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Sunday, Aug. 14, 2005


In the face of Samurai spirit

BLOSSOMS IN THE WIND: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze, by M.G. Sheftall. NAL Caliber, 2005, 480 pp., $24.95 (cloth).

For American sailors who served in the Pacific theater during the final two years of World War II, nothing was more terrifying than a kamikaze attack. Grainy black-and-white footage of Japanese fighter aircraft plunging into the decks of aircraft carriers, shown repeatedly on television, also formed the most enduring images of the war for several postwar generations of Americans.

Such fanatical resistance on the part of kamikaze pilots convinced many Americans in the military at the time, and many American civilians afterward, that an invasion of Japan would lead to equally fanatical suicide attacks by ordinary Japanese, resulting in millions of casualties on both sides. That conviction would be used to justify the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a way to end the war quickly.

But who were the kamikaze pilots? What motivated them, and what were they thinking and doing in their final hours before they took off in their bomb-laden planes? What did their families, friends and those in the local villages near the kamikaze bases think?

Over the years, a few books in English, notably the excellent "The Divine Wind" (by Rikihei Inoguchi, Tadashi Nakajima and Roger Pineau), have shown what life was like for the pilots and what the military high command was thinking. But often, the human element to the story was missing. That has now been partially rectified with M.G. Sheftall's superb "Blossoms in the Wind."

An American professor at Shizuoka University, Sheftall spent years gaining the trust of the veterans, their families and their friends. He was invited to meetings of the Tokko Zaidan (Special Attack Forces Memorial Association), a group of former pilots and their bereaved family members. The book is the result of the long conversations he had with the pilots, their families, and their widows about what it all meant, and continues to mean, for today's Japan.

In the hands of a lesser writer, such research could have easily ended up as either sensationalized, tabloid-style tales or a collection of dry academic observations. But Sheftall is an extremely gifted storyteller and "Blossoms in the Wind" is narrative history at its finest. Under his deft pen, the doomed young pilots, and their comrades who survived, are revealed to be very human. The pilots were usually kids, farm boys who joined not only out of patriotic duty but for the adventure. One boy, Iwao Fukugawa, would receive training, watch his friends fly off to death, but survive and go on to a successful postwar business career. Fukugawa came from an exceptionally close family, who would visit him while he was in training, bringing him food, which he readily shared.

The focus of "Blossoms in the Wind," however, is not only on the pilots, and this is what distinguishes it from past histories. The story of the girls of Chiran, the Nadeshiko unit, is little known, even among World War II history buffs, and is here exceptionally well told. The girls, who were only 14 or 15 years old at the time, were ordered to work at the Chiran base. They cleaned the base and prepared meals for the pilots, most of whom were only a few years older than themselves.

It was a experience of unimaginable trauma for the Nadeshiko girls, who spent days befriending the pilots, watched them fly off to their deaths, and then turned around to welcome another fresh batch of young men that they knew would soon be dead. Like the pilots who survived, the girls remained close-knit friends after the war. A few of these girls, now grandmothers in their 70s, continue to meet regularly in Tokyo.

No foreigner has managed to get as close as Sheftall has to not only the kamikaze pilots but their friends and family members. As he notes, this is because for many years after the war there was a reluctance among the veterans to speak openly about what happened as well as a desire to forget the past and move on. And unlike America, where World War II veterans are in strong demand as speakers at schools and civic functions, few in Japan want to invite a kamikaze pilot to talk about what they did in the war. But now that the veterans are approaching their twilight years, there is a growing desire among some to tell their stories.

"Blossoms in the Wind" is not a complete account of all who became kamikaze pilots. There were, and remain, former pilots and family members who do not share the views of glory that some of Sheftall's interview subjects espouse, and who remain bitter at the Japanese military for sending so many boys to needless deaths. Such dissenting voices appear to be few in Tokko Zaidan, but they do exist. Including them would have given us a much better idea of the wide range of attitudes and emotions present among those who were asked to make the ultimate sacrifice.

The book is not a hagiography, however. In the epilogue, Sheftall deftly, yet respectfully, rebukes some of the old veterans' charges, often heard among the older generations, about why the postwar generation has gone to hell in a handbasket. Yet, while Sheftall blames the Japanese themselves for their ills and lack of "fighting samurai spirit" today, he avoids an obvious conclusion: Perhaps this fighting samurai spirit is based on a historical view that stretches back only to the Meiji Era and has not really existed as a national trait in the 2,000-year history of Japan.

What of all those Japanese who, preferring peace to war, had to be forcibly indoctrinated with "fighting spirit" lest they "forget" they are "Japanese"? Or what about those who wonder whether the kamikaze pilots and those who support them were not dedicated samurai but rather deluded fanatics little different from modern-day terrorists who fly planes into buildings? Japanese views of the kamikaze pilots remain diverse and divided because such questions are being asked and considered, and it would have been nice to see them addressed by Sheftall.

"Blossoms in the Wind" is the ultimately the story of those who want the kamikaze pilots remembered as those who gave their lives, literally and in a psychological sense, to their country. Not as mindless fanatics who went to their deaths shouting "Long Live the Emperor," but as ordinary young men and women who "shared the incommunicable experience of war, felt the passion of life to its top, and whose hearts were touched with fire," as Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote of those who experienced the American Civil War. It is such a fire that continues to affect how the pilots and postwar generations of Japanese behave and view both past and present.

To that end, "Blossoms in the Wind" succeeds brilliantly. It is a welcome, and important, source for those seeking to understand, when that old newsreel footage is once again shown on TV, who the kamikaze attackers really were.

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