From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

The Christian Suicide Bomber

What does a devout Christian do when his country’s authorities force
him to become a suicide bomber?

If you’re World War II kamikaze pilot Ichizo Hayashi you write a
final letter to your mother stating that “for to me, to live is
Christ and to die is gain” and you vow to “be sure to sink an enemy
vessel.” Then you fly off on your deadly mission with your Bible and
hymn book.

Hayashi’s tale is recounted in a remarkable book, Kamikaze Diaries by
Professor Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It tells the stories of seven young men who were compelled to become
kamikaze pilots – essentially airborne suicide bombers, flying into
Allied warships (the Wikipedia entry on kamikaze is here) – by the
Japanese military. Most of the seven had been students at elite
universities, and they kept diaries, which form the basis of the book.

It’s an invaluable study. It makes clear that high levels of coercion
were used to compel the students to “volunteer” for their
assignments. And it shows that these were no grinning fanatics – the
image that many in the West have of the kamikaze pilots. (An image I
vaguely held myself, despite having lived in Japan. It’s not a topic
that the Japanese discuss much with Westerners.)

These were highly intelligent, highly thoughtful young men, and though
they were very patriotic, they didn’t necessarily want to die. They
struggled to accept their fates. They were not blind supporters of
their country’s great military adventure.

In fact, another lesson of the book is that many in the military
despised the students. We in Australia are familiar with stories of the
brutality meted out to our World War II prisoners of war by Japanese
soldiers. It seems the soldiers were just as brutal to the students who
joined their ranks.

Ichizo Hayashi was from a devoutly-Christian academic family. He read
the Bible every day. At that time, family members used to send soldiers
a Japanese flag with messages on it. Hayashi’s mother and sister both
wrote passages from the Bible on the flag they sent him.

He started his diary after being drafted into the military, and he
titled it “A Sun and Shield,” from Psalm 84:11, “For the Lord God
is a sun and shield.”

Seven weeks before his death he wrote:

How fortunate I am that I believe in God, whom my mother believes in.
My mind is at ease when I think that God takes care of everything. God
would not make my mother or myself sad. I am sure God will bestow
happiness upon us. Even [though] I will die I dream of our lives
together…I know my country is beautiful…My earnest hope is that our
country will overcome this crisis and prosper. I can’t bear the
thought of our nation being stampeded by the dirty enemy. I must avenge
[it] with my own life.

How do we reconcile his Christianity with his willingness to slam his
aeroplane – possibly loaded with bombs – into an Allied warship?
I’m not sure. The book gives only brief excerpts from his writings.
We don’t learn such a lot about his faith. In any case, it seems the
original Japanese version of his diary was edited by his sister to
emphasise his close relationship with his mother. But we should note
that the diary covers a period in 1945 when the Allies were bombing
Japanese cities relentlessly. He had reasons for hating them, and for
wanting revenge.

Though the book does give a partial answer:

Ichizo Hayashi relied on his Christian faith as he embarked on his
final mission. Yet his Christianity was inextricably mixed with doubt.
Kierkegaard’s theology was central to the anguished soliloquy in
which he questioned the meaning of life and death.

He carried Kierkegaard’s “Sickness and Death” as well as the
Bible onto the plane, along with a photograph of his mother. As his
last day approached, he filled his diary and letters with cries for
her. Singing hymns and reading the Bible became his way of feeling
close to his beloved and faraway mother, herself a devout Christian.

Other Christian pilots also struggled to sustain their faith as they
faced death. On the night before his last flight, Tsuneo Kumai urged
his comrades to sing hymns together. They chose hymn number 405, whose
words ask God to give them strength “until they meet again.”

Kotaro Hagihara, one of those who joined Kumai in the singing, survived
and later recalled that singing hymns carried a risk of punishment:
“Although we were not explicitly fighting Christianity and thus it
was nominally permitted to sing hymns, we could have been in real

Amid the severe censorship that prevailed on the bases and the hostile
attitudes of some career soldiers toward student soldiers, this final
act was a last celebration of the beauty of humanity in the most
inhuman of circumstances, a protest against the military aggression,
and even a dirge for themselves.

