Scenes From Behind The Bamboo Screen: The Last Kamikaze
To a soldier, Duty is heavier than a mountain;
Dean Adams
To a soldier,
Duty is heavier than a mountain;
Life as light as a feather.
Japanese war slogan
You laughed when you looked at me; you slept in my arms. And though you probably don’t remember it, we even bathed together when you were a baby. Motoko, when you grow up and want to know about me, ask your mother and Aunt Kayo. I also left my photo album at home for you. It was I who named you Motoko. I thought you would be a gentle, kind and sensitive person.

I want you to grow up to be a splendid bride. But even if I die without your knowing me, you must not grieve.

When you get older and want to see me, come to Yasukuni Shrine. Pray with all your heart and my face will appear before you. I think you are a happy person. People say that you resemble me very much.

Your aunt and uncle treat you well because you are their only hope. And your mother — your happiness is her life. Whatever becomes of me, never think of yourself as a child without parents. I too will always be watching over you. Be good, and be the kind of person others will like.

P.S. The toy doll you had as a child I took with me in my airplane as a good-luck charm. This way you will always be with me.”

It feels uncanny to be reading such words in, of all places, an airplane. We’re in a 727 headed south. We being the videographer Mitsu, my boss from the ad agency, Taka, and Kentaro, our lensman. A transporter loaded with prototype Ninjas is also en route, as are two vans filled with camera gear.

Below us, playing peekaboo behind the clouds, is Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. Like the main island of Honshu, Kyushu is mountainous and deeply forested. Viewed through the humid, milky air of mid summer, the island seems to float upon the sea. This must have been the last glimpse that many of those pilots saw of their homeland as they climbed out in their final flights over the Pacific.

Deplaning at Oita, we are immediately enveloped in the languorous, sub-tropical air. It is quiet here. The cars move more slowly, people speak more quietly. Though we have traveled far in space, we have moved not at all in time. Like carry on baggage, we have brought Tokyo’s tension with us to this distant corner of Japan. Now, like static electricity finding ground, Tokyo’s hecticity begins to slowly bleed away, and we start the slow process of decompression which all city people experience when they visit the provinces.

The transporter with the bikes is in the parking lot, as are the camera vans. None of us have yet seen the final prototype ZX-12R, and we’re not about to wait until we get to the track to get our first look at the beast.

“Damn,” says Kentaro, peeling back the tarp, “That thing looks like a real man-eater.”

He’s referring to the 12R’s Ram Air intake, which protrudes from the fairing like voracious mouth. Styling chic aside, locating the intake out in front of the bike, in undisturbed air and at the center of greatest pressure, increases the Ram Air effect. With 1,200cc, 170+ horsepower and plenty of Ninja attitude, this is one seriously bad-ass motorcycle. Little canards on each side of the fairing make it look like a fighter aircraft. Seems that Kawasaki’s fly boyz had a hand in crafting this road missile.

Dean F. Adams

I’ve been told that Kawasaki’s Naoiri Circuit is really too tight for a bike like this. I hope that’s true. Because I really don’t want to have ride this mutha as fast as it will go. In the dim recesses of the transporter are lurking the 12R’s demon spawn: a 9R and two Sixes.

This is my first trip to Kyushu, an island I have long wanted to visit. From Kyushu came Japan’s most ferocious samurai, the Satsuma clan. These were the men who led the samurai warriors’ last stand against Westernization. Their final battle was recently immortalized in the movie The Last Samurai, with Tom Cruise. Guns against swords, they had no chance. Unlike the movie, however, Saigo Takamori, the rebellion’s charismatic leader, was not killed in a last charge into the cannon. He committed seppuku, slicing his stomach open on a mountaintop after the final battle was lost.

A true samurai chooses his own death, dies by his own hand.

Dean Adams
Daytona 1991

A pleasant two-hour drive into the interior of the island brings us to the small village of Naoiri. We will be staying in the village’s only hotel, a hot-spring resort located next to a rushing river. Tatami rooms overlooking rice paddies, farm houses nestled against the nearby hills and forested mountains as far as the eye can seeJapan’s heartland.

Those unfamiliar with the life of a motorcycle model no doubt envision a glamorous life filled with exciting days and wild nights. The truth, however, is more prosaic. Most of the time is spent sitting around waiting to ride. To paraphrase: long periods of utter boredom interspersed with brief minutes of mildly dangerous excitement.

Like any diligent tourist, I’ve brought some reading material with me to kill the down time. The book is a recent publication, Hotaru Kaeru (Firefly Return). Opening the book at random I find the following:

Lt. Ryöji Uehara came from the economics department of Keiö University and was a second term aerobatics cadet.

