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Kamikaze Survivor

On the Wings of Peace

An ex-kamikaze pilot creates a new world 神風

Professor Nobuya Kinase

The cool spring of 2006 made for an unusually long blossom season. The craggy black cherry trees were just past full bloom and in various corners of Tokyo pink-white petals fell softer than snow, scooped up in eddies by a still-chilly wind. It was early April and I was in Yasukuni Shrine in the city's Chiyoda ward. The shrine is the country's preeminent cherry blossom site, war memorial shrine, and a sanctuary of Japanese nationalist sentiment since its founding in 1869.

Serendipity at Yasukuni Shrine

I had just been through the Shrine's expansive war museum and had strayed into an annex and upstairs when I was hailed by an elderly gentleman in impeccable English, suit, tie and homburg. We got talking. The elderly crowd that filled the building, he told me, were mainly members of the wartime bereaved families association holding their annual reunion under the auspices of ex-members of the famous Special Attack Force' (tokubetsu kōgeki tai, usually shortened to tokkōtai), better known to the rest of the world as the kamikaze'. Kinase-san was there as an ex-kamikaze pilot trainer. The function was about to begin meaning we didn't have a lot of time to talk, but we exchanged names and numbers. I contacted Kinase-san a day or so later and arranged a more relaxed meeting the next week at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku.

Japan and New Zealand

From having been a kamikaze pilot instructor in his early to mid twenties, Kinase-san, now in his mid eighties, is a retired professor of English language. He has tirelessly worked to establish friendships with those he and his comrades were once pitted against in war. The main focus of Kinase-san's international community-making has been New Zealand, making for a natural bond between him and this writer, I being a Kiwi.

Nobuya Kinase in navy uniform.

As professor at a women's junior college he has led over twenty groups of students to New Zealand since 1980. Not only has he facilitated friendships between the youth of the two countries, but in direct defiance of the way history shaped international relations pre-WWII, he has established numerous firm personal friendships with contemporaries in the United States and New Zealand who were fighting as he was, but on the other side.

Kamikaze "volunteer"

Sitting in a coffee shop in the hotel's foyer a week later, we continued from where we had had finished all too quickly the week before. This time Kinase-san had brought a scrapbook of photos and newspaper articles for further elucidation. The question that had first come to my mind when we met the week before was Did you volunteer?' Kinase-san had responded by saying that that was a difficult question to answer as, formally speaking, the kamikaze were a volunteer force, but in actual fact the atmosphere that characterized Japan in the early 1940s was a powerful one that made the distinction between volunteering and obligation extremely fine, if not blurry.

War history

I asked Kinase-san how familiar he had been with current events such as the various coup attempts by army radicals against the civilian government of the time, or the independent activities of the Kwangtung Army in China that, again, defied the politicians' foreign policy. He replied that very little news got through due to censorship and the scarcity of radios. He likened the mass media of the time to that of present North Korea's: restricted, censored and manipulated. Rather, he characterized the decade we were discussing as one of undefined fear for the future', which was translated into a sense of crisis and urgency, and ultimately a call for total self sacrifice.

Kinose-san with Mitsubishi Zero airplane.

Tokyo born and bred

Kinase-san was born and bred in downtown Tokyo not far from Ueno Park. He was schooled in Tokyo and in 1943 had just graduated from the Tokyo University of Literature and Science (now called Tsukuba University), having specialized in the imagery of the sonnets of Shakespeare, when he joined the tokkōtai. Universal conscription meant automatically joining the army. However, the navy offered a certain glamor that the army lacked, meaning the newly graduated Kinase-san volunteered for the navy. Although an aerial force, the tokkōtai was part of the navy, as its sole purpose was to destroy enemy ships rather than engaging in air battles.

In the Navy

However, the exigencies of wartime conscription meant that Kinase-san and his fellow students were not bona fide members of the navy. Having been students, and with the reverence the Japanese have for learning, they were permitted to divide their time between study (i.e. being civilians) and being pilots. It was only towards the end of 1943, soon after Kinase-san joined, that the military situation began to get desperate for Japan, and their part-civilian status came to an end. They were now undividedly the Navy's.

The technology

The Mitsubishi Zero was, at the beginning of the war, superior in fire power, engine power, and maneuverability to the American Grummann F-4 Wildcat. However, whereas America quickly responded to this superiority by further developing its own planes to match and outdo and Zero, the war-strained Japanese economy was unable to support similar developmental response. This meant that by 1943 the Japanese Navy was stuck with a plane that was now lumbering, underpowered, and under-armed compared with the Wildcat's successor, the F-6 Hellcat.

Kinose-san with kamikaze comrades.

This prompted a critical strategic rethink: from 1943 the Zero was no longer a fighter it became a bomber. It became, however, not just any old bomber but, reflecting the desperation of Japan's position, a suicide bomber.

Kamikaze trainer

Training first took the form of on-the-ground study, which then progressed to the acquisition of flying skills using light biplanes. The final stage was practice-flying the Mitsubishi Zeroes themselves. Kinase-san modestly waived any suggestions of outstanding skill on his part, but with the scarcity of manpower, he was made a flight instructor, achieving a seniority that kept him in that role for most of the war.

