I am the scattered cherry blossom
that falls in the spring.
I am the snow that feathers
the top of your head
the tip of your nose.
I kept my daughter’s doll close
pinned to the steel of my cockpit
and called your name
I HAVE TO wonder where the women’s voices are. Perhaps buried under all those petals of snow. Surely they didn’t agree with sending their sons on suicide missions toward the end of World War II. But isn’t that what we all did when we sent our sons to war? The only difference was our boys were taught to kill, theirs were taught to die.
Historically, suicide to the Japanese was not the abhorrence that westerners consider it to be. Today, we rally openly against the darkness of suicide, considering it to be the act of a person suffering mental unwellness. However, within Japanese culture lies the deep-seated tradition of the samurai ways and the ritual of seppuku, where life is considered a transient existence and those who die with honour continue to live in the afterlife with the living dead.
This ideology is quite similar to Christian belief of the afterlife, except that Christianity does not accept suicide as a means of honourable death. In fact it is regarded as a sin because it violates the sixth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ – but then, so does warfare. Whether or not we are believers, the dishonour associated with suicide is deeply embedded in Western culture because of the historical impact of Christianity. The samurai way, for the Japanese, was likewise the bricks-and-mortar foundation of a social belief system, from which the honour attributed to being a Kamikaze was based.
And yet, 2 per cent of the kamikaze pilots who died after ramming their bodies into American warships were practising Christians. It is a small percentage, but of the five thousand who died one hundred went to their deaths conflicted, Bibles tucked inside their flying suits, not knowing whether their souls would burn in hell or ascend to heaven.
For the rest, it was generally accepted that all those who fell valiantly in service to the Empire of Japan would fly back to the Yasukuni Shrine, to be reunited with the nearly two and half million Japanese war heroes – soldiers who have been posthumously deified since the time of the Boshin war of 1868, when the shrine was first founded by Emperor Meiji. Contentiously, the shrine also commemorates fourteen Class-A war criminals.
You are my son
but you are not my only son.
I have my stick to beat the enemy if they come.
Scatter beautifully for our motherland.
INITIALLY, EMPEROR HIROHITO refused Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi’s request for the Special Attack Units. Dismayed by the idea that suicide missions were necessary to defend the homeland from the impending invasion, perhaps the emperor still hoped for the divine winds – the typhoons that twice wrecked the fleet of Kublai Khan’s Mongol fleet when they threatened to invade Japan at the end of the thirteenth century. But the winds never came. American and British warships, as well as Russian tanks, drew ever closer toward the end of 1945 and although Emperor Hirohito was struck with grief, he signed the order for the first Tokkotai mission to go ahead. Yet he wasn’t the only great leader to object to suicide attacks as a means of defence; ironically, Hitler himself opposed the commission of German suicide pilots on humanitarian grounds.
You leave without a word
your eternal parting kept secret.
Suddenly my dear son perishes.
Unstoppable tears at today’s news.
Brave, only believing in victory.
SECOND LIEUTENANT TETSUO Tanifuji was newly wed and deeply in love with his wife Asako when his Special Attack Unit was assigned the location of its deadly target. The newlyweds were photographed together at the time of their wedding. She sits to the side, elegantly adorned in the folds of her traditional kimono with layers of lush textured colour, and shiny silk strands running around her neckline. Her hair is oiled smooth and her pale face is perfect; she is serene, composed, all-accepting. Her husband stands behind her dressed in full army uniform, his hands poised on the top of his rifle. His head tilts slightly forward, his mouth a slit of determination, his eyes set in a steely gaze of unwavering nerve – a stance that epitomises the idealised commitment of the Kamikaze.
But somewhere beneath the sweet aesthetics of the Japanese bride, Asako revealed her own steely nerve when she decided to accompany her husband on his final flight. Come take-off, she squeezed into the one-seat cockpit and positioned herself between his legs. Her destiny was entwined with his – she had decided they would end their lives together as husband and wife, an honour he obviously could not deny her.
I have made up my mind to die.
Now the world has become completely new
All sensuality lost.
Laughter, anger, happiness and sorrow
they belong to the other world
where people continue to live.
I cannot join them in conversation
I have no interest in swallowing food.
I go soon
my back light without a parachute.
