Gutted shell of building where
kaiten human torpedoes were
lowered into water
Among the Remnants of the Suicide Subs
by Keith Fitzgerald
Keith is an American teacher and writer in Bangkok.
I’m chatting with the very helpful man who sells ferry tickets to Otsushima.
From this dreary port city of Tokuyama in Yamaguchi prefecture, I’ll take a boat
to the island to see the Kaiten Memorial Museum -- the place dedicated to the
memory of the 106 young men who killed themselves in suicide subs. I’m headed to
this place because I am drawn to such darkness. And light. To believe so deeply
in your nation that you sign up to incinerate yourself, in the dim hope that
your sacrifice and that of your comrades just might turn the tide of this war.
Perhaps make the Americans agree to a cease-fire favorable to Japan. Maybe
prevent an invasion of the Home Islands. It is, for those who decide to die,
either this or the end of Nippon.
Today in Japan, many young men pluck their eyebrows, devote precious time to
finding the coolest-looking hats and hairdos, the right pose, the best track to
a secure job in some corporation. But 70-some years ago, there were these guys
who decided to learn how to crash their subs and planes into enemy vessels. It
was glorious. For the emperor. For the nation. For mom, dad, siblings,
neighbors. The pilots wore hachimaki headbands and thousand-stitch
good-luck belts woven by school girls and women all over the country.
They believed. In what? Their teachers, their government, their elders taught
them that Japan was superior, destined to rule over all of Asia, to gain an
equal footing with the Great Western Powers. Never to be humiliated like China
was by the British in the Opium Wars. To “put the eight corners of the world
under one Japanese roof,” to create the Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
To civilize their barbarian neighbors, the Chinese, Koreans, Burmese, Malay, all
of them. It was duty.
The Japanese, like their allies, the Nazis, murdered millions of innocent
people. They invaded 14 countries, raped, looted, and wrecked everywhere they
went. The atomic bombs finally convinced Hirohito to throw in the towel. Japan
was magically transformed into a nation of pacifists. Every museum here which
deals with the war proclaims the "need for peace." It is as repetitive and
coerced as the old militaristic sloganeering. A new form of brainwashing. War is
I hope to see, if there are ruins on Otsushima, something that is truer than
the post-war propaganda. If I can see where the kaiten were finally
assembled and attached to regular subs, where the pilots practiced, and some
decaying buildings and the coastline that is depicted in old photos -- the young
men holding samurai swords, waving to the camera before they set off to
annihilate others and themselves -- maybe I can get close to some truth that I
am trying to get hold of.
What that truth is, I haven't quite figured out. It is something about being
raised Christian, having Jesus as my first and main hero. Tortured, nailed to
the cross. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King gunned down. Everyone I most
admire murdered because of their principles. And telling myself since I was a
boy that I must be ready at any moment to do the same. If not to die, then to
risk and sacrifice everything for what is right. And so I have followed my
lights, and lost jobs and my home and my financial security because I have not
deviated from what my conscience tells me.
I am proud. I have been saying for some time that I am ready when the time
But I don't know.
* * *
One of my most disturbing nightmares goes like this: It is June 19, 1953 at
Sing Sing Prison in New York. I am Julius Rosenberg, the convicted spy who
helped the Soviets get details regarding the making of the atomic bomb at Los
Alamos. My wife Ethel and I have decided to be electrocuted rather than
cooperate with the American government. They tell us to name names, and we can
live. Keep seeing our young boys, Michael and Robby. Someday be released. We
feel that it’s better to be killed with high voltage, to orphan our sons, than
be broken by the government in these wretched days of McCarthyism. We will be
heroes for the left -- the only ones who pay the ultimate price. After us,
others will be braver.
In my dream, I am Julius, and I am not brave. I am terrified. They have
chosen to bring me to the chair first. The plan is to psyche Ethel out, break
her will, compel her to talk after smelling my burnt, smoking corpse. Maybe her
motherly instincts will win out. She'll choose the boys over the cause. They are
hoping for this. They don't know her.
Rabbi Koslow leads me to the death chamber. He is reciting the 23rd Psalm:
"... Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no
evil ..." But my legs are shaking badly. I am in a terror so vast, only death
can end it. I don't want to die. Not in this way. Not now. It is too late to
back out. I will not let them have the victory. A part of me hopes that Ethel
has given them a name. Something to placate them. Enough to save me. Herself.
But she is stronger. I would sooner surrender.
More than anything, at this moment, I wanted to be dignified. Instead, I am
pathetic. All the observers see it. I am not Nathan Hale or Joan of Arc. Not
now. I am Julius. I am Keith.
I don't want to die. Please don't do this to me. Though I say nothing, I am
begging for mercy. I have been lying to myself and everyone else. I am not what
I say I am, what I want to be. In the end, I am a chicken. For this, I deserve
They strap me into the chair. Put the mask over my face so the witnesses
don't have to see my eyeballs pop and then melt. Everything goes black.
