Kamikaze pilots were officially members of the "Special Attack Corps." The pilots wore a special ceremonial uniform, white scarfs and a headband that said "Kamikaze." Many kept a samurai sword and picture of the Emperor with them in the cockpit. At first, during the early missions in 1944, pilots vied among themselves for the opportunity to die for their country, but over time their enthusiasm waned. By the end of the campaign Japan had difficulty finding kamikaze pilots. Many were forcibly conscripted.
About 6,000 Japanese, aged 17 to 30, participated in kamikaze suicide attacks. Most were 22 or younger and many died in the closing weeks of the war. Some even died after Japan surrendered. Some were ethnic Koreans. Some chickened out and tried divert their planes or return home.
Thousands of Japanese youth volunteered for tokko missions by simply placing a circle around their names. In his book “Blossoms in the Wind” Mordecai Sheftall wrote: “The primary motivation was they were thinking about their family because the newspapers were saying that if the Americans land, you’re all going to be slaves, the women are all going to be raped and the men will all be murdered. Every nightmare scenario was put across on the Japanese public, saying this is what’s going to happen if the Allies aren’t stopped now.”
A plaque commemorating kamikaze pilots at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo reads: "The suicide operators, incomparable in their tragic bravery, struck terror in their foes and engulfed the entire country in tears of gratitude for their outstanding loyalty and selfless service."
Signing Up to Be a Kamikaze
Yuri Kageyama of Associated Press wrote: “The pilots filed into the room and were presented with a form that asked if they wanted to be kamikaze. It was multiple-choice, and there were three answers: "I passionately wish to join," ''I wish to join," and "I don't wish to join." This was 1945. Many were university students who had been previously exempt from service, but now Japan was running out of troops. [Source: Yuri Kageyama, Associated Press, June 17, 2015 +++]
“Hisashi Tezuka recalls that a few of his colleagues quickly wrote their replies and strutted away. But he and most of the others stayed for what felt like hours, unable to decide. He did not know then if anyone had dared to refuse. He learned later that the few who did were simply told to pick the right answer. Tezuka so wanted to be honest to his feelings he crossed out the second choice and wrote his own answer: "I will join." "I did not want to say I wished it. I didn't wish it," he told The Associated Press at his apartment in a Tokyo suburb. +++
“First-born sons weren't selected, to protect family heirs in feudalistic-minded Japan. Tezuka, then a student at the prestigious University of Tokyo, had six brothers and one sister and wasn't the eldest. So he was a good pick, he says with a sad laugh. He was given a five-day leave to visit his parents. He didn't have the heart to tell them he had been tapped to be a suicide bomber. There was one absolute about being a kamikaze, he says: "You go, and it’s over."” +++
Son of Tea Ceremony Master Selected to Be Kamikaze
The Japanese air force and navy selected young men, many of them taken from other parts of the military and from Japan’s best universities, to be kamikaze pilots. Sen Genshitsu, the 15th grand master of a tea ceremony school known as Urasenke, which has roots dating back to the 16th century, was elected to be a kamikaze pilot while he was a university student. He told the Yomiuri Shimbun: “In the autumn of 1943, when I was a sophomore at Doshisha University, the government suspended the military service exemption for students majoring in the humanities, and I joined the Navy in December that same year. Since the eldest son of the grand master of a tea ceremony school had to answer a call to arms, I suppose my parents were crying in their hearts. As my brother who was two years younger—Yoshiharu Naya, the founder of Tankosha Publishing Co.—was also called into the Imperial Japanese Army, they must have been worried sick about what would become of the family.[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 20, 2014 ]
“For the first time, my father presented before me a short sword forged by Awataguchi Yoshimitsu, a renowned swordsmith during the Kamakura period [1192-1333]. The sword was the very same one which Rikyu is believed to have used when he ended his life through harakiri [honorable suicide]. As he set it before my eyes I was told, “Take a good look at this [before you go].”