Is there a parallel with suicide bombers in the Middle East? I don’t
think so. Hayashi was not a fanatic. He was not a true volunteer. He
saw little glory in martyrdom.

But the book shows us how easy it is for even a sincere and
hugely-intelligent Christian like Hayashi to fall victim to poisonous
nationalistic ideologies. The lesson surely is that Christians should
always question the dominant political culture of the day.

Update: An excerpt from the book is at the University of Chicago Press

An excerpt from
Kamikaze Diaries
Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers
Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney

The writings left behind by tokkotai pilots and other student soldiers
who perished in the futile military operations conducted by the
Japanese at the end of World War II yield stunning and profound
insights into the position and consciousness of young soldiers under
the extreme conditions of modern warfare. In order to understand their
thoughts and dilemmas, we need to analyze the circumstances of the war
in which the young men were placed and explore the broader intellectual
currents that provided them with spiritual resources as they faced
their deaths.

Toward the end of World War II, when an American invasion of Japan’s
homeland seemed imminent, Onishi Takijiro, a navy vice admiral,
invented the tokkotai (“Special Attack Force”) operation, which
included airplanes, gliders, and submarine torpedoes (for details, see
Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of
Aesthetics in Japanese History, pp. 157-75). None of these manned
weapons systems was equipped with any means of returning to base.
Onishi and his right-hand men thought that the Japanese soul, which
was believed to uniquely possess the strength to face death without
hesitation, was the only means available for the Japanese to bring
about a miracle and save their homeland, which was surrounded by
American aircraft carriers whose sophisticated radar systems protected
them from being destroyed by any other means. 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. Of the
approximately four thousand tokkotai pilots, about three thousand were
so-called boy pilots, who were drawn from among newly conscripted and
enlisted soldiers who were enrolled in a special program aimed at
training very young boys. Roughly one thousand were “student
soldiers,” university students whom the government graduated early in
order to include them in the draft.

The writings left behind by the student soldiers who died in the
tokkotai operation provide invaluable testimony to these young men’s
struggle to sustain their connections to the rest of humanity amid the
wrenching conditions of war and to find meaning in a death they felt
was decreed for them. Unfortunately, the boy pilots who faced the same
fate left virtually no diaries or comparable records behind. The
student soldiers who perished left a substantial body of handwritten
documents expressing their thoughts and feelings: diaries, soliloquies,
essays, poems, and letters. These extraordinarily well-educated youths
were reflective and cosmopolitan. They drew on their knowledge of
philosophy and world history as they tried to understand the situation
in which they inadvertently but inescapably found themselves amid the
global conflagration. Many of the student soldiers were political
liberals, even radicals. They were most unlikely to volunteer as
tokkotai pilots and are therefore excellent test cases. I decided to
examine their diaries in order to understand why even the most liberal
of them replicated the military ideology in action by becoming
tokkotai pilots and to ascertain whether and to what degree they came
to embrace the ideology of sacrifice for the imperial nation that was
inculcated by the Japanese state. . . .

The amazingly lengthy diaries left by these young men evince the
importance of writing as a mode of communication in Japanese life. In a
culture in which verbal communication in the form of debates,
dialogues, or oratory is not well developed, writing is the most
serious mode of communication, and many individuals express their
innermost thoughts and feelings in written form. Diary-keeping has been
an important cultural practice in Japan ever since the Heian period,
when the diary developed into a special genre of literature, and some
diaries, including those written by women, became world classics. The
sheer quantity of writings left by these student soldiers is in part
the result of this persistent cultural practice, which was extended to
the “reading diary” required informally at the higher schools.
These young men were exceptionally well educated, and reading and
writing were their major daily activities. The particular situation
these students faced in wartime, however, also made a difference: the
diary became an important means by which they struggled to understand
and come to terms with the imminent death they faced. . . .

