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history.howstuffworks.com claims kamikaze pilots were not overly effective. Wikipedia states that there was no noticeable increase in number of ships lost even as kamikaze pilots became more common, and in total it seems they only sunk somewhere between 34 and 57 ships. So it sounds, to my unprofessional ears, like they weren't devastatingly effective.

However, I've also read that they were often poorly trained pilots flying outdated aircraft. That means they likely wouldn't have been all that effective if those pilots instead stuck to traditional fighter or bomber roles. Thus I'm wondering, given the resources spent on arming and training kamikaze pilots did those pilots prove cost effective, as opposed to training traditional pilots? If so by what margin?

edit:

Since you're asking for sources here is the first reliable source I found in 3 minutes of googling which claimed pilots were not overly effective. Wikipedia also claims that 14 percent of Kamikazes survived to score a hit on a ship; and less then 8.5% of ships hit by kamikazes sunk, which if true would mean at best they had only a 1.19% success rate at sinking ships; and that's only if you assume that every pilot hit a different ship every ship that sunk sank entirely do the kamikazes, so the actual success rate is presumably much lower.

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    Relying on the number of ships sunk to determine if it was an effective strategy I think is wrong. For example in Pearl Harbor only 5 ship were effectively sunk by a wave of 353 planes, making a ship sunk to plane ratio of 1.4% slightly superior than that of the kamikaze attack. Instead roughly 3400 men were killed. Kamikaze killed nearly 5000 men in the Battle of Okinawa alone. – Viralk Apr 22 at 16:12
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    @Viralk killing 5000 men at the cost of 1500 of your own, on 1500 planes isn't very cost-effective, no. And it wasn't sustainable (sorry, pardon that so-overused word) in the long term as Japan lacked the industrial capacity to build many places. It might have worked in different circumstances, but in this particular instance, it didn't. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Apr 22 at 21:10
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    Sinking a ship isn't the only measure of success. I would imagine that most ships that were hit had to go back to port for repairs. Think of the cost of all those repairs, training replacements for any casualties, providing escorts while they limp back to port. All that sounds a lot more expensive than a single hand-me-down plane and a zealous but poorly trained pilot. – Ryan_L Apr 23 at 0:28
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Yes you are right, surely isn't cost effective, but IMO, crashing yourself against an enemy ship can be a powerful psychological move. For the japanese was essential to make the enemy lose the will to fight and prevent the Invasion of the mainland. The war was already over, but the terms of peace were not yet written, so like a poker game they had to "bluff" and give a sense of "sacrifice but never surrender". – Viralk Apr 23 at 7:34
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    Not just outdated aircraft, but in many cases, dirt-cheap, quickly manufactured, and borderline unflyable aircraft. Since they were (especially towards the end of the war) purpose-built to be crashed, they often met only the bare minimum requirements of an aircraft. – Darrel Hoffman Apr 23 at 14:08
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No.

The general argument goes something like this:

  • Japan was running out of trained pilots
  • Japan couldn't spare the fuel to properly train more pilots
  • But they had plenty of planes.
  • Thus untrained kamikaze pilots are more effective than untrained conventional pilots, and they used less fuel.

It can be argued that it was the most effective tactic for the situation they found themselves in, and I'll leave that argument to Military History Visualized: Kamikaze Tactics - Insane or Rational?. Because it was a more effective tactic didn't make it an effective tactic, as we'll see below. And it doesn't make it an effective strategy, meaning a plan to achieve their goals.

What was Japan's goal? The general argument goes something like this:

  • Japan couldn't/wouldn't surrender because the US demanded Unconditional Surrender and the Japanese wouldn't risk it.
  • Therefore Japan had no choice but to...
    • Defend the home islands to the last and/or
    • Make the invasion so costly the US will negotiate.

I'm not aware of the US demanding unconditional surrender until the Potsdam Declaration in July 1945, Japan knew the war was lost a year before that. And how are they supposed to use kamikaze to force negotiations if the US won't negotiate?

However, Japan was trying to negotiate an end to the war... in a piecemeal and lackluster fashion. They were also preparing a desperate defense against invasion... while throwing away battleship Yamato to save face and continuing to fight on the mainland (note: I don't have much information about what their thinking was for their mainland army).

If that doesn't strike you has a coherent strategy, it wasn't. Japanese high command could not come to a consensus about how to end the war right up to the end. Were kamikaze pilots [part of] an effective strategy for Japan? Which strategy? Japan was fighting to the last, fighting to negotiate, fighting in China, and willing to accept unconditional surrender all at the same time.

