“Special Attacks,” as we discussed last week, began in October of 1944 at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. By the time the war ended, somewhere in the vicinity of 3,800 young men had died in suicide attacks, not only in planes, but also in manned missiles, torpedos, as SCUBA divers armed with mines, and in speed boats.
A Yokusuka D4Y3 piloted by Lt. Yamaguchi Yoshinori in a suicide dive against the USS Essex. 25 November, 1944.
Finding young men to carry out these missions, however, was not as easy as the military brass had hoped. When originally asked by Admiral Ohnishi Takijiro (again, names are in the Japanese style), the man in charge of the Japanese military’s efforts in the Philippines, and his right-hand men if they would be willing to engage in Special Attacks, none of the professional soldiers present (i.e., men who had graduated from the army and navy academies) volunteered. The vast majority of the Tokko wound up being students and practice pilots: of those who died, 63% were practice pilots and 25% were students. Only 12% were Naval Academy graduates and officers.
In the preceding years, the draft laws had changed dramatically: originally students were allowed to postpone the draft until they were twenty-seven. However, in 1942 and 1943, the period for education was shortened by three months and six months respectively by Tojo Hideki, the Minister of the Army. Finally, in October 1943, student deferment was eliminated altogether, with the exception of those students who were majoring in science or education, as the Japanese government considered them critical for the future of the nation. In other words… many (one out of every four) of the young men who wound up serving as Tokko were highly educated liberal arts students, the cream of their generation, who lost their student deferment at what turned out to be the worst possible time. Though they were young men to begin with, as time went on and even these inexperienced pilots went off on their final missions, the average age of the pilots grew younger and younger until the Japanese military was putting boys of barely 17 years old into the cockpits.
Despite the fact that the Tokko operation was “volunteer-only,” the military applied a great deal of pressure on the young recruits to volunteer. One method was to bring all of the members of the corps into one big hall and lecture them on the virtues of patriotism and of sacrificing themselves for Japan and the emperor. Upon the completion of the lecture, all men willing to volunteer would be asked to step forward. Though it was not, strictly speaking, required to step forward, of course, the pressure of men stepping forward all around would have made it very difficult for any one man to remain behind and not volunteer. Similarly, sometimes the officers would have the men blindfolded and ask them to raise their hands, but the rustling sound as men raised their hands would have shamed the majority of the others into complying. Many claimed that they would not have been able to bear the shame of remaining behind while their friends volunteered. Others decided that with Japan not doing well in the war, they were likely to die anyway. If they were to die, they wanted to go out as heroes.
Sometimes, men weren’t even informed for precisely what they were volunteering. Kozu Naoji, a young Tokyo University student who was drafted and ended up being a Kaiten (manned torpedo) pilot, for example, was never actually informed by his superiors that he was to die. After being sent to anti-submarine warfare school, he began to grow restless:
“’What am I doing in this place?’ I asked myself that when they started calling for volunteers who were ‘full of energy,’ who were ‘willing to take on a dangerous job,’ and ‘willing to board a special weapon’ that would ‘reverse the tide of the war at once.’ Why not? It’s got to be better than this. I applied for it carelessly. Almost 90 percent of us volunteered.”1
As Kozu was trained, he began to have doubts as to what was really going on, but couldn’t share his worries with his comrades for fear of disgracing his university. For many, many years afterwards, he still couldn’t believe to what extent they had all been deceived.
On the off chance that a man had successfully managed to brave criticism from his peers and superiors and not volunteer, he still wasn’t out of hot water. Yamada Ryu, for example, specifically did not volunteer of his own volition, but was “forced to volunteer to be a pilot for the inhumane Tokkotai operation.”2 Another who didn’t volunteer, Kuroda Kenjiro, was shocked and dismayed to hear his name called out as a member of the Tokko corps. Apparently, his superior had reported that every single man in his unit had volunteered. One way or another, however, once the men’s names were on the list, there was nothing they could do about it. Their fates had been decided.
