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Hotaru ni natta tokkōhei: Miyagawa Saburō monogatari (Special Attack Corps pilot who turned into firefly: Story of Saburō Miyagawa)
by Tadao Hiroi
Niigata Nippo Jigyosha, 1995, 224 pages

On the eve before Sergeant Saburō Miyagawa's sortie on a special (suicide) attack mission from Chiran Army Air Base, he made a promise to return the next night as a firefly (hotaru in Japanese). Tome Torihama, who ran a small restaurant in Chiran frequented by Miyagawa and many other Special Attack Corps (tokkōtai) pilots, told this story many times until her death in 1992. As a result, the tale of Miyagawa's return as a firefly has become one of the most famous Special Attack Corps (tokkōtai) stories in Japan. A Special Attack Corps pilot in the popular 2001 Japanese film Hotaru is based on a combination of Miyagawa and a Korean pilot named Fumihiro Mitsuyama. The former Chiran restaurant of Tome Torihama is now the Hotaru Museum, and Torihama's daughter Reiko wrote a book entitled Hotaru Kaeru (The Firefly Returns), which includes Miyagawa's story in one chapter.

This biography by Tadao Hiroi, whose hometown in Niigata Prefecture is the same as Miyagawa's, extols this Special Attack Corps pilot who turned into a firefly after his death. However, the book often drifts far from its biographical subject, and Miyagawa's real personality remains largely unknown after more than 200 pages. Even excerpts from the author's interviews with family members and friends do not provide many insights into his feelings and thinking during his short life and as he faced death.

The first chapter starts with the last letters to his father and mother. The one written to his mother is translated below:

Loving Mother, excuse me for neglecting to write for such a long time.

Completely determined and burning with the spirit of certain death, I go forward to my mission.

Mother, thank you for looking after me well during my twenty years. I remember clearly my figure at your breast when I was young. Mother, thank you for taking good care of me from morning to night. Forgive me for my worthlessness in that I cannot repay your kindness in any way.

From long ago it has been said that loyalty and filial piety go together. Loyalty is nothing but filial piety. Please rest assured. I will surely carry out my duty to you as parents.

Please take good care of your health.


The beginning chapter also contains a last letter to his brothers, another one to his sisters, and a piece written the day before his death in which he describes his nostalgic sentiments for his hometown.

Saburō Miyagawa grew up in Shirokawa Village (now Ojiya City) in a snowy, mountainous region of Niigata Prefecture. He excelled in academics and commuted daily to Nagaoka Technical School, one of the best schools in the area. After graduation, he went to work in Tōkyō at the Tachikawa Aircraft Factory, where he lived with his brother Eijirō who worked at the same factory. Saburō studied while working and passed difficult examinations to enter Waseda University's Department of Science and Technology and Keiō University's Engineering Department. However, he decided to become a pilot instead of entering a university, so in October 1943 he entered a Pilot Training School, run by the Communications Ministry and located at Inba Air Base in Chiba Prefecture. He graduated in July 1944 and then transferred to the Sendai Pilot Training School and afterward to combat units in Korea and Manchuria where he flew a Type 99 Assault Plane. Disappointingly, this book provides no details of his life during training and combat assignment prior to his two sorties on special attack missions.

Saburō Miyagawa with parents.
Photo taken during return home
when in training at Sendai
Pilot Training School.

Miyagawa was assigned to the 104th Shinbu Special Attack Squadron to sortie on a special attack mission from Bansei Air Base. The squadron divided into two groups of six planes each that made sorties on April 12 and 13, 1945, but Miyagawa had to return to base due to engine problems. He said he wanted to make a sortie again quickly in a good plane, but he was sent to nearby Chiran Air Base to wait for orders. During his wait, he by chance met a former Ojiya Elementary School classmate named Yoshikatsu Matsuzaki. However, Matsuzaki made a sortie on a special attack mission on May 20. Miyagawa finally received his order to make a sortie from Chiran. June 5, the day before his scheduled sortie to death, was his 20th birthday. He visited Tome Torihama and her two daughters at Tomiya Restaurant, where he told them that he and his friend Enosuke Takimoto would both return as fireflies at 9 o'clock the following night. They took off together the next day, but Takimoto signaled many times to Miyagawa that they should return to base due to driving rain and heavy clouds. Miyagawa signaled that Takimoto should return and he would go on. On the evening of June 6, Takimoto returned alone to Tomiya Restaurant. At 9 o'clock, a firefly came through the open restaurant door and alit on a ceiling beam. Everyone in the restaurant marveled that Miyagawa had returned as a firefly.

Much of this book strays far from the life story of Saburō Miyagawa. Chapter 2's fifty pages, organized by season starting with spring, at times reads like a tour guide for the region in Niigata Prefecture where Miyagawa lived and went to school. The author describes the region's festivals, wildlife, foods, farming activities, sports, and plants, but Miyagawa's name only gets mentioned now and then as part of these general depictions of the region. As another example of the book's digressions, the end of Chapter 1 tells the stories of ten other Special Attack Corps pilots who made sorties from Chiran, but these pilots had almost no direct connection with Miyagawa. As a final example, Chapter 6 goes into much more detail about Tome Torihama's life than needed for a book intended to be Miyagawa's biography.

Besides many extraneous details contained in this book, the idealization of Miyagawa's life makes this biography rather tedious. Although he may very well have been outstanding in many respects, Miyagawa seems based on this book to never have done anything wrong, excelled in academics and sports, and treated everyone kindly. Not only that, he was an idol for all the local teen girls. Hiroi gathered much information for this book from secondary sources, but he also interviewed some family members and friends, who may have been hesitant to say anything negative about someone they consider to be a hero who died defending his country.

Although the bibliography includes several standard books on Chiran and the Special Attack Corps pilots who made sorties from there, the author still commits a few errors. For example, he states that 1,028 Special Attack Corps pilots died in sorties from Chiran Air Base. Actually, this number includes all Army airmen who died in attacks around Okinawa. Only 439 of these men made sorties from Chiran. In another lapse, the author states Miyagawa would encounter the American fleet within an hour after leaving the mainland, but his actual flying time would have been about two hours.

The book contains several touching stories, but these tend to be brief with few specifics. Enosuke Takimoto, who had made a sortie with Miyagawa but returned to base due to poor weather, traveled right after the war's end from his home in Yamanashi Prefecture to Miyagawa's parents' home in Niigata Prefecture. Takimoto stayed at their home for a month as they treated him just like their son, but they never met again as he passed away just three years later. In another moving story, on the eve before Miyagawa's special attack sortie, Tome Torihama's 14-year-old daughter Reiko received from Miyagawa his flight watch and his treasured fountain pen given to him by his brother Eijirō when they worked together at Tachikawa Aircraft Factory. Miako, Reiko's older sister, said years later that if Miyagawa had lived he might have married Reiko when she grew up. The book also tells of the emotional meetings of Tome Torihama with Saburō's brother Buichi in 1970 at a Tōkyō television studio and his brother Eijirō in 1982 at Chiran.

This biography of Saburō Miyagawa contains much information that other books do not mention about his short life. However, this book suffers from excessive and irrelevant details in many places. A much shorter book, maybe about one third of its current size, would have given the key episodes of Miyagawa's life much more emotional impact.