The headlines are jammed packed with “suicide bombers” creating devastating carnage in areas throughout the world.  Not so long ago, another group of suicide bombers made an impact in World War 2; however, those bombers were an entirely different group of warriors—or were they?  Are today’s suicide bombers yesterday’s Kamikaze?  To answer that question we must delve into the motivation and principles of the kamikaze pilots.

History Behind the Kamikaze Pilots

In 1281 Kublai Khan led a powerful invasion of Japan.  However, before the invaders could overwhelm the Japanese, a typhoon of major proportion blew across the land and destroyed the whole Mongol army.  The Japanese called the typhoon, Kamikaze, which means “Divine Wind.”[2]

In Japanese culture, the ancient warriors were known as the Samurai and they followed Samurai Warrior; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commonsprinciples they called the Bushido Code.[12]  The code emphasized honor, loyalty, courage, self-sacrifice, unquestionable reverence for the emperor, and disdain for defeat.  This Bushido Code continued to influence the Japanese military and culture throughout the years.

During World War II, the strategy of the suicide pilots was developed as a way to buy time to rebuild their military.[12]  The war was not going well for Japan and the might of the United States military and their allies were overwhelming the Japanese military force.  While the tactic conceived required suicide, this was not averse to the warriors or the Japanese people in general.  Suicide was seen as preferred over a life of shame and was consistent with the self-sacrifice aspect of the Bushido Code.

In addition, the Japanese military required unquestionable devotion and discipline among their ranks.  These too followed the principles of the Code.  Respect and complete obedience to authority, as well as courage was expected. Recruits were punished severely for infractions, even minor ones.

The Japanese military also applied other principles of the Bushido Code. Defeat in combat was considered the ultimate humiliation. Recruits were expected to win, be killed by the enemy or commit suicide.  It was not unusual for commanders, in the face of certain defeat, to order their men into battle anyway, knowing it was a suicide mission. The commanders believed these actions embodied the spirit of the Samurai warrior and would result in a “glorious death.”   The commanders believed there was no greater honor than to die for their emperor.  Those soldiers or sailors unable to engage in the battle were executed.[12]



Kamikaze doesn't want to be taking prisoner


Development of the Kamikaze Tactic

In World War 2, the Japanese Army and Navy were in constant disagreement about the strategy of the military.  There was no overall commander except the Emperor and he did little to unify the branches of his military.  Therefore, the Army and the Navy were implementing two different strategies.  The army was focused on a push north through China and into Russia.  The navy planned to drive south against the United States, Great Britain, and Holland.  This military strategy required Japan to build a military strong enough to match both Russia and the United States militaries.  The Japanese Army called this expansion Hakko Tai (eight directions) and hoped to bring the entire world under its control.[12]

Though Japan lacked the resources for a long war; their military was well prepared for war in the early stages.  Early victories gave them belief of total victory.  The attack on Pearl Harbor, though a huge victory for Japan, resulted in the United States entering the war it had, up until then, refused to enter directly.  The attack as it has been said many times “woke the sleeping giant.”   Once the United States entered the war, the Japanese military began to lose battles and the losses were taking their toll.

In 1942 the defeat at Midway began a series of defeats for the Japanese military machine.  Though the battles at Midway and Guadalcanal cost both Japan and the United States, Japan had much less resources to enable them to absorb the losses. In addition, these islands had provided airstrips to launch aircraft security for their supply ships.  Japanese aircraft carriers couldn’t pick up the slack due to the loss of numerous carrier-based planes.  The battle of Saipan further reduced their ability to wage war as they lost almost 500 pilots.[12]  Navy admirals' answer to the shortage was to reduce the training time for their pilots under the rationalization the Bushido spirit would fill in any holes in the lack of experience.

