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Society

Sharing true stories of kamikaze pilots with the world

US museums seek balance through firsthand accounts of Japanese suicide bombers

FUKUOKA, Japan -- Japan's kamikaze dive bomb assaults on U.S. battleships in the closing days of World War II produced long-lasting historical and cultural repercussions. The word "kamikaze" itself has become a metaphor for extreme attack strategies involving suicide missions.

Originally, the word refers to the kamikaze air attack corps, formally known in Japan as the Tokubetsu Kogekitai, or "special attack unit," abbreviated as tokkotai. But it is sometimes used in Western and other media to refer to suicide bombings by terrorists.

Exhibitions to correct misunderstandings about kamikaze, or "divine wind," attacks by focusing on the human side of the desperate tactic are underway at two U.S. history museums -- with support from one in Japan -- featuring kamikaze-related historical materials.

The Battleship Missouri Memorial at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii five years ago opened an exhibition with some 20 notes and letters tokko members wrote to their mothers, girlfriends and other loved ones before they went on missions. The exhibition was originally scheduled to run for seven months but has been extended. And in April this year the space was expanded.

Many visitors leave positive comments. "My heart hurts for the people who had to say goodbye to their families," wrote one. Another praised the exhibit which "definitely shows the human side of conflict -- the things that connect us all."

An exhibition at the Battleship Missouri Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, shows notes and letters written by kamikaze pilots before they left on their missions. (Photo courtesy of the Battleship Missouri Memorial)

Since November, the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York, which showcases American military and maritime history, has been holding an exhibition titled "Kamikaze: Beyond the Fire." It features, among other items, diaries written by kamikaze pilots killed in battle, though the museum is now temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Chiran Peace Museum in the city of Minamikyusu in Kagoshima Prefecture has provided materials for the two U.S. exhibitions. A spokesperson for the museum, which features historical materials related to kamikaze attacks, is committed to "helping foreign nationals know and understand tokko and the cruelties of war."

The first special attack group was formed by the Imperial Navy in October 1944 and bombarded U.S. warships east of the Philippines. Many kamikaze attacks were also carried out during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. A total of 6,418 Japanese soldiers died in such attacks, according to an organization devoted to consoling the spirits of the deceased pilots.

Kunitake Toriya, a former member of a kamikaze unit who is now 93 and lives in the southwestern prefecture of Saga, still feels heartache when he recalls the missions that killed many of his fellow soldiers. "Tokko was a terrible tragedy. I feel so sad," Toriya says. His anger at the military leaders who conceived and executed the attacks remains raw and real even 75 years after the war ended.

Toriya entered the Imperial Army's Tachiarai Flight School in Fukuoka Prefecture at the age of 16 and was assigned to a special attack unit in the spring of 1945 when he was in Japanese occupied northeastern China. The war ended before Toriya himself was ordered to go on a suicide mission.

He recalls seeing a fellow soldier tremble in fear when his name was called. Another unit member poured out his emotions before embarking on a flight. "Hey Toriya, we don't wanna die, do we?," Toriya recalls his comrade muttering repeatedly.

He fumes that the young pilots were treated like "bullets" by Japan's military leaders. "What did they think of people's lives?," he asks.

Toriya says the reality for the pilots was that they were trapped. "Whatever thoughts and feelings they had deep inside, they could not possibly voice them as they were "bound hand and foot, unable to escape or hide (from their fate)," he said.

While Hollywood films and mass media references have for decades tended to offer up skewed and simplified depictions, some foreign scholars are making efforts to disseminate more accurate information about kamikaze. M.G. Sheftall, a professor at Shizuoka University and an expert in modern Japanese history, is one of them.

When the U.S. was struck by a series of terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Sheftall heard an American TV news anchor describe the second airliner that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York as a "kamikaze."

Toriya is shown photographed at an airfield in then Japanese-controlled northeastern China, when he was 18 years old. (Photo courtesy of Kunitake Toriya) 

Sheftall knew the word referred to the special suicide air attack units organized by the Japanese Imperial forces and wondered why the male anchor used the term to describe the apparent terrorist attack. This experience inspired him to learn more.

The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary defines "kamikaze" as a word "used to describe the way soldiers attack the enemy, knowing that they too will be killed."

Suicide bombings by Islamic extremists are now sometimes called "Islamikaze" attacks, a portmanteau combining Islam and kamikaze, said Shuji Hosaka, director of JIME Center, a unit of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan. The word is used this way because suicide bombings by terrorists and kamikaze assaults at a glance appear similar since both lead to the sacrifice of the attacker's own life, according to Hosaka.

In 2005, Sheftall, a native of New York, published a book of kamikaze-related testimonies in the U.S., hoping that readers would cast away prejudices against the pilots by learning about the thoughts and feelings of tokko members. The book, titled "Blossoms in the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze," is based on interviews with some 100 surviving members of kamikaze units and bereaved families of pilots who died.

"The situation in Japan at that time made it impossible for soldiers to mouth any critical view about tokko," Sheftall says. Having tried to put himself in the shoes of tokko members, the scholar says he does not think he could have refused to go on such a mission.

Sheftall later received a comment about his book from a U.S. WWII veteran who experienced a kamikaze assault. The reader said that after seeing the testimonies, he no longer loathed the kamikaze attackers.

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