He had the alarming habit of loudly proclaiming, “Japan’s going to lose,” regardless of who might be around. This greatly upset my mom, because the dreaded kempei, the military police, were always watching our inn. When friends cautioned him he would simply say, “Who cares? I’ll be dead soon anyway. They won't mess with me.”
“I bought this from an Indian during a shoot in New Mexico,” he says with a laugh. “I was all sunburned and the Indians thought I was one of them! They kept coming up to me and speaking Navajo!”
Even so, going around yelling, Japan’s gonna lose! could cause problems. This was because most of the pilots truly believed they were sacrificing their lives to save their country. To the questions of why they had to die and why they were sacrificing themselves, the answer was simple: to save Japan. But if their death couldn’t help the country, it was a just a dog’s death and meant their lives were wasted. None of them wanted to think their death had no meaning. They had to believe that a day would come when their supreme sacrifices would be vindicated, otherwise they could never have resigned themselves to death. So, when Lt. Uehara vented his beliefs, my mom’s chief concern was for the psychological effect it had on the other pilots.
Dean Adams

“Hey, Nick-san! Let’s go take a look at the track.” It’s Mitsu, the video guy. Another one of those anti-salarymen you find in Japan’s film industry, Mitsu makes it a point to wear sunglasses, even indoors. He spent his youth in a rock ‘n roll band, hence the long hair, and wears a silver and turquoise bracelet on his left wrist.
“I bought this from an Indian during a shoot in New Mexico,” he says with a laugh. “I was all sunburned and the Indians thought I was one of them! They kept coming up to me and speaking Navajo!”

Like co-conspirators, Mitsu and I share a private unspoken joke about our good fortune. Being paid to travel around the world to ride and take pictures of motorcycles! Can this be legal?

The track looks like fun: plenty of grassy run-off areas, some minor elevation changes and a short straightaway. Aside from an old groundskeeper puttering about in his office we are all alone. The only sounds come from the surrounding forest. In the near distance a farmer is tilling his field. It is very peaceful. Mitsu checks out some camera locations then we head back to the hotel for a splendid feast of local delicacies.

Speaking of which, joining us at dinner is Mayumi, a girl Friday from the local Kawasaki dealer. Slender, with high cheekbones and alabaster skin, she has the classical beauty of the women of Japan. Fortunately, her beauty is not tarnished by this knowledge, and we carry on a friendly and uninhibited conversation that doesn’t go unnoticed by the other members of our party.

There is, as any Western man who has visited Japan can tell you, a natural attraction between Japanese women and Western men. Why this should be so is a subject of much conjecture. But it is, and that is enough for me. That Japanese men resent this is also true, and who can blame them?

When I first arrived in Japan — fleeing, among other things, a broken relationship — I thought I had died and been sent, mistakenly, to heaven. The Japanese woman was everything I had imagined women to be before I found out what they were really like. Today, whenever one of those old Japan hands starts going on about how he’s in Japan to study Zen, or literature or music, I just laugh to myself and wonder whom he’s trying to kid. Whether they are aware of it or not, whatever these guys are doing in Japan is secondary to what really keeps them there.

Kevin Schwantz

In any case, Mayumi takes care to spend an equal amount of time chatting with her other seatmate, and I am careful to spread my attention around the table.

Chiran, the airfield described in the book Hotaru Kaeru, is located not far from here. From Chiran departed the last organized Kamikaze attacks on the U.S. fleet off Okinawa. I’m hoping to visit the site after our shoot wraps.

After dinner I wander outside and find our innkeeper sitting on the river bank taking in the evening coolness. She is an old woman and is bent almost double from the weight of time. I ask her about Chiran.

“Oh, there’s nothing much there anymore,” she says, shaking her head sadly. “The airfield is all overgrown with grass. But there is a nice museum. There’s a bus that goes directly there from the train station.”
Chiran, too, it seems, is now a tourist attraction.

“Hey Nick-san!” It’s Kentaro. “We’re going out to find something to drink. Wanna join us?”

“Ask me again after the film’s in the can.”

I return to my room to read. The sliding window is wide open, and into the room, carried on the cool air flowing down from the mountains flow the songs of crickets. Fireflies dance about over the rice paddies.

‘In addition to his will, Lt. Uehara also left a long essay, in it he discussed his theory on why Japan would lose the war.

Although authoritarian or totalitarian states may experience brief prosperity, they must inevitably collapse. That truth is evident in what we see happening to the axis powers in this world war. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany have already collapsed. One after another, like buildings whose foundation stones are crumbling, the totalitarian states are falling into ruin.

Since Japan was also a totalitarian state, he reasoned, it followed that it too would sooner or later meet the same fate. He was convinced that, in his words, ‘History will prove the eternal greatness of freedom. And though this may be disastrous for our country now, it will be wonderful for the Japanese people in the future.’

In the Japan of the nineteen-forties, those ideas were far ahead of their time. To the authorities they were considered ‘dangerous thoughts.’ And anyone voicing such thoughts would immediately be arrested by the Special Secret Service Police or by the Military Police. They could expect to be tortured.

Another favorite saying of his was:

While the fate of a nation is important, in the grand scheme of things it is of little significance. Even if America and England win this war, their nations too will one day collapse.

This lucid prophecy reflected the Eastern philosophy that good fortune is inevitably followed by bad, that it is only the relative shortness of the human lifespan that lends a sense of permanence to the status quo.

