City Life Tokyo: Memoirs of a kamikaze squad man

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The Independent Online
MORE THAN most capitals, Tokyo in August is a city becalmed. Big companies close for a week or more, families return to their home towns to make offerings at ancestral graves, and those who stay behind shelter inside from the humidity.

But apart from being a month of intense and oppressive heat, it is also a time of historical reflection.The anniversaries of those momentous events which brought the Second World War to an end roll by - Hiroshima, Nagasaki and, last Saturday, the anniversary of the Japanese surrender.

At Yasukuni Shrine, the controversial resting place for the souls of Japan's war dead, right-wingers in paramilitary uniforms waved rising sun flags and blasted martial music from huge speaker systems. In a nearby hall, the Emperor and Prime Minister attended the official service of commemoration. But August rightly belongs to Japan's veterans, ordinary men without any particular insight into politics or war, who 60 years ago found themselves sucked into terrible situations.

You see elderly men, often in groups, rarely accompanied by their wives. Saju Sato was alone when I met him, walking around the war museum attached to Yasukuni Shrine. I could have stopped half a dozen like him, and all would have had stories to tell. But few would have been as remarkable as Mr Sato's.

The three characters of the word shinyotei mean "ocean shaking boat", and the first time he heard them was in the New Year of 1945. He was 19 years old, a young soldier in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, when an older friend came to see him. "He said that he was being sent for training in the shinyotei," Mr Sato said. "He told me of certain things which might happen to him. He said that because of those things he might not see his friends again. I knew then that it would be my fate too."

Soon after, Mr Sato and his comrades were formed into an ocean-shaking unit. "No one could object," he said. "We knew that if anyone said no, he'd be beaten almost to death. Perhaps it is difficult for you to understand, but at that time we were all quite content to die for Japan. I wanted to go out with my friends, not stay behind and say goodbye to them."

Few chapters in Japan's war are more famous than that of the tokkotai - the suicide pilots known in the West as kamikaze. But by 1945, a lack of fuel, parts, aircraft and trained pilots was crippling the kamikaze strategy.

"The country was running out of equipment, but there was no shortage of people," said Mr Sato. "That was the only resource." As well as the kamikaze fighter aircraft, there were kamikaze submarines - manned torpedoes called kaiten, which sank several Allied ships. There were kamikaze frogmen, trained to swim under troop ships carrying bombs. But perhaps most symbolic of Japan's desperation were Mr Sato's shinyotei - the kamikaze motorboats.

Even within Japan, their history is little known. A small display in the Yasukuni museum is devoted to them, dominated by a broad oil painting showing a fleet of heroic motorboats speeding towards black battleships. The truth was very different, for the ocean shakers were floating death traps which claimed many lives long before they ever got close to the American ships.

They were built out of plywood and driven by automobile engines which Mr Sato, as an army engineer, was responsible for maintaining. Inside were several hundred kilograms of explosive; jutting out of the front was a plunger. The shinyotei were to be used only at night when they were aimed directly into allied shipping. A head-on collision depressed the plunger and ignited the explosive. Mr Sato was among the older members of his unit; the youngest were 16 years old.

They trained in conditions of great secrecy in Nagasaki Bay; afterwards they were dispersed across the archipelago and deployed in coastal caves. More than 1,600 shinyotei men died,many in boats which capsized or broke up in training. Mr Sato was sent to a lonely headland west of Tokyo, and it was here that he heard the news of Japan's surrender, as he waited for the invaders to come. He wept at the news.

He speaks of it now as "a kind of brainwashing". "I think that we were in the same situation that they now have in North Korea," he said. "During the war I had no fear of dying. I was sure that I would be enshrined at Yasukuni, and even though I was the only son, this would be my parents' comfort.

"After the war we had to work, look after families, deal with day-to- day life. It took 15 years to realise what we had become. We were trained into a kind of madness."