* * *
If part of what has drawn me to Otsushima -- to the story of the kaiten
pilots, and the residue of their lives and deaths -- is the terror of that
Julius Rosenberg dream, then another part is this: I have sometimes wanted to
die, sometimes given quite a bit of thought to suicide. Not that often in my
life, but when, not even a year ago, the only person I ever wanted to marry
ditched me, turned so cold and cruel, after being my angel for two very good
years in southern California, I became emotionally sick. There was a period of
weeks when I kept thinking that I wanted to die. But it had to be painlessly,
peacefully. I have a fear of heights, and a low threshold for pain, so there
will be no jumping off buildings, shooting myself in the head, slicing my wrists
in a bathtub, leaping from the Palms Boulevard overpass in west L.A. onto the
405 Freeway, driving my silver '96 Honda Civic off a cliff in Palos Verdes, down
onto the rocks on the Pacific coast in my beloved South Bay. None of that. I
can't endure physical pain, and I am too thoughtful to leave a horrible mess for
others to clean up.
I did research on the internet. Wanted to find out which over-the-counter
drugs would put me to sleep forever. I called a local Ralph's supermarket late
at night, twice, talked with the pharmacist there, gave him a bullshit story
about how I had a friend who was talking suicide, thinking about taking Tylenol
or non-prescription sleeping pills. He told me what I already knew. Tylenol or
any kind of cold medicine, in large enough doses, might give you major liver
damage, but it's not likely to lead to the big sleep.
I was sure that, if I was going to do this, it had to be successful. No cry
for help. No botched suicide leading to greater problems such as a messed-up
body and medical bills I couldn't cover. No.
And no. I found out that I was only very seriously thinking of suicide. I
realized that dying in that ideal way is difficult. Then again, maybe I could do
like my mom did back on April 8, 1971, when I was ten. Swallow a bottle full of
barbiturates. Just find out where to get something like this. Enough pills.
If I hadn't noticed her silence that night, after my dad, my brother, and I
had lovingly asked her to cut down on her whisky and gin, and she had walked
away, into her room, shattered ...
It was my idea. Let's do an intervention. I didn't know the word then. 9
Welch Road, North Haven, Connecticut. My main growing-up home. I wanted the
misery to be cut in half. She was an angel sober. A demon drunk.
She walked away after our talk. And then there was this silence for too long. I
felt something was wrong. I looked in her bedroom. Not there. No noise
downstairs. No familiar sound of ice cubes clinking in her tall glass. The
upstairs bathroom locked. Eerie silence. I ran to tell dad. I knew. He called
for her through the door. Then broke through it. She was passed out on the
floor. The orange-brown plastic container of downers was on the floor by her
left hand, open, empty. Her head was near the toilet. She was dying.
My dad couldn't drive because he had epilepsy -- the result of a high school
football injury, a kick in the head as he was blocking a punt in Ridgefield
Park, New Jersey. 1943 or 44.
What do you do when your mom is dying of an overdose in the bathroom and your
dad can't legally drive? We called an ambulance, went across the street to the
alcoholic neighbors' place, the Gormans, and waited. Dad went with mom to
Yale-New Haven Hospital. I stayed with my brother at the Gormans. Maybe it was
decided that it was best for the sons not to be in the vehicle when she dies. Or
the space was too small. At the unhappy neighbors' house, I was offered some
snacks. My favorite cheese doodles: JAX. For the first time in my life, it was
impossible for me to eat.
They pumped my mom's stomach out as the ambulance sped north on the I-91
highway. She survived. When she came home the next morning, my heart was full of
love and fear. "Please don't ever do this again. We love you so much. We need
you so much. You are a great nurse. Your patients need you. They love you.
Please mom. Never again." She promised. And succeeded in putting an end to any
talk of cutting down on the booze.
21 years later, a few months after my dad died of cancer, she was living
alone in a townhouse in Wallingford, and almost drank herself to death. But luck
was with her. With the help of a concerned neighbor, my mom was saved again. In
the emergency room, the doctor told her that she had been just two or thee hours
from death. 70% kidney failure. Dehydration. Now she had to choose to live or
die, he said. If you go home and drink again, you will be dead soon. Either that
or get help. She went into rehab, made a new life for herself. It took the death
of my father.
* * *
What is it that attracts me like a magnet to places like Otsushima? This I
cannot ever get out of my mind: Ernest Hemingway's mother presented him with the
gun which his father had killed himself with. In the year of my birth, the great
writer took a shotgun there in his room upstairs in the house in Ketchum, Idaho.
His wife was downstairs. He pointed the rifle at his head, tripped the trigger
with a big toe, and blew his brains out.
How to explain this feeling that someone handed me a gun when I was a boy?
* * *
General Nogi Maresuke had been thinking of killing himself for 35 years
before he finally committed himself to the void on September 13, 1912 -- the day
of the Meiji emperor's funeral. He kept finding reasons to commit seppuku.
First, it was the humiliation of his battalion's losing their banner to the
enemy during the Seinan Civil War, on February 22, 1877 near Kumamoto. Then, in
1905, it was the death of his two sons and thousands of other young soldiers
whom he had sent to the slaughter on the 203-Meter Hill overlooking Port Arthur
in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War. Both times, his beloved monarch told
him that the nation needed him alive. So he became head of the Peers School in
Tokyo and mentor to the boy who would later become Emperor Hirohito. But when
Meiji died, General Nogi could postpone his own bloody end no longer.
