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Kamikaze Attackers

LAURENCE REES: How can one understand the extraordinary phenomena of the Kamikaze in modern warfare?

AKIRA IRIYE: If there’s any rational reason for that it would be to say that in Iwo Jima and Okinawa the Japanese engaged the American enemy so seriously that the United States would think twice before engaging the home islands. Japan has the so called home islands consisting of the 4 major islands and they really wanted to avoid that, the army said the way to avoid fighting on the home islands was to really engage the United States, particularly in a place like Okinawa, and really give the enemy huge casualties, which they did. I think Americans lost so many more lives than they had been willing to anticipate in Okinawa and Iwo Jima as well, and yet the Americans did not say that because of the casualties we are not going to invade the mainland, it was quite the opposite. But the Japanese had hoped that by inflicting huge casualties of the American invaders they would discourage Americans from invading home islands. So I think there there’s that aspect, if there’s any kind of rational thinking behind it.

At the same time I think, it also has to be said, that by then the Emperor and other civilian leaders had to come to see the war as having been lost; by Okinawa, by the spring of 1945, that’s when they begin to think about peace overtures. At first rather informally, then through the Soviet Union, their strategy’s to turn to the Soviet Union for help ameliorating between Japan and the United States because the Soviet Union was still technically neutral. But of course this does not work and they’re just wasting a tremendous amount of time by trying to persuade Stalin to intercede on Japan’s behalf. But it's quite clear that all these casualties were concerning the Emperor and civilian leaders and they are trying to see how best to bring the war to an end. This is when they come up with the idea that perhaps they could even approach the United States directly if the US would allow the Emperor institution to be persevered. That becomes the wrong condition, and as we all know on the American side there are people who were saying that that was what the Japanese would say.

I think by June there’s an indirect meeting of the minds between the Japanese side and the American side, that the war could be ended if the United States would clearly indicate to the Japanese that they could keep their Emperor and the Emperor institution, then we will end the war. And I think the Japanese would have agreed to that. The army would still have resisted it but the navy and most civilian leaders and the Emperor himself would probably have accepted it. So then there’s a question as to why the United States did not do that, and there are all kind of answers to that question.

One is public opinion, by this time President Truman is in the White House. Roosevelt might have been agreeable to something like that but he died in April and Truman, who was much more susceptible to public opinion, and his Secretary of State Jimmy Burns, who is much more negative about anything other than unconditional surrender as he thinks it would be unacceptable to the American people. So they dragged their feet and they had not made any kind of response to these Japanese overtures about the Emperor institution. And in the meantime you have this Potsdam Conference in July 1945, and I think by this time it probably would have been too late but in the Potsdam Conference the Soviet Union said it was going to enter the war pretty soon. Germany had been defeated by then and the United States had just developed the atomic bomb so there wasn’t much incentive to let the Japanese dictate its terms of surrender so to speak. So Emperor or no Emperor, the United States and its Allies would insist on that unconditional surrender.