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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 Some turned back due to bad weather or mechanical problems with their outdated planes.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 death.

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.