His age (72) and demeanour suggest he might have much in common with any number of war veterans, Britons included. But 50 years ago he was a member of a group whose name has entered the language as a byword for suicide, destruction and fanaticism. Kiichi Matsuura was a kamikaze pilot.
Today a group of British Second World War PoWs and internees arrive in Tokyo to press their claim for compensation and apology against the Japanese government. Their claims, and the imminent 50th anniversary of VJ-Day, have provoked much soul-searching in Japan over the country's role in the war. Many Japanese war veterans on the right are speaking out against moves to atone or apologise. In June, veterans' groups were instrumental in opposing a resolution in the Japanese parliament intended to apologise for wartime atrocities in East Asia. The compromise motion was so fudged and watered down that, if anything, it did more harm than good. Revisionist arguments have resurfaced, playing down the extent of military atrocities and claiming that Japan acted to liberate its Asian neighbours from Western colonialism.
Against this background, Mr Matsuura's story is all the more extraordinary, not only because he survived but because, despite the supposed fanaticism of the kamikaze pilots, he is dismayed by these developments.
In 1943, at the age of 20, Mr Matsuura was a serious-minded, sensitive student at one of the country's most fashionable universities, Keio. Two decades earlier, in Japan's own Roaring Twenties, he would have mixed with Marxist intellectuals in jazz bars and dance halls - influences that were not tolerated in 1940s Japan. Like almost all his contemporaries, he accepted unquestioningly the justice of Japan's war. He was ready to die for the Emperor.
Mr Matsuura was called up in December 1943. "At the time I was recruited, the Japanese army had just been defeated in the Solomon Islands. We heard the news but still it was very, very difficult to imagine Japan's defeat. Then in June 1944 Saipan and Guam were lost to the United States. That was when people began to think we might lose." He chose the air force for two reasons: the excitement of flying and a sense of duty. "Obviously the Japanese Imperial Army had fewer planes than the United States. I felt it was my responsibility to help in the war."
Fuel shortages drastically curtailed the new pilots' training. Five times a day, Mr Matsuura would take off in a Hayabusa fighter, fly around the airfield for four minutes, and return to base. After 200 of these exercises, pilots were allowed to fly unaccompanied. They could get off the ground, they could land, but they barely knew how to fly in a straight line.
This was the military background that produced the kamikaze units. Defeat in Asia and the South Pacific was only a matter of time. Japan had one remaining defence - its oceans, and these were threatened by gathering fleets of US ships. By the second half of 1944, American bombers were attacking Japanese cities. "We realised that it was impossible for Japanese pilots to win a victory in the air. But if we could sink the ships and aircraft carriers, then we could defeat the enemy. That's how the thinking went. Of course, we never discussed it openly in those terms."
As early as 1942 pilots had deliberately steered their burning planes into enemy shipping, and during the battle for Saipan cornered soldiers hurled themselves at American troops, laden with explosives that they detonated at the last moment. But it was not until October 1944 that the High Command organised a programme of suicide bombing raids.
The Japanese characters that described the new policy mean "divine wind", an allusion to the typhoons that saved Japan from Mongol invaders in the 13th century. The pronunciation "kamikaze", however, carried crude overtones, as it was applied to reckless drivers or breakneck skiers. At the time, the alternative reading of the same characters was always used: "shinpu", derived from the Chinese pronunciation, which had a pure, classical, dignified ring.
The air force used another euphemism - "tokkotai", or "special attack unit" - but made no secret of its new policy. Mr Matsuura first heard the expression at the end of 1944, when he was stationed near Mount Fuji. Soon after, the young pilots each received a printed form requesting volunteers for the new units. At the bottom of the forms were three boxes, one of which they were to tick: I strongly desire to join the tokkotai; I hope to join the tokkotai; I do not wish to join the tokkotai.
All those who died as kamikaze pilots were volunteers. Letters and diaries show that most of them, like Mr Matsuura, were sensitive, educated young men of greater than average intelligence. Far from the air force press- ganging them into the rickety Hayabusas and Zero fighters, there was - in the early months of the missions at least - an embarrassment of volunteers. Some were motivated by a mystical belief in the Emperor and the unshakeable certainty that their sacrifice would contribute to Japan's inevitable victory. But others volunteered despite apparently understanding that defeat was certain, and that their deaths could not change this.
Fifty years on, Kiichi Matsuura's motives are difficult to fathom, even perhaps to himself. But it was for personal, rather than abstract reasons, that he ticked the box marked "I hope ...". "I wasn't 100 per cent sure and I wondered, when it came to the moment, whether I would be able to carry the mission through. Everyone was confused about whether they could say no or not. Any human being - British, American, anyone - has a strong desire to protect the people he loves. In order to protect them, in certain circumstances he might sacrifice himself."
