Kamikaze Essay, Research Paper
Throughout history, the influence of Japan s military has traditionally affected the outlook of her citizens. The end of court life gave way to a period of small-scale civil wars that played a large role in the unification of the country. As the honorable samurai class rose to power at the end of the Heian period, an interesting set of morals and values became a definitive part of the Japanese psyche. Popular literature and historic events suggested that it was honorable to die for a meaningful cause. Dying showed devout loyalty to one s beliefs and master and was looked upon highly. With modernization and the fall of Samurai culture, the nation itself took on the role that the master once held.
Giving up one s life, makes clear the individual s purity of motive and devotion to his cause. Individuals must do all they are capable of in attempts to be successful, including the self-sacrifice of one s life. This belief has lived on even in recent times and was deeply ingrained in the minds of those in the Japanese military of World War II. Because of this, death is, and was, often viewed as preferable to the disgrace that would result in a situation of defeat or capture. Proof that these views live on even in today s Japan are reflected by a newspaper article published in 1972 in response to an extremist group s actions:
Differing from other extremist groups, their creed is direct resort to arms. It was believed that after exhausting their ammunition, they would either take their own lives or die fighting hand-to-hand with the riot police. But this belief was utterly betrayed. When the police rushed in, the five youths offered almost no resistance. At the last moment they had lost all will to fight and meekly submitted to arrest. Such an attitude brings out their pampered spirit! (Buruma 159).
In addition, cases of death by seppuku, the traditional form of honorable suicide by disembowelment usually resulting after having disgraced one s self or family, have been documented in times as recent as the 1970 s.
Further hints that death was viewed as an honorable sacrifice can be seen from the point of western interaction with the Japanese during the Meiji Restoration:
From early childhood, the Japanese were conditioned to believe that the Emperor was divine, and the spiritual head of the nation. They were also taught to accept the will of the Emperor (in reality, that of the ruling cliques) as both divine and absolute. Like the military fanatics of many countries, the ultranationalists among the Japanese believed they had a spiritual mandate to conquer and Japanize the rest of the world. Hence their wars against China, Russia, Southeast Asia, and eventually the United States were thought of as divine wars.
Very much like the Muslims of Iran in the 1970 s and 1980s Japanese servicemen were taught to believe that if they died in battle, especially if they died heroically, they would instantly become gods , and join the guardian spirits of the nation at Yasukuni Shrine on Kudan Hill (Hatsuho Naito 21).
This strong desire to fight for a cause with as much dignity and honor as possible was deeply ingrained in the young Japanese man s psyche. The view that the emperor was a living god raised the bar of devotion to an entirely different level. Whereas the Muslims of the 1970 s were told by their spiritual leaders this is what Allah would want, the Japanese were being directly told what to do from the god himself. With this in mind, it is no wonder thousands of young pilots gave their lives to the Special Operations squadrons in an attempt to save the empire during the final months of World War II.
Most Japanese found the concept of suicide– so popular in Japan as a means of atonement for failure of any kind– a glorious method of defending the homeland (Okinawa 16). Thus, throughout World War II it was not unheard of for Japanese pilots facing a perilous situation to sacrifice their lives by ramming an allied ship or bomber. These attacks however, were completely self-directed by the pilot and by no means promoted by high-ranking military officers during the early years of the war. These officials were proud and spirited men who still believed that they could defeat the Allied forces in regular combat (Thunder Gods 22). Unfortunately, as time progressed and Japan s situation grew bleaker, new policies were adopted in an attempt to save the empire and strike a counter offensive blow to the Americans.
On October 14,1944 Vice Admiral Takejiro Onishi entered a meeting room filled with high-ranking military officials. It was the goal of the council to determine a way to get Japan back into the war. When it was Onishi s turn to report to Commander Tamai, the leader of Japanese forces in the area, what he reported would forever change Western perceptions of the Japanese will to fight: In my opinion, there is only one way of assuring that our meager strength be effective to a maximum degree. That is to organize attack units composed of Zero fighters armed with 250kg bombs with each plane to crash dive into an enemy carrier . What do you think? (The Nobility of Failure p283).
This stunning proposal would soon send thousands of pilots to their deaths and would be dismissed as immoral and desperate by western militaries, yet within minutes it was approved by Commander Tamai and seconded by every other high ranking official at the table: Entrusted by our commander with full responsibility, I share completely the opinions expressed by the Admiral. The 201st Air Group will carry out his proposal. May I ask that you leave to us the organization of our crash-dive unit? Not a single officer at the meeting demurred (The Nobility of Failure 283). Few decisions have proved to be as significant to a country s military policy.
