Were kamikaze tactics fundamentally Japanese?

The 25th October, 1944, a five-plane squadron, under the command of Lieutenant Seki Yukio, one of the aces of the Japanese air forces, took off from Mabalacat air base, on the island of Luzon. Since the morning of the 21st, planes have been leaving every day in search of a coveted prey, an American carrier if possible, with the same objective: plunge towards the deck at a great speed, crashing the plane. The planes are Zero fighters, laden with 500 kg bombs, which means that to the shock of impact will be added the force of the explosion. They are part of a new type of strike force newly created by Vice-admiral Ônishi Takijirô (1891-1945), a “special attack unit” (tokkôtai), christened Shinpu. The ideograms mean “divine wind” and can also be read Kamikaze, a word destined to go down in history.

Officially, all kamikaze pilots were volunteers. Some were very young.
In the centre, Araki Yukio, 17 years old, with other members of his squadron, may 1945.
The picture was taken by an army press corps photograph, the day before their last mission.
(© 1945 /released in thepublic domain)

This new tactic was far from improvised. Although this was the first time an officer has given orders for pilots to voluntarily crash their planes, the idea was not novel.

In October 1944, Japan had been brought to its knees. Its Navy had just been dealt a death blow during the battle of the Philippine Sea the 19-20 June 1944, losing almost all its planes as well as a third of all remaining carriers. Its naval air power, which was in 1941 one of the best in the world, had been reduced to almost nothing. Confronted with this situation, several leader had independently reached the conclusion that the impact of the few remaining aircrafts could be maximised by using them as piloted bombs, but so far headquarters had not warmed to the idea. However, research had begun since late summer on some suicide crafts, the manned torpedoes Kaiten as well as the piloted bombs Ôka, but these had yet to be deployed.

Ônishi's decision was a pragmatic one. His task was to find a way to help the depleted Japanese forces counter the massive American fleet and stop General Douglas MacArthur from retaking the Philippines. The Japanese's only chance was a surprise attack, which implied finding a way to disable the American planes patrolling the skies, with a handful of men and working aircrafts. His calculation was simple: although it might have meant sending men to their death, a single kamikaze plane could potentially destroy an entire carrier.

Very quickly, kamikaze pilots were used as propaganda tools.
This is the cover of the 15 November issue of Shahin Shûhô (issue n° 347),
showing Seki Yuki, the commander of the first successful kamikaze strike.
Seki, however, according to some reports, was not enthusiastic about his mission.
He wasn't the only one: letters and diaries by kamikaze pilots sometimes express
doubts or regrets towards their mission.
(© 1944 / Onoda, Cabinet Printing Bureau of the Empire of Japan,released in thepublic domain)

At that point, this tactic was understood to be a desperate, one-off action, applicable only to this particular situation. But immediately, the idea spread through the Japanese Army and Navy like wildfire, so much so that in the last few months of the war it became the main strategy of its air forces. However, the number of kamikaze pilots would never exceed a few thousands (estimates range from 3500 to 4000 pilots in total.)

The first successful kamikaze mission, the one led by Seki, met with unexpected success. One of the planes hit the ammunition hold of an American escort carrier, the St. Lô, starting a fire that lead to the loss of the ship. If this result can be replicated, Japan has found one of the most efficient weapons of the war: a handful of planes can potentially destroy a major warship and sink dozens of aircrafts. Numbers show, however, that this first success was the exception, and probably due to exceptional skill on the pilot's part or a stroke of luck. In total, kamikaze planes would go on to sink only three small-sized carriers, including the St.Lô. During the battle of Okinawa, no major warships would be sunk by kamikaze planes. But since kamikaze squadrons could not report on their own successes or failures, their escort are the only one who could testify to the success of their comrades, and very often they tended to exaggerate successes. Kamikaze attacks thus appear to be successful. Newspapers report immense losses on the American side, with dozens of carriers lost with each strike, and heady reports from the highest authorities help push away the growing shadow of impending defeat.

And yet, when their results are examined after the fact, they appear lacklustre. Only less than 15% of planes lost managed to inflict any kind of damage to their targets, and often without causing significant harm. This doesn't, however, mean that the kamikaze tactic can be easily dismissed just because it implied a very low success rate: for the Allied forces, it represented a true threat, creating within the men a kind of “kamikaze psychosis”, a fear close to panic every time a plane drew close. “The strain of waiting”, according to a war correspondent, the anticipated terror, made vivid from past experience, sent some men into hysteria, insanity, breakdown.” And during the last ten months of the war, kamikaze pilots managed to inflict as much damage to Allied ships as the entire Japanese forces had managed to since 1941.

