During the Second World War, the Japanese had quite a different war ethos than the Allied powers and even their own allies such as the Germans and Italians. During the later stages of the war, they deployed so-called kamikaze pilots: pilots that mobilised their aircraft as a weapon and crashed into enemy ships. So where exactly did the term kamikaze come from and what is the story behind these pilots?
As for the origins of the word kamikaze, there actually is a very long historical tradition of the word. It refers to a mythical divine wind that supposedly blew over Japan centuries ago. According to this tale, this divine wind protected the island when during the 13th century the Mongols tried to invade it with boats. The grandson of Ghengis Khan, Kublai Khan, attempted to invade the island twice with a massive fleet. These invasions failed because a typhoon destroyed the majority of the Mongol fleet. These storms were called kamikaze and served an important role in later history when explaining the failed Mongol invasion. During the Second World War the Japanese army command reasoned that just like the divine wind that repelled the Mongols, the Japanese kamikaze pilots would fight the US ships.
Now using kamikaze pilots wasn’t a familiar tactic at the beginning of the war. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until late 1944 that the Japanese high command considered the idea of utilising kamikaze pilots. This idea of sacrificing oneself in such a way for the emperor and empire wasn’t completely new though. Before the first kamikaze attack the second world war had already seen Banzai-charges: Japanese soldiers, and sometimes even civilians, that charged at their enemy, sometimes with bombs strapped to their body, sometimes without. They preferred death over capture by US troops. Japanese propaganda played an important role as well: Japanese soldiers were told horror stories about the treatment of POWs by US soldiers, which led them to think death was the least painful and most honourable way out.
Yet as the war progressed, Japan suffered material and resource shortages. By late 1944 the Japanese high command considered an American invasion on the mainland to be a serious threat, if not inevitable. By October 1944 the recently appointed commander of the 1st Air Fleet Takijiro Onishi started to test the waters with other commanders about a new strategy. In his opinion, it was the only strategy that could win Japan the war, or at least prolong it: use pilots that would suicidally charge into US ships with their specifically designed aircraft, including attached bombs.
Now initially while some commanders accepted his plan, there was some resistance among both the top Navy and army commanders. As internal discussions went on, several high-ranking officers felt there was no time to waste, however. Disregarding the fact kamikaze was not yet an official strategy, rear admiral Masafumi Arima decided to organise his own kamikaze mission.
And on the 15th of October 1944, he became Japan’s first kamikaze pilot. He used his Mitsubishi G4M twin-engine bomber and supposedly flew into the aircraft carrier, USS Franklin. Although sources are conflicting on whether Masafumi actually reached the USS Franklin or he crashed beforehand, what is certain is that the carrier suffered considerable damage. Regardless of whether the kamikaze attack was succesful – it became a massive propaganda-tool for Japanese media and the military and Masafumi was credited with being Japan’s first kamikaze pilot. Following this attack Onishi established the first suicide brigade, the tokkotai, an abbreviation of the Japanese term of special attack unit. It earned Onishi the dubious nickname the “father of the kamikaze”. But the term kamikaze was only used informally, and only after the term gained popularity abroad did it become a commonly accepted term in Japan.
The brigades were formed on the Malabaca Air Base in the Philippines. When the concept was relayed to the local squadron commanders it is said they received it in ‘a frenzy of enthusiasm and happiness’. In short: Japanese soldiers received the order to die for their fatherland. That goes for all those Japanese soldiers that literally fought to the last man: there are so many accounts of battles for islands in the pacific where thousands of Japanese soldiers were killed and only a dozen captured. One of the reasons was the military code from 1872, stating that soldiers that surrendered or fled should be killed. But there is a deeper, collective psychological reason for this notion as well. It was the heritage of the feudal samurai culture and the tradition of bushido and harakiri: committing suicide was seen as a sign of personal courage.
