It is widely believed that the major source of kamikaze suicide pilots was the Air Force Cadet Officer System in the Japanese Imperial Navy and Army Forces, which recruited university and college students on a voluntary basis. In fact, however, the majority of kamikaze pilots were young noncommissioned or petty officers, that is graduates of Navy and Army junior flight training schools…. Many assume that the majority of kamikaze pilots were former college students, because the letters-home, diaries and wills of these young men, who became kamikaze pilots through the Air Force Cadet Officer System, were compiled and published as books and pamphlets after the war…. Unfortunately similar personal records left behind by non-commissioned and petty officers are not publicly available. It is therefore necessary to rely on private records to gain a fuller understanding of the thoughts and ideas of these kamikaze pilots….
In analyzing private records of the cadet officer kamikaze pilots, the following psychological themes emerged as bases for accepting or responding to a kamikaze attack mission.
1) Rationalizing one’s own death to defend one’s country and its people
In the final years, the cadets clearly understood that Japan would lose the war. Therefore, they had to rationalize their own deaths in order to believe that their sacrifice would not be a total waste. To this end, some convinced themselves that their determination to fight to the end would save the Japanese people (i.e. the Yamato race) and their country by forcing the Allied Forces to make concessions so as to end the war as quickly as possible to avoid further Allied casualties by kamikaze attack….
2) The belief that to die for the “country” was show filial piety to one’s own parents, particularly to one’s mother
Many wills and last letters convey apology to parents for the inability to return all the favors the kamikaze pilots had received and for causing their parents grief by their premature death. Yet, they also state that their death for the “noble cause” was one way to compensate for the misery caused their parents…. The majority of cadets viewed their unavoidable duty as defending their mothers no matter how corrupt the society and politics….
3) Strong solidarity with their flight-mates who shared their fate as Kamikaze pilots …
Japanese planes were not equipped with radios, but it was common practice for the same flight formation team to be maintained through all stages from training to actual combat in order to create and sustain coordinated team actions…. In cases where pilots in the same team were separated on different missions, many complained bitterly to their commanders, claiming that they had pledged to die together….
4) A strong sense of responsibility and contempt for cowardice
Most of these top university students were sincere and had a strong sense of responsibility. They felt that if they themselves would not carry out the mission nobody else would follow suit. They also saw escape from their “duty,” for whatever reason, as an act of cowardice…. It seems that this mentality derived from university life, which had sheltered them from conventional ways of thinking.
5) A lack of an image of the enemy
One of the striking features of these youths’ ideas is that they convey no discernible image of their enemy…. Specifically, virtually no sense of “hatred of the enemy” can be found in their writings. Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that these cadets had never experienced actual combat. By contrast, the Allied navy soldiers who encountered kamikaze attacks usually regarded the kamikaze pilots with intense fear and hatred, calling them “crazy, cruel, and inhumane Japs”. In the case of these Japanese youths, a concrete mental concept of “the enemy” did not exist at all. Instead they were preoccupied by philosophical ideas such as how to find some spiritual value in their brief lives, how to spend their remaining time meaningfully, and how to philosophically justify their suicidal act….
Contemporary Suicide Bombers
In the absence of detailed information on the ideology and psychology of contemporary “terrorist suicide bombers,” it is not easy to compare the kamikaze mentality with that of terrorist bombers. One important difference stems from the fact that kamikaze attacks were implemented and legitimized by the military regime of a nation-state, while “terrorist suicide bombing” is generally planned and authorized by organizations outside a state structure. Certain preliminary comparisons are nevertheless still possible….
Anwar Ayam, the brother of a Palestinian suicide bomber, is said to have observed, “It will destroy their economy. It causes more casualties than any other type of operation. It will destroy their social life. They are scared and nervous, and it will force them to leave the country because they are afraid.” (emphasis added) …
In this sense there is an important similarity between suicide bombing (including kamikaze attack) and the “strategic bombing.” Strategic bombing, i.e., the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, is justified as the most efficient method of destroying the morale of the enemy nation, and thus the most economical way to force surrender. In this concept too, concrete images of victims are absent in the minds of strategists and bombers. This similarity is not surprising. This is because the indiscriminate bombing of civilians conducted by military forces is nothing but state violence against civilians, that is, it is state terrorism. “Terrorist attacks” either by a group or by a state can only be executed when images of victims are abstracted and detached from the minds of attackers and strategists.
Another similarity between kamikaze attack and suicide bombing is the huge technological gap in military capability between suicide attackers and their enemies….
In my view, religious or ideological indoctrination is not the decisive factor in turning a young person into a suicide attacker. Rather religion and ideology are used to justify and formalize their cause of self-sacrifice and to rationalize the killing enemies, whether military or civilians. In so doing, they mirror the strategies of their oppressors who likewise, in practice, make no distinction between military and civilian targets. Ritualising killing makes it psychologically easier not only to annihilate enemies but also to terminate one’s own life.
I take exception to two points in the last paragraph.
Notice how the Japanese are presented as the victims, and those winning the war as their “oppressors”? Exactly when, during the half-century between 1895 and 1945 did Japan switch from being oppressor to victim? In 1895? In 1904? 1910? In 1931? 1937? 1939? In 1941? 1942? 1943? Yes, that’s it, at precisely the moment when they began to lose they became the victims, despite the appalling number of casualties they continued to inflict on themselves and others by not conceding defeat.
The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have helped arouse real fears of their own destruction in the imperial clique who kept dithering while their subjects died by the thousands, but they also helped obliterate Japan’s own imperial history and elevate in its place a powerful narrative of victimhood at the hands of other imperial powers.
The other point is that extremist ideological indoctrination has everything to do with willingness to slaughter civilians up close and personal, whether it’s Imperial Japan, Tamil Eelam, or a New Caliphate. True believers who constantly preach hatred and resentment against external enemies–whether of race, class, gender, nation, religion, or secular ideology–should not be surprised when their followers disgrace their own cause by the way they treat their foes. Bombing civilians, whether “strategically” or suicidally, tends to make the survivors more angry and less susceptible to reasonable compromise. Like torture, it doesn’t really have that great a track record of proven effectiveness.
UPDATE: About a year ago, we were having dinner with family friends from Sri Lanka who have now immigrated to the U.S. At one point, the father in the family expressed some bitterness about the U.S. President, but he reserved his Hitler analogy for the leader of Tamil Eelam.
Also, the 1939 Battle of Nomonhan was added to the date list, thanks to a commenter at White Peril.