“It was only after I joined the unit when I realized what my father was really saying. “I see. My father meant that if I die, I should die as Rikyu did.” Rikyu, who committed harakiri at the order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, his master and the ruler at the time, declined a petition by those around him that he should receive a lesser penalty than death. Rikyu had no fear of death.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 20, 2014 ]
Kamikaze Preparation and Motivation
Hisao Horiyama was a young soldier in an artillery unit of the Japanese imperial army when he was drafted into the air force. Justin McCurry wrote in The Guardian, “It was late 1944, and the tide of war was turning against Japan. In the newly formed kamikaze, Tokyo’s military leaders envisioned a dedicated unit of ideologically conditioned warriors willing to die a glorious death for their empire. As a devoted subject of the emperor, Horiyama longed for his moment of glory. “We finished our training and were given a slip of white paper giving us three options: to volunteer out of a strong desire, to simply volunteer, or to decline,” Horiyama said. [Source: Justin McCurry, The Guardian, August 11, 2015]
“When we graduated from army training school the Showa emperor [Hirohito] visited our unit on a white horse. I thought then that this was a sign that he was personally requesting our services. I knew that I had no choice but to die for him,” Horiyama told The Guardian. “At that time we believed that the emperor and nation of Japan were one and the same...We didn’t think too much [about dying],” Horiyama said. “We were trained to suppress our emotions. Even if we were to die, we knew it was for a worthy cause. Dying was the ultimate fulfillment of our duty, and we were commanded not to return. We knew that if we returned alive that our superiors would be angry.”
Yuri Kageyama of Associated Press wrote: “Books and movies have depicted them as crazed suicide bombers who screamed "Banzai" as they met their end. But interviews with survivors and families by The Associated Press, as well as letters and documents, offer a different portrait — of men driven by patriotism, self-sacrifice and necessity. The world they lived in was like that multiple-choice form: It contained no real options. [Source: Yuri Kageyama, Associated Press, June 17, 2015 +++]
“Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, who wrote about the kamikaze in his 2008 book, "Danger’s Hour," says the kamikaze were driven by nothing but self-sacrifice. When he started his research, he expected to find fanaticism. He was stunned to find they were very much like Americans or young people anywhere else in the world, "who were extraordinarily patriotic but at the same time extraordinarily idealistic." Kennedy stressed that kamikaze have little in common with suicide bombers today. Japan was engaged in conventional war, and, above all, kamikaze had no choice, he said. Civilians were not targets. "They were looking out for each other," he says, in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "If he didn't get in the plane that morning, his roommate would have to go." +++
Sen Genshitsu told the Yomiuri Shimbun: “I applied for the unit in March 1945. I received training earlier on to be a naval officer in the navy’s air unit in Tsuchiura, Ibaraki Prefecture, as a trainee of the navy’s 14th preparatory pilot training course. I was later transferred to the navy’s air unit in Tokushima. Our unit’s commanding officer told us: “We will organize a special attack unit for Okinawa. You’ll be handed a sheet of paper. Circle one word, write your rank and name and then submit it.” There were three words to choose from: “Ardent wish,” “Wish” and “Nay.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 20, 2014 ]
“At the time, Ko Nishimura, my comrade and training partner who would eventually go on to become an actor after the war, was reluctant to express any eagerness. But I submitted the paper after circling “Ardent wish,” persuading Nishimura that he had to because we “have to write down our name, so that’s not an option.” In the end, all our members were assigned to the unit. But I couldn’t be like Rikyu. Nishimura would say, “I don’t want to die.” I found myself replying, “I can’t commit harakiri.”
“Regardless, training dragged on every day—from diving our planes at altitudes of 2,000 meters to night flight exercises because if we were to fly from the Kanoya Air Base in Kagoshima Prefecture toward Okinawa, we’d depart from the base in Kagoshima and arrive near Okinawa at around 4 a.m., before dawn. Our plane, named “Shiragiku,” was able to fly at a maximum speed of only 230 kph. Since our plane was loaded with two bombs weighing 250 kilograms each on both wings, it flew even slower. So, we could only fly under the cover of night to reach Okinawa because formations of Grumman aircraft were lying in wait to attack us, at a point just be-yond the Amami Islands.”