NOW EIGHTY-NINE, Tadamasa Itatsu was a nineteen-year-old kamikaze pilot in March 1945. At that time, American and British ships sailed for Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan in the Ryukyu Islands that stretch toward Taiwan. If the Japanese did not successfully defend Okinawa, they risked losing the island to the invaders and having it used as a base for American warplanes to launch attacks on the mainland of Japan.
Long-distance attacks had already proven devastating. ‘Operation Meetinghouse’ sent three hundred and thirty-four B-29’s all the way from the islands of Tinian and Saipan to drop 1,665 tonnes of bombs on Tokyo in a single attack. Approximately one hundred thousand civilians died in those forty-eight hours of bombing alone. It was the greatest single firestorm recorded in history, with almost more human carnage than the Hiroshima or Nagasaki atomic bombings combined. So sickening was the smell that American pilots later described the blood-red mists, thick with the stench of burning flesh, which wafted up and caused them to vomit.
‘It was up to the young people,’ Itatsu says, to defend their homeland. It was the normal thing to do, and when his commander asked him to volunteer for the Special Attack squadron, he did so willingly. For Itatsu, it was an honour to serve his emperor in this way, and he was filled with shame when the war ended having failed two missions due to engine failure and bad weather. So strong was his disappointment that he considered suicide in the years following the war. ‘He wanted to die with his comrades,’ Itatsu says of himself, and it wasn’t until 1970 that he realised he had survived for a reason.
Over the last forty years, Itatsu has collected three-hundred and thirty three items of Kamikaze memorabilia, photographs and letters, pieces left behind by dead pilots, items treasured over the years and kept safe by proud families. These items were submitted to UNESCO by Japan in February 2014, to be considered for inclusion in the Memory of the World Register and granted World Heritage status – an action that has been lambasted by both China and South Korea.
Blossom pressed between sheets of rice paper
you have returned to me without my son.
I did not know how you had changed.
Life is brief, we must celebrate each day.
You are the clouds that burst forth in spring.
My beautiful son, come home to me.
That is what I meant to say.
But you told him to bloom in death
little flower of the Sakura tree
where we picnicked
when childhood was sweet
and he held my hand as we played
sung songs and ate our rice and fish.
Now all is gone, but the blossom
pressed between sheets of rice paper.
And I sit alone, my bones bending with age
under the tree that bears no fruit.
I wait for my own life to pass.
Watch the blossoms fall in the breeze.
Oh sakura, sakura I whisper to you.
LIKE THE CHERRY blossom, Japan’s memory of its role in creating a world war seems to have had a short life span. The schools of Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan, now have their own national curriculum history textbooks, different from anywhere else in the country. These textbooks cover the entire history of Japan, and deliberately omit numerous crimes against humanity, along with certain words normally associated with the aggressive stance of the Japanese military during World War II. When questioned about these omissions by Chinese journalist Haining Liu, Hidetsugu Yagi, the creator of the new textbook, stated that he believed the textbook showed the light and shadow of Japan’s historical perspective, and displayed differing ideologies; however, words such as ‘invasion’, ‘massacre’ and ‘rape’ were simply too negative for schoolchildren.
Just before the crash
Your speed is at the maximum
The plane tends to lift
Push elevator control forward
Do your best
Push forward with all your might
You have already lived twenty years or more
Exert full might into the last of your life
Exert supernatural strength
Do your best
Every deity and the spirits of your dead watch
Do not shut your eyes
Do not miss the target
Many have crashed into targets with wide-open eyes
They will tell you what fun they had
CHINA, HOWEVER, IS quick to remember the atrocities of the Japanese invasion, which began in 1931 when Japan occupied Manchuria in Northern China. By 1937, the wider war commenced and Japanese forces landed in Shanghai. The war in China continued right up until the Axis powers surrendered in 1945, with almost fourteen million Chinese killed and up to a hundred million left as homeless refugees.
The most infamous incident occurred in Nanjing city, the former capital of China. Within six weeks, the episode of mass rape and murder ended with approximately three hundred thousand Chinese dead. Throughout the occupation of China, it is estimated that over two hundred thousand Asian women, many of them Korean, were forced to become sex slaves to the Japanese military, or ‘comfort women’ as they were called – a translation from the Japanese word ianfu, which means prostitute.
