Japan's view of kamikaze pilots has lesson for rest of us

Gregg Erickson

A couple of years ago I paid an emotional and disturbing visit to an old air base near the southern tip of Japan. Kamikaze pilots received training here and many were launched from here for their one-way attacks on American ships.

The base has been transformed into the "Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots." The museum building is an immense, 17,000-square-foot structure. In its main hall are the photos of more than a thousand pilots who died in the attacks, with the pilot's name and age. They are arranged -- like the names on our own Vietnam War memorial -- by date of death. Nearby are countless letters, poems and testaments written by these warriors before they went off to die, and articles and photos they left behind.

The old men who organized these "special attack" squadrons in 1945 had to know that Japan's defeat was inevitable. Of the young men whose images I saw, the oldest was 22 when he died. The last photo I saw was of five smiling young men, obviously friends, taken the morning of their mission. The caption gave their ages. The 17-year-old in the middle is cuddling a young puppy.

The museum gets more than a half-million visitors a year. The only Americans in sight when I visited were in our small group. The museum's brochure says it was established "to commemorate the pilots and expose the tragic loss of their lives so that we may understand the need for everlasting peace and ensure such incidents are never repeated."

Among the throngs of visitors were hundreds of young Japanese middle and high school students, moving in groups from room to room, sitting in rapt attention to the lecturer at each stop. The message these kids were being taught didn't seem to contain much about ensuring "such incidents" aren't repeated, and I heard no mention of the old men who sent these young pilots out to die, knowing that their mission to save the homeland was hopeless.

The children are being taught that the kamikaze pilots represent the highest expression of the Japanese character.

"(They) volunteered to protect their country, parents, younger brothers and sisters and girlfriends," wrote a student in a Chiran town essay contest. "Today ... young people have lost their direction. ... We tend to lose sight of even the true meaning of loving, so we in such times need to learn many things from the kamikaze pilots' way of life. They died with pure feelings, deeply loving their country, loving nature, and loving people."

We still think of the kamikazes as "suicide pilots," but not in Japan. Suicide is associated with depression, a mental illness. Hardly anyone in Japan thinks of kamikazes as suffering from a mental illness. Nor do I.

News organizations in this country have adopted the term "suicide bomber" to describe those who turn themselves into walking or motorized bombs. It's a dangerously misleading usage. Lots of research over the last 20 years in Israel and more recently in the U.S. and Europe has addressed what motivates these people. None of it suggests that human bombers are "callous fanatics delighting in the carnage they have created" or are otherwise suffering from derangement, according to "Suicide Bomber" by Michelle Malese, a researcher writing in the Web-published BeyondIntractability.org.

Most of them, like the kamikaze pilots, "believe that their violent acts, while somewhat regrettable, are justified and noble." They typically have an "emotional commitment to their cause and comrades (that) is indicative of normal human psychology." Like the kamikazes', the actions of so-called suicide bombers rarely stem from hatred, "but rather from love of their own group and culture that they believe is threatened and requires protection."

To those who carried it out and those they cared about who were left behind, destroying some 3,000 lives on Sept. 11 was a selfless act of sacrifice for a larger good. We feel the same way about our fathers and grandfathers who died in the strategic bombing campaigns that targeted enemy civilians in Germany and Japan. The Japanese feel that way about the kamikaze. We honor those who make this ultimate sacrifice, and especially honor those who do so knowing that there is no coming back. They died for us.

Juneau economic consultant Gregg Erickson is editor-at-large of the Alaska Budget Report, a newsletter covering the state's economy and government. He can be reached at gerickso@alaska.com.