This was the perfect moment. Follow one's master to death, like the old
times, when there was real loyalty. Nogi -- and, almost 60 years later, the
great writer Mishima Yukio -- wanted the beautiful self-mutilation of a samurai.
A theatrical suicide that would guarantee immortality.
And so it was. A picture of the emperor on a little table near the window
facing the palace. A last glass of wine with his wife, Shizuko. Their boys were
gone. Their leader was gone. They said "Kampai!” and cut themselves so that the
blood drenched the floor. I saw the room where they did it. At their home in
Akasaka, Tokyo. My friend went with me. He was spooked. Me, too. I couldn't take
my eyes off the tatami mats. I do not like much of anything that Nogi or Mishima
stood for. Except for their tragic purity of conviction. Except that they
crossed over, and I found that I could not.
* * *
President Lincoln was haunted by nightmares of his own coffin lying in state
in the White House. He had to lay low in his train car when it stopped in
Baltimore as he was heading from Illinois to the capital for his inauguration in
1861 because men were waiting to gun him down. And he was shot at one night in
August, 1864 while riding his horse in D.C. One of his desk drawers in the Oval
Office was filled with death threats. Still, he was committed, more and more as
the war dragged on, to the abolition of slavery. Come what may.
Dr. King knew. White men bombed his home on January 30, 1956 while he was
leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A black lady named Mrs. Izola Curry plunged
a letter opener into his chest on September 20, 1958 while he was signing books
in a Harlem department store.
Scrawled promises to murder him were as regular as the morning paper. "I may
not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land." James
Earl Ray shot him dead the next day.
The heroes who never backed down. Malcolm X speaking out against corruption
and hypocrisy in his own Nation of Islam. And so he was assassinated in front of
his family in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom in 1965.
* * *
I have always wanted to be no less than these people. Always felt that the
most basic fact is that, without such courage, everything that is worth anything
goes down the drain quickly. Oscar Wilde wrote: "Every little action of the
common day makes or unmakes character."
How was it that the Nazis and the Hirohito-Tojo cabal were able to do what
they did? How many stood up to say no? How many even disagreed? People get the
government they deserve. They taught me in elementary school that Hitler
achieved what he did because most Germans were good Germans.
By blood, I am half German-Jewish. I decided when I was nine that I’d never
be a good German.
We learned in high school about an incident in Queens, New York in the early
70's. A woman was being raped in broad daylight in a parking lot. Many tenants
in two buildings watched the whole thing from their windows. No one went down to
help her. No one called the cops. They watched. Then later said that they had
expected that someone else had called the police. I learned the lesson I was
supposed to from this story. I will never just look on.
My brother the retired deputy sheriff in Fresno once told me never to get
involved. Too dangerous. This was his response when I told him that I had
prevented some stranger's car from being stolen one night in a not-so-safe area
just south of downtown L.A. by shouting in a tough-guy way across the street at
the would-be thief, and then walking in a menacing way toward him. The guy ran
away. Brother said I could've been shot. Good way to die.
* * *
So, the Japanese were the enemy. My country's enemy. The enemy of all of
Asia. The most merciless ones. I have no connection to any kind of kamikaze.
Except that they were so ready to die. And I have always wanted to be.
What brings anyone to a place like Otsushima or Chiran in southern Kyushu,
where the young men who rammed their planes into American ships are
memorialized? It is easy enough to say that such sacrifice is so singular as to
have a visceral appeal, like a building in flames. But deeper than this allure
of the spectacular is the mystery of those individuals who actually became part
of a bomb zooming toward its target. The ones who thought plenty about killing
themselves and then did it in a way that can never be forgotten, never lose its
awful beauty. I know about their devotion to Dai Nippon. I know they believed
that, without their sacrifice, their homeland was destined to be run over and
ruined by the white barbarians.
I know this, but it is not enough. I imagine more than this for them.
What led them to immolate themselves was much more personal. Some pilots had
been ditched, ice-cold, by the one they loved more than anyone. Shattered, they
saw the chance to end all their misery in a few glorious seconds, to become a
hero, immortal, and an endless source of guilt to the one who broke their hearts
into a thousand pieces.
Some were bullied so bad in the military and their schools, their hometowns
-- they just wanted the worst sort of revenge. Fathers who didn't give a shit.
Who made them feel like nothing. Mothers who showered affection on a sister or
brother. Friends they fought for, were ready to die for, and abandoned them in a
I got into that plane, that one-man sub to oblivion because you made me want
to live no longer. I was so good to you. You knew it, and then you didn't care
anymore. I will die for Japan, for you. I want you to bear the burden of my
surrender for the rest of your life. I gave up because of you, Shin, Ayako, oto-san,
oka-san, sensei, Lisa, Yuki, even my dog that I cared for so much more than my
brother did, but who loved him more than me. I am going to an early grave
because of Fluffy.