China has not forgotten Japan’s cruelty during this time and fears that if UNESCO memorialises kamikaze pilot items then it could revive the Japanese fighting spirit, which it believes lies dormant, obscured by the mask of victimhood the Japanese acquired by being the only country to suffer from atomic warfare.
Initially, Japanese authorities claimed that all comfort women volunteered for the position. If that is true, then you have to wonder what sort of duress they were under to put their hands up to become prostitutes for the military forces of their oppressors.
To counteract the Japanese submissions of Kamikaze memorabilia, China has submitted its own application for consideration into the Memory of the World Register. With eleven sets of documents including diaries, films, photographs and testimonies, China’s desire to list the Nanjing massacre and wartime sex slaves with UNESCO is an act that blatantly denies Japan’s Kamikaze hero worship a platform on the international stage.
My enlightened mind now darkened.
Plucked from university before my time.
We are the Emperor’s shield
though it is not for him I go.
I go for the wife I never had
for the children I do not leave behind
for the old age I will not see.
My bravery is saluted on take-off.
I break formation
circle the commander standing below.
as if to ram my body into his.
He does not flinch.
He salutes my bravery.
I pull away – continue on
the shame would kill my mother.
THERE IS NOTHING new about self-immolation, and the Japanese are not alone in their ideology of suicide missions. In fact, the very first reported incident of an aircraft deliberately ramming into an enemy was committed by the Russian pilot Pyotr Nikolayevich Nesterov in 1914, during a dogfight with a German reconnaissance plane. Nesterov was killed, but fellow Russian pilots hailed his selfless act as a symbol of courage and valour.
In 1941, three years before Japan’s suicide strategy was officially launched, Russia’s defence strategy included pilots crash-diving into incoming Luftwaffe planes to prevent them reaching major Russian cities with their bombs. Hundreds of Russian pilots lost their lives ramming small aircraft into the sides of German bombers. It was a phenomenon well documented in many major newspapers, and even reached the shores of America with a photo essay featuring one of the Russian pilots in Life magazine.
By March 1945, even the Germans were emulating the suicide tactics of the Russians, with three hundred pilots instructed in aircraft-ramming techniques in an attempt to immobilise American and British bombers that continued to deliver severe blows to German cities.
American and British flyers faced a similar situation aboard the Anglo-American convoy that sailed the Arctic Ocean to deliver much needed supplies to besieged Russians. When Luftwaffe bombers approached, the only method of defence was to launch Hurricane fighters using rockets to catapult the aircraft into the air. This dangerous means of take-off was necessary because merchant ships lacked a flight deck; even worse, it meant there was no way to re-land. The only hope of survival was to ditch the aircraft into the icy seas of the Antarctic and pray for a speedy rescue – a prayer that was commonly accepted as futile but at least provided a semblance of hope, unlike the kamikaze missions, the mantra for which was to die without even the slightest thought of survival.
Japanese military code, established at the beginning of its modernisation in the late 1800s, set in place a system of total obedience. Should any military personnel attempt to surrender, escape, or try to save their life in any way in the face of defeat, they would be shot immediately and without question. What’s more, such a shameful end could lead to the punishment of the soldier’s family, affecting five generations of both blood and marital relatives, as it did during the Edo period between 1603 and 1868. Such was the responsibility of any soldier or sailor, whether or not they were asked to volunteer to be strapped to a manned torpedo and aimed at an American ship, or wrapped with explosives and ordered to dive in front of a Russian tank, or trained in the art of smashing an aircraft into the deck of an enemy ship.
A man’s life is light
and a great mission is heavy.
I will not flinch
Thank you for my childhood
I depart with a glad heart.
MEMENTO MORI: TODAY we live, tomorrow we die; today we succeed, tomorrow we fail. This is life – lest we forget. Yet we all cling to something when faced with death. We grasp at beliefs and good luck charms as though they will keep us from passing over – flotation devices that we hope will save us, though we really don’t know if they will.
Japanese kamikaze pilots were supplied with rudimentary supplies for their last journey: headbands with the rising sun emblem, motion-sickness pills, anti-sleep tablets, a candy bar, iron supplements and a small bottle of wine. Some brought their own good luck charms, such the senninbari – a one-metre strip of white fabric with multiple rows of stitches, one thousand red crosses handmade by one thousand young women. One cross each, one kiss, one blessing, one wish for the soul’s safe return. The senninbari was worn either around the waist or draped around the shoulders as an amulet to ward off evil, a charm for luck in war. Some carried the dried bonito, believing it would enable the pilot’s soul to rise from his watery grave and fly across the ocean, back to his mother. And perhaps it worked.