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Though flight instructors disagreed with the admirals assessment; the practice continued and resulted in almost annihilation of Japan’s Airforce and thus their ability to protect their navy.  The allies grew closer to Japan and decimated its navy.  The need for carrier-based aircraft pilots was no longer needed; however, land-based pilots were still needed.  Vice Admiral Takaijiro Onishi, the commander of Japan’s First Air Fleet, recognized the seriousness of the situation and that Japan needed effective airpower to stop the advancing armada of the allies.

Vice Admiral Onishi’s Plan

Onishi believed a new weapon would delay the allied forces and give Japan enough time to Kamikaze Pilots; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commonsrebuild its military.  He determined the proper airplane would be an extension of the pilot and counting on the warrior spirit of the Code, this would be the ultimate weapon to cause massive damage to the allies’ armada.  The plane would be a human bullet and the weapon was the Kamikaze tactic.  In promoting his plan, Onishi stated:

“The country’s salvation depends on the appearance of the soldiers of the gods. Nothing but the sacrifice of our young men’s lives to stab at the enemy carriers can annihilate the enemy fleet and put us back on the road to victory.”[12]

He went on to state:

“What greater glory can there be for a warrior than to give his life for Emperor and country.”[12]

His plan was met with resistance and though Onishi made several attempts to meet with the Emperor to convince him of the need for the plan; he never met with him.  Eventually, Onishi received approval from the Naval Chief of Staff to covertly begin organizing the necessary special attack squadrons.  This reflected the principle of the Code of the willingness to die for the Emperor. Once the tactic was revealed to the public, it was met with concern.  While suicide was not disgraceful, some viewed ordering a pilot to commit suicide as inhumane and many believed it unnecessary.

Zero Kamikaze Fighter; Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy, Source: Wikimedia CommonsSome leaders in Japan believed the tactic would break the Americans’ will to fight.  Initial attacks were successful and buoyed Onishi’s resolve, but the Emperor still had not gotten fully behind the tactic.  Admiral Onishi recognized he needed to have the Emperor’s support to continue the kamikaze program.  His concern influenced squadron commanders to file reports to the Imperial Headquarters which greatly exaggerated the success of the attacks.  These reports impacted the opinion of the Emperor and the public as it assured the pilots were not dying unnecessarily.

In addition, the false reports led to expansion of the program.  Rather than a temporary tactic to delay the allies, the Kamikazes became the central focus of the offensive strategy.  The Imperial Headquarters used the reports as support to create propaganda “the Kamikazes could win the war” for Japan.[12]

Kamikaze Pilots

Young Kamikaze; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia CommonsThe initial crop of pilots was the veterans from destroyed squadrons.  Many of them had been shot down at least once.  By the very nature of the tactic, the number of experienced pilots dwindled quickly and was replaced by young men with little experience.  The average age of the new recruits was between 18 and 24.[6]  Many were university science students who felt an obligation to their families and country.[6]

As the number of missions increased and the support from the public waned, the Kamikaze unit began to grow through orders from commanders.  Leaders told young pilots they need to put aside their own interests because Japan needed selfless warriors and by sacrificing themselves “their spirits would forever dwell in the Yasukuni Shrine for all of Japan to pay them homage.”[12]

Thousands of pilots were ordered into the unit and often would have weeks or even months The First Kamikaze Unit; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commonsbefore their scheduled mission. Many found solace in drink.  In order to prevent the pilots from deserting their mission, various methods of determent were used.  Pilots who returned to base without completing their mission, regardless of the reason, were ridiculed and labeled “cowards” and unfit to serve the Emperor.  Another method used was bolting the canopy of the plane shut so the pilot could not escape.[12]

The manual of the Kamikaze pilots encouraged their continued loyalty to the mission. One paragraph states it thus:

“Transcend life and death. When you eliminate all thoughts about life and death, you will be able to totally disregard your earthly life. This will also enable you to concentrate your attention on eradicating the enemy with unwavering determination, meanwhile reinforcing your excellence in flight skills.”[2]

The Planes

The main warplane for the Kamikaze was the Mitsubishi A6M2, nicknamed the “Zero.”  The plane had a range of 1,930 miles and a maximum speed of 332 mph. The plane was designed to carry two machine guns and 264 pounds of bombs, but was modified to accommodate a heavier arsenal.[2]

