Looking back at Japan’s Kamikaze pilots: history, strategy and downfall


If you’re an aviation geek or enthusiast, chances are you’ve visited several war and aviation museums around the world. 

Modern history and aviation go hand in hand, so almost every war museum also features a military aviation aspect. Some of these museums include the non-profit Pearl Harbour Aviation Museum in Hawaii, the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm Museum in the United Kingdom, and the Aviation Heritage Museum in Western Australia.

Yokaren Shiryokan

However, not many know that there is a small museum more than 1,000 kilometers from Tokyo, tucked away on the island of Kyushu. 

Since 1988, Yokaren Shiryokan in Oita Prefecture has served as an archive museum of over 3,000 artifacts and personal items belonging to kamikaze pilots. 

Yokaren, in Japanese, translates to naval aviator trainees in the former Imperial Japanese Navy. In the latter part of the Second World War, some of these trainees signed up to be kamikaze pilots.

The museum was founded and privately owned by Kiichi Kawano, a former kamikaze attack unit member at Kisarazu Naval Air Group in Chiba Prefecture.

Kiichi Kawano. Image: kamikazeimages.net

Just before Kawano was scheduled to depart for his suicide mission as a kamikaze pilot, the war came to an end.

In a 2015 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Kawano said he only survived because he was scheduled to fly out the day after Japan’s surrender. 

“I felt like I failed to die. It was like coming second in a race. I was so disappointed and ashamed,” Kawano told ABC. 

“The gods had allowed me to live. I had to find a way to comfort the souls of my fellow dead pilots,” Kawano added.

To assuage the guilt of surviving, Kawano spent 30 years and $130,000 personally collecting artifacts to build an archive museum to honor his kamikaze brothers. He even renovated and transformed his own house into a museum. 

The museum, Kawano told ABC, is also a way to teach the younger generation that war should never happen again.

Most of the museum artifacts are made up of personal effects belonging to kamikaze pilots. These include letters left for loved ones to read before the pilots took off on their final flight, as well as diary entries. These personal items allowed the public to get a glimpse of intimate and candid thoughts of the kamikaze pilots. 

Here are excerpts from diary entries that showed how the kamikaze pilots tried to accept their fate in good humor. Kawano gave permission for the site Kamikaze Images to publish these in 2011. 

It was the evening of August 8. My senior in the 15th Otsu Class, Flight Chief Petty Officer Kiyoshi Tanaka, was scheduled to depart the next day, the 9th, on a special attack. He bumped his head against a column in front of me.

Petty Officer Tanaka said, “Kawano, that really hurt.”

“The instant you crash is no pain,” I said. We laughed together, and that was finished, but I guessed his feeling. Not able to do anything for that indescribable feeling, I only said, “Tanaka, since I will soon be going after you, please go before and wait for me.”

On August 13, the order was given for the 7th Mitate Unit 3rd Ryūsei Squadron to make a sortie on a special attack.

In that 3rd Ryūsei Squadron was Flight Chief Petty Officer Yoshiomi Nishimori, 16th Otsu Class, in the second plane of Section 1.

Petty Officer Nishimori, a few hours before his takeoff, surprised me when he called me and said, “Kawano, will you swap your flight suit with mine?”

I replied, “Nishimori, what’s got into you?”

He said, “On my trip to die I would like to go wearing your new flight suit. Exchange with me.”

Even though while thinking that I also would be leaving for a special attack in a few days, since it was my senior talking, I said, “Yes, I understand. Let’s swap. Please go while wearing my flight suit.” It was arranged that we would wear each other’s flight suit.

Since my own flight suit had become worn, I had gone to the quartermaster’s warehouse and had just exchanged it for a new one. I quickly took it off and exchanged my flight suit with the one worn by my senior in this squadron before mine that soon would take off for a special attack.

However, since our own names were written on the inside of each other’s jacket, it felt somewhat strange.

For the two of us destined eventually to cast ourselves into the southern sea, it probably did not matter at all whatever was inside the flight suits. Also, I told myself that it would probably be sufficient if we could exchange them in the next world. I laughed and sent him off.

Kawano inside the museum. Photo: Edgar A. Porter / zocalopublicsquare.org

In 2021, Kawano died at the age of 91. Since then, Kawano’s son, 68-year old Takayasu, has been running and managing the museum. 

Takayasu does not agree with the concept of kamikaze pilots. Still in his 50s then, Takayasu told ABC that sending young people to their deaths for Japan’s future was a “mistake”. 

Takayasu also found that managing the museum’s collection proved to be a complex process. 

Additionally, none of Takayasu’s own children or family members wanted to take over the museum.

In December 2023, Takayasu announced the decision to close Yokaren Shiryokan in 2024.

Guests will still be able to visit the museum until May 2024, the same month that a closing ceremony is scheduled to take place. Yoraken Shiryokan will officially close on August 14, 2024, just a year shy of the 80th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. 

