TOKYO — Japan's top surviving World War II fighter pilot has made peace with his former enemies. But as the country prepares to mark the 55th anniversary of its surrender, Saburo Sakai has yet to come to terms with some of his countrymen.
That's because the former navy flier, 84, is tired of hearing that the military alone was responsible for leading Japan into a devastating war that ended after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 55 years ago this week.
"We were ordered to go die for victory," he said at a news conference Thursday. "Instead, some of us came back alive and defeated, and that's when people began saying that we had started the war ourselves."
Sakai, who shot down 64 enemy aircraft from his Zero fighter plane, embodies the bitterness that some Japanese veterans feel toward what has become accepted history in this country.
Though a coterie of military leaders were convicted as war criminals, the man in whose name Sakai and his comrades fought — the late Emperor Hirohito — was officially exonerated. Other key political figures were later rehabilitated.
Sakai thinks that's a whitewash. He said that Japan will never be respected by the rest of world until it confronts its past head on.
"Who gave the orders for that stupid war?" he said. "The closer you get to the emperor, the fuzzier everything gets."
Still, he doesn't feel any bitterness toward his old enemies, even though he was wounded four times — blinding one eye — and saw his unit decimated during Japan's defense of Iwo Jima against American forces in 1944.
Sakai sent his daughter to a university in the United States "to learn English and democracy." She married an American, and he has two U.S.-born grandchildren.
Sakai, who has written extensively about his wartime experiences, insists he never believed in the kamikaze spirit of self-sacrifice that was drilled into Japanese pilots.
"Glorifying death was a mistake," he said. "Because I survived I was able to move on and make friends in the U.S. and other countries."