Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn't Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot

Alli - November 8, 2017

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
Kiichi Kawano, age 19, serves as a Special Attack Force pilot. ABC

Firstborn Sons Were Exempt

The eldest son in the family holds a significance for many cultures throughout the world. The firstborn son has held a high status for centuries and holds traditions of family hierarchy and inheritance centered around passing on the family name and property to the next in line. In Japan, this important role of the firstborn son was taken very seriously.

It is custom for the oldest son to live with his parents and take over managing the affairs of the family. He has the responsibility to care for his aging parents and provide direction to other family members. When he marries, his wife and children are also included in the household of his parents.

So in 1944, when kamikaze pilots were being selected, firstborn sons were allowed to continue their lives in order to carry on the family name and support their families. This is a definite juxtaposition to the idea that all men were subject to sacrifice themselves in service of the emperor.

Second-born sons were not so lucky. In a personal account of his life as a second-born son and kamikaze volunteer, Paul Saneaki Nakamura talks about his training. He recounts his training took place on the mainland, using gliders instead of planes due to the critical shortages in Japanese aircraft. Luckily, he was never called up for a suicide mission and believed he was returning to his life. However, he would soon discover that nothing was the same.

After the war, Nakamura could not afford to fly back to his home in Okinawa. When he finally returned, he found his community was devastated. He discovered that while he was away, all of the first sons who had stayed behind had been killed during the Battle of Okinawa. It was then that he decided to devote his life to becoming an Anglican priest and spread Christianity across Japan. Later in life, Nakamura became a bishop.

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
Japanese Emperor Michinomiya Hirohito at his enthronement ceremony in 1926. Emperor of Japan from 1926 until his death in 1989. He was the longest-reigning monarch in Japan’s history. Wikimedia

Soldiers Were Conditioned to Die for the Emperor without Hesitation

Let’s dispel one myth about Japanese Emperors really quick: the Japanese did not see Emperor Hirohito as a living god. This misconception is born from a very similar idea under the Shinto religion. Shinto cannot be separated from Japan, but in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, Shinto became an established state religion.

Many argue that this linked to the cause of Japanese nationalism. This argument sprouts from the Shinto legend that emperors of Japan are descended in an unbroken line from the first Emperor, Jimmu Tenno; and the Japanese people themselves are descended from the kami, who was present at the founding of Japan.

Shinto revolves around keeping a good relationship between the Emperor and his people and that the Emperor rules the country because the gods want him to. Before the creation of State Shinto, this story was just a myth among many others; it did not shape Japanese self-image until the issue of nationalism came along. Now that we all understand the true background of the importance of the Emperor to the Japanese people during this time, we can look at the issue of being taught to die for the Emperor without question.

The unyielding loyalty of the Special Attack Units (aka kamikaze), was clear when they were expected to not only accept their fateful duty but embrace their patriotic demise wholeheartedly. Many countries expect soldiers to fight for their country, but WWII Japan stands out as one that expected its soldiers to die in service.

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
Kamikaze pilots pose for picture, 1945. Mental Floss

Corporal Punishment Was Widespread and Brutal in the Japanese Army

Irokawa, a kamikaze pilot in WWII wrote about the brutal reality he and his fellow soldiers faced every day:

“After I passed the gate to the Tsuchiura Naval Air Base, “training” took place day after day. I was struck on the face so hard and frequently that my face was no longer recognizable. On January 2, 1945, Kaneko (Ensign) hit my face twenty times and the inside of my mouth was cut in many places by my teeth. I had been looking forward to eating zōni [a special dish with rice cakes for the New Year]. Instead, I was swallowing blood from the inside of my mouth.

On February 14, all of us were punished because they suspected that we ate at farmers’ homes near the base to ease our hunger. In the midst of the cold winter, we were forced to sit for seven hours on a cold concrete floor and they hit us on the buttocks with a club. Then each of us was called into the officer’s room. When my turn came, as soon as I entered the room, I was hit so hard that I could no longer see and fell on the floor.”

The minute I got up, I was hit again by a club so that I would confess. A friend of mine was thrown with his head first to the floor, lost consciousness, and was sent to a hospital. He never returned. All this savagery was orchestrated by the corps commander named Tsutsui. I am still looking for this fellow.”

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
City in Japan compiled documentation and letters from kamikaze pilots to seek recognition from UN. Stars and Stripes

Pilots Wrote a Farewell Letter to Be Sent to Their Parents Upon the Completion of Their Mission

In their final days, kamikaze pilots were told to write farewell letters to their loved ones. This would be their final act before performing their duty as kamikaze. Below, read the letter from Captain Adachi Takuya to his parents:

“Honorable Mother and Father,

The difficulty of the journey you made to see me was clearly evident in your disheveled hair and in the hollows under your eyes-it made me want to bend my knees and worship before you. In the wrinkles on your brows was vivid testimony of the pains you took to raise me. Words could not express my feelings, and what little I did say was superficial in the extreme.

