WW2 People

|   2 September 2010


The Yasukini Shrine in Tokyo

We’ve just added onto the site, for subscribers, the testimony of Kenichiro Oonuki who trained as a Kamikaze pilot during the Second World War.

He was alive in 2000, when I met him, because in April 1945 his plane developed technical faults en route to the Allied fleet off Okinawa. As a result he made an emergency landing on a nearby Japanese island, was picked up by soldiers of the Imperial Army and then taken back to Tokyo where he was punished for not successfully killing himself by smashing his plane into an enemy warship.

Oonuki’s tetsimony is hugely significant because it gives the lie to the notion that the Kamikazes were all ‘volunteers’ who killed themselves purely out of love for their country. In fact, Oonuki and his comrades were pressurized to become Kamikazes. They knew that if they didn’t come forward then their families would suffer, and they might be sent to another dangerous part of the frontline and be killed anyway.

I met Kenichiro Oonuki when I was making the book and TV series ‘Horror in the East’ about the Japanese during WW2. And I found it to be a history full of surprises. When I first went to Japan for this project, for example, I had expected to find a deeply spiritual culture, one which explained why so many Japanese had sacrificed themselves during the war. A sacrifice that was symbolised by the Yasukini Shrine in central Tokyo. It is here that the Japanese honour their war dead (including several convicted war criminals from WW2). I had been told that the Kamikaze pilots believed that after their death their souls would return to Yasukini where ‘the Emperor would worship them’.

But after researching the subject myself, and also Executive Producing Jonathan Stamp’s brilliant documentary on the Kamikazes, it became clear to me that the reality was not quite as simple. In fact, the Japanese religion Shinto (then the official state religion) is remarkably vague on the whole question of the after life. As one former officer who helped train the Kamikaze remarked, the dead would return to Yasukini to live only ‘in the wind and the rain’.  Not a tremendously inspiring notion of paradise…

In fact, in my judgement, Japan was (and is) one of the least spiritual places on earth. What held the Japanese together during the war was not religion but the everyday culture of the here and now. It was place where not to conform to what was expected of you was almost not to be able to live. Military training, for instance, was designed to beat out of the recruit any potential for disobedience. I met a number of veterans of the Imperial Army who recalled how they been appallingly mistreated by their instructors. Hajime Kondo, summed the experience up succinctly when he told us: ‘the training was so severe that I felt I’d rather die.’

As I wrote in the introduction to Horror in the East: ‘A combination of cultural belief and geographical and historical circumstance caused Japanese society to evolve, in the first half of the twentieth century, to a point where the very human desire to belong, to fit in, to be part of the group, had been elevated to an all-embracing quasi-religion. It needed only a group of ardent militaristic nationalists to make of this society a powerful and fanatical weapon, able to produce an army capable of great crimes.’

It turns out, as Kenichiro Oonuki confirms, that the Japanese during WW2 weren’t ‘inscrutable’ at all. And despite the wartime Allied racist propaganda showing the Japanese as ‘monkeys’,  they were possessed of every bit as much fundamental humanity as we were.

What their history tells us how dangerous it is to be human and to long, at all costs, to conform.

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