A True Story

When I lived in Japan, I was friends with a World War 2 kamikaze pilot.

Really.  I'm not making this up.

I didn't encounter him in a scary "Ghost Whisperer" kind of way.  I met him in a "standing in front of me breathing" kind of way.  Hand on heart, he had been a WW2 Kamikaze pilot. 

He was very self-contained.  Formal.  Very dapper.  Very charming.  And not at all forthcoming about his own life.

In 1994 I was working at an English language school on the Tokyo/Yokohama border.  I taught college students who were going to travel to America, housewives who wanted to fill their spare time, and business men who needed English for their work.

(As an aside, do you know that in Japan women over the age of 25 who are not married are known as Christmas Cake?  No, good after the 25th.  I know.  I was 25 at the time.  Each lesson it would go something like this,  "How old are you?"  "25."  "Are you married?"  "No".  "Ooh, like Christmas cake."  "What's that now?")

The gentleman in question was in his mid seventies when I met him in 1994.  He was very slim, carried a sleek briefcase, was wearing a suit and tie, and had a hearing aid that received feedback.

"This is a pen."


"That is a book."


He spent a considerable amount of time trying to dial it down.  Sadly for him when the whistling disappeared, so did his ability to hear anything.  So he would turn it up again.  PAAAAAAAAAARP.  It was hard to maintain a sense of decorum.

Every week for the next year we worked together on improving his English.

He was polite in the extreme.  He had a commanding sense of who he was.  He was very warm behind his formal exterior.  And he brought with him to each lesson a sense of fun.  He was not in any way cold.  I would go so far to say that he was a bit of a flirt.  I looked forward to our lessons.

At the beginning of each session it was customary for each teacher to ask the students what they had been up to since their last lesson.  It was an opportunity for students to warm up and have time to think in English.  Every student without fail would have some piece of information about their work, or family life.

Not so my dapper septegenarian.

"What have you been doing this week?"

"I've had a lovely week thank you."

"And what did you do?" 

"This and that."

He liked that phrase and would often use it.  Always followed by a naughty smile.

After a year of teaching him I knew absolutely nothing about him other than his formal title.  Tsushima San.  I didn't even know his first name.

When it came time for me to leave the language school, Tsushima San had a change of heart.

"I want to tell you something about my life.  But please don't talk about it to the other teachers."

"OK."  (I don't think he fully appreciated the risk he was taking.  I can't hold my own water.)

"I was a kamikaze pilot during the second world war."

I have never told this story in it's entirety to anyone as I felt I needed to honour Tsushima San's wishes, even though I'm sure he wouldn't have minded.  Sadly, as far as I know he's dead now.  So it feels ok to share it.  This is what he told me in the summer of 1995, as I remember it...

Tsushima San was the second son of two sons.  He and his older brother were both called to duty during the war.  According to Tsushima San, and contrary to my understanding based on books I have read, pilots did not volunteer willingly to be kamikaze pilots.  According to Tsushima San, they were generally very young men, who wanted to appear to be loyal to their country, who were placed under enormous emotional duress by their superior officers to be seen to be volunteering. 

In 1944, Tsushima San and the other pilots in his unit were ordered to fly  to the Eastern coast of China.  They were not told why.  Over a period of several weeks all the men in his unit were ordered by their superior officers to build a wooden model of an American battle ship on the beach where they were based.  Each day, each of the pilots was ordered to practise repeatedly flying towards the wooden battle ship in manouevres that were different to the manouevres usually practiced.  After several long weeks of doing this the pilots were visited by a different superior officer.

In Japanese society it is the eldest son who is responsible for taking care of the rest of the extended family.  Any oldest sons within Tsushima Sans unit were told that they were exempt from volunteering for the next call of duty, as their responsibility to Japan rested on their supporting their family.  As Tsushima San was the youngest son, he was not exempt. 

Tsushima San told me that the superior officer explained that any pilot who was eligible to volunteer, who did not volunteer, would be bringing great shame to his family.  Those who did not wish to volunteer would need to understand the implications of how this shame would damage the rest of their family's lives.  It was suggested that they would need to consider honourable suicide as a means of regaining their family's respect, and right standing in Japanese Society.  A loss of face within Japanese society at this time was considered impossible to live with. 

This emotional manipulation lasted for quite some time, and no pilot within the unit felt able to not volunteer.  Tsushima San was very sad as he recounted this part of his story.  He told me of pilots who tried to hide their crying in order not to bring shame on themselves, but who were so scared,  they didn't manage to remain composed.

The men were then asked who wanted to volunteer.  In order to show how loyal they were seen to be to their country the men shouted in louder and louder voices, trying to out do the "loyalty" of the previous "volunteering" pilot.  Tsushima San told me that this went on for several minutes until there was a general frenzy of patriotic shouting and fervour, in order that no man was accused of not volunteering enthusiastically enough and therefore of bringing shame onto his family.  Tsushima San told me that in this way, the Western world has been led to believe that Kamikaze pilots volunteered out of patriotism.  According to Tsushima San, it was out of fear of what would happen to their families if they were not seen to be volunteering enthusiastically enough.

