A former middle school teacher in Kagoshima Prefecture, southwestern Japan, has published a book challenging what he sees as the prevailing tendency to glorify Japanese suicide pilots in World War II.

Taking issue with narratives that focus only on inspiring accounts of valor, Kenji Yamamoto's book, loosely translated as "How to Teach Children about Kamikaze Attacks," draws heavily on testimonies from former suicide pilots who survived.

Yamamoto, a 58-year-old Kagoshima native, has faced criticism for his views, but he is convinced that teaching children about "the shadows of history" will help them to think critically.

After graduating from Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Yamamoto returned to Kagoshima, where he became a social studies teacher at a public school. In his fourth year, on a school trip to the Chiran Peace Museum for kamikaze pilots in Minamikyushu, Yamamoto says he was caught off guard when a museum guide said the kamikaze pilots "were all happy to head off to attack."

Former middle school teacher Kenji Yamamoto holds a copy of his book, titled, "How to Teach Children about Kamikaze Attacks," in this photo taken in January 2023 in Kushiro, Hokkaido. (Kyodo)

"Saying 'all' was going too far," Yamamoto told Kyodo News in an interview, adding that he was also troubled by what he called the overly dramatic tone of the guide's narrative.

He wanted his students to have "the ability to see things from multiple perspectives," but for this to happen, he thought, "first I needed to know for myself." He read related books and conducted fieldwork, visiting kamikaze attack locations.

Yamamoto interviewed surviving former members of the kamikaze unit and the female students who cared for the men before they flew off to battle in the closing months of the war. Yamamoto says that some of them attested that, with censorship in place, "there were no actual motives written in the wills" that the pilots left.

He also showed his students testimonies from some "enraged" ex-pilots who said they had "wanted to kill the superior officers" who had proposed the suicide attacks.

Yamamoto wrote a play about kamikaze attacks to better understand the feelings of those sent off to die. It was performed by the students at a cultural festival.

When he discussed with students the circumstances of wartime Japan during a special lesson opened to colleagues, he experienced a backlash from some teachers and education critics.

Some said he did not fully explain why Japan had needed to adopt the kamikaze strategy while others said he was airing issues that junior high school students were unable to understand.

"I asked, 'Then how should I teach them?' In the absence of any answer, saying it is 'impossible' is to cease thought. The role of a teacher is to not run away from the task of continuing to think."

Yamamoto left his job before retirement and turned to academic research to reevaluate the state of education, hoping to contribute to nurturing a new generation of teachers. In April 2022, he became an associate professor at Hokkaido University of Education on the Kushiro campus.

When he published his book last November, he said he felt "the responsibility of someone who was born and raised" in Kagoshima Prefecture, where many kamikaze pilots launched their attacks. Yamamoto hails from Tanegashima, the second largest of the Osumi Islands in the prefecture.

He also hopes to show that the story of the kamikaze pilots still has resonance today. He is torn by mixed emotions when he sees Ukrainian citizens whose country has been invaded by Russia talk about "fighting for their homeland."

"A situation where a person can give their life for their country can happen anywhere, anytime. I want people to learn history as if it were their own."

He has also written extensively on human rights issues and looked into the history of forced labor by Koreans during World War II in the coal mines of Hokkaido and into the issues facing the indigenous Ainu people in Japan's northernmost prefecture. He has also studied the history of how leprosy patients were treated in Japan.

"I want to do research on any topic that can connect to how we teach children and that can contribute to the field of education," Yamamoto said.