I Was a Kamikaze
by Ryuji Nagatsuka
translated from the French by Nina Rootes
Macmillan Publishing, 1973, 212 pages
Some people wonder who could have written a book titled I
Was a Kamikaze, since the common perception is that all Japanese kamikaze
pilots died carrying out their suicide missions. Although no kamikaze pilot
survived crashing into an American ship, many others in kamikaze attack corps
survived. Some turned back due to bad weather or mechanical problems with their
outdated planes. A small number of escort plane pilots, who protected the
suicide attack planes, managed to escape the superior enemy fighters. Many Navy
and Army airmen, trained and ready for suicide attacks, disbanded after hearing
the Emperor's radio message to surrender. Ryuji Nagatsuka, a kamikaze pilot in
the Japanese Imperial Army, relates his experiences and feelings as he faced
While a student of French literature at the University of
Tokyo, Nagatsuka entered the Army in 1944 as a cadet pilot. The book's parts
cover the three stages of his time in the Army. Part One deals with his basic
flight training, where he learned details of Japan's desperate military
situation. Part Two describes his training to fly fighters and his squadron's
two attempts to use their fighters to engage superior U.S. B-29 bombers. Both
times he returned with negative results for which he felt inexpressible shame.
Part Three relates his volunteering for the Special Attack Corps. He made a sortie with a group of eighteen fighters, but twelve returned to base because
bad weather made it impossible to locate the American fleet. The commanding
officer considered their action to be equivalent to desertion and a discredit
to the squadron, so the pilots were punched in the face, put under arrest for three
days, and forced to copy out the emperor's decree on military conduct.
I Was a Kamikaze was first published in France in
1972, and the English translation came out the following year. Surprisingly, no
Japanese version of this book exists. Since Nagatsuka wrote this book more than
25 years after the actual events, a few parts seem like he is looking back on
past events rather than describing his feelings and opinions at the time. For
example, when he first arrives at flight training school, the squadron leader
gives a long lecture of five pages filled with names and details of the war
situation. This speech appears to be more the results of the author's
subsequent background research for the book rather than what a brand-new cadet
pilot would remember. However, Nagatsuka's description of his suicide mission
has a real immediacy that will grip the reader. Before copying the emperor's
decree when put under arrest after returning to base, he secretly wrote in a
diary all of this thoughts during his two-hour flight.
A fascinating feature of this book is the depiction of the
author's conflicting emotions as he contemplates his impending death.
Nagatsuka's thoughts on death waver. At times he resolves that he will
willingly sacrifice his life for his family and countrymen, but at other times
he wants to continue to live rather than carry out a senseless suicide mission.
When he suffers contempt from the other men at the base after returning from
his suicide flight, he ponders the foolishness of the principle that a suicide
pilot should not return to base even though the only alternative would be to
futilely plunge into the sea without hitting an enemy ship.
New English Library edition
In contrast to the commonly held image of kamikaze pilots
volunteering for suicide missions based on fanatical loyalty to the emperor,
Nagatsuka never thought of the emperor as the reason for his sacrifice. He
fought in whatever way he could, including joining a kamikaze special attack
corps, in order to protect his family and friends from the enemy. American
B-29s dropped incendiary bombs on Tokyo, his hometown of Nagoya, and other
major cities, killing tens of thousands of civilians and destroying hundreds of
thousands of homes. He willingly set out on a suicide mission for his family
and for his country's people, but certainly not for the emperor.
The author not only relates his history during the war, he
also provides his opinions, sometimes emotional ones, on several subjects for
which he does not have direct support or experience. For example, Nagatsuka states
emphatically that corporal punishment rarely occurred in the Army air force. He
rails against the "vile distortion of the truth" contained in a book
that described brutal physical violence committed by officers against cadet
pilots at Chiran, an air base in southern Japan from which many Army kamikaze
pilots made sorties. However, he never served at that base, and he also describes
his being punched in the face by a superior in a couple of separate instances.
The two Japanese characters (kanji) for "kamikaze"
(meaning "divine wind") can be read in two ways: "kamikaze"
or "shinpu." Nagatsuka speculates that nisei
(second-generation Japanese-Americans) in the U.S. military were the first to
use the pronunciation "kamikaze" to describe the special attack suicide
squads because "they did not know how to read Japanese correctly and so
pronounced the two Japanese characters for Divine Wind in a more vernacular way
[kamikaze]" (p. 142). He cites no support for such an assertion. Although
Shinpu was the official name given to the first unit formed in the Philippines
in October 1944, people in Japan both during and after the war frequently read
the two kanji as "kamikaze." The pronunciation "kamikaze"
was used frequently to refer to the "divine wind" that destroyed the
Kublai Khan's Mongol fleets invading Japan in 1281, so this pronunciation was
the most familiar one to Japanese people.
Nagatsuka's in-depth account of his fears and inner
struggles as he faces impending death makes I Was a Kamikaze a valuable
primary source to understand the psychology of the kamikaze pilots.