Japan’s former ambassador to Lebanon, Naoto Amaki, had a telling conversation with Hezbollah’s Sheik Hassan Nasrallah shortly following al-Qaida’s September 2001 attack on America.

“He told me, ‘We learned how to do suicide missions from the kamikazes,'” Amaki recounted. “Nasrallah said the Shiites all commend the Japanese ‘samurai spirit.'” But the ambassador rejected Nasrallah’s twisted tribute.

Are shahids kamikazes? No way, say the real kamikazes. Now octogenarian veterans, Japanese kamikaze survivors deeply resent being compared to terrorists and don’t hesitate to explain why.

1. Kamikazes didn’t want to die.

In fall 1944, when an American invasion of the Japanese homeland became imminent, Vice Admiral ?nishi Takijir? unveiled a new weapon against the expected onslaught. Originally called the Tokkotai or Special Attack Force, these troops quickly became known in the West by the name of their first unit, “Kamikaze,” meaning “Divine Wind.”

“Not one person went because they thought they wanted to die,” said Toyotaro Nakajima, a former Special Forces pilot who lived and worked in the U.S. for many years after the war. “It was an order – help your country, your country being the family that you loved, your brothers and sisters, friends, your home town – to protect these things from the enemy,” he told Asia Times Online.

“Nobody was chasing after death or trying to commit suicide – we did it because we had a duty to protect our country,” Nakajima said. “To me, there’s a major difference.”

More than 5,000 kamikaze pilots died during the eight-month campaign, and 20,000 others were still awaiting orders when the war ended. One was Tsukasa Abe. Abe’s mission, slated for the afternoon of Aug. 15, 1945, was scrapped when the emperor surrendered at noon of the same day.

“It would be a lie to say that I didn’t have at least some feeling that I was glad I wasn’t chosen,” Abe said.

2. Kamikazes were forced into their missions.

Although touted as voluntary when the operation began in October 1944, not a single officer trained at the military academies volunteered for kamikaze service. The imperial government compensated by using what it called “student soldiers,” i.e., university students graduated early so they could be drafted into kamikaze service.

In her book, “Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers,” University of Wisconsin anthropology professor Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney documented the last words, prayers and fears of seven of these young men as they struggled to face what they saw as a meaningless death. “I found the diaries … so painful to read that without the sustained encouragement of my colleagues, I would not have been able to complete the task,” Ohnuki-Tierney said.

Refusing orders to “volunteer” could have resulted in pariah status or getting one sent to the southern front where death would have been certain. Yet some soldiers, like Kuroda Kenjir?, did refuse. Kenjir? subsequently found his refusal ignored, as his name appeared on the volunteer list and his commander bragged that all members of his corps had signed up.

Another survivor, Shigeyoshi Hamazono, says that although pilots were asked to “volunteer,” they really had no choice. Of 100 or so in his naval squadron who were asked to volunteer, all but three agreed. “The other three got beaten up,” he said.

This degree of compulsory patriotism did not extend across class lines, however, as members of the royal family and sons of military officials and prominent businessmen also would “volunteer” – without ever being selected for duty. The criteria for kamikaze pilot selection were never publicly disclosed.

3. Kamikazes weren’t religiously motivated.

Shigemitsu Saito, a fighter pilot in campaigns including those in New Guinea and Guadalcanal, said the Western view of the emperor-worshipping kamikaze pilot bears little relation to reality. “The emperor never really came into it – that’s just something the newspapers made up,” he said. “I doubt anyone actually went to his death shouting ‘Banzai for the emperor!'”

“We Japanese are not a religious people,” former Ambassador Amaki explained. “We just obey instructions. But the Arab world is looking for support wherever they can get it, so they seek out every excuse to legitimize their actions.”

4. Kamikazes didn’t attack civilians.

“It’s a major mistake to say that the September 11 attacks were kamikaze attacks – the Special Forces were only ever used in a theater of war,” said Hiromi Kawasaki, a former manned torpedo pilot who never got his chance to die. “We never carried out any attacks [against civilians] like the ones on September 11.”

“The surviving kamikaze, like most Japanese, bristle at suggestions that the kamikaze were the same as the al-Qaida suicide pilots,” reported Mark Litke in a 2002 report for ABC News. “They killed only military personnel.”

In a book on kamikazes, Hideaki Kase echoed this statement: “Not a single civilian,” he wrote.

Retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Robert H. Spiro Jr., who himself fought against kamikazes, had no problem seeing the difference. “At least it was a military tactic and they were not attacking our wives, children, friends, mothers,” Spiro said.

Takeo Tagata, 88, was a kamikaze instructor who was ordered to fly a mission the day before Japan surrendered. “We did what we did for military purposes,” he said. “No matter what supreme ideas they talk about, suicide bombers are just killing innocent civilians, people who don’t have anything to do with their war.”

“When I hear the comparison, I feel so sorry for my friends who died,” said Hamazono, “because our mission was totally different from suicide bombers. The kamikazes attacked military targets. In contrast, the main purpose of a suicide bomber is to kill as many innocent civilians as they can.”

“That,” Hamazono said, “is just murder.”

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Marylou Barry is a journalist and Christian Zionist with a special interest in the Middle East. Visit her blog, Marylou’s America.

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