Japan’s Kamikaze pilots say war horrors lost on young AFP 13 Aug, 2014
Kamikaze pilot Yutaka Kanbe should have died nearly seven decades ago.
It was only Tokyo’s surrender on August 15, 1945, that saved him from the fate of thousands whose suicide missions came to define Japan’s unrelenting pursuit of victory in the closing stages of World War II.
But as the 91-year-old faces his own mortality again, he worries that a rightward political shift under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and a recent film glorifying Kamikaze missions, are proof that the horrors of war have been lost on generations of younger Japanese.
“It was crazy — I cannot support the idea of glorifying our mission,” the former navy pilot said of young men ordered to crash their planes into Allied ships.
“Japan could go to war again if our leaders are all like Abe. I’m going to die soon, but I worry about Japan’s future.”
“Kamikaze” pilots — the term means “divine wind” — were heroes in wartime Japan where their deadly sacrifice in the name of Emperor Hirohito and the nation made front-page headlines.
The squadrons were formed near the end of the conflict in a desperate effort to prevent an Allied victory. About 4,000 died on missions that sent chills down the spine of many enemy combatants, although most were shot down before reaching their targets.
– “Sacrificed their lives’ –
There are no official figures on the number of surviving Kamikaze pilots and the squadrons have largely faded from memory, with little mention in contemporary school textbooks.
But a film called “The Eternal Zero“, based on a best-selling novel, catapulted the squadrons back into the minds of the public earlier this year.
The box-office hit sees a top navy pilot refuse to take part in a suicide mission because he promised his wife that he would return home alive. But the pilot eventually agrees to the death sentence, leaving a comrade to take care of his family.
“I respect Kamikaze pilots — they sacrificed their lives for their families and the country,” 18-year-old Tokyo university student Tsurugi Nakamura said after watching the film.
“Kamikaze pilots are cool. It’s wrong to criticise the mission,” he added.
Kozo Kagawa shares little enthusiasm for that kind of talk.
The 89-year-old former Kamikaze pilot refuses to judge the morality of the missions, but he is still haunted by seeing fellow pilots die in vain. His turn never came.
“It’s not for survivors like me to judge whether it was right or wrong. But I’m still mourning the soul of my late buddy. I’m sorry for letting (him) die alone.”
A Japanese city’s unsuccessful effort to have Kamikaze pilots’ farewell letters posted on a United Nations register earlier this year enraged China and South Korea, which suffered from Tokyo’s militarism before and during the war.
Relations have been further strained by Abe’s bid in July to loosen Japan’s pacifist post-war constitution — long a symbol of its peaceful image in much of the world.
The landmark shift to expand the use of Japan’s military was met with strong public opposition and warnings it could ultimately see the country dragged into war, amid territorial disputes with Tokyo’s neighbours that have stoked fears of an East Asian conflict.
For Kagawa, there is no question that Kamikaze missions were a mistake, but he is less sure about restricting armed forces to a purely self-defence role.
“Kamikaze missions should never happen again, but peace does not come without costs,” he said.
“We can’t protect peace without defence. Prime Minister Abe appears to be in a hurry to make changes, but I understand what he is trying to do.”
– ‘Not a movie’ –
As the 69th anniversary of the war’s end approaches, so too does an annual pilgrimage by Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni war shrine.
The leafy site in downtown Tokyo honours about two million war dead, including Kamikaze pilots, but the inclusion of some top officials convicted of war crimes angers China and South Korea.
Abe stayed away from the pilgrimage last year, but his visit to the shrine in December dragged regional relations to a fresh low, and sparked warnings from Washington over what it saw as an inflammatory gesture.
For supporters, the move amounted to patriotism, while critics say it is further evidence of Abe’s flirtations with revisionist history.
Any sugar-coating of Japan’s wartime past was misplaced, said Akinori Asano, as he prepares to spend August 15 at home alone, mourning those who never made it back.
The 85-year-old belonged to an infamous force code-named “Cherry Blossom” which aimed single-engine bombers at their targets, derided as “stupid bombers” by the Allies.
The six-metre (20-foot) aircraft were more like flying bombs, powered by short-lasting rocket engines that would run just long enough to send them spiralling into enemy ships.
“It is nonsense to ask why we obeyed orders and why we had to die — there was no room for saying ‘no’,” Asano said.
“But it was not a movie. I’m afraid young people can’t imagine what it was like — all I can do is pray for peace.”
Accused of war glorification, city tries to show ‘hell’ of kamikaze pilots
MINAMI-KYUSHU, Kagoshima Prefecture–Public exaltations have recently spread over kamikaze pilots, the young men described as symbols of loyalty and bravery who sacrificed their lives to protect their families and country during World War II.
But Yoshikazu Kurakake, who was a member of the imperial Japanese military’s kamikaze corps, describes a different mind-set among the pilots, one filled with despair, fear and feelings that they were on an inevitable path to “hell.”
“We did not voluntarily apply for the job,” Kurakake, a resident of Fukuoka, said. “We were obliged to do the job against our will.”
