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Remembering Japan's kamikaze pilots

  • 26 February 2014
  • From the section Magazine
Six Japanese Kamikaze pilots in their uniform Image copyright Getty Images

Japan hopes to immortalise its kamikaze pilots - a squad of young men who crashed their aircraft into Allied ships in World War Two - by seeking Unesco World Heritage status for a collection of their letters. Rupert Wingfield-Hayes meets the former pilot who built the collection, in honour of his fallen comrades.

"Kamikaze" - it is a word that has become synonymous with all that is crazy, fanatical and self-destructive. I remember as a young schoolboy in Britain learning about the kamikaze pilots. To me, what they had done was inexplicable. For long afterwards, it coloured my view of Japan, and it left me with a nagging question: how did it happen? What caused thousands of ordinary young Japanese men to volunteer to kill themselves?

I had long dreamed of asking a kamikaze pilot that question. And so it was that last week I found myself ringing the bell of a comfortable-looking house outside the city of Nagoya in central Japan. Moments later, striding out to meet me came a small, energetic and very neatly dressed old man, a wide smile on his face.

Tadamasa Itatsu is a spritely 89-year-old with twinkling eyes and a firm handshake. He cancelled his tennis game because I was coming, he tells me.

It's hard to believe that cheerful old man was once a kamikaze pilot.

In March 1945 Itatsu-San was a 19-year-old pilot. Hundreds of American and British battleships and aircraft carriers were sailing towards Okinawa. He was asked by his commander to volunteer for one of Japan's infamous "special attack" squadrons.

"If Okinawa was invaded, then the American planes would be able to use it as a base to attack the main islands of Japan." He tells me: "So we young people had to prevent that. In March 1945 it was a normal thing to be a kamikaze pilot. All of us who were asked to volunteer did so."

The inside of Itatsu-San's home is a shrine to his fallen comrades, the walls covered in grainy photos of young men in flying suits. Over and over as we talk, he comes back to the same point - these young men were not fanatics, they believed their actions could save their country from disaster.

"Common sense says you only have one life," he says, "so why would you want to give it away? Why would you be happy to do that? But at that time everyone I knew, they all wanted to volunteer. We needed to be warriors to stop the invasion from coming. Our minds were set. We had no doubt about it."

Itatsu-San did not die. As he flew south towards his target, his engine failed and he was forced to ditch in the sea. He returned to his unit, but the war ended before he could try again.

Image copyright AP
Image caption A kamikaze attack on a US warship during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 1944

For many years afterwards he kept his story a secret, ashamed he had survived. He often thought of committing suicide, he says, but didn't have the courage.

Then, in the 1970s, he began to seek out the families of his dead comrades, asking them for letters and photographs from the dead pilots. His collection became the core of what is now known as the Kamikaze Letters.

From a series of long cardboard tubes Itatsu-San pulls thin pieces of paper covered in black calligraphy. He carefully unfurls one on the table and begins to read.

"Dear mother, my one regret is I could not do more for you before I die. But to die as a fighter for the emperor is an honour. Please do not feel sad."

A lot of the letters are in this vein. They appear to confirm the view that a whole generation of Japanese men had been brainwashed in to self-abnegation and blind obedience to the Emperor.

But there are others, which show a minority of kamikaze pilots had not swallowed the propaganda, and even some that appear to reject Japan's cause.

One of the most extraordinary is by a young lieutenant, Ryoji Uehara.

"Tomorrow, one who believes in democracy will leave this world," he wrote. "He may look lonely but his heart is filled with satisfaction. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany have been defeated. Authoritarianism is like building a house with broken stones."

Image caption Itatsu-san unfurls the "Kamikaze Letters"

So what should the world make of the Kamikaze Letters, and should they be given World Heritage status?

Itatsu-San clearly thinks they should. He describes them as a "treasure to be passed down to future generations". But even today with the benefit of 70 years' hindsight, Itatsu-San remains astonishingly unreflective about what happened to him and his comrades.

"I never look back with regret," he says, "The people who died did so willingly. I thought at the time it was really bad luck to survive. I really wanted to die with them. Instead, I have to concentrate my efforts to maintain their memory."

Japan has immense problems with its memory of the war. Prominent politicians and media figures still frequently espouse absurd revisionist versions of history - that Japan never started the war, that the Nanjing Massacre never happened, that tens of thousands of comfort women "volunteered" to become sex slaves for the Japanese military.

Image copyright Getty Images

The massive bombing of Japanese cities at the end of the war, and in particular the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has allowed the construction of a narrative of victimhood. Japan is the only country to have suffered an atomic attack. The firebombing of Tokyo, in one night, killed at least 100,000 civilians. But when talking about these horrors, what is often forgotten or omitted is how it all began.

Likewise, the desire to remember the terrible sacrifice made by the young kamikaze pilots is understandable. What often appears to be missing is that question: "How did we get here?"

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