Amid growing controversy over moves by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration toward allowing Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense, an 88-year-old man wants people to know the story of his younger brother, who he says is the only Japanese man killed serving his country in a war since 1945.

After attending a memorial service for members of the Maritime Self-Defense Force at the Konpira Shinto shrine in Kagawa Prefecture in late May, Toichi Nakatani talked about his brother, Sakataro, who died while engaged in a secret mission to remove underwater mines off Wonsan, in today’s North Korea, during the Korean War (1950-1953).

The war began three years after Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution came into force.

Sakataro, two years junior to Nakatani, voluntarily joined the Imperial Japanese Navy’s unit in Hiroshima Prefecture upon graduation from junior high school in April 1945. He moved to a minesweeping unit in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture — the predecessor of the Japan Coast Guard — the following year.

Sakataro was assigned as a galley worker on a minesweeper deployed to remove mines laid in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea by U.S. forces during World War II.

On Oct. 17, 1950, four months after the Korean War started, the minesweeper hit a mine off North Korea during a mission to help prepare for the U.S. landing on Wonsan. Sakataro was the only one of the 23-man crew not rescued.

Sakataro was “a good cook willing to serve tasty meals for crew members,” Yoshiki Tonosaki, 85, who once worked with him, said. “He was probably in the food storage (area) and failed to escape.”

Japan was under Allied Occupation at the time and the order for the secret mission was issued by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander for the Allied forces.

“Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida permitted us to follow the instruction and we acted secretly because (Japan) was in a delicate position before signing the peace treaty” of 1951 in San Francisco, Takeo Okubo, head of the Maritime Safety Agency, as the Japan Coast Guard was known at the time, wrote in his memoir.

A U.S. officer visited Sakataro’s father a week after his death and asked him not to publicize it so as to avoid international controversy. The father accepted the effective gag order and agreed with an “official” explanation that Sakataro died in minesweeping operations in the Seto Inland Sea, according to Nakatani.

“My father considered it impossible to reject the request because Japan was defeated in the war,” Nakatani said.

Nakatani later found out the truth about Sakataro’s death through Okubo’s memoir, and demanded both in 2006 and 2009 that Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo enshrine his brother.

But the Shinto shrine, dedicated to Japan’s war dead, turned down the request on both occasions, claiming the Korean War was not included in the government-set definition of war dead covering those who lost their lives while serving the country in wars through World War II.

Konpira Shrine has a cenotaph inscribing the names of 79 people who died during minesweeping operations in Japanese coastal waters after the end of World War II and a memorial service is held for them on the last Saturday of every May.

Nakatani’s oldest son, Hideo, 59, who attended this year’s service with his aged father, said he will takeover the work of seeking Sakataro’s enshrinement in Yasukuni.

Nakatani said Japan may need to exercise the right to collective self-defense in light of the current global situation. But it should seek popular support for the right by amending the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution instead of changing its established interpretation, as carried out by Prime Minister Abe’s Cabinet.

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