Honor in Death: Kamikaze Pilots of World War II
Japan History

Research Report
Web Resources

“Life is as the weight of a feather compared to one’s duty”
Japanese Proverb (Inoguchi 1)

This report will discuss several aspects of the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II. First, it will define the term “kamikaze.” It will then give a brief historical background on how that term came into existence in the Japanese culture. Next, it will discuss how and why the kamikaze pilots of World War II were created. Then, it will discuss why these young men chose to volunteer for these suicide missions. Finally, it will discuss the post-war Japanese view of the pilots, and examine how they are viewed in Japan today. 

Historical Background

In the year 1281, Kublai Khan and his Mongol Army attempted to invade the islands of Japan by sea. Victory was at hand for the Mongols when suddenly, and unexpectedly, a great typhoon swept through off the coast of Japan and destroyed the Mongol forces and fleet enroute to Japan. The people of Japan considered this to be a great turn of fortune for them. They believed that this great storm was sent to them as protection from the heavens and is credited with saving the Japanese Empire. It was called the Kamikaze, or Divine Wind (Inoguchi xi).
Research Report

By the fall of 1944, it had become clear that the Japanese were again losing in a struggle for their empire. This time however, they were losing to the American and Allied forces in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Short on resources as well as victories, the Japanese again turned to this “divine” force in the belief that it would again save them from total annihilation by foreign forces. Only this time, instead of it being a “divine wind,” it came in the form of men who were willing to sacrifice their lives in order to help their country. These suicide pilots took on the name “kamikaze” and applied it to their airborne missions. 

In October, 1944, after receiving approval from the Minister of the Japanese Navy, Admiral Takijiro Onishi, established the first Kamikaze group. By organizing this first “Tokkatai” (beautiful death) force, as it is known in Japan, Admiral Onishi believed that though the mission might not be tactically effective, it would definitely be a powerful statement that would show the world the true dedication to the Japanese cause of winning the war. Admiral Onishi once said, “if they (the young pilots) are on land, they would be bombed down, and if they are in the air, they would be shot down. That’s sad…Too sad…To let the young men die beautifully, that’s what ‘Tokko’ is. To give beautiful death, that’s called sympathy” (Sasaki). 

On October 21, 1944, the first organized suicide attack plan was created (Sasaki). A squadron of 26 fighters called the “Shinpu Tokubetsu Kogekitai” would carry it out from Mabalacat on the island of Luzon, in the Philippines (Sasaki, Inoguchi 3).  Shinpu is another way of reading the word Kamikaze and Tokubetsu Kogekitai was the general name for the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy (Inoguchi 12, Sasaki). In the plan, the pilots would fly Japanese planes called Zeroes, each fitted with a 550-pound bomb, and intentionally crash into their specified military target. It was the belief that a purposeful and planned crash would “inflict more damage on the target than the fire of 10 machine guns” (Information on the Kamikaze). Naoshi Kanno, a graduate of the Naval Academy, was originally chosen to lead this mission. However, due to the fact that he was away on the mainland of Japan at the time on a different mission, Captain Yukio Seki was chosen to take his place.  Of the 26 planes in this original Kamikaze outfit, 13 of these planes were used as an escort and the other 13 were divided into four attack groups. These groups were given names from a nationalistic waka (poem) by Norinaga Motoori of the Tokagowa Period. He wrote, 

“Shikishima no Yamato-gokoro wo hito towaba Asahi ni niou Yamazakura-bana,” (The Japanese spirit is like mountain cherry blossoms, radiant in the morning sun.) (Divine Wind 21). 

Each of the groups was given part of the poem as a name: Shikishima (a poetic name for Japan), Yamato (the ancient name for Japan), Asahi (morning sun), and Yamazakura (mountain cherry blossoms) (Inoguchi 13, Sasaki).

On October 25, 1944, during the battle of Samos, the first ever Kamikaze attack was carried out in which the 26 suicide pilots attacked the Saint Lo, an American aircraft carrier and sank it (Millot 51-52). 

