For anyone who has studied World War II, the Kamikazes are something that is, at the same time, both fascinating and confusing. How could young pilots willingly dive their planes into American shipping? How could they even take off, knowing that they were not expected to return? That the Japanese had Kamikazes flying regular planes is well known; that they had Kamikazes flying rocket bombs is not as well known. In addition to the planes there were various charges of infantry that amounted to kamikaze attacks where thousands of soldiers at a time would be killed in useless charges. Even the remains of their navy were available for these suicidal attacks. There were also suicide boats, and even “human bombs,” people who would put on explosives and then throw themselves under a tank or come up in water to a ship and try to blow it up.

The term Kamikaze refers to the "divine wind," typhoons that arose and basically stop a Mongol invasion of Japan itself. Twice. So the Japanese military and government began to believe that their homeland would never been attacked directly with any degree of success since they were obviously favored by the gods.

Another term for the kamikaze was the “Special Attack Forces,” or tokkotai. The term had been used originally during the Pearl Harbor attack, but the meaning then was that the soldiers in the midget subs and planes were expected to return; later in the war, the missions were considered to be one-way only.

Originally, becoming a kamikaze was a voluntary act; later, some of the kamikazes had not volunteered but were ordered to take on the missions. The planes and boats were modified in such a way that there was no longer any escape for the pilot.

A kamikaze plan approaches the USS Essex, and another crashes into the ship.

There were some 647 tokkotai corps formed from October 21, 1944 on. The attack at Leyte Gulf was the most effective attack; the effectiveness tended to decrease as the war went on and more and more of the planes and other devices were destroyed before they could ever get to a ship.

According to Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms, 11.6% of kamikaze planes actually managed to hit a vessel. The rest were near misses, ones that were shot down, and even some that did return.

Why kill themselves on purpose?

Although many people could not understand why the pilots would do suicide missions, a study of Japanese history shows that such an idea was not at all unthinkable. Japan had a long warrior tradition and the idea of committing seppeku, ritual suicide, was an established and honorable tradition. It's even practiced today from time to time, generally by politicians and businessmen who become involved in something quite wrong and get caught, but it's not used anywhere near to the degree it was in earlier times.

In addition, the form of Shinto being practiced at the time, Buddhism (with its belief in reincarnation) and Emperor worship (the Japanese Emperor was considered to be divine) also helped to fuel this fanaticism and willingness to die for the glory of Japan.

From an article in the July 2, 1945 issue of Newsweek: "...the profound devotion of the Japanese people to the emperor is the root of the suicidal trend, which Americans are seeing in the current war."

The USS Intrepid is hit by a kamikaze attack.

A kamikaze tries to attack the USS Missouri, but misses.

Anyhow, if you ever saw the series Shogun you will recall the scene where Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered Anjin-san to commit seppeku and he almost did. So to climb into a plane and dive it into an enemy ship was an honorable thing to do, a noble sacrifice for the Japanese homeland. There were even times when Japanese troops would, in large numbers, throw themselves at vastly superior American defensive positions, knowing full well that their chances of success were virtually nil.

This also related to the idea that the Japanese soldiers were not ones to surrender. They would tend to fight to the death, making the fighting in the Pacific theater much more difficult than in Europe when Allied forces were fighting the Nazis. This also helped to increase the gap of cultural understanding between the U.S. and Japan, helping lead many Americans to the idea that the Japanese were some sort of barbarian savages, not quite human, and mentally unstable to do the type of suicidal things they did. There were even some in the military who thought that the annihilation of the Japanese people was something that should be seriously considered.

Bomb hits flight deck of hte USS Enterprise.

Gunners of hte USS Hornet score a direct hit on a Japanese bomber, March 18, 1945.

