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Kamikaze: Japan's Suicide Gods
by Albert Axell and Hideaki Kase
Pearson Education, 2002, 274 pages

"At the very moment of impact: Do your best. Every deity and the spirits of your dead comrades are watching you intently. Just before the collision it is essential that you do not shut your eyes for a moment so as not to miss the target. Many have crashed into the targets with wide-open eyes. They will tell you what fun they had" (p. 81). These chilling instructions come from a manual of basic instructions for kamikaze pilots.

In addition to six pages of excerpts from this kamikaze instruction manual, the book Kamikaze: Japan's Suicide Gods provides various insights into the motivations of the special attack pilots who flew suicide missions against Allied ships. This book contains many vignettes of the moving personal stories of the kamikaze pilots and their families and friends.

Albert Axell, who was a correspondent and university instructor in Japan, and Hideaki Kase, a writer and lecturer in Japan, present this history of the kamikaze pilots from the Japanese viewpoint. The authors provide some unique Japanese perspectives on war and suicide. This book gives the reader a peek into the personal lives of several kamikaze pilots:

  • the husband who lied to his wife about joining a kamikaze unit
  • the Christian who was going to crash into an enemy vessel singing a hymn
  • the professional baseball player who pitched ten times to a fellow officer before taking off
  • the Army officer whose wife committed suicide with their two young children in order that her husband's request to become a kamikaze pilot would not be rejected on the grounds of his being married with children

Although the individual stories are fascinating, most chapters represent a hodgepodge of material instead of the presentation of an organized argument. Chapters end abruptly, rather than providing summaries or conclusions. The authors generally do not comment on relationships between different parts of the book, and some material has little relation to the book's main topic, such as ten pages on the wartime exploits of a pilot prior to his becoming a kamikaze flight instructor.

The time periods and topics covered by the book jump around, so the reader does not need to read the chapters in succession in order to understand the stories. Although this may disturb some readers, I enjoyed this feature since I could start with the chapters that interested me most.

The sources for this book include previously unpublished documents, interviews with surviving kamikaze pilots, and translations of published Japanese material. Although the book contains a three-page list of recommended readings, the authors generally do not mention sources for the stories. For example, the English translations of two long letters (pp. 140-2) written by kamikaze pilots come directly from The Divine Wind (1958) by Rikihei Inoguchi and Tadashi Nakajima without any acknowledgement of the source.

Although Axell and Kase mention the misgivings of some kamikaze pilots, they tend to idealize the lives and beliefs of the kamikaze pilots in the stories included in this book. One young woman wrote in a letter to the parents of a pilot who crashed into an American ship, "All of these young men were kind-hearted and were emotionally tied to their families. . . . I learned how precious is the spirit of sacrifice carried out for the good of the people. They were possessed by true altruism" (pp. 144-5).

Kamikaze: Japan's Suicide Gods provides readers with insights into the personal lives of kamikaze pilots and those individuals closest to them. However, its lack of organization and documentation does not make it a recommended book for someone who wants to know the history of Japan's kamikaze operations.