The Kamikazes Rise Again

This time, to help Japan confront its past

Illustration by Gregory Manchess

Quietly, unnoticed by foreign or even local media, the kamikaze pilots of World War II are edging back into Japanese consciousness. For the rest of us, of course, they never went away. "Kamikaze"—literally, "divine wind," and originally a poetic name for a typhoon that scattered a Mongol fleet trying to invade Japan in 1281—is one of the few Japanese words firmly in the world's vocabulary. The young men, barely out of school, who crashed flimsy planes loaded with explosives onto U.S. and Allied warships have haunted nightmares for half a century, as did the shivering shopkeepers and bank clerks who went over the top to certain death in the previous world war. The kamikazes didn't save Japan from defeat, but the 2,200 or so who died trying did sink thirty-four warships, and some of them killed almost 5,000 sailors in and around Okinawa—the heaviest loss in any single battle in which the U.S. Navy took part. It's hard to forget enemies like them.

In Japan, however, a national amnesia has blotted out the years from 1931 to 1945. Only the sketchiest history of the war is taught; my children, who attended Japanese schools, had not heard of the kamikazes, or even of the "Special Attack Corps," the official military title for the suicide pilots. There has long been a small kamikaze memorial in the old samurai town of Chiran, on the southern tip of the island of Kyushu, which held the runway from which the pilots took off. But Chiran is an out-of-the-way place, not featured on any tourist itinerary. Last September I revisited it, only because an American friend wanted to see the area his father, a Marine Corps veteran, might have been sent to invade had Japan not surrendered. To my surprise, the memorial had doubled in size since my previous visit, ten years ago, and it was crowded with visitors, all Japanese. A few of them were grizzled veterans, but most were young people, learning about the kamikazes for the first time.

A more accessible barometer of Japanese attitudes toward war is the Yasukuni Shrine, in the middle of Tokyo, on a hill overlooking the Emperor's palace. Yasukuni is, very approximately, Japan's Arlington National Cemetery, where the names of some 2.4 million soldiers and sailors who died in Japan's wars (and a handful whom the Allies hanged as war criminals) are recorded. Considering its purpose, Yasukuni is strangely unmilitary. Two rows of flowering cherry trees, magnificent in their short bloom (like the lives of fallen warriors, the Japanese say), lead to a weathered wooden shrine whose drawn purple curtains display the chrysanthemum crest of the emperors for whom those millions died. White-robed Shinto priests and priestesses bustle around on mysterious errands; gray-haired veterans, reunited on the anniversary of some long-ago battle or ship's sinking, pose in precise military formation for photographs. Visitors buy curios and feed flocks of specially bred white doves. For the most part, Yasukuni looks like its name—"The Empire at Peace."

Off to one side, however, is a substantial Western-style building called the Hall for Communing With Noble Souls—in plainer terms, a military museum. I recently escorted another American friend there. Steam Locomotive C5631, the first locomotive to travel the infamous Burma Railroad, was still on the grounds outside; that day a squad of old soldiers was scrubbing its smart black-and-red paint. A bilingual sign, familiar to me from previous visits, dedicates the locomotive "to memory of numerous casualties during the Railway construction works in war time" and includes a prayer "for the repose of their souls and for eternal world peace." Opposite, however, was something new: a statue of a proud young pilot, the earflaps of his flying helmet jauntily askew. It was dedicated, in an untranslated inscription, to "The Brave Men Who Made the Special Attack(s)," or, as the phrase might be more colloquially rendered, "The Unknown Kamikaze." This is the first statue at Yasukuni of any World War II fighter—previously there were only figures of a horse, a war dog, and a soldier's widow with her three children.

Inside, the museum looked much as ever, although Emperor Hirohito—a nonperson there until his death, in 1989—is gradually emerging, his role in Japan's wars now cautiously acknowledged by a painting of him leading troops to this very shrine. The museum has guns, warship models, a one-man Japanese suicide submarine "loaned for an indefinite period from the US Army museum Hawaii," a shot-up tank, a diorama of an attack by rocket-powered, human-guided bombs. The sole surprise was a sign, in Japanese only, directing visitors to the "Words of the Fallen Heroes" on the upper floor; it bore a photograph of a young navy officer cradling a baby in his arms.

The room upstairs was simple, even stark. The walls were lined with photographs of handsome kamikaze pilots, forever young and smiling. In glass cases beneath were their farewell letters to their families and the dates of their missions. Sad music, including the Japanese equivalent of "Taps," sounded softly.

The letter of Pilot Officer Masahisa Uemura to his daughter Motoko—the pair in the photograph on the sign—is heartrending. Uemura, who died somewhere in the Pacific on October 26, 1944, at the age of twenty-six, wrote,

I want you to respect your mother and be like her, always honest and kind. I hope you will be a good wife. I won't see you again in this life, so when you want to see me, you should come to the Yasukuni Shrine. If you pray hard enough, I will be there beside you, and share your happiness as my own. Never say you have no father. I will always be with you, by your side. Your loving Daddy.

His schoolboy cap lies beside his letter.

Lieutenant Yoshie Miyauchi, aged twenty-three, who died on April 28, 1945, near Okinawa, wrote, "Dear Mother and Father—thank you for bringing me up to be a true man. I died smiling, so please smile. Do not cry for me."

Ensign Takamitsu Nishida, aged twenty-two, who died in the southwest Pacific on May 11, 1945, wrote his parents, "I attack in four hours. I shall be shining among the clouds, drifting and tumbling forever. This is my last letter. Your loving son."

Not all the letters are from pilots. A beautiful army nurse, Kyoko Yamano, aged nineteen, who died "of a war disease" in the Philippines in 1945, wrote to her parents, "The sun is setting over the south seas as I write. It is beautiful here, but I would rather be home in Japan with my dear family."

There are last messages from nine girl telephone operators who killed themselves to avoid capture by the Soviets on Sakhalin Island, which until 1945 was partly held by the Japanese, and from schoolboys drafted into war work. Nothing indicates what enemy losses their sacrifices might have achieved, or that most of them were dealing out death as well as suffering it—but the same might be said of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, or of any such memorial or cemetery anywhere. Many of the letters use the stilted patriotic phrases of the time; none express hatred for the enemy. The dominant theme—for me, at least—was the waste of young lives and the pity of war.

An old soldier with a long wispy beard asked me to sign the visitor's book. I gladly complied. The book is a fascinating exhibit in its own right, a dialogue among Japanese and those foreigners who have strayed in. "I am eighty-three and still alive," wrote one Japanese veteran. "I can only respect what they did." "I know so little about the war," wrote a seventeen-year-old Japanese girl. "I'm glad I came." "Stay proud," urged Jossie and May, of Australia. "Where's the other side of the story?" asked Vincent, of Hong Kong. "I'm fascinated by the presentation of imperialist aggressors as heroes," wrote Daniel, of New York. "My old granddad's brother was killed in a Japanese camp," wrote Dave, of Liverpool. "Don't glorify war please." Beneath his comment was one in Japanese: "Foreigners don't understand what this display is about."

What is it about? I was reminded of two strangers I once heard arguing on a bus in New York. "Lee surrendered, didn't he?" one sneered. I thought of the statues of Confederate soldiers I had seen in dusty southern towns and cities, the persistent controversy about the Confederate flag, the fact that the first suicide submariners were Americans—the crew of the iron coffin CSS Hunley, who died sinking the USS Housatonic off Charleston in 1864. The Japanese and southern dilemmas are much the same: how to honor brave men and women without endorsing the cause for which they died.