We all know about the noble stuff. What about this? Fuck you for turning my
life into hell. You made me want to die. Here is my ghastly death for you to
think about for the rest of your life.
* * *
So here I am at the ferry office in this ugly city, Tokuyama,
the very place where the Battleship Yamato set out, April 6, 1945, on its
tokko tai voyage to the turkey shoot in Okinawa.
It is very bleak today. My spirits are sinking because of the gray, the rain,
the solitude. But the man who sells tickets happens to speak English O.K. He is
helpful, friendly. I ask him if the Kaiten Museum is interesting. He says it's
not for him, but some people are really into that kind of thing. He lets me
leave my heavy bags in his office for the day, gives me information about the
local post office.
As we’re chatting, a little old man about 80 comes up to the ticket window,
listens in as I ask about Otsushima, and then proudly announces that he is going
there, too. He is no more than five feet tall and 90 pounds, with beady eyes and
a cowboy tie which features a submarine on the silver pendant.
"Otsushima! I go now! Me too! Yes! You go? Yes! I go! Same place, ne? Ha ha
ha ... ... ... Indianapolis ... Me. Me sub ... Torpedo. You know? You
American? BOOM!! Me. Indianapolis. Down. Ha ha ha. Ne? Yes. I go too!
The ferry ticket man does a bit of translating, but I get it. He tells me,
with an awkward look on his face, that this guy is a veteran of the sub that
sank the U.S.S. Indianapolis.
The old man is bragging. He is tiny and his bravado is very big. He is macho.
I wonder if he wears that cowboy tie everywhere he goes, if he is like those
Pearl Harbor survivors with their caps in Oahu -- eternal advertisements for
their role in History. If his whole life these last 60 years has revolved around
the part he played in the worst naval disaster in American history.
My spontaneous reaction, suppressed, is to say something like: "Genbaku!!
(Atomic bombs!!) Yes. We! You know? America! BOOM!! Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Boom! Ne? Ha ha ha." Instead, I look at him blankly, coldly. I am not going to
return his creepy smile or indulge his claim to significance. I will not stoop
to his level, but he will know that I’m not going to be making small talk or any
other kind on the ferry or anywhere else.
This is too strange. What is this goofball expecting? A big "Wow!" from me? A
show of deep curiosity? Some respect? I am one of the least nationalistic people
on the planet, I think. I stopped standing for the national anthem in stadiums
and all other places over 25 years ago. I oppose the Pledge of Allegiance. I
want "In God We Trust" taken off all American money, and I am a long-time critic
of the sins of my country -- our involvement in the Viet Nam War, Reagan
policies in Central America, Bush the Second's war in Iraq, plenty more.
I also love the landscape, the ideals and heroes of my country, and know that
we were on the right side in World War II. The Japanese were evil and had to be
stopped. The atomic bombs prevented the loss of many more lives than they
destroyed. Justifiable atrocities, in my book.
* * *
The boat will be heading for Otsu Island in about 50 minutes. I walk to the
post office, find some pretty stamps to put on an envelope I'll send to a former
student in southern California. Brochures for him from the Thai-Burma Death
Railway museum in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, near the place they call the River
Kwai. I walk around in the downpour, kill time, put some heart and hope into
this connection to someone far away.
When I return to the ferry terminal, I see the old guy and a peer (a
comrade?) in the lobby. He points at me, smiles again in that inexplicable way,
and gestures to his friend and me, as if to say that we have a connection; we
will go together. Again, I give him a dead look. But this is not easy. Someone
smiles at you, you smile back. Not doing so is unnatural. I have to be
unnatural. Japan is doing this to me.
Truth is: I don't know what’s in his mind. Maybe I have misread him. Maybe he
is a fine man who just wants to make peace with someone from the former-enemy
country. Maybe he is not brimming with pride and noxious insensitivity. Maybe I
have a bad attitude.
I doubt it. He said: "Indianapolis. BOOM!! Down. Ha ha ha." And smiled
like a guy talking about the latest girl whose pants he got into. I don't like
him. I'd be happy to find out I'm wrong.
* * *
About 20 people board the ferry. As is usually the case, I am the only
non-Japanese here. The only American. The only gaijin. Most passengers go into
an enclosed area where a TV is on. Some stupid show, and everybody is laughing.
I prefer to be out in the rain, looking at the sea, the small islands we pass,
imagining the lives of people in remote places like this. When I look into the
water, I feel better.
There are three guys in their 20's out on the deck with me. They are going
fishing somewhere. They are not going to any Kaiten Museum. I can tell. They are
sporting very fashionable fishermen's outfits. They are like the new generation
of "cowboy" singers in America -- all flash. One goes into the bathroom where
there is a mirror and works on arranging his cap and vest so that, just in case
a photographer for a fishermen's magazine or a girl with a soft spot for this
get-up comes by, he'll be ready.
Mr. BOOM is watching the idiot box. The reception is bad. The weather and my
mood are getting worse.
