Mythmaking and the Kamikaze 'volunteers'

by Hiroaki Sato

NEW YORK — Lisa Hosokawa Garber, a fresh graduate of St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina, has sent me “Crosswind,” her short, imaginative account of three months in the life of a youth training to be a Kamikaze pilot. It describes what its author calls a Shakespearean “twist of fate”: The young man is let off a suicide mission at the last minute because the news reaches his air base that his entire family has been annihilated in Hiroshima.

Kamikaze, the generic name for “special attack corps,” was like today’s “suicide bombers”: a product of asymmetrical warfare. By the third year of the Pacific War, Japan had lost much of the wherewithal to fight the United States. Vice Adm. Takijiro Onishi, upon his arrival in Luzon, in the fall of 1944, famously asked his men to ram their Zero fighters carrying 250-kg bombs into enemy carriers, because he found so few planes at his disposal. He wanted to increase the hit ratio.

In truth, Onishi, “the father of the special attack corps,” was simply carrying out a tactic the General Staff had adopted months earlier, as was later revealed. It was none other than Minoru Genda, then navy commander and, after Japan’s defeat, general of Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force, who wrote the last telegram confirming the deployment of suicide missions, even suggesting the name Shimpu — the sinified reading of Kamikaze — for the first squadron.

Onishi himself is known to have condemned the tactic as “heretical to military command” to the very end. The day after his country surrendered, he killed himself, leaving a testimonial to apologize for sending so many young men to useless deaths.

But in a country where “taking to death unperturbed” in battle was inculcated as essential soldierly ethos, the news of the first sortie of a “special attack corps” on Oct. 25, 1944, was reported as the ultimate manifestation of “fierce loyalty.” The Asahi Shimbun, for one, solemnly declared: “We will win this Holy War with this. Our Divine State will be defended and preserved with this.”

Yes, the Asahi and other news media were working under harsh censorship and no negative comments on the military were possible without prompt retribution. But many Japanese took the act of self-sacrifice as ennobling, as something mythically exalting.

“We saw a flood of modern predilections for tragic heroism in our towns or heard praises with optimistic mythological quotations in our streets,” wrote Yukio Mishima, four days after Japan’s surrender, recalling the special attack sorties almost a year earlier. In 1970 Mishima would shock the world killing himself by disembowelment and decapitation.

More immediately, at the height of the Battle of Okinawa, the 20-year-old writer had written: “The special attack corps are not a resuscitation of the ancient era, but an annihilation of the modern.” By that, he was referring to the notion of “overcoming modernity,” the philosophical question taken up at the start of the war when Japan had seen a string of victories: Does Japan have anything inherently non-Western to prevent or divert the onrush of modernization, to wit, Westernization?

In Okinawa, the Japanese military used “special attacks” — or the acts of “self-immolation,” as Vice Adm. C.R. Brown of the U.S. Navy chose to call them — as their main strategy, even sending a fleet of nine warships, led by the biggest battleship of the day to willful self-destruction.

“Crosswind” rejects that mythmaking aspect of Kamikaze. The protagonist, Tadao Goto, believes that the war was “lost from the beginning.” His conviction shows, and he is met with savage persecution by a sub-lieutenant in charge. Tadao’s stoic defiance gives way, and he “volunteers” for a death mission, only under threat of the ostracization of his family that would ensue if he refused.

In this, Garber reminds me of Toshiro Takagi, the war correspondent who covered the “special attack corps” in Chiran Base, Kagoshima, and devoted much of his postwar life to chronicling the real Kamikaze and the infamous Battle of Imphal. Among the “lies” he uncovered was that those who went on suicide missions were all “volunteers.”

The first pilot chosen to lead the first mission, Lt. Yukio Seki, was a case in point. In the account by Capt. Rikihei Inoguchi and Cmdr. Tadashi Nakajima who were on the scene as staff officers, Seki’s response when told he was picked for the mission was, “You absolutely must let me do it.”

But Takagi learned that the lieutenant was considerably disturbed, at least for a while. The book became a best-seller in Japan, and the U.S. Naval Institute published it in Roger Pineau’s translation as “The Divine Wind” in 1958. Takagi reports that the publisher of the Japanese original was torn that it became a best-seller and was translated into a foreign language besides.

To him, the Inoguchi and Nakajima account unacceptably prettified certain aspects of the “special attack force.” The 1968 Ballantine edition of the English translation I have comes with a cover with a pictorial depiction of several tall, handsome men in aviator garb, ready for a death mission.

This, Takagi adds, does not negate the fact that many young men died willingly for their country. Nonetheless, when he looked at the names of the surviving generals and admirals who in 1952 had signed up for building a peace memorial to “offer prayers” for those who died on “special attack” missions, Takagi imagined their praying hands and thought of the words of Macbeth:

“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red.’

Garber says the character of Tadao Goto is broadly based on Masayuki Matsumuro, the successful businessman and international philanthropist, whom she interviewed after the war. She wrote “Crosswind” for a writing contest. It won a prize and her college press published it.

Translator and essayist Hiroaki Sato is at work on a biography of Yukio Mishima.