15 May 2004

Buruma on the Kamikaze Spirit

Here's a selection from Ian Buruma's chapter on Japan's "War Against the West" in his book Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 (Modern Library Chronicles, 2003).
Suicide was the sacrifice demanded of all Japanese soldiers who were captured by the enemy. But it was demanded of civilians, too. By 1944, Japanese leaders knew that the war could not be won by conventional means, but diehards maintained that even if all Japanese had to die, the kokutai ['national polity'] would survive forever. There could be no surrender. Thus an ancient privilege of the samurai caste became a national duty. When the Americans landed on Saipan, women and children were made to jump off the cliffs. Up to 170,000 civilians died in Okinawa. Thousands were driven into American machine-gun fire as cover for Japanese troops. Others were forced to make room in hiding places for soldiers by killing themselves and their families with razors, knives, or, if necessary, their bare hands. Hundreds of thousands more perished in the man-made firestorms of Tokyo, Osaka, or Fukuoka, and still Japan's Götterdämmerung was being blamed by the ruling elite on the insufficient spirit and loyalty of ordinary citizens.

Schoolchildren were ordered to write letters to Japanese soldiers at the front, telling them to "die gloriously." In 1945, military suicide tactics actually became national policy. The Divine Wind Special Attack Units were the brainchild of Admiral Onishi Takijiro, who committed suicide himself after Japan's defeat. Young men, often from the best universities, were pressured into volunteering for this last show of Japanese spirit. Submarines and fighter planes were constructed especially for the suicide missions. In fact, even though only one in three suicide fighters actually hit an American target, the tactic was damaging to U.S. ships and cost many lives. But even Admiral Onishi cannot have seriously thought it would win the war. He may have hoped that such tactics would, in the words of one elder statesman, develop a more "advantageous war situation," forcing the enemy to come to terms. The desired effect was certainly deadly, but it was also theatrical: A peculiar idea of Japaneseness, whose seeds were sown in the late Edo period but which became a national pathology in the late 1930s, had turned from outward aggression to pure self-destruction.

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