Why Were Kamikazes Willing To Die?

I can understand why today’s terrorists are willing to die for their cause, because they believe they’re going to pork 72 virgins in the afterlife. But what was the motivation for the WWII Japanese Kamikaze pilots? What did they stand to gain by killing themselves?? Why would anyone agree to their own death???


Higher cause, protect the homeland, keep out foreign invaders, preserve the Emporer, honor.

Lots of reasons why people do things that aren’t in their personal best interests.

From a standpoint of our modern, western culture, it makes no sense. From the standpoint of the traditional Japanese cultural values they believed in, which included the divinity of the Emperor and less value placed on individual survival than on fulfillment of the Emperor’s orders, it makes perfect sense. The Emperor, a god on earth, through his military commanders, ordered these men, who considered themselves to be modern samurai and therefore above such base urges as personal survival, to attack his enemies by piloting aircraft into thier ships. It seemed reasonable to a people who considered it shameful to surrender, and who chastised those who survived a defeat by telling them that they didn’t deserve to die for the Emperor.

It’s helpful to note that the one Japanese military commander who had been exposed to American culture and Western values, Admiral Yamamoto, would never have supported kamikaze tactics had he been alive at the time the kamikaze were pressed into service. He placed great value on the lives of those under his command - an oddly Western attitude.

Also - maybe it’s related to their religious belief in reincarnation. Didn’t they believe that our physical existence is just a brief manifestation of our spirit, and that we are reincarnated again and again until we achieve enlightenment? Perhaps they thought that by accumulating “good karma” by defending their empire against the evil aggressors, they would be reincarnated as something pleasant or even achieve the enlightened state.

I honestly have never seen why it’s so hard to understand kamikazes. To me, there seems little difference between a pilot who is willing to fly his plane through the deck of a battleship or aircraft carrier (100% probability of death) in order to defend his homeland, comrades, and way of life from a hostile invasion force, and a GI who is willing to be in the first group to wade through the surf as a sitting duck for withering machine-gun, artillery, and mortar fire on the beach at Normandy or Iwo Jima (75% probability of death?) for the same goals.

DarrenS, sounds like you’re thinking of Hinduism - the most common religion in Japan in the 1940’s was Shinto, which placed great reverence on ones ancestors and their accomplishments. I don’t think Shintos believe in reincarnation - maybe someone who knows more about the religion can give more details.

Toadspittle, there is a HUGE difference between volunteering for a suicide attack and being a soldier in a unit that’s assigned a dangerous mission. It’s safe to say that every single soldier that assaulted Normandy and every Marine that fought on Iwo Jima fully intended to not only survive the mission, but to go home to his family and friends after the war was over. The German defenders at Normandy had very similar hopes. The Japanese mind-set was very different, and the average Japanese soldier would rather have died than surrender, because surrender was seen as dishonorable and a soldier who surrendered was considered to have already died and brought shame to his family. This is why Allied prisoners-of-war were so poorly treated by the Japanese, and why the Japanese military found kamikaze attacks to be a reasonable course of action - it was better to die in the Emperor’s service than to live.

It should also be pointed out that the Allied forces at Normandy and the US Marines at Iwo Jima were assaulting areas that had been “softened” by bombing and naval bombardment. In both cases, the defenses survived in much better shape than they were supposed to, and enemy resistance was greater than had been planned for. In the planning stages, neither operation was supposed to have been so costly.

Kilt-wearin’ man: DarrenS is referring to Buddhist principles of reincarnation, I believe. Buddhism is very widespread in Japan and co-exists with more traditional Shinto beliefs ( wherein you become a spirit after death ). The Samurai caste in particular was attracted to Buddhist thought like the indigenous Zen movement, because reflected through a Japanese cultural lens it appealed to the military caste that considered a carefully cultivated sense of “warrior’s fatalism” to be both desirable and respectable.

  • Tamerlane

I read recently that indicated that – far from the fantasy presented by the pious Japanese military – many of the kamikazes were completely unwilling, but were forced. As I recall, the method of coercion was threats (implied or real) against their families. That, and the inability in the military to do other than what one’s commanded to do.

A certain number of the kamikazes intentionally ditched their planes, apparently.

What I wanna know, is why did kamikaze’s wear helmets?

Seriously, does anyone know if the kamikaze pilots families were paid, as I’ve read the Middle East terrorist families are?

The thing to remember, also, (more in terms of why commanders were willing to order the attacks than why people were willing to fly them), was that kamikaze attacks were tactics of desperation, and were intended to save lives, fuel, and materiel. The logic was something like "It takes 30 planes to sink a battleship by bombing/torpedoing, and 10-15 of those planes will probably be shot down trying to do it. On the other hand, it only takes 2-3 kamikazis to sink the ship.

