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Enduring Trauma: Female experiences of Japan’s 'War Gods'

Steven Kent | Kingston University
Issue 01 - September 2020
Pilot taking off from Chiran Air Base being bid farewell by Waving Girls holding blossom branches

Pilot taking off from Chiran Air Base being bid farewell by Waving Girls holding blossom branches


  he prevalence of Japan’s "War Gods", a term many kamikaze appropriated themselves in their final writings home, has long captivated audiences in both Japanese and Western historiography. Centuries of deep-rooted belief in the mythological "divine winds", a typhoon which protected the Japanese islands from Mongol invaders during the late thirteenth century, has since come to epitomize Japan’s endeavouring reliance upon human sacrifice to resist external powers. One such demand occurred on 11 May 1945, where a sortie of kamikaze departed from Chiran Air Base amidst the American invasion of Okinawa. Amongst the volunteers and men pressed into the Special Attack Corps, 21 year old Second Lieutenant Haruo Araki in the hours preceding the attack wrote to his wife of less than a month, Shigeko, stating the happy dream has vanished, and tomorrow I make an attack on an enemy ship. I will cross the Sanzu River to the next world along with some Americans.

Portrait of Haruo Araki, 1945

      Forty-five years later, Shigeko Araki would recount her experiences of Japan’s war, commenting that I want to believe he didn’t die in vain. Otherwise he still lies at the bottom of the cold Okinawan Sea for nothing. In 1946, Shigeko buried their infant son, conceived without Haruo’s knowledge during the 4 hours they spent together as husband and wife, alongside a box containing a lock of Haruo’s hair and his nail clippings delivered to her following his death. Her narrative complements the increasing interest in women’s history in Japan and adds to the growing understanding of the impact upon women of Musubi - a term which defined the collective demand for sacrifice in honour of both the Emperor and the nation. The principle of Musubi disregarded the experiences of individuals and reminded every Japanese person that regardless of their personal suffering, everybody had a role to fulfil for their nation. Despite the hardships endured during Japan’s war of 1937 – 1945, many Japanese were prepared to face oblivion with a sense of euphoric fanaticism. The emotional burden of the kamikaze in Japanese society overwhelmingly fell upon women, many of whom were grieving mothers, wives, sweethearts, sisters or in rare circumstances, daughters. The memory of the kamikaze has since evolved into a trans-generational trauma in Japanese society, despite an overwhelming majority of the kamikaze being young, unmarried and childless men. Their relevance in contemporary Japanese society resonates with the remarks Emperor Hirohito made during his speech to end the war, that the Japanese would endure the unendurable. Even following the conclusion of the war, many Japanese remain unconscious of their inability to forget the moment their nation expected, or indeed demanded either their sacrifice or that of previous generations.


The Japanese would

'endure the unendurable'

      The kamikaze, whilst often revered as righteous martyrs in Japanese literature, are also increasingly being viewed by both Japanese and Western historians as victims of wartime trauma. For non-Japanese, particularly those serving aboard Allied warships and who witnessed such attacks, the concept of the kamikaze was rather alien, differing enormously from the theme of noble militaristic sacrifice popularised in western literature, such as the Spartans at Thermopylae. The kamikaze have therefore been documented in western military history amongst the cruellest examples of emotional and psychological warfare, where accounts from sailors state that they could glimpse a brief look at their attacker’s eyes before being consumed in a fiery inferno. On the same day as Harou Araki’s sortie, two kamikaze struck the USS Bunker Hill within 30 seconds, killing 393 American sailors and airmen, resulting in the deadliest attack of the Pacific War. Despite this, kamikaze continue to fascinate many audiences of both American and Japanese military history. Projects such as Kamikaze Images, a digital archive run by American historian Bill Gordon since 2004, is updated monthly with individual pages consisting of the final letters, poems and photographs of many kamikaze, all of which are translated and digitised, an act which humanises the kamikaze and adds insights into their tragic lives.

