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Former 'kamikaze' pilot comes to understand father's anger after building own family

Tatsuzo Nishimura speaks about his experience during World War II while showing off photos from the time in Kyoto's Sakyo Ward on Aug. 9, 2017. (Mainichi)

When young Imperial Japanese Navy pilot Tatsuzo Nishimura tried to leave a keepsake with his father when he came to visit his base during World War II, his father angrily refused to take it. The Kyoto native, now 89, says that he only understood his father's reaction after the war when he started his own family.

"Having a child give a parent something to remember them by when they die is so cruel," he says. "I did the worst disservice to my parents."

The former member of the naval "tokkotai," a special suicide attack unit commonly known in English as "kamikaze," ended up returning home safely, and is now surrounded by children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. While continuing to pray for peace, Nishimura contributed his own account of the war and other thoughts to the 30th issue of "Magotachi e no Shogen" (Testimonies for our grandchildren), a collection of memoirs on war experiences that was published this summer.

When Nishimura was in his fourth year at Ritsumeikan Junior High School under the old education system, a naval officer visited his school. He decided to answer his call to offer his life to the Emperor, and enrolled in a preparatory course for navy pilots in October 1943. His father Tatsunosuke objected, saying that the battlefield was no place for children, but Nishimura could not be dissuaded.

After 10 months of training, he was assigned to the Hakata Imperial Navy Air Service stationed in the city of Fukuoka. They were asked by their superior if there were any volunteers when organizing the special attack unit and all of about 90 fellow pilots raised their hands.

They continued to practice nighttime nose-dives and flying at low altitudes in preparatory drills, and eight members of his unit died in accidents. When his father came to visit him, Nishimura said, "If my plane crashes, there will be nothing left, so please take this," and handed him an envelope filled with his nail and hair clippings. His father got angry, telling him he didn't want it and gave it back.

In July 1945, Nishimura was transferred to a naval air base in Kagoshima, and spent Aug. 15 there. Communication soldiers showed them a transcript of the radio broadcast of Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa) announcing the end of the war. However, without any official orders, they refused to believe it. "We thought it was ridiculous that the war was over even though we were still there," Nishimura remembers.

Several days later, the unit finally thought they would have their chance to fight when word arrived that an enemy ship was spotted off the coast of Amakusa and their commander told them to prepare themselves.

What awaited Nishimura instead were the faces of his parents, older brother and younger sister. There was no sign of enemy ships, and Nishimura's commander once again announced that the war had come to an end. Nishimura felt neither regret nor happiness, but rather thought, "If only we had been able to fight, maybe we would have won?" His family was happy to finally have him return safe.

Nishimura ended up becoming a carpenter like his father, married and had two children. "If we had the chance to complete our mission, this day would have never come," he says. Working into his 70s, his greatest joy now is watching over his four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

However, in a world filled with terrorist attacks and dangerous statements made by politicians who belong to a generation that never experienced war, Nishimura feels that the atmosphere is approaching that of the prewar period.

"We all joined the military without question, and were educated to believe that it was our natural duty to give our lives, but it was all wrong," he says. "If you fight force with force, the only thing that remains is sadness and despair. I take pride in a Japan without a military or nuclear weapons."

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