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Home > Books & Journals > Book Review Last Updated: 10:32 04/19/2007
Book Review #68: April 19, 2007

"Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers" by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney

Reviewed by Sir Hugh Cortazzi

Title: Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers
Authors: Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Date/Time: 2006
Pages: 246 pages
ISBN: 0-226-61950-8


Many myths have grown up about the young Japanese men who were forced to carry out suicidal attacks on allied ships in the final stages of the Pacific War. They were for the most part not volunteers in the real sense of the word. They were ordered to 'volunteer' and knew that they were in any case destined to die. Many of them, as these diaries reveal were sensitive and educated young men, who were among the brightest of their generation. Their diaries and letters make tragic reading.

The nationalists of today, who speak of these youngsters as heroes and quote their sacrifice as beacons for the regeneration of modern Japan, and the Yasukuni shrine and the Yushukan museum, which glory in their deaths, delude themselves and the Japanese people. They died totally unnecessarily and without delaying Japan's inevitable defeat. They were not as Japanese propagandists would have us believe martyrs for the Emperor and for Japan. Hayashi Tadao, one of those whose writings are quoted in this volume in 1945, foresaw what Japan faced. He wrote a poem which reads as follows:

The End of Imperial Japan
Ruining and crumbling
Nothing will be left
The end of all; All will crumble
Japan will meet its finale
That taboo

It is also a myth that these young men were martyrs to be compared with the suicide bombers who attacked the twin towers and the London underground. They did not become kamikaze out of a religious fervour whether for the Emperor or for Japan. They did not attack civilian targets and were not terrorists.

This book is a reminder not only of the brainwashing of the young carried out by the pre-war Japanese military but also of the brutal treatment of anyone thought to be an intellectual. "Kasuga Takeo never recovered from the innumerable beatings he received on the base. His superiors told him that corporal punishment would instil a 'soldier's fighting spirit' in him. They were supposed to die. From the time they received their assignment they no longer belonged to the world. They could not return even if they could not locate the enemy. If they came back safely they were liable to be shot." Death as a kamikaze was perhaps more bearable than dying from being beaten or shot by superior officers. It is noteworthy that: "When the operation was instituted in October 1944, not a single officer who had been trained at the military academies volunteered to sortie as a pilot; all knew too well that it was a meaningless mission ending in death."

It is hard to read the accounts of the loneliness and anguish of the final meetings and moments of these young men sentenced to die for an Emperor and a country which did not know or care about this tragic loss of life.

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney's selections from the diaries and letters of six of the tokkotai pilots, who never came back, give an interesting picture of education in Japan in the years leading up to Japan's defeat in 1945. Despite the efforts to indoctrinate the young, many managed to read widely, and despite the anti-intellectual ethos of the military and the thought police, these young men tried to think for themselves. Understandably they wanted to justify to themselves their deaths.

The book also contains some interesting observations on the way Japan's love of nature was turned into a justification for patriotism. The cherry blossom symbol with its brilliant but short period of flowering and the dissipation of the petals on the winds was turned from a representation of the Buddhist concept of the impermanence of all living things into a justification for a war which might well have ended in the total destruction of Japan, if the inevitability of defeat had not been finally accepted in August 1945.

It is a pity and rather strange that the author of this book does not seem to have read (or if she has she does not say so as the book is not mentioned in the bibliography) the essay on "The Kamikaze fighters" in Ivan Morris's The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan published in 1975. Ivan Morris gives a rather different picture. He asserts that "there seems little doubt that during the early stage of kamikaze operations in the Philippines and Taiwan, the pilots were all volunteers in the full meaning of that word." But the evidence for this statement strikes me as weak. Ivan Morris was a friend of the ultra-nationalist Mishima Yukio, who probably believed Japanese war-time propaganda and who committed suicide in a bizarre ultra-nationalist incident. Morris recorded the ambiguous reaction of the Emperor to hearing that kamikaze aircraft had damaged some American escort carriers: "Was it necessary to go to this extreme? But they have certainly done a good job." Morris concluded that the kamkaze strategy by arousing American fury may well have been a factor behind the decision to launch the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Kamikaze Diaries should be read by Japan's nationalist politicians, but I fear that they would not get the message that the time for the glorification of Japanese war dead is long past. The war dead, civilian as well as military, deserve to be remembered as people whose lives were sacrificed largely as a result of the crimes of Japan's leaders.

(This review was produced in collaboration with the Japan Society (UK).)

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