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American Views

Written by Bill Gordon in December 2004

Americans viewed death and destruction when kamikaze planes crashed into their ships. American military men on ships off Okinawa and the Philippines also watched many Japanese suicide planes bursting into flames and falling into the sea without ever reaching their intended targets. These servicemen experienced shock, fear, and surprise as the planes headed toward them. They guessed about why these Japanese pilots would make such suicide attacks, and many of these initial speculations remain part of the images held by typical Americans about kamikaze pilots. However, other than some conjectures, the kamikaze pilots' motivations and beliefs remain unknown to the majority of these servicemen and other Americans.

Books, film documentaries, and U.S. Navy photos have had some influence on American perceptions of Japan's kamikaze pilots, but nearly all Americans know little more about "kamikaze" than the word itself. Most Americans realize the word refers to anyone who engages in reckless behavior without regard for personal safety. The media sometimes refers to terrorist suicide bombings as "kamikaze attacks" or "kamikaze bombings." English speakers may refer to a speeding cab driver who weaves in and out of traffic as a "kamikaze taxi driver." Time magazine (Wallis 2003, 53) even uses the term "kamikaze kindergarteners" for young children who exhibit extreme aggression. More than any other source, this usage of the word "kamikaze" in a wide variety of situations apart from the historical context significantly shapes American views about Japanese kamikaze. 

The first part of the essay on this web page analyzes the primary images or perceptions that Americans currently have about kamikaze pilots. The second part identifies the most important sources of these images.

Primary Images

This section examines the five major images held by Americans about kamikaze pilots in order of significance.

1. Anonymous - Very few Americans have insight into the motivations and personalities of Japan's kamikaze pilots. Americans' images of kamikaze pilots are often based on speculation without knowing about their history and background. English-language histories about kamikaze attacks often read like combat reports with attack dates, ship names, and number of casualties. Although sometimes authors speculate on the motivations of the pilots, their books include very few stories about individual kamikaze pilots. As a result, in contrast to numerous Japanese stories about individual kamikaze pilots, most Americans view the suicide pilots as anonymous. Most young Americans today know little even about World War II, so it is not surprising that details about Japan's kamikaze corps remain unknown to nearly everyone in the younger generation.

After the end of the war, details about Japan's kamikaze operations came out very slowly. Censorship regulations imposed during the American occupation from 1945 to 1952 prevented details about kamikaze pilots from being published. Even in the years after censorship ended, there have been only a small number of English books giving the history of individual pilots, such as Kamikaze (1957) by Kuwahara, Kamikaze Submarine (1962) by Yokota, and I Was a Kamikaze (1973) by Nagatsuka. These books provided readers with insight into the pilots' motivations, feelings, and opinions, but the books did not have any substantial influence on Americans' perceptions of Japan's kamikaze pilots due to their relatively limited distribution. Americans' notions about kamikazes had become firmly rooted long before publication of these books.

Americans often do not have distinct images of kamikaze pilots and regular Japanese soldiers who fought in World War II. Anti-Japanese propaganda during the war portrayed Japanese soldiers as fanatical warriors willing to commit any despicable act, and Americans often had the same opinions about kamikaze pilots as regular Japanese soldiers. After the end of the war, several documentaries and books told the history of Japan's kamikaze as a unique corps within the military. However, these histories tend to contain simplifications and generalities, and they rarely distinguish between varying backgrounds and different types of kamikaze pilots who made suicide attacks. These generalities, dating back to World War II, form the basis for many images that Americans have about kamikaze pilots. Even the small minority of Americans who know something about the history of kamikaze pilots consider them anonymously as one group.

2. Fanatical - During World War II, Americans regarded Japanese soldiers as fanatical in battle, with kamikaze pilots considered to be the epitome of fanaticism. In 1945, Hollywood director Frank Capra completed his last Why We Fight film, Know Your Enemy—Japan, which described Japan's most formidable weapon as "the obedient, fanatical Japanese soldier" (Dower 1986, 22). President Truman wrote in his diary near the end of the war that the Japanese were "savages, ruthless, merciless, and fanatic" (Dower 1986, 142).

