I was a kamikaze
We ordinary pilots, more or less experienced, suffered the vague presentiment that sooner or later we would receive orders to carry out suicide-missions. But we did not talk about it. Even when he is rushing towards disaster, man cherishes the insane hope that somehow he will survive.
I was a Kamikaze by R. Nagatsuka, 1973, translated by Nina Rootes, reviewed by Everard Cunion in March 2021
The Japanese pilots in World War 2 who crashed their aircraft into American ships, like other suicide bombers since, are popularly regarded as the products of a psychology unfathomable to normal people. Nagatsuka’s first-hand account of the phenomenon, translated from the French (Nagatsuka was a university student of French literature) demonstrates that not only was the mentality of these young men hardly distinguishable from that of their western counterparts, the pressures that led them to such extremes, while the product of a ‘police state’, were nonetheless indistinguishable in principle from those in the west.
When hostilities were ended, the official American and Japanese publications minutely laid out the chronology of events and the horrific balance-sheet of the war. But in all this history of the Japanese-American conflict in the Pacific, a great human document was lacking.
Today, at last, Ryuji Nagatsuka brings us that document.
— RAF fighter ace Pierre Clostermann in his foreword to I was a Kamikaze
The first thing to bear in mind is the historical context of this book in terms of our understanding of human behaviour. It was published three years before Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Hitherto, people in the east and west were brought up to believe in a kind of group- or species-centred view of behaviour. (Even as late as 2021, I occasionally encounter people who are unaware that this view was demolished nearly half a century ago.)
When I first read this book in 1976 I was continually struck by how similar was the culture of these young Japanese men to my generation of Brits. (At least the so-called London intellectual types, so despised by provincial folk, more about which later.) Even when, as six-year-olds, we played Spitfires in the junior school playground (in north London) we learned to view those of our contemporaries with physical deficiencies as belonging to an inferior caste regardless of their achievements in ordinary life.
He seemed proud of the insignia he wore – that of the diploma of the Advanced School of Warfare. However, he was not wearing a pilot’s badge. No, he could not be a pilot, for he wore glasses on his tapering nose.
Nonetheless, there were important differences between east and west. For the first time in history, in World War 2 Brits had enough to eat. Rationing ensured that the poorest had a basic dairy-based diet that, while it fell short of modern healthy eating standards, largely abolished malnutrition. (The rich, as always, ate what they liked, the black market providing them with all they needed.) Not so in Japan, where U.S. Navy submarines succeeded in sinking much transport shipping supplying Japan with essentials. Pilots were among the best fed in Japan at that time, but that is not saying a much…
When our hunger became unbearable, we would say to him in fun: “Waiter! Some sushi please.” Then Watanabe would amuse himself by asking: “Would you prefer tuna fish or prawns, sir?” And while the rest of us watched with watering mouths, admiring his skill as a mime, he would set to imitating the cook.
The attacking fighters in this depiction are Nakajima Ki43 Hayabusas (peregrine falcons) which Nagatsuka flew on his later missions.
Japan at that time was a police state. Such societies, contrary to popular belief, are not imposed from above by dictators who fall into place as if beamed down from Mars. They are the product of a large mass of the population who see an authoritarian regime as their best hope, being unable to compete (genetically) with thinking people. In Germany, for example, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party were supported by the uneducated who lived in the countryside. Hitler was voted into power by the majority. (So much for democracy.) Nagatsuka does not seem to realize that fact, yet later in the book he touches on the evidence for that conclusion staring him in the face. Meanwhile, his description of a visit by his family to his air base demonstrates how finely tuned was the mechanism that led bright young men to sacrifice their lives ‘for their country’:
I led my family towards a transport plane. NCOs and soldiers who passed us saluted me. I felt embarrassed returning their salute. My mother stopped each time and bowed low. She was no doubt astonished to see NCOs who were so much older than I pay such respect to her son.
The U.S. submarines caused not only shortages of food, but of aviation fuel too, which resulted in fatalities in pilot training when the gasoline (petrol) was diluted with alcohol, several such instances being described in the book.
Educated Japanese, including Admiral Yamamoto who had studied in the U.S.A, pointed out to his superiors that Japan could never win a war against the ‘industrial might’ of the U.S.A. However, as others have written, those in command in Japan did not carry on the war in a mistaken belief that they might somehow regain the upper hand, but because the only existence they knew was that of nationalism, patriotism, uncritical obedience, and war. Meanwhile, that American ‘industrial might’ had come up with a machine that was burning the cities of Japan, one by one, to ashes…
At a distance of 1,000 feet, I had a clear view of this famous bomber for the first time. It was like some fabulous flying castle. Its elegant, uncamouflaged fuselage made me think of a monstrous flying fish. What imposing fins, what a rudder! The most disquieting thing about it was those six domes: two gun turrets on its back and four defence turrets operated by remote control – two at the back, one above, one below; and two in front, one on top and one in the waist of the plane.
