‘On the 13th of August, 1945, two days before the war ended, a suicide unit was deployed from the Kisarazu air base. My superior officer, Sergeant Nishimori Yosiomi, said the following words to me: ‘Kawano, I am about to die. Your uniform is cleaner than mine. Please give me yours in exchange for mine, so that I can die with dignity.’ With a heavy heart I gave him my pilot’s uniform, which I had set aside for my own death. The day before it would have been my turn to die, the war ended. My uniform lies at the bottom of the Okinawa Sea, and I still live.’
In 1941 Japan bombed the US fleet at Pearl Harbour and in so doing became involved in war with the USA, Britain and their allies. After Japan’s defeat at the Battle of Midway in 1942, the country’s situation became hopeless, and the daihonei, the headquarters staff, resorted to desperate measures to avoid losing the war.
It was Okamura Motoharu who submitted the plan for suicide attacks to Vice-Admiral Onishi Takajiro, who later became the “Father of the Kamikaze”. Headquarters staff agreed to allow military personnel to navigate their bomb-laden aeroplanes, gliders, mini-submarines and motorboats onto enemy ships, laying down their lives in the process.
Seki Yukio, a pilot instructor, was the first living bomb in the world. Seki, who had married six months before, immediately agreed to the request of Vice-Admiral Onishi. On the 25th of October 1944, his team carried out a successful attack on the American navy in the Philippines. Four planes out of the five crashed successfully into six ships, sending one aircraft carrier and a battleship to the bottom, starting a fire on another aircraft carrier and damaging three more.
Pleased with the results, headquarters staff established the so-called Tokkotai, which is the short form of the expression Tokubetsu Kogeki Tai (Special Attack Team). However, the word ‘Kamikaze’, the name given to the team of Seki, the first suicide pilot, took hold in public consciousness. It means ‘storm of God’ or ‘divine wind’ (referring to the typhoon that destroyed the Mongol fleet that had once threatened Japan).
The ongoing kamikaze attacks caused some of the biggest losses in the history of the American Navy. For this, the Japanese Navy sacrificed 2,534 people and 1,392 aircraft. Who were these young men, aged between 18 and 23, who willingly laid down their lives, who flew onto American ships with their rusty training machines laden with bombs weighing between 250 and 800 kg and died on the spot?
According to Denis Warner, the famous researcher of the subject and correspondent of the UPI in Tokyo, they were sound of mind, undoubtedly courageous and determined men, in whom patriotism was greater than the vital instinct for survival.
But let’s listen to navigator Kawano Kiichi, one of the few survivors, whom I am interviewing in the building where he founded his Kamikaze collection.
– Mr. Kawano, how did you get into the Kamikaze Special Forces?
On the 1st of May, 1942 I volunteered to join the Tuchiura Navy. I applied to the Jokaren Pilot Training College, where we had to pass a difficult entrance examination. In the dizziness test, we had to get out of a pilot’s seat that had been rotated 10 to 15 times, walk in a straight line, and stay on our feet on the steeply tilting floor. There was an optic angle examination, as well as written and oral examinations. Originally the training course lasted three years, but because of the war it was compressed into two. When I was 18, I went to Kochi Airport as an assistant instructor, and six months later I went to Oita to join the 148-strong Mitate team as a navigator. We served in the two-seat Ryusei jet fighters, which were the most modern fighters of the time with a 1,825 horsepower engine, a maximum speed of 450 km/h and a maximum range of 2000 km with a full tank. This was the only plane with comfortable seats. There were 110 of them, 80 of them in our unit. (I was shocked when I discovered that we were prepared to sacrifice them.)
– How did you hear about the Tokkotai?
The propaganda machine of the army informed all of us about second lieutenant Seki’s suicide mission two days after it took place. He had many followers.
In Japan, first-born sons are pampered, so it was the second and third-born sons who became kamikazes. On the 25th of July 1945, after all the volunteers had been killed, headquarters staff declared all the planes kamikazes, and from the day of that announcement, suicide missions started in our unit, too.
– What was your initial reaction to the news?
