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What Motivated the Kamikazes?

Naval History

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    What Motivated the Kamikazes?
    By G. Miki Hayden
    Naval History Volume 19, Number 2, April 2005


    The Japanese were not about to let the Allies get closer to their shores than Okinawa. Their resistance strategy included using kamikaze pilots destined to die for Japan. And their motivations were not really so far from those of U.S. troops.

    In May 1945, as the Germans formally surrendered to the Allies in Europe and Americans were celebrating wildly in the streets at home, one of the largest battles of the entire war was in full, bloody swing. On Okinawa, about halfway between Iwo Jima and Tokyo and held by the Japanese since the 1870s, a 1,300-ship combined British-American invasion force had landed 60,000 men on L-Day (Love Day), 1 April 1945. Instead of invading Japan proper, expected as the next logical move after taking Iwo as a forward air base, the decision was to subdue Okinawa. The Japanese were adroit strategists and perhaps had learned something from the intensive Allied shelling at Normandy. This stand in the Ryukyu Islands was Japan's most essential defensive action of the war—an attempt to keep the Allied fighters away from the homeland. As on Iwo, few rounds were fired by the defenders, and those were from a distance. The Marines who landed on the coast felt both as if they had outlived their life expectancies by far and that they were arriving on a territory so starkly alien it might as well be the surface of the moon.

    The invasion of Okinawa under the command of Army Lieutenant General Simon Buckner was to be the final amphibious operation of the war and the one resulting in the greatest number of casualties. As many as 3,000 lives were lost in a single day during the 82-day conflict, and when the battle was over, 49,000 Americans had been wounded or killed, a minimum of 100,000 Japanese fighters were dead, uncounted numbers were wounded, and many were roasted alive by flamethrowers and forgotten in the caves up in the hills.

    The last-hope stratagem that had been initiated by Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi on Iwo was duplicated here by General Mitsuru Ushijima. Elaborate positions had been dug out in the cliffs and an unusually large defending force awaited the invaders. But that was not the only trump card the Japanese were holding as the Westerners approached so threateningly close their home islands. Suicide pilots—kamikazes—had been used before by the Japanese imperial forces, but never in such great numbers, and never flying their missions directly from Japan. Hundreds of loyal young imperial flyers lost their lives in missions that brought down 26 Allied ships off Okinawa, with 160 damaged. The kamikaze dive-bombers were not enough to deflate the 1,300-ship armada, but their harrying of the seaside flotilla was a significant psychological and tactical accomplishment. The hundreds of Japanese pilots who surrendered their lives to sink the invaders confounded the Western sailors and soldiers, altered their concept of what to expect from air attacks, and made a material impact that impeded the Allied advance.

    For years after World War II, surviving American military who served in the Pacific and later observers repeatedly have expressed astonishment at the concept of the kamikaze bombers, considering it an extreme anomaly of human behavior. They never pause to compare such heroic behavior with that of the young Marines and soldiers who waded ashore. We Americans feel our hearts beat a little bit faster when we think of the indomitable fighting force landing on Okinawa in the final phase of the Pacific engagement. For some reason, we cannot equate this in any form with the sacrifice the volunteer Japanese pilots made to destroy their opponents. It seems a gulf too great for us to leap.


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    Yet the lips of the old Japanese kamikaze tremble as he recounts waiting to be ordered on the attack—and as he pictures his war-year comrades flying off to their deaths. This same feeling is displayed by Marine and Army U.S. war vets who tell their tales of this conflict and relive their emotions. In other words, there is little difference in what the warriors of each side underwent. There are only differences in our perceptions. Children growing up in the United States were taught to accept the subtle and explicit truism that the Asian peoples held life cheaply—not only the lives of others, but also those of their own. This was an odd idea, fed perhaps by the extreme measures of honor and devotion displayed by the kamikaze pilots. Yet although behaviors differ within cultures, basic human emotions remain very much the same, no matter the group.

    Iwo Jima was the first Allied stop on territory held by Japan prior to the war. Although it was not one of the main groups of Japanese islands, Iwo, annexed by Japan in 1887, was only 660 miles from the Nipponese homeland. Okinawa, a prewar military training ground, was one stride closer. Once U.S. forces controlled the bases there, Japan—defended by farmers armed with pitchforks (with which authorities drilled them) or not—was doomed. Almost from the minute Allied forces jumped onto the beaches at Okinawa, they were able to secure the two vital air bases and staging areas that commanded the island. The whole of the game was almost won, the Western commanders imagined. But this was a battle in which gains were later to be measured in yards, and territory won was rarely held.

    The moral position of the Japanese fighting men was the same as that of every U.S. serviceman who stepped onto shore. Each was dedicated without reservation to his country's welfare and stated position in the context of the war. At the same time, each feared for his life and desired to be spared. No doubt there were some among the Japanese who clung to belief in the glory of an afterlife in the Pure Land. But most of such thoughts, any clever physician of the soul would recognize, were on the surface of the personality, overlaying the primal desire of the living organism to survive. No one came to that fight entirely ready and willing to die for his beloved country—neither American nor Japanese.

    Yet Japanese soldiers would strap dynamite to their bodies to destroy a bridge built overnight by Marine engineers, killing themselves in the process of delaying intruders. Behind the acts of uniformed men of both nations were social pressure, fear of shame, the concept of an afterworld, the teachings of their fathers and schools, a desire to protect mothers, wives, and children, and an absolute determination not to let down their comrades-in-arms.

    As bad as things were thus far in the conflict, soon conditions on the island grew far worse. The rains blew in from the direction of the East China Sea and turned the real estate the soldiers battled over into an unstable quagmire dotted with the mutilated dying and neatly stacked cords of the already dead. The Japanese fired all manner of artillery, mortars, and machine guns from positions on somewhat higher ground—the hills the Americans called Sugar Loaf, Half Moon, and Horseshoe and from Shuri Castle. Here, underground, veterans of Manchuria and Japanese Marines rested in the dank and dark of extensive man-made tunnels. They stank of their own perspiration and worse, breathed the foulness of air shared by thousands, and contemplated their deaths. The thoughts that flitted through their minds were the same as those occurring to our Marines—visions of wives and home, parents and children—none of whom tens of thousands of these young men would ever see again.

    Across from Sugar Loaf, U.S. troops squatted wetly in the muddy trenches, half-crazed by the death and destruction they already had encountered during this campaign. And they were tired—dreadfully, unbelievably exhausted—so pushed to the edge they could not bring themselves to eat.

    The Japanese plan for defeating the Allies was mad, born of a resolution never to surrender and a powerful denial in the face of their true position. By signing up 4,000 kamikaze recruits, they planned to sink the ships that were the lifeline of the U.S. warriors, then surround and kill them to the last man. Yet there were too many variables in the equation and, in the end, despite the strength of the Japanese fortifications and their courageous spirit, turning the tide was impossible. Including some 77,000 civilians, about 207,000 men and women lost their lives on Okinawa during a battle that raged for nearly three months.

    Today, both Iwo Jima and Okinawa again are part of Japan. As Americans visit the memorial to the sinking of the Arizona (BB-39) at Pearl Harbor, so do Japanese visit the sites on Okinawa to honor their war dead.

    Ms. Hayden is the author Pacific Empire (Bedford, Indiana: JoNa Books, 1998), nine intertwined short mystery/crime stories in which the Japanese do not lose World War II.


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