How kamikaze pilots began

Even though kamikaze pilots were only deployed in the latter years of the Second World War, they have made quite an impact not just in modern history, but popular culture.

The term kamikaze is now regularly used and recognized in casual English language. Just very recently, the actions of an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot who tried to disable the engines of an aircraft mid-flight in October 2023 was described as an attempted “kamikaze attack” by the media. 

But how was the term originally coined? 

In Japanese, kamikaze is made up of two words: ‘kami’ which means ‘divinity’ or ‘divine’, and ‘kaze’, meaning ‘wind’.

The word is referenced in Japanese history and dates back to the 16th Century, when Mongol emperor Kublai Khan’s attempts to invade the country were thwarted by the gods who sent a heavenly wind that sank the Mongol fleet.  

In late 1944, American troops were closing in on Japan, seizing the country’s islands one by one. At that point, the Japanese had already lost several major battles and were struggling against the industrial power of the Allied forces. 

Kamikaze was a bold, radical, and desperate last-ditch strategy to save the Japanese empire. 

“Japan was faced by overwhelming American naval power. Increasingly unable to make effective air attacks against American ships, Japanese forces turned to suicide attacks, using pilots flying aircraft laden with bombs as improvised missiles, in the hope of destroying Allied ships at the cost of the aircraft, and the pilot’s life,” Ian Kikuchi, Senior Curator and Historian at London’s Imperial War Museums (IWM) said in an August 2023 IWM video presentation about kamikaze pilots

In June 1944, Captain Motoharu Okamura, the first officer to officially propose kamikaze tactics, began to research and plan the suicide pilot attacks.

By August 1944, the Japanese started training its pilots in Taiwan for the suicide missions.

The first recorded kamikaze attack against a US ship was in the morning of October 25, 1944 in Samar, in the Philippines.

At 10:53, a Mitsubishi A6M5 Zeke deliberately hit USS St. Lo (CVE-63), a survivor of the Battle off Samar. 100 Americans were killed and the escort carrier took less than an hour to sink. 

USS St. Lo was attacked by a kamikaze pilot. Image: Wikipedia

The success of this first mission encouraged and emboldened the losing Japanese forces to continue with the kamikaze method. 

How kamikaze pilots were recruited

The concept of honorable death and loyalty is intrinsic to Japanese culture. 

In the 12th century, Japanese Samurais performed “seppuku”, which is more popularly known as “harakiri”, a grisly act of fatally disemboweling oneself with a knife in the belief that it is more honorable to perish this way than to die under the hands of an enemy. 

This is known as “bushido” or “the way of the warrior”, a philosophy that places loyalty and honor above all, and not fearing death or dying in the name of valor. 

The code of bushido is deeply ingrained in Japanese history and culture, from samurais to its Second World War soldiers and businessmen. And in a more extreme way, it is reflected even in the underbelly dealings of the yakuza. 

When the Imperial Japanese Army recruited kamikaze pilots, it played on the emotions of the Japanese people, invoking the idea that serving as a kamikaze pilot would bring the highest honor to the empire. 

Recruitment was advertised in books and newspapers in a romanticized light and showed kamikaze pilots being treated as heroes before and after their missions.

High school girls waving cherry blossom branches to a kamikaze pilot before his mission. Wikipedia

Kamikaze recruits were also very young, mostly under the age of 24. The government ordered some universities to move graduations forward so that students could be drafted. 

An excerpt from ‘Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers’ published by the University of Chicago Press in 2006 stated that once the recruits reached the training base, they were subjected to harsh corporal punishment on a daily basis. 

The site History Collection said that the cadets clearly understood that Japan was fighting a losing war. Rationalizing their own deaths, the cadets believed that sacrificing their lives for the sake of Japan’s survival would not be a total waste.

Above is a photo that shows how young the kamikaze pilots were. Wikipedia dated the photo to be taken on May 26, 1945. Holding the puppy is 17-year-old Corporal Yukio Araki, one of the youngest recruited kamikazes. Surrounding Araki are four other kamikaze pilots of the 72nd Shinbu Squadron at Bansei, Kagoshima.

On May 27, 1945, the day after the photograph was taken, Araki died during the Battle of Okinawa when he deliberately crashed his bomb-laden Mitsubishi Ki-51 into the USS Braine, a 21-ton Fletcher class destroyer.

Mitsubishi A6M2 ‘Zero’: the kamikaze pilot’s choice of aircraft

The kamikaze pilots used the Mitsubishi A6M2 as their choice of aircraft.

Nicknamed ‘Zero’, the A6M2 weighed 3,704 pounds when empty, making it one of the lightest fighter aircraft during the Second World War. 

Every weight-saving measure was incorporated in designing the A6M2. No armor protection was provided for the pilot, engine or other critical points of the aircraft. While this is normally considered a disadvantage, it served the purpose of kamikaze missions well.