Since 1945, the attitudes of many Americans toward kamikaze pilots have not changed much, especially for people who do not know much about their history. The American comic book Ripley's Believe It or Not! (1967) describes the leader of Japanese kamikaze attacks as a "fanatical warrior" with a "blind, fanatical wish to die," and his last message is termed a "berserk farewell." Bill Sholin (1994, 136), President of the National Kamikaze Survivors Association, writes of "Admiral Ohnishi's fanatics" when referring to kamikaze pilots who attacked off Okinawa in early April 1945. At a reunion of veterans who survived kamikaze attacks, Sholin "said he believes the suicide attacks during World War II and today have the same root cause," and he attributed it to fanaticism since "to the Japanese, it was like a religion as well" (Andrews 2002). The novel The Last Kamikaze (1990) by M.E. Morris portrays a former kamikaze pilot who will commit any act of terrorism or bloodshed to accomplish his objective of carrying out a dramatic blow against the American military several decades after the end of the war.

3. Suicidal - An American documentary on the Battle of Okinawa released before the end of war described the conflict as "a struggle between men who want to die and men who fight to live" [1]. The American military referred to kamikaze as "suicide planes" for many months before the use of the word "kamikaze" became more widespread after the U.S. Navy's lifting of the news blackout regarding the attacks in April 1945 [2]. Dower (1986, 89) provides a couple of examples to show that many American soldiers during the war believed Japanese wanted to die. An American seaman's diary had an entry, "Fighting the Japs is like fighting a wild animal. . . . The Japs take all kinds of chances, they love to die." In another example, "A profile of the Japanese fighting man in a serviceman's magazine also argued that 'he isn't afraid to die. In fact, he seems to like to die.'"

Lieutenant General Kawabe, a leader of the Army's kamikaze attacks in the Philippines and Okinawa, explains why he did not consider a kamikaze attack to be the same as a suicide attack [3]:

Please do not call our kamikaze attacks "suicide attacks." This is a misnomer, and we feel very badly about this. They were in no sense suicide. The pilot did not start out on his mission with the intention of committing suicide. He looked on himself as a human bomb, which would destroy a certain part of the enemy fleet for his country. He considered this a glorious thing, while suicide may not be so glorious.

Despite Kawabe's admonition, almost all English-language books and articles about Japan's kamikaze use terms such as "suicide attack," "suicide mission," "suicide squad," "suicide bomber," and "suicide pilot." English speakers generally refer to the intentional taking one's life, whether in battle or not, as "suicide." Therefore, this web site also sometimes uses terms such as "suicide attack."

4. Forced - A survivor of a kamikaze attack on the aircraft carrier Intrepid said in a 1998 documentary video that Japanese pilots were shackled in their planes and could not get out, so they had only the option of crashing into ships [4]. Also, this American survivor believes that they were not given enough fuel to return to base, even though several Japanese veterans such as Kosaka (2001, 19-20) state that this is a myth.

Morris (1975, 455) quotes French author Bernard Millot's 1970 book L'Epopée Kamikaze to explain the falsity of the belief that kamikaze pilots were forced:

Stories that suicide pilots were given alcohol or drugs to provide them with the necessary courage for their last flight, or that they were chained into their cockpits in case they decided to bail out at the last moment, are entirely apocryphal. They run counter to all that we know about the kamikaze psychology and were presumably fabricated by Western journalists in an effort to explain (or denigrate) Japan's suicide tactics.

Toland (1970, 714) explains that the kamikaze pilots volunteered for their missions:

Out of this almost morbid fascination came a welter of theories and rumors: kamikaze fliers went into battle like priests in hooded robes; they were drugged; they had to be chained to their cockpits; they were an elite group trained from youth for suicide. They were, in fact, average young Japanese who were volunteers. Their goal was to die a meaningful death and they were convinced that the Special Attack system was the best possible way to overcome Japan's inferior productivity vis-ŕ-vis America. One man could damage or sink a carrier or battleship and take a thousand enemies with him.

