An excerpt from
Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers
The writings left behind by tokkōtai 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, Ōnishi Takijirō, a navy vice admiral, invented the tokkōtai (“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. Ōnishi 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 tokkōtai 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 tokkōtai 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 tokkōtai 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 tokkōtai 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 Tokkōtai Operation
Recruitment of Student Soldiers
These university students were drafted after the Tōjō 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 tokkōtai 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 zōni [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 soldiers.
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 Tokkōtai Pilots
Because the tokkōtai 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 tokkōtai 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 Ryū, who after the war belonged to the Anabaptist Church and devoted his life to its ministry in Kyūshū, was “forced to volunteer to be a pilot for the inhumane tokkōtai operation.”
Coercion from above was complemented by solidarity among soldiers. The writings that tokkōtai 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 Ryōkan (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 comradeship.
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 Kenjirō decided not to volunteer, only to be taken by surprise when he found his name on the list of volunteers for the Mitate Navy tokkōtai corps; his superior had reported proudly that all the members of his corps had volunteered.
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 tokkōtai 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 tokkōtai 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 together.”
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 tokkōtai 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 tokkōtai 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 tokkōtai 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, Kyūshū, 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 Shōzō.Kasuga was drafted and assigned to look after the meals, laundry, room cleaning, and other daily tasks for the tokkōtai 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 tokkōtai 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.
Tokkōtai 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 tokkōtai pilots died happily for the emperor. Some, like Sasaki Hachirō and Hayashi Tadao, rejected and defied the emperor-centered ideology outright. Others tried to accept it but were unable to do so. As Hayashi Ichizō 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 tokkōtai pilots reproduced the imperialist ideology in action while refusing or failing to embrace it in thought.