Kaiiki – Hiroshi Uemoto


The fact that thousands of Japanese people were willing to commit suicide in a vain attempt to influence a war that was already lost is something I have always found puzzling. Attempting to bridge the distance of time and cultural difference is a very tricky thing and everything written below is my attempt to interpret the motivations and processes behind the kamikaze phenomena. As this is a highly charged subject about which people have a number of understandably different views I’d just like to say that no offence is intended on my part whatsoever.

Undoubtedly patriotism and national fervour played an important role, just as it did in every other country during the Second World War. While the older residual beliefs of a traditional warrior-based society that valued death over dishonour and presented suicide as a honourable option certainly played their part, I would suspect that these had a lot more to do with rationalising a decision after it had been made. But I would certainly not dismiss the bushido code and the samurai tradition as motivating factors for individuals and for producing a culture of self sacrifice at a time when all appeared lost. By selectively emphasising a powerful legend from Japanese history – the original divine wind that had deflected the Mongol invasion during the 13th century – it was possible to produce a seductive narrative in which the mythology of the past was used to rationalise the actions of the present. In cloaking their actions with the trappings of historical legend, the Japanese leadership (who had led their country to absolute disaster) sought to maintain their grip on power in a society now stretched to breaking point. Another aspect is to do with how the Emperor was regarded at this time; he was not only a royal person and head of state in the Western mode, he was also at the apex of the Shinto religion. Whereas some sources state that he was regarded as a living God, in reality the closest comparison is to the European idea of the Divine Right of Kings. This theory appeared in Medieval Europe in order to give legitimacy to the dynasties of monarchs who had (usually) grabbed power in rather a grubby fashion. Obviously, I’m simplifying things; Japan in World War 2 was not the same as medieval Europe. However, in a strictly defined hierarchical society such as Japan this gave the edicts and commands issued in the Emperor’s name an importance that went far beyond the orders of a mere politician. This sense of absolute loyalty to the Emperor created a wartime culture whereby anything other than complete sacrifice in his name was presented as shameful. Surrender was a disgrace. Also, for much of the 1930s Japan was at war and militarism pervaded social and media discourse throughout. This meant that for those who came of age in the mid-1940s, who made up the bulk of the kamikaze, their formative years would have been dominated by a culture in which death and glory was presented as an inescapable and inevitable duty, one not to be shirked by a true and loyal member of Japanese society.


By the last years of the war, Japan had effectively boxed itself into a corner. The frenzy of militarism that had stoked the public mood for conquest turned into a double edged sword; it had worked well in mobilising and motivating Japanese society and had contributed to the spectacular victories of the 1930s and early 1940s. But once the war turned against Japan it meant that they were trapped by their own extreme rhetoric and couldn’t back-peddle. In the heightened emotional state of a country at war, surrender was presented as beneath contempt. Similarly, once you wind up the war machine then it is very difficult for anybody to call a halt, particularly if a lot of blood has been spilled on your side. While the momentum of total war kept most people passive, busy and silent, it would probably be a mistake to think that everybody was a blind follower. In a rigidly conformist society such as Japan at war, peer pressure would have ensured that dissenting viewpoints could not be expressed in public (any doubts would be confined to the private realm or to a few trusted confidants at most). This would have created a self-reinforcing cycle where the inability to publicly express doubt or dissent meant that the rhetoric of victory or death grew and grew until it appeared that there were no other options available.