Many may believe that only a heartless zealot could propose such a desperate plan of action. Yet Vice Admiral Onishi, in many respects, was no different from many traditional Japanese heroes.
What was truly admirable about Onishi was how unlike many military officials of the time he was. Even in such fundamental aspects as physical appearance he deviated from common perceptions. As Ivan Morris tells us, he was a portly, kind looking man with puffy facial features. His everyday actions showed his devout single-hearted sincerity that earned him the respect and admiration of almost every soldier he commanded (Nobility of Failure 282). These qualities made him a well-rounded commander but his military genius is what allowed him to rise to such a high level of power.
Militarily, Onishi was viewed as an unpredictable maverick. This, coupled with his shocking proposal of the formation of the Special Attack Squadrons, has given rise to a debate amongst scholars as to whether or not he was a heroic individual. Whereas the tone of quotes chosen by Ivan Morris generally show sympathy towards Onishi given his upbringing in such a nationalistic society, Hatsuho Naito s quotes leads the reader to believe that Onishi was foolish and determined that his way was the best way:
As you all know, he said, the results of the most recent kamikaze attacks against the enemy naval forces were remarkable, and we will continue this operation every corps in both the First and Second Naval Aviation fleets. It is my conviction that this is the only way Japan can win the war. No criticism will be allowed. No objections will be tolerated! (Hatsuho Naito 63).
Regardless of how Onishi has been portrayed by scholars, it is clear that his courage bordered on foolhardiness even in the eyes of Japanese officials (The Nobility of Failure 282). Yet he was a military genius that played a large role in the planning of numerous decisive military campaigns. His most widely recognized accomplishment was the planning of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Onishi worked directly with the almost god-like Admiral Yamamoto and earned the respect of many high ranking officials both in the military as well as the government.
These distinct characteristics made him almost a wolf in sheep s clothing and set him up to be what could be viewed as a hero in Japan. Onishi recognized the fact that the critically wounded Japanese war machine could by no means rival America in the production of military equipment and supply of troops. With all divisions of the armed forces that once were the envy of the world in shambles and morale at an all time low, it was clear to Onishi that there was no way for Japan to win the war using traditional methods if at all. Due to this disheartening reality, the Special Attack Squadrons were formed under his guidance and supervision. They were to be called the Divine Wind, in reference to the two typhoons of 1274 and1281 whose sheer strength destroyed the invading superior Mongol forces that attempt to invade the island nation (Okinawa p15-16) . Thus, Onishi and his kamikaze squadrons fit the mold of the tragic hero as described by Ivan Morris:
During the early years his courage and verve may propel him rapidly upwards, but he is wedded to the losing side and will ineluctably be cast down. Flinging himself after his painful destiny, he defies the dictates of convention and common sense, until eventually he is worsted by his enemy, the successful survivor, who by his ruthlessly realistic politics manages to impose a new, more stable order on the world. Faced with defeat, the hero will typically take his own life in order to avoid the indignity of capture, vindicate his honor, and make a final assertion of sincerity (Ivan Morris xxi).
All of the pilots and officers involved in the attacks were viewed as heroes (by society). These individuals gave themselves, with all truth and sincerity, to the Japanese cause by sacrificing their lives in the hope of defeating the common American enemy. This almost divine purity resulted in an automatic promotion for all pilots upon completion of their mission. In fact, it was not at all uncommon for pilots to be given double promotions as was the case when Sergeant Oda choose to ram his heavily damaged fighter into an enemy B-17 saving an unprotected convoy carrying desperately needed supplies (The Nobility of Failure 298).
Common belief among pilots was that, upon their deaths, their spirits would be lifted to the Yasukuni Shrine where they would forever be worshiped as heroes of the state. Even today, memorials with fresh flowers to acknowledge their sacrifice stand at Yasukuni (Thunder Gods 136). They were told to believe that rank was not the determining factor of status in the after life and that the warriors who arrived first at the shrine would be seen in utmost glory. Because of this, many soldiers and officers jumped at the opportunity to be pilots in these elite squadrons. The seemingly endless source of volunteers made it very difficult for officers to choose who would join the squadrons and who would remain at the base. Soldiers would literally cry and beg to be given the chance to crash into American carriers (Okinawa 16-18).
In an attempt to narrow the pool of volunteers, certain restrictions were placed on enrollment. No sons from single child families or married men were allowed to join the squadrons. Although there was no formal age restriction, no pilot under the age of 17 or over the age of 35 is known to have participated in such a mission. Onishi stated that it was these men, few over the age of 26, whose Purity of youth will usher the Divine Wind (The Nobility of Failure 280).
