Review article

Universal divine wind

By William Wetherall

Three books on kamikaze and other suicidal military tactics
with reference to Yasukuni shrine and Nakasone Yasuhiro

Richard O'Neill
Suicide Squads
(Axis and Allied Special Attack Weapons of World War II:
Their Development and Their Missions)
London: Salamander Books, 1980

Denis Warner and Peggy Warner, with Sadao Seno
The Sacred Warriors: Japan's Suicide Legions
New York: Avon Books, 1982

Edwin P. Hoyt
The Kamikazes
New York: Jove Books, 1983

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 131(9), 27 February 1986, pages 43-44

The Japanese pilots who were trained to plunge their planes into enemy ships in the final months of the Pacific War earned the word kamikaze a place in the English and many other languages. They also spawned dozens of books which commonly view their suicidal deeds as privately daring acts of public desperation. But some Japanese are crediting their bravery for Japan's postwar success.

The very first kamikaze books read like perfunctory battle debriefings. Next came the more personal accounts, some of them self-told, others related by journalists or oral historians. The most recent publications, however, have been either nostalgic or academic.

But few Japanese writers have studied the kamikaze and other Japanese suicide tactics as variations of universal military practices. The task of documenting Japan's suicide weapons in a global perspective has been assumed mainly by non-Japanese.

One of the first books to view kamikaze behaviour more generally was the French aviation historian Bernard Millot's L'epopee kamikaze (Paris, 1970), which appeared a year later in English as Divine Thunder, and the following year in Japanese as simply Kamikaze. Millot began his book with two examples of suicide attacks by American pilots in 1942. These and other US suicide flights resulted from "individual initiative and accidental circumstances" as did similar Japanese flights in the early years of the war before the "premeditated" kamikaze attacks that began in late 1944.

Millot's book has been supplemented (rather than surpassed) by two American studies. Hoyt's (former REVIEW contributor) The Kamikazes, first published in 1983, is a straight narrative account like the dozens of other naval and military histories by the same author. While it makes some use of recent (1970s) Japanese sources and is readable, its general reliability is marred by errors in historical names and sloppiness in the romanisation of key Japanese words.

More inspired in every way is the Warners' and Seno's The Sacred Warriors, which first appeared in 1982 but not in time to benefit Hoyt. Not only is this larger book more comprehensive in its coverage of other Japanese suicide weapons, but it has original interviews with suicide squadron survivors.

Neither Hoyt nor the Warners and Seno discuss suicide tactics in other countries, however, thus leaving this topic entirely to British military journalist O'Neill, who also gets some names wrong. Although his Suicide Squads appeared two years before the other two books, neither lists it in their bibliographies. But their authors (especially Warner et al) cite Japanese language sources, while O'Neill appears to have used only English-language materials on Japan and the other Axis countries (except one book in Italian). Unlike Hoyt, who apparently relied entirely on US libraries, O'Neill did fieldwork in Japan. And like Warner et al, he incorporated original interviews into his text, which is incomparably the best illustrated.

All three books explain that kamikaze (the Japanese reading of two Chinese characters which mean "divine wind") alludes to the typhoons which destroyed the Mongol fleets that invaded Japan twice in the 13th century. "Divine Wind" was adopted as the name for the Special Attack Forces because it symbolised the magical power that Japan needed to keep the advancing enemy from reaching its shores.

O'Neill's book, more than the other two, discusses the different kinds of suicide tactics -- from aircraft, submarines, human torpedoes and piloted bombs to frogmen, anti-tank squads and amphibious motorboats -- which Japan developed during the war. It also discusses at great length suicide weapons in other countries.

The Americans are credited with developing the first "special attack" submarine during the War of Independence in 1776. More advanced models were deployed against British ships in the War of 1812, while the Confederate Army built suicidal submersibles during the Civil War of 1864.

By World War I, most naval powers -- Britain, Russia, Japan and the US -- had midget submarines, some of them based on Dutch designs. During World War II, both the Allied and Axis nations had them. The British and Italians built a couple of dozen each, the Germans manufactured nearly 1,000 and the Japanese produced over 400.

The Italians, Germans and Japanese all had explosive motorboats (EMBs). The pilot was supposed to dive out of the boat before it collided, and hence "most German writers deny that it was a suicide boat." O'Neill argues that operational losses suggest otherwise. "Like the Italians before them, German EMB pilots sometimes made no attempt to escape from boats set on collision courses." Most importantly, though, "German pilots themselves referred to their duties as Opferkampfer [sacrifice missions]." Belligerent nations on both sides also developed semi-suicidal weapons like human torpedoes and bombs, but few of these weapons became operational.

Other war literature refers to cases of German and Soviet pilots who rammed their planes into enemy aircraft. Epithets like "near-suicidal" are commonly applied to American missions like the Halsey-Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942 and some British forays into Germany. All armies are known to carry out "suicide operations" of some kind. Soldiers who act as points on infantry patrols, or serve as machine-gunners, are assumed to be aware of the "suicidal risks" that attend such positions.

Like most other non-Japanese who have written books on the kamikaze, O'Neill refrains from making value judgments about the propriety of the Special Attack Forces. He shares the view that Japanese cultivated the rite of heroic self-sacrifice in battle far beyond the limits acceptable to people in other countries. But war is war, and those who die patriotic deaths deserve respect. Unlike most other writers, however, O'Neill appears to support the political and religious institutions that inspired the kamikaze corps.

O'Neill claims that his book "could not have been written without the initial help and encouragement of [the] Deputy Chief Priest of Yasukuni Shrine, Kudan, Tokyo." In thanks to the priest, "and in full accordance with my own belief," O'Neill continues, "I respectfully urge the Government of Japan to restore state support to Yasukuni Shrine, where the men to whom Japan owes so great a debt are honoured."

O'Neill suggests in his closing lines the extent to which he seems to believe that such a debt really exists, and that it ought to be repaid by nationalising a Shinto military shrine -- in contravention of a constitution that prohibits both the waging of war and the endorsing of a religion by the state. He quotes -- and italicises -- the words of a former Japanese EMB squadron commander who observed that the patriotic spirit which inspired his men "isn't something that belongs to Japan alone," and concluded that "the reason for Japan's great recovery since the war is, I believe, that these many human sacrifices brought good fortune to the homeland."

Good fortune indeed. And undoubtedly one that has been well earned by those who rebuilt Japan's war-torn economy. But Japan's peaceful successes are not quite the prizes that were sought by the imperialist generals en-shrined at Yasukuni. However much even their souls may deserve repose in a war-dead memorial, one wonders why it has to be one which is based on an ethnocentric religion that some politicians would like to revive in the service of a rearmed state.

Yasukuni priests recently rejected a compromise proposal by moderate conservatives to separate the souls of some 14 war criminals from those of the other 2.4 million war dead who are honoured at the shrine, including over 50,000 Taiwanese and Korean colonials who fought in the war as Japanese nationals. Meanwhile, the spirits of nearly 4,000 kamikaze pilots are not being worshipped by Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who has had to forgo planned visits to the shrine, in deference to strong Chinese and milder Korean reminders that Japan must not offend its neighbours by forgetting a past for which they have not yet been forgiven.

William Wetherall