or be killed by the enemy. Americans and Soviets were depicted by the propaganda as monsters that would rape the women and kill the children along with the rest of the population. It wasn’t only the kamikaze pilots, but other soldiers as well that made suicide attacks, holding a live grenade running towards a tank, certain they would be killed. In July 1944, the Americans reached so close to Japan that they could attack the country with bomber aircrafts. In a battle, two Japanese pilots stated that they were out of bullets and that they would fall on the bombers with their planes; as they did. In the Battle of Saipan (July 1944), after the Japanese were defeated, a mass of unruly people, loyal to the emperor and terrorized by the reputations on the westerners, gathered at the edge of a cliff next to the ocean. From that spot, in a shocking demonstration of their determination, the mothers threw their children at sea, the men their wives, the sisters their brothers. After the act, almost one thousand corpses floated on the waves (you can see some video shots here).

Flames on the deck of USS Bunker Hill, after a double kamikaze strike within 30 seconds. 346 died – 11 May 1945 (photo)
Flames on the deck of USS Bunker Hill, after a double kamikaze strike within 30 seconds. 346 died – 11 May 1945 (photo)

An extreme view of the reach the emperor’s personality cult had, is provided by the director Akira Kurosawa in his book Something Like An Autobiography, where he describes what happened in 15 August 1945, the day the emperor declared through the radio his country’s surrender to the Allies. It was the first time his subjects would hear his voice. For months the news from the front were dismal and widespread, and Germany had already been defeated; the war was lost and the declaration of defeat certain. The Japanese only waited whether the emperor would instigate them to perform the Honorable Death of the Hundred Million. Kurosawa was walking to the studio to listen to the statement along with his colleagues: “On the way, the merchant street looked ready for the Honorable Death. Tension and panic in the atmosphere. There were also some shop owners who had drawn their Japanese swords and were sitting gazing at their naked blades”. The idea of a mass suicide among the Japanese is certainly abhorrent, but not at all improbable. “I might have also done the same”, writes the director.

The emperor, up to the end of the 2nd World War, was not merely a monarch; he was a living god in the form of a man. The Japanese considered him a direct descendant of the goddess Amaterasu, a “Golden Holy King Turning the Wheel (of dhamma)”. Turning the dhamma wheel symbolizes, in Buddhism, the rebirth of man, but also the wheel of a chariot that conquers the world, dispelling materialism’s illusions. The emperor was one of the 4 materializations of the ideal Buddhist monarch and a “completely enlightened” being. Thus, even before the kamikaze, hundreds of others (soldiers, sailors, pilots) killed themselves for their country’s flag, congruent to their religious dogmas. Their self-sacrifice was spontaneous, in a moment of despair, in contrast to the kamikaze, which many times would wait for months even for their much desired orders that were sure to come, following the example of the samurai, awaiting for their chance to become “young gods”.

But there is an important difference between the samurai and the kamikaze. The former chose how to end their lives, while the latter were ordered to self-sacrifice by Hirohito’s theocratic fascism (while all kamikaze were volunteers, many would later regret it, as we’ll see below). When the samurai faced a superior enemy and defeat looked unavoidable, their code of honor imposed on them a death by hara-kiri (seppuku[2]) or to fight to the death in order to be killed by the hands of the enemy (even during WW2, it has been reported, the first lesson for a soldier was how to kill himself – always better than the humiliation of falling prisoner to a foreigner). The mission of a kamikaze was an order coming from a superior and was accompanied by a glass of sake; an emperor’s treat. This difference did not go unnoticed by the pilots themselves, as is obvious in the last letters of Hirohito’s soldiers (see Appendix), where one can see that, while many couldn’t wait to sacrifice themselves for the emperor and their homeland, others described the imminent mission as something they could not avoid. Not all of them believed the state’s propaganda. Social pressure and herd psychology seems to have played a big part in them not denying their duty. Tsuneo Watanabe says of them: “They were sheep at a slaughterhouse. Everybody was looking down and tottering. Some were unable to stand up and were carried and pushed into the plane by maintenance soldiers”.

Sometimes the Americans could retrieve the body of the Japanese pilot from the debris and offered him a military funeral at sea.
Sometimes the Americans could retrieve the body of the Japanese pilot from the debris and offered him a military funeral at sea.

However, volunteers were coming in faster than the Navy could build the junk-planes that would send them on a single mission. Some, to secure their choice, signed their application in blood, wanting to show their zeal. Experienced pilots were rejected, as they were needed to train the next ones, on the one hand, and to accompany and direct the kamikaze, on the other.

