Kamikaze, the Original Suicide Bombers?

It all took place more than a half-century ago, but the images have an eerie similarity to Sept. 11, 2001, as does the shock of those who witnessed the attacks.

"One-third of the men on the ship were lost," retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Robert H. Spiro Jr. recalled of one attack. "So, it was personally devastating. It was heartrending. At the same end, for a few hours we saw blood. The ship was on fire. We thought the bow was going to break off."

The similarities don't end with the images and emotions. Looking back at Japan's infamous kamikaze, they seem more related to the pilots of al Qaeda than most Japanese today would like to admit.

They were fanatically devoted to their emperor, who was considered a god at the time. They were motivated by self-righteous anger against the West.

"Many Japanese do believe that they fought a just war," said Gregory Clark, president of Tama University in Japan. "[They believe] that they were fighting under extreme odds. And that anything was justified in the attempt to win this war, in which they were clearly the weaker power. And that included using kamikaze."

‘No Other Way to Fight Back’

More than 5,000 kamikaze died before the end of the war, and 20,000 were still awaiting missions. But a handful who did take off on suicide missions are still alive today.

"We had no other way to fight back," said Kenichiro Onuki, a volunteer who crash-landed before reaching his target. "This was the only way to prevent the U.S. military from advancing into our homeland."

Another survivor, Kensuke Kunuki, said through a translator: "I had no fear. I wanted to sacrifice my life."

Kunuki suffered terrible burns when his plane was forced down by mechanical problems. He said his first thought at the time was that he wanted to try again because he hadn't killed any Americans.

‘They Were Not Fanatics’

In a new book on the kamikaze, Hideaki Kase, an outspoken Japanese nationalist, said there was no truth to the wartime propaganda that portrayed the kamikaze as a fanatical cult. He says they were no different than American youths who gave their lives in desperate military campaigns.

"They were not fanatics," Kase said. "They were not brainwashed. They were ordinary, young kids."

Even today, he says, the West has difficulty grasping the notion that suicide is a noble act in some cultures.

"Suicide can be honorable, positive, if that act was committed for the family or for the community or for the motherland," Kase said, adding that "patriotism — yes, patriotism" drove the kamikaze pilots.

Years Later, Heroic Depictions

Patriots? Immediately after the war, a demoralized Japan saw the kamikaze as symbols of military madness. The very word "kamikaze" became a synonym for crazy, reckless behavior.

Yet few Japanese could ignore the fact that the kamikaze spirit was deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche — duty, loyalty, sacrifice for the good of the group. Half a century later, the kamikaze are no longer viewed in such black-and-white terms.

Rare color images of the suicide attacks from American archives are now included on popular videos in Japan. They are among a flood of retrospective books, documentaries and commercial films that portray the kamikaze more heroically.

Most of the kamikaze took off on their one-way missions from bases on Japan's southernmost island of Kyushu, and the largest base was in the town of Chiran.

Today, Chiran has become a testament to Japan's renewed fascination with the suicide pilots. It's now home to the country's largest kamikaze museum, which attracts nearly 1 million visitors a year. Many are moved to tears by the haunting faces of the boys about to die and the emotional poems and farewell letters they wrote.

"At the moment of death," a visitor remarked, "they must have been calling out for their mothers."

The museum has become a favorite of Japanese nationalists, who want Japan to stop apologizing for the war and to build a strong military again. For them, the kamikaze embodied Japan's samurai warrior spirit and should be idolized.

‘They Could Not Back Down’

That's exactly what Akihisa Torihama hopes will never happen. He is the grandson of Tore Torihama, a woman once called the kamikaze's "mama-san." She ran a small restaurant in Chiran where many of the pilots had their last meals and confided all the things they could not say in their heavily censored letters home.

"My grandmother told me the boys knew the war was lost, knew their lives were being thrown away by their commanders," he said through a translator. "They flew their missions because the social pressures on them were so great, they could not back down."

Today, he has transformed the old restaurant into an alternative kamikaze museum, to keep alive the message passed on by his grandmother — that the suicide pilots were not heroes, but the victims of fanaticism.

And what's the verdict of the surviving kamikaze? Kuniki says he has no regrets.

"My nation and my family were in danger," he said. "History will judge if we were right or wrong."

But Onuki said it was wrong to waste so many young lives.

"Yes, we volunteered, but we were ordered to volunteer," he said. "It could have taken real courage to disobey that order."

‘Not a Single Civilian’

The surviving kamikaze, like most Japanese, bristle at suggestions that the kamikaze were the same as the al Qaeda suicide pilots.

"They killed only military personnel," Kase said. "Not a single civilian."

That distinction is not lost on Spiro, who as an American sailor who faced the kamikaze in combat.

"At least it was a military tactic and they were not attacking our wives, children, friends, mothers," Spiro said.

Still, there's no question that recent events have cast Japan's suicide pilots and their motivations in a very new light.