* * *
This is the story of the 610-foot-long heavy cruiser called the
Indianapolis: It had been in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. On March
31, 1945, it was hit by a kamikaze and suffered serious damage. 13 men on board
were killed. Captain Charles Butler McVay took the ship to California for
repairs. Almost four months later, he and his crew transported the uranium,
plutonium, and other components of the atomic bombs from San Francisco to Tinian
Island in the northern Marianas. Following that mission, it sailed to Guam and
was then ordered to Leyte Gulf in The Philippines to meet up with the U.S.S.
Idaho and prepare for the invasion of Japan.
On July 30, 1945, as it made its way to Leyte, it was hit by two torpedoes
fired by the Japanese sub, I-58, which was carrying four kaiten at the
time, though they were not used in this attack. The
Indianapolis sank in 12 minutes. About 300 men went down with the ship.
There was no escort and no help anywhere nearby. Nearly 600 sailors who had
survived the sinking were later either ripped to shreds by sharks, or just
drowned. 883 men died.
It was a wonderful accomplishment for Mr. BOOM and his mates. Just a week
before Hiroshima would be leveled, this very ship that had played a vital role
in the two bombings that would kill about 300,000 of their compatriots and force
their divine emperor to surrender. What a sublime thing to watch the
Indianapolis burn, burn, burn, go down under the waves. Perhaps Japan still
had a chance.
After the war, the Captain of the cursed cruiser was court-martialed for not
zigzagging. The Navy elite decided that someone had to take the blame for this
calamity. I-58 commander Hashimoto testified at McVay's trial that zigzagging
would have made no difference at all. His sub would have easily blasted the
Indianapolis to hell, no matter what. But his testimony had no effect on
those who sat in judgment of the captain. He was found guilty of tragically
hazarding his ship, even though such an evasive maneuver was left to his
discretion as captain and was only, by the language of the indictment, required
under conditions of good visibility, which was not the case at all just a few
minutes past midnight on the last of July.
Admirals Nimitz and Spruance had argued against any scapegoating of McVay. To
no avail. He was stripped of 100 numbers in his permanent rank of Commander and
the same number in his temporary rank of Captain. The effect was total disgrace.
When Nimitz became Chief of Naval Operations in 1946, he persuaded Navy
Secretary Forrestal to void this punishment and return McVay to duty. He served
for three years with the rank of Rear Admiral in New Orleans and retired in
1949. But he was haunted by the deaths of so many young men under his command.
He never overcame the humiliation, and he was agonized by hate mail from
relatives of those who had died.
On November 6, 1968 at his home in Litchfield, Connecticut, he took his Navy
pistol and shot himself to death. He was finally and fully exonerated by the
Congress and president in 2001.
* * *
The ferry boat stops at two islands before reaching Otsushima. At the dock, I
hurry off in the downpour, not knowing where the museum is, but intent on going
first to the stone pier where the kaiten crews practiced. I want to see
the real thing before I go into any all-in-Japanese memorial hall, which I am
leery of anyway, knowing as I do how little of the truth about the war gets
taught in this country. Anyway, I love ruins, long-ago-abandoned places.
I cut a straight path to the coastline on the opposite side of the dock. This
island is narrow, and I have an instinct that the pier I've seen only
black-and-white photos of is down that way. As soon as I get near the water, I
can see it in the distance. It is an ugly, lonesome-looking thing. It speaks of
great hopes, absolute devotion and futility. Total loss. There is a Ground Zero
gloom to it, even from 300 yards away. I feel that it’s pulling me toward
Over to my right, there’s a group of six Japanese people -- three couples who
are using the train tracks to get to the same place I am going. I think, at
first: That's the easy way to go. And not for me. Follow the coast. Always
follow the coast, like Commander Taylor and Nova in Planet of the Apes. That's
the way to find the tragedy.
But at a certain point, my shoreline route becomes impassable and it seems
that the tunnel ahead is old. I had been ahead of that group, and meant to be
the first one to the pier, but now they are ahead of me, and it looks as if they
had a better sense. Along the way after getting off the boat, we had made eye
contact from a distance a few times. No smiles. This is Japan, This is a lousy
day. This is Otsushima. They are Japanese. I am American. We were enemies, and
now we're supposed to be friends.
I let them take the lead through the tunnel, far enough ahead of me that I
won't have to see them or hear their chatter. I want silence and I want to be
I realize that this is the same tunnel that was used three generations ago to
transport the suicide subs to their practice area. It was the final rail link.
The kaiten were built in Kure, then shipped either here or to one of the
other three bases -- Hikari and Hirao, also in Yamaguchi prefecture, or Oga in
Oita, across the strait in Kyushu.
I have traveled this far for this, as much as anything else. To walk through
this cavern, to step on the tracks. A little more than halfway through this
passage burrowed through the cliff, there are big, poster-sized blow-ups of
photos of the young men who practiced here how to kill themselves in modified
The pictures are illuminated by lamps and even have English texts beneath the
Japanese. I see what I have seen before in books. One photo shows a group of
eight sailors. Average age -- 22. They seem so relaxed, gentle, happy. It is as
if they were caught on film in training camp for their college rugby or boating
team. They are content and ready to go. This is the way they were supposed to
appear for the cameras. Perhaps there is truth in the propaganda. They
volunteered for this duty.
