Kamikaze is perhaps the best known of Japan’s World War Two tactics, yet it was not used until late in the war. By 1944 the Allies had pushed Japan back to the Philippines, a vital conduit for petroleum for Japan, and now threatened the Japanese mainland. The leadership knew that they could not resist for long. Japan had lost most of its planes and navy and could not replace them with the quality and speed that the US could. It had also lost many of its experienced pilots. It took a long time to train a fighter pilot and to build a plane of the calibre necessary to go against the Allied fighters. It did not take long to produce a wooden aeroplane loaded with munitions and induce zealous students to fly it into a target.
So that is the why, but not the how. The Empire of Japan had been undergoing a resurgence of militarism and ultra-nationalism in the decades before World War Two. Much of this growing national psyche had its roots in Japan’s samurai past and in ideas of purity, not just racial but spiritual. Universal conscription was a handy way to incorporate elements of the samurai’s bushido code into society, as well as inculcating a cult of the Emperor. Most members of Tokkō Tai (the Kamikaze Unit) were between 18 and 24 and had been students. These members of the intellectual elite left behind diaries, love letters, death poems and other documents that show their struggle to reconcile what they were told was their noble duty with the knowledge of their imminent and probably futile death. The part of bushido most pertinent to them was the idea of death before dishonour; in terms of militaristic codes, it has been remarked that whereas German soldiers were commanded to kill, Japanese soldiers were commanded to die.
On the night before their kamikaze, the pilots would drink sake in the samurai’s pre-battle tradition. Great emphasis was put on the purity of the pilot; they would shave and cut their hair and some would even fix their teeth (last-minute dentistry always strengthens one’s resolve). They would then don the senninbari, a belt made of a thousand stitches sewn by a thousand women, and the characteristic hachimaki headband. Of course, as everyone knows, you can’t have a good purity ritual without virgins — so virginal Japanese schoolgirls would line the runway to farewell the pilots by waving cherry blossom branches, an ancient symbol of the spirit of Japan.
The success of kamikaze attacks is the subject of debate. Militarily, of the roughly 4000 kamikaze pilots, 19 per cent hit a target, killing around 5000 Allied personnel. Horrifically, this is negligible in terms of the human cost in World War Two, but it has been argued that kamikaze were a powerful psychological weapon, the concept being abhorrent to a “Western” psyche.