For the Allied forces, kamikaze strikes are terrifying, unfathomable and almost impossible to stop.
They contribute to the creation of the image of Japanese soldiers as inhuman and fanatical.
Here, sailors fight to stop the fire started by a kamikaze strike on the light carrier USS Belleau Woods,
on 20 October 1944. In the background, the Franklin, one of the largest US carriers,
is also hit.(© 1944 / U.S. Army,relased in thepublic domain)

But beyond their tactical worth, which remains limited given the extremely high losses both of men and aircrafts, within Japan the kamikaze pilots were an extremely efficient propaganda tool. The image of these youths' sacrifice (the youngest were seventeen or eighteen) is meant to rouse civilians on the home front and raise morale within the troops, and thus kamikaze missions are very rapidly heavily publicized in print and in newsreels. Kamikaze pilots are the heroes that every Japanese should emulate. How could one complain of the lack of food, or of the air raids, when the flower of Japanese youth is selflessly sacrificing their lives to protect Japan?

This propaganda, however, has a mirror image. For American journalists and commentators, the kamikaze pilots prove the exact opposite: that the enemy is inhuman, savage, and fundamentally Other, a fearful and bestial monster. This can then be used to justify the violence of American GIs towards captured and, on Okinawa, civilian Japanese, or the use of incendiary bombs on heavily populated cities. Such an enemy deserves to be burnt to a cinder, since it is no longer human.

And yet, there is nothing that is exceptional in the use of kamikaze tactics, and moreover, there is nothing particularly Japanese about it. It is true that the glorification of sacrifice was a central tenant of wartime education and ideology, and was aimed at transforming a generation of young men into perfect soldiers. Japanese ideologues, utilizing an often imaginary past stemming from debatable interpretations of samurai chronicles and other warrior legends, tried to prove that there was an innate spirit of sacrifice within the Japanese psyche, within the Yamato damashii, the soul of ancient Japan, a mixture of martial heroism and tearful sentimentalism that was in their view characteristic of the Japanese heart.

But what it truly represents is nothing but the application of a system for the recruitment of minds that has been visible in a number of conflicts, the cult of sacrifice and fallen soldiers already identified by George Mosse in the case of World War I. Making the death of soldiers into an example is a common enough manner of mobilizing public opinion. Every history book published in the Soviet Union made ample mention of Nikolai Gastello (1908-1941), made a Hero of the Soviet Union after crashing voluntarily into a column of German tanks near the village of Dekshany in Belarus. In the United States Colin Purdie Kelly Jr. (1915-1941) was made into a hero for having crashed his bomber on the smokestack of the Japanese cruiser Haruna, a few days after Pearl Harbor, after asking his crew to bail out, in what is probably an apocryphal story.

Colin Kelly, still considered by some to be the first American suicide pilot,
crashed according to legend on the smokestack of a Japanese cruiser on the 10 December 1941.
It is actually more likely that Kelly's plane burned and crashed into the sea;
but after the crushing defeat at Pearl Harbor, the US army cannot ignore the power of suicide attacks
as propaganda. Commemorative painting, 1942, by Deane Keller.
(© 1944 / U.S. Army, released in thepublic domain)

However, the case of Japan is unique in a number of war. Kamikaze attacks are no longer spontaneous and individual sacrifices but are the result of direct orders, and furthermore, pilots were instructed and aircrafts constructed with the explicit aim of being sacrificed in a suicide attack. The inherent violence of a system that knowingly sends men to certain death cannot be denied, especially when even the most patriotic of commanders could no longer ignore the fact the war could not be won. But even though the Japanese army was the first to have officialised suicide attacks as a tactic and to have used to on such a large scale, it is far from being the only one to have exploited the sometimes sincere patriotic feelings of its men for ultimately mediocre results.

Constance Sereni
Constance Sereni is Senior Research and Teaching Assistant in the Japanese department of the University of Geneva. After studying the letters of Japanese students who fell during the war, she defended a thesis entitled « Repatriation and repatriates. The formation of hikiagesha identity, 1945-1958 » under the direction of Pr Michael Lucken at INALCO, Paris, in November 2014. She is currently working on kamikaze pilots as well as the memory of the Tokyo air raids.

Constance Sereni
Senior Research and Teaching Assistant, Japanese studies, University of Geneva