Yet, although acutely conscious of how little time we had, I saw in your eyes and in your gaze all you wanted to say but couldn’t.

When you took my hand and passed it over your chilblains, I experienced a sense of profound peacefulness, unlike anything I have experienced since joining up -like being a baby again and longing for the warmth of a mother’s love. It is because I bask in the beauty of your deep devotion that I can martyr myself for you-for in death I will sleep in the world of your love. Washed down with my tears was the sushi you prepared with such loving care, for it was like putting your love to my lips. Though I ate but little, it was the most delicious meal of my life.

Honorable Mother, even if I was never able to fully accept the love you gave me, I received so much wisdom from you. And Father, your silent words are carved deeply into my heart. With this, I will be able to fight together with you both. Even if I should die, it will be with a peaceful spirit.

I mean this with all my heart.

The war zone is where these beautiful emotions are put to the test. If death means a return to this world of love, there is no need for me to fear. There is nothing left to do but press on and fulfill my duty.

At 1600 hours our meeting was over. Watching you walk out the gate, I quietly waved goodbye.”

Captain Adachi Takuya, Kamikaze Special Attack Group No. i Seikita. Killed in the Okinawa area on April 28, 1945, age 23.

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
Kamikaze pilots participate in a ceremony before their final mission. Wikimedia.

Before Taking Off, Kamikaze Pilots Would Have a Ceremonial Drink

Before boarding their planes, kamikaze pilots would line up and have one last drink in a special ceremony- they would be given either sake or water. This particular routine would give the pilots a bit of liquid courage before they embarked on their final mission in this life.

One surviving kamikaze pilot tells of the day he took the drink and his plane took off:

As Keiichi Kuwahara flew out to sea he gazed back with tear-filled eyes towards Japan and the homeland he never expected to see again. On May 4, 1945, he was headed for Okinawa and his mission was clear – crash into an enemy warship, killing himself along with hundreds of troops who were coming to invade his country. “They didn’t need to tell us what to do because we knew. It was simple. We had to get in a plane and crash into a target. I kept looking back, thinking it was the last time I would see the land. As I did the sun came up and made the horizon shine light pink. I thought ‘I have to go in order to defend this beautiful land.’ ”

Kuwahara says: “I struggled to convince myself I had to die. I thought my death would be pointless. Even if Japan won the war my family would die in the gutter because I would not be there to support them. It tormented me. I felt as if I was losing my mind.

“We were told that rather than accept defeat we should offer our lives. There was no choice. We had to follow orders when push came to shove. But we didn’t wish for death.”

But his engine failed, forcing him to crash land. A week later mechanical problems forced him to abort his second suicide mission. His relief at surviving was outweighed by the fear he had dishonored his family and how he would be treated by the other pilots when he returned.

The following day his kamikaze unit was disbanded. Wracked with guilt that he survived while so many of his friends died, he still lays flowers every year for the kamikazes who died. (Mirror)

Tragedy and Honor: 10 Details You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Kamikaze Pilot
Yasukuni Shrine, Tokyo, 1930. At the entrance to the shrine is the Chumon torii. Old Tokyo

Kamikaze Pilots Believed They Would Meet Again at the Yasukuni Shrine

A kamikaze pilot would take off the day of his final mission, his forehead wrapped with a headband sporting the rising sun. This headband was made by a thousand women in Japan and served as part of the ceremony before departure.

The origin of Yasukuni Shrine is Shokonsha established at Kudan in Tokyo in the second year of the Meiji era (1869) “by the will of Emperor Meiji”. In 1879, it was renamed Yasukuni Shrine. This was to be the earthly resting place of those who died in the service of emperor and country. Currently, more than 2,466,000 divinities are enshrined here at Yasukuni Shrine.

These are souls of men who made ultimate sacrifice for their nation since 1853 during a national crisis such as the Boshin War, the Seinan War, the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, World War I, the Manchurian Incident, the China Incident and the Greater East Asian War (World War II). Kamikaze pilots believed they would be reunited at this shrine and their spirits would be at peace for eternity.

Today, the shrine memorializes all those who sacrificed their lives to protect their Emperor and country. Young pilots are depicted in gleaming oil paintings and bronze statues- but the shrine does not mention any context in which their lives were lost. Their images sit there among the others who gave their lives; peacefully silent for eternity.