SEOUL — For decades, Tak Kyung Hyun and 17 other Korean pilots who flew kamikaze missions for the Japanese in World War II have been widely viewed as traitors at home.
A half-century after his death, Tak’s Korean hometown is looking to change that legacy with the first memorial in South Korea to a kamikaze. But as the unveiling approaches, opposition is growing from conservative residents who still harbor strong resentment against Japan’s brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
The 4.6-meter-high stone memorial, now covered with a tarp, was scheduled to be unveiled in the southeastern city of Sacheon on Saturday, the eve of Tak’s death 63 years ago. He died when his explosives-laden plane is believed to have crashed in the water short of a U.S. warship that was his target.
The project had attracted little controversy until a group of activists began demanding this week that the city cancel the opening ceremony, threatening to disrupt the event and take down the monument.
“He was a kamikaze, an aggressor,” said Lee Sun Bok, head of a group opposed to the memorial.
But Hong Jong Pil, a South Korean historian working on the memorial project, said the pilots should be seen as victims of the colonial period. He cited recent studies finding they did not volunteer for their suicide missions but were pressured or forced into them.
“It’s time to save those who have been lost in the black holes of history,” Hong said.
Sacheon official Kim Tae Ju said his office is trying to convince the activists that the memorial’s purpose is to console war victims. But it remained uncertain if the unveiling would go ahead as scheduled.
Kim said Sacheon is concerned possible violence could trigger diplomatic tension with Japan. Dozens of Japanese officials, tourists and journalists are scheduled to attend the opening event.
The state-run Korea Tourism Organization is backing the memorial, which it plans to promote to Japanese tourists.
Of the 18 confirmed Korean kamikaze — other Koreans conscripted into the wartime Japanese military say there were probably more — only one is believed to have survived, captured by the Americans.
The project’s driving force is a Japanese actress who has long sought to foster friendship between South Korea and her country.
“It’s something the Japanese should do,” said the 51-year-old actress, Fukumi Kuroda, who proposed the memorial and paid the bulk of the construction cost.
“I’m not beautifying kamikaze. I’m doing this for war victims,” said Kuroda, who flew to Sacheon Thursday to meet city officials and the activists. “I’m confident I can persuade them.”
Kuroda said the project was inspired by a dream she had in 1991 in which she met a kamikaze on a beach in southern Japan.
“He was smiling, telling me he was a pilot who died here. He said he didn’t care about dying during a war but felt bad because he died under a Japanese name although he is Korean,” Kuroda said, speaking fluent Korean.
In 2000, Kuroda described the dream to the daughter of a former restaurant owner who had been a mother figure for kamikaze in Kyushu.
The daughter, Reiko Akabane, told Kuroda that the tall, dark-skinned man in her dream “must be Tak.”
“Reiko said her mother especially cared about him because he always came to the restaurant alone, stayed there quietly and looked so lonely,” Kuroda recalled.
The mother, Tome Torihama, cooked the pilots’ favorite foods, kept their farewell letters and gave them final hugs.
On the eve of his mission, the 24-year-old Tak visited the restaurant, jammed on his military cap and started singing “Arirang,” a popular Korean folk song on love and separation, “in the saddest tone they had ever heard,” Kuroda quoted Akabane as saying.
Tak’s family moved from Korea to Kyoto in the early 1930s because of financial trouble at home, according to Kuroda and documents from Sacheon City Hall.
He landed a job in a pharmaceutical company after finishing college and was engaged to a Korean nursing student in Kyoto. But after she went to Korea to discuss the wedding date with her parents, she never returned, because her parents feared it was dangerous in Japan.
“Mom has always told me she drove Tak into becoming a kamikaze,” said Jung Min Young, a daughter of the fiance, Kim Ok Hee, who eventually married another Korean.
Figuring he would be drafted anyway, Tak entered a military academy in 1943 so he could become an officer and better support his family.
Until recently, his relatives said they refrained from talking about him with friends and neighbors.
Some called Tak “a fool” to her face, said a cousin, Tak Jeong Ae, but she felt she could say nothing to defend him.
South Korea has refused to designate Korean kamikaze as colonial-era victims, denying their next of kin the right to state compensation.