ON THE MORNING of 18 March 1945, Mrs Misato Nishiyama lingered at the edge of wakefulness to remain inside a dreamscape, where her son Norio had come to bid her farewell. She describes the comforting embrace of his spirit, the warmth of his hands holding hers, just as they had the night before he left for Kagoshima to enter the Naval Flight Training Program. That night he slept next to his mother, just as he had as a child. Misato’s relentless maternal love wrapped itself around her son for the entirety of that last night, an act reciprocated when her son found his way back to her after death. Fifty years later, she continued to state that the warmth of his hands on hers had never left.
One thousand girls
one thousand stitches.
A red threaded tiger
for good luck.
tiny kisses tied about your waist.
One by one we bless you.
‘You are already gods,’ Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi declared to his kamikaze pilots, ‘without earthly desires’ – suffering vicariously for man. These men did not have to wait to die to be raised to the status of ethereal characters. Because they were willing to die for others, they were professed as gods already. In fact, the word ‘kami’ in kamikaze translates as ‘divine being’ from the Shinto religion. Such an honour was taken seriously and was reflected in the names given to individual squadrons, such as The Thunder Gods, Samurai of the Sky or The Divine Wings. By aligning the pilots with gods, Ōnishi developed the strategy that would feed the core ego of any man – the desire for great destiny, honour and reward.
With the rise of suicide bombing as an act of terrorism during the last quarter of a century, it is not hard to draw parallels between the perceived fanaticism of the Japanese Kamikaze and the Islamic extremist suicide bombers. Both offer unblinking sacrifice of material comfort for the promise of immortalisation. Encouraged to believe they will not die, such martyrs anticipate an afterlife of great honour, surrounded by loved ones and gifted the full extent of paradisal pleasures.
A waterlogged corpse
far away from home.
No one will cry for me.
No one will come to visit my tomb.
I am better off buried beside the road
where someone could offer flowers.
Perhaps a red tulip.
But who can run away?
Death gets him
by the backs of his fleeing knees
and jumps him from behind.
Sweet and proper it is
to die for the honour of your mother.
TADAMASA IWAI WAS another kind of suicide volunteer. Trained as a Kaiten – a human torpedo – his mission was to be strapped to a mini submarine and launched off the back of a ship with the aim of slamming both the bomb and himself into the side of the invading enemy warship.
Interviewed in his nineties in Tokyo, he stated that the young men did not want to die at all. He and his fellow suicide volunteers wrote the brave and beautiful words found in the kamikaze letters for their family’s sake, to persuade both the families and themselves they were doing something of great importance. The vocabulary they used, he says, were the words ‘hammered into their heads’ during training.
Fortunately for Tadamasa, he was overcome with tuberculosis at the time of his mission and never got to deliver his blow to the invading armies. Today he opposes the UNESCO application by Japan because he believes the volunteers were forced to undertake the missions, against their will. It was a time of unquestioned obedience, no one could oppose the official rhetoric of suicide missions publicly; instead, you kept your resentment quiet, to yourself, inside your own heart.
According to Kasuga Takeo, the cruel regime of corporal punishment was administered as part of the daily routine during training, and was believed to instil the fighting spirit necessary to carry out a suicide sortie without question. Kasuga was responsible for the meals, laundry and room cleaning of drafted kamikaze pilots while on base. He saw firsthand the reluctance of the pilots to give up their lives.
Kamikaze pilots were supposed to die, they were not supposed to return, or attempt to save themselves in any way. Some of course would return, claiming that they had failed to locate the enemy. One pilot returned nine times – and on his final return he was shot and killed by his superior. Other pilots failed to ram American vessels, hitting the water instead to avoid an explosion, or landing their aircraft on the water as near land as they could. Some returned after take-off and circled their superior’s quarters in a threatening manner, as if to dive into them instead of the enemy, but they never did. It was a statement, as much as they could get away with before they buzzed away into the clouds to terminate themselves.
