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Shig: The True Story of an American Kamikaze
by Shigeo Imamura
American Literary Press, 2001, 221 pages

This incredible memoir, published 56 years after the end of World War II, tells the story of a boy growing up in America and returning to Japan, where he later became a kamikaze pilot. Shigeo Imamura, the oldest son of Japanese immigrants, was born in 1922 in San Jose and grew up in San Francisco. At the age of ten he moved with his parents to Japan, where he quickly adapted in school and entered commercial college at eighteen. He graduated early so he could enter the naval flight training program in September 1943. Imamura advanced rapidly in the Japanese Navy, and he volunteered for and was put in charge of a kamikaze squadron of twelve planes in February 1945. A few days after his return home when Japan surrendered, the Allied Occupation Force hired him as a translator and interpreter. Soon after he become involved in English language instruction in Japan, and he later earned his BA and MA from the University of Michigan. He taught from 1963 to 1981 at Michigan State University, where he served many years as the director of the English Language Center. He spent the last years of his career in Japanese universities, and he served as president of the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) in 1992-1993. He passed away in 1998 at the age of 76.

This book is a gem. Imamura not only provides numerous insights to the Japanese military and kamikaze pilots but also to Japanese Americans living in California in the 1920s and early 1930s, the Japanese educational system before and during the war, and the postwar Allied occupation of Japan. It is hard to believe the publication of such an excellent firsthand account by a former kamikaze pilot so many years after the end of the war. Imamura signed the memoir in April 1994 (p. 215), four years prior to his death, but the unnamed editors worked on the manuscript to bring it to publication because his final illness prevented him from finishing the editing. He also was not able to start his planned Japanese translation, completed by Ken Ohshima and published by Soshisha in 2003.

Reading this book feels like you are listening to Imamura tell his life story to a small group. He writes with a plain style, and he sometimes injects humor and takes diversions from the main narrative. Fascinating vignettes from his life fill the book, and he many times can tell a specific story in just a half-page paragraph. This accumulation of individual events from his life gives readers much insight into his personality and feelings. The memoir does not appear to be in any way a justification or apology for his actions during the war, but rather a straightforward recounting of the facts and his feelings at the time as he can best remember them a half century later.

Many may wonder how a kamikaze pilot can survive to write his memoir. The kamikaze squadron of twelve pilots led by Imamura engaged in several weeks of night flight training and instrument flight training in preparation for their final mission. At dawn on July 30, 1945, his squadron got ready to make attacks on the invasion fleet thought to be off the Japanese coast near Tokyo, but the operation was called off as his men were at their planes making preparations to depart. They later found out the blips on the radar screens were not Allied ships but rather tinfoil dropped as a diversion by B-29s on their way home from bombing the Japanese mainland. The war ended without his kamikaze squadron taking off on a mission. However, many of his Navy friends died in kamikaze attacks, and after the war he contemplated why they had to die and why he survived.

Imamura's memoir contains numerous remarkable stories. In the evening of March 9, 1945, as the officers of the Tokyo Naval Air Corps were outdoors watching the American movie Robin Hood, they heard the B-29s overhead and then witnessed the bombing of Tokyo. The next day Imamura had the assignment to fly over Tokyo to assess the damage of the attack that resulted in the deaths of nearly one hundred thousand people. He does not leave out of his book certain incidents that may reflect negatively on him. After he became a flight instructor in Tokyo, he learned new physical punishment techniques from veteran instructors. When he sat in the back seat of trainer plane, he sometimes would hit the cadet in the front seat on the head with his fists or with a bat (referred to euphemistically as the "Navy Spirit Injection Stick"). When he arrived in Tokyo, one weekend he went with four friends to an inn. After lots of sake for them and wine for the maids at the inn, the five young men had the maids do the janken (scissors, paper and stone) so the winner of each round could choose the man with whom she wanted to go to bed.

When the base commander asked for volunteers for a kamikaze special attack unit, he said that first sons and married men did not need to volunteer. However, Imamura immediately stepped forward as a volunteer even though he was the first son in his family. He did not agonize over the decision but rather strongly felt that to volunteer to die for Japan was the only right thing to do. Even during the evening before his planned kamikaze attack, he focused on his mission and did not feel much fear or regret as the faces of his family and friends appeared in his mind.

Imamura did much during his career as an educator to contribute to better understanding and friendship between Japan and the U.S. He states his hope for peace in the book's Preface:

If only more and more people would come to realize that no arguments, no differences of opinion—political, economic, social, religious or otherwise—are worthy of the sacrifice of human lives, including one's own, the purpose of this writing would be accomplished.

Constance O'Keefe wrote a novel entitled A Thousand Stitches (2014) that is based on Shigeo Imamura's memoir.