From Aeon magazine:
In the 1940s, Japan’s search for a national philosophy became a battle for existence. Did Zen ideas create the kamikaze?
by Christopher Harding
Dusk, that most beautiful moment
With no pattern.
Millions of images appear and disappear.
How unbearable to die in the sky.
Hours after writing these lines, the 24-year-old Tadao Hayashi fuelled a battered Mitsubishi A6M Zero and flew it towards an American aircraft carrier – and into nothingness. It was late July 1945. A few days later, the United States would drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A war sold to the Japanese public as a struggle for national survival would be over.
In contemporary Western memory, still stocked for the most part by wartime propaganda imagery of mad, rodent-like Japanese, those final weeks are a swirl of brainwashed fanaticism, reaching its apotheosis as hundreds of kamikaze planes slammed into the US ships closing in around Japan’s home islands. Three thousand raids and innumerable scouting missions were launched during the climax of the conflict, designed to show the US the terrible cost it would pay for an all-out invasion of Japan.
Yet the vast majority of planes never made it to their attack or reconnaissance targets; they were lost instead at sea. And war’s end failed to yield the apocalyptic romance for which Japan’s leaders so fervently hoped. By late 1944 and early ’45, the only ‘life or death struggle’ was the routine misery to which the empire itself had reduced its soldiers and civilians. Conscripts were trained and goaded to fire their rifles into their own heads, to gather around an activated grenade, to charge into Allied machine-gun fire. Civilians jumped off cliffs, as Saipan and later Okinawa were taken by the Allies. Citizens of great cities such as Tokyo and Osaka had their buildings torn town and turned into ammunition.
Nor do clichés of unthinking ultranationalism fit the experiences of many kamikaze pilots. For each one willing to crash-dive the bridge of a US ship mouthing militarist one-liners, others lived and died less gloriously: cursing their leaders, rioting in their barracks or forcing their planes into the sea. A few took theirsenninbari – thousand-stitch sashes, each stitch sewn by a different well-wisher – and burned them in disgust. At least one pilot turned back on his final flight and strafed his commanding officers.
Much more at the link.