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11 Aug 2015 11:41
A replica of a rocket-powered kamikaze attack plane at a park beside the ex-Imperial Navy air base in Kashima, Ibaraki prefecture, on August 7 2014. (Toshifumi Kitamura, AFP)
first learned how he was due to die from a simple slip of white paper. On it
were written three options: to volunteer willingly, to simply volunteer, or to
But as a
21-year-old airman caught in the thick of Japan’s faltering war with the
allies, he knew there was only one choice.
Without hesitation, he agreed to fly
his plane into the side of a US warship.
With that one act
of destruction, he would end his life and the lives of many others, in the name
of his emperor as a member of an elite, and supposedly invincible, group of
young men whose sacrifice would deliver victory to Japan: the kamikaze.
Horiyama was a
young soldier in an artillery unit of the Japanese imperial army when he was
drafted into the air force.
It was late 1944,
and the tide of war was turning against Japan.
As a devoted
subject of the emperor, Horiyama longed for his moment of glory.
“We finished our
training and were given a slip of white paper giving us three options: to
volunteer out of a strong desire, to simply volunteer, or to decline,”
Horiyama, now 92, told the
Guardian at his home in Tokyo.
A model fighter
plane sits on a bookcase in the living room of the apartment he shares with his
wife. In one corner are cardboard boxes stuffed with black-and-white
photographs of kamikaze pilots, veterans’ newsletters, journals and newspaper
“When we graduated
from army training school the Showa emperor [Hirohito] visited our unit on a
white horse. I thought then that this was a sign that he was personally
requesting our services. I knew that I had no choice but to die for him.
“At that time we
believed that the emperor and nation of Japan were one and the same.”
By January 1945
more than 500 kamikaze planes had taken part in suicide missions, and many more
followed as fears rose of an impending US-led invasion of the Japanese
mainland. By the end of the war, more than 3 800 pilots had died. Although
there are still disputes over their effectiveness, suicide missions sank or
caused irreparable damage to dozens of US and allied ships.
For the suicide
attacks to succeed, the air force and navy needed a new crop of young pilots,
many of them taken from other parts of the military and from Japan’s best
“We didn’t think
too much [about dying],” Horiyama said. “We were trained to suppress our
emotions. Even if we were to die, we knew it was for a worthy cause. Dying was
the ultimate fulfillment of our duty, and we were commanded not to return. We
knew that if we returned alive that our superiors would be angry.”
Like other pilots
selected for suicide missions, Horiyama was asked to write a will and a letter
that would be sent to parents when their mission was completed.
“I was a
disrespectful child and got poor grades at school,” he said. “I told my father
that I was sorry for being such a bad student, and for crashing three planes
during training exercises. And I was sorry that the course of the war seemed to
be turning against Japan. I wanted to prove myself to him, and that’s why I
volunteered to join the special attack unit.
Surrender“But my mother was
upset. Just before she died she told me that she would never have forgiven my
father if I had died in a kamikaze attack. So I’m grateful to the emperor that
he stopped the war.”
Japan was still
flying suicide missions up to the moment, on August 15 1945, when Hirohito
announced to a shattered people traumatised by nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki that Japan was surrendering.
“I couldn’t hear
the radio announcement on NHK very well because of the static,” Horiyama said.
“One person started crying loudly. That’s when I knew we had lost the war.
“I felt bad that I
hadn’t been able to sacrifice myself for my country. My comrades who had died
would be remembered in infinite glory, but I had missed my chance to die in the
same way. I felt like I had let everyone down.”
That was Hisao
Horiyama’s story. But not every would-be kamikaze was as fervent in their
belief in death for the motherland.
When Takehiko Ena
learned he had been chosen to fly a suicide mission he greeted the news in a
way he still finds confusing.
“I felt the blood
drain from my face,” he told the
Guardian. “The other pilots and I
congratulated each other when the order came through that we were going to
attack. It sounds strange now, as there was nothing to celebrate.”
Ena (92) had been
drafted into the depleted ranks of the navy as a 20-year-old economics student
at the prestigious Waseda university in Tokyo. He was sent to join a squadron
of pilots in Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost main island, in April 1945, when the
kamikaze were at their most active.
He was to pilot a
crew of three aboard a plane with an 800kg bomb strapped to its
undercarriage. The aircraft would have fuel only for a one-way flight.
They were part of
Operation Kikusui (floating chrysanthemum), an ambitious suicide-bombing
mission against the allied ships bombarding Japanese forces in the Battle of
Okinawa, one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific theatre.
By the latter
stages of the war, Japan was relying on ageing planes that had been stripped
and adapted for suicide missions. Many failed to start or encountered engine
trouble en route to their targets. Most of those that got within striking
distance of allied warships were shot down before they made impact.
It was this dismal
mechanical record – a reflection of the desperate lengths to which Japan’s
military leaders were willing to go to win the war – that was to be Ena’s
On April 28 1945
he steered his aircraft along the runway at Kushira airfield in Kagoshima
prefecture, but failed to get airborne. His second mission ended in failure
when engine trouble forced him to make an emergency landing at a Japanese army
base, still carrying the bomb intended for the enemy.
Two weeks later,
on May 11, he was steeling himself for a third attempt, accompanied by a
20-year-old co-pilot and an 18-year-old communications officer.
“On the surface,
we were doing it for our country,” Ena said. “We made ourselves believe that we
had been chosen to make this sacrifice. I just wanted to protect the father and
mother I loved. And we were all scared.”
Early into what
should have been his final flight, engine trouble forced Ena’s plane into the
sea. The three men survived and swam to nearby Kuroshima island, where they
stayed for two-and-a-half months before being picked up by a Japanese
afterwards, Japan was a defeated nation. Ena’s relief that the war was over
gave way to optimism about the future, even as Japan set about rebuilding its
devastated cities and counted the human cost of its militarist adventure on the
“We felt sadness
about the friends we had lost during the war, but we were also trying to
envision how we would rebuild Japan,” he said.
embracing the country’s new, US-written Constitution, whose “pacifist” article
nine restricts Japan’s military to a strictly defensive role.
He bristles when
asked about attempts by Japan’s conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to
reinterpret the clause to allow troops to fight alongside allies overseas for
the first time since the conflict that almost took his life.
“For 70 years we
have been protected by a peace-oriented Constitution,” he said. “I’m very
grateful that we haven’t gone to war [in that time.] The Japanese people should
be happy about that.” - © Guardian News and Media 2015
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