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Suicide for the Empire


Imagine what it must have been like to be squeezed into a human torpedo loaded with three thousand pounds of TNT, or into the cockpit of a flying bomb, and crash into a ship at six hundred mph, if one is lucky, or suffocate slowly inside a tight steel coffin if the target has been missed. As a military tactic adopted by the Japanese at the end of 1944, suicide bombing did considerable damage to the US Navy. Ships were sunk; many Americans lost their lives. And the attacks left a terrible mess. A witness recalls:

After the sailors had thrown overboard the hunks of metal that remained from the attacking planes, they began hosing down the decks, and soon the water was red with blood. Here and there they found shreds of flesh and other remains from the bodies of the Japanese pilots—tongues, tufts of black hair, a brain, some arms, a leg. One sailor triumphantly hacked off a finger and removed a ring. Before long the decks were clear.1

But suicide bombing, horrible as it was, did nothing to stave off Japanese defeat. Perhaps it wasn’t really meant to. It was more like a deadly theatrical gesture, a horrendous face-saving device, aimed at the Japanese themselves more than their enemies. Vice Admiral Onishi Takijiro, who intro-duced this practice, admitted as much to the first kamikaze unit in 1944. He said: “Even if we are defeated, the noble spirit of the kamikaze attack corps will keep our homeland from ruin. Without this spirit, ruin would certainly follow defeat.”2 Onishi committed suicide the day after Japan surrendered. But his message resonates even now at kamikaze memorial museums in Japan, where schoolchildren are still told that the young suicide pilots sacrificed their lives for the peace and prosperity of future generations.

Who were these young men who volunteered, sometimes but not always under considerable pressure, to die in this ghastly manner? On the surface, the kamikazes, or Special Attack Forces (Tokkotai), bore a certain resemblance to suicide bombers today, even though they never targeted civilians—a considerable difference. Their public declarations about purity, noble sacrifice, and the conviction of a heroic afterlife suggest a similar kind of religious zeal. And they were dying for a country that was fighting a war against the West, not only for economic or political reasons but, according to Japanese propaganda, for spiritual and cultural reasons too.

In fact, however, a closer look at the Tokkotai turns some currently received views of suicide tactics upside down. Suicide bombing, in Palestine, Israel, or New York, is often seen as an act of desperation, bred from oppression (by Israel, US imperialism, corporate globalization, or whatnot), but also from ignorance and the humiliating failure of Muslim societies to adapt to modern civilization, that is, the scientific, secular, universalist, post-Enlightenment civilization, usually described as Western. The implication of this view is that suicide bombing is an atavistic act typical of a pre-modern society.

The kamikaze pilots may have been at war with the West, but despite their frequent references to ancient Japa-nese traditions, the samurai spirit and all that, they were in fact typical products of modern civilization, and as steeped in European and American culture as educated Westerners of their class and age, perhaps even more so. Some of them were Christians. Not just that, but the nation they chose to die for had been, for at least half a century, a model of modern development, much of it diligently copied from the West.

It is of course possible that the Western-style modernity of twentieth-century Japan and its brightest young men was just veneer, a phony piece of mimicry with no authenticity or substance. Perhaps a fanatical samurai, in thrall to ancient codes and fierce ancestral gods, was always ready to jump out from under the polished surface of every graduate of Tokyo Imperial University. But I rather doubt that things were so simple. Consider Sasaki Hachiro, one of the student suicide pilots featured in Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s important new book. Like many Tokkotai volunteers he was a student at one of Japan’s top two universities: Tokyo Imperial University (the other was Kyoto Imperial University). It was also typical that he was a humanities student. Engineers and the like were deemed to be less expendable in a country at war and thus not asked to volunteer for an early death.

Sasaki was a keen reader of, among others, Engels, Marx, Schopenhauer, Bentham, Mill, Rousseau, Plato, Fichte, Carlyle, Tolstoy, Romain Rolland, Erich Maria Remarque, Weber, Chekhov, Wilde, Mann, Goethe, Shakespeare, Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Natsume Soseki. This short list was not unusual for a Tokkotai. Ohnuki-Tierney mentions a suicide pilot who read not only as widely, but in English, French, German, Italian, and Sanskrit too. Others wrote their wills in French and German. Certain authors—Heidegger, Fichte, Hesse—come up in most of the young pilots’ reading lists, which reveal a common taste for German idealism. Death, for obvious reasons, is a much-quoted subject in Tokkotai diaries and letters, hence the interest in Kierkegaard and Socrates. And Goethe’s Faust, too, was much read.

Far from being a fanatical militarist, Sasaki had been against the war from the beginning, and deplored the vulgar gloating over Japanese victories in China. Nor was he taken in by emperor worship, which official propaganda had whipped into a frenzied national cult. But he was an idealist and a patriot. What makes his and other cases analyzed by Ohnuki-Tierney so fascinating is that the romantic patriotism of these Japanese warriors in the last ditch was filtered through and often expressed in the language of Western thinkers.