Although very few kamikaze pilots were forced by superiors to carry out suicide missions, they lived in an environment where military officers demanded strict obedience and the pilots experienced intense social pressure to meet expectations of their comrades. However, almost all Japanese pilots who survived the war maintain that young men during the war voluntarily went on suicide missions in order to defend their country and as part of their military obligation. The flight operations officer for the first kamikaze corps formed in the Philippines explains, "We had a lot of pilots who volunteered, but it was only a very few who could leave on one attack. And so it was more difficult to choose the selected few" [5].

5. Brave - Although in the minority, a few Americans such as veterans who witnessed the suicide attacks have recognized the bravery of the kamikaze pilots. For example, a communications officer who survived two kamikaze hits on the destroyer Hugh W. Hadley says, "You hated to see them coming, but at the same time you couldn't deny the courage of these pilots" [6]. A naval officer with the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey in Japan, who was on a ship hit by a kamikaze, "admitted to being overwhelmed at the fighting spirit exhibited by the attacking pilot" (Inoguchi and Nakajima 1958, 194).

Primary Sources of Images

This section of the essay looks at the six most significant sources of images or perceptions that Americans have about kamikaze pilots. The items are listed in order of significance.

1. Word - Many Americans know little or nothing about Japan's kamikaze of World War II other than the word "kamikaze," whose meaning in English now differs somewhat from its historical roots. The word "kamikaze" entered the English language in April 1945, when the American public heard for the first time about Japan's suicide attack planes. At a time when English speakers around the world knew few details about Japan's kamikaze corps, the word "kamikaze" developed a broader meaning apart from its historical origins. English speakers now use the word "kamikaze" for anyone who engages in actions that are wildly reckless or extremely dangerous to the point of being suicidal. Americans apply the term "kamikaze" to a broad range of individuals, including terrorist suicide bombers, reckless drivers, wild children, and athletes who risk serious injury in order to win. The application of "kamikaze" to these many types of behaviors tends to color views of Japan's kamikaze pilots, especially when Americans know hardly anything about their history.

English usage of the word "kamikaze" differs from its historical use in Japan. The name "kamikaze" literally means "divine wind" in Japanese, and the word originally referred to a typhoon that destroyed a Mongolian invasion force off the coast of Japan in the late 13th century. The Japanese Navy used this historically significant name of "kamikaze" [7] for units formed to make suicide attacks with planes, but the Japanese Army never used this name for its suicide pilots [8]. English speakers use the word "kamikaze" for both Navy and Army suicide pilots, probably because the Japanese Navy with great publicity formed the first corps to make suicide attacks with planes and named it the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps.

2. Current Suicide Bombings - Stories about suicide bombings in Iraq, Israel, and other places often appear in the news. The media sometimes compares these suicide bombings and the terrorist suicide plane attacks of 9/11 to strikes made by Japan's kamikaze corps. A San Francisco Chronicle (2004) review of the book Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies explains the motivation of modern-day terrorists, "Terrorists acting on that hate are part of a long tradition that goes back not to the Crusades or to an East-West split at all, but rather to Japanese kamikaze pilots, Nazis and the Spanish Inquisition." Although many Americans loosely associate Japanese kamikaze attacks with modern-day terrorism, a fundamental difference is that kamikaze pilots directed their attacks at military targets during a war, whereas terrorist suicide bombers kill innocent civilians.

3. Documentaries - Documentary film clips of kamikaze planes hitting American ships or being shot down have strongly influenced Americans' views and images of Japan's kamikaze. The U.S. Navy's footage vividly shows the destruction, fire, and smoke caused by kamikaze hits on American ships. Documentaries on Japan's kamikaze almost never give details about individual pilots, and their focus on battle footage keeps the pilots unknown to most viewers. The 1949 movie Task Force with Gary Cooper uses these same Navy film clips from the viewpoint of Americans on an aircraft carrier, but the kamikaze pilots and their leaders remain invisible throughout the battle.