As a result of early success, the Japanese extended their use of Kamikaze fighters. In April, 1945 alone, it is estimated that these Kamikaze pilots, under the command of Admiral Soema Toyoda launched over 1,400 missions and sunk 26 enemy ships during Operation Ten-Go. Another 2,000 missions were launched against American fleets at Okinawa between April and July, 1945. However, the damage became more and more minimal for over time, the U.S. Navy began to learn how to deal with and prevent these attacks (E-teach). 

The reasons for one becoming a Kamikaze pilot stem from the Japanese heritage. From the time that they were young, Japanese children were taught (some call it brainwashed) to accept the fact that their lives belonged to the Emperor. As a result, in the public schools of Japan, children were taught that “dying for the Emperor was the right thing to do and that, those who do, will be worshipped” after death at the “Yakusuni Shrine” (Moston).  This lead to the Japanese motto of “jusshi reisho,” (sacrifice life) being taught around Japan (Moston). This, along with the fact that the Japanese military heavily censored military information about defeats, led to the belief that if one were to become a kamikaze pilot, he would be sacrificing his life for Japan’s ultimate victory (Moston). 

The Bushido Code of the Samurai also played into the ideals of the kamikaze. Warriors in Japan, since the time of the Samurai, viewed death as merely a part of life. They, like the Kamikaze, conditioned themselves to accept death, not fear it (Moston). Much like their Samurai predecessors, the Kamikaze resigned themselves to death, and were calm in the face of it. They, like the Samurai wore a Hachimaki, the Samurai headband made of a folded piece of white cloth. This seemingly insignificant garment meant much to both the Samurai and the Kamikaze pilots for it symbolized courage and calm “in pre-battle composure” (Inoguchi 12.1, Kamikaze Pilots). The fact that the Kamikaze pilots would volunteer for such missions showed that they would rather die than be defeated. In dying, they, like the Samurai, would bring honor to themselves, to their family, and to their country. 

In order to be chosen for such an “honor,” a pilot had to first fill out an application. Pilots chosen were usually uneducated men and were the second or third sons of a family. It was the belief that the educated men were needed to win the war and could not be sacrificed. Also, the first born son was rarely chosen because they were to inherit the family business and thus could not be sacrificed. Once chosen, the Kamikaze pilots were made to accept a 5 point oath: 1) A soldier must make loyalty his obligation, 2) A soldier must make propriety his way of life, 3) A soldier must highly esteem military valor, 4) A soldier must have a high regard for righteousness, and 5) A soldier must live a simple life (Information on the Kamikaze). 

Prior to taking off, each pilot would write a farewell letter to his family. It would be sent after there was confirmation of his death (Millot 68). One letter that a pilot wrote to his family stated, 

"Please congratulate me! I have been given a splendid opportunity to die. This is my last day. The destiny of our homeland hinges on the decisive battle in the seas in the south where I shall fall like a blossom from a radiant cherry tree. We are 16 warriors manning the bombers. May our deaths be as sudden and clean as the shattering of crystal!" (Kamikaze Pilots)
Many letters like this one were sent, along with hair or fingernail clippings, by pilots to their relatives. Letters like this demonstrate how deeply these pilots believed in their cause, and why it was such an honor for them to be able to sacrifice themselves to help further it. These pilots felt that they were doing the right thing. “To refuse such and honor” would go against everything in their culture at the time (Moston). 

Even with the knowledge that they would not ever return from their mission, an astounding number of young men volunteered. In fact, three times as many men applied for the missions, as there were planes (Information on the Kamikaze). Most often, the more experienced pilots were turned down due to the plain fact that their skill and knowledge would be needed for both air-combat and to train younger, less experienced pilots to “fly to their deaths” (Information on the Kamikaze). As a result, most of the kamikaze pilots were young men, barely out of their teens, most of who saw this opportunity as a chance to prove that they were “real men” (Information on the Kamikaze). The youngest of these pilots was barely 17 years old, and most were in their late teens and early twenties (Sasaki). As the battles worsened, the average age of these pilots got younger and younger (Sasaki).

