BY GEORGE BRAINE
During the latter stages of the Pacific front in World War II, Kamikaze (“divine wind”) units were formed as a last resort to prevent an American invasion of Japan. These units consisted of conventional fighter aircraft loaded with explosives, bombs and even torpedoes, and would be deliberately crashed into warships. About 2,800 suicide attackers sank 34 United States Navy ships, damaged 368 others, and killed or injured about 10,000 sailors. One American destroyer that was attacked but survived is my namesake, the USS Braine, although 67 sailors aboard were killed and 102 wounded.
My mother-in-law Tomiko is now 94 years old and clearly remembers her life in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, during wartime. She was in a boarding school where young women were trained to take on tasks usually performed by men, who had now gone to war. She remembers the hardships of war, potatoes being their main diet. In preparation for the American invasion, the girls were trained to use bamboo spears, a last desperate attempt at self-defense.
Tomiko says that a horse farm belonging to the army was adjacent to their school and that it was attacked by American planes before. A number of girls died as a result of the raid. She also remembers the radio announcement of the Emperor’s surrender on August 15, 1945. She was standing in the back and couldn’t hear well, but everyone was crying. She felt genuinely relieved that the war was over, the hardships being unbearable.
Tomiko’s older brother, Shigemitsu, was trained as a Kamikaze pilot. He was quite handsome and Tomiko says that his photographs in his possession were stolen many times by other girls. In fact, the Kamikaze pilots, all young men in their mid-twenties, were teenage idols. Because he was the eldest son, Shigemitsu was held back by his commanders and the war ended before he could go on a suicide mission. After the war, he succeeded in construction and died a few years ago.
His wife, Kazuko, lives not far from us in Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido. My nickname for her is “Kamikaze aunt” (never used in her presence!). Of course female pilots were unheard of during the war, but I think the nickname is appropriate. Kazuko is a sweet and gentle person, who values her independence despite her advanced age.
Although Hokkaido was not a battlefield, it did not escape the effects of war. Japan and the Soviet Union entered into a wartime neutrality pact, which the Soviets renounced in April 1945. In August, as the war was ending, the Soviets invaded and occupied the Kuril Islands to the east of Hokkaido, including a few islands. claimed by Japan. In fact, it was later revealed that the Soviets were planning an invasion of mainland Hokkaido on August 25, after Japan’s surrender, which was opposed by President Truman. Otherwise, Hokkaido could have been part of Russia today.
The Russian influence in Hokkaido runs deep. Russian Orthodox churches, where the priests are Japanese, can be found everywhere. Russian fishermen visit the ports and in Nemuro the signs are in Japanese, English and Cyrillic. But the loss of the Kuril Islands is deeply felt in Hokkaido. I’ve seen signs like the one below in eastern Hokkaido, which isn’t far from the Kuril Islands. But I wonder why they are in English. Why not in Cyrillic?