The Tokkotai Operation
Recruitment of Student Soldiers
These university students were drafted after the Tojo government,
acting twice in quick succession, shortened the length of a university
education. Once on the base, many were subjected to harsh corporal
punishment on a daily basis. Some had been patriotic before they were
drafted, but life on the base extinguished any enthusiasm for
fighting-or for anything else, for that matter. They had already
reached the point of no return. By the time they were drafted,
Japan’s defeat was imminent. They had been dropped onto a
malfunctioning rollercoaster fast descending toward a fatal crash, as
it were, without the ability to either stop or safely ascend and go
around again.

The Japanese military tradition had a distinctive, almost unique
element. Whereas German soldiers were told to kill, Japanese soldiers
were told to die. The cruel character of the Japanese military is
evident from the beginning of its modernization at the end of the
nineteenth century. In the military code for the imperial navy and army
(Kairikugun Keiritsu), issued in 1872, surrender, escape, and all other
actions by which soldiers might save their lives in situations of
unavoidable defeat were punishable by death. The system made no
allowance for conscientious objectors. Any soldier who would not obey
military rules and his commander’s orders was shot on the spot,
without a charge against the one who shot him. Furthermore, people
feared that such an offense by a soldier would lead to the punishment
of his immediate and extended family members, just as during the Edo
period the government warned that “crime extends to five generations
and punishment to five affinal relationships” (tsumi godai ni oyobi
batsu gozoku ni wataru)-that is, the punishment of a large number of
people related to him by blood and marriage. These rules were intended
to hold an entire kin group responsible for the actions of an
individual and, thus, to reinforce the social pressure on soldiers to
obey orders. In practice the system suppressed complaints by
soldiers’ parents and made soldiers fearful of committing any
violation, let alone defection. As the military government turned Japan
into a police state, all those who refused to comply with its orders
were jailed. By the 1940s, many had been tortured to death, decimating
the ranks of known dissidents and deterring others from expressing any
opinions that might be considered hostile to the state. In Japan, the
military government left no room for political or guerrilla resistance
movements like those in Germany, France, and other countries ruled or
occupied by fascists.

Nowhere was the basic stance of the Japanese military more
conspicuously played out than during World War II. Even when entire
corps of Japanese soldiers faced utterly hopeless military situations,
the soldiers were told to die happily. This policy led to the infamous
mass suicides (gyokusai) on Attu, Saipan, and Okinawa Islands and
elsewhere and culminated in the tokkotai operation. Conditions on the
military bases gave these young men little chance to opt for life in
any case. According to Irokawa Daikichi, an eminent historian who was
drafted from the University of Tokyo as a student soldier and spent
time at the Tsuchiura Naval Base, the first lesson a student soldier
like him was taught was how to use his own rifle to kill himself rather
than be captured alive. Each new conscript was trained to use his toe
to pull the trigger while pointing the gun precisely at a certain point
under his chin so that the bullet would kill him instantly. He was
supposed to use this technique if he was trapped in a cave or in a
trench surrounded by the enemy. If he did not kill himself but tried to
escape, he might be shot from behind, because his superiors and some
comrades believed in the state dictum that one must never be captured
by the enemy. In sum, once a youth was drafted, he had reached a point
of no return-a powerless position that many soldiers recognized for
what it was.

Noma Hiroshi depicted Japanese military life in his 1972 novel Zone of
Emptiness. Although some officers were kind to student soldiers, many
acted harshly toward them. Some commanding officers believed in the
idea that corporal punishment developed the soldiers’ spirit, while
others maltreated them only to inflict punishment. Student soldiers
were often targeted by professional soldiers who had risen through the
ranks and resented the privileged backgrounds that enabled them to
study when others could not afford to receive a higher education. Any
minor action that irritated a superior could be a cause for corporal
punishment, not only of the individual involved but also of his entire
group. Irokawa offers a vivid description of the “living hell” that
awaited the student soldiers:

