Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Monday 6 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
# World War II
'I'm still mourning the soul of my late buddy. I'm sorry for letting him die alone'
Kamikaze pilots in Japan are trying to tell younger people what they did was not ‘cool’.

Post WWII Japane Suicide Bomb Plane AP / Press Association Images Marines of US 1st Regiment, fourth marine division, inspect Japanese suicide bombs, at the Yokosuka Naval Air Station, Japan on 13 September 1945, when they were handed over - intact - after the signing of the surrender. Japan Kamikaze pilots had many successes against allied shipping using this type of suicide plane. AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

KAMIKAZE PILOT YUTAKA Kanbe should have died nearly seven decades ago.

It was only Tokyo’s surrender on 15 August 1945, that saved him from the fate of thousands whose suicide missions came to define Japan’s unrelenting pursuit of victory in the closing stages of World War II.

But as the 91-year-old faces his own mortality again, he worries that a rightward political shift under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and a recent film glorifying Kamikaze missions, are proof that the horrors of war have been lost on generations of younger Japanese.

“It was crazy – I cannot support the idea of glorifying our mission,” the former navy pilot said of young men ordered to crash their planes into Allied ships.

Japan could go to war again if our leaders are all like Abe. I’m going to die soon, but I worry about Japan’s future.

Kamikaze pilots – the term means ‘divine wind’ – were heroes in wartime Japan where their deadly sacrifice in the name of Emperor Hirohito and the nation made front-page headlines.

The squadrons were formed near the end of the conflict in a desperate effort to prevent an Allied victory. About 4,000 died on missions that sent chills down the spine of many enemy combatants, although most were shot down before reaching their targets.

PA-8657957 AP / Press Association Images Pressure bandaged after he suffered burns when his ship was attacked by a Japanese kamikaze fighter, this wounded man aboard the hospital ship USS Solace is being helped by a medic in May 1945. AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Sacrificed their lives 

There are no official figures on the number of surviving Kamikaze pilots and the squadrons have largely faded from memory, with little mention in contemporary school textbooks.

But a film called The Eternal Zero, based on a best-selling novel, catapulted the squadrons back into the minds of the public earlier this year.

The box-office hit sees a top navy pilot refuse to take part in a suicide mission because he promised his wife that he would return home alive. But the pilot eventually agrees to the death sentence, leaving a comrade to take care of his family.

“I respect Kamikaze pilots – they sacrificed their lives for their families and the country,” 18-year-old Tokyo university student Tsurugi Nakamura said after watching the film.

“Kamikaze pilots are cool. It’s wrong to criticise the mission,” he added.

WORLD WAR II KAMIKAZE AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Kozo Kagawa shares little enthusiasm for that kind of talk.

The 89-year-old former Kamikaze pilot refuses to judge the morality of the missions, but he is still haunted by seeing fellow pilots die in vain. His turn never came.

It’s not for survivors like me to judge whether it was right or wrong. But I’m still mourning the soul of my late buddy. I’m sorry for letting (him) die alone.

PA-8695431 AP / Press Association Images Anti-aircraft gunners, centre foreground, pour a deadly stream of fire into the already-burning Japanese Kamikaze plane plummeting toward the flight deck of the USS Sangamon, a Navy escort carrier, during action in the Ryukyus near Japan during World War II, 4 May 1945. This suicide plane landed in the sea close to the carrier. Another Japanese aircraft later succeded in hitting the ship deck, inflicting heavy damage. AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

A Japanese city’s unsuccessful effort to have Kamikaze pilots’ farewell letters posted on a United Nations register earlier this year enraged China and South Korea, which suffered from Tokyo’s militarism before and during the war.

Relations have been further strained by Abe’s bid in July to loosen Japan’s pacifist post-war constitution – long a symbol of its peaceful image in much of the world.

The landmark shift to expand the use of Japan’s military was met with strong public opposition and warnings it could ultimately see the country dragged into war, amid territorial disputes with Tokyo’s neighbours that have stoked fears of an East Asian conflict.

For Kagawa, there is no question that Kamikaze missions were a mistake, but he is less sure about restricting armed forces to a purely self-defence role.

“Kamikaze missions should never happen again, but peace does not come without costs,” he said.

We can’t protect peace without defence. Prime Minister Abe appears to be in a hurry to make changes, but I understand what he is trying to do.

 ’Not a movie’

Kamikaze Glorified AP / Press Association Images Three women look at photos of Japanese kamikaze pilots, who gave their lives in WWII suicide attacks against US forces, hanging on a wall at the Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots in Chiran. AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

As the 69th anniversary of the war’s end was marked on Friday, an annual pilgrimage by Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni war shrine also took  place.

The leafy site in downtown Tokyo honours about two million war dead, including Kamikaze pilots, but the inclusion of some top officials convicted of war crimes angers China and South Korea.

Abe stayed away from the pilgrimage last year, but his visit to the shrine in December dragged regional relations to a fresh low, and sparked warnings from Washington over what it saw as an inflammatory gesture.

For supporters, the move amounted to patriotism, while critics say it is further evidence of Abe’s flirtations with revisionist history.

Any sugar-coating of Japan’s wartime past was misplaced, said Akinori Asano, as he spent 15 August at home alone, mourning those who never made it back.

The 85-year-old belonged to an infamous force code-named “Cherry Blossom” which aimed single-engine bombers at their targets, derided as “stupid bombers” by the Allies.

The six-metre (20-foot) aircraft were more like flying bombs, powered by short-lasting rocket engines that would run just long enough to send them spiralling into enemy ships.

“It is nonsense to ask why we obeyed orders and why we had to die – there was no room for saying ‘no’,” Asano said.

“But it was not a movie. I’m afraid young people can’t imagine what it was like – all I can do is pray for peace.”

- © AFP, 2014

Casualties of the Great War: Final images of loved ones lost

Column: ‘Hell is Coming’ – fragments of horror from World War One

World War 1 in colour: Have a look at these restored photos from the trenches

Your Voice
Readers Comments