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Thursday, April 17, 2014
- They were known as the Kamikaze who swooped down on enemy ships with their bomb-laden planes – with the pilots inside. A museum here is now planning to register the last letters of Japan’s famed World War II suicide bombers as a Unesco Memory of the World document. The museum is calling these records “symbolic” of the country’s commitment to peace.
The move comes amid continuing political tension between Japan and its former East Asian colonies, China and the Korean peninsula, over its war past.
The Kamikaze pilots were a special task force assigned to protect their country from Western Allied forces at the tail end of World War II. The official number of Kamikaze deaths is 1,036.
Storytellers employed by the Peace Museum of Kamikaze Pilots describe them as brave young men who sacrificed themselves to protect Japan from the invading Western colonial powers.
“The last letters written by the Kamikaze before they took off on their planes show that remarkably they did not hate their enemy but rather only wanted to serve their country and protect their families,” said Satoshi Yamaki, the curator.
“The registering of their messages as a world document is to recognise their courage and Japan’s pledge to never enter a war again. Their letters are symbolic of Japan’s commitment to peace.”
Yamaki heads the impressive Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots launched in 1988. It nestles among the quiet green hills of Chiran town in Kagoshima prefecture on the island of Kyushu.
Chiran was host to a former airstrip where the Kamikaze took off in 1944 to dive with their planes into American naval ships approaching Okinawa. The southernmost island is the site of the only land battle fought in Japan before surrender on Aug. 15, 1945.
“Goodbye. I have nothing more than wishes for your happiness,” 23-year-old Capt Toshio Anazawa wrote to his sweetheart. “Forget the past. Live in the present,” Lieutenant Aihana Shoi Heart wrote in a letter.
Funded by the local Southern Kyushu government, the museum hosts more than 700,000 visitors annually.
The move to resurrect the Kamikaze stories, almost 70 years after Japan surrendered to U.S. forces and pledged to become a nation of peace, symbolises the mixed emotions and the continuous struggle of the Japanese to come to terms with their nation’s fractured war past, say analysts.
“The story of the Kamikaze is tragic and courageous and there is a national yearning for world recognition. But the Japanese mourning has become increasingly sinister against the [backdrop of] political exploitation of Japan’s war past,” said Yoshio Hotta, an expert on Japan-U.S. relations.
A prominent visit in December by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a nationalist, to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are enshrined among the dead, exposes vividly how the country remains mired in its difficult past.
While Abe declared he went “simply to pay respects to Japan’s war dead” and also to pledge not to wage war again, the visit provoked condemnation by Chinese and South Korean leaders who accuse Japan of continuing to be unrepentant of its past aggression in Asia.
Japan occupied northern China in the 1930s and is also held responsible for the infamous Nanking massacre in 1937 when the Japanese army was accused of raping and killing civilians and of pillage.
The Korean peninsula was invaded from 1910 to 1945. Japan imposed a brutal leadership, including a ban on the local language and culture. During World War II, tens of thousands of Koreans were conscripted into the Japanese army and as forced labour for Japanese companies.
The controversial system of “comfort women” – mostly young Korean women and also others in Chinese Manchuria and other parts of Asia who had to provide sex to Japanese soldiers – remains a simmering bilateral issue.
Abe’s Yasukuni decision has led to greater volatility between Japan and China, which are already clashing over territorial claims. The Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea are claimed by both countries. The Chinese name for the islands is Daiyou.
Reflecting historical bitterness, a scheduled meeting between South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Abe to discuss the comfort women issue was cancelled last month by Korea. The United States also took the unprecedented step of criticising the visit.
But old timers remember the Kamikaze with reverence.
Sho Horiyama, 91, a former Kamikaze who visits the Chiran museum every May to pay respects to his former colleagues, expresses frustration over the long unresolved clash with Japan’s neighbours over war history.
“When I heard Emperor Hirohito declare Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, I cried that I had not died for my country,” he told IPS. “Why cannot Japan be proud of the Kamikaze after their incredible sacrifice?”
Horiyama was 22 in 1945 and ready for his mission that was thwarted when his country was defeated. More than a million people died, including 250,000 Japanese soldiers, during the war, according to statistics released by the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
Takeshi Kawatoko, 86, a storyteller at the Chiran museum, says, “Can we not respect their bravery and commitment to their country?”
He told IPS that the Kamikaze represent the Japanese samurai traits of putting loyalty over personal needs, a character that is deeply embedded in the national psyche.
“This is what I want the world to understand. It fills me with sadness when we cannot explain the past to Japan’s younger generation that has grown up hardly knowing the brave deeds of their ancestors.”