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Chiran high school girls
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Japanese Views

Written by Bill Gordon in December 2004

The Japanese people who said farewell to kamikaze pilots saw them wave goodbye with smiles and remembered them with affection. Those left behind saw nothing of either their being shot down from the sky or their crashing into American ships, so they remembered the pilots as young heroes who bravely went to their deaths in defense of their homeland.

When the war ended, the public's image of kamikaze pilots changed drastically. The Japanese public criticized kamikaze pilots and other special attack force members who carried out suicide attacks. One surviving pilot says, "After the war all of us surviving Special Attack pilots were not only looked on askance or indifferently, but were also disparaged by being called 'Special Attack degenerates' and 'those ex-Special Attack fanatics'" (Hagoromo Society 1973, 173). Ex-servicemen "pleaded that the public had to make distinctions between soldiers or military men (gunjin) and the 'military cliques' (gunbatsu) who were ultimately responsible for the war and its conduct" (Dower 1999, 60), but many Japanese people still regarded the kamikaze pilots with contempt.

Over the decades since the end of the American occupation in 1952, kamikaze pilots gradually have regained the status of national heroes that they once enjoyed during the final stages of the war. Much of this turnaround in public opinion came about through the efforts of the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots, which opened in 1975 on the site of the former Chiran Air Base with the purpose "to commemorate the pilots and expose the tragic loss of their lives so that we may understand the need for everlasting peace and ensure such incidents are never repeated" [1]. Chiran has become a popular tourist destination, and more than 500 thousand people visit the museum each year (Akabane and Ishii 2001, 222; Murakami 2000, Figure 1). Although the Chiran Peace Museum has become the most recognized place associated with kamikaze pilots, many Japanese books, films, and other museums also played significant roles in the resurgence of the kamikaze pilots' reputation.

The first part of the essay on this web page examines the primary images or perceptions that Japanese people currently have about kamikaze pilots. The second part explores the most important sources of these images.

Primary Images

This section explores the five principal images held by Japanese people about kamikaze pilots in order of significance.

1. Tragic Deaths - Japanese people today shed tears when they hear the stories and read the last letters of young kamikaze pilots who gave their lives in defense of their country. This tragic loss of life came about from the desperation of the Japanese military to come up with some strategy and battle tactic to stop the relentless advance of Allied forces toward Japan.

Most films and books emphasize the tragic deaths of the young pilots. For example, four popular movies about kamikaze pilots released from 1993 to 2001 do not show them crashing into ships, but rather being shot down from the sky by the enemy [2]. Also, the Chiran Peace Museum and the Hotaru Museum in Chiran show short documentaries with U.S. Navy film clips of Japanese planes bursting into flames and crashing into the sea.

2. Brave - Although Japanese people consider the kamikaze pilots' deaths as tragic, they also regard them as brave heroes. Most books and movies portray kamikaze pilots who strongly believed that the preferable action in the desperate wartime situation was to volunteer to die in order to defend Japan.

The Japanese culture has a long tradition of honoring bravery against hopeless odds. The kamikaze corps drew inspiration from the courage of Kusunoki Masashige, a samurai warrior who loyally defended the emperor in battle in 1333 and committed suicide by harakiri with his followers to escape the humiliation of capture. Morris (1975, xiv) explains why Japanese people consider Kusunoki Masashige and the kamikaze pilots to be brave heroes, "The submissive majority, while bearing its discontents in safe silence, can find vicarious satisfaction in identifying itself emotionally with these individuals who waged their forlorn struggle against overwhelming odds; and the fact that all their efforts are crowned with failure lends them a pathos which characterizes the general vanity of human endeavour and makes them the most loved and evocative of heroes." Even Japanese people against war can be sentimental about the deeds of the kamikaze pilots because of their pure motive to defend their homeland (Buruma 2001, 160).

3. Young - Kamikaze pilots died at a very young age. Over 90% of the Navy's kamikaze pilots were between 18 and 24 years of age [3]. Almost all Army kamikaze pilots during the Okinawan campaign were between 17 and 22 (Muranaga 1989, 12). The guides at the Chiran Peace Museum emphasize that the youngest kamikaze pilot was only 17 years old.