Nagatsuka describes later how those defensive guns prevented him from hitting the B-29 with the guns of his own fighter. He also mentions a high altitude photo reconnaissance B-29 that was attacked by nearly 100 fighters and, in an action lasting a half hour, it shot down seven of them before escaping.
Nagatsuka analyses the inhumanity of the military of Japan and he reaches an erroneous conclusion, or rather a likely correct conclusion, but one that misses the most important element.
Some of the cadet pilots treated other ranks with brutality, saying in self-justification: ‘Corporal punishment is necessary in certain cases. The lower ranks are crafty by nature and full of tricks. They are shirkers too. Only physical suffering wakes them up and makes them realise they belong to the Imperial Army.’
He describes that as ‘A dubious piece of reasoning’ arising from the need for the officers, whose lives were also harsh, letting out their frustrations. This bears further examination though. (Incidentally, during the first Gulf war, in 1991, I worked with a handful of former sailors who described similar experiences in the British navy of the 1960s and 1970s.) Many people, especially the unintelligent, ‘are crafty by nature and full of tricks.’ It is too easy to assume that all who resemble them, either in physicality or circumstance, are like them. The well off, whether from private wealth or ‘social capital’, are better able to hide their craftiness and trickery, and to avoid negative consequences if they are found out. It is in the genes and that is the real problem we must solve.
Yet, even as an independently thinking individual to whom the faults in the system were evident, Nagatsuka is unable to avoid conforming to the call of the moment.
If someone had said to me at that moment: ‘You are not a professional soldier, but a cultivated man, and a pacifist; you would do better to spend your time in philosophical meditation rather than allowing yourself to be carried away by frenzy!’ I would have despised him utterly.
The book is crammed with dramatic anecdotes. A mother and her young daughter grieving over the loss of the eldest son, a navy pilot killed on a suicide mission, thank Nagatsuka for what he is doing and the ultimate sacrifice he will make on behalf of Japan. (Not realising – not consciously anyway – that, to those in command, the young men that they are sending to their deaths are their genetic rivals in a more immediate sense than any possible future American invaders.) Nagatsuka seems to fall in love with the girl, in some way. His account of that emotion reveals not the difference between the values of the intelligentsia of Japan and those in the west, but of their similarity…
She must be a person of great intelligence and faithful heart – just such a young girl as I had hoped to marry. She would have given me a healthy son, daring, honest, and clever. The three of us would stroll along the river banks, as I had often done with my parents when I was a child. The poetry of nature would draw us ever more closely together. At night, when I lingered late at my work table, my wife would bring me a cup of hot tea, just as my mother used to.
Lastly, when the squadron commander, his rage barely under control, chastises Nagatsuka and his comrades for returning to base on their first attempt at a suicide mission because adverse weather precluded sighting any targets, Nagatsuka observes…
Hadn’t the very first suicide pilot, Lieutenant Yukio Seki himself, come back three or four times before finally accomplishing his successful mission? The essence of the thing, surely, was not to die but to sink enemy ships under the most favourable conditions available.
No, the essence of the thing is that other people’s sons should go to their deaths, under whatever spurious pretext the social environment makes available, and those left behind – whose sons are safely out of the combat zone – inherit a surplus of nubile women. That is not a conspiracy; it is not even conscious. Rather, it is an automatic reflex cultivated by – among others – the professional military of Japan.
Nagatsuka sometimes speaks for all his comrades as if his own thoughts are shared by all, but without offering evidence for it. A minor irritation.
He sometimes gets aircraft wrong, such as Hellcat when he means Wildcat and Flying Fortress when he means Superfortress (he uses both terms for the B-29). However, only someone familiar with such things would notice (or care).
His conflicting desires; to abide by reason on the one hand and to obey orders and/or convention on the other hand (this occurs ate several levels, from the purpose of life to the decision about whether to press on into bad weather or return to base) becomes repetitive after a while. At times he strikes me as the embodiment of Australian art critic Robert Hughes’ caricature of the professor of inner devastation at the University of Central Paranoia sticking needles into himself.
However, my main criticism is also perhaps my most unfair criticism: It is that he seems blind to what we now perceive as obvious. That is, far from being the doom of Japan, American victory was their only hope of escape from the corruption and poverty characteristic of all authoritarian ‘police states.’ Even with American (allied) victory, as we know from our experience in the west, progress is slow and unsteady. That is because the problem is in the genes of the population. Nagatsuka makes occasional reference to this, such as when he mentions his family’s experience of moving to the countryside to escape the bombing of their city…
I was dumbfounded for a moment. I thought my mother looked tired: no doubt feeding the family was a great worry to her. The country people were not very obliging…
That is exactly the experience of the child evacuees to the countryside of Britain during the London Blitz earlier in the war (before Japan and the USA joined in). The abuse and cruelty they suffered at the hands of their provincial hosts is well documented. (They were just other people’s sons and daughters!) German peasants, who had voted Hitler into power, were similarly ‘not very obliging’ to refugees from the cities later in the war.
