Ah, Gods of the Flaming Arrow ~ Title of a poem written in memory of the Jinrai Special Attack Corps as published in Asahi Shimbun, June 5, 1945
I’ve written previously about the happy history, immense popularity and deep symbolism of cherry blossoms threaded through the fabric of Japanese culture. In modern times, sakura are cause for celebration, exactly because of their beautifully ephemeral nature (see Budding Beliefs for more).
However, there’s a darker side to this story embedded in recent Japanese history. During World War II, the historically rich history and moving symbolism of the cherry blossom was used as a propaganda tool with aims of not just stoking nationalism and militarism among the populace, but helping to motivate the Japanese people (and others such as the Okinawans) to sacrifice their very lives for country and emperor.
In the long lead-up to the Japanese war of imperial conquest and expansionism, sakura were used as hype to inspire “Japanese spirit” by exulting citizens to be “ready like the myriad cherry blossoms to scatter.” In other words, be ready to die. In the 1930s, poetry based around the symbolism of the sakura urged Japanese soldiers to endure sufferings as they themselves committed the most terrible atrocities in China (see the movie Flowers of War to see and feel just how bad the then Imperial Japanese could be, and read about other atrocities committed by Japan in Asian in The Railway Man and Nuking Japan), comparing their dead comrades to beautiful but short-lived cherry blossoms. During the war, Imperial Japan often planted cherry trees as a means of visually and symbolically claiming occupied territory as Japanese.
Such mysticism seems to have taken root in that war-mongering version of Nippon. In the fall of 1944, Japanese senior military leaders pleaded that, during the Battle for Leyte Gulf, the Navy be permitted to “bloom as flowers of death.” The last message of the surrounded Japanese forces on Peleliu before they were annihilated was “Sakura, Sakura.”
Japanese Kamikaze pilots would paint sakura on the sides of their planes before embarking on suicide missions, and even took branches of such trees with them on their fools’ errand. In Japan’s resulting desperation after facing their impending wholesale defeat in 1945, falling cherry blossom petals came to represent the sacrifice of the country’s youth, woman and old men in suicide attacks…all in honor of their god-like emperor. The government even encouraged the Japanese people to believe that the souls of downed warriors were reincarnated in the blossoms found throughout Japan.
Taken this idea to its ultimate extreme, the Japanese embarked on designing and producing large numbers of disastrous suicide missiles. The Yokosuka-made MXY-7 Ohka (桜花 Ōka, “cherry blossom”) was a purpose-built, rocket powered human-guided anti-shipping kamikaze attack plane employed by Japan towards the end of World War II. American sailors and GIs were quick to give it the exceedingly fitting nickname “Baka” (or “Baka-bomb), Japanese for “fool” or “idiot.”
I’ve always been confused about the naming of the Ohka suicide plane. They are referred to as “cherry blossom,” but in Japanese that word is sakura. In terms of written languages, kanji, the intricate characters that seem impossible to draw let alone learn to read, are shared between Japan and China. Thus, Japanese kanji characters have more than one reading – one in Japanese and one in Chinese. Sakura is the Japanese reading of the kanji 桜, but in Chinese it is pronounced as “ou” or “oh.” Likewise, the Japanese reading of 花, “hana,” is pronounced in Chinese as “ka.” This character means flower, bloom or blossom or both languages. Thus, “cherry blossom” in Chinese is written as 桜花 and holds the same meaning in Japanese. The pronunciation just happens to be different. Turns out the Ohka is named correctly…if you’re Chinese. I have yet to find a credible explanation of why the Chinese name, when it seems that the Japanese despised the Chinese of the time….
The Ohka was necessarily carried underneath a mothership, usually a twin-engined Mitsubishi G4M2e “Betty” bomber, since it had to be carried within range of American shipping. However, a catapult-launched version was being prepared to be located in caves and shelters all along potential invasion beaches of Kyushu and Honshu, while a submarine-launched version was also in-work to provide a suicidal layered defense of the homeland (proper).