Sasaki, like some other Tokkotai, considered himself a Marxist. Although he was appalled by the Japanese war in China, he thought the war against the US and Britain was justified, because they were the homelands of evil capitalism. Japan, too, of course, had been infected by the capitalist poison. He wrote:

If the power of old capitalism is something we cannot get rid of easily but if it can be crushed by defeat in war, we are turning the disaster into a fortunate event. We are now searching for something like a phoenix which rises out of ashes.

Sacrificing his life, then, was a way to save his country, a show of spiritual purity that would usher in a better, more equitable world. Such a spiritual task could not be left to ignorant soldiers. It had to be done by the best students.

Ohnuki-Tierney shows how common this kind of thinking was among the Tokkotai. She argues that military authorities had deliberately exploited the youthful idealism of these elite students. This is no doubt true, but the speech by Vice Admiral Onishi in 1944 suggests that at least some of the military officers shared their idealism. Marx is unlikely to have been the vice admiral’s bedside reading, but his view that only a show of sacrificial spirit would save Japan from ruin was no different from Sasaki’s. And right-wing nationalists were as anticapitalist as the Marxist intellectuals, which is why some Marxists found a niche in the Japanese empire, especially in Manchukuo, the puppet state in northeastern China.

The symbolism surrounding the Tokkotai was not all European, of course. The short-lived beauty of the cherry blossom is an ancient symbol of evanescence, though not, as Ohnuki-Tierney rightly observes, of military self-sacrifice. So the suicide planes were called oka, or cherry blossoms. And the suicide pilots had cherry blossoms pinned onto their uniforms. Before their final sorties, Tokkotai would often sing a song set to an eighth-century poem, which went:

In the sea, water-logged corpses,
In the mountains those corpses with grasses growing on them
But my desire to die next to our emperor unflinching.
I shall not look back.

The idealization of early death and self-sacrifice is present in many, perhaps in most cultures. In the history of Islam, it belongs to a rebellious tradition, of assassins and purist sects. This is true, to some extent, in Japan as well. Suicidal last stands are associated with reactionary lost causes and sincere rebels. The much-cited hero of many Tokkotai was a fourteenth-century samurai named Kusunoki Masashige, who committed suicide after losing a battle for the old imperial dynasty against a new, more vigorous regime. Another heroic model was Saigo Takamori, the champion of samurai values in a rapidly Westernizing society, who led a hopeless rebellion in 1877 against the Meiji government, and then killed himself. His followers—samurai who had lost their old privileges in the modern state—marched to their deaths singing the following words (translated by Donald Keene):

We’ve reached a point we can take no more
We warriors can only do our utmost
To save tens of thousands of people,
Today our last, on the road to the other world.

What all these heroic last stands have in common is a romantic ideal of recovering ancient purity from modern corruption. In the same song, quoted above, Saigo’s samurai reviled the traitors who “sold our country to the dirty foreigners.” This is not a uniquely Japanese idea. In line with a number of fashionable modern theorists, whose words she is much too fond of quoting (with such fascinating material at hand, why drag in Pierre Bourdieu at every opportunity?), Ohnuki-Tierney points out, over and over, how the Tok- kotai symbols, the cherry blossom, the hero worship, the cult of self-sacrifice, the beauty of violent death, and so on, are all modern constructs and distortions. True enough. But that is in the nature of all culture, modern or not. To think otherwise is to assume the existence of some untouched source of purity. For a modern construct to be convincing, there has to be something in the history of a culture to exploit.

The culture that produced Sasaki and his fellow Tokkotai was a fusion of Japanese, Chinese, and Western ideas and aesthetics. One cannot usefully disentangle them to identify the purely native from the foreign, even though nativists still claim that they can. Nor can we take Tokkotai references to Japanese traditions at face value, for such references were often compulsory. The wills of many Japanese were couched in heroic cherry-blossom phrases. But as one Tokkotai, quoted by Ohnuki-Tierney, put it in a letter home: “Of course, we could not say what we really thought and felt. So we had to lie. It was taboo to express our true thoughts….”

Who knows whether Marx or Socrates were bigger influences on Tokkotai than Saigo Takamori, but the extraordinary fusion of East and West, which shaped the culture of modern Japan, produced one of the most sophisticated, economically successful, artistically rich countries in the modern world. The question is how all this creative energy turned into such an orgy of self-destruction. Possible answers must lie somewhere in the story of Japan’s effort to adopt the “civilization and enlightenment” of the modern West, the story of the Meiji Emperor’s Japan.

  1. 1

    Quoted in Ivan Morris, The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975), p. 294.

  2. 2

    Quoted in Morris, The Nobility of Failure, p. 284.

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