Cherry Bombs: The Darker Side of Sakura in Japan


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).

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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.

Japanese Military with Sakura

Japanese Military with Sakura

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.

Japanese school girls waving sakura at a departing Kamikaze

Japanese school girls waving sakura at a departing Kamikaze

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.”

Note the Cherry Blossom Nose Art

Note the Cherry Blossom Nose Art

Pic44Japanese 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.

The "Baka Bomb"

The “Baka Bomb”

Ohka's Basic Cockpit

Ohka’s Basic Cockpit

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.”

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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….

An Ohka Carried under a Betty Bomber

An Ohka Carried under a Betty Bomber

kamikaze_betty_ohkaThe 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).

Massive 2,500+ Pound Warhead

Massive 2,500+ Pound Warhead

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.

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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.

A Betty Carrying an Ohka goes Down in Flames

A Betty Carrying an Ohka goes Down in Flames

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.

Kadena AFB WWII Shelter

Kadena AFB WWII Shelter

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Baka Bomb hangars, historical marker on KAB WM-1But 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.

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Baka Bomb hangars, wooded aircraft shelter 2 WM-1

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Baka Bomb hangars, filled aircraft shelter on KAB 2 WM-1Kamikazes 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.

Bunker at Atsugi

Bunker at Atsugi

Av_J_4507_Baka_p211_WOn 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….”

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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.

Crews Briefing a "Thunder Gods" Attack

Crews Briefing a “Thunder Gods” Attack

“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

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Traces of War: Life and Death in the Ahasha & Sennin Caves on Ie Island


 405512“Dying ain’t so hard for men like you and me, it’s living that’s hard; when all you ever cared about has been butchered or raped. Governments don’t live together, people live together. With governments you don’t always get a fair word or a fair fight. Well I’ve come here to give you either one, or get either one from you. I came here like this so you’ll know my word of death is true. And that my word of life is then true….” ~Josey Wales’ two tales of death and life, The Outlaw Josey Wales

“The only reason my mother didn’t kill me was that she never went to school,” smiled our Okinawan tour guide during a tour of Ahashagama on Ie Jima. “She was never brain-washed by the faculty and the government….” (See Loyal Soul Monument for more on the militarization of Okinawa in the years preceding WWII)  When war came to Okinawa, Setsuko was less than a year old and was hiding with her family on the main island of Okinawa. She had a remarkably chipper attitude about the whole thing; I guess there’s really no other way to really be once you realize that words of life and death can be spoken in such casual ways as they were on Okinawa back in 1945.

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Okinawans continue to tell their wartime accounts least younger generations forget the appalling consequences of war. Like the oral traditions of just a few generations ago, such are the ways the Okinawans preserve the honor and memories of those who tragically lost their lives in such horrifically meaningless ways. With more and more of remaining firsthand witnesses to the carnage passing away, such frightful tales are necessarily being expressed more and more through memorial sites left for future contemplation. At the end of the day, to the Okinawans, the moral of all these chronicles and memorials is the same: the inescapable shocking costs of war.

Alter in the Cave of 1000 People

Alter in the Cave of 1000 People

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, coastal entranceTraces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, memorial stone 2Jody and I recently visited a nearby island to celebrate the beginning of the New Year. Little did I realize the traces of war that remain so blatantly palpable on that tiny piece of earth. Ie Jima, a small island off central Okinawa’s west coast reachable only by boat, memorializes a tale of two caves utilized by the locals as shelter during the Battle of Okinawa. One cave’s narrative involves words of life. At Niya-Thiya Gama (gama means cave), over 1,000 people, while seeking sanctuary inside, survived the invasion and fight on Ie Island throughout the second half of April, 1945. The locals still refer to this cave as Sen-nin Gama, which translates loosely to “The Cave of 1000 People.”

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, Jody at a cave exit to the ocean

Fertility Stone

Fertility Stone

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, site marker plaqueBecause of this miracle of life during Okinawa’s Typhoon of Steel where roughly 1/3rd of all Okinawans died in a few short weeks, inside this cave is located a sacred stone, a fertility stone, sometimes called Kodakara-ishi (子宝石, “Child Stone”). Many come here to harness the “special power” that permeates such “Power Spots,” the phrase the very superstitious Okinawans use to describe such important locales. The stone here is believed to be imbued with a living god, and not only does it help those wishing to conceive new life, but it can foretell gender before birth. According to legend, if a woman who picks up the stone feels that it is heavy, her offspring will be a boy. If the stone feels light, the baby will be a girl.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, sacred power fertility stone and power spot

According to the Japanese sign on the outside of the Niya-Thiya Cave, around March of the Lunar Calendar each year a prayer ritual lead by a female priestess is held inside the cave, although I have not been able to confirm this.