While the images of aeroplanes crashing into ships are the best known (probably because they were the most visually dramatic aspect of this tactic caught on camera), the kamikaze phenomena permeated all forms of warfare, from the soldier on the ground to the largest battleship in the world being sent on a suicide mission. There was a sort of twisted logic to all this; once the sheer scale of the Allied offensive in the Pacific reversed the gains made in the early part of the war, the military commanders looked for ways to redress the balance. Kamikaze tactics were designed to both shock and disorientate those on the receiving end of them and, more importantly, to send the message to the Western powers that Japan would fight to the last. But this message was not only intended for the enemy; it was also used to keep a grip on the Japanese population at home. As part of the domestic propaganda campaign for their own people, those who committed suicide in this way were termed gyokusai or “shattered jewels” and the process of diving a plane into a ship was termed “a cherry blossom falling”, linking it directly to one of the iconic signifiers of Japanese culture.  When combined with a propaganda campaign that valorised such Special Attacks (i.e. kamikaze), the entire process operated to normalise suicide in wartime. As a good citizen it was now your duty. Furthermore, if everybody is expected to die for Japan, then there is no room for dissent – you were a disloyal coward who had betrayed your fellow countrymen and women who had all (outwardly) accepted the idea of suicide rather than surrender. The Japanese leadership knew the writing was on the wall (even if they could not say so publicly) but by throwing wave after wave of suicide attacks at the enemy they hoped to break the Allied resolve. In a desperate attempt to delay the inevitable the Japanese leadership hoped that they could somehow wear the Allies down and cut a deal in which they could preserve their positions. Or, if Japan hung on long enough it was hoped that the Allies might start fighting amongst themselves and create an opportunity to might provide a route out of the quagmire. The net effect of these delaying tactics was counted in countless lost lives on all sides.


This brings us to the book; published by Sokyu-Sha in 2013, Kaiiki (translated as “sea area” or territorial “waters”) is an exploration of the base where sailors were trained to attack enemy ships with manned torpedoes called kaiten. As can be imagined, if you were sitting on top of a torpedo and steering it towards an enemy ship the chances of survival were nil. Due to Japan’s island status, any invasion would have had to come by sea and so a lot of desperate energy was devoted to disrupting the Allied juggernaut as it moved across the Pacific. As such, the kaiten programme was part of the Special Attack forces and the waters around the island were used for training purposes before combat. After training was completed, the kaiten and their pilots would have been loaded on to larger submarines for operations in the Pacific Ocean against Allied ships. As more than ten percent of the total morality rate for kaiten pilots occurred during training accidents, surviving this stage appears to have been an ordeal in itself. Presumably, the rationale behind manned torpedoes was that it would improve accuracy; if this was the case it failed miserably. For all the expenditure of Japanese blood and treasure on this programme the results were negligible; only two American ships were ever damaged by kaiten attacks.


According to the photographer, Uemoto’s first encounter with Otsushima island (the training base for the kaiten) occurred many decades previously while he was in his twenties, around the same age as those who piloted these torpedoes. But it took him that length of time to process the significance of this space which has since been turned into a museum. Like other photographic representations in the malevolent landscape genre, representing events that occurred in the past is a difficult task to carry out successfully. Normally, a photographer can focus on features within the landscape, often commonplace, which then become powerful to the viewer once they become aware of the horrific context. Obviously, this is impossible when confronted by an expanse of open water that has no such features. Instead, Uemoto attempts to produce a psychological portrait of his personal response to this place in an attempt to come to terms with what those who trained here may have felt. For anybody who grew up in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, a period which saw massive social change in Japan, reconciling the recent past with the present is a challenge to say the least.


Uemoto shows us the Seto Inland Sea, the semi-enclosed body of water between the main Japanese islands of Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshū, the home waters to which the title refers. The book begins with a series of apparently straightforward images; cherry blossoms on a path and floating in the water on the island evoke the idea of Japan as a sacred space. Calm, placid images show us the sea, first with trees from the island in the foreground, small boats and the mist-shrouded features of other islands on the horizon. The mood quickly darkens as the sea and sky merge into an ominous dark grey with occasional beams of light coming through the clouds. Uemoto uses the cloud and fog as a metaphor for the mood of psychological confusion and uncertainty he is trying to convey with his work. In this context, the Inland Sea now occupies an ambiguous position; it is both a sacred place, because it was an integral part of the Japanese homeland, and also a source of constant danger to those who practiced there for their suicide missions. The ships in Uemoto’s photographs grow larger and more defined; ordinary container and cargo vessels on the horizon within these eerie seascapes start to resemble the targets the kaiten were launched at. We see some of the training complex next; endless underground tunnels stretching outwards and an abstracted image of a circular object (the front of a kaiten torpedo) are the few remaining traces of what this place once was. The concrete piers stretching out into the sea show us the link between the land and sea or, in this case, between life and death beneath the dark waters. Immediately afterwards the seascapes become much darker as Uemoto attempts to convey the immensity of what people were expected to do on this island at this time. The competing ideas and ideals of glory, patriotism and sacrifice are locked in conflict with the competing urge to survive and the will to live; this, I believe, is at the root of what Uemoto is attempting to convey with his work. The grey shrouded seascapes darken as night falls and beams of light weakly flicker through the fog and cloud in places, illuminating the placid sea as it descends into darkness. The denouement of the narrative appears in some very powerful nocturnal images of the sea now transformed into blurred and indistinct abstractions where all the boundaries collapse. Relief is found on the next page in a pair of images; small pieces of debris float on the water and clouds float above us, signifying release from this psychological drama.