After I passed the gate to the Tsuchiura Naval Air Base, “training”
took place day after day. I was struck on the face so hard and
frequently that my face was no longer recognizable. On January 2, 1945,
Kaneko (Ensign) hit my face twenty times and the inside of my mouth was
cut in many places by my teeth. I had been looking forward to eating
zoni [a special dish with rice cakes for the New Year]. Instead, I was
swallowing blood from the inside of my mouth. On February 14, all of us
were punished because they suspected that we ate at farmers’ homes
near the base to ease our hunger. In the midst of the cold winter, we
were forced to sit for seven hours on a cold concrete floor and they
hit us on the buttocks with a club. Then each of us was called into the
officer’s room. When my turn came, as soon as I entered the room, I
was hit so hard that I could no longer see and fell on the floor. The
minute I got up, I was hit again by a club so that I would confess. A
friend of mine was thrown with his head first to the floor, lost
consciousness, and was sent to a hospital. He never returned. All this
savagery was orchestrated by the corps commander named Tsutsui. I am
still looking for this fellow.

Irokawa’s experiences were all too common. The Tsuchiura Naval Air
Base was especially notorious in this respect. Sasaki, Hayashi Tadao,
and Nakao were stationed there, and their diaries record senseless
punishments and mental and physical suffering inflicted on their fellow

Hayashi Tadao and others reported that the strict enforcement of petty
regulations, including extreme censorship and the taboo against almost
any book, dampened young men’s willingness to work for the causes
advocated by the military, including sacrifice for the emperor. Irokawa
Daikichi wrote:

Memorizing and reciting the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers (Gunjin
Chokuyu) of 1882, written in archaic language, were a daily exercise.
If we failed in the accurate recitation of the Rescript, we were hit to
the ground, as I experienced personally. It would be hard to estimate
how many soldiers in fact became alienated from the emperor and
imperial ideology by “lynching.”

Irokawa’s analogy to lynching is deliberate, highlighting the severe,
possibly fatal punishment of any soldier who refused to comply with
every demand of his superiors.

The rescript contained a now-infamous passage: “Do not be beguiled by
popular opinions, do not get involved in political activities, but
singularly devote yourself to your most important obligation of loyalty
to the emperor, and realize that the obligation is heavier than the
mountains but death is lighter than a feather.”

Their diaries show that almost all these young men, including those who
had previously expressed their desire to protect their “ancestral
land,” became less patriotic while they trained on the base and as
they approached their death.

Being “Volunteered” to Become Tokkotai Pilots
Because the tokkotai operation was a guarantee of death, the top
military officers, quite hypocritically, decided not to make this
operation an official part of the imperial navy or army, where orders
were issued in the name of the emperor. They preferred to make it
appear that the corps was formed voluntarily and that men volunteered
to be pilots.

In most instances, all the members of a military corps were summoned to
a hall. After a lecture on the virtues of patriotism and sacrifice for
the emperor and Japan, they were told to step forward if they were
willing to volunteer to be tokkotai pilots. Sometimes this process was
done in reverse: men were told to step forward if they did not want to
be pilots. It would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible,
for any soldier to stay behind or to step forward when all or most of
his comrades were “volunteering.” Sometimes the officer in charge
went through a ritual of blindfolding the young men-a gesture
ostensibly intended to minimize peer pressure-and asking them to
raise their hands to volunteer. But the rustling sounds made by the
uniforms as the men raised their hands made it obvious that many did
so, leaving those who hesitated without any choice. For example, Yamada
Ryu, who after the war belonged to the Anabaptist Church and devoted
his life to its ministry in Kyushu, was “forced to volunteer to be
a pilot for the inhumane tokkotai operation.”