It is this darker side of kamikaze life that the Minami-Kyushu city government wants to better reflect at its Chiran Peace Museum, which displays farewell notes, portraits and other items of the suicide pilots.
The city also wants to address criticism from abroad over its application in February to register the farewell notes in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program.
China and South Korea have described the application as the city’s attempt to beautify Japan’s military past.
“We want to correct overseas misunderstandings,” Minami-Kyushu Mayor Kanpei Shimoide said. “We will review the exhibition so that it will also convey the anguishes and conflicted feelings of young pilots.”
The museum is in a conundrum. It said it has always tried to remain neutral over the issue concerning the memory of the kamikaze pilots, but it now finds itself under pressure from foreign governments and media.
TWO MUSEUMS, TWO VIEWS
In the closing months of World War II, the Chiran district of the city hosted the military base for the kamikaze corps, whose mission was to crash their fighter planes into enemy vessels.
A 21-year-old male university student from Fukuoka was overcome with emotion when he viewed the displays at the museum, which stands on the site of the former army base.
“They are great people because they did what I cannot do,” he said.
The student said he developed an interest in kamikaze pilots when he saw “Eien no Zero” (The eternal zero), a 2013 hit movie about a capable pilot who loves his family and eventually becomes a member of kamikaze suicide corps.
“When I saw their farewell notes, I felt their sense of mission to protect the country,” the student said.
About 17 million people have visited the Chiran Peace Museum since it opened in 1975. The number of young visitors increases whenever movies on kamikaze pilots are released.
But about a kilometer from the Chiran Peace Museum, a different atmosphere fills a private museum called Tomiya Shokudo (Tomiya restaurant).
During the war, many kamikaze pilots ate their final meals at the restaurant before their suicide missions. The building was later relocated to the current place along the Fumotogawa river.
The private museum exhibits letters the young pilots secretly wrote and handed to the restaurant owner, Tome Torihama. One letter reads, “A totalitarian country will lose a war.” Another says, “Tomorrow, a liberalist will leave this world forever.”
Torihama’s grandson, Akihisa, 53, the current chief of the museum, says, “I want to convey aspects that the Chiran Peace Museum alone cannot convey.”
WARNINGS OF MISUNDERSTANDING
The move to list the kamikaze pilots’ farewell notes in the Memory of the World Program was actually initiated to stop the glorification of their actions.
Takashi Fukushima, 78, whose distant relative was a kamikaze pilot, said with anxiety: “Our memories (of kamikaze pilots) are waning. As a result, the beautification of them, which is based on fragmentary episodes, is spreading.”
Fukushima was worried about the deterioration of the farewell notes, which he regards as the “original points” to understand their true feelings.
So he asked the Minami-Kyushu city government in 2011 to apply to UNESCO for registration in the Memory of the World Program.
The following year, the city government set up a task force for the application, and sought the advice of experts.
One expert expressed immediate concerns about “narratives” that the Chiran Peace Museum presents. At the museum, storytellers explain to visitors that members of kamikaze corps tried to protect their families and their country by sacrificing their lives.
“The ‘narrative’ the Chiran Peace Museum has conveyed so far will lead to misunderstanding around the world,” the expert warned.
The expert told the city government that it is indispensable to explain the realities of the war so that people overseas do not regard the application as a beautification of Japan’s wartime militarism.
Kurakake, the kamikaze pilot who was stationed at a base different from the one at Chiran, knows firsthand about the situation surrounding the pilots.
He said some men fainted after being chosen as kamikaze pilots. Another member fled but was later arrested by military police. He later killed himself in custody.
“If you fled from the job, hell waited for you,” Kurakake said. “If you crashed into an enemy vessel, it was also a hell. That was the fate of kamikaze pilots.”
The war ended before Kurakake could be sent on his suicide mission.
A city government official in charge of the UNESCO issue recalled being a bit confused by what the expert was saying.
“I was not able to understand well what the museum was ‘beautifying,’” the official said.
The official said he often saw museum visitors crying while reading the farewell notes, and that the message of the museum was clear: “Don’t repeat war.”
The museum said it has refrained from emphasizing that kamikaze attacks were a desperate strategy with little chance of victory because bereaved families and others concerned could complain that the pilots died meaningless deaths.
Rightists wearing military uniforms have also marched in front of the museum.
The city government told the expert who called for explanations about the real situation, “(If we do so,) it will become a political issue. It will be difficult to do so.”
The expert’s opinions were neither reflected in the museum’s display nor the application submitted to UNESCO in February.
When the application was announced, Mayor Shimoide described the kamikaze pilots as “victims of the national war policy.”
But China and South Korea still accused the Minami-Kyushu government of trying to glorify Japan’s wartime past. British Broadcasting Corp., the Economist magazine and Australian broadcasting stations also reported the application in a negative light.
“We thought that if they read the farewell notes, they would understand the message the museum wants to convey,” Mayor Shimoide said. “But the message was apparently lost on them.”
The mayor now thinks it is necessary to interview former kamikaze pilots to convey the true situation of war, including the reality that they “volunteered” for the job against their will.
However, time is limited. Kurakake, for example, is 91 years old