Sucked deeper into a web of illusions shaped by dreams of martial glory, nationalistic hubris and imperial conquest, large numbers of people in Japan found themselves presented with no other option but to sacrifice their lives in a futile attempt to win a war that was already lost. Like any form of psychological manipulation, convincing people that they have no way out makes them much easier to control. This book also demonstrates the impossibility of recapturing the attitudes and memories of the past. History is always viewed through the prism of the present. Our experiences and our attitudes colour our perception of the stories we tell about the past. Attitudes, ideologies and states of mind that appear utterly alien today were interpreted as being perfectly rational and normal for those immersed in a society dominated by leaders who demanded that large numbers of their own people die on their behalf. Dark and designed to unsettle, this book is a complex meditation on the consequences of actions taken more than seventy years ago that still echo to this day.

Justice at Nuernberg – Charles Alexander and Norimberk 1946 – Karel Hájek

Justice at Nuernburg - Norimberk 1946

Years of brutal war in Europe had left the continent in ruins, millions dead and the survivors traumatised on a scale impossible to comprehend from this point in time. An uneasy consensus prevailed between the Allied powers who now occupied the broken continent between them. Advances in weapons technology had blurred the boundaries between military and civilian targets (as in the case of aerial bombing), while the brutal racism of the Nazi regime meant that it had engaged in widespread brutality and executions to terrorise the populations of countries they occupied. Then there were the concentration camps set up for slave labour and genocide. While many at the top of the Nazi hierarchy had either been killed or committed suicide, others from the higher echelons of the ruling regime, directly implicated in these brutal practices, had been captured alive. This posed a dilemma for the Allies – what was to be done with them?

Alexander - Justice at Nuernberg 1

Justice for the millions killed was called for. But for countries that had fought under the banner of freedom from Nazi tyranny how this could be achieved was a major problem. This was complicated by the fact that the Nazis had been adept at using show trials during their ascent to power to discredit their opponents. Similarly, Stalin (whose representatives now sat in judgement on the Allied side) had used sham trials for the same purpose during the 1930s. The question was how to ensure that any trial of the captured Nazis avoided being seen as such and prevented the creation of martyrs for the future. It was imperative that the trials were seen as both legitimate and impartial. The Nuremburg trials of 1946 also served as a platform to completely discredit the hideous Nazi ideology and war aims that had seen millions killed and a continent reduced to smouldering rubble. The outcome of the trials was predictable enough – many of the defendants were found guilty and executed, while others were given long terms of imprisonment. But by this time, the Allied consensus was already falling apart and the Iron Curtain was being drawn across Europe. Further trials for middle-management Nazis who had also been implicated in crimes were shelved as both sides chose to employ their expertise rather than hang them.

Alexander - Justice at Nuernberg 2
This then was the background to the two photobooks under discussion. The first is Justice at Nuernberg by Charles Alexander, an American photographer (listed as being director of photography during the trial) with text by Anne Keeshan. This spiral bound paperback published by Marvel in 1946 is a very comprehensive documentary record of the whole International Military Tribunal process, employing a straightforward layout of photograph on the right hand page with an extended caption on the facing page. The book begins with an overview of the ruined city of Nuremburg and the Palace of Justice that hosted the trials (in the American sector of occupied Germany), the facilities for the news media, portraits of the Nazi leaders on trial, the vast behind the scenes complex of translators, archivists and typists, portraits of the prosecutors and judges, as well as the trial process itself. The final section of the book shows the Nazi leaders in the dock looking horrified as they are confronted with evidence of their crimes in the movie created by the prosecution from German newsreel and other archival footage, The Nazi Plan.