– That we were going to die! Others could hope to survive, but we were being sent to our deaths.
– What did kamikaze training consist of?
– Every day we practised how to fly onto enemy ships. From a height of 2000 metres, we started to make for the control tower, but when we reached 200 metres, we levelled off. This saved the lives of many of my mates when they were in an air fight and were being chased. The American chase plane pilots realised too late that they should stop falling. Sometimes it happened that two planes pursued each other, “writing down” a vertical circle. In such a case, whoever ended the circle first would be in a position to shoot. We had the advantage here, too, as we had learnt how to fly head down.
Navigator Kawano Kiichi in the war
– Were you afraid to die?
– We were indifferent. We kept on practising our own deaths and every day lost some of our mates who were sent on missions. Each section consisted of 6-12 people and they were ranked according to the number of suicide missions. I belonged to the 7th, the so-called Mitate section. From our base, 2-3 groups were sent into action every day. A group consisted of three two-seater planes, which means we had 12-18 deaths a day. By the end of the war, 30 of our team of 145 had been lost, and 400 of my 1,480 classmates in the Yokaren Pilot School had been sacrificed.
I will never forget that the excellent Pilot Sergeant, Tanaka, was sent to his death on the 9th of August, 1945. The night before he died, he banged his head on a column in the barracks. ‘Kawano, it hurts, do you think death will also hurt?’ He found out the next day, when he crashed into a warship.
– Was there anything in your training that made you forget the fear?
– There was no brainwashing, if that’s what you mean. We did not volunteer for the Kamikaze, but from the time we became Kamikazes, our only goal was to carry out instructions. The Japanese spirit has been formed by yamato-damashi (Japanese consciousness) and bushido (samurai ethics) since ancient times. If we are defeated, we resign ourselves to self-destruction.
– The Kamikazes are said to be irresponsible and fanatical.
– That is because you can view it from two angles! If we had been victorious, we would be heroes today. I have seen two types of suicide pilots: one type wanted to die no matter what happened, through patriotism and hatred of the enemy. The other – in spite of wanting to live – based his self-sacrifice on rational considerations.
– On rational considerations?
– Yes! The American bomb annihilated several thousand of our fellow Japanese in a day. Destroying one aircraft carrier saved the lives of more than ten thousand Japanese people, in exchange for which we had to sacrifice just one person. If a fighter loaded with bombs crashed into the carrier, it sank it or started a fire, or perhaps ripped up the runways so that no more planes could take off. If we had tried to achiieve the same result with bombs, we would have lost more planes and more people. Which is better and more humane? Yes, it is hard to throw your life away willingly, but there are certain situations in which we simply have to do it. For us Japanese people, patriotism is stronger than the will to live.
– How did you feel when you got the order for your suicide mission?
– Our first reaction was: AT LAST! Every morning, headquarters displayed the names of people who would be deployed in the next day or two, but some people were informed about their deployment only a few hours before it was to take place. For example, that happened to a team of five. On the 25th of July and the 2nd of August I was also given a sudden order like that, but by the time we had transported the planes from the hidden airshed by lorry, the order was cancelled. Many people had waited for months to read their names on the list. The long wait and the uncertainty do get to you. You pray that it will be your turn as soon as possible and you feel it is a kind of redemption when you can finally go.
– Did you say good-bye to your family?
– People in other units sometimes did, but we did not. Only a few people could visit their families. Anyway, such meetings were very painful, as we were not allowed to talk about our missions. We usually only wrote letters. A person facing death in this way seems to cross over into another world, and whatever is going to happen in this world after his death almost ceases to matter.
– What was a Kamikaze mission like?
– In the morning, the commander of the airfield would line up the men who were being deployed and their names would be read out. They would step out, drink a glass of sake, sing the kamikaze marching song and get into their planes. They would be smiling all the while and making jokes as they went out. Spotters and escort fighters flew together with the Kamikazes. They would draw American fire from the Kamikazes and report the success of the mission. However, towards the end of the war, it was unnecessary to keep statistics. The planes would approach the enemy flotilla at a height of 8000 metres, and the trip took longer. Whoever spotted the enemy flotilla first would dip the wing of his plane. The Kamikazes would greet this sign with cheers and throw their flags and hachimaki into the air. The hachimaki is a sweatband made of wide silk ribbon, with two tails at the back that blow in the wind. The front is decorated with the Japanese sun-disk and a motto.