Further renditions of attack aircraft were conceived to aid the Kamikaze effort.  Naval officer Ensign Mitsuo Ohta offered the idea of a specialized attack plane; one that would be easy and inexpensive to manufacture and could achieve higher speeds than the Zero, thus avoid being shot down.[14]   The idea was accepted and production on the MXY7 Ohka, the "Cherry Blossom", was started.  This plane was a small, rocket-powered torpedo with wings which mounted a large warhead in its nose.  It would be carried by the “Betty” bomber, a Mitsubishi G4M2e bomber to the target where it would be released and make a mad dash to the target ship.[14]  US personnel dubbed the Ohka Baka, meaning “fool” or “idiot.”[14]

Initially the Ohka was unsuccessful.  Although once released it could find the target easily enough, while attached to the Betty bomber it was an easy target for ships’ gunners.  Various versions were subsequently designed and manufactured.  The pilots of these specialized bombers were called the "Thunder Gods."  Some of these pilots switched back to flying the Zero and other bombers once the Ohka’s vulnerabilities were revealed and exploited by the allies.[14]

The Missions

Most of the missions were launched from bases on the island of Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island.  The largest base for the pilots was in the town of Chiran.[4]  Prior to their missions, Kamikaze pilots engaged in a special ceremony where they received a thousand-stitch sash.[2]  This was a headband sewn by one thousand women and was white with a rising sun in the middle of it.  Stories were told the pilots flew around a holy mountain and dropped flowers as part of the ceremony.[6]

There is some debate as to the first mission of the Special Attack Force (as the Kamikaze unit was called).  On October 21, 1944 the Australia cruiser, the HMAS Australia, was hit by a aircraft in its foremast, killing 30 and wounding 64.  Though Australia claims this as the first Kamikaze attack, others dispute the claim citing it was not a planned attack and therefore, possibly a spontaneous decision by the pilot.[1]

Hit of a Kamikaze; Photo courtesy of  , the U.S. Navy author: USN, Post-Work: User:W.wolny, Source:  Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of , the U.S. Navy author: USN, Post-Work: User:W.wolny, Source: Wikimedia CommonsOn October 25, 1944 the Special Attack Force launched its first mission during the Battle of Leyte Gulf near the Philippines.[10]  Twenty-three volunteer student pilots, led by Lieutenant Yukio Seki who was ordered to the command by Commander Asaiki Tami, were the first wave of attackers.  By the end of the day on the 26th, seven carriers and 40 other ships were hit; five sunk, 23 suffered heavy damage and 12 moderate damage.  The first carrier sunk was the USS St Lo. 

The initial success of the Kamikaze tactic encouraged the Japanese to increase the number of pilots in the Special Attack Force and eventually Onishi formed an additional squadron based in Formosa.  However, the allied forces quickly developed a strategy of defense against the Japanese tactics.  The allied pilots were much more skilled and experienced and were able to shoot down many Zero planes.  The Ohka proved a bit more formidable because of its speed, but the allies addressed this by developing radio frequency proximity fuzes.

The peak of the Kamikaze tactic happened in 1945 at the Battle of Okinawa. Between April andKamikaze Hits Target; Photo courtesy of Royal Navy official photographer aboard HMS Victorious (R38), Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of Royal Navy official photographer aboard HMS Victorious (R38), Source: Wikimedia Commons June, hundreds of attacks occurred in waves.  Japan called this Operation Kikusui, meaning “floating chrysanthemums.”   At Okinawa, the Special Attack Force took out at least 30 United States warships and at least three merchant ships in addition to other allied ships.[1]   When it was all done, Japan lost 1,465 planes and the allies lost many warships, though no battleships or cruisers were sunk at Okinawa.

