Kamikaze nation

While Vera Lynn's "We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when" found its way into British hearts, the Japanese glorified the fact that they were never going to meet again, anywhere. Long before they began to lose the war in a big way, they dedicated themselves to going out in a blaze of glory. They were the "hundred million advancing like a ball of flame". Fifty years on, the pathology of a national psychosis by Peter Popham. Portraits by Tom Wagner.

When people in Japan turned on their radios on the morning of 15 August 50 years ago, they heard a more than usually solemn voice announce, "His Majesty the Emperor has issued a Rescript. It will be broadcast at noon today. Let us all respectfully listen to the voice of the Emperor. Power will be specially transmitted to those districts where it is not usually available during daylight hours. Receivers should be prepared and ready at all railway stations, postal departments and offices both governmental and private..."

The order was obeyed throughout what remained of the Japanese empire: in the home islands, in Korea, Manchuria, occupied China, Formosa and elsewhere in South East Asia, wherever a ragged band of survivors of Japan's military rout still laid claim to a radio. At midday, standing respectfully to attention, eyes on the ground, the Japanese nation listened - for the first time in history - to "the voice of the Crane", as the Emperor was poetically termed; the voice of the incarnate god who was their leader.

It was hard to understand him. He spoke in a chanting sing-song, using words and verb-forms far removed from everyday Japanese. In many places reception was bad. And even for those who caught the words, the meaning was not immediately obvious. "The war situation," he chanted, "has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage... We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable..."

"There was a lot of distortion, we couldn't hear well," said Koyu Makishi, at the time a student in a military academy in Kyushu. "They had lined us up in the exercise yard to hear the announcement, but we couldn't follow it. One of the teachers told us, 'His Majesty said that even though the situation is tough, we must stick together and do our best.'"

The misunderstanding was forgivable. At no point in the long speech did Hirohito use the words "defeat" or "surrender". "Enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable" is what his subjects had been doing, at his behest, for years.

But the thing that he was demanding of his people that was "unendurable", "insufferable", was different from what he had demanded of them up to now. To this point he had required merely that his people die. Now he was countermanding that order. Whe he demanded of them now was far more problematic. He required his subjects to live.

Everyone knows about the kamikaze, the mad young pilots who in the last year of the War mounted suicide attacks on the Allied fleet as it blasted its way towards the Japanese home islands. What is less well known is that suicide duty was not the exclusive prerogative of that fanatical elite. By the final months of the War, the entire population of Japan was primed to die for the emperor.

There were numerous ways of doing it, and great ingenuity was exercised in developing new ones. The original kamikaze, the Tokkotai or Special Attack Force, first deployed in the Battle of Leyte in the Philippines in January 1945, was perhaps the most spectacular form that the idea took, launching themselves in great waves of Zero fighters at American warships. But as Japan's situation worsened and conventional tactics became futile or impossible against the vast might of America, the idea spread. Midget submarines were developed, with crews of two or five, to attack Allied submarines and die in the attempt. The navy trained men to become human mines, swimming in diving suits to enemy ships and striking the hulls with "stick bombs". Twin-engined bombers were adapted to carry piloted bombs known as "cherry blossoms" which, once released, zoomed at speeds of more than 400 mph (they were rocket-powered) towards enemy ships.

Once the suicide idea had been conceived, it was capable of almost infinite variation. There was a way of death to suit every Japanese. Young hotheads were tailor-made for blasting at American aircraft carriers. But the Japanese equivalent of Dad's Army had no need to feel left out.

Kako Senda, later to become a journalist and historian, underwent seven months' officer training in Kyushu and then, in the last year of the War, was put in charge of a platoon of middle-aged conscripts in the city of Kagoshima, near the expected site of the American invasion.

"The duty I was chosen for was as follows," he said. "Here was the sea, from which the Americans were expected to invade. Here was the beach, and here we each had to dig a hole 2.5 meters deep. We put a lot of dynamite in the hole, then a plank on top of which the soldier was to stand, and we attached a fuse to the dynamite. Each soldier was also issued with a hammer. The idea was that when the American troops came, the soldier would get in the hole and fasten the lid. When an American tank rolled over the hole, the plan was to hit the fuse with the hammer - clang! - and - whump! - the dynamite would explode and blow up the tank. I was the commanding officer of this unit.