The unique subculture of the kamikaze pilots was truly fascinating. They lived amongst common soldiers and pilots and up until the time of their mission were given no preferential treatment or compensation. The sheer humility of the pilots may be a reason why they were so highly regarded. Their spirits, and moral superiority, were thought to be the determining factor that would allow Japan to win the war (Nobility of Failure 285).
Choosing a leader for the momentous occasion of the first attack proved to be a very difficult feat. The leader needed to be the exemplar. He was to be what every pilot should be. If a poor decision was made the operation could end in disaster. Commander Tamai, the head military official in the region, chose to personally make the decision.
A new hero and Japanese poster boy was to be brought in for the job. Lieutenant Seki was one of Japan s finest remaining pilots. He shared Onishi s excessive zeal and was always first in line to volunteer for the most dangerous and risky missions. Seki was an incredibly intelligent man and was one of the few remaining Naval College graduates. His superiors looked upon him as one of their bravest, even despite his transfer from Taiwan one month earlier (Thunder Gods 61). A scene described by Ivan Morris shows his sheer devotion to the Japanese cause:
Seki, Admiral Onishi himself has visited the 201st Air Group to present a plan of greatest importance to Japan. The plan is to crash-dive our Zero fighters, loaded with 250-kg bombs, into the decks of enemy carriers… You are being considered to lead such an attack unit. How do you feel about it? . Calmly raising his head he spoke, You absolutely must let me do it. There was not the slightest falter in his voice (Ivan Morris 286).
Seki s life ended in a triumphant blaze of glory when his Zero entered a full speed downward dive onto the landing deck of the escort carrier St. Lo (Nobility of Failure 288). The extraordinary courage of Seki and the pilots under his command completely surprised the American fleet and the attack ended with great success, sinking the St. Lo and a number of the ships in her task force.
One reason why the Special Attack Squadrons may have been used, and as widely adopted as they were, was the success of Seki s mission. Onishi believed that the American enemy would be psychologically crushed and defenseless. This belief initially proved to be correct. Thus, numerous Special Attack Squadrons were formed throughout the lands Japan continued to control.
The wide recruitment and formation of kamikaze squadrons, at times, spurred the jealous nature within regular soldiers and pilots that fought throughout the war. These feelings of animosity towards their newly found kamikaze brethren were often seen. As these regular soldiers careers languished in obscurity, college students with little if any military experience were being allowed to bask in glory. For the most part however, Special Attack Squadrons had the full backing of their peers. Mechanics, knowing the role the planes were about to play in the war, proved to be very enthusiastic. Their sheer and utter devotion allowed them to do things not even their commanders expected them to. The planes would be waxed to a glossy shine and placed back into the condition they were when they rolled off the assembly line. Towards the end of the war they were miraculously able to find ways to reassemble hulking wrecks of metal into the flying coffins that they needed to be (Nobility of Failure 285).
Despite the devotion of all involved in the Special Attack Squadrons, their addition to the cause was too little too late. Many of the attacks proved to be completely useless and at times bordered on the point of insanity. There is no question about their desire to do good, but their mission soon turned into the equivalent of trying to hunt a tiger with a handful of rocks. One example of the kamikaze s inability to inflict heavy damage was the attack on the light cruiser Montpelier. The Montpelier was the target of eight kamikaze pilots, all of whom successfully collided with the ship, yet she managed to stay afloat. Within days of the attack, she returned to battle (Nobility of Failure 295).
By the time the Japanese chose to use kamikaze attacks as their main counter attack measure, the Americans had already taken efforts to defend their fleets, further weakening the effects of the kamikaze:
American tactics used to fight the kamikaze threat were many and varied. Fighter strength on board carriers already had been increased, as commanders realized that missions normally flown by Avengers and Helldivers could be taken over by Hellcats and Corsairs used as fighter-bombers. Dive-bomber pilots were retrained and mixed with new ensigns to form VBF squadrons. Thus, when the kamikaze threat developed, most U.S. carriers already had significantly more fighters on board (The Dispatch Vol. 20).
In order to classify the kamikaze, and their leaders such as Onishi, as Japanese heroes in light of their failure to inflict substantial amounts of damage on the American Fleet, one must understand what it means to be a hero in Japan. In order to do this, the heroes of Japan s past must be understood. Just as the definition of American heroes is founded on the accomplishments of such notable figures as Columbus, Washington and Grant, Japan has such characters of her own.