   Equally, it is important to emphasise that some kamikaze have been posthumously disowned by their surviving families. Following the de-militarisation of Japanese society, they have endured as painful reminders of wartime trauma and loss which continue to haunt a society fixated upon strong traditions of family honour. Whilst very few mothers would wholeheartedly encourage their sons to commit such attacks, in reality, wartime conscription removed the choice young men had in the matter at all. An exception would be First Lieutenant Fujii Hajime, an instructor at Kumagaya Aviation School. When Fujii’s wife, Fukuko, learnt about his intentions to volunteer and join his students selected for the Special Attack Corps in a kamikaze attack, she initially opposed, yet soon came to understand and accept his decision. Fukuko’s trauma can perhaps explain her actions on 14 December 1944; overcome by a sense of guilt for standing in the way of her husband fulfilling his sense of national duty, Fukuko led her daughters, aged 3 and 1, dressed in their finest kimonos and submerged herself along with them within an icy river. In her suicide note, she wrote we will go ahead of you and will wait for you. Please fight without reserve. On the night of their funeral, Fujii wrote, It is painfully sad that together with your mother you sacrificed yourself ahead of your father because of his fervent desire to lay down his life for his country. The deaths of his wife and daughters urged Fujii to once more write a petition (rumoured to be written in his own blood) addressed to the Japanese Army demanding to join his students in the Special Attack Corps. Given the circumstances, Fujii was granted his place and carried out his attack in February 1945. Two planes from the sortie of nine in which Fujii commanded have been documented as responsible for striking and sinking the USS Drexler in under a minute, killing 158 American sailors. The Japanese Army heavily censored any publication of the details surrounding either Fukuko’s death or that of their daughters.

Fukuko with oldest daughter Kazuko
Portrait of Fujii Hajime in pilots uniform  

   Kamikaze literature, of which contains large proportions of fictitious, romanticised and mythicized revisionism, continues to be published for audiences as young as 4 years old, indoctrinating children into a contemporary Musubi, one which focuses upon remembering the sacrifices of previous generations. For example, A Thousand Origami Cranes for Father, written in 2004 by Hiroshi Tokita and marketed towards children aged 4-7, subverts a traditional folktale concerning somebody who folds a thousand paper cranes being granted a wish. This fable was evoked by the publicised final months of Sadako Sasaki’s life. Dying of leukaemia in 1955 aged 12 following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Sadako, upon hearing the tale from her father, spent her final months aiming to fold a thousand cranes, demonstrating the enduring cultural influence of traditional folk tales. Tokita however twisted the story children such as Sadako have been told for generations and instead, when the pilot’s young daughter hands him a thousand paper cranes, they each contain messages of support and encouragement, which burst to life after his plane strikes an American ship. This narrative ignores the reality that very few kamikaze were fathers, and of those who were, their children were overwhelmingly infants. The number of children’s books relating to Japan’s kamikaze also highlights how elements of Japanese society continue to mythicize Japan’s war dead. In Noriko Uemura’s 2008 children’s book Prayer from the Earth: Chiran Special Attack Base, Uemura tells her story from a feminised Mount Kiamon’s viewpoint. Pilots, such as Haruo Araki and Fujii Hajime would have glimpsed their final visions of the Japanese home islands with the towering shape of Mount Kiamon, before it faded from view. The mountain is personified by emphasising that the motherland is seeing off her children, a characterisation based upon Torihama Tome, often referred to as the mother of the kamikaze. Many pilots ate at her restaurant prior to their sorties and similar to how the winds informed Mount Kiamon of the pilot’s demise in Uemura’s book, Torihama would often post the last writings of kamikaze to their families. Despite the number of books and films released following Torihama’s death in 1992, one could question Uemura’s decision for the narrator to be a mountain and not a fictitious woman, or Torihama herself, given that many kamikaze envisioned her as a surrogate mother in their final writings.

Photograph of Torihama Tome, mother of Reiko Akabane, with kamikaze pilots outside her restaurant

Photograph of Torihama Tome, mother of Reiko Akabane, with kamikaze pilots outside her restaurant

