Kamikaze is a Japanese word meaning “divine wind”. ‘Kami’ means ‘divine’ and ‘kaze’ ‘wind’. Kamikaze owes its origins to the 1274 and 1281 typhoons which wrought havoc on invasion forces from Mongolia. A Japanese World War II pilot specially trained to destroy an enemy ship by crashing on it was referred to as kamikaze. The plane to be used for such an attack, usually laden with explosives also bore the same name. Special air suicide attack units were given this name in World War II in 1944-45.
The kamikaze concept originated from lower ranks officers in the field when they reported that pilots and crew were experiencing accidental crashes.
Captain Motoharu first brought up the subject and led to the launch of initial investigations on the feasibility and modes of executing deliberate assaults. The Thunder Gods project was initiated soon afterwards in 1944 (Axell, 2002, p. 13) The first formal mention of kamikaze missions was in august 1944 when the Domei News Agency reported that Takeo Tagata, A flight instructor, was training pilots for suicide attacks in Taiwan.
It is also claimed that the first kamikaze mission was carried out on September 13th 1944 after which the 31st Fighter Squadron of the army based on Negros Island imitated the following day.
Takeshi Kosai, First Lieutenant and a sergeant, destined to crash into carriers, took off in separate fighter planes each loaded with 100 kilogram bombs. Other sources assert that the US cruiser, USS Reno CL96 was suicide bombed on October 14th 1944. It is also claimed that the commander of the 26th Air Flotilla, Captain Masafumi Arima, developed the kamikaze concept. He led 100 Yokosuka D4Y dive bombers to attack Franklin, an aircraft carrier on October 15th 1944. Arima got killed in the assault and was rewarded with the post of Admiral posthumously.
Top ranking Japanese military officials embraced Arima’s example as a source of military propaganda. The attack of Suluan Island by Allied forces set off the battle of Leyte Gulf. The responsibility of destroying the Allied forces in Leyte Gulf lay with the 1st Air Fleet of the Japanese Navy. The 1st Air Fleet had the limitation of having only 40 planes: 3 Nakajima B6N Tenzan Torpedo bombers, 34 Mitsubishi zero fighters, 1 Mitsubishi G4M and 2 Yokosuka P1Y Ginga land bombers. This made the task ahead appear impossible and prompted Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi, the 1st Air Fleet commandant to constitute the Special Attack Unit.
Onishi told the 201st flying group pilots of the plan on October 19th at a meeting at Mabalacat airfield near Manila. The assault would involve crashing a zero bomber with 250 kilogram bomb and ramming it into a US carrier with a view of grounding all American carriers. The initial plan was to only involve volunteers in such attacks. Onishi lied to the pilots that their commander, Captain Sakai Yamamoto, already knew of the plan when the pilots requested for an approval from their own boss. Yamamoto was, however, in hospital after a motor vehicle accident and thus he was not privy to Onishi’s plans.
The 23 pilots in attendance volunteered and hence the first anti-Allied forces suicide strikes at Leyte were executed in a few days time (Astor, 1999, 32). The impact of the kamikaze strikes was momentous, damage greater than any preceding one was inflicted on the allied forces ships. The Japanese military top officials decided to have humans man rocket-propelled bombs, an operation they called Thunder Gods. The task of designing the flying bomb was signed to the Japan Aeronautical Research Laboratory. This was to counter the problems experienced in the remote guidance of German rockets and the threat of the advancing Allied forces.
The Thunder Gods project initially had 100 volunteers whose training was parallel to the construction of the pioneer 150 Ohka rocket bombs. Japan’s strategy was the stationing of Thunder Gods in Formosa and the Philippines. American submarines and carrier ships didn’t allow maneuvering south from Japan. The November 27th 1944 sinking of Shinano, Japan’s carrier ship, by Archerfish, the American submarine, proved that America had firmly held its base in the region. Shinano held the first batch of 50 Ohkas. Unryu, a Japanese carrier loaded with the next 30 Ohkas was also sunk a few weeks later while traveling to the Philippines.
