Monday, January 12, 2015

Book Review: Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers

Throughout the various history classes I have taken over the years, the role of the Kamikaze during WWII was largely explained in the same way: Japanese culture dictated that soldiers should give their lives for their empire and that is why pilots were so willing to give their lives to bring down enemy planes and ships. However, in Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers, the author, Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, seeks to deconstruct this belief. By first pointing out that the majority of soldiers, particularly the student soldiers, did not willingly become Kamikaze pilots, Ohnuki-Tierney provides a fresh perspective into the minds of Kamikaze pilots. Drawing on their personal diaries and correspondence with family members, she provides a haunting look into the way these young men struggled to remain loyal to their country and accept their fate.

Perhaps one of the strongest and simplest lines in this book is "I don't want to die." These words were penned by one of the student soldiers themselves. By using their diaries, the author presents us with their honest feelings and thoughts regarding their fate as kamikaze pilots. While many of the student soldiers agonize over weather or not they are committing treason by questioning their fate, a few of them outwardly condemn Imperial Japan and denounce the acts their country has committed during war. Overall, the author successfully portrayed the student soldiers as young men who aspired to many things and that would have had a bright future ahead of them, had they not been drafted to fight.

However, I think one of the most important details to note in regards to this text is that the author presents the diaries and correspondence of only some of the soldiers, which does not provide a complete view of kamikaze. In addition, the author makes sure to point out that the soldiers whose lives and thoughts she examines are student soldiers. This means that they were all students at prestigious universities before being drafted into the war.  This is something I constantly had to keep remembering because it's easy to fall into the habit of simply taking the experiences of some and applying it to all. Therefore, although the accounts of the student soldiers presented in this book provide a voice and a face for kamikaze pilots as tormented youths, the reader cannot assume that this was the case with all pilots. Doing so would perpetuate the same cycle of misunderstanding that kamikaze pilots have suffered for over 50 years;the stigma that they were all crazy and that everything could be blamed on Japan's "supposed" cultural fear of failure.

Overall, I found the book to be well written and analyzed. The author's notes that explained the symbolism used in the student's writings were helpful and added an extra layer of depth and understanding to the text. Because the pilots were all former students of prestigious universities, they quite often refer to philosophical works or classic novels in their diaries, using them to analyze the dilemma they face. These parts can be difficult to understand unless the reader has studied these same philosophers before. However, I noticed that while the first student soldier continually referenced philosophical texts, it wasn't as prominent in the stories that followed his. By the end of the book, I felt that the author had done an excellent job of giving the student soldiers a voice and on dispelling many of the misunderstandings that surround the kamikaze pilots. While it was a bit difficult to get my hands on a copy (my local library didn't have one, nor my university. I eventually got one through an interlibrary loan with a library from another state), it was well worth it.


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