"The reason the army settled on this method of defence was because the steel of the American tanks was so thick. However many Japanese bullets you fired at them, they wouldn't do more than chip the paint and bounce off. In Okinawa they had tried having soldiers with explosives hurling themselves at the tanks, but of course all tanks have machine guns so the soldiers were blown away and the tanks unharmed. So as there seemed to be no alternative, they got us to dig these holes."

Hitomaru Nakayama, now a telephone engineer on the outskirts of Tokyo, volunteered for the navy when he was 20 and was inducted into the Air Force Training School, "much the flashiest branch of the armed forces". He studied flying for two years, but by the time he was ready to go the War had turned ugly.

"By the end there were no engineers left to build the planes, which were put together by the girls of the Volunteer Corps. When they were delivered, our own engineers practically had to take them apart and rebuild them again. After we ran out of petrol we had to make do with methane. In winter the methane wouldn't ignite, so we had to put a blanket over the engine and light a fire under it before we could get it started.

"I entered flight training school and the first plane I flew was an Akatonbo, a 'Dragonfly', a cute little thing with cloth wings which did about 200kph. After 30 to 40 hours' flying time in one of those you graduated to practical planes. Theoretically there were 'intermediate' and 'advanced' planes, but by the time we reached this point there were no intermediate planes left. So the next step was straight into Zeros.

"This was in early 1945, but by then the fuel had started to run out and there was only enough for our senior comrades to take off on their kamikaze missions. Training came to a halt. Then American planes came over and bombed our base, damaging the runways and destroying our barracks. Many of my comrades were killed. We dragged their bodies to the shore and piled them up and burned them.

"At the end we had nothing at all - only the little Akatonbo training planes. At our base they had the idea of using the Akatonbo as a fighter. The plan was that when the enemy ships sailed into a particular bay between the islands of Kyushu and Shikoku, we would load a 250-kilo bomb onto the Akatonbo, lug it up a 1,000-metre mountain which overlooks the bay, then dive bomb into the enemy ships. That was the goal we were training towards.

"It was bleak, but we tried hard to do what we could. We wrecked the runway to make it difficult for the enemy to land. We dug great holes in the mountainside and hid the remaining planes in them, and covered the entrances with branches.

"No, we never discussed winning or losing, even at this stage. Even without planes or weapons it is the destiny of soldiers to fight until they die. We never talked about losing or deserting. We knew we were going to die, if not in a plane then in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy."

"We knew we were going to die." Not - we were worried that we might die. We knew that some of us would die. We prayed the war would end soon so we wouldn't have to die...simply, we knew we were going to die.

Kako Senda echoes that simple conviction. "I felt perfectly happy to die for the emperor. If I had been summoned to the Kamikaze Corps itself I would have gone cheerfully. I believed it would be an honour to die for my emperor. All young men felt the same way."

An English teacher called Koyu Makishi was in the Navy Academy in the last year of the War.

"There were three options for people like me," he recalled. "One was the Tokko, the kamikaze corps, whose job was to crash their planes. The other was to man a kamikaze submarine, which carried only enough fuel for a one-way trip. The third was to serve on one of the navy's large ships - and these ships, too, were intended to crash and sink. These were the only three possibilities held out to us. There was not a single hope of our surviving. In order to die we studied mathematics, English and so on, every day, very conscientiously. It was a life full of contradictions. I believed it was necessary to study to accomplish the mission successfully. I guess I didn't think it through very carefully. Looking back, it was stupid. If the War had continued for another year or so I would probably have been assigned to one of the mini-submarines (because I was small) and I would have crashed in Okinawa. That's what I expected to happen. That's what happened to boys one year senior to me. It wasn't a matter of passively resigning myself to death; I strongly believed that to die was my destiny."

The Japanese were a disturbing enemy on numerous counts. They had begun the war in the Pacific treacherously, blitzing Pearl Harbor without warning in December 1941. Years before that, in China, they pioneered the aerial bombing of civilians, and raped and massacred hundreds of thousands of non-combatants at Nanking and elsewhere. Prisoners of war throughout the Asian theatre were treated with a degree of barbarism that has become infamous. And now the War had begun to turn against them, they responded with a fanaticism unique in history.

The first inkling the Allies got of how hard the Japanese were going to be to beat came in May 1943 during the battle for the island of Attu in the Aleutian chain that extends from the west coast of Alaska. When more than 10,000 Americans invaded the island, they might have expected to gain control without too much of a fight, for they outnumbered the defenders four to one. But the 2,500 Japanese fought virtually to the last man. They simply refused to surrender: they continued to charge until they were exterminated, yelling lines like tenno heika banzai! - "Long live His Majesty the Emperor!" - or, in English, "Japanese drink blood like wine!" A poem found on the corpse of one of the dead Japanese was later translated as reading, "I will become a deity with a smile in the heavy fog. I am only waiting for the day of death."

