YANAGIMOTO, Nara Pref. — It’s just quiet farmland now, nothing more than fields and a few houses. But if you listen closely as the wind rustles through the rice stalks, you might just be able to hear the ghostly sounds of World War II fighter planes taking off and landing at what was once one of the largest air bases in western Japan.
In late 1944, the Japanese military, knowing the war would soon be lost, conscripted Korean laborers, Japanese orphans and students to build four runways on 3,000 hectares in the town of Yanagimoto, now a southern part of the city of Tenri.
The longest runway was about 1,500 meters long when the field went into operation in February 1945, and when the war ended in August, it was home to about 50 Zero fighters and 70 training planes of various types.
A good imagination, and a willingness to search hard for the location, are needed to find not only Yanagimoto airfield but also many war monuments and former military sites in the Kansai region.
Very little, if anything, usually remains, and the few plaques explaining what kind of monument you’re looking at or what kind of important military installation once stood where you’re now standing are often small and easily overlooked.
Recognizing an interest in Kansai historical sites that are 60, as opposed to 600, years old, a group of local residents published two guidebooks, in 2003 and earlier this year. The books help those interested in tracking down not only the remains and sites of wartime airfields and other military installations but also memorials erected to those who perished.
The books, titled “Osaka-Nara Senso Iseki Rekishi Guidemap,” provide detailed maps to hundreds of monuments and sites, allowing those who are interested to design their own walking tours.
In the city of Osaka, there are dozens of monuments dedicated to buildings destroyed in the war. One of the more haunting is in Nishinari Ward.
It’s a small stone structure dedicated to all of the unknown in the ward who perished in the 1945 air raids, and sits, quite incongruously, in the middle of a sidewalk right outside a car dealership.
And, though there are no markers, the area surrounding the dealership was once under the suspicious eye of the dreaded military police, as it was home to a large number of artists, musicians and communist sympathizers, many of whom came to Nishinari from all over the country to oppose the war in their own way.
Like Tokyo, Osaka suffered massive air raids in the last months of the war, one of the worst being on Aug. 14, just a day before the surrender.
Tucked away in various neighborhoods in the Suminoe waterfront district and in the Higashi and Nishi Yodogawa districts, which were once home to aircraft engine manufacturers, are small stone markers commemorating those who perished in the raids.
Finding direct evidence, though, of the war itself is tricky. A stroll through Osaka’s Kyobashi and Kitahama districts will sometimes take one past old stone and brick buildings that were built before the war.
Look closely, and you can sometimes still see small chunks of stone missing, evidence that something exploded nearby a long time ago.
However, in Higashiyodogawa, just a few minutes’ walk from Hankyu Railway’s Awaji Station, is one of Osaka’s famous war memorials.
Tucked away on a side street in a tightly packed neighborhood of modern houses are three concrete structures, each two stories high. These are former antiaircraft batteries.
When U.S. air raids began in earnest in 1945, Osaka tried to protect itself from the B-29 bombers by placing huge ack-ack guns near armament factories. At the buildings in Awaji, the guns sat atop roofs and ammunition was stored on the first floors. But the B-29s flew too high for the guns to reach.
After the war, the buildings were allowed to remain and were used by various local government agencies before the property was bought for private development. They are now private homes.
Then there are the former war facilities in Osaka that have been almost completely forgotten. Unlike the Yanagimoto airfield, the history and location of which are well-known and well-established, few people in the city know of the former Sano airfield.
Near Nankai Railway’s Izumisano Station, just before the tracks veer to the right and head into Rinku Town and across the bridge to Kansai International Airport, is the Sano airfield site.
Constructed by local elementary and junior high school students in the last year of the war, Sano served as a training field for kamikaze pilots, who then shipped out to bases in Kyushu and Okinawa for their final missions.
A few attempts have also been made to mark sites where buildings or former facilities used by the Occupation forces immediately after the war once stood.
Two of the more well-known sites are in Osaka’s Nishi Ward. Utsubo Park, today a quiet stretch of land running for about 1.5 km east to west, was briefly a landing strip for U.S. forces in the first year or so after the war.
While little information remains, the strip was apparently used by military brass who needed to get in and out of central Osaka quickly.
And to the northeast of Utsubo Park and just behind the old Sumitomo Bank building is a small plaque commemorating the Teikokuza building.
It was here, beginning in 1910, that Western theater productions ranging from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” were performed for enthusiastic audiences in the late Meiji Era to the Taisho Era.
But with the end of the war in 1945, the Occupation forces found a different use for the building, turning it into a church. During the high-growth surge of the 1960s, the church was torn down and at the site today sits Sumitomo Trust Bank.
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