Kamikaze Japan THINK IAFOR

June 16, 2016

From the 1932 “Three Human Torpedoes”, followed by a growing trend of group suicide, to the kamikaze suicide pilots of World War 2, Professor Stuart D. B. Picken examines the ways in which the militarist tradition of suicide has survived into Japan’s modern history, in Part 14 of “Death in the Japanese Tradition”.

Japan in 1933

As clear evidence of the degree to which the militarist tradition has survived into modern times, consider some of the events of 1933. That year was highly significant for Japan, intellectually, politically and internationally. It was also the year that marked the beginning of a widespread suicide fever which gradually gained momentum with the rising tide of national aspirations and continued through to 1945, its last belated ghostly figure being Mishima Yukio, the famous author who killed himself in 1970.

Intellectual Suppression

By 1933, the intellectual climate of Japan had moved away from the liberalism it had briefly embraced after 1919 in the brief period known as the Taisho Democracy. This fact is most aptly illustrated by the trial of Minobe Tatsukichi (1873-1948) father of a subsequent governor of Tokyo, Minobe Ryokichi (1904- ), the liberal scholar whose book Kempo Seigi (Full Interpretation of the Constitution) produced strong and violent reactions from those committed to upholding the principles of the Emperor system. Minobe was a professor emeritus of the University of Tokyo who went into politics. He became a distinguished member of the House of Councilors, taking a stand for the liberal and democratic view of life. He was summoned before the public prosecutor on charges of creating confusion and disorder in the public mind. Minobe’s position was so strongly attacked that he was forced to resign his seat in the National Diet and eventually a ban was put on the sale of his books. By 1935, intellectual freedom had ceased to exist. Any books published thereafter were required at the very least, not to be in conflict with State policy.

Growing Military Fanaticism

As well as the intellectual world, the world of the military also manifested the growing mood of fanatical nationalism from as early as 1932. It was this that led to Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations and its eventual alignment with the Axis powers. The desire to express loyalty and devotion to the nation in extreme forms appears to have taken a firm grip on the minds of the Japanese people to an unprecedented extent. A typical example is the famous incident of February 1932, capitalized upon by the mass media, and widely publicized in the popular press as “the Three Human Torpedoes” story. Three Japanese infantrymen, part of an engineering regiment from Kyushu, were engaged in attacking a Chinese position near Shanghai. To give their colleagues the chance of a speedier victory, they tied vast amounts of explosives to their bodies and ran at the enemy position. This was a genuine case of gyokusai (‘splintered diamond’), a suicide squad attack for the sake of the nation. Public imagination was immediately fired by this incident and strength was given to the cause of witch-hunting disgruntled and dissident intellectuals such as Minobe.

“Heroic deeds, suitably romanticized, have been frequently used to stimulate and inspire patriotic fervor.”

Through poetry, literature, drama and even bunraku (puppet plays), enthusiasm was created around the mystical ideal of Yamato Damashii, the unique, invincible fighting spirit inherited from the dwellers in Yamato (ancient Japan). The irrational jingoism to which this kind of spirit gives rise was widespread in the late 19th century. Heroic deeds, suitably romanticized, have been frequently used to stimulate and inspire patriotic fervor. In Japan, the propaganda benefit of the example quoted was exploited, and almost every elementary school received a patriotic address at the morning assembly, stressing the responsibility of each Japanese citizen, young and old, to live up to that spirit. The obligation to demonstrate loyalty by actions, which proved it, was being pressed not just upon those in the armed services, but also upon all those in educational institutions, including the very young.

Miharayama Suicides

The idea of expressing loyalty through death took a firm grip in the minds of many young people, as the series of bizarre incidents known as the Miharayama suicides illustrates. (Fedden, Henry Romily, Suicide: A Social and Historical Study London: 1938 p. 296 ff.) Fedden refers to the Miharayama incident in a discussion of epidemics of suicide.