Alexander - Justice at Nuernberg 3
The book’s narrative and photographic sequencing is quite slow. Much of the imagery focuses on a behind-the-scenes look at the trial infrastructure, with photographs of the press facilities, the library, Heinrich Hoffmann (Hitler’s personal photographer) going through his archive to find evidence for use in the trial, depositions being taken and other such imagery. The individual portraits of the Nazi defendants appear to have been made while they were in the courtroom. These portray them in awkward poses in which their facial expressions range from sneering contempt, anger and malevolence. These images are in stark contrast to how the judges and the rest of the staff are portrayed. The final section of the book attempts to convey a sense of drama as the trial gathers pace and the evidence is presented to the Nazi defendants. Alexander does this by interspersing four archival images of Nazi crimes (from the Nazi Plan) with images of the defendants sitting in the dock. However, it doesn’t convey the drama he is seeking to produce; it’s too static. Although the trial is supposedly the focus of this book, a relatively small amount of space is devoted to it. Instead, the organisational and logistical preparations consume much of the book and distracts from the magnitude of the trial itself. Similarly, the book finishes rather abruptly. The final image shows yet another photograph of the defendants in the dock, with Goering holding his hands over his eyes, captioned as showing the differing emotions experienced by the Nazi’s as their crimes are finally exposed to the world. But then the book just stops.

Alexander - Justice at Nuernberg 4
Robert Jackson, the chief American prosecutor, contributes a forward to the book in which he states that “the accusers were four victorious nations which had it in their power to execute the defendants without trial but which considered it more in keeping with the principles for which they fought to give the defendants the benefit of hearings and to establish before the world their guilt.” Here, I think, is the main purpose of the book. Jackson, a former U.S. Attorney General and Supreme Court Judge, was well aware that these trials had to be seen as fair and conforming to the broad principles of justice expected from an American audience. Any sign that this was a kangaroo court had to be quashed. Similarly, in the context of a rapidly emerging Cold War split in which America presented itself as a bastion of liberty and freedom, the book presents the decision to hold these trials as proof of U.S. moral rectitude in contrast to the behaviour of their barbaric Nazi enemies. In this context, the focus of this book on the preparations and infrastructure surrounding the trials makes sense. Here, a distant American audience is presented with a courtroom setting in which right prevails over wrong and justice has been served.

Alexander - Justice at Nuernberg 5

The second book on the same subject by the Czech photographer Karel Hájek, Norimberk 1946 – Zlocin a Soud (Nuremberg 1946 – Crime and Court), a small paperback printed by Neubert in Prague, is another photographic representation of the same event. However, this book takes a wholly different approach towards documenting the trial. In part, I believe this can be traced to the fact that Alexander was producing a book for an audience who, while they had fought the Germans, had no direct experience of Nazi rule. This was not the case for the Czechs who had suffered many years of brutal Nazi occupation. The establishment of precedents for future international war crimes trials was not a concern for a small country left traumatised and shattered by war. For a Czech audience, this was no abstract exercise in the administration of justice.

Hájek - Norimberk 1
Hájek gets straight to the point; his focus is on the evidence against the accused. He skilfully combines archival images of the same Nazi leaders at their height of their power, smartly dressed in uniforms and gold braid surrounded by saluting crowds or shown consulting with Hitler, with photographs of the same individuals in court. Now they have been reduced to the status of prisoners desperately trying to justify their complicity in unspeakable crimes. In one telling double page spread, Hájeck juxtaposes an archival image showing two lines of seated Nazi officials in 1938 with a photograph made from a similar viewpoint showing two rows of the same individuals now on trial in the same city. The portraits from the trial have been carefully chosen to present the accused Nazis as figures of derision, now stripped of the trappings of power they once wielded (undoubtedly a very satisfying sight to those who had suffered through Nazi rule). Like Alexander, the portraits Hájek made during the trial emphasise the obvious discomfort and haunted demeanour of the accused, presented as evidence of their guilt as they confronted by the enormity of their crimes. But it is his integration of archival images of atrocity with these portraits that is so effective. The need to establish a causal link between those at the top and the atrocities perpetrated by Nazi functionaries was vital. In essence, the Nazi leadership argued that because they were in their Berlin offices they could not be held responsible for what their subordinates did in Auschwitz or other sites of horror. Hájek’s book is very effective in undermining this argument and establishing a direct causal link between those on trial and the crimes perpetrated during their rule.