The only operational Ohka was the Model 11. Essentially a 2,646 pound bomb with wooden wings and a tail, the craft was powered by three Type 4 Model 1 Mark 20 solid-fuel rocket motors which allowed the missile to attain very high speed but with very limited range. The slow, heavily laden mothership needed to carry the missile within 23-25 miles of potential targets made the coupled pair extremely vulnerable to defending allied fighters. On release, the pilot would first glide towards the target, and when close enough, would fire the Ohka ’s three solid-fuel rockets, one at a time or in unison. The “pilot” would fly the missile using conventional aircraft controls all the way to impact against the ship intended for destruction.
The manned-missile’s terminal approach to its target was almost unstoppable due to its excessively high speed, in excess of 400 mph in level flight and up to an unseen and almost unbelievable-for-the-time 620 mph in its terminal dive. This diving velocity was almost 200 mph faster than the fastest conventional fighters which saw action in the Pacific (the German Me-262 jet fighter had similar performance but was only seen defending Germany in 1945). From combat records, Ohkas struck less than ten American warships (although never a capital ship), sinking one American destroyer and damaging beyond repair three other ships.
During the Battle of Okinawa these perverse weapons – the Ohka specifically – achieved little success, given the sacrifice suffered: out of 185 total planes used in Ohka attacks, 118 were destroyed, taking the lives of 438 persons, including 56 suicide pilots and 372 mother-plane crew members.
But their presence is still darkens the mood of a few wooded areas of modern Kadena Air Force Base. There, along one a main thoroughfare which cuts through the expansive base one can still find shelters from WWII which, when discovered by the invading American army on April 1st, 1945, contained various Ohka aircraft in various states of assembly, some even ready to employ. As a nearby placard states, these shelters – and suicide rockets – came as a complete surprise to the Allies. The Ohka attacks started against the fleet the very next week.
Kamikazes in general caused a significant amount of death and destruction, and while they created terror in the hearts and minds of sailors throughout the Pacific, they also highlighted the need to avoid an invasion of Japan proper at all costs. During World War II, about 3,860 kamikaze pilots were killed and although only about ~15% of kamikaze attacks managed to hit a ship. However, these strikes when successful were devastating: sinking at least 34 combat ships – including three small aircraft carriers, they damaged another 368 others and killed over 4,900 sailors and wounded another 4,800 in the process. Roughly 8.5 percent of all ships hit by Kamikazes sank, and from casualties, it was safer to be a Marine ashore fighting the Japanese on land than a sailor at sea during the Battle of Okinawa. You can read about my scuba dives visiting the Wreck of the USS Emmons, an American Destroyer/Fast Minesweeper sunk by Kamikazes off the coast of Okinawa in early April of 1945.
On the surface, it’s hard to feel any compassion for these pilots who would so knowingly die in the pursuit of nothing more than mass-murder. But then again, we give medals to our troops – often posthumously – that sacrifice to the same end. In the final analysis, many of these boys went to their deaths scared, alone and with no other choice, no matter the happy and brave faces they hid behind. As Hayashi Ichizo, a Kamikaze pilot puts it, “It is easy to talk about death in the abstract, as the ancient philosophers discussed. But it is real death I fear, and I don’t know if I can overcome the fear. Even for a short life, there are many memories. For someone who had a good life, it is very difficult to part with it. But I reached a point of no return. I must plunge into an enemy vessel. To be honest, I cannot say that the wish to die for the emperor is genuine, coming from my heart. However, it is decided for me that I die for the emperor….”
But for each Japanese Kamikaze who died, we must account and remember the over 13 allied servicemen who also met their demise. To the victor go the spoils of course, but losses on all sides should and need to be honored. The Ohka pilots, members of the Jinrai Butai (“Thunder Gods Corps”), are remembered in Japan at various locations, including Ohka Park in Kashima City, the Ohka Monument in Kanoya City, the Kamakura Ohka Monument at Kenchō-ji Kamakura, and the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.
“I remember vividly the change in the war situation, and there are painful memories of saying farewell with tears day after day to rosy-cheeked men departing never to return. Filled with the emotion of all Japanese people, I write these words praying for the repose of the souls of these young soldiers.” ~ Sohachi Okamura, naval press correspondent at Kanoya airbase in 1945, as quoted on a modern Kanoya City memorial