The Divine Sky Warriors

In January 1942 Japan deployed paratroopers in battle for the first time during the Battle of Manado. Horiuchi Toyoaki, a flamboyant, bearded officer nicknamed “The Octopus” for his love of and promotion of gymnastics in the Navy, led a strike force of 507 parachutists, dropping behind enemy lines to seize the Dutch forces’ airfield and seaplane base. In a tactic that would have surely attracted more notice had it not been overshadowed by the parachute achievement, a sea-plane on an inland lake, allowing an anti-tank unit to penetrate deep into enemy territory.

The idea of soldiers bodily hurling themselves out of a flying machine into the middle of enemy territory had an electric effect on the Japanese public. The Yomiuri Shinbun dubbed them the “Divine Sky Warriors” (Sora no Shinpei), prompting a journalist at the rival Mainichi Shinbun to write a poem about the romance of their achievement. Before long, “Divine Sky Warriors” had been set to music, broadcast on the radio and released as a gramophone record, becoming a nationwide hit.

In the great sky, bluer than blue

It is as if, suddenly a hundred thousand white roses bloom

Behold! Parachutes descend from the sky.

Behold! Parachutes conquering the sky.

The parachute is the most glorious flower in the world.

On its purest white, our soldiers regret not the spilling of red blood.

The divine soldiers, so young that they still look like children, are repeatedly likened to blossoms fluttering in the sky, descending from the heavens, to magically reclaim territory held in enemy hands.

In something of a low blow, the Army fought back by rushing out a propaganda movie, Divine Sky Warriors (1942, Sora no Shinpei) a documentary about the training of an Army paratrooper unit that not only presented close-up imagery of technology and procedures that the Navy still proclaimed to be classified, but blatantly used “Divine Sky Warriors” as its theme tune, as if to imply that the achievement on Manado had been an Army operation. The Ministry of Education, keen to distract the population from increasing Japanese losses in the war at sea, gave the film a cultural award, and decreed that it should be compulsorily screened in every cinema in the country.

In response to the insult, the Navy retaliated with cartoons – Momotarō’s Sea Eagles (1943, Momotarō no Umiwashi), celebrating the contribution of Navy pilots to the victory at Pearl Harbor, and Japan’s first ever feature-length animation, Momotarō’s Divine Sea Warriors (1945, Momotarō, Umi no Shinpei), a.k.a. Momotarō, Sacred Sailors.

An extract from Japan at War in the Pacific: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire in Asia (1868-1945) by Jonathan Clements.

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