Of course, in Japan at that time there were others who shared similar thoughts, but they kept their mouths shut. They certainly weren’t the kind of people who become pilots and asked to join the special attack corps.
And that was what made Lt. Uehara unique. According to his analysis of the kamikaze:

Thinking reasonably, the actions of the special attack pilots are incomprehensible. It is nothing more than suicide and, to the Western mind, simply inconceivable. Only in an emotionally charged country like Japan is something like this possible.

In seeking to justify such a death, he said that Japan’s view of life and death always gives greater weight to the value of death, and that nothing is worse than a meaningless death. Because he believed that it would lead him to heaven, he felt no need to justify his death with long-winded explanations. He was unsettlingly articulate about it all.

While Lt. Uehara’s will was filled with these strong and principled statements, only a few sentences revealed why Ryoji Uehara, an economics major from Keio University, had volunteered for the special attack corps.

When I step out of the airplane I’m like any other human being, swayed by the same emotions and passions. But when my lover died, my spirit died with her. She’s waiting for me in heaven, and when I think of her up there waiting for me, death is nothing more than a way for me to be with her.

Lt. Ryöji Uehara belonged to the 56th Shinbu Unit. He sortied on May 11 in a Type 3 Hien and never returned.

I’ve been reading too hard and cannot sleep. Slipping quietly out of my futon so as not to wake my roommates, I make my way downstairs to the onsen, the hot-spring bath, hoping to wash away my thoughts. After bathing I make my way outside to the rotenburo, the under-the-sky bath. Here, hot spring water is piped directly into an outdoor pool. It is a moonless night and the narrow path is lit only by starlight. A few yards away, the rushing river thunders down from the mountains in the darkness, bringing with it the chill air of the forest. Like returning to the womb I slip into the welcoming water of the pool, lean my head back on a stone and stare up into a sea of stars. In the dark, the river sounds closer, more threatening.

“Nick-san?” At first, I think my ears are playing tricks on me. “Nick-san?” It is Mayumi. Her voice, as gentle as a smile in the night, floats across the pool.

Over dinner she mentioned that she dreamed of studying in America. I ask her why.

“Oh, my parents are trying to fix me up with a young doctor in our village but I can’t stand the guy.”

Arranged weddings are still common in the countryside. But, like so many modern Japanese girls, Mayumi is determined to live life on her own terms. Usually, when a Japanese girl refuses such a suitor she will write him a note saying that she is unworthy of him. A better way to save face for both parties is for the girl to continue her education — preferably in a place far away.

She asks me about life in America and I tell her that the same stars we’re gazing at tonight are even more beautiful when viewed from a sleeping bag on the great Mojave desert.

Giggling, she mentions a famous Chinese proverb: “In China they say that even the moon is bigger.”

Inevitably, the talk turns to motorcycles. She has ridden to Naoiri on her motorcycle, a Kawasaki Estrella, a 250cc domestic model. For all their femininity, a surprising number Japanese girls ride motorcycles. And in fact, the women of Japan are much more adventurous than the men.

We spoke of many things that night, of poetry and travel, of motorcycles and literature. But when I mentioned that it was getting very late she said, “In old Japan they had a saying that a night as beautiful as this should not be wasted in sleep.”

We leave for the track at 4:30 the next morning. The summer dawn comes early to these latitudes and the cameramen want to make the most of what they call the golden light. If we bust our fannies, they tell us, we can wrap the video and the stills in one day.

Two of Kawasaki’s test riders are also on hand to ride the 9R and 6Rs — I’m stuck with the monster. The day passes in a blur. When the video guys are done with one take, they send us to the other side of the track where the cameramen are waiting. Heaving the giant Ninja from side to side through the esses takes a lot of effort, and I can only do so by keeping all my weight on the pegs. Soon my thighs are burning. Of course, it is hotter than hell and we are all sweating like pigs. In a losing battle against dehydration we suck constantly on bottles of chilled green tea, Gatorade and anything else that’s cold and wet.

It feels great to be back on a bike. Like pilots, motorcycle riders are only truly at peace when they are in motion. We are all escapists at heart, running away from the cloying, creepy crawly existence of our daily lives.

The video guys have their camera set up alongside the straightaway. They want a shot of me screaming by on the 12. Can do. High on fatigue, I whack open the 12R’s throttle off the final turn, sending the crash wall at the end of the straight careening towards me like the deck of a carrier towards a Kamikaze. This is what it must have been like — ship and sea rushing up to meet the pilot in his flying bomb. It would be so easy, just run it on in.

Fortunately for this pilot, I have a pair of huge 320mm disc brakes at my fingertips that put a stop to such dangerous fantasies.

I never made it to Chiran. Work — what makes our lives so happy — called me back to Tokyo. But what they say in the travel guides is true, reading up on an area’s history during your visit makes the trip so much more enjoyable.

Summer grasses,
All that remains
Of the warriors’ dreams.

-- Matsuo Basho
— ends —
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