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Tokkōbana (Kamikaze Flower)

The flower in the photo at right, which grows in Kagoshima Prefecture, is called tokkōbana in Japanese. Tokkōbana literally means "special attack flower" but can also be translated as "kamikaze flower." In recent years, a story has spread that kamikaze pilots dropped these flowers from their planes as they passed over Mount Kaimon at the southernmost point of mainland Japan on the way to Okinawa. Also, the yellow tokkōbana flowers bloom profusely in May and June near the runway at Kanoya Air Base, which during the war served as the sortie base for the largest number of kamikaze pilots.

The source of this flower remains a mystery. Several theories of its origin have been suggested. Kanoya Air Base Museum used to give out free tokkōbana seed packets, which have written on the back several theories about the source of these flowers. Some people think that planes returning to Kanoya from the south during World War II brought the flowers back attached to their wheels. Others speculate that Navy pilots who loved the beauties of nature brought them back to the base. Another theory says that the flower is a species from Mexico.

The tokkōbana flowers play a central role in the 1998 television movie Nijūroku ya mairi (A Moon Twenty-six Days Old). Three young kamikaze pilots visit a small inn on the eve before their flights, and they become friends with the eight-year-old girl at the inn. When they leave in the morning, she gives each of them a bouquet of yellow tokkōbana flowers that she picked for them. The three pilots each throw these flowers out on the lower slopes of Mount Kaimon, where today a huge field of tokkōbana grows.

Hichiro Naemura, who served as a flight instructor at a kamikaze sortie base and authored several books about kamikaze operations, argues strongly that the true flower of the kamikaze pilots was the cherry blossom (in an article entitled "True kamikaze flower: Is yellow postwar non-native variety the kamikaze flower?"). Moreover, the flower called tokkōbana actually is a non-native species that did not exist in Japan before or during World War II. The flower appeared at Kanoya Air Base about fifteen years after the end of the war, and a rumor spread that this was the tokkōbana or kamikaze flower. Naemura argues convincingly that the "kamikaze flower" was clearly the cherry blossom, since many historical photos show kamikaze pilots with cherry blossoms and several last letters of kamikaze pilots refer to cherry blossoms. 

The kamikaze flower provides a fascinating example of how a modern-day legend can grow with no basis in history. Hichiro Naemura thinks it is regrettable that people who do not know the history of the kamikaze pilots' association with cherry blossoms have developed now a misunderstanding of the true story because of the strong influence of Tetsuya Takeda, who wrote and appeared in the movie Nijūroku ya mairi (A Moon Twenty-six Days Old) that contains the fictional story of the tokkōbana.

Tokkōbana (kamikaze flowers)
near runway at Kanoya Air Base

Source Cited

Naemura, Hichiro. No date. Shinjitsu no tokkōbana: Kiiroi sengo no gairaishu ga tokkōbana ka? (True kamikaze flower: Is yellow postwar non-native variety the kamikaze flower?). <http://homepage2.nifty.com/nippon-kaigi/sakura/> (August 10, 2004) (link no longer available).