Because the tokkōtai operation was a guarantee of death, the top military officers, quite hypocritically, decided not to make this operation an official part of the imperial navy or army, where orders were issued in the name of the emperor. They preferred to make it appear that the corps was formed voluntarily and that men volunteered to be pilots.
In most instances, all the members of a military corps were summoned to a hall. After a lecture on the virtues of patriotism and sacrifice for the emperor and Japan, they were told to step forward if they were willing to volunteer to be tokkōtai pilots.
Sometimes this process was done in reverse: men were told to step forward if they did not want to be pilots. It would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for any soldier to stay behind or to step forward when all or most of his comrades were “volunteering.”
Sometimes the officer in charge went through a ritual of blindfolding the young men—a gesture ostensibly intended to minimize peer pressure—and asking them to raise their hands to volunteer. But the rustling sounds made by the uniforms as the men raised their hands made it obvious that many did so, leaving those who hesitated without any choice.
For example, Yamada Ryū, who after the war belonged to the Anabaptist Church and devoted his life to its ministry in Kyūshū, was “forced to volunteer to be a pilot for the inhumane tokkōtai operation.”
Coercion from above was complemented by solidarity among soldiers. The writings that tokkōtai pilots left behind reveal that they did not resist volunteering simply because of peer pressure but because they could not bear to protect their own lives while seeing their comrades and friends offering theirs.
Admiration of those who had already gone on the fatal missions frequently appears in pilots’ writings. Ichijima Yasuo, who was born in 1922 and died as a navy ensign on April 29, 1945, was a graduate of Waseda University.
In a letter to a friend, he quotes a well-known poem by Ryōkan (1758–1831)—“Falling cherry blossoms, remaining cherry blossoms also be falling cherry blossoms,” implying that as the other pilots had fallen, so would he. Ichijima’s admiration for the pilots who had already perished contributed significantly to his thinking when he sought to rationalize his death as he contemplated his own mission.
Ichijima was a devout Christian who belonged to the well-known “Cherry Blossom Church.” He expressed his willingness to serve his country but did not mention the emperor. It was extremely difficult for a soldier to seek to spare himself, to claim an exemption from the fate of his comrades. The determination to combat the egotism brought forth by capitalism and modernity was a major element of the students’ idealism. The tactic of asking men to volunteer may very well have been based on a calculated appeal to young soldiers’ moral principles and comradeship.
Furthermore, if a soldier had managed to be courageous enough not to volunteer, he would have been consigned to a living hell. Any soldier who refused would become persona non grata or be sent to the southern battlefield, where death was guaranteed. Some soldiers actually managed to say no, but their refusal was disregarded. Kuroda Kenjirō decided not to volunteer, only to be taken by surprise when he found his name on the list of volunteers for the Mitate Navy tokkōtai corps; his superior had reported proudly that all the members of his corps had volunteered.
After the pilots were selected, the officer in charge of a particular corps decided who should go on the missions and in what order they would depart. Irokawa and other former soldiers explain that family background and other forms of privilege kept some pilots from being chosen.
Sons of important political or military officials and prominent businessmen, along with members of the royal family, would volunteer without ever being selected to fly to their deaths.
As a bow to the system of primogeniture, the oldest son or an only son was often spared so that he could take care of his parents. On the other hand, soldiers who had mechanical, navigational, and other skills essential for pilots were favored for selection. Someone who was seen to be physically fit was put under more pressure to volunteer. The editor of Sasaki’s diary maintains that he was designated to fly because he was small but athletic. The criteria for selection were never disclosed publicly.
Sometimes merely being disliked by the superior in charge of the corps was fatal. In the case of navy lieutenant Fujii Masaharu, a student soldier, the officer was irritated by Fujii’s habit of sitting in a corner of the room staring into the void without saying a word. He “tapped” Fujii’s shoulder and told him to lead the tokkōtai corps, despite the fact that no officers above the rank of lieutenant and lieutenant junior grade who were graduates of the Naval Academy were sent on tokkōtai missions. Fujii was speechless and thought it was an “act of murder under the disguise of a military order.” Realizing that he had no choice, however, he sarcastically told the pilots in his corps: “Let’s bite into the ground of Okinawa together.”
All along the way, but especially on the military base, student soldiers’ minds and hearts were torn by agonizing conflict more intense than their or my words can express.
For many student soldiers, it was psychologically easier to become tokkōtai pilots when they knew that, with Japan’s defeat in sight, their lives were in extreme danger no matter what course of action they took.
As some of them put it, if one was likely to die anyway, one might as well die a hero. Yet agony over their approaching death is evident throughout their writings and in their final diary entries.
It also appears in their responses to psychological questionnaires administered in late May 1945, two months after the battle for Okinawa had started.
In their answers, one-third of the members of the tokkōtai unit of the Sixth Army Air Force Corps remained undecided about the mission and felt conflicted about it despite its inevitability.
Some pilots were so tormented by thoughts of their imminent death that they prayed that the time would come as soon as possible in order to terminate their agony, as we will see repeatedly below.
By June 1945, according to Irokawa, there was an atmosphere of defeat on the tokkōtai base during the last stage of the battle of Okinawa.
No one sang patriotic songs such as “The Cherry Blossoms of the Same Year,” the navy cadet song that was once enormously popular among soldiers.
Instead, the song that was most frequently sung and that touched the hearts of the soldiers was a lullaby from Itsuki, in Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyūshū, called “Lullaby from Itsuki” (“Itsuki no Komoriuta”).
The text, in the Kumamoto dialect, portrays the depth of the sadness of a small girl who was forced to take care of young children far from home. The verses that follow express a nostalgic longing for home and for death as an end to exile:
I long for the day I can return to my beloved parents when my service is over.
I am here far away from home. Even when I die, no one will cry for me;
how lonely it is only to hear cicadas cry.
No one will come to visit my tomb. Then, I am better off buried along the road,
since someone might offer flowers.
I don’t care which flowers they offer. Perhaps camellia blooming in the wild along
the road? No water is necessary, since it will rain.