They were just boys. They didn’t want to die. They weren’t fanatical or suicidal. When they boarded the planes for their final flights, they were scared. They were sad; they didn’t want to do it. They had no choice.
Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney documents the last words, prayers, and fears of seven student soldiers (university students whom the government graduated early, then drafted) who died tragically during the desperate Japanese military operations of World War II. The heartbreaking collection of diaries and letters seeks to mend current misconceptions about kamikaze pilots (called “tokkotai”), clarifying that the boys were forced to “volunteer” for these doomed missions and chronicling their anguished efforts to understand why they had to die. Ohnuki-Tierney admits in her Acknowledgements section, “I found the diaries left by highly intelligent young men who perished in a meaningless war so painful to read that without the sustained encouragement of my colleagues I would not have been able to complete the task.” Reading the finished book is no less upsetting, but it is something the young men deserve: to have the record set straight.
The most fundamental fact to remember is that the tokkotai were not terrorists or suicide bombers—they did not attack civilians, and they did not volunteer for the missions willingly. At a time when Japan faced impending defeat in the war, the tokkotai operation was devised by a navy vice-admiral named Onishi Takijiro, who thought that the only way to save Japan was through the supreme strength of the Japanese soul (which he believed could greet death without fear). But no one was willing to take on such a futile mission, so young soldiers—already abused and brainwashed daily—were forced by their commanders to sign their names to a list of “volunteers”. The title “suicide bombers”, which describes those who are motivated by an eagerness for martyrdom, does not suit these student pilots. In the words of Hayashi Ichizo, “I cannot say that the wish to die for the emperor is genuine ... it is decided for me that I die for the emperor.”
Doomed to meaningless deaths at such early ages, the student soldiers struggled to comprehend life, death, and war itself. In their pursuits of meaning, the extensively well-read soldiers drew upon thousands of philosophers’ works, imparting astonishing maturity to their meditations. Sasaki Hachiro wrote, “If one thinks of a young life who dies in a state of purity and beauty, one even regrets that a human being is essentially a political animal. I know it comes from sentimentalism, but if one must die, one wishes to die beautifully.” At other times, however, a soldier’s expansive knowledge might only make his consciousness of death more disconcerting. Such was the case with Nakao Takenori, who wrote, “The last writing by Socrates, in which he praises the beauty of the world after death, makes me want to live rather than die.”
But the most heartrending part of the book is not the soldiers’ profound rationalizations and protestations of their deaths. What hurts above all is the private vulnerability they revealed in their final writings. No matter how much they read, how hard they attempted to justify their deaths, the boy pilots ultimately felt lost, afraid to die alone. Takenori confessed, “Everything in front of me is gray. Desperation and gloom with no hope of lifting ... Am I to simply die without any meaning to my life?” Most of all, the boys missed their mothers and their sweethearts; they would have given anything to visit home one more time. In his last letter to his mother, Ichizo wrote, “Mother, I still want to be loved and spoiled by you ... I want to be held in your arms and sleep.” He did not see her again.
Everyone was told that these pilots sacrificed themselves gladly, inspired by the proud spark of patriotism. But Ohnuki-Tierney shows us otherwise. In these diaries and letters, we don’t see blind nationalists. We see frightened boys, achingly alive in their desperation to make sense of meaninglessness. They didn’t want to die—not yet. They were just boys.