What a fine way to die.
I look long and close at the faces of the young men. I can't tell much. The
photo of the guys standing atop one of their kaiten, sporting samurai
swords and waving, is the most famous one. They were envisioning themselves as
part of the hallowed tradition of knights in feudal Japan, ready at any time to
either be hacked or hack themselves to death, in the name of duty, honor, their
I stare, wonder, try to connect, fail, then wait for that group of six to
head back from the pier so that I can have that place all to myself.
I go through to the other side, out onto the rocks and then the path that
leads to the concrete wasteland. Before walking to the pier itself, I see the
trio of couples coming toward me. I wonder what kind of vacation this is for
them. As they pass me, we exchange awkward looks. Then I go forward, over the
walkway that’s about six feet above the water. Under me are what look like five
passageways for kaiten. At the end of this stretch is the gutted shell of
a building under which the suicide submarines were lowered into the water,
either for solo practice runs or to ride piggyback on regular subs like the
I-58. There was once a big crane here at the end of the pier. It was used to
lift the vessels from their carts down into the water. Now, just a bit of its
rusted, rotting base is there.
The whole structure is so simple. I look down into the rectangular spaces cut
out of the stone where the kaiten sat. They are like open coffins in the
I try to imagine those smiling guys in their gear, getting into their tiny
space behind the wheel and periscope, a 3400-pound warhead in front of them.
Kelp flutters in the current below and a pall of gray is over everything.
Otsushima may be pretty on a sunny spring day, but today, it is one of the most
desolate places I have ever seen.
Close to here is where Lieutenant Kuroki Hiroshi, the naval engineer and
co-founder of the kaiten, met his end. It was September 6, 1944, his
second training run. The sub he was operating slammed into the mud at the
bottom, got stuck. There was no way to rescue him. His comrade, Nishina Sekio,
with whom he had drawn up and promoted the plans for this new type of Special
Attack unit, took the ashes of Kuroki with him on his own suicide mission -- the
destruction of the oiler called the U.S.S. Mississinewa that was anchored at
Ulithi in the Caroline Islands on November 20 and went up in a ball of flames,
its full tanks of fuel turned into an inferno that killed 63 Americans.
Nishina and Kuroki had devised the plans for Kikusui -- Floating
Chrysanthemums, as they called it, evoking the symbol of their divine monarch.
If the kamikaze in planes were like the short, beautiful life of oka -- cherry
blossoms that fall from the tree after a week of loveliness -- then the
kaiten were another flower that is as Japanese as the name Yamato. Pretty
petals on the sea. Dead already. So young. So short a time to live.
The two lieutenants were committed. They didn't give up when the Navy high
command ignored their proposal the first time. Instead, they tried to make it
better and then sent it to Tokyo again, this time signed in their blood. That
flourish did the trick.
What they created had one other success. On July 24, 1945, an American
destroyer escort, the U.S.S. Underhill, was rammed by kaiten about
150 miles north of Luzon in the Philippine Sea. 122 of the 238 crewmen aboard
The math is not so impressive: 106 kaiten pilots made themselves into
fireballs. There was no returning to the mother ship. Those who found no target
detonated their vessels anyway. In all, these bold young fellows were able to
destroy two ships and kill less than 200 Americans. A little museum on a
godforsaken island in western Honshu memorializes them.
I stand alone on the dock in a downfall of rain. I am trying to absorb
something. I don't believe in ghosts, gods, an afterlife. I am doing what all
tourists do -- trying to capture some bit of what is gone. I take photos. I try
to visualize as much as I can. The effort fails, always does.
I walk away, think of taking a little stone from the shoreline as a memento.
But the ache I feel in my chest is enough.
Back through the tunnel -- one of the most important vestiges of World War II
in Japan. I am sheltered for a while from the rain. Train cars carried the
kaiten down these tracks, out to the end.
Beyond this cavern, I follow a sign with a hand pointed on it. That must be
where the museum is, up this hill. Up and around I walk, and then I see the
small, low horizontal building ahead. There is a gravel path leading to it.
Along the sides, set into little embankments, are flat, polished granite
squares, 53 on each side, each engraved with the name of one of the men who
became a Floating Chrysanthemum, a fury of flame, metal, and flesh.
A kaiten is proudly displayed outside in the right front part of the
building near a larger memorial. I've seen these subs before at Pearl Harbor,
the Yamato Museum in Kure, somewhere else. Black missiles. Very simple, with
their small silver propeller at the tail, the periscope jutting up over the
center. Hard to picture a man inside. But you have to imagine that.
I walk into the museum. There's no one at the front desk. Finally, for once.
Something free in this very expensive country. And I’m not sure I want to pay
for this place anyway.
The building is small -- just one main room with photos of the 106,
artifacts, a diorama of the complex as it was during the final two years of the
war. No English texts. Not surprised, but still disappointed, as I'd love to be
able to know what spin they put on the war here. What does the text say under
the photos of the smoking, wrecked U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor? The old hooey
about how F.D.R. "knew the attack was coming," how Japan was "compelled to
defend itself" against the Western powers, how the goal was to liberate east
Asia from white control? I can't read it, so I don't know. Was that the plan? No
English for gaijin. Keep them outside. They are dry, anyway. They could never
understand anyway. This is a Japanese thing. Or maybe it's just that so few
foreigners come here, so why bother with English?