      One reason the kamikaze continue to influence children’s publications is that schoolchildren and young adults can relate to the average kamikaze’s age, the youngest of which the Chiran Peace Museum estimates was 17 years old. However, Japanese literature overwhelmingly focuses upon the pilots, none of which were female. This tendency goes against the massive increase in women’s visibility in post-war Japanese literature, which can be attributed to influential (and still adored) characters created by Japan’s newly liberated women. One enduring example would be Machiko Hasegawa’s beloved Sazae-san, which began as a comic strip in 1946. Sazae-san was a controversial feminist role model upon release and her adventures have adapted to social-economic changes faced by women in Japanese society. Yet Japan’s infatuation with kamikaze literature continues to limit the engagement of female readers by limiting female characters to ceremonious and traditional roles, such as that of waving girls’, located at airbases such as Chiran. These books fiercely highlight a young man’s duty to die for Japan, but at the same time, side-line the narratives of young women to supporting characters and instead glorify the honourable aspects of Japan’s home front. Girls as young as 13 were tasked in providing psychological comfort to young men destined to die and were often the final faces many kamikaze would set eyes upon. Reiko Akabane, a waving girl based at Chiran Air Base, recounted that we were just little girls from the countryside and didn’t even know how to talk to them. We only thought about how to serve them well during their final days. Many books exclude the realities girls such as Reiko endured. On one occasion, Reiko was given a handful of pebbles by a pilot who told her, These are the last stones that were under my feet. She adds that we were so young and didn’t understand how these people could smile… I was only a child… On the way back home sitting on a truck, shoulder to shoulder, we [the waving girls] all cried. We always cried on the way home, almost without end.

Waving girls from Chiran Air Base, including Reiko Akabane, daughter of Torihame Tome, in the front right.

      How important the duties as a waving girl were to Japan’s war effort are questionable. For morale and propaganda, they served as important symbolic links to a nation eager to preserve its traditions. However, the limited emphasis placed upon them in children’s literature overshadows other important duties millions of other Japanese women and girls fulfilled in other aspects of Japan’s home front. Haruo Araki’s wife Shigeko worked in a factory supporting Japan’s war effort and recounts the daily drill practice she and millions of Japanese women undertook. They were each armed with a bamboo spear, adorned in a headband bearing the rising sun and bowed in unison in the direction of the Imperial Palace before work would commence, Thrust, thrust, thrust… Americans are large and well built, so go for the throat. Stab here, drive your spear into the throat. Don’t look at the face.


      Millions of Japanese women prepared for suicidal combat. However, memorials concerning the traumas confronted by women who saw direct action in the conflict are absent on a national scale. This creates a dependency upon visiting museums and memorials scattered across Japan which focus upon a specific experience, many of which prioritise promoting and publishing local histories. This limits engagement for those unable to travel. During Kikuko Miyagi’s service as a student nurse in the Lily Corps during the Battle of Okinawa, she recounted the fate of her classmates: some were buried alive, some had their legs blown off and five died from gas… When children were injured, they were left along the roadside. The absence of stories concerning girls and young women’s experiences of war can also be attributed to traditional elements of Japanese society which emphasized that a woman’s place was not on the battlefield. It is estimated that 80% of Okinawa Island’s Lily Corps perished during the Battle of Okinawa. Many fell victim to American flamethrowers, suicide by hand grenades and on one specific occasion, an American attack using white phosphorus which killed 46 girls aged 14 - 17 hiding within a single cave. This figure is significantly higher than the estimated 45-55% fatality rate of Okinawan schoolboys conscripted to the Imperial Army during the battle.

A class of schoolgirls who would later comprise the Lily Corps photographed prior to the Battle of Okinawa

A class of schoolgirls who would later comprise the Lily Corps photographed prior to the Battle of Okinawa

      The fatality rate of the Lily Corps was not far off the estimated number of the men, only a few years older than them, recruited to the Special Attack Corps who actually departed on their missions. Wartime propaganda was quick to martyr the women who were sacrificed in combat or committed suicide in battles such as the Battle of Saipan in 1944, where mothers suffocated their babies to avoid detection, whilst others blew themselves up with grenades or leapt to their deaths from Saipan’s cliffs. It is no secret that Japan’s wartime government was willing to sacrifice every drop of Okinawan blood in defence of the mainland. Entrenched racial attitudes towards Okinawan’s can perhaps explain why the narratives of other surviving Lily Corps nurses are overlooked on a national scale. The image of glorifying child soldiers on Okinawa however is also troublesome for a nation which struggles with the geopolitical fallout surrounding the legacy of the Japanese Imperial Army, who particularly in Okinawa’s defence, encouraged boys as young as 14 to dive under American tanks coated in explosives. Many mainland Japanese who lived during the conflict, including Shigeko Araki, continued long after the war to hold grievances and dismiss the plight of the Okinawan’s. Shigeko recounted her visit to Okinawa after the war, stating Okinawan’s think they are the only victims… They think that Okinawa was cut off and only Okinawan’s had a terrible time… Haruo died to protect Okinawa.
      Despite the different demands that Musubi placed upon them, both Kikuko Miyagi and Reiko Akabane shared an occupation that many schoolgirls and young women subconsciously found themselves fulfilling; surrogate
little sisters to Japan’s soldiers. Both played an important role of emotional support, under different circumstances, in the lead up to their older brother's sacrifice by caring for their emotional and physical needs and fulfilling the duties expected by young men whose younger sisters they would never see again. The inclusion of young girls at airbases such as Chiran undoubtedly acted as encouragement to the kamikaze, motivating them that their sacrifices will protect these younger, more vulnerable women. As such, sisters were often the focus of writings from many kamikaze and kaiten pilots. This included Ensign Ta’ichi Imanishi, who wrote to his younger sister Fumi prior to being confined to his human torpedo asking her to please, be a Japanese girl and live happily… Please, be a Japanese mother who will not disgrace. The final writings of Lieutenant Nobuo Ito to his younger sister Emiko, however, illustrated the realities faced by many younger women during the twilight of The Pacific War. Prior to his departure from Chiran Air Base on the 17 March 1945, Nobou wrote now it is a difficult thing that you are the Ito Family heir. Certainly you must continue and run Father's business. Many young girls, such as Emiko, consequently faced uncertain futures and the ensuing challenges of navigating the male dominated post-war Japan in the shoes of their departed brothers.

