On this day - 15th Feb 1890: Matome Ugaki was born

125 years ago today a boy was born in the Akaiwa District, Okayama, Japan. This boy was named Matome Ugaki and by 1942 he was a Vice Admiral in the Japanese Navy commanding the infamous Kamikaze bombers. At that stage of the war the act of dying for your country was a familiar one, but an act of this extremity was something altogether different. Men in large numbers flew to their deaths in full knowledge of their actions. Not just giving their lives but deliberately destroying themselves to defy their enemy. The diary in which Ugaki recorded his war faithfully narrates the entire operation and it makes for a very illuminating read. The man I assumed must have been mad to have ordered such an atrocity seemed so rational and logical. Then the shocking thought hit me. He was not mad at all, he was just different from me.

I have no personal experience with war and so cannot know for myself how it truly feels. All I feel are from accounts I have heard from the media, history, and my own human instinct. However in all I have ever learned about war, the prevailing and desperate hope rooted in everyone seems to be a desire to survive. A desire not to be killed. A desire to come home and live. For Matome Ugaki that doesn’t seem to have been a motive. From his diary you can see an unmistakable respect for human life, but running parallel with that was a fundamental belief in the necessity of human sacrifice to aid the war effort. It was more than a duty. It was an honour. It wasn’t even questioned. Courage for Ugaki was not risking yourself to save a friend but donating your life to achieve the higher objective. In fact this certainty was so ingrained in him that upon hearing of Japan’s defeat he launched one more Kamikaze attack with himself included with the pilots. Killing himself in this final act of defiance.

Admiral Matome Ugaki with Yokosuka D4Y3 before final Kamikaze attack off Okinawa 15 August 1945

Matome Ugaki minutes before he joined the final Kamikazi flight - 15th August 1945

By Unknown airman of Imperial Japanese Navy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is all too easy to read about such a mentality and dismiss it as ‘other’. As too different. As unnatural. The concept of ‘other’ in human nature is certainly not new. We have always sought to identify ourselves by what we are not. The Ancient Greeks used the barbaric female warriors, the Amazons, to portray themselves as the opposite: cultured, refined and above all determinedly patriarchal. Contrarily in modern day Britain we condemn places that restrict women’s rights, consequentially defining Britain as a place of increasing sexual equality. 

Matome Ugaki may have died but the principal he died by has not, although now we call it a suicide attack rather than Kamikazi. Despite the constant news reports discussing these attacks we still struggle to understand. “That suicide bomber killed children - we love children, we would protect children above all else, we must be different from them”. “That person blew themselves up - we love life, we want to live, we must be different from them.” We cannot comprehend the other side. What would make people do something that feels so wrong to us? And so the conflict rages on. I do not pretend that our attempting to understand would end such a trouble. I do not know if there will ever be a solution. In fact I do not know if there is anyone , alive or dead, who could teach us a solution.

Ugaki Matome

Matome Ugkai  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

All I will say is that while there will always be differences, there will also always be similarities. Matome Ugaki may have been a man who commanded and then joined a suicide attack, but he was also a man who loved deeply. His diary makes references to his late wife whom he obviously missed greatly. He was also a man who knew pride, lovingly recording his son’s achievements. He was a man who admired strength in others, even in his enemy. He was an intelligent man who has left behind a fascinating legacy through his diary. But above all he was a man who was born, who lived and who died. We may have our differences but we must never forget to celebrate that unshakeable fact that unites us all. Whatever our beliefs, our history and our future - we are all human. I hope one day that differences won’t matter but for today I am just glad we still have so much that brings us together. Fear, pride, joy, consciousness, sadness, admiration, love - the wonderful essence of humanity. 

© Isla Robertson 2017