Historical Significance

While most of these young men died for the love of their country, by the end of the war, their fellow countrymen began to view them quite differently. Soon after the war, much of Japanese society saw these pilots as an “embarrassment…as symbols of the horror and insanity of the war” (Cullen). In the eyes of the rest of the world, they were seen as “crazy fanatics who died shouting banzai (literally meaning “10,000 years- that the emperor may live for 10,000 years”)” (Cullen, Millot 11).  The term ‘kamikaze’ became derogatory in nature and this former source of national pride became public scorn (Lamont-Brown 173). Even former members of the Kamikaze Corps “openly criticized the strategy” (Lamont-Brown 173). At the time, Japan was humiliated by the defeat they suffered at the hands of the Allied Forces. In their rush to bury the past, they also buried the memories of these brave young men “whose chillingly simplistic mission was to fly into American battleships” (Cullen). 

Over time however, this has changed. More and more respect has been paid to these fallen soldiers through television, movies, plays, and books. In 2001, nearly 57 years after the war, Japan showed that it now “embraced its kamikaze past” (Cullen). Nearly a million people visited Chiran (one of the biggest kamikaze bases) in order to pay respect and honor the memories of the pilots. In 1955, a local, whose mother-in-law live on Chiran and cared for most of the pilots as a surrogate mother in their last days, collected donations and erected a statue of the goddess of mercy in their honor. In 1975, a museum was built in memory of the pilots. Soon after, 1,036 stone lanterns were donated: one for each pilot who sacrificed his life for the love of his country (Cullen). 

    Ultimately, the sacrifices of the Kamikaze were made in vain. Though they sunk 40 U.S. ships in the Pacific and another 16 in the Philippines, they were unsuccessful in halting the progress of the Allied forces. The confidence of the Kamikaze, along with the rest of the nation was completely shattered when the Emperor announced surrender. Unlike in the 13th century, the heavenly deliverance had not come this time, their “divine wind” had failed to deliver them to victory. Yet, the devotion of the Japanese people to the ideal of their country lives on even in present day. This devotion has allowed Japan to “rise from the ashes of defeat to become a major player in the post war world” (Information on the Kamikaze).

Like cherry blossoms
       In the spring,
            Let us fall
                                                         Clean and radiant (Inoguchi 208)
Inoguchi, Rikihei (Captain), and (Commander) Tadashi Nakajima. The Divine Wind: Japan’s Kamikaze Force in World War II. Anapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1958. 

Lamont-Brown, Raymond.  Kamikaze: Japan’s Suicide Samurai. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1997.

Millot, Bernard. Divine Thunder: The Life and Death of the Kamikazes. New York: McCall Publishing, 1970.

Naito, Hatsuho. Thunder Gods: The Kamikaze Pilots Tell Their Story. New York: Kodansha International, 1989.

Sakai, Saburo. Samurai! New York: E.P. Dutton And Company, 1957.

Web Resources

Who Became Kamikaze Pilots, and How Did They Feel Towards Their Suicide Mission?
                    An essay by Mako Sasaki, St. Maur International School in Yokohama, Japan.

Information on the Kamikaze Pilots
                   Contains general information about the pilots.

Ascent of the Fireflies
                   Article found in Time Magazine about a woman who cared for the Kamikaze pilots prior to their missions and Japanese sentiment toward the pilots right after the war and then in present day.

Kamikaze Pilots, by Amelia Moston and Anneli Nylander
                   Web site containing general information about the pilots.

Kamikaze Pilots
                   General background information about the Kamikaze Pilots and a letter to one pilot’s family.

E-tech.com: Kamikaze
                   Educational website for teaching historical events.

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