Tokkotai survivor Hideo Suzuki

Eighty-five-year-old Hideo Suzuki is a reluctant survivor. A former tokkotai (Special Forces Unit) member of the Jinrai Butai (Thunder Gods Corps), Suzuki volunteered to be the pilot of an Ohka, a manned rocket-powered aircraft, during World War II. For sailors on U.S. warships in the Pacific, the Ohka was the most feared suicide bomber. Suzuki became an Ohka pilot because he was convinced that the only way to quickly end the war (called the Pacific War in Japan) was to cause massive damage to U.S. military targets. His hope was that news of such attacks would enrage the American public, triggering antiwar demonstrations in the United States that would lead to the end of the war and save the lives of Japanese citizens as well as U.S. militarymen. Before Suzuki could fly on a mission, though, the war ended. Feeling great shame for having survived, he decided to honor his comrades by living long and dedicating himself to rebuilding Japan. Still passionate in his opinion about the war and its results, he keeps his fellow soldiers’ memory alive, often visiting Yasukuni Shrine.

In war, attacks on civilians are unforgivable. War should be fought only among soldiers. I get angry when I hear Japanese bombers mentioned together with terrorists who attack civilians. We Japanese tokkotai only aimed at military targets. That is the complete opposite of terrorists.

Sitting down today will make it harder to stand up tomorrow. I try not to take it easy in my daily life. For example, I don’t sit down on the subway, because resting weakens the muscles, which would ultimately cause me to get older faster. I stand straight to stay strong.

There are circumstances in which you, me, anyone would willingly give up their life. I wished I had died in an Ohka. For months, I kept seeing my comrades off. They all smiled as they boarded the plane, thinking that we would soon meet in Yasukuni Shrine. Our impending deaths did not feel like a sacrifice but more a chance to do something good for others.

Karoshi (sudden death from overwork) attacks those who hate their jobs. People who are reluctant to work have a lot more stress than those who love their jobs and feel happy about contributing to society. I worked very hard every day till my retirement at age 70 and I was never sick and never sick of it.

Japan had no way to win The Pacific War. The incredible power imbalance between the U.S. and Japanese forces was obvious to all of us. For example, in 1944, the United States produced 209 times more oil and 100 times more tanks than Japan. And for every Japanese bullet fired, 524 U.S. bullets were fired back. By 1944, the U.S. air arsenal was 8.6 times bigger than the Japanese one, so Japan came up with the idea of suicide bombers to speed up the end of the war.

Camaraderie — especially in the military — is a powerful force. The pilot sat in the Ohka, which was carried under the belly of a much larger mother plane. Smaller aircraft surrounded the mother plane to protect the Ohka from enemy fire. Once a U.S. aircraft carrier was spotted, the Ohka was released and the pilot navigated it, dodging enemy fire, as it glided at up to 600 kph before firing its rocket engine and crashing into its target. The explosion was enormous because the Ohka’s tiny 6-meter body was filled with around 1,200 kg of explosives. At that point, the mother plane would turn back and pick up another Ohka, but sometimes the seven other airmen aboard decided to follow the Ohka and also crashed into the U.S. ship. They wanted to cause even more damage to it, and since they had trained together with the Ohka pilot, they wanted to join him.

Tokkotai members were not crazy, brainwashed suicide bombers. Many of us thought that since Japan had won the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, we were going to win this one, too. But as early as 1943, when I was a student at Waseda University, top navy officials had come to our school and told us that even though Japan was winning at the time, if the war lasted another two years, we would surely lose.

Victors write their own version of history — and we are all losers if we believe them. As if the cruel firebombing of Japan’s cities were not enough, the U.S. dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. The fact that a completely different type of nuclear weapon was later used on Nagasaki is evidence that the U.S. was performing an evil scientific experiment on the Japanese people. Yet even now the U.S. insists that the atomic bombs saved lives. It’s a preposterous idea that has been repeated so many times that many people accept it as truth! I certainly do not.

In amarriage, one must feel responsible for the other’s happiness. When my wife and I were introduced 56 years ago, we were not in love immediately. But I thought that if I were upright, responsible and faithful, she would be able to love me. I was right. She is always so kind and supportive, and I simply adore her. Of course, I never pronounce this, but she feels it through my actions. We both make efforts to behave so that we never have to feel shame or regret. I always think of her parents, how much they loved her and wished her to be happy. We still go on dates to Ueno Zoo, where we went the first time we met. We are head over heels in love.

I’m glad I was pushed into getting married. I was 29 and not very interested in tying the knot when my boss told me that in order to get promoted I would need to be married. The thinking back then was that married people were inherently more responsible than single folk and therefore could be trusted more in the company, too. I am not promoting that idea at all, but I certainly got lucky thanks to it.

Japan is still an occupied nation. The U.S. did a great job at deboning the Japanese until most have no spine, no guts and no strength left in them. They couldn’t do much to my generation, but most younger Japanese are as weak as one can get.

Hanging out with older and much younger people is rejuvenating. I have two close friends who are both 97 years old and who often call me to play golf or the board game Go with them. Because of their age, I always say yes to their invitations. Hey, if they can still swing a golf club, so must I! I also have friends in their 30s who are fun to be with.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “Out & About.” Learn more at:

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