Most producers of films about kamikaze operations do not give sufficient attention to historical accuracy, and many try to sensationalize the attacks. The short scripts of historical documentaries lead to generalizations, some of them inaccurate, about historical events and kamikaze pilots. The short segments on kamikaze attacks included in The World at War and Victory at Sea have reached by far the widest audience, but few Americans have viewed other documentaries on kamikaze.

4. The Divine Wind - Books about kamikaze pilots generally have had little effect on American views. However, The Divine Wind, a 1958 English translation of the history of kamikaze operations written by two Japanese Naval officers present during the formation of the first kamikaze corps in the Philippines, has influenced views of some Americans both directly through reading it and indirectly through many other books on kamikaze operations that refer to this book as a key source. The authors are Captain Inoguchi, who served as senior staff officer to the vice admiral who initiated Japan's kamikaze attacks in October 1944, and Commander Nakajima, who worked as flight operations officer for the air group from which the first kamikaze corps was formed.

The Divine Wind provides many insights into the thinking of Japanese Naval leaders regarding their use of kamikaze attacks. In addition, the book's seven letters by kamikaze pilots let readers understand their feelings and thoughts prior to their suicide missions. Although this book is by far the most influential one ever published in English on the history of Japan's kamikaze operations, its impact on the American public's overall perception of kamikaze pilots has been fairly limited due to the small number of readers.

5. Photos - Many U.S. Navy photos present incoming kamikaze planes, flames and smoke after these planes hit ships, and damage caused by attacks. English-language books show many of the same U.S. Navy photos, and this web site also includes some of these photos. The most widely-recognized American photo shows smoke billowing from the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill after being hit by a kamikaze (see home page). Another famous photo shows a kamikaze plane next to the battleship Missouri as gunners try to shoot it down (see top of this page). These many photos dramatically display the effects of Japanese kamikaze attacks, and these images alone without the associated historical background can cause Americans to associate these wartime suicide attacks with modern-day terrorist suicide bombings.

6. Veterans - Harrowing stories by returning Pacific War veterans about Japanese suicide plane attacks strongly influenced Americans' opinions for a short time after the war. While World War II veterans' experiences about kamikaze attacks still appear periodically in articles, their impact on opinions has greatly diminished with later generations that have lived through and read about other wars and large-scale terrorist attacks. A few American veterans have written books about kamikaze attacks, such as The Sacrificial Lambs (Who fought like Lions) by Bill Sholin and Life and Death Aboard the U.S.S. Essex by Richard Streb, but these have had nearly no influence on perceptions by the American public due to very limited distribution and sales.


The Japanese views of kamikaze pilots differ considerably from the American opinions discussed above.

Notes

1. At 46:40 in the DVD The Fleet That Came to Stay.

2. Burt 1995, 10; The Fleet That Came to Stay 1945, at 45:20 in DVD.

3. From 52:00 to 52:25 in the videocassette Suicide Attack.

4. From 12:55 to 13:10 in the videocassette S.O.S. Catastrophe: Typhoons and Kamikaze.

5. At 38:30 in Volume 23 of the videocassette series The World at War.

6. At 1:10 in the videocassette Battle Line: Okinawa.

7. The two Japanese characters in the word "kamikaze" can be read either as "kamikaze" or "shinpu." Although Shinpu was the official name given to the first unit formed in the Philippines in October 1944, people in Japan usually read the name as "kamikaze." The pronunciation "kamikaze" is used for the "divine wind" that destroyed the Mongolian fleet invading Japan in the late 13th century.

8. Almost all of the Army's suicide attack squads used during the Battle of Okinawa were named Shinbu, which means "military might" in Japanese. The Army suicide attack units used earlier in the Philippines had various names.

Sources Cited

Andrews, Chris. 2002. Veterans remember kamikaze attacks, final months of WWII. Lansing State Journal, May 25. <http://www.lsj.com/news/usattacks/020525_kamikaze_1a-5a.html> (September 20, 2004).