Early in 1933, a female junior college student was stopped by local police, on her return from a hike up Mt. Mihara, a volcano on Oshima Island of the picturesque Izu Peninsula. She admitted to having gone there on the previous day with a classmate who had decided to jump into the crater. The girl’s story was not taken seriously until she confessed that it was not the first time; only a month before she had accompanied another friend with the same mission. Revelation of this caused a shock wave that started what can only be described as a suicide boom. The girl was interviewed, and newspapers told her story under banner headlines such as “Girl ‘Pilot to Death’ Tells all about Fatal Missions.” Photographs, information and letters were carried in every paper. Nationwide sympathy and compassion were aroused as parents and teachers eulogized the suicide’s aspirations, convictions and choice of death. The contagious effects of this suicide became all too obvious and large numbers of people influenced by either romanticism or sentimentality went to Mt. Mihara to follow the girls’ example. In a manner predictable in Japanese society, sightseeing tours to the volcano’s crater were organized. Cases are recorded of members of those tours becoming emotionally disturbed at the rim of the crater, shouting “Sayanara” (“Farewell everyone”) or ‘Tenno Heika Banzai!” (Long live the Emperor) and then jumping in. By the month of May in the same year, eighty-three people had committed suicide there. By December, 1933, over five hundred had jumped to their deaths from the same spot. The whole nation seemed preoccupied with the desire to commit suicide.

Sakatayama Shinju

The above cases concerned individual suicides. Group suicides were also in evidence in the 1930s, the most famous of these being the Sakatayama shinju (double suicide). In May 1932, a little before the mass movement had begun, a student of Keio University, one of Tokyo’s older, elite private universities, and the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Shizuoka committed suicide on a hillside near Oiso, in Kanazawa prefecture. The reason for their doing so was not at all clear, other than as a dramatic enactment of an episode from the past. Later, the girl’s tomb was found violated and her body, stripped of all grave clothes, was found in a hut near her grave. During their investigation of this strange happening, the police conducted an autopsy on the girl’s body, from which it emerged that the girl had still been a virgin. When news of this leaked out, the entire nation went wild with enthusiasm. Poems were composed, books written and even a film was made on the theme Love Fulfilled in Heaven. In the wake of this, dozens of young couples went to the hillside site, to commit suicide and share the heavenly joys with the original couple. Again, one case of suicide inspired others.

Precursors of War

These suicides of the years 1930 to 1940 were the forerunners of the suicides of World War II to which some attention must be given. It is beyond all doubt that by 1939, the Japanese nation had become unhealthily preoccupied with the duty to commit suicide. Combined with the other factors that were strengthening the mood of patriotic fanaticism, in this preoccupation may clearly be seen the mentality that found its final and fatal expression in the kamikaze ideal. Singer (already quoted) has this interesting remark to make based on Japanese mythology:

“The rudest and most violent Japanese god, Susenowo-no-mikoto, wails when his father entrusts him with command over the sea (note: see Kojiki Vol I:XII.) He desires nothing else but to go to the netherworld in which his deceased mother dwells. The readiness of the Japanese to die, casting away their lives or dying by their own hands, may echo this desire of their divine ancestor.” (Singer, op.cit. p.38).

Bearing in mind the 1930s as Singer’s point of observation and without drawing on Jungian psychology or on theories of archetypal consciousness, however far-fetched the contrast may seem, the sentiments bear striking resemblance.

The expiatory power of suicide also was given full reign during this wartime period. A sea captain, Suga Genzaburo, was master of the 5,000 ton Nagasaki Maru. In an eleven-hour chase on the China Sea, he captured the 15,000-ton ‘President Harrison’. This happened on the same day as the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. After his glorious victory, his ship hit a mine off Nagasaki and went down. One week later, in humiliation, he cut open his stomach crosswise with a razor, and then cut his carotid artery in four places. This was an extremely exaggerated case of simulated seppuku, almost maniacal in its form. However, to match the mood of the act were the words of the policeman who reported the incident. He is recorded as saying, on examining the corpse, “Never have I seen such a heroic seppuku. How peacefully he sleeps. See! He is almost like a god”.

Even those who were apparently unable to fulfill the demand of duty were permitted seppuku as a release, because it could act as evidence of loyalty. A Hiroshima naval academy student, feeling inadequate academically and perhaps in other ways, committed suicide. He and was accorded a funeral with full military honors. These instances cited constitute reliable proof of the high moral esteem with which the act of suicide was regarded.