From the book World War II Kamikazes, 2000:"Japanese soldiers demonstrated their suicidal tendencies again and again during the Pacific war. In Warriors of the Rising Sun: A History of the Japanese Military, UCLA professor and historian Robert B. Edgerton recounts their savage banzai attacks on Saipan:

In June 1944, about 20,000 marines came ashore without opposition but soon thereafter the Japanese commander, General Saito Yoshitsugo, ordered a night banzai attack of 1,000 men led by sword-waving officers and thirty-six light tanks. Almost all died before the attack was recalled...When the end seemed near, General Saito ordered the most massive suicide attack yet seen in the Pacific. At dawn, over 4,000 officers and men, some so badly wounded they could barely hobble forward on crutches, threw themselves screaming into American machine-gun fire. When all had been killed, bulldozers buried the bodies in a mass grave. Many civilians, along with some Japanese soldiers, hid in caves in the rocky north end of the island. Convinced that the Americans would kill them if they surrendered, many killed themselves with hand grenades, others jumped off 800-foot cliffs to the rocks below, and still others swam out to sea with their infants."

The USS Bunker Hill takes two kajikaze in 30 seconds, May 11, 1945

The USS Bunker Hill a few seconds later.

Another reason that some of the pilots volunteered was their feeling that they could not bear to see others volunteer and offer their lives and not do their own part for the others.

Civilian kamikazes

Unfortunately not only the soldiers were subject to the "death before dishonor" concept. Many civilians were convinced that the American forces would follow a practice of rape and killing so many civilians choose to throw themselves into the sea rather than be liberated by American forces. The U.S. soldier had been painted as being basically as savage as the Japanese soldier had been painted.

In a June 18, 1945 article in Newsweek, the following was said about civilian kamikazes:

"At the same time, Japanese Army headquarters issued a ‘People's Handbook of Resistance Combat' which gave instructions on hand-to-hand fighting, ‘bodily attacks' against tanks, tactics against paratroopers and land troops, and methods of building fortifications. It exhorted th entire population to ‘become special attackers.'"

The article continued note that the Emperor took direct involvement in this approach:

"Emperor Hirohito personally appeared at the opening of a special session of the Diet and read an imperial rescript which termed the war a "holy" one.'" in a manner similar to the declarations by the terrorists who are operating today.

Later in the magazine reference is made to children killing themselves:

"The favorite propaganda piece of the Japanese ever since the Americans invaded the Kerama Islands west of Okinawa has been the story that the small Keramese children killed themselves with grenades rather than surrender."

The situation continued as a June 25 issue of Newsweek noted: "Day and night the Japanese radio exhorted the people to constitute themselves a special-attack (suicide) corps 100,000,000 strong. ... The government made plans to draft men, from 15 to 60, and women from 17 to 40 into the Civilian Volunteer Corps which will serve as a suicidal home guard."

Problems with the concept of the attacks

Another problem with the kamikaze attacks, and one that gave them a much lower effectiveness than they could have had was the fact that the pilots were instructed to attack high-priority targets, like carriers and battleships, first. During the attacks, though, the pilots (many who had received maybe a week of training and were flying aircraft not in the best of shape as it was), tended to go after the first target they saw. Thus, instead of sinking high-priority carriers and battleships they the kamikazes tended to sink destroyers and smaller attack craft. That was bad, yes, but no where near as bad as it could have been if they had gone after high-priority targets only.

One of the interesting technological developments was the Oka, or the "Exploding Cherry Blossom" craft, also called the "baka" or stupid bomb. It was piloted by one person, it had three rocket boosters and it carried 2,645 pounds of explosives in its nose. It could go incredibly fast and thus could out speed its pursuers. It had only enough fuel to fly 23 miles, though. It could hit speeds of over 400 miles per hour.

Yorktown gunners destroy Japanese torpedo plane off Kwajalein, Dec. 4, 1943

Kamikaze attack on USS Sangamon.

There were problems with the bomb device, though.It had to be carried into battle underneath a Betty bomber, and the bombers were slow and very vulnerable to attack. Until it was released from its mother-plane it was basically a sitting target for attacking U.S. fighters.

