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Pacific FrontApril 1945


What motivated the Kamikazes?
What motivated these pilots to kill themselves?

Video Transcript

Commentary: This was the scene off the island of Okinawa in the spring of 1945. The Allied fleet under attack from Japanese suicide planes. The Kamikazes.

Words of Frank Manson (American sailor, Okinawa): It was a saturation type thing. There was one Kamikaze, and then there was two, and then three, and they’d just keep coming. Eventually we knew they’d get us.

Words of Ronnie Hay (British pilot, Okinawa): I think it was the worst moment of my life. I’d been frightened many times in the war, but that was about the worst time. Sitting there knowing that one Kamikaze coming in there could have swept the whole of our complement of aircraft and aircrew into the sea. 

Commentary: Off Okinawa, the Japanese Kamikazes managed to sink twenty four American ships and damage two hundred more.

Sir Max Hastings: Their Kamikazes destroyed far more American ships than the Japanese navy had been able to destroy with all its battleships and carriers and heaven knows what since 1942. So the first thing that has to be said about the Kamikazes is they worked. 

Commentary: But how was it possible that so many Japanese were ever prepared to sacrifice their own lives in this way? 

Professor Akira Iriye: I think it seems to be a combination of two things. One is the belief in Japanese national uniqueness. Japan is a unique country, unlike any other country. It can do things that no other country can do. And this sense of uniqueness is combined with Emperor worship. You died for your country but in fact you died for your Emperor. And the second reason is a more material kind of reason. That is that the Japanese army is much more poorly equipped. So the Japanese say, well, maybe we’re not as good in producing so many weapons as the Americans, but we have this spiritual aspect to it, that we can fight not simply with guns but we can fight with our spirit.   

Commentary: The attack by Kamikaze planes on the Allied fleet off Okinawa in the spring of 1945 was not the first evidence of this willingness to commit suicide as the enemy drew near. They year before, in the summer of 1944, on the island of Saipan in the Marianas, civilians had shown that they too were willing to die. With the American Marines advancing towards them, thousands of villagers – including this desperate woman – decided to take their own lives. These civilians had been told by the Japanese army that it would be shameful to surrender and that, in any case, the Americans would torture, rape or kill them if they were captured alive. Tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers also killed themselves here, partly inspired by a tradition in Japan that to take one’s own life was an honourable way out of an impossible situation. Now with the approval of the Japanese Emperor, Hirohito, suicide was developed into a powerful weapon of modern war. And so the Kamikazes were born. These pilots were all part of a desperate strategy pursued by the Japanese leadership. The plan was simple. Inflict terrible losses on the Allies by any means possible, and then hope some kind of peace could be negotiated. A peace that let the Japanese end the war, honour intact.

Words of Hachiro Hosokawa (Kamikaze pilot): There is no living thing that desires death. But there comes a time when you face responsibilities you cannot run away from. To give up your life for your country and your people was the highest honour.

Sir Max Hastings: The Kamikazes knew with absolute certainty that they were going to die. And of course the first thing that must be said is although there were genuine volunteers in the first wave of Kamikazes, they pretty soon ran out of genuine volunteers. And after that there were all these tragic young men who were made to do it and who went very unhappily to death.

Commentary: Kenichiro Oonuki was one of those who did not volunteer to become a Kamikaze willingly. When he and the rest of his squadron were asked to put themselves forward for a suicide mission they thought the whole idea was ludicrous. But having thought it over, they all still volunteered. They feared that if they didn’t, their families would be shunned and they themselves might die anyway, sent as pilots on other missions that were almost as dangerous. Oonuki watched his comrades fly off ahead of him. 

Words of Kenichiro Oonuki (Kamikaze pilot): Everybody had the same expression in their eyes, like a deep-sea fish looking up at the blue sky above. I’ve never seen sadder expressions in anyone’s eyes.

Laurence Rees: How can we understand here in the West this phenomenal cultural pressure on the individual to conform?

Professor Akira Iriye: I think there is no question about that. I think a kind of collective mentality, or collectivist mentality, and also the idea that you are a member of this family, and what you do brings dishonour to your parents, but not only that, to the Emperor too. This is the whole idea of the nation as one family with the Emperor as the divine head. So whatever you do you are bringing either honour or dishonor to the Emperor. There is nothing in between. So to die is more honourable than to live. 

Japanese wartime newsreel, officer: These words are from the Emperor: 'Those [Kamikazes] who attacked the enemy individually have done a great job and produced remarkable results. How brave they were to sacrifice their lives for their country.' The Emperor also ordered us to pass his sincere sympathies to the families of the deceased and to their colleagues on the front line.

Japanese wartime newsreel, recruit: I would like to thank the Emperor on behalf of us all. We are so proud and impressed that the Emperor himself sent us such words. We promise to accomplish our mission as bravely as our predecessors.

Commentary: The Kamikazes fuelled the racist beliefs many in the West felt towards the Japanese. Some thought at the time that an enemy who were prepared to kill themselves were scarcely human at all.

Professor Geoffrey Wawro: In Western forces you would fight and when there was no further hope of fighting you would surrender. In Japanese culture that was regarded as a supreme insult to oneself, one’s family, one’s Emperor. So there was this presumption that you’d fight to the bitter end. And they did.

Commentary: The bleak irony of the Kamikazes was that their sacrifice only served to strengthen the view of the Western leadership that it was important to try and avoid fighting the Japanese on the battlefield at all. Instead, to defeat them by using a new weapon - the nuclear bomb.


'End of Days' by Dominik Hauser used with permission of Shockwave-Sound.com.