Professor shares memories of kamikaze brother and their mother's devotion

Compiling book, he also found a mother's life of deep devotion

by Hiroko Harima


A packed auditorium resonates with the words of a teenage pilot, bidding his family farewell before his death in a suicide mission near the end of World War II.

The parting words, met with sobs from the audience, are read by an aging professor. They were penned by an older brother he barely got to know.

“Father and mother would have never imagined my death. I wish my soul would return into their arms in a dream,” read Akira Yamashita, a professor emeritus at Hamamatsu University School of Medicine, in a hall at the Tachiarai Peace Memorial Museum in Chikuzen, Fukuoka Prefecture, in May.

Yamashita, 77, was reading a letter that his brother Masatatsu had written just weeks before his death as a kamikaze pilot at age 18 in May 1945. The Imperial Japanese Army’s Tachiarai Airfield, where the museum now stands, was the departure point for Masatatsu’s suicide mission in Okinawa.

The life of soldiers was “like a bullet,” Yamashita told the audience on the anniversary of his brother’s death. A photo of the young pilot in his flight suit is projected behind him. He flew a plane carrying 2.9 tons of explosives but no defensive weapons, Yamashita said.

Born in Uwajima, Ehime Prefecture, Yamashita was 8 when the war ended. Everybody was struggling just to survive the famine at that time, so “I had no time to grieve for my brother’s death,” he said.

Yamashita went on to graduate from Kyoto University’s school of medicine and devoted himself to studying anatomical science. And yet he occasionally felt a sense of guilt about his life in peacetime when he compared it to what his brother went through.

Yamashita began to record his brother’s short life in 2001 after his mother, Matsue, had a stroke. When she temporarily lost consciousness, he sorted out her personal items and found Masatatsu’s letters, notebooks, toothbrush and other items in an old wooden box she had kept in the junk room of their home.

At the bottom of the box, Yamashita found a piece of white cloth bearing a drawing of a tabletlike shape and “Spirit of Late Corporal Masatatsu Yamashita” written with an ink brush.

The box of mementos had apparently been sent by the army, and the white cloth was possibly a notice of his death. Yamashita said it made him sad and frustrated.

Their mother never opened the box for others, probably because she wanted to believe that Ma-chan, as she called him, would “someday return,” Yamashita recalled.

He began taking pictures of places connected with Masatatsu, such as the river in Uwajima where his older brother taught him how to swim.

When he stood at Cape Zanpa on the western coast of Okinawa Island, amid the glow of a sunset in summer 2002, he said to himself, “My big brother is resting here,” and could not hold back his tears.

In the process of recording Masatatsu’s life, Yamashita found a book bearing red stamps that their mother had received from Buddhist temples whenever she donated a copy of a sutra.

Every page in the book was filled with red because she had completed the famous pilgrimage of 88 temples in Shikoku known as the Shikoku Henro, 65 times starting in her late 40s, returning each time until several years before her death in 2005, apparently to mourn for her soldier son.

She was born in Uwajima in 1906, married at 17 and became pregnant with Masatatsu at 19. She regretted letting him join the army, Yamashita said.

When Masatatsu was in his fourth year of junior high school under the old education system, he decided, despite their mother’s opposition, to apply for the army’s aeronautical communications school before being drafted.

After their mother died, Yamashita met a former kamikaze pilot who kept custody of Masatatsu’s mementos at her request. Tadamasa Itatsu, 89, survived the war after his suicide mission was aborted due to engine trouble. He has since preserved the memories of fellow kamikaze pilots by telling their stories.

One of the mementos was a copy of a farewell note Masatatsu wrote but was unable to hand to his parents during a brief visit in summer 1944.

Masatatsu tore the note into pieces and threw them into the trash on the morning he returned to his army camp, but someone had kept them because their mother found them in the box, pasted them together and made a copy.

Yamashita also learned from Masatatsu’s acquaintances that he had asked a local girl near the Tachiarai Airfield to exchange letters with his young sister to ease her sorrow after leaving for the mission, and that he drank heavily the night before.

Yamashita compiled Masatatsu’s life and their mother’s days after his death into a photo collection and a book.

The farewell verse by Masatatsu, who wanted to be a writer, was written on the last postcard he sent to their mother a few weeks before his fatal flight. Yamashita read it during his speech on the anniversary of his brother’s death.