The USS Ticonderoga is hit by two Japanese kamikaze in the same attack.

There is also always the question of whether or not the kamikazes were efficient use of personnel. In one series of attacks on Okinawa, for example, a June 4, 1945 article in Newsweek noted that twin-engine bombers and troops were used in a suicide attack on U.S. positions. After all was finished, the Japanese had managed to damage 11 light naval units, but at a cost of 166 Japanese planes destroyed and the deaths of every single attacker.

A brief history of the kamikaze attacks

January 3, 1941. A new code of ethics for the soldiers is issued by General Tojo stating that soldiers should commit suicide rather than surrender, making suicide official military policy.

December 7, 1941: Japanese forces attack Pearl Harbor, causing the U.S. to officially enter World War II. This attack became this generations "Remember the Alamo" as far as a rallying cry was concerned and helped to make the Pacific war a matter of vengeance, making this different from the mental attitude used in the war against the Nazis. This helped lead to atrocities on both sides of the battle line later in the war.

June 19-21, 1944: The Battle of the Philippine sea, also called the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot in which U.S. airman downed 300 Japanese planes, losing only 29 of their own.

June 25, 1944. At a conference, Emperor Hirohito sanctions the use of kamikazes. He stated that he wanted the Army and the Air Force to cooperate (which was not very likely; there was a lot of rivalry between the two groups).

July, 1944: Saipan falls to American forces.

August, 1944: Tinian and Guam fall to American forces.

October 1, 1944: The Jinrai Butai (Thunder God Special Attack Corps) is formed in which use will be made of the piloted rocket bombs.

October 25,1944. The kamikaze attack results in the sinking of the St. Lo, a CVE (small escort carrier.) Several other small carriers and hit and badly damaged by the kamikazes. The Japanese reported two ships sunk but only one actually was.

November 5, 1944: Kamikazes attack U.S. carrier combers in Philippines.

November 25 through the 28th: Kamikazes attack U.S. forces off Leyte.

December 13, 1944: Light cruiser Nashville is struck by a kamikaze.

December 15, 1944: Kamikazes sink two landing ships at Mindoro.

December 21, 1944: Kamikazes sink two more landing ships and damage several others.

December 30-31: Kamikazes sink 5 U.S. ships and damage more.

January 4 through mid-January 1945: Kamikazes sink 24 ships, kill 800 sailors, damage 67 other ships. The Japanese, meanwhile, develop Ten-Go, "Heavenly Operation" in order to defend Okinawa. 4,000 aircraft and hundreds of suicidal speedboats were to be used along with the last of Japan's warships.

January 21: A new kamikaze unit attacks Task Force 38 near Formosa.February 21: Kamikazes attack Task Force 58 at Iwo Jima.

March 9/10: B-29's firebomb Tokyo. Around 100,000 people were killed, 267,000 buildings destroyed by the raging fire. Bombers in later raids attack Nagoya, Kobe, Osaka, Yokohama and Kawasaki.

March 18-21: Kamikazes are brought into action at Okinawa.

March 18 through May 29, statistics from Newsweek of June 11, 1945: 4,729 killed in the Navy and Coast Guard; 5,492 in the Army and Marine Corps. 25 ships lost according to the Navy (500 lost according to the Japanese reports.

April 6 through June 22: A series of ten kamikaze waves. During the first one the last Japanese warships, including the great battleship Yamato, headed for Okinawa. On the way there they were spotted by U.S. subs and soon attacked by American. The Yamato, a light cruiser and four destroyers were sunk. 3,655 Japanese sailors were killed while U.S. losses were 84. This battle basically destroyed the Japanese navy once and for all.

(Note: here is where one of the problems occurs in looking into these attacks. Sources differ. For example, one source for the above attack said only three destroyers, not four, were sunk along with the Yamato and no light cruiser. One source said 84 airmen were killed; another listed only 12. Even these are historical events and not that incredibly long ago sources will differ in the numbers they use to describe losses.)