Portrait of pilot Masato Shirohira with parents taken near Chiran Air Base on May 10th 1945, a day prior to his sortie

      Nineteen-year-old Setsou Ishino wrote to his mother 'at last the day has come when the final flower will bloom. I will go smiling.' Setsou’s attack holds a particular significance, as it is believed that either he or one other pilot from his sortie successfully struck the USS Missouri. On 2 September 1945, Japan’s official surrender was signed upon the USS Missouri’s scarred decks, symbolising the ultimate failure of the kamikaze in defending Japan and turning the tide of the Pacific War. That day, Admiral Onishi wrote an apology letter to the kamikaze he had sent to their deaths and urged survivors to focus on rebuilding Japan, before committing ritual suicide unassisted, succumbing to his wounds after 15 hours. Many mothers have treasured the final messages of their departed sons. With the passage of time, those memories have endured in the ageing widows and sisters of Japan’s kamikaze. Shigeko Araki stated that the season of cherry blossoms was the most painful time for us… We four or five widows of kamikaze pilots, there are so few of us as they died so young, see each other once a year, at a special memorial ceremony. In April 1945, a lone aircraft circled over Shigeko Araki’s home, yet it was not until June that year she learnt it had been Haruo trying to capture the attention of her and his father. After 45 years dreaming of Haruo and waiting for him to suddenly walk back into her life, feeling guilty for not waving at Haruo’s aeroplane, Shigeko reflected in the early 1990’s that all that’s left for me is to look forward to the day when I can meet Haruo in the other world, mirroring the final words written by her husband of crossing the Sanzu River.

      The lack of a singular national museum or collective archive dedicated to Japan’s war for Japanese students to visit and study emphasises the localised effects of the war upon Japanese society. Many memorials and museums are more tailored for their local populations, with their own unique and collective histories of the conflict, but endeavour to attract visitors from all over Japan. Therefore, the trauma young girls such as Kikiyo and Reiko endured fails to captivate Japanese emotions nationally on the same levels as the kamikaze. Strong regional folklores and oral histories evidently exist between Japan’s prefectures, but the kamikaze, particularly in Japanese literature, instead reflect mythological figures who originated from across the former Japanese Empire and intertwines them in the image of national unity and collective sacrifice which embodied the belief in Musubi.




Further Reading:

  • The interviews with Shigeko Araki and Kikuko Miyagi can be read in full in Haruko Cook and Theodore Cook, Japan At War, An Oral History (New York: The New Press, 1992).

  • Reiko Akabane’s story can be read in books including Sabine Fruhstuk’s Playing War: Children and the Paradoxes of Modern Militarism in Japan (University of California Press, 2017).

  • Book reviews of kamikaze literature and the final letters, wills and testaments of hundreds of kamikaze and kaiten pilots, including Haruo Araki, are amongst the thousands of resources that can be read at

Steve currently studies a PhD at Kingston University, where his main research focuses upon Anglo-Japanese relations between 1902 and 1945. Other research interests include Victorian foreign policy between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War, The British Empire in the Far East, The Opium Wars and Anglo-Chinese relations and the "Asian Century". 

Twitter: @SteveKentAuthor 

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