Whichever way you slice it, the kamikaze strategy was supposed to make invasion so costly the US would blink first. From day one Japan made many bad bets on US resolve and always lost. In the end Japan blinked first under the weight of an entirely predictable worsening situation.

Kamikaze strategy only works if you have the resolve to see it through.


Effective Tactic?

While they were probably doing more damage than they could with conventional attacks, they weren't doing significant damage to an increasingly overwhelming Allied fleet. With conventional attacks the Japanese sank roughly 2 battleships, 4 fleet carriers, 1 light carrier, 3 escort carriers, and 7 heavy cruisers without even getting into the lighter ships. In comparison, kamikazes sank 3 escort carriers, 14 destroyers, and a few dozen transports and auxiliaries. Additional heavy vessels were damaged, but the US was very good at repairing ships and their experienced crews would fight on.

The impact of kamikazes gets worse once you look at them in context. After Hornet was lost at Santa Cruz in Oct 1942, the damaged USS Enterprise was the only operational US fleet carrier. The naval battles of Guadalcanal were chewing up US cruisers and battleships such that they were running out. Each US vessel damaged or lost during this period could have a large impact on the war.

Fast forward to the Battle of Okinawa, April 1945, and the Allies arrive with...

  • 17 fleet carriers
  • 6 light carriers
  • 22 escort carriers
  • 20 battleships
  • 14 heavy cruisers
  • 20 light cruisers

Much is made of USS Bunker Hill, but damaging even several fleet carriers is not going to stop this fleet. Their crew will survive. Their air groups will survive and can be reassigned. The ships will be repaired and return for the 1946 invasion. A dozen more were being built or working up.

Tactically it was ineffective. Strategically it was hopeless. The Japanese were throwing away aircraft, fuel, and pilots they could have been husbanding for the invasion of the home islands and not even gaining a local tactical advantage for it. It only made the situation worse.


"Resorting to an extraordinary measure"

Conventional vs kamikaze presents a false dichotomy between very hopeless and hopeless. There was one sane option on the table: surrender effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure as the Emperor put it.

Japan made a number of bad bets about attacking the United States. All of Prime Minister Tojo's offensives in 1944 failed and he was forced to resign. Prior to the Potsdam Declaration of July 1945 Japan could have negotiated while they had something to negotiate with. Starting in spring 1945 the Japanese began pressing the "neutral" Soviets to mediate peace talks with the US. The Soviets strung the Japanese along while they planned to invade Manchuria. At best the Japanese could hope the Soviets waited until their neutrality treaty expired in April 1946. They didn't.

After Potsdam the Japanese could have simply accepted the terms, or just tried to negotiate anyway. They did both. Right up until the Emperor made his decision the Supreme War Council was split between accepting unconditional surrender and trying to hold out for some guarantees and concessions.

Kamikaze tactics were not going to win the war; they were never going to get better at it, and the Allies were only going to get better at defending against it. While Japan had large reserves of aircraft, they did not have the industry to replace them. Their kamikaze attacks would only get weaker using fewer and increasingly obsolescent aircraft and pilots with less and less training. The Allied fleet was only going to get stronger with more and increasingly superior aircraft and training.

Even if kamikaze convinced the Allies that invasion was too costly, the Japanese knew the Allies were not going to fight their way across the Pacific and then just walk away. The best outcome they could hope for was blockade, bombardment, bombings, starvation, revolt, and Soviet invasion.

The issue of Japanese surrender is a very large topic: the fear of unconditional surrender, the sanctity of the Emperor, military leadership sacrificing their people to stay in power... I have my own answer. I just want to remind everyone that when discussing last-ditch WW2 tactics, even if they didn't like the terms, surrender was always an option. And that's the option Japan took after a year of bloodletting.


Why no trained pilots?

Kamikaze tactics were the result of multiple failed strategies. Why did Japan have a shortage of trained pilots? Why did they have a shortage of fuel? These problems could have been solved, or mitigated, well before the situation became desperate. Even before the war started.

Japanese aviation was set up for a short, sharp war. They had their existing squadrons of highly trained pilots, but limited means of replacing and replenishing them. Unlike the US, they did not set up a continuous training regimen to make good their losses. While in the early war they might have outfought the Americans, every lost pilot was irreplaceable. Japanese aviation got weaker and less experienced while the US got stronger and more experienced.

The Japanese started the war with a superior but "unbalanced" aircraft, the A6M Zero. It required an experienced pilot to exploit its strengths and protect its weak points. Increasingly experienced US pilots learned to overcome their aircraft's disadvantages and exploit the Zero's weaknesses with tactics such as the Thach Weave. Superior Allied aircraft arrived, such as the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair. The Japanese continued to fly the Zero with less and less experienced pilots culminating in the Battle of the Philippine Sea aka the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot losing 600 aircraft and their irreplaceable pilots.

