Suicide for the Empire

Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912

by Donald Keene
Columbia University Press, 922 pp., $39.50
Emperor Meiji
Emperor Meiji; drawing by David Levine


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…

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