Inside the Mind of a Kamikaze Pilot

Inside the Mind of a Kamikaze Pilot

By Berthold Seewald

Japanese kamikaze putting on his forehead bandeau with rising sun, Pacific war, 1944-1945 colorized document (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)


Because we should understand any political philosophy that inspires suicide for a greater cause.

By Berthold Seewald

They swooped out of the sky with mythical names like “morning sun” and “mountain cherry blossoms,” hurling themselves at U.S. forces in the name of imperial pride.  

Kamikaze suicide bombers, a strategy launched in 1944 toward the end of World War II, involved some 3,000 Japanese fighter pilots who sank scores of U.S. ships and killed nearly 5,000 American sailors. But the origins of the military tactic can be traced all the way back to the 13th century, when, after conquering China, the Mongols set their sights on Japan, and a fleet of 3,500 ships transported more than 100,000 warriors to the civil war-torn island kingdom. A typhoon destroyed the invading fleet, and seven years later, a devastating storm quashed another invasion attempt.

“They didn’t want to do it,” but the planes only had enough gas for a one-way trip.

Legend pinned their good fortune on a “kamikaze” or “divine wind,” and nearly 700 years later, it became the name of Japan’s devastating squadrons of suicide planes. It was the brainchild of Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi, the commander of Japan’s naval air force in the Philippines when U.S. troops landed on Leyte. Unable to stave off the allied forces there in October 1944, Ōnishi is said to have told his assembled officers: “We must deploy bomb-laden Zero fighter planes as suicide units to target enemy craft.”


On Oct. 25, after Americans had sunk most of Japan’s Combined Fleet, the new Japanese attack unit’s 11 aircraft took aim, destroying two escort carriers and severely damaging another four, and the program was quickly expanded. The “divine wind” captured the imagination of generations to come, with scores of films portraying the soldiers’ willingness to sacrifice themselves in a bid to protect the empire.

Learn more about the philosophical ties between Heidegger and Tanabe at Aeon.

The kamikaze spirit of self-sacrifice has long been associated with the samurai’s Bushidō, or “way of the warrior” tradition. Clark McCauley, a psychology professor at Bryn Mawr College and an investigator for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, says that many kamikaze pilots acted out of obligation. They were ordered to do so, and refusing would heap shame on their families. “They didn’t want to do it,” McCauley says. But they also didn’t have much choice: The planes only had enough gas for a one-way trip.

But was the tradition rooted in Japan? In 1943, Japanese philosopher Hajime Tanabe delivered a lecture titled “Death and Life,” in which he called on students to sacrifice themselves for their homeland to align with God’s will. Tanabe may have belonged to Japan’s influential Kyoto School of philosophers, but he’d studied with Martin Heidegger shortly before the German philosopher published his groundbreaking work, Being and Time. In it, Heidegger explained that while death represented the end of human existence, it also defined the life that came before it. Tanabe interpreted this as a calling for the Japanese to unconditionally defend the national cause, thereby preserving the “great Asian sphere of wealth.”

A Japanese Kamikaze plane burning on the deck of an allied aircraft carrier.

A Japanese kamikaze plane burning on the deck of an allied aircraft carrier.

In response, scores of students signed up for the kamikaze units, and their diary entries suggest that many were motivated by social pressure. There can be no question, historian Wolfgang Schwentker writes, “that all pilots climbed into their machines full of enthusiasm” and flew to their deaths “in sad desperation.” 


Reacting quickly to Japan’s new tactics, U.S. forces expanded their warning systems and fighter aircraft shields while strengthening their ships’ anti-aircraft defenses. While nearly 2,000 kamikaze units inflicted substantial damage during the Battle of Okinawa from April-June 1945, they could not change the course of the war. And their contempt for death helped shape U.S. strategy. Fearing that a massive landing on Japan’s main islands would attract tens of thousands of kamikaze pilots and devastate the American fleet, President Harry Truman was soon persuaded to use the atomic bomb.