I was blown away when my son told me he wanted to do his sixth grade research project on Japan’s human torpedoes, the manned missiles that crashed themselves into enemy ships toward the end of World War II.
Since then I’ve been watching to see if an 11-year-old boy growing up in an officially pacifist country — Japan’s Constitution renounces war and the country only has forces for defense — can fathom a time when thousands of frenzied young men signed up to ride torpedoes, or planes in the case of the better known kamikaze pilots, to meet certain death in the name of the emperor and their country.
Nationalism is a remote concept for Japanese children today. The flag and national anthem remain controversial symbols of war-time militarism in some sectors. The government encourages public schools to raise the flag and sing the anthem, but my son’s private school never mandates those acts. My son cannot recite the lyrics to the anthem even though it happens to be one of the shortest in the world, with only 11 measures.
The human torpedoes were named kaiten, literally “turn heaven,” and shorthand for “shake up the heavens and change the course of the war,” reflecting Japan’s desperate desire to reverse the steady string of U.S. victories in the Pacific. They were the brainchild of the Imperial Navy officers Hiroshi Kuroki and Sekio Nishina who eyed the stockpiles of torpedoes sitting in sheds after Japan had shifted its focus of fighting from sea to air. The missiles were redesigned to have a tiny pilot’s chamber, an engine and a gyroscope so they could be steered into their targets. They began shipping out in 1944, the year before Japan’s defeat.
To get a first-hand look at a kaiten, we visited Tokyo’s Yushukan military museum. The area was heavily guarded by police as the museum sits on the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine, controversial for deifying the war dead, including Class A war criminals. The sleek missile, nearly 15 yards long, was striking in its length compared to the narrow one-yard diameter into which the soldier would squeeze. Painted in white on the hatch was a chrysanthemum floating on water, the family crest of a samurai loyal to the emperor. “The 1.5 tons of explosives in its bow instantly sank a ship,” reads the museum pamphlet.
What it doesn’t say is that the more than 100 kaiten launches resulted in only two major sinkings of enemy vessels; the oiler U.S.S. Mississinewa and the destroyer escort U.S.S. Underhill. The torpedoes had limited maneuverability and often set out at night amid rough waters, making it difficult to reach their targets. U.S. ships frequently detected the submarines before the kaiten could even be deployed. And more than a dozen pilots died during training missions, having rammed their missiles aground.
An avid reader, my son immersed himself in books filled with letters, wills and diaries of the soldiers. The volunteers — if the men who signed up for the missions under immense pressure can be called that — were mostly in their late teens and early 20s. Their writings describe a calm acceptance of their fate along with words of gratitude and affection to their families. Some are poetic, like the one of the 18-year-old who wrote, “I am the sea. I am normally calm and blue. The turbulent swirls are the angry me.”
My mother became worried that her grandson was getting brainwashed after she heard him say in an admiring tone, “They did it for the emperor.” She pointed out that the officers were men not that much older than him and how they often addressed their final messages to their mothers. “That lunch box was really delicious. I should have asked you to make some more,” were the last words written by one 21-year old.
At the Kaiten Memorial Museum on a small island off the coast of Western Japan’s Yamaguchi Prefecture, stone tablets bearing the names of the dead dot what was once the parade ground of the country’s largest kaiten base. My son skipped around the tiny monuments, calling out the names he recognized.
“What’s he famous for?” I asked him about one of them. Taro Tsukamoto made an audio recording of his will, my son told me. Sure enough, at the Yushukan museum one can hear through the static, the voice of the 21-year-old reminiscing about gathering silver grass for moon-viewing parties and having snowball fights.
“I wish I could live happily like that forever,” he says. “But I must not forget that I am foremost a Japanese. … May my country flourish forever. Goodbye everyone.”
Six months after he started research, I asked my son what he thought about the kaiten. “I can’t say,” he said, causing me to momentarily worry about the outcome of his report. But then he explained, “You can’t describe in words how sad it is.”
Kumiko Makihara, a writer and translator living in Tokyo.