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Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers

Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers

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by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney

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“We tried to live with 120 percent intensity, rather than waiting for death. We read and read, trying to understand why we had to die in our early twenties. We felt the clock ticking away towards our death, every sound of the clock shortening our lives.”

So wrote Irokawa Daikichi, one of the many kamikaze pilots, or tokkotai, who faced almost


“We tried to live with 120 percent intensity, rather than waiting for death. We read and read, trying to understand why we had to die in our early twenties. We felt the clock ticking away towards our death, every sound of the clock shortening our lives.”

So wrote Irokawa Daikichi, one of the many kamikaze pilots, or tokkotai, who faced almost certain death in the futile military operations conducted by Japan at the end of World War II. 

This moving history presents diaries and correspondence left by members of the tokkotai and other Japanese student soldiers who perished during the war. Outside of Japan, these kamikaze pilots were considered unbridled fanatics and chauvinists who willingly sacrificed their lives for the emperor. But the writings explored here by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney clearly and eloquently speak otherwise. A significant number of the kamikaze were university students who were drafted and forced to volunteer for this desperate military operation. Such young men were the intellectual elite of modern Japan: steeped in the classics and major works of philosophy, they took Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” as their motto. And in their diaries and correspondence, as Ohnuki-Tierney shows, these student soldiers wrote long and often heartbreaking soliloquies in which they poured out their anguish and fear, expressed profound ambivalence toward the war, and articulated thoughtful opposition to their nation’s imperialism. 

A salutary correction to the many caricatures of the kamikaze, this poignant work will be essential to anyone interested in the history of Japan and World War II.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Faced with impending death, Japan's World War II kamikaze pilots grappled with the meaning of their lives and their sacrifice. These struggles are made eloquently clear in this collection of their diaries, poetry, and letters, taken from Japanese archival repositories and translated and presented by Ohnuki-Tierney (anthropology, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison; Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms). Poignant and heartbreaking, her book begins with an introductory chapter on kamikaze and its history and then offers six chapters, each focusing on the diary of a particular pilot. Young, highly educated intellectuals, these men faced brutal conditions in military service and were often forcefully "volunteered" for tokkotai (kamikaze) missions. They wrote in an attempt to settle their ambivalence about dying what often seemed a pointless death, some trying to tell themselves and their families that their death was not for naught ("to die at this moment is an obligation imposed by history"). Others were more blunt ("The idea that one is patriotic and thus would sacrifice oneself is a thought for the stupid masses"). Ohnuki-Tierney refutes simplistic stereotypes and offers readers the human face of what she defines as a "colossal tragedy." Well researched and written, this book is highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries.-Patti C. McCall, Albany Molecular Research, Inc., NY Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
"The poems, letters and diaries featured in this book give the lie to the notion that Japan was unified behind the war. The voices of the student soldiers speak thoughtfully and eloquently about their dilemma between duty to the nation and wanting to stay alive. . . . A timely and necessary correction of a popular myth, and an important contribution to an understanding of Japan at war."
Financial Times - David Pilling
"Ohnuki-Tierney provides a valuable service in delving beyond the stereotype into the minds of these frightened, thoughtful students."
Japan Times - Alison Brady
"With the June publication of [Kamikaze Diaries] . . . and the premiere of  Clint Eastwood's film "Letters from Iwo Jima," the image of Japanese soldiers created in the milieu of World War II propaganda will receive a long overdue makeover."
International History Review - F.G. Notehelfer
"The diaries . . . are gripping in their emotional impact and provide us with extensive insights into the lives of these tragic young men."
Monumenta Nipponica - Barak Kushner
"Ohnuki-Tierney's work presents a deeper exposition than hitherto available in English of tokkotai pilots' personal backgrounds and humanizes their struggles. The Anglophone reading audience is richer for her contribution. . . . Read in tandem, the first book offers historical analysis, while the second provides a thorough . . . annotated and translateed insight into what the student pilots read."
Journal of Military History - Peter Clemens
"[The book] is a tremendous contribution to gaining a deeper understanding of the human legacy imbued with the kamikazes. Well-written, the narrative is difficult, for the reader understands that these student soldiers' lives of great promise all ended prematurely."
Kritikon Litterarum - Kirby Farrell
"The diaries are fascinating as the scant, sometimes eloquent, painfully inadequate trail left behind by self-aware young men in the pressurized months before their certain doom. . . . The study has useful things to tell us about our recent history. It brings into tantalizing view some unexdpected questions about the uses and limitations of humane education, and turns a raw light on the sinister powers of militarism that continue to threaten all of us."
Books and Culture - Genzo Yamamoto
"By giving us gimpses of [the pilot's] inner world, Ohnuki-Tierney reminds us of the humanity of all combatants."