Time magazine headlined its report on the battle with the words perhaps they are human - but concluded that nothing about their behaviour on Attu indicated this to be the case. In Japan, however, where the extermination of the defenders was reported in detail, it was the occasion for the creation of a new term of reverence - Attu gyokusai: the "smashed jewels" of Attu, a quotation from an ancient Chinese text about how the man of moral superiority prefers to see his precious jades smashed than to compromise.

Soon gyokusai joined the other phrases the Japanese government had coined to glorify the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice. The most popular metaphor was the cherry blossom, which had long been prized by the Japanese as much for its ephemerality as its beauty: no sooner has it reached perfection than it falls.

You and I, companion cherry blossoms,

went the words of a hugely popular song,

Flowered in the garden of the same military school.

Just as the blossoms calmly scatter,

We too are ready to fall for our country.

It is hard to believe that such gauche sentimentality could find its way into the hearts of a whole nation, but clearly it did so, just as Vera Lynn's "We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when" found its way into English hearts. But that exactly was the difference. Good old Vera celebrated and mythologised the longed-for moment when all would be well and everyone would be reunited. The Japanese, by contrast, even before they had begun to lose the War in a big way, glorified the fact that they were never going to meet again, anywhere. They were going to go out in a blaze of glory. They were the "hundred million hearts beating as one," the "hundred million advancing like a ball of flame", the "hundred million kamikaze"; finally, as city after city, in the spring of 1945, became engulfed in flames from American incendiary bombs, they were ichioku gyokusai, "the shattering of one hundred million like a beautiful jewel".

The whole nation was in the grip of this mystical vision. Its conceptual origin can be traced back centuries to the importation of Taoism and Zen Buddhism into Japan, and to the adoption of Zen by the samurai class as its own cult of austerity and enlightenment. But until the modernisation of Japan which began with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, such ideas were the preserve of the small samurai elite. As part of the effort to build a strong, modern nation, the samurai behind the throne cast about for a way to emulate what they saw as the success of Christianity in binding the countries of the West into powerful nations. They decided to attempt the same thing by transforming the cult of the emperor and his "ancestor", Ameterasu Okami, the Shinto sun goddess, from an obscure aggregation of ancient rites into State Shinto, a national religion.

By this means the code of Bushido, the Zen-based martial code of the samurai, and the belief in the emperor as descendant of the gods and father of the nation, were conflated into a national cult that was sedulously propagated through the new education system.

Japan had long been the most isolated of major countries, and this fact, too, and the supposed homogeneity of the Japanese, were folded into the cult: the emperor was the greatest man in the world, all Japanese were his children, they possessed a racial purity other nations could only pine for, and the imperial task was to bring "all the corners of the world" under his domain. "Our national character", declared the Thought Bureau of the Ministry of Education in 1937 (the year of the Rape of Nanking) "...is cloudless, pure and honest... Our nation has, since its founding, developed on the basis of a pure, unclouded, and contrite heart; and our language, customs and habits all emanate from this source." When everything began to go wrong, the simplest way to demonstrate this purity was to die. And die they did, in their millions.

When manifested in the solitary self-immolation of the kamikaze pilot, the idea has a certain terrifying beauty. But the peculiarly vicious thing about the "cherry blossom" imperative was how it translated from suicide into mass murder. It was the duty of subjects to die. And those too young, too frail or too lacking in resolution to kill themselves - babies, children, those who harboured a secret desire to live - had to be killed.

Koyu Makishi's relatives all lived on the small tropical island of Saipan, a Japanese possession since the end of the First World War. Invaded by American Marines in June 1944, it was the first Japanese possession with a large civilian population to be directly attacked. As elsewhere, the Japanese troops fought practically to the last man. But here they required the civilians to make the same sacrifice - by killing each other, throwing their children off cliffs and jumping in after them, injecting poison.

"My eldest sister was ordered by a soldier to kill her new-born baby, and she did it," Makishi recalled. "That's the fact that I can never erase from my memory, the one thing from the War that I can't leave behind.

"The first I heard of this was after the War when the sister closest to me in age came to the mainland and I went to meet her. After talking about other things she broke the news that our eldest sister had been forced to kill her baby.