Today's Japanese youth can relate to the kamikaze pilots because of their similar ages. Two films in the 1990s about kamikaze pilots received recommendations for youth viewing from Japan's Ministry of Education and the National Congress of Parents & Teachers because of the values they promoted. A high school student, whose grandmother's brother died as a kamikaze pilot, writes (Beppu 2002, 42-3):

Many young men lost their lives as kamikaze pilots in the war. They volunteered to protect their country, parents, younger brothers and sisters, and girlfriends. Today when there are many things and young people have lost their direction, we do not understand things that need love and things that need protection. Today there is a tendency to lose sight of even the true meaning of loving, so we in such times need to learn many things from the kamikaze pilots' way of life. They died with pure feelings, deeply loving their country, loving nature, and loving people.

4. Individuals - In contract to the American view of kamikaze pilots as faceless, Japanese people regard them as individuals with their own personalities and interests. Japanese museums with kamikaze exhibits show photos of each pilot, and they display their personal letters. Stories about individual pilots abound. For example, the Hotaru Museum presents a variety of private episodes from the lives of about twenty pilots who departed from Chiran Air Base, such as a kamikaze pilot afraid of cats. Two Japanese films in the 1990s showed pianists and baseball players as kamikaze pilots [4].

5. Educated - Many former students from Japan's elite universities died as kamikaze pilots. In October 1943, military draft deferment ended for students in liberal arts and law, although the deferment continued for students in such fields as engineering and natural sciences. Many of these former students entered Navy or Army pilot training programs, and they later joined special attack force units to carry out suicide attacks. An estimated one thousand student soldiers died as kamikaze pilots [5].

The best-selling Japanese book Kike Wadatsumi no Koe (Listen to the Voices from the Sea), first published in 1949, contains letters and diary entries of these student soldiers, including several who died as kamikaze pilots. These writings reflect the soldiers' love of learning and high level of education, with many writings containing literary references and philosophical comments. For example, Minoru Wada, a former law student at Tokyo Imperial University and a kaiten (piloted torpedo) special attack corps pilot, wrote the following in his secret diary as he trained to make a suicide attack (Nihon Senbotsu 2000, 240):

I read Kokoro (Heart), by Soseki, and also Jinsei Gekijou (Life Theater), by Shiro Ozaki. I have read both books before, but now that I am in this predicament and surrounded by an atmosphere of death, I find myself touched by them more than ever. I even had tears in my eyes! Works of literature and poetry in particular have lately come to appeal to me collectively—not so much as specific works by rather as literature and poetry in general.

Primary Sources of Images

This section of the essay looks at the seven most significant sources of the images or perceptions that Japanese people currently have about kamikaze pilots. The items listed below are in order of significance.

1. Last Letters - The letters, poems, and diary entries written by kamikaze pilots have influenced Japanese people's views more than anything else. These writings by the pilots bring tears to many Japanese as they read the farewell messages. Many books of writings have been published, and museum exhibits related to kamikaze pilots feature these letters, poems, and diaries. Some last letters of kamikaze pilots may not have contained their true feelings, since the Japanese military censored correspondence. Also, the young men had intense social pressure from peers and others in Japanese society to conform to the prevailing militaristic ideology. However, a few letters and diaries that escaped censorship give readers insight into pilots' true feelings and opinions as they faced death. However, even when letters escaped military censors, many men may have written letters in such a way so as to not worry their families and to show their courage and patriotism so that their families could be proud of them after death.

Kike Wadatsumi no Koe (Listen to the Voices from the Sea) and the Yasukuni Jinja publish the most popular collections of writings by Japanese soldiers, including kamikaze pilots and other special attack force members. However, the types of letters differ between the two. Kike Wadatsumi no Koe has writings of elite university students who died in the war, and the book's goal is the promotion of peace so as to never repeat the tragedy of war. Many of the writings tend to support liberal thinking and criticize the war. In contrast, Yasukuni Jinja, which serves as the national shrine for Japan's war dead, is a symbol of Japanese colonialism and nationalism. The letters published by Yasukuni Jinja tend to be consistent with its nationalistic view of Japanese military history, and it avoids publication of some of the extremely liberal letters included in Kike Wadatsumi no Koe. Although very few kamikaze pilots were married and even fewer had children, the first entry in Yasukuni Jinja's seven-volume series of soldiers' writings is a poignant letter written by a father to his young daughter prior to departure on a kamikaze attack.

2. Chiran - Chiran, the Army's main kamikaze sortie base for attacks on American ships around Okinawa, has become the principal place that Japanese people associate with kamikaze pilots. This small town of 14 thousand in the southernmost mainland prefecture of Kagoshima has the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots, the best-known Japanese museum for letters, photos, and other artifacts of kamikaze pilots. Chiran has other kamikaze-related sites such as Hotaru Museum, Special Attack Peace Kannon Temple, Kamikaze Pilot Statue, and numerous stone lanterns along the road in remembrance of pilots who died. Three popular Japanese films about kamikaze pilots released from 1993 to 2001 feature visits to Chiran, which has added even more to its popularity as a Japanese tourist destination [6].

