"I do not want to die!... I want to live. No, I don't want to die.... I feel lonely," wrote Hayashi Tadao, a scout pilot who perished in the air in 1945, just weeks before the Japanese surrender. Hayashi Ichizo's diary is filled with longing for his mother: "I dread death so much. And yet, it is already decided for us.... Mother, I still want to be loved and spoiled by you…. I want to be held in your arms and sleep." The anguish and vulnerability of these young men is very far from the kamikaze caricature of Western mythology. In the years after the war 'Kamikaze!!' (always capitalised and with exclamation marks to emphasise it's barbarity) became synonymous with reckless, fanatical chauvinists, the inscrutable and untrustworthy 'Other'. The US media cleverly revivified this image immediately after 9/11 as the Ur-model of the suicide bomber. But Japanese military leaders were equally to blame for distortion, propagating the idea that tokkotai were happy to volunteer to die for the emperor. The diaries testify otherwise.

Nakao Takenori, kamikaze pilot"How lonely is the sound of the clock in the darkness of the night," is a line from one poem recorded in his diary by Nakao Takenori, a tokkotai pilot who perished at the age of 22. In their anticipation of death, such expressions of loneliness and doubt appear frequently.

Three quarters of the 4,000 Japanese pilots who died in the last 18 months of World War II, many in kamikaze missions, were 'boy pilots', barely out of school, who left few written records. But the other 1,000 were 'student soldiers', university graduates who were drafted and then sent on death missions. Most Japanese, especially these well-educated student soldiers, knew well before 1944 that Japan was going to lose the war. But in that year, with an American invasion imminent, navy Vice-Admiral Onishi Takijiro conceived the tokkotai ('special attack force') an operation using manned areoplanes, gliders and submarines to attack American ships, which were equipped with no method of returning to base. This cruel and futile operation was the last desperate hurrah for Japan's military leaders, whose frenzied delusion made them believe that only the Japanese soul – believed to uniquely possess the strength to face death without hesitation – could now prevent disaster. When the tokkotai was formed in October 1944, not a single officer from the military academies volunteered to serve as pilots; all knew too well that it would be meaningless death mission.

As early as December 1943 the Tojo government had instituted measures to shorten the time it took to graduate so that Japanese university students could be conscripted. In total more than 25,000 students were eventually drafted. These young men, after three years in high school and three at university, were immersed in a demanding intellectual life. They would have mastered two foreign languages (those who chose German were expected to read Goethe's suicide-romance The Sorrows of Young Werther in the original German, before they had been taught any German grammar) in addition to classical Latin and would be familiar with the works of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, as well as Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. They formed their own orchestras, listened to Western classical music and attended concerts and operas.

From the idyllic life of academia they were thrust into a harsh military regime, where bullying and brutal corporal punishment was commonplace, and strict discipline ruled. Any soldier attempting to desert could be shot on the spot. They were given a hasty basic training. Then one day they were summoned to a hall. After a lecture on the virtues of patriotism and sacrifice for the emperor they were asked to 'volunteer'. Since tokkotai operations were a guarantee of death, and a public outcry could be expected if conscripts were forced into them, they were nominally voluntary. But this was only an illusion of choice. Refusal to comply would invite public humiliation. Or else peer pressure would be used. Sometimes the men would be blindfolded and volunteers asked to raise their hands. The rustling of the uniforms as they did so compelled the more hesitant to follow suit. Many could not bear to be seen protecting their own lives while close comrades were offering up theirs. In any case those who refused knew they would be sent to the southern front, where death was all but guaranteed, become persona non grata, or be shot. A few who did refuse found their names on the volunteer list anyway.

Official propaganda of the time shows smiling pilots gamely saluting and waving as they embark for their final mission. Kasuga Takeo, who took care of the daily lives of the tokkotai at the Tsuchiura Navy Airbase, saw a different side on the night before their final flight:

"Some gulped the sake in one swallow, others kept gulping down [a large amount]. The whole place was mayhem. Some broke hanging light bulbs with their swords. Some lifted chairs to break the windows and tore white tablecloths. A mixture of military songs and curses filled the air. While some shouted in rage, others cried aloud. It was their last night of life. They thought of their parents, their faces, lovers' faces and their smiles, a sad farewell to their fiancées – all went through their minds like a running-horse lantern [magic lantern]. Although they were supposedly ready to sacrifice their precious youth the next morning for Imperial Japan and for the Emperor, they were torn beyond what words can express – some putting their heads on the table, some writing their wills, some folding their hands in meditation, some leaving the hall, and some dancing in frenzy while breaking flower vases. They all took off wearing the rising sun headband the next morning."

