Japan was losing World War II. While the ordinary Japanese citizens had no real way to objectively gauge the progress of the war other than their dwindling supplies and their disappearing sons and brothers, the grim truth was known and understood by most high-ranking officers in the military.
Japan had enjoyed a brief and heady feeling of victory against the United States in the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, as America scrambled to mobilize and to replace the naval hardware and men that had been lost, but that was over now. Admiral Yamamoto (the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack) had been prescient when he said, “I can run wild for six months… after that, I have no expectation of success.” The Battle of Midway, commonly considered to be the turning point in the Pacific War, took place six months after Pearl Harbor, and Japan had been losing ever since.
Map showing Allied Landings in the Pacific by year. General MacArthur's General Staff - MacArthur, Douglas (1994)  Reports of General MacArthur, Vol. 1, Center of Military History, pp. p. 432.
Now it was October of 1944 and the future looked bleak, indeed. Japan was fighting an enemy that had better technology, more resources, and more people. Its airplanes were outdated, its experienced pilots long since lost, and its people slowly but inexorably starving to death. Day by day, the Americans were creeping closer and closer to the Japanese home islands, one seemingly insignificant island or atoll at a time.
For the Japanese, the war had long since passed being a matter of national pride, or of being able to stand among other nations as a world power. This was now a matter of national survival. Ordinary Japanese had been taught that, if Americans invaded the home islands, they would rape the women and slaughter everyone else. Since there was heavy censorship in place and people were afraid to speak their minds, there is no fair or accurate way to judge the extent to which the Japanese civilians actually believed this at the time, but it was the official line. Men, women, and children were all instructed and trained to resist invaders, famously with bamboo spears. By the end of 1944, the government would announce the final protocol for repelling opposition forces; it was called “ichioku gyokusai,” which translates as “the shattering of a hundred million jewels,” and referred to the expected national suicide of the Japanese, fighting to the last survivor.
Female students receiving training in gun handling. 1944.
It was in this grim atmosphere that an idea took hold. It was an extreme idea, and had been proposed before, only to be disregarded as heresy, but now, with the possible destruction of Japan looming large, this idea came to be viewed as Japan’s last hope (or, at the very least, as was whispered in the upper echelons, Japan’s best chance of coming to the negotiation table from a position of some strength). This idea took into account the lack of experienced pilots available and the outdated aircraft, and clothed itself in a perversion of Japanese history and culture: military pilots would begin purposefully crashing their planes into Allied ships, killing the pilot, but also hopefully severely damaging or sinking the ship. It was presented as an honorable strategy with many precedents in Japanese culture, but while there was certainly an old tradition of hara-kiri or seppuku (ritual disembowling; the terms differentiated whether a common person or a samurai was performing it), usually either as a punishment or as a way to regain lost honor, there had never been any sort of tradition of suicide attacks.
The official name for these pilots was “Tokubetsukougekitai,” or “Special Attack Forces.” It was often shortened to just “Tokko,” but in the West, we remember these men as “Kamikaze pilots.” The word “kamikaze,” or “Divine Wind,” referred to two typhoons that raged off the coast of Japan in 1274 and 1281 CE, each time destroying an invading Mongol fleet. The hope was that these young pilots would be the new divine wind, blessed by the gods, who would once again destroy Japan’s enemies.
The first official Tokko was a young Lieutenant named Seki Yukio (this name is written in the Japanese style, with the family name preceding the given name). He was 23 years old and a newlywed deeply in love with his new wife. When offered the “opportunity” to be the first of this new breed of fighting men, Seki is said to have lowered his head and closed his eyes for a moment before formally asking for the privilege of leading the first Special Attack squad. He later confided in a war correspondent, though, that he believed that there was no longer any hope for Japan, if it needed to ask one of its best pilots to kill himself. He also said that he was going only because he had been ordered to do so.
Lt. Seki Yukio in flight gear. Undated.
Lt. Seki took the first unit of Tokko out on their mission on October 25, 1944, hoping to change the course of the Battle of Leyte Gulf (in the Philippines). They attacked four escort carriers. Only one of the four carriers, the St. Lo, was sunk as a result of the attack. Tradition says that the plane that sank the St. Lo (after its bomb exploded upon making contact with the flight deck) belonged to Seki.
The St. Lo's magazine explodes after the attack. It would sink within the next half hour. 25 October, 1944.
The first official Kamikaze attack was by no means an unqualified success, but a little thing like “limited efficacy” would not deter the Japanese military in the months to come from lining up more young men and asking them to die for their country.