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They've Outlived the Stigma

COLUMN ONE

Once pariahs in Japan, 'kamikaze survivors' are now honored for their spirit of sacrifice. They resent being lumped in with suicide bombers.

September 25, 2004|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

CHIRAN, Japan — These are the dusky days of old age that kamikaze pilots like Shigeyoshi Hamazono were not supposed to see.

Three times during the final months of World War II, Japanese officers sent Hamazono off to die, ordering him to crash-dive a single-engine plane stuffed with bombs into an American warship.

Bad weather aborted the first mission, an oil leak the second. On his final attempt in April 1945, he encountered three American pilots over the sea off Okinawa. In the ensuing dogfight, Hamazono was burned and took shrapnel in his shoulder, but his plane limped home.

You could call him the luckiest man in Japan, though Hamazono didn't see it that way at the time.

"I was, of course, ready to die," says Hamazono, who instead has aged into a bent but dignified 81-year-old. Fate allowed him to see his hair turn wispy and gray. And fate made him part of one of history's strangest and most exclusive brotherhoods: "kamikaze survivors."

Most 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 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.

"I wished I had died," he says.

In the postwar years, a traumatized nation treated the kamikaze survivors like pariahs. But in the last decade, their reputation has recovered. Publishers clamor for memoirs. Scholars pick over their backgrounds in search of an explanation for their willingness to die for a lost cause. Japanese nationalists buff and shine their memory like medals.

"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."

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