The Hagi Uragami Museum in Yamaguchi Prefecture boasts a magnificent collection of ukiyo-e, Oriental pottery and porcelain works housed in a stylish building designed by well-known architect Kenzo Tange.
Its origin, however, has distant echoes of Japan’s brutal wartime history.
The museum was founded in 1996 with a donation of artworks from Toshiro Uragami, a native of Hagi. Now 88, Uragami nearly sacrificed his life in a suicide mission in the closing days of World War II, but went on to become a successful businessman and amass a vast art collection.
Uragami donated his entire collection after illness drove home an awareness of death.
“I once abandoned my life for the first time at age 19 when preparing for a suicide attack mission,” he said, referring to the war.
“I thought I wouldn’t be able to die with a clear conscience unless I repaid my debt to the people to whom I felt grateful.”
The museum has become a major tourist attraction in this city on the coast of the Sea of Japan and has even won a coveted star from the Michelin tourist guide over the years.
Uragami was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army in February 1945 while studying at the school that later became Yamaguchi University. He joined a unit based in a small town in Ehime Prefecture that turned out to be preparing for a suicide attack using small wooden boats. The boats, 6 meters long and loaded with a bomb each, were designed to be driven by one man into an enemy vessel.
In the run-up to the mission, around 30 new recruits, including Uragami, were subjected to days of brutal bullying by ranking soldiers in the name of training. The commander of the unit made it a habit to hit them in the face for no apparent reason, and other soldiers kept up their own acts of violence against the fresh recruits, Uragami recalled.
One method of abuse was a practice called cicada. The recruits were made to cling to a ceiling joist, just as a cicada clutches a tree branch, while their superiors hit them with the butt of a rifle.
In due course, Uragami stoically endured the bullying.
“At first, I was angry, but at some point, I started to regard myself as an object,” he said. In that way, he could put up with receiving humiliating treatment, such as when he was forced to lick shoes to remove dirt. “I felt nothing because I was an object, not a human being.”
After about six months of the abuse on Shikoku, a desire to die took hold, Uragami said. It sometimes occurred to him that perhaps the bullying was a way of forcing the rookies to accept imminent death.
Just days before the end of the war, his unit was ordered to move to a town in Hiroshima Prefecture across the inland sea, and en route Uragami witnessed the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Uragami’s unit was to depart for the front line on Aug. 15, the day Japan surrendered. That afternoon, Uragami and the other recruits destined for suicide missions were told to stand by and await further orders, even though a message from the Emperor announcing Japan’s surrender had already been broadcast. The unit remained together for some time after the war, with superiors continuing to throw their weight around. They did not have a chance to hear the Emperor’s message.
In early September, Uragami exacted vengeance on the sadistic commander by inviting him to a kind of duel and knocking him down. A few days later, a fellow recruit alerted him that the commander planned to murder him in retaliation, so he hopped a freight train and fled to his home town. The next day he arrived in Hagi and was greeted by his father, who had a look of disbelief, because he had heard that no member of his son’s unit remained alive.
Uragami later returned to college and entered the business world after graduation. While pursuing a successful career in mining, he collected artworks and became a prominent collector.
Teruo Matsuda, a high school classmate, remembers Uragami as a bright and physically strong student with a kind heart who had the respect of the class. “Because he was a man of such character, he achieved much after the war,” Matsuda said.
Uragami has a scar on his side left by a leather belt wielded by a bully, a reminder of those days of barracks abuse.
“It was ordinary people who engaged in acts of violence. Considering they did such atrocious things to fellow Japanese, I wonder what the Japanese military did outside Japan,” Uragami said. “War drives ordinary people out of their minds.”