It then became clear that Thunder Gods project would be fail. Students were mandated to recite the oath of the Imperial Rescript on Education as a ritual after the decree was passed in 1890. The oath stated that individuals would offer themselves, including sacrificing their lives, to the state as well as protect the Imperial family. Under the oath, dying for the emperor or for Japan was honorable. The Meiji restoration saw the establishment of Shinto as a state religion. Shinto doctrines were rampant in Japan in 1944 to 1945 and they were instrumental in the promotion of nationalism.
Many Japanese were of the view that to be honored at the Yasukumi shrine, which the Emperor visited twice yearly, was a great honor. Many sailors, pilots and soldiers were thus mentally prepared to die and become eirei, ‘guardian spirits’ of the country (Axel, Kase, 2002, p. 35). Books and newspapers published stories, articles and advertisements about the suicide bombers after the kamikaze strategy was adopted. A case in point is the Nippon Times October 1944 issue which ran an article with the view of aiding the recruitment of the special attack corps.
The propaganda that kamikaze were enshrined at Yasukumi from publishers and exaggerated stories of the kamikaze added to the Japanese ideology that kamikaze were divine people. Peer pressure also had a hand in popularizing the kamikaze. The Japanese government also had its share in the fanning of the kamikaze spirit by falsely declaring victories (Axell, Kase, 2002, p. 38). Ancient folklore also helped in the recruitment of volunteers into the suicide missions. For instance, it was widely believed that the bonds connecting an individual to his family were similar to the ones that joined him to his nation.
The Japanese so valued their close relationship with both the emperor and the nation that they were convinced that it would be useless to be Japanese if one didn’t have this links. Spiritistic ceremonies were held to bid kamikaze farewell before they departed to their assignments. The Japanese flag or the Japanese naval flag with spiritually inspirational words written on it were given to the kamikaze. The soldiers also drank sake; a-rice based alcoholic drink, before leaving. A headband with the rising sun and sennibari, a belt with a thousand stitches each made by a single woman were also among the kamikaze insignia.
The kamikaze were also supposed to compose a death poem and read it. This feat borrows heavily from the samurai, a pre-industrial Japan military nobility. Samurai also composed and read a death poem before undertaking seppuku, a Japanese disembowelment ritual. It is alleged that the kamikaze pilots flew southwest over mount Kaimon. The pilots then looked back to face the mountain, said farewell to Japan and saluted the mountain. This is an indication that some spiritism was associated with the kamikaze missions (Astor, 1998, p. 47). The 1281 AD invasion of Japan by Mongols prompted the emperor to pray for divine salvation.
A huge typhoon came up and drowned the enemy by sinking their ships. The typhoon was called kamikaze or the ‘divine wind’. This episode was one inspiration of the kamikaze suicide missions in World War II. The pilots had the divine mission of destroying their enemy. Suicide pilot manuals instructed pilots to obtain a high level of spiritual training, be always pure-hearted and cheerful and to maintain perfect health conditions. This instructions were found in a book ‘Transcend life and death’ which were given to each pilot. Pilots were supposed to loudly yell ‘Hissatsu’ translated ‘sink without fail’ moments before crashing into a target.
Many kamikaze had the conviction that by crashing into a target, they would pay the debts they owed their friends’ families and the Emperor. The heavy sanctions imposed on Japan by the United States and Washington’s order for Japan to vacate China precipitated the Pacific war in which kamikaze were utilized (Astor, 1998, p. 54).
Astor, G. (1999). The greatest war: Americans in combat, 1944-1945. California, United States. Presidio Press, pp. 32, 47, 54 Axell, A. & Kase, H. (2002). Kamikaze: Japan’s suicide gods. London, United Kingdom. Longman Publishers, Pp. 13, 35, 38