Japan-U.S. effort to tell suicide pilots’ stories dodges controversy, wins praise


Dr. M.G. Sheftall, professor of modern Japanese history at Shizuoka University and author of “Blossoms in the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze,” was in Honolulu last month for the dedication of a temporary exhibition about the Tokkō kamikaze suicide pilots aboard the battleship USS Missouri, the site of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. JBC sat down for an interview with Dr. Sheftall about the kamikaze phenomenon and what makes this exhibition unique.

So, what’s going on here?

You’ve witnessed something very historic, because the exhibit is the first about any kind of Japanese military activity in the modern era ever held outside of Japan with Japanese cooperation — in this case, with the Chiran Peace Museum on the kamikaze in southern Kyushu.

What makes the USS Missouri an especially relevant venue is that it is to my knowledge only one of two still-existing ships — the other being the USS Intrepid — that were actually hit by kamikaze during the war. The USS Missouri was hit on April 12, 1945, exactly 70 years ago.

There’s a feel-good aspect to this story — very hard to do when you’re talking about kamikaze attacks. The bomb on the plane that hit the Missouri did not detonate. The wreckage spilled onto the deck and amidst that was the pilot’s remains. When the crew was putting out the fire, the initial reaction had been to hose his remains off the deck. But the captain of the USS Missouri, William Callaghan, announced to the crew: “No, we’re going to give him a proper military burial. Now that he’s dead, he’s not the enemy anymore. He’s just another human being, like you and me, who died for his country.”

The next day the crew formed on deck to consign their fallen former enemy to the depths with full naval honors. They even made a Japanese flag shroud from old unused signal flags.

I think that’s a nice story. If there can be some recognition of humanity even in such circumstances, that shows hope for human beings in an otherwise insane and irrational situation dominated by hatred and fear.

How many ships were sunk in the kamikaze campaigns?

I believe they sank about 40 ships, damaged or sank about 200 ships altogether, and killed or wounded about 15,000 Allied servicemen, mostly U.S. Navy sailors. And close to 6,000 kamikaze, mostly aviation pilots, but also manned torpedoes and suicide motorboats, died.

Dispel some myths about the kamikaze.

First, about the term “kamikaze”: I generally use the Japanese term, Special Attack Forces, or Tokubetsu Kōgeki Tai, shortened to Tokkō. “Kamikaze” comes with a lot of baggage — negative imagery and, obviously, stereotypes, and a lot of tacky usage as a slang term. It’s synonymous with irrational insanity.

Now, the myths: One is that they were “brainwashed.” That was not true and not necessary. The world view, value system and psychology of any Japanese military man at the time was such that it wouldn’t take much mental or emotional preparation to get ready for a kamikaze mission. In many cases, guys were just told they were just getting assigned to Tokkō, say, from tomorrow. And aside from some special technical training, that would be all the preparation time given.

People were always chosen in large units, which leads to another myth — that they were all volunteers. I don’t even know if the term “volunteer” has any relevance in a 1944-45 Japanese military context.

They would gather personnel in unit groups and then an officer would say, depending on the knowledge level of the pilots, “You know how bad the war situation is going now,” or, if they were kids fresh out of pilot school, who have only heard good things about the war, he’d tell them how developments haven’t been to Japan’s advantage. And then they would ask people to take on these Tokkō missions, with everyone in full view of everyone else — their comrades-in-arms and, of course, the commanding officers.

They’d be asked to circle chits of paper, or take a step forward — when they’re already standing in tight ranks. Imagine the peer pressure and face-threat involved in that atmosphere of adolescent testosterone and fatalistic heroism and macho posturing. You’re standing in ranks with guys you’ve bled, sweated and wept with for the past six months to a year. By now you’ve made your primary identity as a man in uniform. If you were to give that up by refusing to “volunteer,” you’d suffer huge psychological injury. For a young Japanese man in uniform at the time, such a scenario must have promised a fate worse than death — without the luxury of a world view accommodating the possibility that refusing orders in such circumstances could be as or more courageous than following them.

Some of my Tokkō informants even reported feeling insulted about being asked to go through the rigmarole of ceremonies. Their thinking was, “I’m a pilot in His Majesty’s Army/Navy, how dare they consider the possibility that I might not want a Tokkō mission!”

Some might call this brainwashing, but if that is your criteria, then at this time everyone in the country was brainwashed and therefore the Tokkō were nothing unusual. There was not much difference in the preparedness to sacrifice between someone in or out of uniform in Japan at the time.