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University of Chicago Press
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Kamikaze Diaries

Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers
By Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-61950-8


The writings left behind by tokkotai pilots and other student soldiers who perished in the futile military operations conducted by the Japanese at the end of World War II yield stunning and profound insights into the position and consciousness of young soldiers under the extreme conditions of modern warfare. In order to understand their thoughts and dilemmas, we need to analyze the circumstances of the war in which the young men were placed and explore the broader intellectual currents that provided them with spiritual resources as they faced their deaths.

Toward the end of World War II, when an American invasion of Japan's homeland seemed imminent, Onishi Takijiro, a navy vice admiral, invented the tokkotai ("Special Attack Force") operation, which included airplanes, gliders, and submarine torpedoes (for details, see Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History, pp. 157-75). None of these manned weapons systems was equipped with any means of returning to base. Onishi and his right-hand men thought that the Japanese soul, which was believed to uniquely possess the strength to face death without hesitation, was theonly means available for the Japanese to bring about a miracle and save their homeland, which was surrounded by American aircraft carriers whose sophisticated radar systems protected them from being destroyed by any other means. When the operation was instituted in October 1944, not a single officer who had been trained at the military academies volunteered to sortie as a pilot; all knew too well that it was a meaningless mission ending in death. Of the approximately four thousand tokkotai pilots, about three thousand were so-called boy pilots, who were drawn from among newly conscripted and enlisted soldiers who were enrolled in a special program aimed at training very young boys. Roughly one thousand were "student soldiers," university students whom the government graduated early in order to include them in the draft.

The writings left behind by the student soldiers who died in the tokkotai operation provide invaluable testimony to these young men's struggle to sustain their connections to the rest of humanity amid the wrenching conditions of war and to find meaning in a death they felt was decreed for them. Unfortunately, the boy pilots who faced the same fate left virtually no diaries or comparable records behind. The student soldiers who perished left a substantial body of handwritten documents expressing their thoughts and feelings: diaries, soliloquies, essays, poems, and letters. These extraordinarily well-educated youths were reflective and cosmopolitan. They drew on their knowledge of philosophy and world history as they tried to understand the situation in which they inadvertently but inescapably found themselves amid the global conflagration. Many of the student soldiers were political liberals, even radicals. They were most unlikely to volunteer as tokkotai pilots and are therefore excellent test cases. I decided to examine their diaries in order to understand why even the most liberal of them replicated the military ideology in action by becoming tokkotai pilots and to ascertain whether and to what degree they came to embrace the ideology of sacrifice for the imperial nation that was inculcated by the Japanese state....

The amazingly lengthy diaries left by these young men evince the importance of writing as a mode of communication in Japanese life. In a culture in which verbal communication in the form of debates, dialogues, or oratory is not well developed, writing is the most serious mode of communication, and many individuals express their innermost thoughts and feelings in written form. Diary-keeping has been an important cultural practice in Japan ever since the Heian period, when the diary developed into a special genre of literature, and some diaries, including those written by women, became world classics. The sheer quantity of writings left by these student soldiers is in part the result of this persistent cultural practice, which was extended to the "reading diary" required informally at the higher schools. These young men were exceptionally well educated, and reading and writing were their major daily activities. The particular situation these students faced in wartime, however, also made a difference: the diary became an important means by which they struggled to understand and come to terms with the imminent death they faced....

The Tokkotai Operation Recruitment of Student Soldiers

These university students were drafted after the Tojo government, acting twice in quick succession, shortened the length of a university education. Once on the base, many were subjected to harsh corporal punishment on a daily basis. Some had been patriotic before they were drafted, but life on the base extinguished any enthusiasm for fighting-or for anything else, for that matter. They had already reached the point of no return. By the time they were drafted, Japan's defeat was imminent. They had been dropped onto a malfunctioning rollercoaster fast descending toward a fatal crash, as it were, without the ability to either stop or safely ascend and go around again.

The Japanese military tradition had a distinctive, almost unique element. Whereas German soldiers were told to kill, Japanese soldiers were told to die. The cruel character of the Japanese military is evident from the beginning of its modernization at the end of the nineteenth century. In the military code for the imperial navy and army (Kairikugun Keiritsu), issued in 1872, surrender, escape, and all other actions by which soldiers might save their lives in situations of unavoidable defeat were punishable by death. The system made no allowance for conscientious objectors. Any soldier who would not obey military rules and his commander's orders was shot on the spot, without a charge against the one who shot him. Furthermore, people feared that such an offense by a soldier would lead to the punishment of his immediate and extended family members, just as during the Edo period the government warned that "crime extends to five generations and punishment to five affinal relationships" (tsumi godai ni oyobi batsu gozoku ni wataru)-that is, the punishment of a large number of people related to him by blood and marriage. These rules were intended to hold an entire kin group responsible for the actions of an individual and, thus, to reinforce the social pressure on soldiers to obey orders. In practice the system suppressed complaints by soldiers' parents and made soldiers fearful of committing any violation, let alone defection. As the military government turned Japan into a police state, all those who refused to comply with its orders were jailed. By the 1940s, many had been tortured to death, decimating the ranks of known dissidents and deterring others from expressing any opinions that might be considered hostile to the state. In Japan, the military government left no room for political or guerrilla resistance movements like those in Germany, France, and other countries ruled or occupied by fascists.