Kikusui No. 1, the first of the attacks, featured 700 Japanese aircraft, almost half of those being kamikaze, and some of the Ohka bombs. The U.S. set up a picket line of destroyers sixty miles away from the carriers to give them early warning of an attack. The kamikazes wrecked havoc on the destroyers but again ignored the fact that their main targets were the carriers. Of the 700 airplanes 476 planes were shot down before they even got to the invasion fleet. The U.S. lost two destroyers, a minesweeper and one other ship along with a number of ships damaged. During Kikusui 2 a destroyer was sunk by one of the Ohka rocket bombs.

Kikusui 3 had 300 Japanese aircraft attacking and again the kamikaze pilots went after the lower-priority targets. Kikusui 4 was on April 27, featuring 115 suicide craft. Some ships were sunk, including a hospital ship. By the end of April kamikaze attacks had accounted for 115 U.S. ships sunk vs. 1,000 kamikaze pilots killed. 61 other ships had to be repaired.

Kikusui 5 started on May 3. They managed to sink several ships. This wave of attacks accounted for 12 more ships sunk with 420 men killed. Kikusui 6 started on May 11, again with some success for the attackers. Further Kikusui attacks featured fewer and fewer planes, and Okinawa was declared secure on June 18th.

One source lists he overall count for the entire run of attacks as 26 American ships sunk, 164 ships damaged. The Japanese, however, did not stop the American invasion.

One side effect of the kamikaze attacks was a greater American willingness to use the atomic bomb rather than stage a massive invasion of the Japanese homeland. The number of Americans that would have been casualties during such an invasion could have been as high as a million. This does not count the number of Japanese deaths that would have occurred, soldiers and civilians alike since the civilians were being trained to fight the American soldiers with anything they could use.

August 6, 1945: The first atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima.

August 9, 1945: The second atomic bomb is dropped on Nagasaki.

August 15, 1945: Emperor Hirohito announces the surrender of Japan. (If the surrender had not been made, Tokyo would probably have been the next target for a nuclear weapon. Some Japanese soldiers tried to stage a coup to prevent the surrender announcement from being broadcast, but the coup failed.)

August 30, 1945: Kamikazes operating independently attack British forces in Hong Kong.

Damage from the attacks

Not everyone believed that the kamikaze was an effective force.. According to a Newsweek article from June 11, 1945, Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. "...dismissed the Kamikaze planes as a ‘damned nuisance rather than a menace.'"

This was later to be shown to be a wildly inaccurate statement, though, as the kamikazes managed to run sink boats, down planes and kill men in relatively decent numbers. Even Newsweek of June 11, 1945 said "From a military viewpoint, it is the best set of tactics the Japans have worked on during the war."

There is no doubt that the kamikaze attacks did a lot of damage to U.S. shipping and a lot of soldiers lost their lives in the attacks. There is also no doubt that this was a method of attack which was feared by the soldiers and could slow down American advances.

At the same time, though, it was a form of attack which did not manage to stop the American advances. It cost the Japanese a lot of planes and a lot of lives, both of which would have been useful in defending the homeland against an American invasion. The method did manage to cause Americans to hate the Japanese even more, increased the level of misunderstanding between the cultures and finally helped the government to decide to use the atomic bomb rather than a direct invasion.

The kamikazes were deadly and attention-getting, for sure, but ultimately there were not enough to stop the U.S. from ultimately defeating Japan.


This is a 1997 book which goes into the Kamikaze subject in considerable detail. It includes where the kamikaze pilots were recruited from; the relationship of Bushido to the kamikaze; specific people and specific kamikaze missions, and various other kamikaze attacks beyond the one commonly associated with the kamikaze, and that was the airplane attacks. Various other forms of attacks were used, and the book even includes information on the use of balloons to attack the US mainland.

A very good, very interesting book.

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