It didn't have to go this way. The Japanese had been at war for years prior to attacking the US. They had ample time to establish a proper pilot training and air group rotation system to make up for wartime loses.

Increasing loses of existing airframes due to loss of experienced pilots diverted resources away from developing superior aircraft such as the N1K and Ki-84 delaying their introduction until it was too late; there wasn't the fuel to use them, nor the experienced pilots to exploit them.


Why no fuel?

Why did the Japanese have a shortage of fuel? They succeeded in March 1942 conquering the oil fields of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). They had plenty of capacity in Japan to refine fuel. But they were losing it in transit to an increasingly effective American anti-shipping effort. Despite being an island nation and able to watch and learn from British experience in WW1 and WW2, their anti-submarine equipment and tactics were very poor. They never employed a convoy system. The situation became so desperate they resorted to using small cargo ships and tankers hugging coastlines in the hopes of avoiding Allied submarines and aircraft.

This entirely predictable situation could have been mitigated before WW2 even began. Prior to the war, the US oil embargo was a major threat. Capturing the Dutch East Indies was a vital strategic necessity. Even as the Japanese were planning to launch the Pacific War to get oil, they were watching Germany attempting to strangle Britain with submarines and commerce raiders as they had done before during WW1. To kick off a war to get oil without a plan to protect it while it gets to where its needed was negligent.


Conclusion.

In conclusion, kamikaze tactics only make sense when compared to conventional tactics in an already hopeless situation with surrender taken off the table. But surrender was always an option, negotiated or unconditional. That Japan found itself lacking experienced pilots and fuel was in part of its own strategic negligence. Kamikaze drew irreplaceable resources away from the final defense of Japan to inflict replaceable and inconsequential losses on a growing Allied fleet. The Allies repeatedly demonstrated they would not shrink away from taking casualties to end the war. Even if they decided not to invade, what then? The Japanese people suffer bombardment, starvation, and eventually revolt. In the end, it was the Japanese high command who did not see their own strategy through.

Kamikaze could not win the war, nor even win a battle. It could only get more people killed.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – T.E.D. Apr 24 at 20:25
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    One problem here: At that point the Japanese strategy was not aimed at "winning", but rather at avoiding total defeat. The objective was to make actually conquering them so bloody we would let them be. That's why they surrendered when we started destroying their cities from high altitude--they no longer had the ability to make it too bloody, their strategy went out the window. – Loren Pechtel Apr 25 at 23:32
  • @LorenPechtel This assumes there was a strategy. When I look at their high command from 1944 I see infighting between the peace and holdout factions. Let's suppose it was their strategy, was it effective? The war began assuming the US wouldn't fight; that didn't work, why would it work now? Japan hadn't stopped a single invasion, why would they now? Japan was already taking heavy air and sea bombardment, losing Okinawa made it worse. They had over 1 mil soldiers spread across China instead of defending the home islands. If the goal was to negotiate better terms, they hardly tried. – Schwern Apr 26 at 4:46
  • @LorenPechtel If you'd like to discuss this more, please join the chat. The inner goings on inside the Japanese high command are a big topic. – Schwern Apr 26 at 4:53
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As a strategy (i.e. something to win the war with)?:

No. Japan should have avoided direct war with the US, as a question of national survival. Kamikazes were not going to help in the long run. They were only a symptom of Japan's hopeless "strategy" of inflicting unpalatable losses on the US and forcing the US to accept a draw and ceasefire.

As a tactic? It depends on the scope of what you analyze

One thing to keep in mind was the context of their main deployment, during the Battle of Okinawa.

The Japanese had used kamikaze tactics since the Battle of Leyte Gulf, but for the first time, they became a major part of the defense. Between the American landing on 1 April and 25 May, seven major kamikaze attacks were attempted, involving more than 1,500 planes.

Rarely did the kamikaze pilots, at Okinawa, have the training or navigational skill to find the main body of the US fleet. Instead, time and again, they pounded the hapless radar picket destroyers which were very far away, at the north end of the US body.

Had they targeted and managed to impact onto US fleet carriers loaded with fueled and armed aircraft, the effectiveness would have been quite different. A lucky hit quickly makes up for all the misses, as USS Bunker Hill showed, with 600 casualties.

While covering the invasion of Okinawa, Bunker Hill was struck by two kamikazes in quick succession, setting the vessel on fire. Casualties exceeded 600, including 352 confirmed dead and an additional 41 missing, with 264 wounded.1 These were the second heaviest personnel losses suffered by any carrier to survive the war after Franklin. After the attack, Bunker Hill returned to the U.S. mainland and was still under repair when hostilities ended.