Not all of the Special Attack Unit pilots were killed. Some did not manage to find an enemy ship in any of their attempts and returned frustrated; their anticipation foiled by the war’s termination. Others never managed to take off due to mechanical failure and survived to tell their tale. These tales, in combination with the last letters of the successful, give us a clear picture of the dominant atmosphere in the Unit. One of the survivors said: “I started to wonder whether, when I had volunteered, I had been in my right mind and whether, when the time actually came for us to depart, I would tremble, that my hands or my legs would shake”. Referring to the phrase “Tenno Heika Banzai”, meaning “Long Live His Majesty the Emperor”, he remembers “In Japan, when you die, you were supposed to say ‘Banzai’ to the emperor. But most of us actually wanted to say ‘Mother’ before we died”.

A hit kamikaze pilot, moments before he falls on USS Essex (see the video) – 25 November 1945 (photo)
A hit kamikaze pilot, moments before he falls on USS Essex (see the video) – 25 November 1945 (photo)

Admiral Onishi, the ‘father of the kamikaze’, after Japan’s surrender that marked the end for the war, committed suicide in the traditional way of the samurai (seppuku). In his suicide note he thanked the pilots for their heroic acts, expressed his apologies for his role in the, meaningless in the end, deaths of the pilots, and instructed the young Japanese to work for the rebuilding of the country and to live peacefully. His death lasted 15 hours.

From October 1944 till the end of the war, 3,860 kamikaze were killed (even 17 year olds), with only 19% of them having managed to strike their target. More than 30 American ships were sunk, almost 400 were damaged and 5,000 sailors were their victims.

[1] From M.G, Sheftall’s book Blossoms in the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze. The excerpt is back-translated from Greek to English.

[2] The Japanese did not use the term “hara-kiri”, which means “abdomen-cut”, as they deemed it too vulgar. Instead, they used the term “seppuku”, meaning suicide made by the orthodox rules; the ritual suicide.

Poster from the era (photo)
Poster from the era (photo)

Appendix - Pilots' last letters

Appendix - Pilots' last letters

“It is easy to talk about death in the abstract, as the ancient philosophers discussed. But it is real death I fear, and I don’t know if I can overcome the fear. Even for a short life, there are many memories. For someone who had a good life, it is very difficult to part with it. But I reached a point of no return. I must plunge into an enemy vessel. To be honest, I cannot say that the wish to die for the emperor is genuine, coming from my heart. However, it is decided for me that I die for the emperor.”

Ichizo Hayashi (a Christian kamikaze)

“I am pleased to have the honor of having been chosen as a member of a Special Attack Force that is on its way into battle, but I cannot help crying when I think of you, Mum. When I reflect on the hopes you had for my future … I feel so sad that I am going to die without doing anything to bring you joy.”

– Ichizo Hayashi

“I also have joined the Special Attack Forces as I had been hoping and will be able to fall with the cherry blossoms. I will not forget your kindness during my life. My final duty to you as my parent will be to make an attack hitting my target. I certainly will go to attack by ramming myself into an enemy ship…Please excuse me for going before you. Let’s meet again in the gardens of Yasukuni. Fragrant young cherry blossoms in abundance. Together we go to the skies of Okinawa to fall.”

Kaneyuki Fukuda, to his mother

“One month has passed. The happy dream has vanished, and tomorrow I make an attack on an enemy ship. I will cross the Sanzu River [Buddhist equivalent to the River Styx] to the next world along with some Americans…

Living for an eternal noble cause. Protecting always our country from the despicable enemy.”

Haruo Araki, to his wife

“These two souls reside in my heart…Sometimes my chest pounds with excitement when I think of the day I will fly into the sky…Yet, at other times, I envy those science majors who remain at home [exempt from the draft]…One of my souls looks to heaven, while the other is attracted to earth. I wish to enter the Navy as soon as possible so that I can devote myself to the task. I hope that the days when I am tormented by these stupid thoughts will pass quickly.”

Sasaki Hachiro

“Tomorrow, one who believes in democracy will leave this world. He may look lonely but his heart is filled with satisfaction. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany have been defeated. Authoritarianism is like building a house with broken stones.”

Ryoji Uehara

“In the sky so high above, death is never a focus of fear. Will in fact die when I hit the target? No, I cannot believe that I am going to die, and, there was even a time when I felt a sudden urge somehow to dive into a target. The fact of the matter is that I am never afraid of death, and, to the contrary, I even welcome it. The reason of this is my deep belief that, through death, I’ll be able to get together again with my beloved older brother, Tatsu.”

Ryoji Uehara, to his parents

“Dear Parents: Please congratulate me. I have been given a splendid opportunity to die. This is my last day. The destiny of our homeland hinges on the decisive battle in the seas to the south where I shall fall like a blossom from a radiant cherry tree… May our death be as sudden and clean as the shattering of crystal.”

Isao Masuo

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