Ahasha Gama

Ahasha Gama

wallTraces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ahasha Cave, Jody negotiates an entrance to the cave 2The tale, however, takes a dark, somber turn at Ahashagama (Ahasha Cave) where there are only words of death. Seemingly forgotten after the war, the cave was sealed during the war and left unmolested for over two decades. Many probably wanted to forget what happened there. But finally, and rightfully, the cave was opened and excavated in 1971, twenty-six years after the end of World War II. In short order, the horrific rumors that locals knew to be true was confirmed by forensic analysis: the remains of about 150 people – civilian villagers including men, women and children – were still there, serving silent yet inescapable witness to the mass murder-suicide which occurred there. The Imperial Japanese Army had given the civilians grenades and ordered everyone to kill themselves in order to evade capture. Even so, a few people realized such folly and survived their cavemates’ dreadful demise. Unfortunately, words of death like these are not uncommon on Okinawa where mass suicides and murders were perpetrated over surrender and capture, sometimes by choice, mostly through coercion, and even by force.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ahasha Cave, modern cave site 2

AJ201304250011MTraces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ahasha Cave, plaque at the entranceOkinawa’s anguish over these widespread civilian suicides is sharpened by the horrible realization that soldiers from Japan’s main islands always encouraged suicide over capture. Worse, they often used intimidation and bullying to pressure many into taking such drastic actions, and at times murdered civilians who refused. In a diorama at Peace Prayer Park, the Okinawa memorial to WWII, a spotlight glints off a bayonet held by a fierce-looking Japanese soldier who stands over an Okinawan family huddled in a cave, the mother trying to smother her baby’s cries. “At the hands of Japanese soldiers, civilians were massacred, forced to kill themselves and each other,” reads the caption. Nearby, a life-size photo shows the grisly aftermath of a family killed by a hand grenade.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ahasha Cave, entrance to the cave

On Geruma Island, part of the Kerama Islands just a few miles off Okinawa’s southwestern coast, Takejiro Nakamura attests first-hand to atrocities. In 1945, he was just a boy, a 15-year-old student when the American invasion started.

Jody temps fate with the Sacred Stone!

Jody temps fate with the Sacred Stone!

“For a long time, the Japanese Imperial Army announced that, on other islands, the women had been raped and killed, and the men were tied at the wrists and tanks were driven over them,” he states flatly. He claims that, as Japanese defenses crumbled on his home island in late March 1945, 56 of the 130 residents there committed suicide. Fleeing with family and neighbors, he ended up in one small cave where ten of his fellow citizens had already killed themselves. They decided to do the same.

1,000 Person Cave

1,000 Person Cave

“I heard my sister calling out, ‘Kill me now, hurry’, ” Mr. Nakamura said, recalling how his 20-year-old sister panicked at the approach of American soldiers. His mother took a rope and strangled her. Seeing this, he attempted the same. “I tried to also strangle myself with a rope,” he recalled, lifting his now weather-beaten hands to his neck. “But I kept breathing. It is really tough to kill yourself.” Minutes later, before his mother had time to kill him as well, the Americans took them captive.

Cave Alter

Cave Alter

His mother lived well into her 80’s. “We talked often about the war,” Mr. Nakamura said. “But to the end, she never once talked about killing her daughter….” The iron in such words of death would shatter her already broken heart, nor could it offer any lasting catharsis for her damaged soul. Instead, she, like all those who have suffered war, should always struggle to find words of life.

Words of Life Finally Work

Words of Life Finally Work

“I ain’t promising you nothing extra. I’m just giving you life and you’re giving me life. And I’m saying that men can live together without butchering one another,” Josey says through gritted teeth, squinting but looking the Indian Chief squarely in the eyes.

Ten Bears, in full war paint with his scouts and warriors surrounding Josey, contemplates such words. “It’s sad that governments are chiefed by the double tongues. There is iron in your words of death for all Comanche to see, and so there is iron in your words of life. No signed paper can hold the iron. It must come from men. The words of Ten Bears carries the same iron of life and death. It is good that warriors such as we meet in the struggle of life… or death.”

“It shall be life.”