Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.
Soldiers belonging to specialized divisions, and tasked for unconventional warfare are trained differently. As demanded by their extra stressful and dangerous assignments, they will expect rough and harsh training to prepare them mentally and physically. This ensures the success of their missions, preparation for the worst outcomes, and safe return home. Nevertheless, even the most elite and secretive of these special forces emphasize survival. They may encounter death, but staying alive to fight another day is more preferable.
But what if you are not expected to survive?
Preceding Japan’s Self Defense Force was the Imperial Japanese Army. It was meant to replace the traditional Tokugawa Era samurai forces, but with former samurai warriors serving in different branches, soldiers were conditioned in a different form of bushido while training in modern weapons and tactics. Training was harsh, and the result was an army of well trained, ands somewhat fanatical warriors. Critics describe such army as emphasizing courage over self-preservation, and completely bordering into suicidal. The training also resulted in various war crimes, induced by fanaticism among soldiers. And as the tides of the Second World War turned against Japan, officials resorted to a shockingly gruesome tactics that caused the Allies several warships. Using planes stuffed with explosives, pilots will purposely crash their aircrafts to their targets, killing themselves and the enemy. They are the infamous Kamikaze attack unit. A specialized task force trained for suicide attacks.
Imperial Japan Losing its Edge
When one is in desperation, wild and somewhat brutal ideas will come in mind. This was the case back in the Second World War, when the Imperial Japan’s fortune seemed to ran out. The once formidable force was taking serious hits from the Allies, and the carrier battles of Midway (1942), made irreparable damage to the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service (IJNAS). The said battle, and other various carrier engagements changed the Japanese navy, weakening it due to the losses of well-trained pilots, planes and ships. Due to the assumptions that Japan would achieve quick victories, planners lacked programs to replace men and equipment, and they were left with inexperienced aircrews and obsolete aircrafts. What’s more, the U.S. forces managed to catch-up and outclass the Imperial Japan in terms of technical advancements and numbers of warplanes. The Grumman F6F Hellcat was a good example. It was a fighter made to beat the feared Zero. Advancement made by radar technology, whereas planes were now directed by radar also gave the Allies a decisive edge.
The ravages of war in the Pacific were also taking its toll on Japan. The Imperial forces was experiencing shortages of spare parts, fuels, not to mention diseases among its men. And by the time the Battle of the Philippine Sea happened, the Japanese forces became a shell of its own self. They were left with inexperienced pilots and obsolete planes, facing the battle-hardened U.S. Navy aviators armed with the latest technology of that day. The result was the end of Japan’s sea dominance, with 400 aircrafts lost.
Japan was fighting for survival, but according to some sources, Motoharu Okamura had a proposal. In 1944, he and some officers studied a possibility of using suicide attacks on enemy targets. Now, suicide attacks with planes were often credited to another Japanese military official, Takijirō Ōnishi, an Imperial Japanese Navy admiral. But proposal for suicide attacks predate his tenure, and he initially opposed the plan until the loss of the Mariana Islands. Nevertheless, the formation and execution of suicide missions were pushed through, with Okamura in command.
Officially, this suicide force was known as tokubetsu kōgekitai (special attack unit). Attacks from the Imperial Japanese Navy were called shinpū tokubetsu kōgeki tai (divine wind special attack units). The term Shinpu could also be read as Kamikaze (divine wind), but the term Kamikaze was informally used to describe the suicide forces. Eventually after the war, Kamikaze became an accepted term.
Captain Okamura claimed that there were many who volunteered to give their lives, so much so that he described them as swarms of bees. He believed that suicide attacks were the only way Japan could turn the tide of war. The number of volunteers that arrived exceed that of the available aircrafts. One might wonder, what pushed so many young men to basically go to certain deaths. There were claims of extreme nationalism, whereas death is a fitting expression of love for the country, the emperor and their families. Other claims include pilots showing signs of disappointments if their missions were aborted, and how young airmen fly to their deaths with blissful expressions.
In the Imperial Japan, indoctrination of sacrifice was done in early age. And people who died for the country was said to be defied at Yasukuni shrine, where even the emperor pay homage. Hence sacrifice was considered an honor. This was one of the driving forces of some men who joined the suicide squad, hoping their names will be enshrined in Yasukuni. Recruitment was advertised in books and newspapers. Through the use of media, becoming a Kamikaze pilot was romanticized, while false victories and exaggerated stories of Kamikaze missions were published. This ensured that there won’t be a shortage of volunteers.
At least that was what the claims said.
Modern critics often paints a less dramatic and romanticized picture of Kamikaze pilots. They were not the nationalistic and brave heroes of Imperial Japan. Some felt like livestock being prepared for slaughter, and there were cases where pilots were so scared, they have to be pushed into their planes.
The Harsh Training
To prepare an individual for the grim end, one must have a certain disregard for his own life. In order to achieve this, Kamikaze trainees were subjected to harsh training that resemble torture and brainwashing. Aside from hard trainings, there were constant beatings and corporal punishments. One trainee described how he was repeatedly struck in the face, up to a point that he was unrecognizable. It was claimed that brutalizing a hapless pilot would harden an individual and give him warrior spirits.
There were reading sessions, consist of manuals that detailed how they should prepare themselves, and how to be mentally ready for the ultimate sacrifice. The manual also hinted where to crash their planes when they spotted their target ships. When diving towards their targets, pilots were told to keep their eyes open, so they could see their targets and increase the probability of a hit. At the last moment, they must scream "hissatsu” which meant “certain kill.”
Overall, their trainings where combat oriented, with additions of physical brutality and reading sessions meant to indoctrinate. The trainings were meant to produce a pilot with very little disregard for lives, but that wasn’t the case in some pilots.
The Grim Mission
Indeed, there were willing volunteers, but as what was mentioned before, some pilots never really eliminated their fears of deaths regardless of the physical and mental preparations. Some were forced to go ahead with their missions, and excerpts from the diaries of Irokawa Daikichi described how he dealt with his impending doom:
"We tried to live with 120 per cent 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."
In fact, not all Kamikaze pilots signed up due to sincere nationalism. Peer pressures played a role, while surviving Kamikaze pilots only volunteered due to worries that Allies would perform atrocities on their families (as what their indoctrination imparted on them).
The manual stated that a pilot may go back to base if there weren’t any targets. But a pilot was killed upon his 9th return to base after failing to do his suicide mission repeatedly.
In the end, even with the harsh trainings, planning and romanization of these suicide missions, the Kamikaze was a futile attempt. It did scored kills and damage, but not enough to turn the tide of war. It resulted in nothing but wasted equipment and manpower, as the Imperial Japan submitted to the Allies. In the end, the commander of the Kamikaze forces Motoharu Okamura shot himself, as a form of atonement for bringing a lot of young men to their deaths.
1. Axell, Albert; Hideaki, Kase (2002). Kamikaze: Japan's Suicide Gods. New York: Longman.
2. Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. (2006). Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Pressr.
3. Toland, John (1970). The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936–1945.
4. Axell, Albert; Kase, Hideaki (2002). Kamikaze: Japan's suicide gods.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.