Kamikaze is the popular name given to World War II Japan's Special Attack Squads (Tokubetsu kōgekitai), commonly referred to by the abbreviation tokkōtai. This strategy was initiated during the final months of the Pacific War, when Japan's defeat seemed inevitable. In this strategy, Japanese fliers and sailors literally became human bombs, piloting planes and human torpedoes into enemy ships and other military targets. The name “kamikaze” literally means “god winds” and refers to the typhoons that, according to tradition, defeated the Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281.
Accounts of Japanese suicide attacks date from the Russo-Japanese War, and the Japanese began to use the term tokkōtai shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but in these cases the death of the soldiers, while likely, was not necessary for the success of the mission. The members of tokkōtai squads organized in the latter months of the Pacific War, however, were explicitly ordered to crash their crafts into enemy targets. Survival was not an option. Soon, Japanese war factories were producing planes and human torpedoes expressly designed to kill the operator.
Vice Admiral Ōnishi Takijiro devised the tokkōtai strategy, which he dubbed shinpu, the Chinese reading of the characters for kamikaze. The plan quickly won approval from the top command, although the psychological underpinning for a warrior's suicide can be traced to Japan's centuries-old bushidō tradition. Because the death of the soldiers was inevitable, the operation was made “voluntary” and was not an official navy or army operation. None of the military officers who approved the strategy ever participated in a kamikaze operation, although Ōnishi committed suicide the day after the emperor issued the imperial edict ending the war.
The first kamikaze mission occurred in the Philippines Battle of Leyte in October 25, 1944. Prior to the first mission's departure, Ōnishi met with the pilots, who drank ceremonial cups of sake before donning head bands with the rising sun. This ceremony became common practice for subsequent missions. Lt. Seki Yukio, a decorated flying ace who was persuaded to lead the first sortie, left a lock of hair for his mother. Leaving a memento for family also became part of the departure ritual because the pilots knew, if they were successful, there would be no physical remains to return to Japan.
Early in the strategy, the tokkōtai pilots flew “Zero” single-engine planes with a 557-lb bomb in the nose. The weight and placement of the bomb made the plane difficult to navigate and, once it began its final descent, impossible to pull out. Later, the kamikaze pilots flew gliders called ōka (cherry blossom planes), which were released from planes when within range of enemy targets. They had enough fuel to fly no more than 25 miles but carried more than a ton of explosives in the nose. Americans called the ōka “baka”—the Japanese word for “fool.” Suicide boats were also used, but fortification of American-controlled ports soon made them ineffective. Human torpedoes (ningen gyorai) known as kaiten (“return to heaven”) were also used. They would be lowered from ships when Allied vessels were in range. Originally, the torpedoes had a means for escape, but the mechanism was later removed.
The romantic interpretation of the tokkōtai described the pilots as young men whose zealous patriotism for the emperor and the nation was exploited by military leaders to volunteer for the missions. The majority of them were students from the navy flying school and university graduates. The government had reduced the length of college education, which increased the number of available pilots and sailors. Through the participants’ final writings, however, it is revealed their volunteering was more often the result of intimidation and peer pressure, and the conditions of kamikaze bases were so harsh that the pilots were often demoralized. Trained and experienced pilots seldom volunteered to join the tokkōtai corps. Lt. Seki, for example, thought he could better serve the war effort as an instructor and reluctantly agreed to lead the first mission not out of loyalty to the nation or devotion to the emperor, but rather out of concern for his new bride's virtue should the home islands be invaded.
The success of the tokkōtai strategy is questionable. In total, 647 missions were launched between October 21, 1944, and the end of the war, which ended with the death of more than 2,000 suicide pilots and sailors. It is difficult, however, to determine how much damage the kamikaze actually inflicted on Allied ships and other targets and how much damage was done by conventional weapons. According to the United States, 43 ships were sunk by tokkōtai attacks and 288 damaged.
See also: Bushidō; Mongol Invasions of Japan; World War II, Pacific Theater.
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