Coercion from above was complemented by solidarity among soldiers. The
writings that tokkotai pilots left behind reveal that they did not
resist volunteering simply because of peer pressure but because they
could not bear to protect their own lives while seeing their comrades
and friends offering theirs. Admiration of those who had already gone
on the fatal missions frequently appears in pilots’ writings.
Ichijima Yasuo, who was born in 1922 and died as a navy ensign on April
29, 1945, was a graduate of Waseda University. In a letter to a friend,
he quotes a well-known poem by Ryokan (1758-1831)-“Falling
cherry blossoms, remaining cherry blossoms also be falling cherry
blossoms,” implying that as the other pilots had fallen, so would he.
Ichijima’s admiration for the pilots who had already perished
contributed significantly to his thinking when he sought to rationalize
his death as he contemplated his own mission. Ichijima was a devout
Christian who belonged to the well-known “Cherry Blossom Church.”
He expressed his willingness to serve his country but did not mention
the emperor. It was extremely difficult for a soldier to seek to spare
himself, to claim an exemption from the fate of his comrades. The
determination to combat the egotism brought forth by capitalism and
modernity was a major element of the students’ idealism. The tactic
of asking men to volunteer may very well have been based on a
calculated appeal to young soldiers’ moral principles and

Furthermore, if a soldier had managed to be courageous enough not to
volunteer, he would have been consigned to a living hell. Any soldier
who refused would become persona non grata or be sent to the southern
battlefield, where death was guaranteed. Some soldiers actually managed
to say no, but their refusal was disregarded. Kuroda Kenjiro decided
not to volunteer, only to be taken by surprise when he found his name
on the list of volunteers for the Mitate Navy tokkotai corps; his
superior had reported proudly that all the members of his corps had

After the pilots were selected, the officer in charge of a particular
corps decided who should go on the missions and in what order they
would depart. Irokawa and other former soldiers explain that family
background and other forms of privilege kept some pilots from being
chosen. Sons of important political or military officials and prominent
businessmen, along with members of the royal family, would volunteer
without ever being selected to fly to their deaths. As a bow to the
system of primogeniture, the oldest son or an only son was often spared
so that he could take care of his parents. On the other hand, soldiers
who had mechanical, navigational, and other skills essential for pilots
were favored for selection. Someone who was seen to be physically fit
was put under more pressure to volunteer. The editor of Sasaki’s
diary maintains that he was designated to fly because he was small but
athletic. The criteria for selection were never disclosed publicly.

Sometimes merely being disliked by the superior in charge of the corps
was fatal. In the case of navy lieutenant Fujii Masaharu, a student
soldier, the officer was irritated by Fujii’s habit of sitting in a
corner of the room staring into the void without saying a word. He
“tapped” Fujii’s shoulder and told him to lead the tokkotai
corps, despite the fact that no officers above the rank of lieutenant
and lieutenant junior grade who were graduates of the Naval Academy
were sent on tokkotai missions. Fujii was speechless and thought it
was an “act of murder under the disguise of a military order.”
Realizing that he had no choice, however, he sarcastically told the
pilots in his corps: “Let’s bite into the ground of Okinawa

All along the way, but especially on the military base, student
soldiers’ minds and hearts were torn by agonizing conflict more
intense than their or my words can express. For many student soldiers,
it was psychologically easier to become tokkotai pilots when they knew
that, with Japan’s defeat in sight, their lives were in extreme
danger no matter what course of action they took. As some of them put
it, if one was likely to die anyway, one might as well die a hero. Yet
agony over their approaching death is evident throughout their writings
and in their final diary entries. It also appears in their responses to
psychological questionnaires administered in late May 1945, two months
after the battle for Okinawa had started. In their answers, one-third
of the members of the tokkotai unit of the Sixth Army Air Force Corps
remained undecided about the mission and felt conflicted about it
despite its inevitability. Some pilots were so tormented by thoughts of
their imminent death that they prayed that the time would come as soon
as possible in order to terminate their agony, as we will see
repeatedly below.

By June 1945, according to Irokawa, there was an atmosphere of defeat
on the tokkotai base during the last stage of the battle of Okinawa.
No one sang patriotic songs such as “The Cherry Blossoms of the Same
Year,” the navy cadet song that was once enormously popular among
soldiers. Instead, the song that was most frequently sung and that
touched the hearts of the soldiers was a lullaby from Itsuki, in
Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyushu, called “Lullaby from Itsuki”
(“Itsuki no Komoriuta”). The text, in the Kumamoto dialect,
portrays the depth of the sadness of a small girl who was forced to
take care of young children far from home. The verses that follow
express a nostalgic longing for home and for death as an end to exile:

I long for the day I can return to my beloved parents when my service
is over. I am here far away from home. Even when I die, no one will cry for me;
how lonely it is only to hear cicadas cry.

