At 93, Kazuo Odachi has a zest for life that could put people half his age to shame. He is a passionate kendo practitioner who, until COVID-19 curbed his activities this spring, would attend morning practices at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police headquarters three times a week. When he speaks, he is witty and laughs easily. In 2016, he published a memoir of his experiences as a member of Japan’s Kamikaze Special Attack Corps during World War II. With the English version of the memoir coming out in September, I was invited to his home in suburban Tokyo to meet the man behind the story, accompanied by co-author Shigeru Ohta — with all parties wearing masks and social distancing, naturally.
When Odachi was a child, he would run off with his neighborhood friends to Tokorozawa Airbase (now the site of the Tokorozawa Aviation Memorial Park) in Saitama Prefecture to admire the planes. Fascinated by flying, Odachi would crawl under the barbed wire fence around the airbase to hide in the long grass and watch the planes take off and land.
Translated by Alexander Bennett and Shigeru Ohta
“We thought we were well-hidden, but of course the pilots would have easily spotted us from the air,” Odachi recalls, laughing at his youthful naivety.
Odachi’s other childhood passion was kendo, which served as a catalyst for putting together his memoir. His collaborators on the Japanese version are two fellow kendo practitioners: Ohta, a former prosecutor, and Hiroyoshi Nishijima, a journalist. The pair had learned about Odachi’s time as a kamikaze pilot during World War II after practicing and socializing together for more than 20 years. Odachi eventually agreed to let them write his life story.
“We made 22 visits to Mr. Odachi’s home, chatting for hours over drinks and snacks as he opened up about his experience,” Ohta says. The English version of the memoir followed when Ohta joined forces with Alexander Bennett, a New Zealand-born scholar of Japanese history and martial arts who also practices kendo.
Born in 1926, Odachi grew up during the years just before World War II when Japan was already expanding its military activities. He says it was assumed that most young men would eventually be called to serve their country.
“I was raised to know that I probably wasn’t going to have a long life, even from my elementary school days,” he says.
Intent on becoming a pilot, 16-year-old Odachi joined the elite pre-military training program for navy pilots, also known as Yokaren. Odachi and his cohort were fast-tracked through their training, however, and, in 1944, he was assigned to the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps. His mission was to crash planes into enemy vessels, making the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
Odachi flew seven suicide attack missions while stationed in Taiwan, and survived them because he couldn’t find suitable targets. In the book, Odachi recalls that he and other kamikaze pilots felt nauseated after returning from a mission.
“We had already psyched ourselves into a death frenzy,” he writes.
Japan surrendered before his scheduled eighth mission, and Odachi made it back to his family’s home on New Year’s Eve in 1945, just after his 19th birthday. He went on to complete a fulfilling career as a police officer and detective, getting married and raising a family along the way.
One reason Odachi agreed to publish his memoir is to clear up lingering fallacies and misunderstandings about the nature of the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps.
“You weren’t supposed to talk about it once the war had ended, and so I kept quiet,” he says. “But we weren’t dashing heroes, nor were we happy to die for our country. We were all just young boys.”
Expanding on this by email, Bennett says, “I hope that this book will take some of the mystique away from the kamikaze pilots and allow people to see them for who they really were — young men who were ensnared in a global maelstrom of savagery way beyond their understanding, and who survived from day to day without complaint.”
In preparing the English edition, Ohta and Bennett took great care to provide context to help international audiences understand the historical and cultural background of Odachi’s story. Augmented by the meticulously researched details, the focus is fixed on telling Odachi’s life in his own words. While the subject matter is often heavy, the text is laced with humorous anecdotes and wry comments, allowing Odachi’s personality to come through.
Now a widower, Odachi lives alone and remains active in his chosen sport of kendo.
“He has never missed a practice for the past 30 years. He’s always the most active person there,” Ohta says, adding that before the pandemic hit, Odachi had also been teaching the art to children at a local club.
The global pandemic nixed Odachi’s plans for a trip to New Zealand this year, too.
“It’s disappointing,” he says. “I’m not sure if there will be another chance.”
The sprightly nonagenarian had been looking forward to leading kendo training and talking about his life to audiences outside of Japan.
For many people, the current pandemic is their first taste of an event that is affecting the world on a vast scale, but Odachi has lived through challenging times before. There are parallels in his story and events today that offer a poignant lesson that outcomes in life are not guaranteed.
“(This book) is a timely reminder of the precariousness of life and how we are all vulnerable to forces beyond our control,” Bennett says. “His story gave me a sense of hope with regard to the resilience of humanity in the most testing times of adversity.”