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  • A World Without ReturnThe Kamikaze Attacks and Shōhei Ōoka
  • Shigeyuki Mori (bio)

1. Preface

Any consideration of Japan's war experience from the perspective of trauma and literature cannot exclude the work of Shōhei Ōoka. According to David Stahl, Ōoka is a prominent presence whose whole oeuvre is a "long journey of formulation that began in naked, guilt-ridden survival and ended with the fruitful completion of survivor mission."1

The aim of this article is to consider Ōoka's writings about the special attack forces (tokkō).2 This is how Ōoka describes the tokkō pilots in Reite Senki (The Battle for Leyte Island):

There were men among us who were able to overcome unimaginable spiritual anxiety and agitation to attain their goals. Their achievements are wholly unrelated to the stupidity and corruption of their leaders at the time. That there was room for such strong willpower—the likes of which has disappeared without a trace—to emerge from that desolation must be our hope for the future.3

I strongly hesitate to single out this passage for presentation here. One reason is the apparent ideological contradiction between Ōoka, who continually expressed antiwar sentiments, and such praise for the tokkō.4 Another important reason is that it is difficult to read these words in today's world without associating them with the vast number of suicide attacks that have occurred between the end of World War II and the present day. [End Page 113] Can we really say such things aloud in light of the numerous suicide attacks that have spread worldwide since the 1980s, culminating in the synchronized terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001? Is it possible to praise the perpetrators for "overcoming unimaginable spiritual anxiety and agitation to attain their goals" of launching suicide attacks, or to find "hope" in their "strong willpower"?

Unless you are a member of a terrorist cell, the answer to these questions is surely negative. If it is impossible, are we—assuming there are others who are making similar associations—misreading the text when we are drawing these inferences from Ōoka's text? Or was Ōoka himself mistaken in his interpretation of the suicide attacks? Is there a fundamental difference in terms of righteousness between the courage of a tokkō pilot committing an act of war, which is legalized murder, and the courage of a terrorist committing a criminal act? Conversely, considering that Ōoka focuses on the courage of the aviators while pointing out the corruption of military strategy, is it possible to celebrate individual courage within the framework of criminal terrorism? Or should we reserve praise for individual cases depending on where they fall on an ethical spectrum extending from evil motives to something worthy of praise?

It is no easy matter to answer these questions, but we need to learn something from them precisely because Ōoka continually criticized Japan's acts of war and spent a lifetime thinking about the war, representing the common sense of postwar Japan. This article aims to position the passage quoted above, written before the terrorism of the 1980s and onward, within the context of its time and Ōoka's work in the hope of reaching some conclusions. If possible, I will also examine any conclusions in the light of the present situation, or at least prepare the groundwork for such conclusions and examination. The task of examining how Ōoka faced up to the phenomenon of the tokkō, which occupy a unique position in the Japanese war experience, should be meaningful not only for understanding the Japanese tokkō but also the suicide attacks5 that occur so frequently these days.

Ōoka participated in the Pacific war as a rank-and-file soldier, but he was not in any way directly involved with the tokkō. Neither did he ever write any books about the tokkō. However, he often alludes to the tokkō [End Page 114] in several of his books that deal with the war. In The Battle for Leyte Island, which includes the passage quoted above, he devotes one chapter to descriptions of the tokkō during the battles on Leyte. It would appear from these writings that, for him, the tokkō had been...


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pp. 113-138
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