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The Christian Suicide Bomber
What does a devout Christian do when his country’s authorities force him to become a suicide bomber?
If you’re World War II kamikaze pilot Ichizo Hayashi you write a final letter to your mother stating that “for to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” and you vow to “be sure to sink an enemy vessel.” Then you fly off on your deadly mission with your Bible and hymn book.
Hayashi’s tale is recounted in a remarkable book, Kamikaze Diaries by Professor Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
It tells the stories of seven young men who were compelled to become kamikaze pilots – essentially airborne suicide bombers, flying into Allied warships (the Wikipedia entry on kamikaze is here) – by the Japanese military. Most of the seven had been students at elite universities, and they kept diaries, which form the basis of the book.
It’s an invaluable study. It makes clear that high levels of coercion were used to compel the students to “volunteer” for their assignments. And it shows that these were no grinning fanatics – the image that many in the West have of the kamikaze pilots. (An image I vaguely held myself, despite having lived in Japan. It’s not a topic that the Japanese discuss much with Westerners.)
These were highly intelligent, highly thoughtful young men, and though they were very patriotic, they didn’t necessarily want to die. They struggled to accept their fates. They were not blind supporters of their country’s great military adventure.
In fact, another lesson of the book is that many in the military despised the students. We in Australia are familiar with stories of the brutality meted out to our World War II prisoners of war by Japanese soldiers. It seems the soldiers were just as brutal to the students who joined their ranks.
Ichizo Hayashi was from a devoutly-Christian academic family. He read the Bible every day. At that time, family members used to send soldiers a Japanese flag with messages on it. Hayashi’s mother and sister both wrote passages from the Bible on the flag they sent him.
He started his diary after being drafted into the military, and he titled it “A Sun and Shield,” from Psalm 84:11, “For the Lord God is a sun and shield.”
Seven weeks before his death he wrote:
How fortunate I am that I believe in God, whom my mother believes in. My mind is at ease when I think that God takes care of everything. God would not make my mother or myself sad. I am sure God will bestow happiness upon us. Even [though] I will die I dream of our lives together…I know my country is beautiful…My earnest hope is that our country will overcome this crisis and prosper. I can’t bear the thought of our nation being stampeded by the dirty enemy. I must avenge [it] with my own life.
How do we reconcile his Christianity with his willingness to slam his aeroplane – possibly loaded with bombs - into an Allied warship? I’m not sure. The book gives only brief excerpts from his writings. We don’t learn such a lot about his faith. In any case, it seems the original Japanese version of his diary was edited by his sister to emphasise his close relationship with his mother. But we should note that the diary covers a period in 1945 when the Allies were bombing Japanese cities relentlessly. He had reasons for hating them, and for wanting revenge.
Though the book does give a partial answer:
Ichizo Hayashi relied on his Christian faith as he embarked on his final mission. Yet his Christianity was inextricably mixed with doubt. Kierkegaard’s theology was central to the anguished soliloquy in which he questioned the meaning of life and death.
He carried Kierkegaard’s “Sickness and Death” as well as the Bible onto the plane, along with a photograph of his mother. As his last day approached, he filled his diary and letters with cries for her. Singing hymns and reading the Bible became his way of feeling close to his beloved and faraway mother, herself a devout Christian.
Other Christian pilots also struggled to sustain their faith as they faced death. On the night before his last flight, Tsuneo Kumai urged his comrades to sing hymns together. They chose hymn number 405, whose words ask God to give them strength “until they meet again.”
Kotaro Hagihara, one of those who joined Kumai in the singing, survived and later recalled that singing hymns carried a risk of punishment: “Although we were not explicitly fighting Christianity and thus it was nominally permitted to sing hymns, we could have been in real trouble.”
Amid the severe censorship that prevailed on the bases and the hostile attitudes of some career soldiers toward student soldiers, this final act was a last celebration of the beauty of humanity in the most inhuman of circumstances, a protest against the military aggression, and even a dirge for themselves.
Is there a parallel with suicide bombers in the Middle East? I don’t think so. Hayashi was not a fanatic. He was not a true volunteer. He saw little glory in martyrdom.
But the book shows us how easy it is for even a sincere and hugely-intelligent Christian like Hayashi to fall victim to poisonous nationalistic ideologies. The lesson surely is that Christians should always question the dominant political culture of the day.
Update: An excerpt from the book is at the University of Chicago Press website.