When unconditional surrender was declared on 15 August 1945, the Army Minister, General Anami, committed kanshi seppuku to demonstrate his opposition to the decision to end the war. He and ten other fanatics committed suicide in front of the Imperial Palace. Others did so on the Yoyogi drill field, cursing the arrival of the United States Military forces. The way in which the rules of the suicide ritual operate seems to have administered a kind of poetic justice to some of the perpetrators of the war disaster. However, the saddest tale of the young men who under direction of their fanatical leaders went to their deaths as kamikaze pilots remains, to be told. (Many discussions of the Kamikaze now exist in English – see the following for details:

Kuwahara Yasuo, Kamikaze New York: Ballantine Books, 1957; Inoguchi Rikihei and Nakajima Takashi, Shinpu Tokubetsu Kogekitai no Kiroku Tokyo, 1963 tr. Roger Pineau; The Divine Wind: Japan’s Kamikaze Force in World War II (Anapolis, 1958).

The Kamikaze the Divine Wind

The idea of airborne suicide squads was attributed to Vice-Admiral Onishi, Commander of the First Air Fleet, in 1944. The theoretical strength of his command was three hundred and fifty planes, but in fact, he had only 149, which were serviceable against the growing air power of the United States. With these he was required to defend Japan’s tenuous hold on the Philippines and he knew very well that his resources were inadequate to this task. But he was certainly a man of imaginative strategy. It was he who had devised the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Now he produced another unheard of ploy; the suicide pilot.

Onishi explained the scheme to Commander Tamai, the officer in charge of training pilots. He called a group of young trainee pilots together and explained the insane plan. He was greeted by tears of joy from the group of young men, some barely twenty years old, who volunteered to a man, to provide the divine wind, the kamikaze, to save Japan from the Americans as it had saved them from the invading Mongol fleet in 1281. The first kamikaze squads were given names such as Shikishima, Yamato, Asahi and Yamazakura, titles of nationalist sentiment borrowed from the lines written by Motoori Norinaga, (see end of Glossary).

The Purity of Mind of the Kamikaze

The most recent significant work to try to re-appraise the meaning of the Tokko-tai, the special attack forces known as the kamikaze is a book under the title Kaiten no Shiso (Thoughts on Turning the Heavenly Destiny) written by prize winning author, Maeda Masahiro, published in 1985. It deals with the life of one such young man who gave his life for the nation. Far from being rabid fanatics, Maeda shows that many of these young men became involved simply because they were junsui, pure and trustful and had been convinced that there was kami status waiting for them at the end of their journey. Their orientation on life and death had been broken down and they readily obeyed instructions to become living weapons. His sympathetic treatment is in line with the way they were regarded by those whose duty it was to prepare their aircraft and to see them depart. They toasted the venture with a small cup of sake, as they would salute a kami at a shrine. The inside of the cockpit was usually covered by a white cloth since it would be their grave.

“From a Western point of view, the aesthetic aspect laid to one side, the phenomena can only be viewed as a sad abuse of the trusting innocence of youth.”

Many elements lay in the background of the development of the mentality that was cultivated in them, most of which we have seen. At any rate, they did what was expected of them with little reflection on the entire context of meaning. From a Western point of view, the aesthetic aspect laid to one side, the phenomena can only be viewed as a sad abuse of the trusting innocence of youth.

The first attack was entrusted to Lieutenant Seki, a graduate of Hiroshima Naval Academy, whose farewell letters to his family indicated how deeply he had been convinced that his death was necessary to save the nation, and that it would achieve the desired result:

“Honorable father, honorable mother: Forgive me for not fulfilling my filial duties to you. Standing now at the crossroads of my country’s fate, I decided to sacrifice myself for Japan. Nothing can be greater honor than this for a military man like myself. I beseech you, my parents, please take good care of yourselves.”

These words represent the call of gimu, the supreme duty above even that of giri, obligations to parents or wife. He wrote in the same vein to his wife:

“Dear Mariko: I beg your forgiveness for I, as a husband, have not done enough for you before I perish. I believe that you, as the wife of a samurai, have for long been prepared mentally for this day. Be good to our parents, as I write this I recall innumerable memories.”