Several Japanese books include Tome Torihama's personal stories about the kamikaze pilots who sortied from Chiran. She ran Tomiya Restaurant, which the Army used as a designated restaurant, so she personally knew many of the pilots. Two of her stories, one about a pilot who said he would return as a firefly and another about a Korean pilot who sang a Korean song the night before his sortie, became the basis for the 2001 Japanese movie Hotaru (Firefly). In 2001, Hotaru Museum opened in the same two-story building that formerly was Tomiya Restaurant. Torihama's widely-published stories about Chiran kamikaze pilots have contributed much to Japanese people's viewing of the pilots as individuals who suffered tragic deaths.

3. Hotaru - Ken Takakura and Yuko Tanaka, two of Japan's most famous movie stars, play the roles of a surviving kamikaze pilot and his wife in this extremely popular 2001 film that received 13 Japanese Academy Award nominations. In Hotaru (Firefly), a Korean kamikaze pilot dies in a suicide attack, but his two Japanese comrades survive the war when one returns due to engine problems and the other makes a forced landing when shot down and wounded. The Korean pilot leaves behind a Japanese fiancée (Tanaka), who marries with one of his comrades (Takakura) soon after the end of the war.

The movie presents many connected themes, including the close bond between the older married couple (Takakura and Tanaka) and the silent anguish experienced by the two kamikaze pilots who survived the war. After the war, many surviving pilots felt guilt or shame about being alive even though their comrades died in suicide attacks. Eleven Korean pilots died as kamikaze pilots in the Army (Muranaga 1989, 17), and Hotaru gives a positive portrayal of the Korean pilot's courage and love for his homeland of Korea, a Japanese territory from 1910 to 1945. However, the Korean pilot's background and motivation for joining the Japanese military remain unknown in the movie.

4. Veterans - Many men in the Japanese Navy and Army who received training for suicide attacks survived the war, and their stories about personal wartime experiences form the foundation of the literature about the special attack corps. These men personally knew the kamikaze pilots who died in attacks, and a few sortied on kamikaze missions but returned to base due to engine problems, bad weather, or enemy attacks. These veterans have told their stories in various documentaries, such as the 2001 Fuji TV two-hour documentary entitled Tokkou: Kuni yaburetemo kuni wa horobizu (Special attacks: Although the country was defeated, it has not fallen). One former kamikaze pilot, the author of several books on the subject, has created a large web site with many stories related to the kamikaze corps from firsthand war experiences, accounts from others with whom he served in the Japanese Navy, and interviews of several families of kamikaze pilots who died in the war.

5. Gekkou no Natsu - The 1993 movie Gekkou no Natsu (Summer of the Moonlight Sonata) has greatly influenced Japanese people's perception of kamikaze pilots as being young, educated men who tragically died in defense of their country. Over 2.1 million people saw this moving film, which received recommendations from Japan's Ministry of Education, National Congress of Parents & Teachers, and Japan Film Society. This movie's great popularity led to creation of a documentary novel, children's book, drama CD, and play on the same subject.

Gekkou no Natsu connects several images to kamikaze pilots to show their innocence, goodness, and culture. Two pilots carry white lilies as they depart an elementary school where they played Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the grand piano there just prior to their kamikaze mission. On the night before their departure to Okinawa, one pilot in their squadron plays with a puppy and another pilot has two small mascot dolls next to him. In the moonlight their squadron sings together a German folk song on the eve of their sortie. The two pilots both loved piano music rather than fighting, an image in stark contrast to the typical American view of kamikaze pilots as fanatical warriors.

6. Photos - Photos taken in Japan of smiling kamikaze pilots contrast sharply with the death and destruction shown in photos taken from the decks of American ships. Over the years since the end of World War II, a very small number of photos have come to symbolize the kamikaze pilots in the minds of the Japanese public. The most famous photo shows five young men smiling as a 17-year-old pilot in the middle of the photo cuddles a puppy (see Home Page). Four museums with exhibits about Army kamikaze operations prominently display an enlarged copy of this photo [7], and many Japanese books about kamikaze pilots include this photo. This photo has become the epitome of kamikaze pilots' youth and their cheerfulness even though they soon faced certain death.

