Hisashi Tezuka knew his life had been spared when he heard the Emperor’s voice crackling through the wireless.
As Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s wartime surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, the young kamikaze pilot was on a train to the island of Shikoku to carry out his sacrificial mission. He received his orders just two days earlier at a base about 1,150 km to the north.
The crawling speed of the locomotive kept him alive.
“If we’d been taken by plane, we’d have arrived before the war ended,” Tezuka, now 93 and one of the few surviving kamikaze pilots, said in an interview at his home in Yokohama. “It was like fate intervened.”
Tezuka was one of a few thousand men, some as young as 17, in Japan’s so-called special attack unit, or tokkotai. Another was Tadamasa Iwai, now 94, who trained to be a human torpedo and suicide diver. Both had late reprieves, both saw the futility of the war, and both became passionate pacifists.
This is a year of painful remembrance for Japan as the country marks the 70th anniversary of its surrender in World War II, a conflict that killed more than 30 million people in Asia and left the nation in ruins. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has hinted he will omit descriptions of Japan’s wartime aggression in a statement for the anniversary, risking anger from countries like China and South Korea that felt the brunt of Japanese belligerence.
Abe is also seeking to loosen the restraints of the war-renouncing Constitution imposed by the U.S. and strengthen Japan’s role in global security. Even so, polls show the Japanese public is deeply ambivalent about adopting a more muscular foreign policy.
Fifty percent of respondents to a survey published in the Nikkei newspaper on Feb. 23 said they opposed legislation that would allow Japan’s military to defend allies, while 31 percent supported the bills that are set to be submitted to the Diet in the next few months.
“I’m concerned that Japanese politics and attitudes have shifted to the right recently,” said Tezuka, whose wrinkles and stuttering walk betray his years. “When Abe says he doesn’t want to dwell on the past, it’s like he is returning to the prewar regime.”
As China asserts its territorial claims in the East China Sea, Abe has increased defense spending to a record, eased restrictions on weapons exports and is seeking a constitutional workaround to be able to project force abroad.
His efforts are favored by the U.S., which is treaty-bound to defend Japan in the event of conflict, but have been denounced by China and South Korea.
Even though Iwai joked often during an interview at his small Tokyo apartment, he became furious when talking about Japan’s current political climate, for which he blamed the education system.
“They don’t teach what really happened at schools,” he said. “Textbooks call it an ‘advance’ rather than an ‘occupation’ ” by Japan.
Hit rate under 20%
By the summer of 1944, Japan’s weakened air force had become unable to match the U.S., prompting commanders to develop the suicide strategy.
From October that year through to the final days of the war, Japan flew 2,550 kamikaze missions with a successful hit rate of 18.6 percent, according to the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey on the Pacific War. They sank about 45 vessels, mostly destroyers, and damaged dozens more, including aircraft carriers and battleships.
At the time of surrender, Japan had more than 9,000 aircraft available for kamikaze sorties, with over 5,000 fitted for attack, the survey said. About 6,400 men died, a figure that includes those who perished in training, according to the Tokkotai Commemoration Peace Memorial Association.
Both men described the moment they knew their fate was in the hands of their commanders.
One day in training, Tezuka was handed a questionnaire with three choices: “I strongly want to be a kamikaze”; “I want to be a kamikaze”; and “I don’t want to be a kamikaze.” The final one was not an option, he said.
Iwai and his peers were summoned to a training ground at their base, where an officer asked them if they wanted to pilot the manned torpedoes — again an offer they couldn’t refuse.
While both Iwai and Tezuka were opposed to the war, they were committed to their assignments. They look back with a mixture of guilt, relief and anger.
“I knew that Japan would lose the war and I was bound to die anyway, so I thought I might as well die instantly,” said Iwai at his apartment, where he listens to classical music and looks forward to visits from his only daughter.
Tezuka said that many men, including a friend, died during training flights that involved soaring to 3,000 meters before nose-diving to a practice target.
“I was sorry for his death — not just because he died, but because he couldn’t die as a kamikaze,” he said. “Everyone was serious about the training. We didn’t want to die meaninglessly before we departed. We really wanted to succeed as kamikaze.”
The stories of these pilots have returned to prominence in popular culture in recent years.
“Eternal Zero,” a 2006 novel by Naoki Hyakuta about a young man’s search for the truth about his kamikaze pilot grandfather, was a best-seller. Abe, a friend of the author, said he was “deeply moved” by the movie adaptation, which became Japan’s third-biggest box-office hit of 2013.
“The book glorified kamikaze, and people are following suit,” Tezuka said. “Kamikaze was brutal. We should give it a fair evaluation and never do it again.”
Last year, Japan applied for the final letters of pilots written before their missions to be included as UNESCO Memories of the World.
“There is a growing trend of glamorizing the kamikaze as the number of people who experienced the war declines,” said Yukihiro Torikai, who teaches peace and development at Tokai University. “Abe may be capitalizing on this.”
Tezuka was conscripted to the Imperial Japanese Navy while in his second year at the University of Tokyo, Japan’s equivalent of Harvard or Oxbridge. He said his study major — the U.S. economy — convinced him Japan would lose the war because of America’s industrial might.
During the war he flew a Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a fighter plane the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force describes as the most famous symbol of Japanese air power during WWII. The Zero was later customized for kamikaze missions.
Tezuka described how pilots at the training base learned of their comrades’ demise.
“They would send Morse code messages to their base as they flew their sorties,” he said. “When the sound stopped, we knew the pilot’s life had ended and we placed our hands together.”
Tezuka kept his coming mission from his family to avoid upsetting them.
After the war, he ran a business taking young Japanese workers at a soybean oil company to the U.S. for training. He now spends his days ink-wash painting and practicing calligraphy at his condominium overlooking Yokohama that is adorned with a model of a Zero fighter he received from his daughter.
Iwai spent much of his youth in Dalian, a Chinese city ceded to Japan from Russia in 1905, after his father retired as a soldier. On returning to Tokyo, he began to question the national regime that banned criticism — or even discussion — of the Imperial system, and went on to study philosophy at Keio University.
He drifted between jobs after the war before learning Russian, which he used at a trading company and later as a translator. Disaffected, he sold all his wartime memorabilia and cut ties with his former comrades.
In those last few months of the war, pilots would wait on a submarine until an enemy warship came into sight. They would then squeeze into a manned torpedo and pull the hatches over their heads, before being launched toward the target.
“When I first saw a human torpedo, I shuddered with the thought that this was going to be my coffin,” Iwai said. “It was a 15-meter-long iron stick. The cockpit was tiny and not fit for humans.”
A few months before the war ended, Iwai caught tuberculosis — an illness that delayed his mission and may have saved his life.
Once recovered, he was moved to a base near Tokyo to join the “crouching dragon,” or fukuryu, unit of suicide divers in preparation for the expected arrival of U.S. battleships. The frogmen had to wait underwater to poke enemy vessels with a mine fitted to a bamboo pole.
“It was absurd,” Iwai said. “We felt our superiors got the idea for the strategy from a cartoon.”
After being transferred again, this time to Hiroshima, Iwai witnessed an event that changed everything.
“We were in a meeting on the morning of Aug. 6, when there was a beautiful white flash in the sky, followed by a huge boom,” he said. “Hiroshima had been destroyed. A few days later, we learned it was the atomic bomb. And the war ended soon after.”
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