To Emi-chan (their daughter), “always try to be cheerful. (Quoted in Seward op.cit., p. 93).

It is difficult not to be moved by the sincerity that lies behind these words however misguided to Western thinking maybe the reasoning behind it. Lieutenant Seki was one of over two thousand men who engaged in the most unconventional type of military resistance ever known. His own mission succeeded in destroying the small flat top ‘St. Lo’ on 25 October 1944.

The Kamikaze as Tragic Heroes

Equally touching is the manner in which the pilots were sent on their errands of doom. A white covered table was set for them, with Japanese sake, the communion wine of the kami. Ivan Morris in his Nobility of Failure refers especially to the way in which the cockpits of the planes would be made spotless since they would also serve as the pilot’s coffin. The combined degrees of emotion, ritual and dedication remain difficult for the Western mind to grasp in all its fullness. Morris takes the theme further by suggesting that the Japanese have a special reverence for tragic heroes, a truth that the great successes of Japan might seem to belie, but which is still to be found deep in the Japanese psyche, not least of all in the popular culture to which reference will be made later. (Morris, Ivan Nobility of Failure p. 293 ff).

Despite their individual successes, the kamikaze squads achieved little except the slowing down of American progress. The group who belly-landed their aircraft at Yomitan, in central Okinawa, on 28 May 1945, and began hurling hand-grenades at standing United States planes and at the gasoline tanks, typify the general lack of success, for they were all shot down by machine gun fire before much damage was effected.

Not only aircraft, but also naval ships were formed into suicide squads and began ramming enemy vessels. They gave themselves such titles as shiragiku (white chrysanthemum), jinrai (godly thunder), mitate (Emperor’s shield), oka (cherry blossom), kaitan (turn the heavenly fate) and koryu (the biting dragon).( Singer op.cit., p.40)These names represented the beliefs and values for which men were dying.

The Kamikaze and the Warrior Tradition

Kurt Singer makes a provocative observation that casts in another mold what has now become historical information rather than memories to most when he attributes the kamikaze ideal to the surviving traits of the aristocratic mentality of the warrior class who preferred, face to face encounter:

“The Japanese tactic of ramming planes and of crashing into ships must be explained not only by the ideology of self-sacrifice but also by the satisfaction these methods seem to give: the Japanese appears to enjoy the deadly bodily impact, even at the expense of his own life.” (Singer op.cit., p.40).

The last airborne suicide squadron took off on 15 August, 1945, hours after the Japanese surrender had been announced by the Emperor over the radio. It was led by, Vice-Admiral Ugaki whose plane never returned. No attack was reported, and his death, after the defeat of Japan, was sadly quite futile. Vice-Admiral Onishi protested against the Emperor’s decision to end the war and committed seppuku. His suicide, and those of the High Command who died also in protest against the surrender, were in themselves the death throes of military spirit. Once the proud possession of the samurai, by 1945 that spirit had become the debased tool of nihilistic fanatics whose actions have left permanent moral blemishes on the history of Japan.

“The extent to which, at the popular level, the Japanese imagination had been captured by the suicide ideal is not to be underestimated”

The extent to which, at the popular level, the Japanese imagination had been captured by the suicide ideal is not to be underestimated, as the massive numbers, almost a quarter of a million of Japanese soldiers who killed themselves as they landed on Okinawa testify. These were men whose bravery was beyond doubt, and who were sadly unable to channel their energetic love of country into its rebuilding after the war. The questions remain as to where these ideals originated, and how they came to have such a dominant hold upon the minds of the Japanese. The suicides of lemmings, from the animal kingdom, might be offered as the only analogy of events that have no parallel in the human history of human warfare. To what distinctive ideas about morality and human conduct may such ideas be traced?