Hájek - Norimberk 2

Establishing this link between the decisions made by those in charge which were implemented by their subordinates was vital in order to discredit the “just following orders” defence which is a seminal feature of the bureaucratisation and division of labour inherent within all forms of industrialised warfare and mass killing to this day. An atrocity can be regarded as the result of a chain of decisions made by various individuals within a hierarchy (largely defined by institutional and political prerogatives) who all bear responsibility for the commission of a horrendous crime. Alexander’s book fails to do this. Instead, his focus is upon the structures and procedures of the trial itself which produces a simplified message in which justice is seen to prevail. He fails to interrogate the “banality of evil” as Arendt called it. In contrast, Hájek firmly and unequivocally undermines the excuse of distance used by the Nazi leaders on trial. Coming from a small country that had experienced the direct effects of Nazi rule for many years, Hájek produces a sophisticated and nuanced narrative of the trial in which he explores issues of culpability, guilt and responsibility in the aftermath of a period of untold suffering and death.

Hájek - Norimberk 3


Dresden, eine Kamera klagt an (Dresden, a camera accuses) – Richard Peter

On the night of the 13 February 1945, the German city of Dresden was attacked by over 800 bombers from the Royal Air Force, followed by another 500 American planes over the next two days, which dropped a total of 3,900 tonnes of bombs and incendiary explosives on the city. The result of this unrelenting aerial bombardment upon a relatively small urban area was to produce a massive firestorm which, as well as engulfing buildings and their occupants, was so large that it even sucked up all the oxygen, causing those who survived the initial bombing to suffocate to death in the cellars and air raid shelters where they had taken cover.  Estimates of those killed in the bombing vary from 25,000 to 200,000 but it is in no doubt that large numbers of people met an agonising death in this city which had little or no real military value and was full of refugees fleeing the Russian advance.

With the advancement of aviation in the 1930s it became readily apparent that any new war would bring about unprecedented aerial attacks on cities and civilian populations. In a total war defined by unprecedented advances in technology there was no longer any safe place. What the effects of this bombing would be, nobody knew.  Many predicted that those who survived such attacks would either go insane or else be so horrified that they would rise up against their government and immediately sue for peace with the enemy. What the Second World War showed was that, for the most part, the immediate effect of bombing on survivors did not have as dramatic an effect as predicted and in some ways even helped to unite diverse strands of opinion against a common enemy.

For much of the war, Britain was left isolated from the rest of Europe occupied by the Nazis and the main way to damage the German war machine was to bomb their cities and industry. To do this they invested heavily in building up a massive fleet of long range bombing aircraft which night after night rained British bombs down upon the Reich. Following the American entry into the war, the US began bombing in daylight, giving no respite to either occupied Europe or Nazi Germany. (The Germans were no stranger to the use of carpet-bombing and used it heavily during the early part of the war, most notably over Warsaw and London, but they tended to use it as a precursor to an immediate land invasion.) Based upon the ideas of the 1930s bombing raids were designed to have two purposes; to physically destroy the military capabilities, industry and infrastructure of the enemy and also to produce so much terror within the German populace that it would lose the will to continue the fight. The fact that the war raged on right up to the doorstep of Hitler’s Berlin bunker proves that this particular premise was wrong.

Returning to Dresden, the morality of these attacks has been a subject of much controversy and debate ever since. The fact that the Nazi state was a horrendously vicious regime that murdered vast numbers of people without compunction should not excuse the actions of the Allies. As the philosopher A.C. Grayling has argued, the Allies presented themselves as being engaged in a ‘just war’ in which their actions were contrasted to the amorality of the Nazis.  In order to fit into this scheme of a ‘just war’ the bombing of Dresden has to satisfy two criteria; it had to be both proportionate and necessary. On both counts, it fails. The attack was clearly completely disproportionate in nature and, at this late stage in the war, it was unnecessary.  The fact that the Nazis were morally bankrupt and evil should not excuse what was a war crime perpetrated by the Allies.