Nowhere was the basic stance of the Japanese military more conspicuously played out than during World War II. Even when entire corps of Japanese soldiers faced utterly hopeless military situations, the soldiers were told to die happily. This policy led to the infamous mass suicides (gyokusai) on Attu, Saipan, and Okinawa Islands and elsewhere and culminated in the tokkotai operation. Conditions on the military bases gave these young men little chance to opt for life in any case. According to Irokawa Daikichi, an eminent historian who was drafted from the University of Tokyo as a student soldier and spent time at the Tsuchiura Naval Base, the first lesson a student soldier like him was taught was how to use his own rifle to kill himself rather than be captured alive. Each new conscript was trained to use his toe to pull the trigger while pointing the gun precisely at a certain point under his chin so that the bullet would kill him instantly. He was supposed to use this technique if he was trapped in a cave or in a trench surrounded by the enemy. If he did not kill himself but tried to escape, he might be shot from behind, because his superiors and some comrades believed in the state dictum that one must never be captured by the enemy. In sum, once a youth was drafted, he had reached a point of no return-a powerless position that many soldiers recognized for what it was.

Noma Hiroshi depicted Japanese military life in his 1972 novel Zone of Emptiness. Although some officers were kind to student soldiers, many acted harshly toward them. Some commanding officers believed in the idea that corporal punishment developed the soldiers' spirit, while others maltreated them only to inflict punishment. Student soldiers were often targeted by professional soldiers who had risen through the ranks and resented the privileged backgrounds that enabled them to study when others could not afford to receive a higher education. Any minor action that irritated a superior could be a cause for corporal punishment, not only of the individual involved but also of his entire group. Irokawa offers a vivid description of the "living hell" that awaited the student soldiers:

After I passed the gate to the Tsuchiura Naval Air Base, "training" took place day after day. I was struck on the face so hard and frequently that my face was no longer recognizable. On January 2, 1945, Kaneko (Ensign) hit my face twenty times and the inside of my mouth was cut in many places by my teeth. I had been looking forward to eating zoni [a special dish with rice cakes for the New Year]. Instead, I was swallowing blood from the inside of my mouth. On February 14, all of us were punished because they suspected that we ate at farmers' homes near the base to ease our hunger. In the midst of the cold winter, we were forced to sit for seven hours on a cold concrete floor and they hit us on the buttocks with a club. Then each of us was called into the officer's room. When my turn came, as soon as I entered the room, I was hit so hard that I could no longer see and fell on the floor. The minute I got up, I was hit again by a club so that I would confess. A friend of mine was thrown with his head first to the floor, lost consciousness, and was sent to a hospital. He never returned. All this savagery was orchestrated by the corps commander named Tsutsui. I am still looking for this fellow.

Irokawa's experiences were all too common. The Tsuchiura Naval Air Base was especially notorious in this respect. Sasaki, Hayashi Tadao, and Nakao were stationed there, and their diaries record senseless punishments and mental and physical suffering inflicted on their fellow soldiers.

Hayashi Tadao and others reported that the strict enforcement of petty regulations, including extreme censorship and the taboo against almost any book, dampened young men's willingness to work for the causes advocated by the military, including sacrifice for the emperor. Irokawa Daikichi wrote:

Memorizing and reciting the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers (Gunjin Chokuyu) of 1882, written in archaic language, were a daily exercise. If we failed in the accurate recitation of the Rescript, we were hit to the ground, as I experienced personally. It would be hard to estimate how many soldiers in fact became alienated from the emperor and imperial ideology by "lynching."

Irokawa's analogy to lynching is deliberate, highlighting the severe, possibly fatal punishment of any soldier who refused to comply with every demand of his superiors.

The rescript contained a now-infamous passage: "Do not be beguiled by popular opinions, do not get involved in political activities, but singularly devote yourself to your most important obligation of loyalty to the emperor, and realize that the obligation is heavier than the mountains but death is lighter than a feather."

Their diaries show that almost all these young men, including those who had previously expressed their desire to protect their "ancestral land," became less patriotic while they trained on the base and as they approached their death.

Being "Volunteered" to Become Tokkotai Pilots

Because the tokkotai operation was a guarantee of death, the top military officers, quite hypocritically, decided not to make this operation an official part of the imperial navy or army, where orders were issued in the name of the emperor. They preferred to make it appear that the corps was formed voluntarily and that men volunteered to be pilots.