Three factors alone dictated Kinase-san's survival of a system that would normally have seen to his demise. The first was luck. Kinase-san narrates an event from towards the end of the war that took place on the airfield where he was based. An American plane came low behind the airfield's hangar, swooped low over and down in front of it, surprising the young naval trainer. Throwing himself instinctively to the ground Kinase-san watched as the place approached close enough to clearly make out the pilot's features, and, machine guns blazing, the bullets spat dirt in parallel lines neatly enclosing, but missing, him.

The second was, quite simply, the ending of the war. In the increasingly desperate military situation his mission had been scheduled, but the Emperor's command to lay down arms saved the day.

Kinase-san at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

The third was Kinase-san's wits. In spite of surrender having been announced, a body of overenthused young kamikaze pilots from a neighboring group pressed their commander (the same man as commanded Kinase-san's unit) to continue the fight informally against the Americans. Faced with such intensity of feeling the commander was at a loss and put the question to the next most senior person in the group, Kinase-san. Put on the spot, Kinase-san sought to cool the hotheads by appealing to their sense of obedience to the Emperor who, he pointed out, had specifically ordered them to stop fighting. His logic won the day and, without doubt, more lives than just his own.

Post bellum

Once war was over, Kinase-san went back to his home which, like half of Tokyo, was in ruins. He and his father worked to make a lean-to from the pile of bricks that bombing and fire had reduced their home to. Once re-established in civilian life, Kinase-san followed the advice of a colleague who advised him that with an English-speaking regime in temporary command and his knowledge of English, he should take the opportunity to seek his fortune in business.

A career with English

Two years later he gave up the path of business and was accepted into the Ministry of Education as an English textbook writer. He helped create the first post-war junior high school textbook, Let's Learn English'. He eventually left the ministry and began work as a professor of English at Shinshū Hōnan Junior College for women.

Kinase-san and the Mayor of Christchurch, Vicky Buck.

The international connection

Kinase-san's first wartime-related contact with anyone outside the circle of his old comrades happened in 1971. The American Fighter Ace Association extended an invitation to the old legendary Japanese fighter ace, Saburo Sakai, to visit the United States. Sakai had published his memoirs under the title Samurai, which were then translated into English. This became a pioneering work of the wartime reminiscence genre and further extended his fame to the point of receiving the American invitation. In spite of not having been a full-fledged member of the Navy, Kinase-san joined the other fourteen pilots, as much for his outstanding English skills as for his Navy-related past, and traveled to San Diego for the historic meeting.

Contact with New Zealand veterans

Then, in the late 1970s, he became acquainted with New Zealand and New Zealanders thanks to a New Zealand teacher on the Shinshū Hōnan staff. From 1980 the year Air New Zealand began direct flights to Tokyo - he began taking groups of students on annual homestay visits to New Zealand.

With his wartime past, Kinase-san took a natural interest in places and things in New Zealand related to the life-changing events of his youth. This meant visits to the Auckland War Memorial Museum where, among other trophies of war', was a Mitsubishi Zero on display. Kinase-san was saddened by this curiosity shop' treatment of things Japanese in this case the Zero - realizing that, by default, such an attitude necessarily extended to the people that flew them and risked, or rather, sacrificed, their lives in them.

Kinase-san with Mayor of Christchurch, Ms Vicky Buck below right.

Noboru Kinase and Keith Wakeman.

Asking himself what he could do, Kinase-san knew his mission was to give what he saw as this trophy junk heap' a human face to relate to New Zealanders that people like me were flying those planes, you know!'. He approached the curator of the Museum and began a rapport that would extend far beyond just those charged with the preservation of the past to those, like himself, who actually lived and helped shape it. In 1999 he donated to the Auckland War Memorial Museum his old Navy uniform, including a dress dagger worn only by officers, from his time as a kamikaze pilot trainer. The next year he donated his Navy officer cap to the Devonport Navy Museum. Through these initial contacts with the museums, he got to establish ties with members of the New Zealand Pacific Fighter Pilots' Association.

The initial contact was made in 2000 when he organized a meeting with 20 members of the Pacific Fighter Pilots' Association. He had hoped to bring many of his colleagues with him to New Zealand but, their age and health making that impossible, he met them alone.

Kinase-san and old New Zealand figher pilots in Christchurch.

His outreach blossomed, and took him to various parts of the country, including the Airforce Museum in Wigram, Christchurch. During his sojourn in Christchurch he not only became good friends with former Allied pilot Keith Wakeman, but also met the mayor of the city, Ms Vicky Buck.

Sole survivor

Kinase-san is the sole survivor from his navy unit. Not only were most of his contemporaries, by definition, killed in the course of their duty, but age has taken those who weren't. He says that of the 5000 pilots nationwide who remained, only about 1000 are still alive, but are now at least in their early eighties.

Not content only with reminiscing with old comrades and others of his wartime calling, Kinase-san took up arms again: this time against the old troubles that pitted men of different nationalities against each other, overcoming them to build a world where the same hope and trust that shone in comrades' eyes now shine too in the eyes of one-time foes.

Kamikaze Links

Chiran Peace Museum For Kamikaze Pilots

David Stormer


Books on Japan & World War II