Yuri Kageyama of Associated Press wrote: “In training, the pilots repeatedly zoomed perilously, heading practically straight down, to practice crashing. They had to reverse course right before hitting the ground and rise back into the sky, a tremendous G-force dragging on their bodies. When they did it for real, they were instructed to send a final wireless message in Morse code, and keep holding that signal. In the transmission room, they knew the pilot had died when a long beep ended in silence.” [Source: Yuri Kageyama, Associated Press, June 17, 2015 +++]
Yuri Kageyama of Associated Press wrote: “Zero pilots were the heartthrobs of the era. In fading photographs, they pose in portraits, hugging shoulders, wearing big smiles, seemingly oblivious to what lay ahead. Their goggles are flipped cockily over their helmets, their scarves tucked under their jackets. The Zero won accolades, even from the enemy. Some Japanese enlisted just to fly the Zero. [Source: Yuri Kageyama, Associated Press, June 17, 2015 +++]
“Masao Kanai died on a kamikaze mission near Okinawa in 1945. He was 23. Under a program that encouraged students to support the imperialist military, he had been pen pals with a 17-year-old schoolgirl, Toshi Negishi. All in all, they exchanged 200 letters. They tried to go on a date, just once, when he had a rare opportunity to get out of training and visit Tokyo. But that was March 10, 1945, right after the massive air raids known as the firebombing of Tokyo. So they never met. +++
“Before he flew on his last mission, he sent her two tiny pendants he had carved out of cockpit glass — one a heart, the other a tiny Zero. The hazy crystalline heart has the letters T and M, their initials, carved on top of each other. Negishi wore the pendants just once. She kept them in a box for 70 years. She recently donated the jewelry to a memorial for the Tsukuba Naval Air Corps, a command and training center for kamikaze in Kasama, north of Tokyo. +++
“One of the eeriest photos on display” at the memoral “is a woman decked out in a bridal kimono, sitting with dozens of family members and grasping a framed picture of her dead fiance, a kamikaze. The bride in that post-mortem wedding, Mutsue Kogure, stares into the camera, expressionless. The last letter Nobuaki Fujita, 22, wrote to her is also on display. "In my next life, and in my life after that, and in the one after that, please marry me," he wrote. "Mutsue, goodbye. Mutsue, Mutsue, Mutsue, Mutsue, the ever so gentle, my dearest Mutsue."” +++
Kamikaze Pilots Who Escaped Death Because the War Ended
Not all kamikaze pilots died. Most of those that survived did so because the war ended before they were scheduled to fulfill their missions. Justin McCurry wrote in The Guardian, “Horiyama first learned how he was due to die from a simple slip of white paper. On it were written three options: to volunteer willingly, to simply volunteer, or to say no.But as a 21-year-old airman caught in the thick of Japan’s faltering war with the allies, he knew there was only one choice. Without hesitation, he agreed to fly his plane into the side of a US warship. [Source: Justin McCurry, The Guardian, August 11, 2015]
Like other pilots selected for suicide missions, Horiyama was asked to write a will and a letter that would be sent to parents when their mission was completed. “I was a disrespectful child and got poor grades at school,” he said. “I told my father that I was sorry for being such a bad student, and for crashing three planes during training exercises. And I was sorry that the course of the war seemed to be turning against Japan. I wanted to prove myself to him, and that’s why I volunteered to join the special attack unit. “But my mother was upset. Just before she died she told me that she would never have forgiven my father if I had died in a kamikaze attack. So I’m grateful to the emperor that he stopped the war.”
Japan was still flying suicide missions up to the moment, on 15 August 1945, when Hirohito announced to a shattered people traumatised by nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that Japan was surrendering. “I couldn’t hear the radio announcement on NHK very well because of the static,” Horiyama said. “One person started crying loudly. That’s when I knew we had lost the war. “I felt bad that I hadn’t been able to sacrifice myself for my country. My comrades who had died would be remembered in infinite glory, but I had missed my chance to die in the same way. I felt like I had let everyone down.”
