Hisao Horiyama 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 say no.
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. In the newly formed kamikaze, Tokyo’s military leaders envisioned a dedicated unit of ideologically conditioned warriors willing to die a glorious death for their empire.
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 cuttings.
“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 universities.
“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.
“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 salvation.
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 submarine.
Shortly 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 Asian mainland.
“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.
That meant 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