Kamikaze From Kalmykia — Samurai Uncle Sasha

kamikaze plain

Esiteru Nakagawa was born in Tokyo, in the family of actors, the eldest child with eight sisters and two brothers. When the Great East Asian War, as Japanese call WWII, started, Esiteru enrolled in a military flight school, but has been sent to the front before graduation.

Kamikaze pilots bow to the Emperor before the battle

Kamikaze pilots bow to the Emperor before the battle

He completed his pilot training in aerial combat missions in the skies over Burma, the Philippines and Singapore.

Air ace Imperial Japanese Army, Commander of the Order of the Kinshi Kunsho (Golden Kite) fighter pilot, First Lieutenant Esiteru Nakagawa

Fighter pilot of Imperial Japanese Army, Commander of the Order of Kinshi Kunsho (Golden Kite) First Lieutenant Esiteru Nakagawa

He was a valiant soldier and an excellent fighter pilot. During multiple flight missions he shot down 18 US bomber aircraft, more than enough to become a Commander of the Order of Kinshi Kunsho (Golden Kite) and, ahead of schedule, recieve the rank of “tyui” — First Lieutenant. Most importantly, for his bravery he was elevated to the ranks of samurai and bestowed a katana, the traditional samurai sword.

Kamikaze pilots. Of those in the picture, only a puppy will survive.

Kamikaze pilots. Of those in the picture, only a puppy will survive.

In 1945, fighter pilot Esiteru Nakagawa was seriously wounded in an aerial battle — a shard of American flak badly damaged his hip bone. This effectively halted his brilliant military career. Red-enamel cross “Sёgund-zinsё” (to the wounded) has become his last war decoration. With that, First Lieutenant Esiteru Nakagawa was commissioned from the Imperial Japanese Army and departed to his parental home, the town of Tayohara, now Russian Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

At the end of the war, the Soviet troops entered Tayohara. Lieutenant Nakagawa has been captured and became an enemy POW. But Samurai never surrenders. That was when Esiteru’s tanto — his samurai dagger — became handy. Following a strict samurai code of conduct, Esiteru committed harakiri (seppuku).

Esiteru didn’t die. Russian military surgeon Oleg Terentyev reassembled his innards, sewed his ripped open stomach and saved the life of a 25-year-old Japanese officer. His life but not his samurai honor. Bushido does not recognize failed seppuku.

Japanese tanto and Russian surgeon’s scalpel redrew his fate.

Esiteru’s new life began, whether he wanted it or not.

Almost eight years the Siberian labor camps — Khabarovsk, Tomsk, Novosibirsk, Kansk — followed… In captivity, he mastered many professions — woodcutter, fitter, welder. Esiteru still tries hard and often fails to forget those hellish years in the barracks. Many of his comrades succumbed to a horrible death but, miraculously, Esiteru survived. Perhaps, his young body refused to die again and lived with vengeance…

At the age of 96, Esiteru Nakagawa is still among the living and, all things considered, doing well.


In 1953, Japanese prisoner of war was freed and even allowed to return to his homeland. But lieutenant Nakagawa decided against returning to Japan. By then, young Esiteru fell in love. A Russian girl, Tanya Gorbacheva, was about to have his son, a fruit of their bitter-sweet Taiga-romance. Besides, the disgrace of unsuccessful harakiri effectively made him an unworthy samurai, which bothered him a great deal. In the end, Esiteru Nakagawa took the Soviet citizenship and married Tanya.

Life is a long and tedious journey… It was no different and even more so for Esiteru-san.

Esiteru with his wife Lyubov Zavgorodnaya

Esiteru with his wife Lyubov Zavgorodnaya

Since the end of 1960s, Esiteru made his home in Iki-Burul. It is a settlement of less than 5,000 souls and the administrative center of Iki-Burulsky District of the Republic of Kalmykia. In a word, a very rural place in the midst of vast steppes.

It was here that Esiteru has found his second chance on having a home and a new family after Tanya died. He is loved and respected by his neighbors. They call him Uncle Sasha-the-samurai.

But Japan hasn’t forgot its native son and a brother to his many siblings. To her last breath,     Esiteru’s mother believed her son hasn’t died.  His brothers and sisters made an inquiry and, through the International Red Cross, learned that the Japanese officer Esiteru Nakagawa hasn’t perished in 1945 but lives in a deep Russian province. They appealed to the Embassy of Japan in Russia and requested a DNA test. The kinship of Nakagawa sisters and brothers and a rural pensioner from Kalmyk settlement has been established.

One of Esiteru’s sisters came to visit him in Iki-Burul and immediately flew his brother to Tokyo to meet the rest of the family. This flight on board the aircraft was the first one since his bygone days as a fighter pilot. What was he thinking, flying above the clouds?

Meeting with his homeland ... Nakagawa in Tokyo airport.

Meeting with his homeland … Nakagawa in Tokyo airport.

Anxiety still lived in his soul: what if his motherland greets him with derision? After all, he is a samurai who lost his honor. However, he was received as a decorated national hero, ace-pilot and a pride of the nation.

“I went to Hokkaido, visited my sisters in Sapporo and my brother Yosiu in Kiba,” says Esiteru. He also visited the grave of his mother — she died 13 years earlier. His father perished in the winter of 1945 — frozen to death in the Sakhalin snow, drunk, after learning that his favorite son committed harakiri.

Esiteru with his younger sister in Japan

Esiteru with his younger sister in Japan

To the amazement of his relatives, Esiteru declined an offer to stay in Japan, complete with a comfortable apartment in Sapporo and a generous military pension.

“Well, how could I leave my old lady? After all, we’ve been together for 30 years,” Esiteru says.

Lyubov Zavgorodnaya was invited to join her husband in Japan, but she, too, refused.

“Besides,”  Esiteru says, “I almost forgot my native language and, without an interpreter, had to communicate with gestures. And then, it’s very noisy here and terribly crowded. No comparison with the expanse of steppes we have!”

Esiteru Nakagawa. Former pilot is oxymoron.

Esiteru Nakagawa. Airplane is a rare sight in the skies over his house… Storks fly frequently, though. The old pilot watches them often. Perhaps, he is thinking of his “Nakajima” fighter. After all, “former pilot” is an oxymoron.

“Esiteru-san,” the journalist asked, “Could you fly a plane now?”

“No. Now all the buttons are different.”

“And if it were your Nakajima?”

The old man laughed. “Well, then I definitely could.” He paused and added, “Earth is different here, there, elsewhere, but the sky is the same everywhere…”


16 comments on “Kamikaze From Kalmykia — Samurai Uncle Sasha

  1. What an amazing life story – hardships, heroism and romance in generous measure. It shows the extent of samurai fanaticism that he was unable to accept the reasonable view that as his resuscitation was not of his volition, honour remained intact. Gratifying that, ultimately, his countrymen saw his exploits rather than his one ‘failure’ as a samurai.

  2. What an amazing story – so complex and touching. How different his, and his sisters, lives have been than they could have imagined as children growing up in the 1930s in Japan or later as they reached old age in this century.

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed that story gp, also the fact that he still honored the code of Harakiri, and it was still in his thoughts even in old age.
    There must be many Japanese story’s about failed Harakiri, but daresay these would not be remembered in Japanese family history, much like a taint on the family tree through the tradition of Harakiri.

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