No one will come to visit my tomb. Then, I am better off buried along
the road, since someone might offer flowers.
I don’t care which flowers they offer. Perhaps camellia blooming in
the wild along the road? No water is necessary, since it will rain.

The Night Before the Final Flight
Despite the numerous published testaments, photographs, and films that
depict smiling pilots saluting or waving goodbye as they take off on
their final mission, a rare description of the night before departure
tells a very different story. It occurs in a letter written on June 21,
1995, by Kasuga Takeo, who was eighty-six years old at the time,
addressed to Umezawa Shozo.Kasuga was drafted and assigned to look
after the meals, laundry, room cleaning, and other daily tasks for the
tokkotai pilots at the Tsuchiura Naval Air Base. He describes the
night before their final flights:

At the hall where their farewell parties were held, the young student
officers drank cold sake the night before their flight. Some gulped the
sake in one swallow; others kept gulping down [a large amount]. The
whole place turned to mayhem. Some broke hanging light bulbs with their
swords. Some lifted chairs to break the windows and tore white
tablecloths. A mixture of military songs and curses filled the air.
While some shouted in rage, others cried aloud. It was their last night
of life. They thought of their parents, their faces and images,
lovers’ faces and their smiles, a sad farewell to their
fiancées-all went through their minds like a running-horse lantern
[a rapidly revolving lantern with many pictures on it]. Although they
were supposedly ready to sacrifice their precious youth the next
morning for imperial Japan and for the emperor, they were torn beyond
what words can express-some putting their heads on the table, some
writing their wills, some folding their hands in meditation, some
leaving the hall, and some dancing in a frenzy while breaking flower
vases. They all took off wearing the rising sun headband the next
morning. But this scene of utter desperation has hardly been reported.
I observed it with my own eyes, as I took care of their daily life,
which consisted of incredibly strenuous training, coupled with cruel
and torturous corporal punishment as a daily routine.
Kasuga Takeo never fully recovered from the innumerable beatings he
received on the base. His superiors told him that corporal punishment
would instill a “soldier’s fighting spirit” in him. His letter is
invaluable for its description of how desperate the pilots felt the
night before their death.

The tokkotai pilots were supposed to die. From the time they received
their assignment, they no longer belonged to this world. They could not
return if they were unable to locate the enemy. A graduate of Waseda
University who kept returning without finding an enemy to attack was
shot to death the ninth time he came back. Many pilots did not try to
ram into an American vessel because that guaranteed an explosion. Some
tried to land on water near the shore instead. It was also reported
that, after taking off, some returned and buzzed the officers’
quarters as if to dive into them before they disappeared in the sky.

Tokkotai pilots were like the Roman soldiers mentioned in Horace’s
ode. In the full text, Horace’s famous phrase pro patria mori is
followed by a warning:

Sweet and proper it is to die for your country,
But Death would just as soon come after him
Who runs away; Death gets him by the backs
Of his fleeting knees and jumps him from behind.
The soldiers had reached a point of no return.

The diaries of these young men offer eloquent testimony that
contradicts both the stereotype held outside of Japan and the
propaganda circulated by the Japanese military: that tokkotai pilots
died happily for the emperor. Some, like Sasaki Hachiro and Hayashi
Tadao, rejected and defied the emperor-centered ideology outright.
Others tried to accept it but were unable to do so. As Hayashi Ichizo
put it: “There must be some peace of mind for dedicating my life to
the emperor. . . . To be honest, I cannot say that the wish to die for
the emperor is genuine, coming from my heart. However, it is decided
for me that I die for the emperor.”

Having no choice except to go through with their assigned mission, the
tokkotai pilots reproduced the imperialist ideology in action while
refusing or failing to embrace it in thought.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 1-11 of Kamikaze Diaries:
Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney,
published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2006 by the University
of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in
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Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney
Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers