Japan from the inside out

Kamikazes: How many were really volunteers?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 30, 2007

MORE THAN 60 YEARS after the sudden appearance and even more abrupt departure of the so-called kamikaze pilots of World War II, misconceptions about the pilots themselves still prevail overseas. Some still assume the pilots were fanatical volunteers eager to sacrifice their lives for the Emperor and save the nation by flying their aircraft into American ships–hence the use in English of the word kamikaze to mean someone conducting an enterprise so recklessly they are unconcerned about death.

The Japanese, of course, know how little of this corresponds to the truth. They’re well aware of how much fiction exists in the idea of soldiers willing to die for the emperor and selfless pilots so dedicated to their country that they enthusiastically stepped forward to join the tokkotai.

A recently published book, Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers, by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, might help rectify these misconceptions.

Then again, perhaps not…

The confusion starts with this review of the book by Donald Richie in the Japan Times (registration required), titled “Involuntary Students of Death”. Richie covers the main points adequately enough. But he also seems to believe that a book review is a chance to flog his own ideas in a public forum. Unfortunately, his ideas are detrimental to an adequate presentation of the book. Here’s the first sentence:

“War flourishes through caricature and some of these wartime creations live on long after their political usefulness is over.”

We understand the point he’s trying to make—that the reality of the kamikaze pilots was very different from their image among the Allied forces and the public—but in regard to the Second World War, this sentence is just meaningless.

Does he really think caricatures of the enemy were “politically useful” because the soldiers and general public from which they were drawn in the United States and Europe would have been ambivalent about or hostile to the war had they not existed? Does he really think that the people creating those caricatures didn’t believe them to be factual at the time? Does he really think that Warner Bros. cartoons featuring Bugs and Daffy kicking the heinies of Hitler, Himmler, and a buck-toothed, bespectacled Hirohito kept the fighting going long after it should have ended?

In the middle of the review, he says:

“The grinning caricature that for a time symbolized (the pilots) was perhaps as welcome to the Japanese military as it was to the Allied propagandists.”

The more I read this sentence, the more insulting Richie’s presumption masquerading as erudition becomes. When Richie asserts that this caricature was welcome to “Allied propagandists”, he is clearly trying to state that the Allies required propaganda in the form of caricature to continue an unnecessary war. I share Richie’s detestation for the ugly caricatures of the Japanese that did exist during the war, but caricatures were not the motivating force, neither for the American military seeking to avenge Pearl Harbor, nor for the Japanese soldiers seeking to drive European colonialists out of Asia.

Richie probably thinks he saved his best for last:

“Now, as nations plainly prepare for the commercial advantages of World War III, it is salutary to listen to this moved and outraged voice as she…”

I’m sorry, but I refuse to finish typing in a sentence this sophomoric in every sense of the word.

Fortunately, however, a website exists that presents Ohnuki-Tierney in her own words, and the information she wishes to convey about the student pilots of the tokkotai. Even more fortunately, another website put together by Bill Gordon reveals Ohnuki-Tierney’s historical errors, general sloppiness, and falsehoods. Gordon’s site about the kamikaze is so good, in fact, that people interested in the subject should take the time to view all of it. I’ve added it to the list of Japan-related sites at the left.

Here’s an overview of both.


  • The modernization of the Japanese military that began in the second half of the 19th century included rules that made surrender or escape punishable by death.
  • Disobedience was punishable by immediate execution. The objective was to encourage servicemen to die for the emperor.
  • Disciplinary beatings of Japanese soldiers were commonplace; sometimes this was in fact the maltreatment of lower-ranking personnel whom higher-ranking personnel disliked.
  • The tokkotai pilots were forced to volunteer, and none “wholeheartedly espoused the emperor-centered military ideology”.
  • “Not a single officer who had been trained at the military academies volunteered to sortie as a pilot.”
  • “Of the approximately four thousand tokkotai pilots, about three thousand were so-called boy pilots, (and) roughly one thousand were “student soldiers,” university students whom the government graduated early in order to include them in the draft.”
  • “None of these manned weapon systems (submarines as well as aircraft) was equipped with any means of returning to base”
  • Most of the pilots volunteered due to such factors as peer pressure or feelings of solidarity for other pilots who had already died. Some pilots who did not volunteer found that their superior officers had volunteered them to ensure a 100% rate. Other pilots were “volunteered” by superior officers who disliked them.

Gordon’s website, Kamikaze Images

  • The book is largely a remake of Ohnuki-Tierney’s previous book, Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms, published in 2002. Her new book includes several paragraphs from the first book that have been edited and rearranged. The publisher of both books, the University of Chicago Press, does not tell readers in advance of the duplicated material.
  • “The title of Kamikaze Diaries does not accurately describe the contents.” The book covers the writings of seven student soldiers, but only three were kamikaze pilots. Most of the writings of two of these pilots date from either before they became kamikaze pilots, or before they joined the military. Half of the writings of the third are not diary entries, but letters to family and friends.
  • “The third endorsement quotation (on the book cover) states that ‘during World War II, not a single graduate of their military academies volunteered for one-way bombing missions’ (also implied on pp. 1-2), but in actuality about 160 Naval Academy and about 180 Army Air Corps Academy graduates died in special attack missions.”
  • “The inside front cover starts with a quotation from Irokawa Daikichi, who is introduced as one of the many kamikaze pilots, or tokkotai. However, the book’s text does not include this quotation, and Irokawa did not serve as a kamikaze pilot.”
  • “Chapter 4 introduces two brothers, Matsunaga Shigeo and Matsunaga Tatsuki, who fought with the Japanese Army in China and who died in November 1938 and 1944 (no month given), respectively. Both may have died even before Vice Admiral Ohnishi organized the first kamikaze squadron in October 1944.”
  • “Chapter 1’s 31 pages on Sasaki Hachiro include only about seven pages of his actual writings.”
  • “Several of the author’s claims related to Japan’s tokkotai are incorrect. She states, ‘None of these manned weapon systems was equipped with any means of returning to base’ (p. 1)…. (but) planes and explosive motorboats not only could but frequently did return to base for various reasons such as bad weather, mechanical problems, or not being able to locate the enemy.” (Ampontan note: The author herself mentions in the introduction the Waseda graduate who was shot after returning nine times when he couldn’t find the enemy.)
  • “The author incorrectly uses “Demizu” as the name for “Izumi” Naval Air Base in Kagoshima Prefecture.”
  • “She introduces a long quotation as a description of “the night before their final flights” of tokkotai pilots from Tsuchiura Naval Air Base (p. 9), but no tokkotai pilots made a final sortie from this air base.”
  • “She states, ‘A single cherry blossom was painted in pink on a white background on both sides of the tokkotai airplane…’ (p. 29). In reality, tokkotai airplanes did not have a cherry blossom painted on each side…”
  • While Ohnuki-Tierney suggests that none of the kamikaze pilots were very willing to go on their missions, one pilot, Hayashi Ichizo, a devout Christian (!) wrote to his mother: “… I am happy to go as a tokkotai pilot….I will do a splendid job sinking an enemy aircraft carrier…I read the Bible every day…I will sing a hymn as I dive on an enemy vessel…”
  • “Most chapters do not provide any idea about how young Japanese men felt after they joined the tokkotai dedicated to suicide attacks, since more than half of the pilots introduced in the book were not tokkotai members. Even in the three chapters that discuss tokkotai pilots, the focus is their intellectual development prior to joining the military rather than a depiction of life in the military and in a tokkotai squadron.”

Ampontan sez:

  • The author claims that no one willingly volunteered, which doesn’t seem plausible. All the pilots were raised in an era of heavy propaganda—and someone always buys into propaganda. Richie would have us believe that the era was saturated by propaganda on both sides, but the student pilots of Japan weren’t having any of it. See Gordon’s website for a good discussion of both the Japanese motivations for volunteering and Allied misconceptions of the kamikaze pilots.
  • The author says: “In Japan, the military government left no room for political or guerrilla resistance movements like those in Germany, France, and other countries ruled or occupied by fascists.” I’m not sure which is more astonishing: that she would lump Germany and France into the same category, or her implication that the Third Reich “left room” for political resistance movements.
  • “The determination to combat the egotism brought forth by capitalism and modernity was a major element of the students’ idealism.” In a book whose premise is the coercion used to get pilots to volunteer for kamikaze missions, it’s odd that the author would claim one reason the student pilots volunteered was an antipathy toward capitalism. Considering the intellectual leanings of American university professors in general, however, perhaps it’s not so odd after all.
  • “Any soldier who refused would become persona non grata or be sent to the southern battlefield, where death was guaranteed.” That’s no explanation for volunteering for kamikaze duty. If I had to calculate the odds of my survival based on a choice between (a) climbing into an airplane and flying it into an American warship, and (b) being issued a rifle and sent into combat, I’d pick (b) without hesitation every time. Is that really so hard to figure out—even for a woman with no military experience?
  • I understand that Ohnuki-Tierney’s objective is to examine how educated college students came to put into practice an ideology most did not share by being coerced to volunteer for suicide. Yet one cannot help but wonder how interested the author would have been in the virulence of Japanese militarism and its ramifications had the kamikaze pilots consisted solely of people who were garbage men, barbers, and udon/soba shop proprietors in civilian life.
  • The author fails to consider that because Japanese university students majoring in the liberal arts received draft deferments until late 1943, many of those in school who were subsequently drafted and became kamikaze pilots likely enrolled in school to save their own necks rather than to ponder the intricacies of Kant and Nietzsche. Indeed, as is shown in the movie Wings of a Man, some professional baseball players took advantage of draft deferments for college enrollment by playing baseball during the day and studying at night. A severe case of resentment might well explain the military veterans’ brutal treatment of those who had college deferments. It certainly wouldn’t be unique to Japan.
  • No discussion of kamikaze pilots is complete without reference to the traditional Japanese attitude toward suicide in general and their attitude toward the self-sacrifice of soldiers taking action in wartime against a superior enemy. Gordon notes that these actions are not really considered suicidal by the Japanese.
  • Death for disobeying orders was nothing new in Japan. Failure to disobey the order of a samurai had been punishable by immediate execution for centuries among the civilian population. This background, both in an earlier era and during the war, might bring some perspective to the Japanese attitude toward and treatment of enemy soldiers who were captured or surrendered.
  • Some people think that bullying in Japanese schools is caused by the examination system. What this book may show indirectly is that bullying has long been a part of the vertically-structured Japanese society. Women have been guilty of this, too: the expression yome-ibiri refers to the mistreatment meted out by women toward their daughters-in-law, particularly when the young married couple lives with the husband’s parents. Indeed, from a long-range perspective, Ohnuki-Tierney’s book may also indirectly demonstrate that this aspect of Japanese society is actually improving.
  • A comparison of Donald Richie’s review with the excerpt of the book reveals that a large chunk of his article—for which I’m sure he was paid—was lifted in toto from Ohnuki-Tierney’s introduction without attribution. Elsewhere in the article, however, he specifically cites the author and properly quotes passages. Is this not plagiarism?
  • Do not misunderstand: The book does have an important theme. Emperor worship was not as extensive as some people believe, and not all kamikaze pilots were willing volunteers. It also sheds some perhaps unintended light on non-military issues that Japan still faces today. But in view of Ohnuki-Tierney’s surprising disregard for accuracy, the material would have been better served had it been handled by a competent historian with a deeper understanding of Japanese culture. And considering that Richie seems to have gone over the falls of reality in a barrel, the Japan Times review could have been better presented by someone with a more relevant academic background and whose reputation has not gone to his head.

    I’ve spent the better part of my adult life trying to convince both Westerners and Japanese that they aren’t all that different from each other. Also, translating is my profession. Therefore, I can honestly say I was moved by Ohnuki-Tierney’s translation of an account by a man who saw the parties of the kamikaze pilots on the night before their missions. It is instantly understandable on a human level. Speaking personally, it is one of the most valuable translated documents I have ever seen. If for nothing else, Ohnuki-Tierney is to be commended for presenting it in English:

    “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 turned to mayhem. Some broke hanging light bulbs 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 [a rapidly revolving lantern with many pictures on it]. 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 a frenzy while breaking flower vases. They all took off wearing the rising sun headband the next morning.

    “But this scene of utter desperation has hardly been reported. I observed it with my own eyes, as I took care of their daily life, which consisted of incredibly strenuous training, coupled with cruel and torturous corporal punishment as a daily routine.”

    2 Responses to “Kamikazes: How many were really volunteers?”

    1. I have my reservations about referring to you as アンポンタン, its too modest a pen-name.

      I enjoyed reading your critique of the Donald Richie’s article, and I am sure to return to this post sometime in the future to explore some of the links you added.

      I think your lambasting Richie statement that “[w]ar flourishes through caricature and some of these wartime creations live on long after their political usefulness is over,” was a bit harsh though.

      Frankly, I think the valourization of the tokkotai as unflinching in their decision to commit the ultimate sacrifice remains an entrenched image in the wartime narratives of both the United States and Japan. In the American narrative the iconic image of the kamikaze raised fears over the high costs of aprolonged conflict and serves to justify the dropping of the bombs. On the other hand, nationalists in Japan nostalgically refer to the exploits of the Kamikaze as the epitomy of service to the kokutai. In both narratives the memories of the kamikaze are fetishized reflecting the beholders: desire to see historical events in the desired light.

      As historical revisionism sets in with the passage of time, there is bound to be a reaction where those who had experienced an event will announce their desire to determine how their lived experiences will be recorded in history. Chances are these voices will be coopted by nationalists. I think a good example of this would be the Yushukan museum within the precinct of Yasukuni shrine where the wills and belongings of select individuals tokkotai members are framed in a manner that mirrors the wartime narrative. A similar tendency can be seen in the US, for example in 1995 the Smithsonian’s initial script for the display of the Enola Gay, historically contextualized the artifact in a visual narrative that is preceded by an enlarged mural of a kamikaze striking an American warship.

      One narrative valourizes them, whereas the other dehumanizes them by revealing only the silhouette of the flying weapon. Granted, these images are quite different from the “grinning caricatures” that Richie mentions, but such images in my opinion are a ‘負の遺産’ of a war whose footprint on the collective memory is still dominated by nationalistic narratives.

    2. ampontan said


      “In both narratives the memories of the kamikaze are fetishized reflecting the beholders: desire to see historical events in the desired light.”

      I agree completely.

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