Kasuga believes the diaries of the suicide pilots contradict the Japanese military propaganda of the kamikaze letters written on their final night, as well as the worldwide stereotype of the fanatic on a hot-headed, bloody-minded mission. He says that some of the pilots tried to accept the emperor-centric ideology but in all honesty could not, and admitted that their words of dedication were not genuine. They simply reproduced the imperial ideology, he says – their hearts were not in it; they had no choice but to follow their command and go through with the assigned mission.
Kasuga is today known for a letter he wrote in 1995 at the age of eighty-six, describing the last night of the Kamikaze before their final mission. The letter describes young men drinking cold sake in extreme sadness, their disillusionment vented in acts of violence against furniture and fittings, light bulbs smashed with swords, chairs thrown through windows and tablecloths ripped by hand. Curses and cries filled the hall as they faced the reality of their impending death. They cried for their parents, their loves, their children. This depiction of the pilot’s utter desperation had hardly been seen or heard of before Kasuga’s letter was made public.
Unable to sleep for loneliness.
Thoughts come to my mind as the rain falls outside
Human beings seek beauty
I too…love beauty.
Exceptional beauty must be accompanied
by purity and sorrow.
lacks the vividness of shedding blood.
Burning incense with a white head bowed down.
Smoke – thin and faint – rising upward.
Immortality takes on meaning
only in terms of life.
Socrates praised the beauty of the world after death.
Makes me want to live though, not die.
How lonely the sound of the clock in the darkness.
LOOKING BACK NOW, many historians believe the Japanese High Command was at fault for continuing the suicide missions against hopeless odds when they knew the war was already lost. The American warships were well armed, and very few Kamikaze managed to hit their targets. In April 1945, during the last Japanese naval operation of the war, one hundred Japanese airplanes were shot out of the sky in one day and six Japanese warships were sunk. Almost the entire Japanese aircraft fleet was destroyed in an attempted suicide attack on the fast-approaching Allied forces. The losses were terrible, and the sinking of the Japanese battleship Yamato caused the greatest blow, because the word yamato carried historic patriotic significance as the poetic embodiment of the magnificence of Japan. The sinking of the great battleship instigated a change in the way the word was to be used – no longer a metaphor for the splendor of Japan, yamato came to represent the end of the Japanese empire.
However, the real end came not with the sinking of the Yamato, but with the realisation of the extent to which the Japanese were willing to sacrifice their own in the face of defeat. The devastating suicidal techniques displayed in the last battle of operation Ten-Go cast the Japanese as unstoppable fanatics, and it was this behaviour that became a factor in the decision by American forces to employ atomic weapons against them.
But who could deny the Japanese the right to defend their home to the last? Obviously patriotism was strong, or the plaza in front of the Imperial Palace would not have been stained red for days with the blood of military and civilian citizens alike, who ended their own lives as an apology for the humiliation of defeat after Emperor Hirohito’s surrender broadcast on 15 August 1945.
Even Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi disembowelled himself, an inevitable act as one of the frontline supporters of the Special Attack Units – he knew he could not face the families of the fallen, or the storm of protest that was building over the wisdom of crash-dive tactics. In his last days, he described his initial torment for the squandering of thousands of young lives, but defended the decision as he truly believed there was no alternative in the face of a such a powerful Allied fleet.
PERHAPS SOME MEMORIES are better hung on private walls rather than displayed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. Perhaps the register itself gives the international community a way to acknowledge the worst of human nature, which has never changed and still today is evident in every nightly broadcast of international news.
However, the obvious fact remains that despite Kamikaze memorabilia being shrouded in heroism and the rhetoric of the Kamikaze, they are also in places the powerful and beautiful reflection of the reciprocated love between young men and their mothers and wives.
My love for you will last as long
as it takes to hand stitch the stars together
a thread of red crisscrossing the night sky.
All poems are written by the author, as both unique verse and free-form adaptations of excerpts of Kamikaze memorabilia.
Axell, Albert and Kase, Hideaki 2002, Kamikaze: Japan’s Suicide Gods, Pearson Education.
Warner, Denis and Warner, Peggy 1982, The Sacred Warriors, Von Nostrand Reinhold Company Inc.
Moss, Candida 2013, The Myth of Persecution: How early Christians invented a story of martyrdom, Harper Collins.
Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 2006, Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese student soldiers, The University of Chicago Press.
Gambetta, Diego 2005, Making sense of suicide missions, Oxford University Press.
Sears, David 2008, At war with the wind, Citadel Press.
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