Hachimaki headband, symbol of the perseverance
When the Kamikazes were about 80 km from the enemy flotilla, they would start to bank their planes at a 20-degree angle towards it. At a height of 2000 metres they would suddenly increase the roll to 45 degrees and go at full speed. Whoever survived the enemy firewall and reached a height of 5 to 600 metres would aim at the aircraft carrier, dropping at an angle of 60 degrees. Then he would crash into the ship and the bombs would do their best. From the first manoeuvre, it took less than 60 seconds. The pilot kept the Morse-handle held down, communicating the attack to the base with a long whistle. If the sign was broken, the officer on duty knew that the Kamikaze had died. The crash might cause only fire or damage, but the Kamikazes never survived!
– What is your most touching memory?
– On the 13th of August 1945, two days before the end of the war, a suicide unit left from the Kisharazu air base to be deployed. My boss, Sergeant Nishimori Yosiomi, said these words to me: ‘Kawano, I am about to die. Your uniform is cleaner than mine. Please give me yours in exchange for mine, so that I can die with dignity.’ With a heavy heart I gave him my pilot’s uniform, which I had set aside for my own death. The day before it would have been my turn to die, the war ended. My uniform lies at the bottom of the Okinawa Sea, and I still live. God allowed me to live in order to cherish the memory of my dead mates and to talk about them to posterity.
– We already know who the first Kamikazes were, but who were the last?
– The memory of those last days still haunts me. The Emperor announced the end of the war on the 15th of August, but on the morning of that day there were still some deployments. In the aircraft factory even school students had been set to work and it often happened that people had to return because of defects in their engines. That day, three planes returned. Two of them made a forced landing at the nearest air base, and the third one ditched. Fishermen saved one of the crew members but the other died. And here is a painful memory: my friend, Nakauchi Satoru, a prime pilot sergeant, left on a mission at 11 o’clock. After an hour we sent him a signal to return but he disregarded it. When he died, it was already peace time. He was just 21 years old.
The Commanding Officer of the Fifth Airbase, Vice Admiral Ugaki Matome, always said the following to the people going to their deaths: “Go, and if necessary I will go too!” He, together with the field officers, had already been informed that Japan had been defeated, but he did not want to live to see the disgrace. He took off his military braid, because he did not want to give the Americans the satisfaction if he were caught. Then he got into second-lieutenant Nakatsuro Tatsuo’s two-seater kamikaze plane. The sergeant-major who was the navigator realised that it would be the last deployment and did not want to give up his place. Finally the Vice Admiral sat on his knees and the three of them left that way. They left not to fight but to die. At the news of his departure, the others begged the Commanding Officer to be allowed to join him. The last morning 23 people went to their deaths.
Vice admiral Ugaki Matome: “Go and I will go, too, if needed!”
– When did you realize that Japan would lose the war?
– The bombing of Tokyo started at the beginning of April, 1945. At that time, because of a lack of fuel, only a few fighters could take off. From our blockhouse we saw the pilot of an American plane ejecting and coming down into the sea. Because ammunition was in such short supply, there were strict orders limiting its use, so we had to watch the American’s mates saving him with a hydroplane without being able to fire a single shot. To us, a human life was not worth very much.
– How did you feel when you were informed about the end of the war?
– I felt that I was the most unfortunate person in the world! I had learnt and done my best to hold on with honesty, but in vain. We had been given a hero’s farewell at the station where the great and the small of the village had turned up. They had played music, and said thanks for our willingness to give our lives for them. And now, was I supposed to look into their eyes and say: “The others died a hero’s death, but I came back, I am alive, I am healthy and we lost the war”? In their despair, many of the Kamikazes killed themselves. The “Father of Kamikazes”, Vice Admiral Onishi, performed harakiri, tortured by self-accusation. He slit his stomach with his short sword, and during his death agony, that lasted 12 hours, he forbade the doctor to alleviate his pain.