"At first I simply couldn't believe it. However fiercely a soldier orders a mother to kill her own baby, it's not the sort of thing a human being is capable of doing. That was my immediate reaction - then I started hearing similar stories from the Battle of Okinawa - group suicides, civilians killing each other, so-called family suicides.

"The most common attitude in those days was that to be taken prisoner was more shameful than to die, so let's die as honourable Japanese citizens. This was the code of values instilled by the Japanese army... People were told you should die without regrets. Sometimes they were given hand grenades or cyanide pills with which to do it... A nurse hiding in a cave with other fugitives injected them with poison to kill them, children as well as adults. Everyone's thoughts were on death, so they said, 'Please, help me die quickly.'

"In effect my sister was mad when she killed her child, and when I had persuaded myself of this I could no longer blame her for what she did. It was the fear of war that made people crazy, militaristic ideology that forced them to think in that way."

The woman herself was unable to live with what she had done. In the PoW camp where she was interned, she was visited by another sister who brought along her own small son. "The moment she saw this boy, she clammed up, wouldn't say a word. Not long after, news came that she herself had died. She had refused to eat and had starved to death. When she set eyes on the little boy, the enormity of what she had done came home to her."

If the Japanese civilians were, like the soldiers, eager to die, the Americans were increasingly eager to help them to do so - from as safe a distance as possible. With the fall of Saipan, Tokyo and the other Japanese cities came within easy reach of American bombers, and in March 1945, taking advantage of the feebleness of Japanese anti-aircraft fire, B-29 Superfortresses began a campaign of low-level area bombing of Japanese cities using napalm. The commander-in-chief was 39-year-old Curtis LeMay. "I'll tell you what war is about," he had once said. "You've got to kill people, and when you've killed enough they stop fighting." With this simple philosophy, LeMay began the destruction of Japanese cities. Between 9 and 19 March, five major raids were carried out on Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe. In the first of these, the raid on Tokyo, more than 80,000 people were killed, 40,000 injured and a million made homeless. Similar raids continued into the summer, until more than 60 cities had been decimated.

In Osaka, raided on the nights of 13 and 14 March, a young artist called Tsunehisa Kimura witnessed the destruction of his city.

"B-29 bombers had come over before in ones and twos, but that night 300 came. The raid started at 11pm. In those days each neighborhood had a fire tower with a bell at the top, and as the raid started and the incendiary bombs began falling - a beautiful sight, with the flames licking around each bomb - and the bells began clanging from here and there until pretty soon the noise was coming from all directions, we were surrounded. Then within an hour they were quiet again, because all the towers had burnt down.

"The planes, however, kept on coming. They bombed the city over and over again, criss-crossing methodically to make sure the whole place was burning well. They had nothing to fear; we had no defence against them. They came so close that their shiny bottoms were blackened by the smoke from the fires.

"It was the river in front of our house that saved us. We lost the house but we saved our lives because the river broke the fire. Under my mother's direction we had prepared a pile of essentials to take with us in the event of a raid, but in the confusion we left these behind and grabbed things that were no use at all. At the last moment my mother dashed back into the house and staggered out with my brother's huge gramophone.

"The raid finally stopped at 5am, then at 6 heavy rain fell, pitch black with ash from the fire. Then it cleared and the day dawned and it was a beautiful sunny morning."

What Kimura saw then has stayed with him ever since, as vividly as when he first saw it: "The whole city had gone. In one night it had burned away. Over to the east mountains were visible which we'd never seen before. There was nothing left standing at all except for a few chimneys and concrete shells. For the rest, the whole city was as flat as a table. There were a few reminders of the way things had been before. One was the blackened corpses to be seen here and there. Another was the heaps of charcoal. During the War everybody was illegally buying and hoarding fuel, keeping it a dark secret from their neighbours. Now on the burned-out site of every house was to be seen a little heap of charcoal. Some of them were still burning.

"Everywhere there were water pipes sticking up above the ground. The taps had been destroyed by the flames and water was pouring out of them on to the ground. As I said it was a lovely day, the sun was shining, and all over the city - black cinders, nothing standing for miles - were hundreds of little rainbow-like jets of water. It was very beautiful.