And a 1945 US fleet carrier was only partially better off than the IJN carriers caught out at Midway: damage control was better, yes, but the decks were still unarmored and aircraft fuel and ammo still had to be exposed for the ship to carry out its missions:

U.S. carriers, with their wooden flight decks, appeared to suffer more damage from kamikaze hits than the armored-decked carriers from the British Pacific Fleet. U.S. carriers also suffered considerably heavier casualties from kamikaze strikes; for instance, 389 men were killed in one attack on USS Bunker Hill, greater than the combined number of fatalities suffered on all six Royal Navy armoured carriers from all forms of attack during the entire war. Bunker Hill and Franklin were both hit while conducting operations with fully fueled and armed aircraft spotted on deck for takeoff, an extremely vulnerable state for any carrier. Eight kamikaze hits on five British carriers resulted in only 20 deaths while a combined total of 15 bomb hits, most of 500 kg (1,100 lb) weight or greater, and one torpedo hit on four carriers caused 193 fatal casualties earlier in the war – striking proof of the protective value of the armoured flight deck.

Training, aircraft and fuel-wise, a Kamikaze was a lot of potential bang for not much investment. At that point, Japanese pilots were very unskilled and there was not enough fuel for much operations or training. Something very similar happened in 1944 with the Germans - their pilots were all very junior and getting killed progressively faster as time went.

Besides, by this point, a major part of Japanese strategy was convincing the US that Japanese bravery and fanaticism made invading the home islands impossible. What better way to do so than Kamikaze? Note also that the invasion of Japan proper would have given the Kamikaze much better approach vectors to the US fleet, with the possibility of exiting deep valleys inland much closer to the US fleet than was possible at Okinawa.

Comparisons with earlier Japanese successes using conventional air attacks aren't all that useful: by late 1944 Japanese didn't have the same level of skilled pilots at all and their aircraft mostly weren't competitive with US fighters. The war was lost, and proceeding with 1942 tactics wasn't going to achieve anything either.

You can read more in Twilight Warriors.

Just to be clear: by no way was this going to be a war-winning tactic. The allied fleets were too powerful by that point and in any case Japan was also being starved and bombed into submission. And, as I have answered before, Japan didn't really start the war with a strategy to knock the US out. But were Kamikazes a rational use of the planes they did have, with the pilots they had, assuming they wanted to continue the war? Some of picket ships reported biplanes attacking them. What were those going to do using regular tactics? True, the same Kamikaze might have been more usefully deployed during the invasion of mainland Japan, rather than wasted on Okinawa.

The core point of this answer though is that Okinawa, which represents the bulk of the Kamikaze use, was spectacularly badly run, with the targets motivating this tactic, the carriers, largely not even attacked. I suspect a wider analysis of Kamikaze use could look different, but I am only familiar with Okinawa's specifics.

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    "Had they targeted and managed to impact onto US fleet carriers..." which presumes they could get through all the picket ships and layered defenses to reach the fleet carriers. – Schwern Apr 22 at 19:04
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    @Schwern what was very clear in Twilight is that, most of the time, the kamikazes would aim for the first ships they saw. The pickets were nowhere near the main fleet, so most of them never got the chance to try. Can't remember the numbers offhand, but they were very, very, high, maybe 80% of the planes didn't try to go past the pickets. Bunker Hill did get hit and with 1500 planes in 7 waves they'd probably have had some success in swamping past the core fleet's defenses, had they actually pushed forward and found the fleet. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Apr 22 at 19:14
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica The presumption here seems to be "X pickets were hit, therefore if they attacked the fleet carriers instead X carriers would have been hit". You can't 1-for-1 compare attacking a picket with attacking the most heavily defended ships at the heart of the fleet's defenses. The pickets existed to detect attacks. If they skipped the pickets, the poorly trained kamikaze pilots would have then had to weather the full brunt of the fleet's defenses. A fraction would make it through. If it took 1500 planes to damage one carrier, that's not very good. – Schwern Apr 22 at 19:25
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    @Schwern I understand what you are saying and don't disagree with your points. However, in the particular circumstances of Okinawa, we'll never know as - and I found this very surprising - most of them seem to have gotten fixated on the first ships they saw. The flip side to your points is also that 1) a carrier is a much bigger target than a destroyer and b) a fuelled+armed carrier can be a lot more fragile as well. I recall seeing that the USN was considerably less sanguine at the likely operational geography of a mainland invasion. BTW, the USN flew CAP over the pickets. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Apr 22 at 19:38
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica The kamikazes weren't "fixated", they were following orders. By that stage in the war they were almost all civilians, and their capability to keep a plane in the air, never mind actually engage/avoid enemy fighters, was so low that it literally made no sense to give them any other instruction than "find and hit the first enemy ship you see"; anything more specific would've increased losses drastically, thus reducing the kamikazes' already incredibly low effectiveness even further. They were never intended to be an effective weapon, except against morale. – Ian Kemp Apr 23 at 10:06
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Considering the circumstances, definitely yes