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Footage of Kamikaze Attack on US Ships


The total number of ships sunk and/or damaged by the Kamikaze attacks is debated.  During the war Japan claimed the attacks sunk 81 ships and damaged 195, and 80% of the loss of naval vessels of the allies were caused by the Special Attack Force in the final stages of the war. The United States Air Force claims:

“Approximately 2,800 Kamikaze attackers sunk 34 Navy ships, damaged 368 others, killed 4,900 sailors, and wounded over 4,800. Despite radar detection and cuing, airborne interception and attrition, and massive anti-aircraft barrages, a distressing 14 percent of Kamikazes survived to score a hit on a ship; nearly 8.5 percent of all ships hit by Kamikazes sank.”[1]

Are Today’s Suicide Bombers Yesterday’s Kamikaze?

The Japanese in general would bristle at any comparison of the acts of today’s terrorists, such as the Al-Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers, to the Kamikaze pilots in World War 2.  Their suicide bombers’ targets were strictly military.  Terrorists such as Al-Qaeda make no distinction between military and civilian targets.

To properly compare the two groups, it is important to examine the rationale of suicide warfare. There are two rationales: military and cultural.[4]

Military rationale: societies turn to suicide warfare when they believe there is no other alternative to achieve a victory against the enemy.  This comes when the society has limited resources available for warfare.  In examining the Japanese military, it was only when they believed failure was close at hand, they turned to the only resource available to them—suicide bombers.  They lacked any other resource to match the might of the allies. What they did have was a large number of men who would die for their Emperor.  With no way to guide the missiles to their targets, they resorted to manning the bombs with a human guide.   

World Trade Center Hit by a Suicide Bomber; Photo courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division. Library of Congress, Source: Wikimedia CommonsAl-QaedaCredit: Photo courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division. Library of Congress, Source: Wikimedia Commons has used many non-human bombing attacks on numerous targets across the globe. However, their resources are limited.  Al-Qaeda’s first attack on the Twin Towers did not use a suicide bomber, but did not achieve the desired result. Lacking unmanned missiles or bomber planes, they believed the only alternative was to use a human guided missile, the hijacked civilian planes, to achieve their goal.

Cultural rationale: Human societies will only resort to suicide warfare when they perceive an immediate threat to their existence, whether it’s cultural or physical.[4]  Surrender or compromise is not an option.  The examination of Japan’s use of Kamikaze pilots reveals their cultural beliefs in the Bushido Code. Honor to family and loyalty to the Emperor was prevalent and guided the decisions on a cultural level to the actions of the military.

The suicide bombers of today rationalize their actions based on their perception of the annihilation of their way of life and beliefs which are based on their religious theology.  These terrorists are violently intolerant of any perceived attack on their culture and this includes foreigners on their lands and any attempts to “westernize or modernize” their culture with modern foreign (western) music, media and ideals.  

So are today’s suicide bombers yesterday’s Kamikaze pilots?  The similarities are eerie, but one of the main factor in comparing the two is the targets.  No one can deny the Special Attack Force attacked strictly military targets. The suicide bombers of today show no respect for civilians, even their own people at times.  As one survivor of the Kamikaze bombers stated:

"At least it was a military tactic and they were not attacking our wives, children, friends, mothers."[8]

Kamikaze Hits Target; Photo courtesy of Royal Navy official photographer aboard HMS Victorious (R38), Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of Royal Navy official photographer aboard HMS Victorious (R38), Source: Wikimedia Commons


The writer of the essay Kamikaze Pilots Suicide warfare in World War 2, and its military and cultural rationale sums it up nicely,

“I'll finish this essay by reminding that history shows that all those who systematically and repeatedly used suicide warfare lost their war, and the explanation of that is simple. They used it because they were significantly weaker than their enemies, technologically, economically, and therefore eventually militarily, or otherwise they would not have to fight like that.”[4]


The copyright of the article The Legend of the Kamikaze: Suicide Bombers in World War 2 is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing

Ken Smiley interview

for the Library of Congress of a WWII veteran that served on the battleship New Mexico in WWII

Kamikaze pilots (WWII)