Battle Line: Okinawa. 1963. Produced and directed by Sherman Grinberg. Written by Jack Lyman and N.H. Cominos. 25 min. Time-Life Video. Videocassette.

Burt, Ron. 1995. Kamikaze Nightmare. Corpus Christi, TX: Alfie Publishing.

Dower, John W. 1986. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon Books.

The Fleet That Came to Stay. [1945]. In December 7th / The Fleet That Came to Stay. 2001. 60 min. New York: Goodtimes. DVD.

Inoguchi, Rikihei, and Tadashi Nakajima, with Roger Pineau. 1958. The Divine Wind: Japan's Kamikaze Force in World War II. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.

Kosaka, Jiro. 2001. Tokkoutaiin no inochi no koe ga kikoeru (Hearing the voices of lives of special attack corps members). Originally published in 1995. Tokyo: PHP Kenkyujo.

Morris, Ivan. 1975. The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan. New York: New American Library.

Morris, M.E. 1990. The Last Kamikaze. New York: Random House.

Ripley's Believe It or Not! True War Stories. 1967. The Last Kamikaze. No. 5 (June). Ripley Enterprises.

San Francisco Chronicle. 2004. Best Books of 2004. December 12.
<http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/a/2004/12/
12/RVG19A57QS1.DTL&type=books> (December 12, 2004).

Sholin, William. 1994. The Sacrificial Lambs (Who fought like Lions). Bonney Lake, WA: Mountain View Books.

Streb, Richard W. [1999]. Life and Death Aboard the U.S.S. Essex. Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing.

S.O.S. Catastrophe: Typhoons and Kamikaze. 1998. Produced and written by John Borst. 21 min. St. Laurent, Quebec: Madacy Entertainment. Videocassette.

Suicide Attack. 1950. Written by Louis Pollock. Produced by John Florea and Charles Rhodes. Directed by Irving Lerner. 65 min. Chicago: International Historic Films. Videocassette.

Toland, John. 1970. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. New York: Random House.

Wallis, Claudia. 2003. Does Kindergarten Need Cops? Time, December 15, 52-53.

The World at War. 1982. Pacific: February 1942 - July 1945. Produced and directed by John Pett. Written by David Wheeler. Vol. 23 (52 min.). HBO Video. Videocassette.

Other Resources
  • Eyewitness Story of the Kamikaze Suicide Missions by Rikihei Inoguchi and Tadashi Nakajima - Condensed story in December 1953 issue of popular American magazine about formation of first kamikaze special attack units as told by two Japanese naval officers involved in the event.
  • Japan's Last Hope by Irving Wallace - First major article about Japan's kamikaze corps published by an American national magazine dated May 5, 1945.
  • Kamikaze by Evan Wylie - Story in the Army weekly magazine published before end of war about the survival of the destroyer Newcomb after being hit by four kamikaze aircraft.
  • Kamikaze by John Hersey - Comprehensive article in Life magazine, published less than three weeks before WWII's end, about Japan's aerial suicide attacks against American ships.
  • Kamikazes by Phelps Adams - Newspaper article from May 1945 with firsthand account of two kamikaze aircraft carrying bombs that hit the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill.
  • Kamikaze Goes to College in Life - Short story with many photographs about former kamikaze pilot who was first Japanese person to attend an American university after the end of WWII.
  • Kamikaze Pilot by Sgt. Robert MacMillan - Article in 1945 postwar issue of the Army weekly magazine in which correspondent interviews former kamikaze pilot, who explains that wartime kamikaze stories circulating among American military personnel were "complete fabrications."
  • Kamikaze: "The Day I Can't Forget" by Henry J. Blossy - Three-page story in May 1950 issue of the popular magazine Blue Book about Blossy's experiences below deck of American ship under kamikaze attack.
  • Men's Adventure Magazines - Various articles about kamikaze pilots from men's adventure magazines published in 1950s and 1960s.