Hisashi Tezuka is another kamikaze who survived because the war ended. Yuri Kageyama of Associated Press wrote: “He survived only because Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender on a radio broadcast, just as he was on a train headed to take off on his kamikaze attack. "I had been all set to die," he says. "My mind went absolutely blank." [Source: Yuri Kageyama, Associated Press, June 17, 2015 +++]
Kamikaze Pilot Who Escaped Death for Mechanical Reasons
Justin McCurry wrote in The Guardian, “Not every would-be kamikaze was as fervent in their belief in death for the motherland. When Takehiko Ena learned he had been chosen to fly a suicide mission he greeted the news in a way he still finds confusing. “I felt the blood drain from my face,” he told the Guardian. “The other pilots and I congratulated each other when the order came through that we were going to attack. It sounds strange now, as there was nothing to celebrate.” Ena had been drafted into the depleted ranks of the navy as a 20-year-old economics student at the prestigious Waseda university in Tokyo. [Source: Justin McCurry, The Guardian, August 11, 2015]
Ena “was sent to join a squadron of pilots in Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost main island, in April 1945, when the kamikaze were at their most active. He was to pilot a crew of three aboard a plane with an 800kg [1,763-pound] bomb strapped to its undercarriage. The aircraft would have fuel only for a one-way flight. They were part of Operation Kikusui (floating chrysanthemum), an ambitious suicide-bombing mission against the allied ships bombarding Japanese forces in the Battle of Okinawa, one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific theatre.”
The this dismal mechanical record of Japan’s aging planes – “a reflection of the desperate lengths to which Japan’s military leaders were willing to go to win the war – that was to be Ena’s salvation. On 28 April 1945 he steered his aircraft along the runway at Kushira airfield in Kagoshima prefecture, but failed to get airborne. His second mission ended in failure when engine trouble forced him to make an emergency landing at a Japanese army base, still carrying the bomb intended for the enemy. Two weeks later, on 11 May, he was steeling himself for a third attempt, accompanied by a 20-year-old co-pilot and an 18-year-old communications officer.
“On the surface, we were doing it for our country,” Ena said. “We made ourselves believe that we had been chosen to make this sacrifice. I just wanted to protect the father and mother I loved. And we were all scared.” Early into what should have been his final flight, engine trouble forced Ena’s plane into the sea. The three men survived and swam to nearby Kuroshima island, where they stayed for two-and-a-half months before being picked up by a Japanese submarine.
Well-Connected Kamikaze Pilot Gets Reassigned
Sen Genshitsu, the future tea ceremony master, told the Yomiuri Shimbun: “During a break between training flights, I performed a tea ceremony beside my beloved fighter plane. I had a portable tea box with me and served rationed yokan bean-paste jelly from Toraya—a sweets shop long famed for its yokan. Then a friend of mine, Yoshikage Hatabu from Kyoto Imperial University, said to me, “Say, Sen, if I make it back alive, let me have tea in your real tea room.” Even now, his words still linger in my ears. In that moment, I thought for the first time that I wouldn’t come back alive and felt a chill up my spine. I was overcome with desperation so I stood up, turned to the direction of my home in Kyoto and cried out “Mom! Mom!” My fellow fighter pilots also got up and began shouting “Mom!” toward their own hometowns.[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 20, 2014 ]
“Hatabu was the first of us to leave for a suicide attack mission. He never returned. Nishimura and I were the only ones of our group that survived. He actually took off for a suicide attack mission, but he had trouble with his plane and managed to come back. I myself was never deployed. I was transferred to the Matsuyama flying corps in mid-April [in 1945] where I saw the end of World War II. To this day I still feel shame. My family welcomed me home with great joy after I was discharged from military service.”