I am wandering around this little museum, trying to absorb whatever the
photos and relics might have to teach me. I fear it is little. Then I see a book
for guests to write their thoughts in. I sit down and write my standard line
about how the Japanese killed 30 million people, mostly civilians, during their
attempted conquest of over a dozen countries, and how their emperor, Hirohito,
was a gung-ho militarist, since these are very basic facts which have been
covered up in Japan for over 60 years. I want Japanese visitors who can
comprehend English to read this and know that their country is not going to be
let off the hook, that not everyone who visits this place is here to honor the
memories of the human torpedoes.
And then I see him again. The little man who seems to be shadowing me, the
braggart with his cowboy tie and irritating smile and attitude. Again he beckons
to me, and I feel as if I may be too cold. Perhaps I should just give him a nice
hello, make him feel good, forget about Nanjing and Bataan and the
Indianapolis. I don't know what is in this man's mind. Sometimes I assume
too much. I can't find peace.
As he is walking around near me, in comes a stream of folks, most of them his
peers, most wearing that Japanese sub cowboy tie. I figure it out. They are here
as a group.
A girl around 21, a college student, makes eye contact with me, comes near to
where I am standing with my lost look, and asks where I'm from. I tell her. She
says that this is the annual memorial for veterans of I-58, the one that sank
the Indianapolis, that all the older men here were naval engineers, and
she’s here representing her grandpa who is too sick to make the trip from
somewhere near Tokyo to way out here in the west of Honshu. Far from everything
except the fish and the dismal port of Tokuyama and the memories.
Next to her, a friendly, short, chubby woman in her mid 50's, here on behalf
of her dad. She speaks good English, too. Suddenly, I am in the midst of English
guides, translators! I have hit upon the good luck that has so often come my way
in my travels in this country. The very day that I have visited is the one day a
year when all the surviving members of the sub that annihilated the
Indianapolis come to Otsushima to participate in a memorial ceremony for
their dead comrades. It is a very lousy day, and I am very fortunate.
With the college girl and the plump lady is a very well-dressed, dignified
looking man in his 80's. He notices the top of the book in a pocket of my winter
coat. He says, with interest, "Gospel?" I have been reading Norman Mailer's
novel, The Gospel According to the Son, his version of the messiah story from
the point of view of Jesus. It is a very disappointingly passionless book by an
author I like so much. "Gospel?" Yes. The lady tells me warmly that she’s a
Christian who has come from Chiba prefecture. She has a sweetness that I don't
encounter much in Japan. I wonder if the older man is also from my former
The university student tells me that he is the leader of this group, the
highest-ranking ex-officer. Hierarchy is really important here. I wonder if he
converted to Christ after the war or if he is just well-educated enough to
recognize the significance of that word peeking out from the title page of my
I tell them that the idea of the book is great, but the novel itself is
boring. Then I start asking questions. Can you tell me about this diorama? The
top Navy man explains everything to me as the two women interpret. He talks
about the layout of the facility, the way the operation worked. I nod. I say I
get it but I don’t. The scenario doesn’t come to me like in a movie. I want it
to, but all I get are fragmentary images.
On the edge of our little group is that guy I can't shake, and now he's
smiling as if he's happy that I have finally integrated into the vets' circle.
Other octogenarians walk around and seem to be waiting. I wonder if the English
speakers will read my message in the guest book and stop being friendly to me.
The word will get out. That white guy over there is a shit-stirrer.
The girl's name is Yuki Sato. She plans to go to graduate school and hopes to
become a diplomat. I ask her what is going on, as everybody seems to be waiting
for something to start. She says they are here for a special Shinto mass. "Can I
watch? Do you think that would be O.K.?" She checks. Sure, no problem.
And then outside, toward a pavilion. That explains the TV camera crew I saw
earlier near the kaiten as I was approaching the entrance.
A group of about 30 of us go to where four Shinto priests are. I am now part
of this group, and I’m not sure what I might be compromising by being among them
in this way. Maybe nothing at all.
The rain is coming down. We are standing around a big gong under this little
Japanese roof. The priests have set up a table which is covered with offerings
for the souls of the dead: oranges, pumpkin squash, fish, daikon radish, ginger,
carrots. One priest, maybe the top guy, wears a purple and green robe and
sandals. He has a bamboo flute called a hichiriki. The other three wear white
robes and big shiny clodhoppers --asagutsu. They all have black cone hats called
tate eboshi and paddles known as shaku.
The I-58 vets are lined up facing the priests and the table, the memorial
tablet and the Rising Sun flag above it, the cold sea in the distance. The rest
of us -- relatives representing old men who can't be here, and then me, the only
one from a different race, the one from the other side -- are standing
peripherally. Some take photos. It is not too solemn for that. I use my camera,
too. I am completely an outsider, yet I feel somehow wedded to this group at
this time. They have let me into their world. We were slaughtering each other
six decades ago.