Another popular photo shows high school girls at Chiran Air Base waving cherry blossoms at a departing kamikaze plane (see top of page). Cherry blossoms served as the primary symbol of kamikaze pilots, with their deaths at a young age often described as falling cherry blossoms. One more famous photo from Chiran shows Tome Torihama standing in the middle of six smiling kamikaze pilots, which like the photo with the puppy indicates that the pilots remained cheerful on the outside even in the face of death.

7. Sensouron - Yoshinori Kobayashi, a popular Japanese manga (comic) artist, wrote three volumes of Sensouron (On War), where he argues strongly for right-wing nationalist positions. The first volume published in 1998 became a bestseller with sales of over 600,000 copies (Pons 2001), and the other two volumes also sold well. Based on an examination of kamikaze pilots' letters, Kobayashi contends that they died voluntarily for their country, homeland, families, and emperor. He condemns the individualism rampant in modern Japanese society, which causes many societal problems. In contrast to modern individualism, he claims that kamikaze pilots and other special attack force members willingly sacrificed their lives in defense of their country. Although associated with Japanese nationalists, Kobayashi's works have a wide influence in Japanese society.

The American views of kamikaze pilots differ greatly from the Japanese perceptions described above.


1. From brochure published by the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots.

2. The four movies are Hotaru (Firefly), Gekkou no Natsu (Summer of the Moonlight Sonata), Ningen no Tsubasa (Wings of a Man), and Nijuuroku ya mairi (A Moon Twenty-six Days Old).

3. From information on display at the Kanoya Naval Air Base Museum.

4. Ningen no Tsubasa (Wings of a Man) (1995) shows two baseball players in a kamikaze unit at Kanoya Air Base. Gekkou no Natsu (Summer of the Moonlight Sonata) (1993) shows two kamikaze pilots who love playing the piano.

5. Ohnuki-Tierney (2002, 167, 361) cites two sources, one that gives 956 and another that gives 1,100 as the total number of student soldiers who died as kamikaze pilots. She states in a note that a Japanese author of books on kamikaze warned her that these numbers are only approximations.

6. The three films are Hotaru (Firefly), Gekkou no Natsu (Summer of the Moonlight Sonata), and Nijuuroku ya mairi (A Moon Twenty-six Days Old).

7. The four Japanese museums that prominently display this photo are the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots, Hotaru Museum, Bansei Tokko Peace Museum, and Tachiarai Peace Museum.

Sources Cited

Akabane, Reiko, and Hiroshi Ishii. 2001. Hotaru kaeru (The firefly returns). Tokyo: Soshisa.

Beppu, Hiroyuki. 2002. To the Sky. In Ashita inochi kagayake: Heiwa e no messeeji from Chiran (Shine your life for tomorrow: Messages of peace from Chiran). Chiran Town, Kagoshima Prefecture: Chiran Supiichi Kontesto Jikkou Iinkai Jimukyoku (Chiran Speech Contest Committee Administrative Office).

Buruma, Ian. 2001. Reprint. A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains in Japanese Culture. London: Phoenix. Original edition, Great Britain, Jonathan Cape, 1984.

Dower, John W. 1999. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. New York: W.W. Norton.

Hagoromo Society of Kamikaze Divine Thunderbolt Corps Survivors. 1973. The Cherry Blossom Squadrons: Born to Die. Edited and supplemented by Andrew Adams. Translated by Nobuo Asahi and the Japan Tech Co. Los Angeles: Ohara Publications.

Morris, Ivan. 1975. The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan. New York: New American Library.

Murakami, Toshifumi. 2000. The Role of Peace Museums in the Construction of a Culture of Peace. Paper from 18th General IPRA (International Peace Research Association Conference) held August 2000 in Tampere, Finland. <http://kyoiku.kyokyo-u.ac.jp/gakka/murakami/peacemuseum.htm> (July 15, 2004).

Muranaga, Kaoru. 1989. Chiran tokubetsu kougekitai (Chiran special attack forces). Kagoshima City: Japlan.

Nihon Senbotsu Gakusei Kinen-Kai (Japan Memorial Society for the Students Killed in the War—Wadatsumi Society), comp. 2000. Listen to the Voices from the Sea: Writings of the Fallen Japanese Students (Kike Wadatsumi no Koe). Translated by Midori Yamanouchi and Joseph L. Quinn.  Scranton: University of Scranton Press.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. 2002. Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Pons, Philippe. 2001. A cartoonist rewrites Japanese history. Le Monde diplomatique. October. <http://mondediplo.com/2001/10/09manifesto> (October 15, 2004).