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In Fukuoka City with Senri Nagasue
and classmates in 14th Class of
Ko Naval Flight Training Program 

 
2004 Japan Trip

As part of my research for this web site on Kamikaze Images, I visited Japan for two months in 2004. The primary purposes of this trip were to view artifacts at museums, to visit former air bases, and to talk with former kamikaze pilots and others about their wartime experiences. These activities greatly assisted in my exploration of Japanese portrayals and perceptions of the young men who participated in suicide attacks near the end of World War II. In the summer of 2003, I also visited four major Japanese museums with exhibits related to kamikaze pilots in order to get ideas and gather materials for this web site.

My trip itinerary included visits to eleven museums with exhibits related to Special Attack Corps that carried out suicide attacks. I also went to several former air bases with monuments related to the Kamikaze Corps, such as Oita, Kushira, and Miyazaki. I had the opportunity to meet about forty people who served in the former Japanese Imperial Navy or who were family members of kamikaze pilots who died in the war. Most of the former Navy pilots had joined kamikaze squadrons before the end of the war, and four had flown on suicide missions to Okinawa but returned due to engine problems, weather, or plane damage after attacks by American planes. Near the end of the war the Navy and Army designated many entire units as special attack units intended to carry out suicide attacks, so many men had trained in kamikaze units but did not attempt actual attacks because the military lacked sufficient usable planes and the end of the war occurred soon after the men had been assigned to kamikaze units. Although most of Japan's Special Attack Corps consisted of pilots who tried to crash planes into Allied ships, I also met one man who had been a member in an ohka (rocket-power glider bomb) squadron and another man who trained as a fukuryu (frogman in shallow water to destroy the enemy's landing craft with explosives attached to top of bamboo pole).

Senri Nagasue, a former kamikaze pilot who has one of the largest Japanese web sites about kamikaze, arranged for me to meet many people on my trip through Japan. Most of these people are his Navy classmates or others he has met in performing research for the four books he has written on the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps. Several people took me to out-of-the-way monuments and small exhibitions that I did not have on my original itinerary. Many men, in addition to telling me about their wartime experiences, provided me with articles, books, photos, and other material that provided invaluable resources for this web site on Kamikaze Images.


With Ryohei Kawakaze, former kamikaze pilot,
in front of Miyazaki Special Attack Base Monument

During my trip to Japan, the places I visited and people I met allowed me to make many interesting connections between information found in books, films, museums, Internet, and other sources. For example, I discovered many links to Shinichi Ishimaru, a professional baseball pitcher who joined the Navy and died as a kamikaze pilot at the age of 22 in May 1945. During the first half of my two-month stay in Japan, I attended Japanese classes at the Okayama Institute of Languages. The mother of the family in whose home I stayed in Okayama City came from Saga Prefecture, Shinichi Ishimaru's home prefecture, and she had been a volunteer in the production of the film Ningen no Tsubasa (Wings of a Man) about Ishimaru's life. She let me watch this touching 1995 film, so I wrote a review of the movie for this web site. When I visited the Special Attack Corps War Dead Memorial Tower in Kanoya City, I saw Ishimaru's name on a plaque with the names of 908 kamikaze corps members based at Kanoya who lost their lives. During my talk with a former ohka squadron member in Nobeoka City, he mentioned to me that he met Ishimaru at Kanoya Air Base and gave me a copy of a newspaper article he had written about the film. I visited the Yasukuni Jinja Yushukan near the end of the trip and saw Ishimaru's photo among the several thousand photos of war dead displayed at the museum. On the Internet, I read that Ishimaru's name is engraved on a monument, located outside the Tokyo Giants' stadium, which honors professional baseball players who lost their lives in the war. Finally, through the Internet I obtained a book about Ishimaru's life, which includes several historical photos.

In another example of relating information from different sources during my Japan trip, I found out more about Hichiro Naemura, who served as an Army flight instructor in 1945 and spent much time at Bansei Air Base in Kagoshima Prefecture. Before visiting Japan, I had read several articles on the Internet about a former Japanese kamikaze pilot who in 1992 visited the War Museum in London dressed in the Army uniform he wore during the war and who talked with reporters about the reasons for kamikaze attacks. When I visited the Kaseda Peace Museum (now known as Bansei Tokko Peace Museum), I found out that Naemura led the efforts to open the museum in 1993 and to construct the Bansei Special Attack Monument in 1972. A curator at the museum gave me several pieces of information about his visit to England, so then I figured out that the former kamikaze pilot who visited the War Museum and the man supported for the Kaseda Peace Museum are the same person. At the museum I also bought a large book by Naemura published in 1993 about the history of Bansei Air Base, including last letters and photographs of the men based there who died in kamikaze attacks.

