Surviving former kamikaze pilots reject moves to glorify their mission

Former suicide pilots against celebrating their plight, and fear horrors of war lost on the young

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 August, 2014, 11:16pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 7:23pm


Kamikaze pilot Yutaka Kanbe should have died nearly seven decades ago.

It was only Tokyo's surrender on August 15, 1945, that saved him from the fate of thousands whose suicide missions came to define Japan's unrelenting defiance in the closing stages of the second world war.

But as the 91-year-old faces his own mortality again, he worries that a rightward shift under Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and a recent film glorifying kamikaze missions, are proof that the horrors of war are lost on younger Japanese generations.

"It was crazy - I cannot support the idea of glorifying our mission," the former navy pilot said of young men ordered to crash their planes into allied ships.

"Japan could go to war again if our leaders are all like Abe. I'm going to die soon, but I worry about Japan's future."

Kamikaze pilots - the term means "divine wind" - were heroes in wartime Japan, where their deadly sacrifice in the name of Emperor Hirohito and the nation was celebrated.

The squadrons were formed near the end of the conflict in a desperate effort to prevent an allied victory. About 4,000 died on missions that sent chills down the spine of many enemy combatants, although most were shot down before reaching their targets.

There are no official figures on the number of surviving kamikaze pilots and the squadrons have largely faded from memory, with little mention in contemporary school textbooks. But a film called The Eternal Zero, based on a best-selling novel, catapulted the squadrons back into the minds of the public this year.

"I respect kamikaze pilots - they sacrificed their lives for their families and the country," 18-year-old Tokyo university student Tsurugi Nakamura said after watching the film.

"Kamikaze pilots are cool. It's wrong to criticise the mission," he added.

Kozo Kagawa shares little enthusiasm for that kind of talk.

The 89-year-old former kamikaze pilot refuses to judge the morality of the missions, but he is still haunted by seeing fellow pilots die in vain. His turn never came.

"It's not for survivors like me to judge whether it was right or wrong. But I'm still mourning the soul of my late buddy. I'm sorry for letting (him) die alone."

For Kagawa, there is no question that kamikaze missions were a mistake, but he is less sure about restricting armed forces to a purely self-defence role.

"Kamikaze missions should never happen again, but peace does not come without costs," he said.

"We can't protect peace without defence. Prime Minister Abe appears to be in a hurry to make changes, but I understand what he is trying to do."

The landmark shift by Abe to expand the use of Japan's military was met with strong public opposition and warnings it could ultimately see the country dragged into war, amid territorial disputes with Tokyo's neighbours that have stoked fears of an East Asian conflict.

Any sugar-coating of Japan's wartime past was misplaced, said Akinori Asano. The 85-year-old belonged to an infamous force codenamed "Cherry Blossom" which aimed single-engine bombers at their targets, derided as "stupid bombers" by the allies.

The six-metre aircraft were more like flying bombs, powered by rocket engines that would run just long enough to send them spiralling into enemy ships.

"It is nonsense to ask why we obeyed orders and why we had to die - there was no room for saying 'no'," Asano said.

"But it was not a movie. I'm afraid young people can't imagine what it was like - all I can do is pray for peace."