bent double, like old beggars under sacks
knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge
till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
and towards our distant rest began to trudge
–Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum est
“How sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country”– so Owen’s poem is titled. And in the next few stanzas he proceeds to rip the conceit apart. There is nothing sweet or honourable about dying. I first encountered this poem when I was thirteen, and I have never forgotten the imagery or his words. The poem came to me unbidden when I first picked up a copy of Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s Kamikaze Diaries. The tokkotai or special attack forces, ‘kamikaze pilots’ in Western terminology, were no less human or vulnerable than any other teenaged boy. It shook me when I first read her book, filled with the last words of these boys, and it still sends a shiver through me now.
What resides in the hearts of those who send young men to their death, and in their death mythologises them as dying for their country?
“HOW unbearable to die in the sky,” wrote Tadao Hayashi, a student pilot, in his diary on July 27th 1945, the night before his plane was shot down. Hayashi’s writings, like those of the other Japanese student soldiers compiled in this book, contradict the caricature of the fanatical kamikaze pilot imagined by Americans and Britons during the war, and challenge the myth of the nationalist hero spun by conservative institutions in Japan.
The student soldiers, argues the author, were wantonly sacrificed in the military government’s final gambit of the war. She reveals that the tokkotai (“special attack force”, which is how the kamikaze are referred to in Japan) had no volunteers when it was formed in October 1944. Instead, new recruits were either assigned by their superiors or forced to sign up using pressure tactics. No senior officer offered his life for this mission; instead the “volunteer” corps comprised newly enlisted boy-soldiers barely of age and student conscripts from the nation’s top universities.
The poems, letters and diaries featured in this book give the lie to the notion that Japan was unified behind the war. The voices of the student soldiers speak thoughtfully and eloquently about their dilemma between duty to the nation and wanting to stay alive. Most of them had been drafted late in the war and represented the country’s intellectual elite. Well-read, many of them turned to European literature and philosophy to rationalise their deaths. “Zwei Seelen wohnen ach in mein Herz!” (“Ah, two souls reside in my heart!”) cries Hachiro Sasaki, as he seeks to reconcile his patriotism with his desire to live. Another pilot carries Soren Kierkegaard’s “The Sickness Unto Death”, together with the Bible, on his final flight. Just like any young adolescents far from home, the student soldiers were intensely lonely. At Tsuchiura naval air base, home for many of the tokkotai, the song they sung most often was nothing patriotic, but a lullaby in the Kumamoto dialect that went: “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.” Death for these young intellectuals came not in a burst of fire and glory, but at the end of a long struggle they fought alone.
The word “kamikaze” entered the English language during the second world war and has endured as a symbol of Japan’s zealous militarism. After the September 11th 2001 attacks on New York, they were reborn as the 20th century’s suicide-bombers. The author argues that both characterisations are deeply flawed. The tokkotai, as she prefers to call them, did not commit suicide but were handed down death sentences in the military missions they were assigned. The al-Qaeda terrorists, on the other hand, sought death in their attempt to exert maximum civilian damage. “Kamikaze Diaries” is a timely and necessary correction of a popular myth, and an important contribution to the understanding of Japan at war.
Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers. By Emiko
Ohnuki-Tierney. University of Chicago Press; 246 pages; $25