Of course, as with any country, especially a country at war, there were those young men who whole-heartedly bought into the nationalistic propaganda that they were being fed. One young Kaiten pilot named Yokota Yutaka, for example, knew exactly what he was getting into when he volunteered. He was, in his words, “a militaristic youth,” who had been “purely cultivated to serve.” Decades later, he still had remnants of the nationalist spirit, saying, “Yet despite everything we did, American battle reports credit us with only two ships! Don’t toy with us!” He scoffed at the idea that they were throwing their lives away for nothing: “Life is so precious. Your life was dedicated to self-sacrifice, committed to smashing into the enemy. That’s why we trained like that. We practiced that hard because we valued our lives that highly.”3 In the end, Yutaka survived due to engine malfunctions. Later, he recalled quite clearly that those moments, when his his manned torpedo didn’t work, were the only moments in which he truly wanted to die, though in those cases it was out of shame.
Contrary to public opinion, both in Japan and overseas, there was great ambivalence in the heart of an average Tokko. Hayashi Ichizo wrote bitterly in his diary, “To be honest, I cannot say that the wish to die for the emperor is genuine, coming from the heart. However, it is decided for me that I die for the emperor.”4 A rare and honest outsider's perspective came from Kasuga Takeo, a young man who had been drafted into the navy and given the job of looking after meals, laundry, and cleaning; he wrote a letter to a Dr. Umezao Shozo describing the scene he witnessed on the night before a kamikaze mission:
“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 degenerated into chaos. Some broke hanging lightbulbs 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 thought of their parents, their faces and images, lovers’ faces and their smiles, a sad farewell to their fiancées – all went through their minds like a running-horse lantern. Although they were supposedly ready to sacrifice their precious youth the next morning for Imperial Japan and for the emperor, they were torn beyond what words can express – some putting their heads on the table, some writing their wills, some folding their hands in meditation, some leaving the hall, and some dancing in frenzy while breaking flower vases. They all took off with the rising sun headband the next morning. But, this scene of utter desperation has hardly been reported.”5
17-year-old Corporal Araki Yukio holds a puppy while posing with four other members of the 72nd Shinbu Squadron on 26 May, 1945. Araki took off on his final mission the following day.
Many wonderful books have been written about the Tokkotai (or books that touch on the subject) from different angles. I’ve listed some of them at the bottom of this post, and they run the gamut from academic to to military history to autobiographies/memoirs written as pulp fiction. If you want a recommendation, however, for my money there is no better book out there on this topic than Blossoms in the Wind by M.G. Sheftall.6 It ably straddles the divide between informative and evocative, rendering technical military strategy into comprehensible English at some points, and reading like a novel at others (that is, if your novels are exceptionally well-researched and largely based off of interviews with the people who actually lived the events they’re discussing). Blossoms evokes humor, sadness, and awe with equal ease, taking you into the minds and hearts of the Tokko (both those who managed to survive the war, and those who went on their final missions) while never coming off as heavy-handedly sentimental or in the service of a particular political agenda. It is easily one of the top five nonfiction books I’ve ever read, and I recommend it to you with absolutely no reservations.
1 Cook, pg. 314. (see below for full citation)
2 Ohnuki-Tierney, pg. 169. (see below for full citation)
3 Cook, pg. 307-308.
4 Ohnuki-Tierney, pg. 234.
5 Ibid., pg. 174.
6 In the interest of full disclosure, Dr. Sheftall served as something of a long-distance mentor to me in graduate school, I’ve met him, and we’re Facebook friends. That has no bearing on my decision to recommend his book.
Axell, Albert and Hideaki Kase. Kamikaze: Japan’s Suicide Gods. London: Pearson Education, 2002.
Cook, Haruko Taya and Theodore F. Cook. Japan at War: An Oral History. New York: The New Press, 1992.
Hoyt, Edwin P. The Kamikazes: Suicide Squadrons of World War II. Short Hills: Burford Books, 1983.
Inoguchi, Rikihei and Tadashi Nakajima. The Divine Wind: Japan’s Kamikaze Force in World War II. Trans. Roger Pineau. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1959.
Nagatsuka, Ryuji, and Nina Rootes. I Was a Kamikaze. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1972.
Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Sheftall, M.G. Blossoms in the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze. Penguin Group, 2005.
Warner, David, Peggy Warner, and Sadao Seno. The Sacred Warriors: Japan’s Suicide Legions. New York: Avon Books, 1982.
Yokota, Yutaka and Joseph D. Harrington. Suicide Submarine! The Story of Japan’s Submarine “Kamikaze” of Manned Torpedos! New York: Ballentine Books, 1962.