Guilt of a Kamikaze Survivors
Yuri Kageyama of Associated Press wrote: “Yoshiomi Yanai, 93, survived because he could not locate his target — a rare error for a kamikaze operation. He visits the Tsukuba facility often. "I feel so bad for all the others who died," he says, bemoaning the fate of comrades who died so young, never having really experienced life. [Source: Yuri Kageyama, Associated Press, June 17, 2015 +++]
“Yanai still keeps what he had intended to be his last message to his parents. It’s an album that he keeps carefully wrapped in a traditional furoshiki cloth. He plastered the pages with photos of him laughing with colleagues and other happy moments. He got a pilot friend to add ink drawings of the Zero. "Father, Mother, I'm taking off now. I will die with a smile," Yanai wrote in big letters on the opening pages. "I was not a filial son but please forgive me. I will go first. And I will be waiting for you." +++
“The job of overseeing and training Ohka pilots, and ultimately sending them to certain death, fell to Fujio Hayashi, then 22. Hayashi believes Ohka might never have happened if there had been no volunteers when the concept was first suggested. He was one of the first two volunteers for Ohka. Dozens followed. But he could never stop blaming himself, wondering whether his early backing helped bring it about. When he finally saw one of the flimsy gliders, he felt duped; many thought it looked like a joke. +++
“Over the decades, Hayashi was tormented by guilt for having sent dozens of young men to their deaths "with my pencil," as he put it, referring to how he had written the names for Ohka assignments each day. To squelch any suspicion of favoritism, he sent his favorite pilots first. After the war, Hayashi joined the military, called the Self-Defense Forces, and attended memorials for the dead pilots. He consoled families and told everyone how gentle the men had been. They smiled right up to their deaths, he said, because they didn't want anyone to mourn or worry. "Every day, 365 days a year, whenever I remember those who died, tears start coming. I have to run into the bathroom and weep. While I'm there weeping, I feel they're vibrantly alive within my heart, just the way they were long ago," he wrote in his essay "The Suicidal Drive." "I think of the many men I killed with my pencil, and I apologize for having killed them in vain," he said.” +++
Letters from Kamikaze Pilots
In his final letter to his family, one 23-year-old kamikaze pilot wrote, "I am really grateful for my two decades of life in this beautiful island country. When I fly in the sky, I'm in the purest of minds. I'm genuinely pleased to have the chance to attack the enemy. On this great morning, as I worship His Highness, I shout 'banzai' f the eternity of the Emperor, I will now set off." A 23-year-old man wrote "Dear Mother and Father — thank you for bringing me up to be a true man. I died smiling so please smile. Do not cry for me." A 22-year-old wrote, "I attack in four hours, I shall be shining among the clouds, drifting and tumbling forever. This is my last letter. Your loving son."
Another wrote in his mother in his final letter: "Although I have tried many times to call you 'Mother.' I have have never been able to do so...Please forgive your timid son. You must have felt sad and rejected. Now I warn to call to you loudly and clearly "mother, mother, mother.'" A 26-year-old pilot wrote his daughter: "I want you to respect your mother and be like her, always honest and kind. I hope you will be a good wife. I won’t see you again in this life, so when you want to see me, you should come to Yasukina Shrine. If pray hard enough, I will be there beside you, and share your happiness as my own. Never say you have no father. I will always be with you, by you side...Your loving Daddy."
A Kamikaze pilot named Toshio Anazawa flew his plane into a U.S. warship off Amanmioshima island in Kagoshima prefecture four months before the war ended and one month after he was engaged to a woman named Chicko Date. On his final mission he wore a scarf she knitted for him under his white scarf and carried a picture of her in his chest pocket. Date still has the letter that Anazawa wrote. It was delivered to her four days after he died. The four-age letter begins: “We have put an effort into joining forces, but in the end our efforts will not tie up with reality. You must live every single minute in this real world, a world in which I will no longer exist.” At he end he said, “You must live on in high spirits. I too will do up until my last moment. I will de with a smile on my face.” One the day of his mission he wrote, “Chiko, I want to see you; I want to talk to you.” The tragic story has been turned into a hardback book and manga.
Twenty-three-year-old Ichizo Hayashi, wrote this to his mother, just a few days before his final mission, in April 1945: “I am pleased to have the honour 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.” [Source: David Powers, BBC, February 17, 2011 ***]
In Masao Kanai’s final letter to his family he wrote: "I don't know where to begin. Rain is falling softly. A song is playing quietly on the radio. It’s a peaceful evening. We'll wait for the weather to clear up and fly on our mission. If it hadn't been for this rain, I'd be long gone by now." [Source: Yuri Kageyama, Associated Press, June 17, 2015 +++]
Image Sources: National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, “Eyewitness to History “, edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, “History of Warfare “ by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to History.com, “The Good War An Oral History of World War II” by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.
Last updated November 2016