Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
Japan’s kamikaze pilots during WWII bring to mind the operations of contemporary suicide bombers and terrorists. Heavily indoctrinated during their rigorous training in Japan’s imperial army, their suicidal missions did serious damage to Allied naval vessels in the Pacific, particularly towards the end of the war, in 1944-45, when Japan’s situation became more precarious, if not desperate.
Captain Motoharu Okamura, leading the Tateyama Base in Tokyo and the 341’s Air Group Base, was one of the first to propose kamikaze warfare in June 1944 and to explore its feasibility. In October 1944, Commander Asaiki Tamai led an actual mission composed of 24 student pilots he had personally trained.
Named after the fatal typhoons of the late Middle Ages (“kami”, meaning “god” or “spirit” and kaze”, meaning “wind”), these suicidal pilots would direct their whirling airplanes filled with explosives and fuel into enemy vessels, doing more damage than conventional bombs. Launching themselves with fatal accuracy, according to historian Max Hastings, “about 20 percent of kamikaze assaults scored hits—ten times the success rate for conventional attacks. Only the overwhelming strength of the U.S. Navy enabled it to withstand such punishment” (Inferno, the World at War 1939-1945, New York: Random House, 2012). During the length of the war, nearly 4,000 kamikaze pilots died. The damage they inflicted upon the Allies was extensive: the U.S. Air Force webpage indicates that about 3000 kamikaze attackers sunk 34 ships and killed about 5000 sailors: all in all, nearly 10 percent of ships hit by kamikaze pilots sank.
What drove these suicide bombers to sacrifice their lives for the Japanese Empire? And was their self-sacrifice coerced or voluntary? According to Hastings, most kamikaze pilots went to their final battles willingly, but some were coerced or peer-pressured into acquiescing. Psychological indoctrination, however, was part of the Japanese military system, where training was meant to induce blind patriotism, self-sacrifice for the Japanese Empire and a code of honor that dictated suicide over being captured by the enemy. Hastings emphasizes that the training of kamikaze pilots “was as harsh as that of all Japanese warriors, and attended by the same emphasis on corporal punishment” that would make them ruthless, and often very cruel, warriors (620). Even so, as it became more and more clear that Japan would lose the war, not all kamikaze pilots went willingly to their deaths. According to Hastings,
“The image of Japan’s kamikazes taking off to face death with exuberant enthusiasm is largely fallacious. Among the first wave of suicidalists in the autumn of 1944, there were many genuine volunteers. Thereafter, however, the supply of young fanatics dwindled: many subsequent recruits were driven to accept the role by moral pressure, and sometimes conscription” (620).
As with contemporary suicide bombers, heavy ideological indoctrination and a Manichean view of the world—a good versus evil, us versus them mentality—drove kamikaze bombers to their dark and desperate heroism.