TOKYO (Reuters) - Ordered to sacrifice themselves for the nation by crashing their planes into U.S. warships as Japan vainly battled to stave off invasion in the final months of World War Two, some young pilots instead returned alive.
As a documentary released in Japan on Saturday shows, not all the young men trained for the suicide missions that struck terror into U.S. servicemen faced their almost certain death gladly.
“I wanted to live,” Kazuo Nakajima, one of the now elderly ‘failed cherry blossoms’ tells the filmmakers with an embarrassed laugh. “I didn’t want to die.”
Japanese-American director Risa Morimoto sought out former kamikaze after discovering her much-loved uncle had been among those prepared to carry out what were called “special attacks.”
Instead of finding the fanatics she had expected, she met a group of gentle, elderly men who confessed their mixed emotions about the past, she says on the film’s Web site.
One veteran even criticized the emperor, treated as a living god until Japan’s defeat, for failing to surrender sooner.
The film, “Wings of Defeat,” has already been shown to some surviving crewmen of the U.S.S. Drexler, a destroyer sunk by kamikaze near the end of the war.
“They said, ‘We were told we were killing madmen. We were lied to,’” producer Linda Hoaglund told a recent news conference.
She and Morimoto have arranged for two 81-year-old U.S. survivors to meet some of the former kamikaze in Japan next week.
The film struck a chord with one elderly Japanese man who said he trained in the same suicide unit as one of the pilots in the documentary.
“It was exactly like that. We thought we were fighting and giving our lives for our families and our comrades,” said Masaaki Kobayashi, 79, after watching the film with a group of his former comrades. “As soldiers, that was the only thing we could do.”
The film’s release coincides with controversy over efforts by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other conservatives to shed what they consider a masochistic attitude to Japan’s wartime past.
Last month, lawmakers from the southern island of Okinawa — site of a bloody 1945 battle that killed some 200,000 civilians and soldiers — blasted the government for deciding to tone down school textbook references to soldiers ordering civilians to commit suicide rather than surrender to U.S. personnel in the war.
Abe also drew criticism when he denied that the military or government had hauled Asian women away to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers before and during the war, although he has said he stands by a government apology to the women who suffered.
The documentary is being shown two months after a feature film on the kamikaze penned by Tokyo’s nationalist governor Shintaro Ishihara, celebrating the young kamikaze as heroes.
Many Japanese say wartime reality should be taught to a younger generation too young to remember.
“We shouldn’t beautify it, but we shouldn’t forget it either,” said a 34-year-old system engineer who watched the film.
Vice-Admiral Takejiro Onishi conceived of the desperate kamikaze strategy when Japan was on the verge of losing the Philippines to U.S. forces.
The first attack took place off the coast of the island of Leyte in the Philippines in 1944 and its success inspired Onishi to recruit more young men for suicide missions.
Roughly 4,000 kamikaze pilots died and 34 U.S. ships were sunk in the last few months of the war, according to the filmmakers.
“They thought they were doing it for their country, but if you think about it now, they never should have adopted that strategy,” said one 82-year-old woman, who served as a nurse during the war and cried as she watched the film.
“Everyone knew Japan was losing. They should have surrendered sooner.”