As stated by Ivan Morris and other scholars, the quintessential Japanese hero for centuries has been Minamoto no Yoshitsune. Many of the actions of Onishi, Seki, and the kamikaze war heroes of World War II have their roots in the actions of the legendary Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune, like Admiral Onishi, rose to his high rank early on in his career after demonstrating his keen military talents in his fight against the Taira enemy. He, like most World War II Japanese soldiers, possessed an excessive zeal when faced with a battle and often made decisions that many would regard as foolhardy and un-necessary. This excessive zeal and desire to make any sacrifice necessary in order to accomplish victory led to his downfall. Yoshitsune s early successes arguably made him too confident in himself. Thus, his brother and ruler of the Minamoto Clan, Yoritomo, felt threatened by this unpredictable maverick. Yoritomo set out on an obsessive quest to assassinate his own brother by whatever means possible, making Yoshitsune the most wanted man in all of Japan. Although Yoshitsune knew there was no way that he would be allowed to survive and overthrow his brother, he fought on heroically, wanting to die under his own terms. In the middle of the hunt for Yoshitsune, Japanese citizens found sympathy with him. They tried to help him out as much as they possibly could without betraying their allegiance to Yoritomo, knowing that there was no way that Yoshitsune could possibly succeed. It is this view that close enough is good enough, as long as every possible attempt to succeed has been exhausted, that has forever shaped the perceptions of what it means to be a hero in Japan: So faithfully does Yoshitsune conform to the ideal of heroism through failure that the term boganbiiki (which literally meant sympathy with the Lieutenant and came from his rank in the Imperial Police) has become fixed in the language to describe the traditional sympathy with the losing side (The Nobility of Failure p67).
When Yoshitsune was finally faced with death he did so with dignity:
In the Battle of Koromo River, as it is somewhat euphemistically described, Yoshitsune and his small band of nine followers were confronted by an attacking force of some thirty thousand men. In such an unpromising situation the aim of the Japanese warrior is to sell his life as dearly as he can and to take the largest possible number of enemy officers with him to the next world. According to the legend, Yoshitsune s supporters acquitted themselves with fantastic courage and skill until one after another was killed or so seriously wounded that he had to commit suicide (Ivan Morris p98).
Clear correlations can be made between this passage and the mission of the Special Attack Squadrons. World War II Japan was faced with a situation very similar to that faced by Yoshitsune hundreds of years before. Japan was confronted with an overwhelming American attack force. The entire concept behind the Kamikaze attacks was to take down as many Americans as possible. The Japanese knew that they could not survive yet their leaders did not want to go into the next world alone.
When all of Yoshitsune s followers had died he chose to go down in one final blaze of glory:
Seizing the sword, Yoshitsune plunged it into his body below the left breast, thrusting it in so far that the blade almost emerged through his back. Then he cut deeply into his stomach and, tearing the wound wide open in three directions, pulled out his intestines. He wiped the sword on the sleeve of his robe, which he then draped over his shoulders, and leant the upper part of his body on an armrest . At the sight Kanefusa was pierced with grief, quickly now, said his master, burn down the house! (Ivan Morris100).
After years of courageous fighting and numerous successes, Yoshitsune chose to die with his honor rather than be captured by the victor. A similar spirit was found in the Japanese warriors of World War II. At the end of the war, the Japanese government formally asked Americans to allow high-ranking officers the opportunity to commit an honorable suicide before shooting them. General Onishi, faced with disgrace, failure, and the guilt of knowing he sent thousands of Japan s finest scholars to their grave, committed seppuku in a way closely following that of Yoshitsune. He stabbed a dull ceremonial sword into his stomach and attempted to remove his intestines in the traditional manner. The dull sword made imprecise cuts and Onishi was left on the floor of his office profusely bleeding to death refusing to accept any sort of medication that would make the death easier (Nobility of Failure p330). With his seppuku, World War Two for Japan was brought to a close.
Japan s history of self-sacrifice and dedication to a cause live on today. A nation cannot avoid its past. The heroes of Yoshitsune and the kamikaze warriors live on in spirit. Every time a student opens a history book or reads a play, he is reminded of his culturally rich past. For the Japanese, the methods by which one tries to accomplish a goal are more important than accomplishing the goal itself.
1.) Buruma, Ian. Behind the Mask. New York: Random House, 1984.
2.) Coombes, Bill. Divine Wind. The Dispatch Vol. 20 Spring 1995 edition
3.) Leckie, Robert. Okinawa. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
4.) Morris, Ivan. The Nobility of Failure. New York: Random House, 1975.
5.) Naito, Hatsuho. Thunder Gods. Tokyo & NY: Kodansha International, 1989.