There are about 15 vets. Almost every one has that silver cowboy tie. If I
could speak their language, I could get deeper in. Don't know if I want to.
What are they remembering? They were hunters in the Pacific long ago. Their
sub could carry six kaiten on its back and then disconnect. The human
torpedoes had a 20-mile range from the mother ship. Gone and good luck and
goodbye. These men reveled in the blasts of obliteration that they sent into the
Indianapolis. Who, being them, wouldn't have? This unpleasant fact of
history, of human nature. What if I were raised by neo-Nazis, Muslim suicide
After I walk around the pavilion to take some photos, I stand for a bit
outside the protection of the roof, not knowing where to go to have the best
view of the service. One old Imperial Navy man at the left end of the line
gestures to me to come stand by his side. I think I have no right to stand there
in his group, but he has invited me over. I am apparently mistaken in thinking
that there is a special place only for the vets and that certainly no outsider
could stand where not even the Japanese who are representing their kin do not
I go to his side, look at him with an expression of gratitude, and observe
the priests as they enact their rituals.
The head Shinto man chants the names of the 106. It is not just a roll call
of the dead, but a song. I hear "Indian-a-police" -- this is the way they
pronounce it -- after the names of the kaiten ghosts are read. This is
another something I am not prepared for. They are honoring the 883 whom they
killed. There is a decency here I did not expect. And then the singing of "Kimigayo,"
the emperor-worshipping national anthem, which I did.
Each veteran and then family member is invited to stand before the table of
offerings and say a prayer. One by one, they go up, bow, close their eyes, and
give what sounds to me like a prescribed expression of honor to their long-gone
comrades and enemies. This being Japan, there is not much room for
When the vets and then all the others have come up to do this, the priest
invites me. I am taken aback, but try not to show it. A couple of old sub
engineers also encourage me. I feel that I can't do this. I lie and say: "Wakaranai,"
as in: "Oh, I don't know how to do this; I am just an onlooker." But the truth
is that I cannot, in good conscience, partake in a ceremony that is being
carried out by the cult which sanctified Hirohito and his cabal's war. I cannot
pretend to be honoring the souls of dead Japanese warriors. I cannot participate
in any religiousness whatsoever. I do not believe in any god and I am not going
to genuflect and clasp my hands, just to make others feel good.
All of this goes down in two or three seconds. I quickly claim ignorance and
they quickly accept that. But I feel guilty. They were making an effort to
include me, to make a connection where once there was only mutual loathing. In
my split-second decision to say no, I have failed.
Given another chance, I would say no again.
I really hope I have not hurt anyone's feelings.
The ceremony is over. Everyone takes their umbrellas and walks back toward
the museum where we have left our things. I do not know what to do at this
point. They are a group. They must have plans. I am alone. I will head back to
the dock, get the ferry, return to Tokuyama, and then keep heading west, to
visit a General Nogi shrine in Chofu and an island called Ganryu where Japan's
most celebrated swordsman, Musashi Miyamoto, had his most famous duel -- the
clash with Kojiro Sasaki in 1612. But, after what we have just experienced
together, I do not feel like leaving so soon. I want to talk with some of them,
learn more, and maybe make up for my refusal, my seeming coldness.
I get back near Yuki and the nice Christian lady, back into the English zone.
Several of the men are in a small room where a video is playing -- interviews
with survivors, old footage, that kind of thing. I am wondering if I might be
over-indulging the access I have been given.
A man with a very sweet smile comes up to me, offers his hand, and asks if
I'm American. At first, his handshake is typically Japanese --a dead fish, but
his face beams, and then he takes my hand again, American style, with
conviction. And he tells me his story: "Eight years ago. Here. I meet American
cameraman. Making film about Indian-a-police. I feel so sorry about men who
died. I am sorry. We take pictures together. Cameraman and me. Very friendly. He
give all of us video later. With American Navy film of that ship. For all of us
now, this is treasure. I am sorry for Indian-police men, their families."
He’s sincere. Like a boy who wants to make new friends. Maybe he thinks I
have a grandpa who died horribly because of the I-58's strikes. It doesn't
matter. I am American. He wants some healing, if there is any chance for that. I
want to hug him, but that is not done here. The sorrow he has expressed is very
touching, and the way he has just come up to me, so kindly, is one of those
things that I will go to my grave with. Perhaps I can smile on the way out.
The time is coming to go to the dock. All of us walk out, away from this
museum, down the hill, past an elementary school and some cabins, to the coast.
All of the others are on a chartered boat. Mine will leave just after theirs. I
wonder if they will invite me to hop on board. I’d like that, even as I have
already paid my round-trip fare, and even if it's O.K. if they don't.
Anyway, their boat is small and full. I walk with them to the ramp and say
goodbye to the ones I have connected with. I feel some mix of joy and
The annoying little man who must have missed the chartered boat on the way
here is ready to go with his group. Again he looks at me. Same impish smile. I
look back a final time. And I take the coldness out of it.
Among the Remnants of the Suicide Subs