In most instances, all the members of a military corps were summoned to a hall. After a lecture on the virtues of patriotism and sacrifice for the emperor and Japan, they were told to step forward if they were willing to volunteer to be tokkotai pilots. Sometimes this process was done in reverse: men were told to step forward if they did not want to be pilots. It would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for any soldier to stay behind or to step forward when all or most of his comrades were "volunteering." Sometimes the officer in charge went through a ritual of blindfolding the young men-a gesture ostensibly intended to minimize peer pressure-and asking them to raise their hands to volunteer. But the rustling sounds made by the uniforms as the men raised their hands made it obvious that many did so, leaving those who hesitated without any choice. For example, Yamada Ryu, who after the war belonged to the Anabaptist Church and devoted his life to its ministry in Kyushu, was "forced to volunteer to be a pilot for the inhumane tokkotai operation."

Coercion from above was complemented by solidarity among soldiers. The writings that tokkotai pilots left behind reveal that they did not resist volunteering simply because of peer pressure but because they could not bear to protect their own lives while seeing their comrades and friends offering theirs. Admiration of those who had already gone on the fatal missions frequently appears in pilots' writings. Ichijima Yasuo, who was born in 1922 and died as a navy ensign on April 29, 1945, was a graduate of Waseda University. In a letter to a friend, he quotes a well-known poem by Ryokan (1758-1831)-"Falling cherry blossoms, remaining cherry blossoms also be falling cherry blossoms," implying that as the other pilots had fallen, so would he. Ichijima's admiration for the pilots who had already perished contributed significantly to his thinking when he sought to rationalize his death as he contemplated his own mission. Ichijima was a devout Christian who belonged to the well-known "Cherry Blossom Church." He expressed his willingness to serve his country but did not mention the emperor. It was extremely difficult for a soldier to seek to spare himself, to claim an exemption from the fate of his comrades. The determination to combat the egotism brought forth by capitalism and modernity was a major element of the students' idealism. The tactic of asking men to volunteer may very well have been based on a calculated appeal to young soldiers' moral principles and comradeship.

Furthermore, if a soldier had managed to be courageous enough not to volunteer, he would have been consigned to a living hell. Any soldier who refused would become persona non grata or be sent to the southern battlefield, where death was guaranteed. Some soldiers actually managed to say no, but their refusal was disregarded. Kuroda Kenjiro decided not to volunteer, only to be taken by surprise when he found his name on the list of volunteers for the Mitate Navy tokkotai corps; his superior had reported proudly that all the members of his corps had volunteered.

After the pilots were selected, the officer in charge of a particular corps decided who should go on the missions and in what order they would depart. Irokawa and other former soldiers explain that family background and other forms of privilege kept some pilots from being chosen. Sons of important political or military officials and prominent businessmen, along with members of the royal family, would volunteer without ever being selected to fly to their deaths. As a bow to the system of primogeniture, the oldest son or an only son was often spared so that he could take care of his parents. On the other hand, soldiers who had mechanical, navigational, and other skills essential for pilots were favored for selection. Someone who was seen to be physically fit was put under more pressure to volunteer. The editor of Sasaki's diary maintains that he was designated to fly because he was small but athletic. The criteria for selection were never disclosed publicly.


Excerpted from Kamikaze Diaries by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney Copyright © 2006 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney is the William F. Vilas Research Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of numerous books, including Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
To say this book is a bit long on analysis is an understatement. It does contain some interesting facts however, those facts are overshadowed by endless tedious discussion. I would be hard pressed to choose between reading this book or vehicle code regulations.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Even today, many Americans perceive the Kamikaze warrior stereotypically. Japanese were racially profiled as wood shack dwelling, fishhead eating, thick eyeglass wearing, buck toothed dwarves. This book, while a bit long on analysis, is still an important view on a subject that many find troubling and even pertinent today in the GWOT. Those who choose to be open minded will find that many suicide warriors weren't mindless drones in service to the Emperor. The young men (and if the invasion of Japan had occurred, young women, children, and senior citizens) tell thru diaries and poems the reasons why they willingly faced death instead of waiting out for peace. That they were socialists, capitalists, intellectuals, and well-educated often in philosophy and foreign languages, disproves the allied propaganda. They died making individual statements. They all honored family values and would never shirk obligations, yet believed that losing the war would result in a better Japan, one that would be free of militaristic control and possibly embracing their own ideals of socialism and peace. Don't read this book if you are looking for guts and gore or heroics. This book is about young Japanese men who knew they were going to die and Japan would lose the war, yet embraced the philosophies of spiritual warfare. This book has a place on the psychologists shelf as well as the military historian. This is an important tool for anyone who recognizes the fact that the GWOT is not something that is going to go away nor is something new.