With Kiyoshi Iwamoto in front of
the Kokubu No. 2 Air Base
Special Attack Corps Monument

 
Although I learned much from hearing the wartime experiences of former kamikaze pilots, I also gained insights to Japan's special attack corps by talking with other people. For example, I visited the former Kokubu No. 2 Air Base with Kiyoshi Iwamoto, who wrote a book with a detailed history of the base, the last letters of several kamikaze pilots, and reflections on kamikaze operations by several local residents. Iwamoto served in the Japanese Navy during the war, but he never was part of the Kamikaze Corps. During my visit I learned that Iwamoto has written three other books, including a book of poetry. He wrote the following poem (my translation to English) inscribed on the plaque at the Special Attack Corps Monument, located on a hill that looks down upon the former Kokubu No. 2 Air Base.

Repose of Souls

Riders of the white clouds
Come back to us
Cherry blossom breeze
Scent of chrysanthemums
Giving your blessing 
Your hometown now filled
With peace

Another interesting talk was with Yuko Shirako, a woman whose mother's fiancÚ sortied from Miyakonojo Air Base in Miyazaki Prefecture and died in a kamikaze attack off Okinawa. Her mother has never said anything to her father about this part of her life, but in her later years she has shared with her daughter many of the details of her engagement and her fiancÚ's death. However, even today she has never shown anyone the last letter her fiancÚ wrote to her prior to his departure toward Okinawa. Shirako showed me the sweater of her mother's fiancÚ, and she said that she sometimes wears it. She has done much research to try to piece together the full story of her mother's fiancÚ, and this web site has one page that tells the story her mother's fiancÚ based on the results of that research.

In Kagoshima City, I spent a couple of days with Shoji Jikuya, a former Zero pilot who flew a kamikaze mission to Okinawa. He managed to return to mainland Japan when his plane was damaged after a skirmish with American planes. He commented that many men joined the Kamikaze Corps before the end of the war, but only a few had real battle experience with the enemy and managed to return. Jikuya, who grew up in Kagoshima City, remembers in late 1941 when Navy planes destined for Pearl Harbor practiced dives and bombing over Kagoshima Bay because of the physical similarity of the two locations.

Yasukuni Jinja

 
Near the end of my time in Japan, I made my third visit to the museum at Yasukuni Jinja, the place where many kamikaze pilots said they would meet after their deaths since Yasukuni serves as the national shrine for Japan's war dead. After talking with three former pilots while eating lunch, a Shinto priest escorted us to the inner sanctuary at the shrine where the general public can view from afar but not enter.

The topic most discussed with former Imperial Japanese Navy airmen was modern-day terrorism. A Los Angeles Times reporter planned to talk with some of the same people I did about the relationship of kamikaze attacks to modern-day suicide bombings, so several former kamikaze pilots eagerly wanted to tell me their views on this issue. They strongly and unanimously disagreed with the insinuation that kamikaze attacks during World War II were the same as today's terrorist attacks. When some Japanese and foreign media in 2001 linked kamikazes with the terrorists who steered planes into the World Trade Towers and Pentagon, these former Navy pilots became especially angry. They argued, reasonably in my opinion, that the two were completely different. The terrorists attacked innocent civilians using highjacked civilian aircraft. In contrast, the Japanese kamikaze attacks took place against military targets during war.

The former kamikaze pilots who I met during my trip seemed little different than other Japanese people. They seemed very happy to live now in a peaceful Japan, but they also all had pride in their military service. Other than one man who wanted to emphasize that the Kamikaze Corps had true samurai spirit, nobody displayed militaristic and nationalistic opinions. In fact, I met several men who played leadership roles in friendship associations with other countries such as Taiwan, Philippines, and Australia. Since the militaristic wartime government prohibited the study and use of English, many of the men who I met missed the opportunity to study English in high school. During my visit no one could speak English, and also nobody had ever visited the mainland U.S. Although many men had served in the Kamikaze Corps, the men generally showed a much closer bond over many decades with their classmates in the Yokaren (Naval Preparatory Flight Training Program) rather than fellow pilots in the Kamikaze Corps.

My 2004 trip to Japan gave me numerous opportunities to talk directly with former kamikaze pilots and others who lived during the war, to examine letters and other artifacts in museums with exhibits related to Special Attack Forces, and to view air bases and monuments. These experiences provided many insights that I have tried to incorporate into this web site on Kamikaze Images.