At university, the student soldiers displayed a voracious appetite for reading, and their diaries are full of meditations on what they had read. At first I thought that this was evidence of young men, at peace with their fate, looking for ways in which to understand the meaning of their sacrifice, and passing the time until it came. But the more I read the diaries the more it seemed that in fact these men, many in anguish, were desperately looking for ways to rationalise their fate, in some cases clinging to theories and ideas with which to deceive themselves about the nobility or value of their own death.

Marxism, especially Leninism, was a powerful force among the intellectuals at the time, even with the disillusionment with Soviet communism. Many of these students engaged in enormously sophisticated arguments on various strands of Marxism to justify their coming sacrifice. Others sought solace in historical determinism, seeing themselves as being swept away in world historical forces. Sasaki Hachiro was ready to sacrifice himself if he could contribute to the destruction of Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States – all corrupted by advanced capitalism. He wished a New Japan, built on Schweitzerian humanism, would rise out of the ashes of the old. Citing children's author Miyazawa Kenji, he wrote:

"I pray that we will see the day when we welcome a world in which we do not have to kill enemies whom we cannot hate. For this end, I would not mind my body being ripped apart innumerable times."

For others Christianity provided an idealistic space for altruism. Hayachi Ichizo found reading the Bible and singing hymns became a way to be with his mother, a devout Christian. He flew to his death carrying his mother's picture, the Bible and Kierkegaard's Sickness Unto Death.

The diaries reveal that very few of these soldiers swallowed the emperor-centered military ideology and eagerly rushed to their death. "The military – A Big Fool," shouts Sasaki in one entry. He was enraged at Japanese hand-wringing over the fall of Singapore, when "there must have been a horrendous number of civilian casualties."

Takushima Norimitsu records his struggle to rationalise his fate. Infatuated with romanticism as a student, and a political liberal and humanist, he was appalled by militarism and records that the notion of sacrifice as a patriotic act was an idea that only the stupid masses could believe. In 1941, while he was still at the university, he tried to make sense of what was happening in terms of his intellectual values, writing, "This is the century of warfare, and most of us must find comfort in finding that the purpose of war is couched in the language of beautiful romanticism." Yet his tone is ambiguous, as if he doesn't believe it himself. A few months before his final entry, in June 1944, he seems to have settled on a less abstract reason for his sacrifice: "A peaceful scene. Children called at me from a distance.... When I turned to look at them, they all bowed down toward me. How innocent they are! I cannot be moved to patriotism without a very realistic motive. But, yes, for these children."

He, like hundreds of others, did not, would not, die for the emperor. In his diary, Hayachi Ichizo states: "To be honest, I cannot say that the wish to die for the emperor is genuine, coming from my heart. However, it is decided for me that I die for the emperor."

Despite the myth of blind devotion to 'State Shintoism with the emperor as God' there was no real religious element in the tokkotai operation either. Many stated that they were sacrificing their lives for 'their beloved Japan', but this was not Imperial Japan, the emperor or the government, but, as with Norimitsu, the country of their mothers, lovers, friends and of children.

Unlike what we know of recent Islamic suicide bombers, these tokkotai pilots did not commit suicide. Indeed, some explicitly stated that they were being murdered by their own government. They were members of the armed forces of a nation at war under a military order. The creed of this military order was not 'kill for your country' but 'die for it'. The system made no allowance for conscientious objectors. In the perceptive words of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu the tokkotai were forced to "choose their fate".

What both the tokkotai and the Islamic bombers do have in common is the appalling atrocities they have wreaked. And that both have been sent to their deaths in the name of 'loyalty' and a higher purpose by powerful forces with their own ideological missions.

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney's books Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History and Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers are available now from Chicago University Press