I have seen interviews with surviving kamikazis, and they said they were highly unwilling to die, that many of them were coerced, bribed or threatened (through their families and peer pressure) into it. They were also young and full of beans, and that kind of boy usually is more willing to give his all.

A common misconception is that they took off knowing they were going to die. The only time they crashed was when they were out of fuel, bombs and ammo and had not accomplished their mission. It was accepted if the pilots returned to the carrier having completed the mission. They wear helmets for the same reason that skydivers do: to keep themselves comfortable in the air. There are kamikaze pilots who survived because they never needed to crash. It was just a tactic of last resort.

Just FTR - Cecil on why kamikaze pilots wore helmets.

Tamerlane: thanks, I was indeed thinking of Buddhism. I couldn’t remember whether the enlightened state was “satori” or “Nirvana” so I didn’t guess.

Would I be out of line to point out that during our Civil War, soldiers on both sides stood up without cover and walked, or went at a rather slow run, across open fields in the face of artillery and rifle fire that they knew was coming because they could see the enemy?

Not exactly equivalent to knowing that you were on a one way trip, but it isn’t all that far off either. People, it would seem, can be brainwashed into doing remarkable things. Especially young people. One way to stop killing in war would be for all nations to agree that all armies had to be made of of people my age.

This was true at first but near the end of the war there were true suicide missions. There was even one aircraft type, theOhka, especially designed for suicide missions. They were essentially piloted cruise missiles launched from bombers.

As for why they volunteered - as already stated, they didn’t. Those pilots were ordered to fly those missions. The only alternative would have been to defect, dishonoring their family. My great uncle was a trainee at the time and would have gone on a suicide mission if the war lasted a few more days. He was definitely happy not to have to go.

Here’s an in interesting article from the Sunday Telegraph on the origin of the Kamikaze and what happened to the Kamikazes who lived.


Please be accurate, what you are referring to (sort of) is part of the incentive for specifically islamic suicide bombers. Not all terrorists are suicide bombers, and far from all terrorists are muslims.

To get the japanese mindset I feel it helps to think in Star Trek terms. Think Borg, there is no “one”. The survival/wellbeing of the group is more important than the individual. This is prevelant on all levels of japanese culture (more or less). This is slowly changing with increased “westernisation”. Then think Klingon. It is better to die with honour than to live with shame. Ones familial honour can be salvaged by giving ones life to erase the shame (seppuku, traditional suicide), and kamakazi action would have relied heavily on that. "You will take out the target by any means neccessary, if that means slamming into it, then fine. ".

This class of aircraft was refered to by the Allies as the Baka class.

“Baka” is Japanese for “fool” or “dummy”.

The military culture of the IJA/IJN was also somewhat different than western military culture, and the comment about yamamoto already alluded to this.

In a western army, a soldier can expect that within the confines of his/her mission, every reasonable effort will be made to ensure his/her survival after the fact, and as such suicide mission were anathema to conventional military thinking, on the premisis that Soldiers who expect to be at the victory party are generally more effective than soldiers who expect to die. For the same reason, A western soldier will make every effort to ensure that a wounded comrade is transported to safety and taken care of, even if it hindered the effectiveness of the remaining troops, simply because each remaining soldier will know that when his number comes up, he will be treated the same way.

Compare this to the IJA, who commonly employed the tactic of boobytrapping wounded japanese soldiers in the hope of killing allied medics who tried to help them, and i think the answer becomes a bit clearer.

It can be argued that kamikaze attacks were actually a sound idea under the circumstances in which they were used.

Imagine if WWII had not gone well for the allies and sometime around 1945, the United States was losing the war and on the verge of being invaded. Imagine it was the SS that was going to occupy America and you had heard about how they planned on rounding up American men for concentration camps and American women for rape brothels. Obviously, the American armed forces are going to resist with everything they’ve got. But suppose the Germans outnumber us with planes and ships and tanks. Any conventional defense was doomed to be annihilated by the weight of numbers.

Now suppose some generals realize that suicide attacks are many times more likely to hit their target than regular attacks. It’s very possible that a desperate plan might emerge; gather as many planes and ships as possible and ask for volunteers. These volunteers would be sent out on one way missions against the gathering German fleet as it approached America. It’s hoped that up to a third of the German ships will be sunk before they can land their troops or supplies. Maybe the loss of these men and equipment, along with the disruption of the attacks, will be enough to turn the tide of the upcoming battle and allow the American troops to succeed in throwing back the German invaders. And maybe, if the losses are high enough, Germany will decide that occupying America isn’t worth the cost.

This essentially is how things looked to the Japanese in the final months of the war. Obviously, they were mistaken about the American postwar intentions but those beliefs were widely held (the Japanese after all knew how harsh their own occupation policies had been). Everthing else above is based on what happened.