The Menace of Militarism

Richard Storry, in his History of Modern Japan, offers a valuable observation in the concluding words of the chapter on the Pacific War:

“So ended a war of peculiar savagery. Japan would never have entered it had the armed forces kept out of politics, or, failing this, had the army been content to allow the Foreign Ministry – its quality was impressive – unimpeded control of the handling of Japan’s relations with China and the West during the 1930s. Making all allowances for exceptions, the professional army abused its power by showing itself to be on the whole cruel, arrogant, and stupid. These defects outweighed the one virtue that the army possessed in the highest degree, namely physical courage. Thoughtful, imaginative, politically gifted, and sophisticated officers were therefore, overshadowed by narrow-minded bigots, prisoners of their own neo-samurai mentality. These men, it must be said, brought the good name of Japan into disrepute throughout Asia; and they very nearly destroyed forever the monarchy and the state they were pledged to serve.” (Storry, Richard A Short History of Japan (Penguin Books) p. 237).

This most sympathetic and understanding account of Japan’s involvement in the War contains no understatement in its attribution of fanaticism to the neo-samurai mentality. The code of bushido, which contained, as already discussed, the duty to commit suicide where the circumstances called for it, provided the model for popularized bushido, the doctrines of the neo-samurai mentality.

Image | Wikipedia


This is Part 14 of Professor Stuart D. B. Picken’s serialised monograph, “Death in the Japanese Tradition: A Study in Cultural Evolution and Transformation”, to be published every Thursday.

The next instalment, Nogi Syndrome, Workaholism and Karoshi will be published next Thursday on June 23, 2016.

Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. […] Part 12: Bushido: The Way of Death Part 13: Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism and the Neo-Samurai Part 14: Militarism – Meiji to Showa Part 15: Nogi Syndrome, Workaholism and Karoshi Part 16: Suicide in Contemporary Japan Part 17: […]

  2. […] Part 12: Bushido: The Way of Death Part 13: Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism and the Neo-Samurai Part 14: Militarism – Meiji to Showa Part 15: Nogi Syndrome, Workaholism and Karoshi Part 16: Suicide in Contemporary Japan Part 17: […]

  3. […] Part 12: Bushido: The Way of Death Part 13: Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism and the Neo-Samurai Part 14: Militarism – Meiji to Showa Part 15: Nogi Syndrome, Workaholism and Karoshi Part 16: Suicide in Contemporary Japan Part 17: […]

  4. […] Part 12: Bushido: The Way of Death Part 13: Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism and the Neo-Samurai Part 14: Militarism – Meiji to Showa Part 15: Nogi Syndrome, Workaholism and Karoshi Part 16: Suicide in Contemporary Japan Part 17: […]

Comments are closed.

Avatar photo

About Stuart D. B. Picken

The late Reverend Professor Stuart D. B. Picken began his distinguished career in academia as a Rotary Scholar on a research trip to Japan. A native of Scotland who had dedicated himself to religious studies, he immediately became fascinated by Japanese culture and the practice of Shinto. He was particularly drawn to the parallels and differences he saw in Western pedagogy compared to that of the East and began a lifelong mission to bridge the communication and knowledge gap between the two worlds. Picken was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the International Christian University (ICU) in 1972. Here he turned his Western theological and philosophical training to comparative religious and cultural studies of Japan, at a time when the country was emerging from the shadows of the Second World War. His groundbreaking and controversial work on suicide in Japan made his name within the country, but it was his subsequent work on Shinto that influenced the rehabilitation of the religion at a time when it was dismissed in the West as pagan and primitive, or unjustly caricatured for its wartime associations. Whether in his research or teaching, Picken devoted much of his life to increasing understanding between his adopted country of Japan and the West, and in 2007 he was recognised with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, an imperial decoration for his pioneering research and outstanding contribution to the promotion of friendship and mutual understanding between Japan and the United Kingdom. He also served as the International Adviser to the High Priest of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, one of Japan’s largest and oldest shrines. From 2009 he was the founding Chairman of The International Academic Forum (IAFOR), where he was highly active in helping nurture and mentor a new generation of academics, and facilitating better intercultural and international awareness and understanding.


Asia, Cultural & Area Studies, Death in the Japanese Tradition, Featured, History, IAFOR Japan Research Institute, In Depth, Psychology & the Behavioral Sciences, Subject Area, World


, , , , , , , , , , ,