Especially after the end of the Battle of Okinawa, all military personnel were Tokkō and they didn’t even bother with the formality of “volunteering ceremonies” anymore. The understanding at all ranks and in both services was that all planes and pilots were now slated for Tokkō — if you’re a trained pilot, be ready for Tokkō.

That was actually related to the relative paucity of air defense efforts over Japanese cities. When Allied planes started making bombing raids in force and strength over Japan from fall 1944, the numbers of Japanese fighters engaging the B-29s fell off drastically after the first few months — almost to zero once the bombers started having fighter escorts after the fall of Iwo Jima. This was not because the Japanese military ran out of planes. Between the Japanese army and navy they had something like 6,000 planes at the time Japan’s surrender happened. They had been holding back those planes for Tokkō.

So they let the cities burn, basically, because the Japanese military looked at air defense against the B-29s and their fighter escorts as a waste of pilots and aircraft. Better to save them for Tokkō to use when the Americans invaded Kyushu and Kanto.

Another myth is that the kamikaze pilots only had enough fuel for one-way missions. Two reasons that’s wrong. One, especially true for army pilots insufficiently trained in over-water navigation, was they were often sent out to find targets — and couldn’t find them. If you did that only with enough fuel to reach the target area, you don’t incur any damage against the enemy, and you lose a pilot and the plane.

The other reason is that the bombs the planes carried were not particularly large. Thus, the damage a kamikaze plane could inflict on its target was greatly augmented by the fuel that it was carrying. It’s in effect a 4-ton Molotov cocktail. It would hit, the bomb would go off, and the fuel for the return trip turns into extra explosive charge — napalm, basically. It would spread fires far away from the point of impact, and wreak havoc on human flesh.

How has your reception in Hawaii been regarding this event?

Without exception, 100 percent positive. News coverage has included front-page coverage on April 10’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser, [and reports in] the Los Angeles Times, Stars and Stripes, The Japan Times, the Sankei Shimbun and some local Japanese newspapers.

We were also interviewed by the Japanese-language radio in Hawaii. The DJ didn’t dwell on Tokkō topics; it was more of a nostalgic travelogue about the charms of Kagoshima Prefecture, and Chiran in particular.

We’ve recently seen interference from the Japanese government in how historians have portrayed Japanese history. Also, foreign journalists critical of Japan in their coverage are being harassed. Has the Japanese government interfered?

No. We contacted the USS Missouri people and, recalling the Smithsonian Enola Gay exhibition fiasco — the one that included the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and which was delayed and reworked amid controversy — we all agreed to keep this under wraps until two weeks before opening, [so as not to] give anyone a chance to mount a counter-offensive. That included governments on both ends.

I think if the Japanese government had known, they would have tried to stop it in some way or another — one less thing to worry about in a diplomatic year with a lot of people thinking about the war and looking at an ostensibly unrepentant Japan askance, right? But everyone was caught by surprise by how positive the visitors and the news coverage have been. Even me. Initially, we feared negative public reaction. I was expecting more resistance from conservatives on both sides of the Pacific.

About two days before we departed for Hawaii, we were invited by the [Japanese] consul-general in Honolulu to a formal dinner at the consulate to be held on the day we arrived. They couldn’t really tell us to go back to the USS Missouri and change anything — for one thing they didn’t even know what was there, or about the tone of the exhibit — but they didn’t seem upset by the project itself. I didn’t get any sort of negative feeling at all from the consul. I think his mission was just to check us out and report back to headquarters.

Last question: What is the takeaway message from the Tokkō phenomenon?

The takeaway message from the phenomenon itself should be one of terror — to realize to what extremes the condition of total war is capable of driving humans psychologically. I want visitors to the exhibit to realize that when you have societies with modern industrial capacity and mass media resources at hand to control information and mobilize their respective populaces to join a shooting war, this is how crazy things can get. The human race cannot let that happen again.

As John F. Kennedy once said, “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.” The Chiran collection is an historically priceless time capsule from a world which humanity must not and cannot inhabit again.

Our species’ sick love affair with the phenomenon of total war is over. Period. To think otherwise — to plan and prepare for something like that again, in an era when our species shares the planet with some 16,000 nuclear warheads — is sheer madness.

The exhibition on the USS Missouri runs through November at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu. See www.nps.gov/valr. The full interview transcript will be online at Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus in a few days. Twitter @arudoudebito. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Liars N. Fools

    Anytime there is accurate portrayal of any action of set of people, the fabric of memory is enhanced. So this is okay to have these voices heard, too.