As I say, it is perhaps an unfair criticism. Even the intelligentsia needed Richard Dawkins and his colleagues to wake us up to the driving forces of human behaviour, and that was not to happen for another 30 years after World War 2.
For myself, the image of death was symbolised by a little black speck, glued to my retina, which floated before my eyes day and night like an indefatigable gnat. It did not buzz, it did not sting, but was all the more deadly for that.
I recall that anecdote more than anything else in the book from my first reading of it all those years ago. I experienced similar tiny black specks. They moved in from the periphery of my vision toward the centre, but try as I might, I was unable to ‘catch’ one by focusing on it. I was designing and building experimental hang gliders at the time, on my own, flying at a hill twenty minutes’ walk from home, where I lived with my mother, brother, and grandfather. (I had no car.) The rate of fatal crashes and serious injuries to others engaged in the same endeavour had become evident in statistics compiled by the USHGA and BHGA. I saw no alternative – no future for myself – but to carry on until I was killed. Perhaps the girls I fancied, but who I never knew how to even speak to, would then be impressed.
The blossom of the wild cherry, having scattered its perfume, falls without regrets. The meaning of this verse is that our people must always be ready to die for the benefit of their country, and, like the blossoms, they must fall without regrets.
Even the cherry blossom has a special effect on me, but possibly not the same effect as it has on Nagatsuka or other Japanese folk. A cherry tree grew at the edge of the sidewalk right outside where I live on the south coast of England. In the 1980s I was aware of the cherry blossom only when at home in March, which was normally when I was unemployed. Each year it flowered, reminding me that I was another year older and I had no money, no girlfriend (the ultimate thing to have!) and no future.
During the summer of 1943, I had bought six volumes of the Japanese translation of Das Kapital. I had paid twenty yens for them – enough for one person to live on for a month; since censorship of public opinion had been enforced, this work was very difficult to obtain.
In 1976, when I first read this book, I had recently started on the English translation of Das Kapital. I was looking for guidance on how to lead western societies out of the mess they were in. (As a hang glider pilot, I was labelled a leader of my generation – among other things.) One influence was that my grandfather subscribed to the right-wing propaganda broadsheet The Daily Telegraph, which specialized in ‘fake news’, reported anything remotely scientific inaccurately, and on one occasion it published a table of the various kinds of unemployment benefit. I had recent first-hand experience of the latter and they had exactly doubled each amount, which was sure to increase their readers’ collective rage at the undeserving poor. (As for Das Kapital, I did not get much further than the explanation of the difference between market value and use value, which seemed eminently sensible to me. I did not find it very interesting. Not when compared to Arthur C. Clarke sci-fi novels, anyway.) Of course, whereas in Japan the secret police watched university students and arrested any who they deemed unpatriotic, I obtained a copy of Das Kapital from my local library.
Nagatsuka’s family visited him at the air base and he attempted to deflect his young sister’s questions about the suicide pilots she had heard about…
Finally, the train drew out. I had to struggle to keep back my tears. A rapid military salute and then I left the station and made my way back along the path I had just walked down with my mother. I looked for the trace of her footprints.
I was about the same age as Nagatsuka (21) when I first read his book and I was struggling with my bid for stardom by designing and building experimental hang gliders. I had a recurring nightmare of my mother, her face bloated and red with grief, taking a hammer to my folded up hang gliders in the garage, her blows too feeble to inflict much damage. My life changed direction shortly afterwards, hang gliding no longer being my entire focus.
Hero to Zero, my overview of the anime The Wind Rises by Hayao Miyazaki, 2013, about aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi and Japan in the first half of the 20th century
Night flight to Venus, my model of the fictional Fireball XL5, a space-going derivative of the B-29
The Pacific in World War 2 plastic models part 1, which includes my Tamiya 1/48th scale Mitsubishi Zero, the navy equivalent of the army Hayabusa
Three-sixty degree appraisal (hang gliding 1976) for my direction in life when I first read this book
Enola Gay (Remastered) on YouTube: Song by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark commemorating the B-29 that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima
File:”Hesitation Upwind” U.S. Army Air Forces Film, 1944-45.webm: Bomber crew briefing film targeting the Mitsubishi factory, narrated by U.S. armed forces actor and later president of the USA Ronald Reagan (on Wikimedia Commons)
WW2 Japanese Military Brutality Explained by Dr. Mark Felton on YouTube
The Japanese soldier of World War Two stands as a warning to future generations of what can happen when morality, humanity, and compassion are beaten out of the warrior. The basest of human instincts will then be given free reign.
— Dr. Mark Felton in WW2 Japanese Military Brutality Explained (see the preceding link)