A journey from Kamikaze to bishop
As a surviving former kamikaze pilot, not many people are like Bishop Paul Saneaki Nakamura. During a May 24 presentation, Bishop Nakamura was introduced to students, teachers, and alumni at Kadena High School. The guest speaker, who was a member of the formidable suicide unit of the Imperial Japanese Forces, was invited to share his experience of the days he spent longing to die for the country and an unexpected turn that led him to become a Christian.
“Although I used to be a bishop, now I am just a mere old man sitting in a wheelchair who can’t see well, hear well, or walk straight,” said Bishop Nakamura, cracking a joke as he began his extraordinary story.
Born in 1925 in Naha, Nakamura grew up in a time when the Japanese emperor was worshiped as a god. At the age of 18, he left Okinawa to join a “Kamikaze” unit in Kagoshima prefecture, and later a “Kaiten” human torpedo unit in Nagasaki prefecture.
His desire to die for the country kept him going through tough trainings. But, somehow the moment of truth never came.
Despite being part of a planned kamikaze attack and then as human torpedo, the first two suicide missions for Nakamura were aborted due to lack of aircraft and boats. Later on, Nakamura never executed his task as a “human landmine” thanks to the war ending.
Nakamura retained his nationalist passion after the war. Living in a post-war chaos, he even missed the Japanese military where he didn’t have to struggle for food or a roof to sleep under. He said it was similar to Israelites wanting to go back to Egypt as slaves.
But Nakamura’s passion for the old regime died when Japan regained sovereignty in 1952. It was the moment when the long-cherished wish of the Japanese people came true, but Okinawans could not taste the joy. Their islands, as well as Amami and Ogasawara islands, were kept out of the deal and remained under the jurisdiction of the U.S. He was a college student in Fukuoka around that time.
“I heard my college classmate say ‘Japan is able to stay unified as a nation thanks to the emperor.’ That made me so sad I cried.”
Nakamura could not accept how the country abandoned the Okinawans, who sacrificed their lives for the country.
What saved him from the heartbreak was Christianity. He ran to a church and talked a priest about what happened. Then the priest said, “Japan might as well be dead if it can’t feel the pain of Okinawans,” and advised Nakamura to be a Christian.
Although his life as a nationalist came to an end, his life as a Christian was just beginning, like Jesus saved Lazarus of Bethany from death, as he said.
As a priest, he toured across the country and advised people to seek another life through Christianity. When he was assigned to a church in Okinawa City and returned to the island at the age of 28, he had another eye-opening experience.
What took him by surprise was the revival of Okinawan culture such as Eisa dancing and Sanshin music, which were oppressed before and during the war. Another thing that surprised him was the fact that one area in Okinawa City didn’t suffer any casualties during the war thanks to the fact that the Japanese military left the area before the U.S. military came. These events helped him to come to the realization that he wanted to live in a world without military forces.
Full of energy, Bishop Nakamura continued talking in a high-pitched voice for over 30 minutes. Determined to say what he had to say to express his belief in peace, the retired bishop didn’t shy away from expressing his strong view against military forces, including the U.S. military in Okinawa. But the voice of the Kamikaze-turned-bishop left a strong impression on some in the audience, many of whom come from military families.
“I’ve always had an interest in World War II history. So just hearing a side of the story that Americans can’t normally hear, it was just so interesting and so inspiring,” said Nic Wayland, a Kadena High School alumnus in attendance.
Colbie Davis, a 10th grader said, “I have a real example of how it was. That gave me a lot more knowledge on the subject.”
“I think his story was really powerful, because they all thought it was a heroic act to die for their country. I am not sure if they would still be like that if it happened today,” said 10th-grader Anna Manning.
When asked if it was difficult to hear Nakamura’s opinion against military forces, the 10th grader added: “Everybody has his own opinion about things. Some people see military here as a good thing, some people see it as bad. So being half Japanese, I can see both sides. So I don’t think it’s hard to hear.”