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Hotaru ni natta tokkouhei: Miyakawa Saburou monogatari (Kamikaze pilot who turned into firefly: Story of Saburo Miyakawa)
by Tadao Hiroi
Niigata Nippo Jigyosha, 1995, 224 pages

On the eve before Sergeant Saburo Miyakawa's sortie on a kamikaze mission from Chiran Army Air Base, he made a promise to return the next night as a firefly (hotaru in Japanese). Tome Torihama, who ran a small restaurant in Chiran frequented by Miyakawa and many other kamikaze pilots, told this story many times until her death in 1992. As a result, the tale of Miyakawa's return as a firefly has become one of the most famous kamikaze stories in Japan. A kamikaze pilot in the popular 2001 Japanese film Hotaru is based on a combination of Miyakawa and a Korean pilot named Fumihiro Mitsuyama. The former Chiran restaurant of Tome Torihama is now the Hotaru Museum, and Torihama's daughter Reiko wrote a book entitled Hotaru Kaeru (The Firefly Returns), which includes Miyakawa's story in one chapter.

This biography by Tadao Hiroi, whose hometown in Niigata Prefecture is the same as Miyakawa's, extols this kamikaze pilot who turned into a firefly after his death. However, the book often drifts far from its biographical subject, and Miyakawa's real personality remains largely unknown after more than 200 pages. Even excerpts from the author's interviews with family members and friends do not provide many insights into his feelings and thinking during his short life and as he faced death.

The first chapter starts with the last letters to his father and mother. The one written to his mother is translated below:

Loving mother, excuse me for neglecting to write for such a long time.

Completely determined and burning with the spirit of certain death, I go forward to my mission.

Mother, thank you for looking after me well during my twenty years. I remember clearly my figure at your breast when I was young. Mother, thank you for taking good care of me from morning to night. Forgive me for my worthlessness in that I cannot repay your kindness in any way.

From long ago it has been said that loyalty and filial piety go together. Loyalty is nothing but filial piety. Please rest assured. I will surely carry out my duty to you as parents.

Please take good care of your health.


The beginning chapter also contains a last letter to his brothers, another one to his sisters, and a piece written the day before his death in which he describes his nostalgic sentiments for his hometown.

Saburo Miyakawa grew up in Shirokawa Village (now Ojiya City) in a snowy, mountainous region of Niigata Prefecture. He excelled in academics and commuted daily to Nagaoka Technical School, one of the best schools in the area. After graduation, he went to work in Tokyo at the Tachikawa Aircraft Factory, where he lived with his brother Eijiro who worked at the same factory. Saburo studied while working and passed difficult examinations to enter Waseda University's Department of Science and Technology and Keio University's Engineering Department. However, he decided to become a pilot instead of entering a university, so in October 1943 he entered a Pilot Training School, run by the Communications Ministry and located in Chiba Prefecture. He graduated in July 1944 and then transferred to the Sendai Pilot Training School and afterward to combat units in Korea and Manchuria where he flew a Type 99 Assault Plane. Disappointingly, this book provides no details of his life during training and combat assignment prior to his two sorties on kamikaze missions.

Saburo Miyakawa with parents.
Photo taken during return home
when in training at Sendai
Pilot Training School

Miyakawa was assigned to the 104th Shinbu Special Attack Squadron to sortie on a kamikaze mission from Bansei Air Base. The squadron divided into two groups of six planes each that sortied on April 12 and 13, 1945, but Miyakawa had to return to base due to engine problems. He said he wanted to sortie again quickly in a good plane, but he was sent to nearby Chiran Air Base to wait for orders. During his wait, he by chance met a former Ojiya Elementary School classmate named Yoshikatsu Matsuzaki. However, Matsuzaki sortied on a kamikaze mission on May 20. Miyakawa finally received his order to sortie from Chiran. June 5, the day before his scheduled sortie to death, was his 20th birthday. He visited Tome Torihama and her two daughters at Tomiya Restaurant, where he told them that he and his friend Enosuke Takimoto would both return as fireflies at 9 o'clock the following night. They sortied together the next day, but Takimoto signaled many times to Miyakawa that they should return to base due to driving rain and heavy clouds. Miyakawa signaled that Takimoto should return and he would go on. On the evening of June 6, Takimoto returned alone to Tomiya Restaurant. At 9 o'clock, a firefly came through the open restaurant door and alit on a ceiling beam. Everyone in the restaurant marveled that Miyakawa had returned as a firefly.

Much of this book strays far from the life story of Saburo Miyakawa. Chapter 2's fifty pages, organized by season starting with spring, at times reads like a tour guide for the region in Niigata Prefecture where Miyakawa lived and went to school. The author describes the region's festivals, wildlife, foods, farming activities, sports, and plants, but Miyakawa's name only gets mentioned now and then as part of these general depictions of the region. As another example of the book's digressions, the end of Chapter 1 tells the stories of ten other kamikaze pilots who sortied from Chiran, but these pilots had almost no direct connection with Miyakawa. As a final example, Chapter 6 goes into much more detail about Tome Torihama's life than needed for a book intended to be Miyakawa's biography.

Besides many extraneous details contained in this book, the idealization of Miyakawa's life makes this biography rather tedious. Although he may very well have been outstanding in many respects, Miyakawa seems based on this book to never have done anything wrong, excelled in academics and sports, and treated everyone kindly. Not only that, he was an idol for all the local teen girls. Hiroi gathered much information for this book from secondary sources, but he also interviewed some family members and friends, who may have been hesitant to say anything negative about someone they consider to be a hero who died defending his country.

Although the bibliography includes several standard books on Chiran and the kamikaze pilots who sortied from there, the author still commits a few errors. For example, he states that 1,028 kamikaze pilots died in sorties from Chiran Air Base. Actually, this number includes all Army airmen who died in attacks around Okinawa. Only 439 of these men sortied from Chiran. In another lapse, the author states Miyakawa would encounter the American fleet within an hour after leaving the mainland, but his actual flying time would have been about two hours.

The book contains several touching stories, but these tend to be brief with few specifics. Enosuke Takimoto, who had sortied with Miyakawa but returned to base due to poor weather, traveled right after the war's end from his home in Yamanashi Prefecture to Miyakawa's parents' home in Niigata Prefecture. Takimoto stayed at their home for a month as they treated him just like their son, but they never met again as he passed away just three years later. In another moving story, on the eve before Miyakawa's kamikaze sortie, Tome Torihama's 14-year-old daughter Reiko received from Miyakawa his flight watch and his treasured fountain pen given to him by his brother Eijiro when they worked together at Tachikawa Aircraft Factory. Miako, Reiko's older sister, said years later that if Miyakawa had lived he might have married Reiko when she grew up. The book also tells of the emotional meetings of Tome Torihama with Saburo's brother Buichi in 1970 at a Tokyo television studio and his brother Eijiro in 1982 at Chiran.

This biography of Saburo Miyakawa contains much information that other books do not mention about his short life. However, this book suffers from excessive and irrelevant details in many places. A much shorter book, maybe about one third of its current size, would have given the key episodes of Miyakawa's life much more emotional impact.