As a child growing up in California in the 1980s, I learned my share of Japanese words. Sushi, which my family would get for a treat on birthdays. Mochi (chewy rice cake), ramen and karaoke — all encountered at the Japanese shopping arcade downtown.
And then there was kamikaze. I don’t know where I learned that word. I think it must have been burned so deeply into America’s collective consciousness during World War II that even a child 40 years later absorbed it automatically.
Kamikaze means “divine wind,” originally the typhoons that scuppered invading Mongol fleets in 1274 and ’81. In the last year of World War II, though, the term was used to describe the Japanese army and navy airmen who deliberately crashed their planes loaded with bombs into Allied ships and other targets, killing themselves and many others.
Those missions, officially known in Japanese as tokkō (special attacks), were the desperate strategy of a weakened military facing a huge Allied force closing in on the home islands. The men on the receiving end had never seen anything like them.
Kamikaze attacks reached their peak during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Between April and July of that year, 1,036 Imperial Army pilots made suicide flights against naval and land targets there from bases in Kyushu and Japanese-occupied Taiwan. Nearly half left from a small tea-growing town called Chiran (part of present-day Minamikyushu) in the rolling hills of Kagoshima Prefecture on Kyushu’s southern tip.
After the war ended, memories of the 402 young men who spent their last days there stayed with the locals. In 1974, they erected a shrine, a memorial and a museum on the site of the former air base. The museum was later expanded and renamed as the Chiran Peace Museum (chiran-tokkou.jp), which thousands of school children and adult tourists now visit year-round. Just an hour by public bus from downtown Kagoshima, the town is easy to access and navigate, and there’s an attractive Edo Period (1603-1867) samurai district to explore nearby as well. The crowds can be a nuisance, though, as on the September Sunday I was there, when the streets were nearly empty but the museum was packed to the point it was difficult to view displays.
Plan on spending at least an hour or two looking at the exhibits. On entering the main hall you’ll find yourself eye to eye with the 1,036 airmen who flew suicide attacks in the Battle of Okinawa. Their military portraits line the walls and draw visitors immediately into their world. Below, filling glass cases and metal filing cabinets throughout the room, are thousands of letters, poems and other writings from the final days of the men’s lives. The museum also exhibits airplanes (both models and real wartime relics), military uniforms, swords and other memorabilia. The writings, however, are the heart of it all.
For those who don’t read Japanese, computer stations provide English translations of some, and pamphlets and audio tours in English are available. The translations are choppy and lack the immediacy of handwriting scrawled across yellowing paper, but they are enough. They open a window across time, through which visitors gaze mesmerized as men stand on the verge of death.
Much of the writing consists of the patriotic sentiments military cultures everywhere instil. One note contains just one word: “Kesshi” — “I am ready to die.” Another letter begins, “Dear Mother, Please smile happily … ” Many pilots sent instructions to brothers and children, comfort to wives, and gratitude to mothers. Occasionally, a glimmer of doubt breaks the heroic surface.
“Who will cry for me when I die?” wrote Hiroshi Maeda, who passed away on April 3, 1945, at the age of 23.
“I hovered while seeing the plum blossoms in my hometown. This will be the last experience for me. . . . Though I decided to offer my life to the nation, I myself cherished my life and cannot make up my mind after all,” wrote Toshio Kobayashi, a 23-year-old captain who died on April 6, 1945. He peers out from his black-and-white portrait, a gentle smile on his lips.
This is the war the bombers chose to show their families and friends in an era of strict censorship and fervent nationalism. There is no account of the suffering they inflicted, or of what they endured in their final moments after having taken off and flown alone through the blue skies, across the ocean to Okinawa.
Just one large framed photograph in the entire museum — of HMS Formidable, a British aircraft carrier — shows the effects of hits from these manned flying bombs from an allied perspective (some video clips show other attacks). Neither does the museum investigate the political and cultural forces that led the men to volunteer their lives. The exhibits are more about inspiring sorrow for lost youth than they are about critically analyzing the past.
In one sense that is a good thing. The photos and letters force us to see “suicide bombers” as individual people trapped in the vortex of war. If that gives us compassion for our enemies today, or causes us to pause before allowing another war to begin, then the museum will have served its stated goal of promoting peace.
However, the curators don’t draw a particularly clear line between reflecting on war and glorifying it. A plaque at the entrance states that the “belongings [are] exhibited here with the hope that such an occurrence will never be repeated.” The same plaque goes on to describe the museum as a “commemoration of the pilots who died heroically in the skies.” The same sort of rhetoric is repeated in brochures and films throughout the museum.
There are many ways to understand these men, and many names to call them: heroes, victims, pawns, killers. The museum would perhaps do best to stick with simply calling them people. That, in any case, is the overwhelming impression its exhibits create.
After you’ve had all you can take of war’s depredations, Chiran comes to the rescue by allowing you to cool your head with a stroll through the orderly walkways and gardens of its samurai district. The neighborhood was built in the mid-1700s as an outpost of the Satsuma domain, centered on Kagoshima, and has survived remarkably well. The narrow lanes lined with hedge-topped stone walls are as evocative as the peaceful gardens themselves. Originally intended to discourage invading hordes, their immaculate geometry attests to a bygone aesthetic world, where nature was skillfully pressed into service as an illustration of man-made order.
A ¥500 ticket gets you admission to seven manicured gardens dotting the 18-hectare historic preservation district. Before heading down to see them, though, you may consider getting a bite to eat at one of the tourist spots near the museum, as there aren’t many options once you leave that area. The samurai district is a half-hour walk downhill from the museum, and buses run regularly. Once downtown, signs will point you in the right direction.
In the same area there’s also Hotaru-kan, another museum dedicated to the kamikaze pilots. The old wooden building once housed a restaurant whose owner, Tome Torihama, famously looked after the young men facing imminent death. The Tomiya Inn next door is still open for business and offers moderately priced meals and accommodation. You’ll have far more dining and hotel choices, though, if you return to bustling Kagoshima — an option, the sites and sights at Chiran render impossible to forget — that the young pilots stationed there seven decades ago never had.