The pilots were then given very small boxes.  They were told to cut their fingernails and to put the clippings in the box, and to cut a lock of their hair and place it in the box.  These boxes were labelled and taken from the pilots.  The lock of hair and clippings would be placed in the otherwise empty coffins for the family funerals of the pilots after their deaths.  Tsushima San said this was the most chilling part of the process for him.

The men were then told to write to their families, and tell them that they had been selected for a very honourable duty that would bring honour to their families.  To  say goodbye to their loved ones via a letter.

At this point the men were told that they were to participate in a suicide mission but were not told when they would be required to fulfill their mission. Over the following days and weeks, a different pilot was selected to complete his mission as a kamikaze pilot.  They set out at different times each day, and obviously did not return.  Tsushima San told me that he watched as his unit grew smaller and smaller, and waited to be called to perform his duty to his country.  He had no hesitation in telling me that he and other men in his unit did not want to die for their country.  At this time he said he began to pray that he would be exempt from his mission.  He said he prayed every day as he flew his plane in manouevre after manouevre at the wooden ship on the beach.  His unit grew smaller and smaller.

I don't know exactly how many men were left in Tsushima San's unit when Japan surrendered in 1945, but I remember Tsushima San telling me that he was running out of options.  After the war ended Tsushima San converted to Christianity, as he felt that God had answered his prayers by not letting him get called to complete his mission.  He said that he had a total faith in God.  And that everything the Western world read about Japan and the war was not necessarily true.  He made a great point of telling me that he had no shame in not wanting to die for his country, and that he loved his country very much.

This story in itself is amazing.  I sat and listened for two hours while Tsushima San shared his memories, only interrupting to ask a question to clarify a point I didn't understand.

What makes the story all the more fascinating for me is Tsushima San's career.

After he shared his memories, Tsushima San told me that he wanted to finally tell me what his job was, but that I wasn't to tell any of the other teachers or staff at the school, I was to keep it to myself.  And I did.  I didn't want to break his confidence somehow.  But as far as I know he's not alive so it feels ok to tell his remarkable story now.  Tsushima San presented me very formally with five different business cards.  All of which I have to this day.

Tsushima San was Kojiro Tsushima.

Vice President of The Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Chairman of the Yokohama Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Chairman of the American Sotetsu Corporation.

Chairman of the Sagami Railway Company Ltd.

Chairman of the Co-operative Association of Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan.

And this hugely patriotic and influential man who had met with world leaders, including Bill Clinton and his advisors, wanted me to know that when he was a very young man he was not ashamed to not want to die for his country.


  1. What an amazing story - thank you for sharing :)

    I don't remember you talking of teaching in Japan before, so I wonder if you might enjoy the blog Resident Alien

    Mary is originally from California but I met her when she was living in Scotland about 40 miles from here. She is currently teaching English in Turkey, but spent many years in Japan. Her blog is full of tales of teaching English out there

  2. (Thank you to Kim, for sending Mimi & Tilly my way!)

    This is an amazing story, and what is also interesting is that I taught the same sort of people in Yokohama too, my very first year in Japan. A few people wanted very much to talk to me about the war, but I wasn't so interested in it at the time. My loss, really.

    I have read similar stories to Tsushima-san's in Japan at War: an Oral History, by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore Cook. And a few people did manage to tell me their stories; a few really bought the party line of giving their lives for their country, but most were just scared, hungry kids. One thing I've heard from a number of people is that the last cry from many of the kamikaze pilots wasn't 'Banzai!', it was 'Kaaasan!' Which is so sad.

    I'll be back -- keep up the good work!

  3. Kim, thank you so much for pointing me in the direction of Mary's blog. I spent some time reading her posts last night about her life in Japan, and found out that we were both in Tokyo at the same time! I have earlier posts on my blog about my time in Japan. It might be time for me to include a section in my sidebar with labels so that you and others can find them easily.

    I found working with Tsushima San a huge privilege as he was such a lovely man. He often comes into my thoughts at different times in the year, especially around this time (Cherry Blossom season in Japan).

    Mary, thank you for visiting my blog. I really enjoyed reading your blogposts about Japan. It's quite a coincidence that we were there at the same time. I didn't speak any Japanese when I first moved there, but lived with a Japanese room-mate for a couple of years and had lessons while I was there so picked up conversational Japanese. I was in Japan for just under five years and loved every minute of it. I found the whole experience the adventure of a lifetime, and still get homesick for Japan at Cherry blossom season-time each year. Japan and the friends I made there have had a huge impact on my life.

  4. Mary, I have just read your comment again, and the last cry of the pilots being "kaaasan". That is so sad. I didn't know that.

  5. Thank you for sharing this interesting, sad story. May I ask you what does it mean: kaaasan?

  6. It means "mum" or "mummy". Very sad.

  7. Thank you for your lovely comment, Zlatica, and I don't mind you asking about kaaasan at all.

  8. ... that is really so sad...

  9. This is a very moving, beautifully written story Emma, thank you for sharing it! Lovely photo of you in previous post too! :)


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