Missing Axioms VIII – Tokkōtai Temporality

December 7, 2020

Captured by the explicit potency of their society the tokkōtai where presented with an existential deadline in the form of the approaching date of their final mission. Being largely young students of a certain inclination, they were concerned with philosophical questions throughout their dairies and writings. Many where well-read across a range of philosophical topics in many languages. One can only imagine the impulsive intellectual energy that was unleashed on long-standing reading lists of these men once they knew their fate. The typical literary bucket list being transformed into a final reflective testament1.

Portrayed as the embodiment of the state-sanctioned ideal of the “warrior’s way” the tokkōtai were on a mission to bring about “God’s wind”2, a final last-ditch convulsion of a society unable to accept loss. The ideal of the nation, unlike it’s individual citizens, couldn’t simply exit through honourable martyrdom. The entire tokkōtai project and the Japanese spirit of death in combat despite no instrumental benefit is a fetishisation of the martyr. Not limited to suicide aircraft, tokkōtai were also deployed inside single-man underwater torpedoes. Although manufactured initially with a cursory escape mechanism they were later made with no such pretense. The equipment manufactured for the tokkōtai was an industrialisation of group-sanctioned martyrdom, their final journey euphemistically dubbed kaiten meaning to return to heaven3. The day after the surrender of Japan Ōnishi Takijirō, who devised the tokkōtai strategy, committed seppuku apoligising in his will to the “heroic souls of the tokkōtai pilots”4.

Far from being unaniomously willing participants one can understand that the “volunteering” of the student tokkōtai in the late-war period was ore likey an exercise in group pressure than individual ideological conviction5. The brutalisation of the young men drafted in the late-war cannot be understated and the warping effect this would have had on their explicit and implicit values. It seems that persistent earthly violence appears a worse fate for someone while they are experiencing it than the alternative, an ‘honourable’ death in martyrdom. Irokawa Daikichi, drafted as a student soldier, recounts the literal dehumanising effect the violence had when he tells of his training involving injuries to the face “so hard and frequently that [his] face was no longer recognisable”6. It is a testament to how truly deinstrumental the cult of martyrdom had become by the period of the war. The first lesson the drafted student soldiers were taught being how to kill themselves using their own rifle7.

Kasuga Takeo, who never fully recovered from the beatings inflicted on him by his own countrymen, gives an account from Tsuchira Navy Airbase of the night preceding a group of tokkōtai “final flights”. Chaos, heavy drinking, the recreational shattering of light bulbs with swords, the smashing of windows with chairs, military songs, curses, rage and crying aloud:

“[…] torn beyond what words can express—some putting their heads on the table, some writing their wills, some folding their hands in meditation, some leaving the hall, and some dancing in frenzy while breaking flower vases.”8

This is the grim reality behind the smiling faces and rising sun headbands (Hachimaki) in the photographs of the tokkōtai. Any pretense of decorum evaporates in the nearing fate of one-way death. The interesting question, however, is if the existential clock is reavling what men truly are or concealing their nature in apparent madness. The fate of the tokkōtai was sealed by the explicit hand of state sanctioned ideology and the implicit brutality of their supposed brothers.

Nakao Taketoku, who died as a tokkōtai pilot on May 4th 1945, writes on his admiration of Socrates’ calm when consuming hemlock, deliberating on the notion of an immortal soul:

“The problem of immortality is important. However, since I have been painfully going through my life, death and immortality take on meaning only in terms of life. . . . The last writing by Socrates in which he praises the beauty of the world after death makes me want to live instead of to die.”9

This is an agonising passage to read knowing Nakao’s fate, so distant from the integrated Socrates stoically accepting his destiny in the twilight of his long life. Despite his desire to continue seeking the “meaning” he might have found in the rest of his life and his desire to live, like Socrates’ obligation to “the city”, Nakao no doubt saw his ‘choice’ of death as a tokkōtai pilot as fulfilling some sort of responsibility to society.

Many of the photographs of the tokkōtai about to embark on their final mission depict their planes adorned with branches of the cherry-blossom. The cherry tree is seen in Buddhism as a conduit between the world of the living and the dead10, which seems far more appropriate a symbol of the tokkōtai than the emotive exploitation of it’s symbology for nationalistic ends. This spiritual and purely aesthetic explicit meaning should be remembered, rather than the implicit actions it was hijacked to inspire. Despite the ideological ends it served in the minds of a nation the minimal utilitarian value of the cherry tree and it’s blossoms serve no earthly master.

  1. A list of readings from four particularly prolific tokkōtai can be found in: Ohnuki-Tierney, E., 2010. Kamikaze, cherry blossoms, and nationalisms: The militarization of aesthetics in Japanese history. University of Chicago Press, p.307
  2. Ibid. p.158
  3. Ibid. p.161
  4. Ibid. p.160
  5. Ibid. p.169
  6. Ibid. p.168
  7. Ibid. p.167
  8. Ibid. pp.174-175
  9. Ibid. p.223
  10. Ibid. p.37
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