During those last couple of months of the war, Japanese Kamikaze pilots managed to sink 34 United States ships and aircraft carriers, and seriously damage hundreds of others. A common myth is that these kamikaze pilots willingly carried out their missions. While some pilots certainly jumped at the opportunity to sacrifice their life for the emperor, anthropologists and historians dispute this claim. The social pressure these pilots suffered was very extreme. Japanese anthropologist Ohnuki-Tierney refutes the myth of voluntary sacrifice among pilots. One of the key differences was that traditional harakiri was an individual decision. At the same time, kamikaze pilots were selected in groups and if you didn’t want to go on the mission, you’d have to withdraw in front of your peers. As you can imagine, the peer pressure was immense, and those that did refuse their assignments were sent to the deadliest fronts, where one would near certainly perish in the last stand.
Now, I mentioned the first unofficial kamikaze mission, but the first official kamikaze attack is much better documented. This photograph shows the men of the first of three kamikaze units having a ceremonial toast of water as a farewell. 23-year-old Lieutenant Yukio Seki led the squadron. It consisted of 5 Mitshubishi Zero’s each carrying a 250 kg bomb with the mission to fly it into US aircraft carriers during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The goal of the mission was to paralyse the US fleet for at least a week, for the Japanese fleet to prevent a US landing on the mainland. The mission, however, wasn’t a success. It wasn’t, like the earlier mission, because the pilots missed their targets. All five planes crashed into US carriers and even sank the USS St. Lo, killing 143 of its crew. But the damage on other US carriers didn’t cause too much disruption and at most delayed the US fleet for several days.
Even though the mission cannot be considered the staggering success the Japanese military command hoped for, vice-admiral Onishi and the Japanese propaganda machine welcomed it as if it was an unprecedented victory. They broadly publicized about the courage of the kamikaze pilots. Due to this propaganda-storm, both the military and the Japanese public started to see kamikaze missions as a necessity for the war effort.
The initial kamikaze missions were carried out with Japanese Mitsubishi fighter planes. But soon the Japanese developed the Yokosuka MXY-7 Ohka, a human-guided kamikaze attack aircraft. On it the cherry blossom was painted, a symbol used to stoke militarism and nationalism among the populace. These aircraft were specifically designed for suicide attack missions.
And as for the composition of Kamikaze units, well it had some very telling statistics. Over 75 per cent were young men, most of them in their late teens and early 20s. In total well over 3800 Japanese pilots ended up dying in kamikaze attacks. Around 1000 of these were young men that had just graduated university and were promptly selected to join a kamikaze unit. No high-ranking officers were recruited, and no descendants of prominent Japanese families either. That is not to say high-ranking Japanese officers didn’t join kamikaze missions – the first unofficial mission was carried out by a rear admiral and the last attack, which I made a separate video of, was carried out by another admiral. Kamikaze missions initially remained small in scale. The Battle of Okinawa in June 1945 saw the first large-scale use of kamikaze pilots. During this battle, one of the bloodiest of the entire war in the Pacific, over 1500 Kamikaze attacks were registered. The incredibly bloody battle led to between 77 and 110.000 killed Japanese soldiers and Okinawan conscripts. Yet it was not for another two months, until the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski, that Japan finally surrendered.
The day after Japan surrendered Takijiro Onishi committed ritual suicide, seppuku, and wrote a letter in which he apologised for the deaths of around 4000 pilots he had sent on kamikaze missions. He included a poem that read “Refreshed / I feel like the clear moon / after a storm”. He then slit his abdomen with his sword and stabbed himself in the chest. After the war one of Onishi’s subordinates wrote a classic book called ‘the Divine Wind’ in which he called the use of kamikaze pilots unforgivable. In 1975 the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots was built. It is built on the site of the airbase at Chiran, where hundreds of kamikaze pilots took off for their final flight during the last stages of the war.
Now if you’re interested in more stories about Kamikaze pilots, there will be some end-cards on-screen about both the story of the last Japanese kamikaze attacks and the incredibly tragic story of First Lieutenant Hajime Fuji, a man whose family sacrificed themselves so he would not be held back in performing his perceived duty of carrying out a kamikaze attack.
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