NEW YORK — In April, when a young Palestinian woman blew herself up, killing and wounding many Israelis, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, “The president condemns this morning’s homicide bombing.”

A flurry followed in the mass media about the term that seemed intended to replace “suicide bomber.” But perhaps because it was redundant (a bomber is homicidal) or too one-sidedly condemnatory to be politically sensible, the term did not survive for long.

That led me to one of the more durable books to come out of Japan’s war in Asia and the Pacific: “Kike Wadatsumi no Koe” (Listen — Voices from the Deep). It contains the musings of some of the members of the special attack forces, commonly known as kamikaze.

As originally compiled in 1947 with the title, “Harukanaru Sanga ni” (In Distant Mountains and Rivers), it was a selection of letters and excerpts from diaries left by graduates of the University of Tokyo killed in the war. In effect a shorthand epic of the horrendous military venture that had just ended, it became a best seller.

When it had sold 200,000 copies, the book was taken out of print to make way for a new edition to include writings of graduates of other colleges and universities. The result, published in 1949 with the present title, has remained in print ever since.

If the first selection emphasized “humanity” (relief that the war was over), one of the editors said later, the second one emphasized “peace” (the Cold War was setting in fast). Both, in any event, were designed to condemn “that extremely asinine war.”

Editorial policy precluded writings expressing “radical Japanese spiritualism” or those “exalting war.” For that matter, the Occupation’s censors wouldn’t have permitted publication of such things either.

Still, “Voices from the Deep” isn’t entirely “an eloquent cry for peace,” as John Dower puts it in “Embracing Defeat” (Norton, 1999), though there certainly is a strong undercurrent of that. Tadashi Kawashima put that yearning most straightforwardly: “I will not make my son a soldier, never a soldier. … Peace, the world of peace, is best!”

A graduate of the Tokyo University of Agriculture, Kawashima wrote down that sentence on Jan. 31, 1943, after witnessing his fellow soldier savaging an innocent Chinese man, his officers coldly looking on. Kawashima, who thought the retribution was deserved when he learned shortly afterward that more than 20 Japanese soldiers were killed by Chinese peasants, was killed in China two years later.

For most able-bodied young men of the day, there was little choice except to become soldiers. Japan at the time was, in the leftist scholar Hideo Odagiri’s metaphor, “a house of death.” During the Pacific phase of the war alone, a cumulative total of 10 million men were sent to the front, and 2 million were killed or went missing in action. In June 1943, student mobilization was instituted. The departing students’ pledge (“we naturally do not expect to return alive”), though based on the conventional notion of fighting hard, took a dark, sinister turn.

Most were starkly aware of the impossible position into which Japan had led itself, and they knew what the alternative ought to be. Ryoji Uehara, mobilized while studying economics at Keio University, left a will before plunging his plane into a U.S. task force in Kanade Bay, Okinawa, on May 11, 1945. “For Japan to last forever, it needs liberalism,” he wrote, not “the totalitarian atmosphere that envelops it. … Whether a country will win or lose in war you can tell in advance by looking at its ideology. Victory for a nation with one that naturally fits man’s true nature is as clear as daylight.”

In the face of the heightened likelihood of death, many expressed doubts about the standard reasons given for self-sacrifice. Hiro’o Kikuyama, like Uehara mobilized while studying economics at the University of Tokyo, asked himself shortly before induction into the army: “Am I taking up the gun for His Majesty? Or for my homeland (as an idealistic concept) or for the love of my parents that I cannot possibly doubt, or even for Japan’s nature, which has always been my hometown. . .? For me at present, (the question of) betting my own death on any of these remains unsolved.” Kikuyama was killed on Luzon on April 29, 1945.

However, some also had an unmistakable willingness to be part of history in the making. Hachiro Sasaki, yet another student mobilized while studying economics at the University of Tokyo, has left us detailed reasoning for his decision. In his diary entry on June 11, 1943, he explained why he was taking an active role in the war. He did so in response to his friend Tsutomu Ouchi’s letter. Ouchi, later a distinguished professor of economics, evidently wrote to counsel against such a move, pointing out that seeking a certain death would not only be to indulge in “momentary heroism” but “stupid” as well, because if Sasaki thought it was his duty, that duty was a “reactionary” one.

“As a young man living in Japan at present,” Sasaki wrote, “I regard it as an extreme honor to be able to take part in this opportunity to create world history. We have studied economics furiously as a duty given us. … In addition, being blessed with physical strength and endowed with more than the average ability to act, I have the happy duty to be able to dedicate myself to my country. I think (serving my country and studying economics) are both sublime responsibilities.”

Not that Sasaki chose to be blind or ignorant. In February 1943, when he learned of the German defeat in Stalingrad and the Japanese defeat at Guadalcanal, he saw that Japan would be in dire straits very soon. In May he felt compelled to note: “We are already as helpless as ‘a carp on a cooking board.’ I’m not being pessimistic, but we must recognize fact.”

And the country for which he decided to sacrifice himself was far from pretty. “The life of the wealthy I saw in Karuizawa, the conduct of soldiers you see and hear about these days who behave as if this was the time of their life, the government officials and capitalists as they are today,” he wrote, “make me boiling mad.”

Yet he argued, citing Thomas Carlyle, that there would be no progress in world history unless each made every effort to carry out his duties in circumstances that are only accidentally his, even though he also believed that what moves the world were “foreordained, inevitable forces lying beyond individuals’ idealistic efforts.” Sasaki died as a kamikaze pilot off Okinawa on April 14, 1945.

Kazuo Watanabe, the scholar of French who wrote the preface to “Listen — Voices from the Deep,” judged that these young men’s deaths were “not, of course, natural deaths, nor suicides, but ‘homicidal deaths’ (tasatsu-shi).”

For many, that was undoubtedly true. But for many others, doing one’s duty in a desperate situation was also imperative. To assume otherwise would be an insult to them.

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