By Bart Plantenga -
“molded by circumstances into a flaming soul dedicated to death”*
He held his breath, touched his temples to make sense of their throbbing. Kamikaze means the “divine wind” that flushes the Japanese soul of fear, the wind that rescued the Japanese from the Mongol hordes long ago. Kamikaze was also the name given to young pilots (average age 16 with perhaps 10 hours of flight training) who “volunteered” to become “human bombs” for Japan and its emperor in a unit called the Yamazakura [cherry blossoms].
On his last evening on this earth the Kamikaze was celebrated, honored until thoroughly intoxicated with the collective unreason of patriotism – and sake upon sake.
The pilot wrote: “Today in flower / tomorrow scattered by the wind / such is our blossom life / How can its fragrance last forever?”
Suki Nomi, daughter of a failed Kamikaze: “I find pressed flower of cherry blossom my otosan [father] place in a book. Sakura cherry is flower of Japan. They beautiful but very short bloom. Cherry blossom mean spring and bright future. They use for Kamikaze in war cuz they want to make death sacrifice for Japan honor look like beauty. But otosan believe beauty is only to behold. Human must look at flower for beauty to shine cuz to die in war is to go against beauty. ...”
The Kamikaze arose at daybreak; his capitain poured him one last ceremonial cup of sake and maybe one more. He sat down to a meal of dried cuddlefish. The pilot stood, bowed and with both hands lifted the sake to his lips to drank the cup dry.
Suki Nomi: “My otosan, he forced into being Kamikaze in Oita Naval Base Kamikaze Barracks. This is sad coincident because you have beautiful waterfalls nearby that offer hope while Kamikaze is only death. After no more volunteers show up, they force young boys to become honorable Kamikaze. He have no choice. He is Buddhist and he live ahimsa, not to hurt any single creature.”
Upon finishing his last meal, the boy stood up, wrapped a scarf decorated with chrysanthemums around his leather helmet as his admiral handed him a bento, a small box lunch for a last minute snack. To ensure that the Kamikaze did not lose his nerve at the last moment, they strapped him down into his seat, plied with even more sake, and then doused with gasoline to assure that his final voyage would make him “a god without earthly desires.” A poet made into human molotov cocktail, the mere fuel for a machine that enlarges the sick heart of the state.
Upon nearing his target, he hung briefly above the puffs of anti-aircraft smoke to released glimmering strips of tinfoil from the belly of his Zero fighter to jam enemy radar. He also learned that to fly very low would prevent radar from detecting him. So low he could smell the briny sea one last time. He’d yank back his toggle stick to prepare for detonation upon impact. High on gasoline, he dreamt of a perfect crash, a perfect metallic pirouette onto the crowded deck of an enemy carrier. In the explosion, he and the plane would disintegrate into a single organism, a rippa na saigo, a splendid death.
Suki Nomi: “Tragedy of otosan who try to be good. He was young man, 19. If I understand, it got very bad for other and to honor our – not my – Emperor no longer important. Leaders send young boys of hope to die. Crazy we humans are. The personality of Kamikaze must be directed, not in madness of destruction, but how he can penetrate the Ky-kyoku no umum, ultimate secret of things.”
Did this young pilot or any other Kamikaze ever insist he was not yet ready to be a man, a dead man and say: “Wait, I am a boy still dreaming? I plan to dance and kiss the beautiful round-cheeked girls.”
Suki Nomi: “Some who choose not to die were punish with death and dishonor of failure to sacrifice for emperor. Many end up in prison camp where they shot as traitor. So otosan, he smart to disappear. Otosan see no honor in war. He make escape, run far away to island of Aogashima that sit far to east of Tokyo in ocean. Because they catch you, they kill you on the spot and they can very much find you most of time, but otosan clever. He pay a fisherman, Ibuse, to take him in fisherboat. Aogashima is wild island with volcano and not many people. He exist with their help. He eats mulberries, fish, eggs, cherries, and an orange potato.”
How many Kamikazes actually returned to claim they could not find their targets – only to be shot or sent right back out again? Not many. Did any figure out that those officers enamored by their uniforms were preying on the gross insecurities of boys who were not yet men? The boys could not know that no one would ever lay wreaths upon any monument that was never built to honor the courage they weren’t even sure was courage? Did any other than Suki’s otosan ever allow their hearts to guide their planes to veer off target and seek asylum in a Buddhist monastery?
Suki Nomi: “Ibuse help otosan build small house. There he stay long until one day Ibuse say war is over if you want it. It is September when Ibuse arrange for boat to take him back to mainland. Otosan hike all the way to Hiroshima. Where as he arrive he see whole city is gone. He break down into tears all day. He think of his friends and family. All gone. Otosan lucky that after war they burn most the records but still Otosan get call a tekizen toubou [flee from enemy], undesirable. Ignorant people avoid him and me until I was 25. He buy a camera and photograph Hiroshima places where people he know disappear from, melt away, leaving only shadows. Hundred of shadows. He want to learn what happen to his girlfriend – only ghost memory of smell and touch of skin – the man who sell newspapers or nice man next door who help him make kites out of boxes, bamboo sticks and newspaper.”
How could these boys have known that their commanders seldom passed along the envelopes with locks of hair and nail clippings or the poems they’d written to loved ones? They would never know.
Who was that Kamikaze who experienced pangs of doubt when he wrote: “it would be very disorienting / if we were to drop / storms of flowers instead.” I could see that the sun was going to melt the better part of this gray day.
* Kamikaze: A Japanese Pilot's Own Spectacular Story of the Famous Suicide Squadrons, Yasuo Kuwahara
Bart Plantenga is the author of novels Beer Mystic, Radio Activity Kills, & Ocean GroOve, short story collection Wiggling Wishbone & novella Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man & wander memoirs: Paris Scratch and NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor. His books YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World & Yodel in HiFi plus the CD Rough Guide to Yodel have created the misunderstanding that he’s the world’s foremost yodel expert. He’s also a DJ & has produced Wreck This Mess in NYC, Paris & Amsterdam since forever. He lives in Amsterdam. You can find more of his work at bartplantenga.weebly.com.