Before we start, we must understand and define what kamikaze were. In its essence, kamikaze were form of anti-ship aerial attack. Of course, they were not only form of such attacks. In WW2 Japan had technology to perform conventional bomb or torpedo strikes using aircraft based both on land and sea (carriers and floatplanes). As far as I know, unlike Germans they didn't operationally employ guided munitions like Ki-147 and Ki-148. Therefore, for the sake of simplicity we would discount them.

This now leaves us with the question, how effective were these conventional methods for Japan in WW2. Of course, everybody knows about exploits of Kidō Butai in late 1941 and 1942. Land based aircraft were no worse, for example they sunk Prince of Wales and Repulse. However, starting from somewhere in 1943, effectiveness of such attacks rapidly declines. If we look at the list of US ships sunk and damaged in WW2, we could clearly see that pattern. And at the same time from late 1944 kamikaze attacks increase both quantitatively and in damage done on US shipping.

Explanation for this is quite simple : Japan was losing edge compared to US on all four levels : quantity and quality of the planes, quantity and quality of the pilots. All four factors are important : for example, probability for a successful mission of a dive bomber increases if it has good and numerous fighter escort, if a dive bomber itself is relatively fast, if it has good pilot and rear gunner and if enemy fighters and AAA could not concentrate overwhelming firepower on a single plane. Japan could not secure any of this late in the war. Thus, as confirmed by historical events, not only that conventional bombs and torpedo attacks were sinking less ships, probability of survival for attacking Japanese plane was low as witnessed for example in Battle of Philippine Sea.

Why were kamikaze more successful ? Kamikaze managed to even out two of aforementioned four factors : quantitative ones. By using planes that were not dedicated dive or torpedo bombers, and by using obsolete planes, Japanese lowered US quantitative advantage in machines. Also, by using simple ramming attack, they lowered requirements for pilots thus being able to send more of them in the battle. We could even argue that they lowered US qualitative advantage - kamikaze pilots didn't have to perform complex maneuvers to get into attack position. Consequently, while not skilled as regular dive/torpedo pilots, they were skilled enough to employ their chosen tactics. As for casualties rate, even that could be considered as an advantage of kamikaze tactics - considering the situation you would need to send out less kamikaze pilots for each ship sunk/damaged than regular torpedo/dive bomber pilots. Thus, casualties would be lower - situation was so dire that even regular pilots expected certain death .

Did kamikaze tactics affected US ? They certainly did, maybe not so much materially as psychologically. Having to fight enemy that openly embraces death is simply unnerving. Americans were expecting similar behavior from the whole of Japanese armed forces. This could be seen clearly in estimated casualties for the Operation Downfall, planned invasion Japan. In the battle of Okinawa, of around 1300 Allied (mostly US ) vessel, 28 were sunk with additional 368 damaged by kamikaze. Of course, invasion of Japan's main islands would trigger even stronger response (at least 8000 kamikaze planes) , and thus several times higher casualties. As a result of this, US was more willing to go with weapons of mass destruction (i.e. atomic bombs) to end the war, but also changed naval tactics and weapons. For example, radar pickets were introduced, number of fighter planes on carriers was increased at the expense of bombers, ships AAA was strengthened at the expense of other weapons etc.

Ultimately, it is hard to judge would kamikaze attacks stop or sufficiently blunt potential seaborne invasion. But, there is no doubt that kamikaze strikes were only effective weapon left for Japanese aerial forces to fight against US shipping.

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I'll go against the general opinion.

Yes, they were extremely effective in the end. The Emperor kept his position, and the war crime trials were done by Japanese tribunals. In spite of USA having the atomic bomb and Russian support.

The point was not only to cause losses, it was also to show a willingness to fight to the bitter end. For that goal they were effective.

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    Japan did surrender unconditionally. Whatever accomodation the USA gave to Japan after WWII, it was not due to kamikazes (and most likely due to both geopolitics and McArthur's attitudes). – SJuan76 Apr 23 at 19:51
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    Well, they, and the general Okinawa losses, were effective at pushing through the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings, assuming (big assumption) the US would have had any qualms about using those bombs. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Apr 23 at 20:24

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