Remembering Saburo Sakai

On this day in 2000, Saburo Sakai died at the age of 84 after being honored at a U.S. Navy dinner. Very few Americans know the name Saburo Sakai – and very few Americans would think, after reading the first sentence of this article, that he was one of the most famous Japanese fighter pilots in World War Two, shooting down over 60 American planes. Yet here he was in 2000 being honored by the very troops he fought valiantly against, and lost to, years ago.

A young Sakai smiles from the cockpit of his Zero

Sakai grew up in a family with samurai heritage, but because Japan had abolished the han system, his family had to work as poor subsistence farmers. He enlisted in the Japanese Navy when he was 16 and proceeded to work his way through difficult training to the rank of Petty Officer Second Class. Sakai flew the famous Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane and rapidly showed precocious talent as a young pilot in the Pacific.

Over nearly 200 missions, Sakai shot down famed pilots Colin Kelly and James Sutherland and revolutionized fighter pilot tactics and strategy. But he was also known for a rebellious streak, leading to these tales:

  • He disobeyed High Command orders to shoot down any enemy planes, regardless of civilian or military designation, when he encountered a civilian plane evacuating wounded soldiers and children and refused to shoot.  Instead he signaled the pilot to go ahead, and they exchanged salutes.
  • He took heavy fire and was shot in the head, resulting in the loss of vision in his right eye and paralysis in the left side of his body, during a failed ambush.  Despite blacking out, flying upside down at times, and being in a state of near-death, he managed to pilot his plane nearly 5 hours back to the landing site, where he underwent surgery without anesthesia.  He was ambushed after charging blindly into the fight in his usual reckless style.
  • After recovering, he returned to flying although his vision was compromised.  Due to this issue he wandered into a squadron of 15 enemy fighters, thinking they were friendly Zeros, and proceeded to run a high-altitude high-speed chase for twenty minutes before escaping unscathed.

His reckless style of flying developed out of his discontent with the organization of the Japanese military system.  Because he was an enlisted officer instead of an appointed officer, he was constantly subject to poor treatment, terrible conditions at the base, and a general lack of recognition.  He felt that the system, based solely on connections as opposed to merit, reflected the problems with World War Two era Japan and these feelings led to his actions after the war’s end.

Sakai, looking solemn, a more common expression as the war dragged on.

Sakai became a devout Buddhist upon the surrender of Japan and refused to kill a single living thing again.  He did not hold anything against his former enemies, and offered daily repentance and prayers for those he had killed.  Such compassion also appeared in his loud cries to the Japanese government to take responsibility for starting the war.  He also denounced the kamikaze program, calling it a waste of potential lives.  “I pray every day for the souls of my enemies as well as my comrades.  We all did our best for our respective countries…Glorifying death was a mistake; because I survived, I was able to move on – to make friends in the U.S. and other countries,” Sakai said shortly before he died.

I refuse to support or glorify war.  I refuse to take lives of other human beings and I refuse to resort to violence to resolve conflict.  Saburo Sakai did none of these things.  He chose to serve the Japanese military, and therefore, despite his later actions and his occasional disobedience under service, I cannot condone him fully.  But I do think his memory should be honored – as a model for change and understanding, for compassion and a relentless drive to do right.

Not only did he exemplify Japanese cultural norms concerning obedience, effort, and gambari – he also stood for many core American values – individuality, worldliness, an unwillingness to quit on himself or others.  The very fact that this man, somebody who fought heroically and violently for a cause, was so able to open himself to the mind of the other – the enemy, at one point – and call strongly for mutual understanding and compassion, this very fact elevates Saburo Sakai higher than he ever flew.