Szen-nin bari (thousand-person-stitches), a waist warmer, made for the soldiers on their way to war. One woman could sew only one knot.
– Did the loss of the war affect you deeply?
– For a couple of weeks, we were like sleepwalkers, but we were able to carry on. Then one day, in a desolate bomb-shattered street, I saw a Japanese girl and a Yankee soldier walking close together. The girl put her arm into the soldier’s arm. We had died in defence of these girls and women. I felt uterly defeated, mortified and betrayed.
– What happened to you after the war?
– After the surrender, we handed all our weapons over to the Americans and returned home. I was 19 years old at the time, so I went back to my parents’ home. We three brothers returned unharmed, but our two sisters had lost their husbands. There was starvation everywhere in the towns, the rice had all sorts of other things mixed in with it, and life was really only possible in the villages.
I first tried my hand at farming, and then became the civilian radio operator for the local police force. Later I worked in a whaling shipyard. I got married at the age of 28. I have two sons and a daughter, and six grandchildren. I retired three years ago from my own estate agency.
– What do you think of modern aircraft?
– Oh, they are amazing machines, full of automatic controls! In my time, flying depended on the skill of the pilot and navigator. I would work out the right direction of flight by navigating with the tools that I would hold out from beneath the top of the flight deck, taking the wind speed into account. These days everything is controlled by computer.
– When was the last time you got into a plane and how did you feel?
– A couple of months ago, I travelled to Tokyo with a delegation. It was a nostalgic feeling, but I was sorry the pilot didn’t do any nosedives from a height of 2000 metres. You cannot even imagine how fantastic that is! Of course, that’s only if you can get level out when you reach 200 metres.
– Is the life of a former kamikaze different from other people’s lives?
– Yes, of course. Our way of thinking is different. We have stronger nerves, the daily worries of life seem trivial compared to issues of life or death. We value human relations differently. We have a profound insight into people’s souls. I can usually take the measure of someone on our first meeting.
– Have the deaths of your mates had any significance?
– There is no need to describe the horrors of the Second World War. Three million, one hundred thousand Japanese people – five hundred thousand of whom were civilians – died.
Japanese resolve, as seen in the kamikaze missions for example, made the Americans realize that – unless they wanted to be guilty of genocide – they would have to handle our country differently from other defeated nations. Taking Japanese pride and self-esteem into consideration, they left imperial power untouched and changed the victor-vanquished relationship into a confederate one.
Our broken country recovered and created the strongest economy in the world. We owe today’s prosperity partly to the self-sacrifice of the young kamikazes.
– As a final lesson, what message do you send to the youth of today?
– Be independent, not just consumers or puppets of society. Use your heads, and base your decisions about the world on your own observations. Distinguish clearly between right and wrong. Respect the value of life. Live in peace with others. Join hands with the young people of other countries, so that the 21st Century will be the century of peace!
– Do you have any dreams or goals?
– I am 74 years old. I would like to enlarge this collection I opened 11 years ago and would like to make people acquainted with the real story of the Kamikazes, without any special purpose.
Kawano Kiichi in his kamikaze collection
I last spoke to Kawano Kiichi in January 2008. The veteran kamikaze is now 82 years old and still directs his kamikaze museum with untiring energy and has this lesson for young visitors:
‘Can we call our country peaceful when more than 30,000 violent crimes happen in a year? Young people are passive. They think the peace of the country is guaranteed by the constitution and is protected from outside attack by the American Army.
I think being capable of self-defence is an essential requirement for an independent country. Heiwa-boke! (This is a Japanese play on words meaning ‘peace-stupidity’.)
When I was young I was willing to lay down my life for my country. Where are these generous feelings today? My dead mates would be indignant at seeing our society today. More than 60 years ago, when we lost the war, American general headquarters forced a constitution on us that weakened our country and was a huge setback for Japan. The people should be redirected to the normal yamatodamashi (Japanese mind) and reinstate a constitution that is worthy of an independent country. I cannot die peacefully until this happens.’