Most [surviving kamikazes] were still waiting for orders to fly when Japan surrendered to the Allies in September 1945. A few others were spared because they did not reach their intended targets — a failure [Shigeyoshi] Hamazono found intolerable at the time. He was on standby to fly a fourth mission when Japan capitulated. Denied the opportunity to redeem his honor, he felt disgraced.
… "Kamikaze" has ceased to be a slur in Japan. If the Japanese still can't agree on whether the pilots were victims or heroes, brainwashed conscripts or volunteers, they are at least prepared to honor their spirit of sacrifice.
Only the modern menace of the suicide bomber has emerged to spoil this sentiment.
The survivors bitterly resent the world's appropriation of the term "kamikaze" — meaning "divine wind" and originally coined to describe the unexpected typhoons that saved 13th century Japan from invading Mongol ships — as shorthand for suicide bombers of every stripe.
There are the "Al Qaeda kamikazes" who flew passenger planes into office towers, "Palestinian kamikazes" who blow up pizza parlors filled with teenagers in Jerusalem, and "female Chechen kamikazes" willing to detonate explosive girdles in the middle of school gymnasiums crammed with children.
Japan's originals are insulted to be mentioned in the same breath.
"When I hear the comparison, I feel so sorry for my friends who died, because our mission was totally different from suicide bombers," Hamazono says as he strolls through the Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots in Chiran, a former air base on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu.
The kamikazes attacked military targets. In contrast, "the main purpose of a suicide bomber is to kill as many innocent civilians as they can," Hamazono says. That, he says, "is just murder."
The same distinction is made by other survivors of the Tokkotai, or Special Attack Force, conventionally known as the kamikaze. Its survivors tick off the reasons their goal-line stand against an American invasion was different from the blind lashing-out of suicide bombers today:
• They were ready to die out of love for their country, they say; suicide bombers are driven by hatred and revenge.
• The Shinto religion offers no reward of life after death. Islamic suicide bombers are promised a place in an afterlife.
• They were volunteers, motivated solely by patriotism. Suicide bombers often are recruited by militia leaders who offer money to their families.
Yet the arguments can't prevent those who use suicide tactics today from claiming Japanese kamikazes as an inspiration.
Naoto Amaki, Japan's former ambassador to Lebanon, recalled delivering a polite lecture to Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shiite Islamist militia Hezbollah, in 2001. Amaki said he told Nasrallah that Japan's experience was a lesson in the ultimate futility of violence.
Not so, replied the sheik.
"He told me: 'We learned how to do suicide missions from the kamikazes,' " Amaki recalled. "Nasrallah said the Shiites all commend the Japanese samurai spirit."
Amaki says the analogy is faulty. "We Japanese are not a religious people; we just obey instructions. But the Arab world is looking for support wherever they can get it, so they seek out every excuse to legitimize their actions."
And kamikaze survivors resent it.
"We did what we did for military purposes," says Takeo Tagata, 88, a kamikaze instructor who was ordered to fly a mission the day before Japan surrendered. "No matter what supreme ideas they talk about, suicide bombers are just killing innocent civilians, people who don't have anything to do with their war."
Nor does Tagata have any doubt that Japan was justified in using "crash-dive" tactics in the final months of the war.
"It was worth it," he says, sitting almost at attention in the Tokyo office of a nationalist cultural organization. "It's not a question of whether Japan could win or not — if you're in a war, you have to come up with some kind of strategy. If the pilots really thought it was so bad, they would have rioted. But they stayed. They were proud of their mission."
Not all the pilots were eager to die for the emperor, counters Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney of the University of Wisconsin, an anthropologist who has studied the private letters of the 1,000 or so kamikazes conscripted from the ranks of university graduates.
… Hamazono says that although pilots were asked to "volunteer," they really had no choice. … [He] is sitting in Chiran's museum where the staff fuss over him like a celebrity. He is treasured here, an unexpected, living artifact whose presence spices up the museum's displays of musty uniforms, photos and a kamikaze's shredded airplane frame dredged from the sea. "I still don't think it was a mistake to send kamikazes," Hamazono says, though he wonders why, if they thought suicide attacks were such a good idea, none of the officers volunteered. …