On 6 June 1945 Mr Matsuura's detachment, based at Kaseda on the southern island of Kyushu, was given the order to attack. He felt, he says, "that the time had come at last". What else did he feel? "Curiosity about unknown things." About death? "An ordinary life expectancy might be 60 or 70 years. All human beings know they'll die, and about death they have this curiosity. The tokkotai mission compressed life into just two to three hours. We had just two to three hours to learn how to live, rather than 60 or 70 years. That was something I was curious about. The patient who is told he has cancer thinks of death as a termination. But for a tokkotai it was a chance to achieve the ultimate goal, the enjoyment of the ultimate goal."
The local people took the pilots out to drink sake. Nobody spoke of the mission. "We talked about our families, just chatted. This was the first time I had drunk sake in nine weeks, and I drank as much as I could. I slept very well.
"The next morning I got up at 4am and went to the plane. The technicians were standing around, and I realised at once that something was wrong. All the propellers were going around except mine. The planes were terrible, and things were always breaking down. It took a long time to repair, and my unit left without me.
"Suddenly I became an outsider. I felt as if I'd been kicked out of the group. I knew that there would be another mission, and that I would eventually be sent on a mission. But I wanted to go with my comrades, the men I'd trained with at Fuji, not with a unit of strangers. I felt very frustrated. We were told that evening that they had got to their target - but who knows? No one had any way of confirming it."
Mr Matsuura's second mission left a few days later. They were flying south towards Okinawa, skimming low over the sea to avoid being detected by radar, when disaster struck again. The Hayabusas' fuel tanks were leaky and unreliable, and each plane had a spare tank. If the primary tank failed, the secondary tank had to be connected immediately by hand. It was a tricky enough manoeuvre for an experienced pilot. But when one of the junior pilots fumbled, his plane crashed into the sea before he could regain control. The commanding officer realised that if one plane was faulty, the others might be. The unit turned around, but the compasses failed. The team was scattered and Mr Matsuura ditched his plane in the sea near a group of islands. He was fished out by the local police, who notified his parents in Tokyo. "It was the first time they heard that I was a tokkotai pilot," he says. "They were very shocked."
On 23 June, Okinawa fell after a ferocious three-month battle. After recovering from his ordeal, Mr Matsuura was transferred to another base where rumours spread of a different kind of "special attack", this time involving just two enemy bombs, dropped on Hiroshima and his home town, Nagasaki. On 12 August American planes strafed the runways, destroying his second plane. Two days later, Japan surrendered.
"It was the most shocking thing," says Mr Matsuura. "I had made a strong pledge in my heart to my friends who went before me: 'I'll follow you soon.' But my friends died, and I survived. I had been a tokkotai; now I was a tokkotai no longer. Because of the surrender I could never keep my promise. I felt a deep, deep shame, quite apart from the fear we had that now Japan would be occupied by a brutal enemy. We assumed that the Americans would be like the Imperial Army. We didn't realise that we would be happier."
Mr Matsuura's life took no dramatic turn after the end of the war. If anything, it has been a paradigm of the steady but remarkable recovery that has been Japan's great achievement. His father's confectionery shop had been bombed flat during the war. But today it stands rebuilt on the same site, now in one of the smartest areas of Tokyo.
In every respect, Mr Matsuura is a liberal of the old school, once represented by the Japanese Socialist Party. He supports the postwar peace constitution, with its veto on overseas military activity. He opposes the cult of Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of the war dead, particularly kamikaze pilots, are believed to reside as Shinto deities. He subscribes to the almost taboo belief that the late Emperor Hirohito, the present emperor's father, was personally responsible for the death and suffering. And he supports the claims of war victims, like the former British prisoners of war who arrive in Tokyo today to demand compensation for their suffering in the camps of Burma and Thailand. "As a form of apology, financial compensation is indispensable," he says.
But he finds support for his views is diminishing. The Socialist Party changed its name and abandoned its pacifist policies when its leader, Tomiichi Murayama, became Prime Minister a year ago. And growing numbers of people seem to have shed their visceral horror, and their curiosity, about the war. When Mr Matsuura addressed his old university, Keio, time was set aside for questions. But there were none.
"The younger generation, those younger than 30, don't seem interested," he says, "and most politicians, too, have either forgotten the war or are too young. The question I ask is this: how can we make it up to those who died in the war? We can do it only by promising that there will never again be any war, and if we can't keep that promise then they died for nothing. When I was a tokkotai I felt shame that I couldn't follow my friends to death. Now I feel a different kind of shame."Reuse content