One possible explanation given is that, with the war drawing to an end, the Americans and British wanted to show the Soviets, who would soon occupy the city, the destructive power of their air-power and let them know in no uncertain terms that while it might be Dresden today, it could be  Moscow tomorrow. Another possible explanation is that there were internal institutional pressures for the air forces of Britain and America to justify the vast resources and expenses invested in them and results were expected to be delivered.  With the war drawing to a close by 1945 the numbers of targets left available to bomb in Germany by these vast aerial armadas was dwindling.  I personally think there may have been, in part, a desire by the Allies to see the effectiveness of a massive concentrated attack on a city in order to refine future developments in bombing capabilities. Whatever the true reason, it is in no doubt that the attack on Dresden did little to hasten the German surrender.

Richard Peter, a former press photographer who had fallen foul of the Nazis for his left-wing work with the AIZ, began to document the aftermath of war when he returned from military service in September 1945. He spent the next four years photographing the shattered remains of this once magnificent city which was published as a book in 1949. Undoubtedly his pre-war pedigree and connections would have served him well in getting the book published under the new communist administration of the Soviet occupied zone during a time of severe shortages.  The book at first glance appears to present a straightforward documentation of the ruined city and the rebuilding work taking place there. But there are other layers to this work that are informed by the context in which it was made; primarily the tension in representing German people as both perpetrators and victims of this war. Even the title of the book poses a question. To accuse implies that you believe somebody to be guilty. But exactly to whom or what is the camera assigning guilt to? Britain? Hitler? The German people? Fascism? The brutality of war? Mans inhumanity to man??

It is possible to divide the narrative structure of the book into three acts; the fall of the city, the wages of sin and, finally, redemption. The first section of the book depicts the centre of the ruined city, with architectural images of buildings before and after the bombing raids, now reduced to smouldering heaps of brick and stone. It is here that we see the iconic photograph of the stone angel atop the city hall, arm outstretched in mute horror, as it gazes out over a sea of utter desolation. This is one of the few images in the book that gives a sense of the sheer scale of destruction; most other images concentrate on individual buildings or street scenes. People are completely absent from these blasted cityscapes. Peter presents a catalogue of deserted, people-less rubble punctuated by the remains of some architectural feature that has managed to survive the cataclysm. He surveys the aspects of the city; the town hall, the commercial area, industry, the medieval old town and the churches. All have been shattered and reduced to ruins. Here Peter presents us with the remnants of German culture and civilisation, twisted by the Nazis as an instrument of world domination, and now crushed into dust.

About halfway through the book we are presented with a double-page spread which is clearly designed to shock; two full page photographs of bodies unearthed from the cellars in which they had been entombed. The left hand page shows the body of long haired woman, facial features still partly discernable, head downcast in agony, while facing her is a corpse that still wears a swastika armband, whose grinning skull directly confronts the viewer.  In another iconic image, Peter shows an anatomical skeleton with a building torn in half in the background. The message is stark; the war didn’t discriminate between the innocent and the guilty. All were mercilessly cut down by the aerial onslaught.

The final section of the book deals with the post-war activity of rebuilding this shattered city. We see people returning home with activity to clear the damage and bring order to the chaos.  As this book was published in 1949 under the auspices of what was to become the East German state, this last section produces an abrupt change of tone in the narrative, allowing the book to end on a positive note.  Here we are presented with people coming together collectively to rebuild their city, lives and self-respect.  The images move swiftly along and after a couple of pages of people sifting through the rubble, Peter presents us with images of newly built apartment blocks, factories and the contented audience of a newly restored concert hall, signalling that German culture had not been destroyed.  Germany had lost its way under Hitler but the communists would restore it.

In the second half of the 1940s an ideological battle between capitalism and communism for the hearts, minds and territory of the ruined German state was being waged between the winners of the war and it is no coincidence that the destruction wrought by capitalist Britain and America is being rebuilt by the communists. It is into this vacuum of uncertainty the communists offer a lifeline to the German people; work with us and help to wipe the slate clean of past sins. This book is not just a straightforward depiction of the aftermath of a war crime, although it most certainly is. There are layers to this book that reflect the confused and contradictory state of a traumatised post-war German society struggling to come to terms with the magnitude of what was unleashed upon the world ostensibly in their name and how they should respond to it.

Further information about Richard Peter and his depiction of Dresden can be found here.