"We moved to the suburbs after the Osaka raid, and soon afterwards a B-29 was downed by anti-aircraft guns - a rare event! Everybody from miles around came to have a look at it, they all made long lines. We were fighting America, but the ordinary people had no idea what America was, what it was about. My only knowledge was through the movies. When the B-29 was downed we saw the real thing for the first time. The world of high technology suddenly descended on us from the skies. The plane was vast compared with our Zeros, and made of shiny metal. We were stunned. We couldn't believe our eyes. The dead crew of the plane were visible inside the cockpit, and that astounded us, too. We possessed practically nothing - no good clothes or shoes. The dead crew of the B-29 had leather boots, jackets, watches, things made of plastic - it was the first time in my life I had seen plastic.

"The B-29 was like a text of the future: if you do likewise, it said to us, you, too, can win. In this way the Japan of the present day was created."

Fifty years on, it remains unclear what effect LeMay's campaign had on the morale of the Japanese. "We had 100,000 people killed in Tokyo one night," reflected General George C Marshall, the US Army chief-of-staff in August 1945, "and it had seemingly no effect whatsoever."

A plan for invading Japan had been drawn up, and it looked as if it was going to be necessary. But the newly sworn-in President Truman blanched at the prospect. An invasion would be enormously costly in American lives - half a million was one estimate of the likely losses - and if Okinawa, Saipan and the other battles of the Pacific were a guide, it would be contested to the bitter end.

There had to be an alternative. On 15 July in New Mexico, the successful testing of the first atom bomb demonstrated that there was one. After Japan rejected the Allies' ultimatum at the Potsdam Conference, Truman decided to use it. On 6 August the B-29 Enola Gay took off from Tinian, the island next to Saipan, with an atom bomb and dropped it over Hiroshima, where at 1,900 feet it detonated. The city was instantly destroyed, and 140,000 people were dead or mortally wounded.

Three days later a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. It has long been assumed, both by the public and by many historians, that it was the two atom bombs that brought Japan to its knees. But in between the two explosions an event occurred with even more momentous implications for Japan's future: the Soviet Union, neutral until then, declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria.

On 10 August Hirohito, for probably the first time in his life, took the initiative. He told the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War that he did not believe his nation could continue to fight. Four days later, after a bitter stalemate between Hirohito's counsellors, a recording team from the Japan Broadcasting Corporation was dispatched to the palace where they made two recordings of the Emperor reading the Rescript. Next day, 15 August, to the consternation of all and the disgust of many, the War was over.

Koyu Makishi's officer, who maintained that the emperor was merely trying to stiffen morale, had got it wrong. "But in the evening we were told to assemble again with our weapons and the mistake was cleared up, the War was over, we had lost.

"I heard later that some of the teachers at the academy threatened to defy the announcement, threatened to crash their planes into the occupying forces. I don't know if they actually tried to. If they did I suppose they were stopped. One officer went crazy - or perhaps just drunk - and cut at the posts of the buildings with his sword. Several officers piled blankets and food on the back of army trucks, ordered soldiers to drive and fled to the countryside, taking the army property as plunder. But most of us did as we were told. We burned our code books and secret papers, took our guns out to sea and dumped them.

"I followed these orders mechanically, with no energy to understand why I was doing these things, no energy to think about them. I felt no joy. I had no idea what to do. We were demobilized. We passed through the ruins of Hiroshima, landing at Kure. We were astonished to find that Hiroshima was just a burned-out field - 'What happened here?' we asked each other. I realized it must have been the 'special bomb' we had heard about. We had no idea what an atomic bomb was. We were very vague about it.

"When I arrived at Ueno Station in Tokyo I lay down under the statue of Saigo Takamori [a 19th-century patriotic hero] at the entrance of the park there and tried to decide what to do with myself."

Hitomaru Nakayama, primed to dive-bomb his biplane into invading American ships, remembered the shift in attitude everyone experienced, from simple resignation at the prospect of death, to determination to survive. "When we heard that the War was lost, we were bitterly disappointed. Until then our mood may have been grim, but we had no fear of dying. We never gave the question of survival a thought. Now the War was over, we said to ourselves, what on earth are we going to do now?" Suddenly petty things became overwhelmingly important - how to find food and money just to keep going. "While the War was still on, we knew we were going to die, so it didn't matter. Suddenly you had this fear of dying of starvation. To die in the War was perfectly acceptable; but to die of starvation in the peace - that was really something to be scared of!"

"I believed it would be an honour to die for my Emperor," said Kako Senda, who had been waiting for the moment to turn himself into a human mine. "All young men felt the same way. Then on 15 August 1945, the Emperor said he was calling off the war. After that, there wasn't anyone I was willing to die for. I think I would be prepared to die for my child. For my wife? I'm not so sure.".

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