The lighter weight also made it possible for the Japanese to modify the aircraft to accommodate 500-pound bombs, and still takeoff and fly long distances.

The anatomy of a Mistubishi A6M2. image: historynet.com/

In total, nearly 10,430 A6M2s were built, with many of these converted to kamikaze craft in the closing months of the Second World War.

Was kamikaze a successful tactic?

Historical records showed that only 19% of kamikaze attacks were successful. As many pilots were young and hastily trained, the majority of the planes missed their targets and crashed into the sea. 

The Allied forces also learned from the first kamikaze attack in the Philippines. They positioned combat air patrols to protect carriers and intercept Japanese aircraft before they could reach the ships. The carriers were also equipped with anti-aircraft guns.

IWM’s Ian Kikuchi also said that the Allies used destroyers as radar pickets, small warships fitted with radar that are positioned about 20 miles from the main fleet. These ships provided early warning of incoming air raids. The downside, however, was that these small ships were exposed and subjected to attacks by the kamikaze. 

Kamikaze pilots during the Battle of Okinawa

Kamikazes were heavily used during the Battle of Okinawa, which lasted 82 days, from April 1 – June 22, 1945. In the months leading up to the Battle of Okinawa, islands that were taken over by Japan, such as Saipan, Guam, Tinian and Palau, were recaptured by the Allied forces and used as bases for heavy bombers to strike Japan’s home islands.

Unlike these Pacific islands, Okinawa is actually part of Japan, so the Allied forces looming in on the country’s southernmost Prefecture posed an incredible threat to the Japanese.

Kamikaze pilots became an integral part of the Japanese strategy in defending Okinawa. It was at this time that the Yokosuka MXY-7 Ohka aircraft were deployed as kamikaze planes alongside the usual A6M2. 

Max Smith / Wikipedia

The Okha (meaning cherry blossom in Japanese), is a rocket-powered human-guided kamikaze attack aircraft built by the Japanese solely for the purpose of being a Kamikaze plane.

Though the Okha was extremely fast, it could fly only a very short range. This means it had to be carried by a much larger bomber as a parasite aircraft. 

A total of 852 Okhas were built by the Japanese, but only a fraction of the planes were used in combat.

During its first combat sortie, 16 bombers carried one Okha, and was escorted by 30 A6M2s. The entire fleet was intercepted and destroyed by US Naval fighters.

Between April and June 1945, Japan flew more than 400 kamikaze sorties at Okinawa. And though the kamikazes played a significant role during the battle, it was not enough to defend Okinawa.

“Around 350 vessels were hit by kamikaze. 47 were sunk and the rest damaged. Of ships sunk, none were strategically important, and all could be replaced,” Kikuchi said. 

“When you hear of my death, be happy for me.”

When we read about kamikaze pilots, it’s easy to see them as crazed fanatics happy to die for their empire. 

Kamikaze pilots’ final letters to their families, such as those found in Yokaren Shiryokan, serve as a reminder that these young pilots were filled with love and affection for their families. 

One final letter from a kamikaze pilot to his family, published by Journal Storage, captures this sentiment. 

The letter saw Lieutenant Kishi Fumikazu to his family asking his brother and sister to give their mother the “love he cannot give”.

Fumikazu was killed in the Philippines on October 24, 1944 at age 22.

Dear Mother and Father, Brother and Sister,

End of autumn. The backyard must be filled with the cries of insects, as it is every year around this time. My heart is full to bursting with memories of the many evenings we spent talking together. I suppose you are all somewhat concerned about how I’m doing.

During my visit home in May, Sister said to me, “Ever since you joined up, Mother has been setting meals before your photograph. She’s given up drinking tea, and every evening she visits the shrine to pray for you.” I was so moved that I was unable to thank her. Mother really wore herself out at the farewell party the night before I left to join my unit. She was so busy preparing for my departure that she didn’t sleep at all the night before.

And on my sun flag, she wrote HAPPILY WAITING FOR A RETURNING CHILD. Whenever I can, I gaze at those four noble characters for the nourishment they give my soul. The fighting has become extremely intense, and there is no guarantee of my safe return. The image of all those poor school kids and everyone else singing war songs and waving a sea of flags as they saw us off to the front is burned indelibly into my mind. I firmly believe in the benevolence of the Emperor and of our parents. Mother seems to be growing weaker by the day. Brother and Sister, you will have to give her the love that I cannot.

Please forgive my impiety; I pray for the continued good health of you all. The three photo albums I sent the other day are keepsakes for Brother and Sister. Please don’t worry about me. When you hear of my death, be happy for me, for I will have achieved my ambition.


Kamikaze pilots at Chōshi airfield, Japan, 1944. Only one of the 18 men in the photo, Toshio Yoshitake, survived the war after his aircraft was shot down by an American fighter aircraft. Image: Wikimedia
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