The day I met the Kamikaze pilots was one of the longest working days of my life. The day started at my hotel in Okinawa when my associates picked me up at 6:20 a.m. Japanese are always so precise, they said 6:20 and meant it. They could have said 6:18 or 6:23 and they still would have meant it. As usual in Japan, we had been up late the night before, eating and drinking saki, and when I retired for the night I had opted to skip breakfast for an extra hours sleep in the morning; a decision I was to regret before the day ended.
When that day started, little did I know that before my head again touched a pillow over 20 hours later, I would have one of the warmest, most moving experiences of my life.
We set about a typically busy day, calling on customers, visiting potential places of business, and by 2:00 p.m. when things had seemed to slow down I was hungry. When I hinted at having lunch I was told there wasn't time, as we had to hurry to catch my flight back to the mainland. After a frantic 2-hour drive to the airport, I was put on a plane with only my interpreter and off we went back to the Island of Kyushu. I was exhausted when our plane landed at 7:00 PM in Fukuoka and even hungrier. A Japanese associate I had never met before collected the interpreter and me at the airport. I was expecting to simply have a little food and entertainment and check into a hotel, but was impolite enough to immediately suggest eating. My host said "no time, many people waiting to have dinner with you". This sounded promising, but I didn't realize that 4 more hours of travel, by car, were still ahead of me before I would at last encounter food.
Finally at 11:00 PM we walked into a private room of a Japanese restaurant where 20 some people were sitting. Of this 20 plus people, I knew 3, in addition to my interpreter. I was told that 3 of the guests were from local business publications that wanted to interview me after the meal, the rest were local businessmen. Here I was, sleepy, tired, and hungry, and more than a little out of sorts, but I still had to smile, make small talk and be pleasant for a few more hours.
The guests had been waiting to eat with me and were also hungry, so conversation was somewhat less than the norm as we ate. I was sitting at the head of the table, and immediately took notice of two elderly gentlemen sitting at the foot of the table. Very distinguished looking, very well dressed, with nothing of the appearance of "Salarymen". They talked very little, only to each other, but seemed to look at me intently and hang on every word I said, or at least that the interpreter said, that I said.
Finally the interpreter turned to me and said; "those two gentlemen are former Kamikaze pilots". This surprised me more than a little and I, rather stupidly, said " I though all Kamikaze pilots were killed." "How is it they are still alive?"
She relayed my question to them and our conversation started. One of them said, "My mission was scheduled, but I had no airplane to fly." " The Americans had shot them all down." The other said, "My mission too was scheduled." "The war ended 3 days before."
At the end of the meal, the two gentlemen approached me, and through the interpreter announced that they would like to meet me formally. Formal introductions are very important in Japan. It is essential to have meishi (business cards) written in both Japanese and English. They are presented and accepted with both hands while bowing. The card must be read in its entirety and is never casually handled, or simply stuck away in ones pocket. After the formal introduction, the elder gentleman made an announcement:
"My friend and I were Kamikaze pilots." " We were taught to hate Americans". " We are now businessmen." " Neither of us had ever met an American before." " We never thought we would like one." "We like you." and with a bow they turned and left.
Thus, 50 years after Japan surrendered on the decks of the
mighty Missouri, World War II finally ended for two elderly Samurai; and an
American learned that no matter how sleepy, tired, hungry, and out of sorts
he might be, he still may encounter a warm and wonderful moment that will
stay with him the rest of his life.