Even though 72 years have passed since the end of World War II, for Minoru Kawaida, 85, a little known event that happened on the morning of Feb. 6, 1944, remains at the forefront of his mind.

Having studied until 1 a.m., he overslept that morning. He remembers waking up in his home in Tarumizu, Kagoshima Prefecture, and saying, “Oh, no!” after realizing he had broken a promise to his closest friend and classmate, Terushi Kawabata, to go with him to Kagoshima that Sunday by ferry.

The ferry, the 122-ton Tarumizu Maru No. 6, had already left with Kawaida’s mother, Toki, Terushi, Terushi’s younger brother Akio and an estimated 700 to 800 other passengers.

Kawaida’s aunt Tsuma hurriedly gave the sixth-grader a piggyback ride to the shore, where he boarded a small boat sculled by his father, Keizo.

But just as they set off, Kawaida witnessed a tragedy.

“What I saw was the capsized Tarumizu Maru No. 6, with many passengers standing on its upturned hull and calling for help. It was around 10 a.m. Many small boats were helping the survivors,” Kawaida said in an interview with The Japan Times. “But at around 3:50 p.m., a column of water rose into the air and the ship rapidly disappeared into the sea with its bow pointing upward.”

An official record of the incident logged by the Japan Maritime Accident Tribunal put the number of victims at 466. But Kawaida, a former educator who headed an association of victims’ relatives until recently, put the number at 536 based on his own investigation. Among those who went down with the ship were his mother, the Kawabata brothers and 18 other classmates.

Despite the grievous tragedy and the fairly extensive newspaper coverage it garnered at the time, this wartime accident is largely unknown to many in Kagoshima Prefecture, let alone the rest of the country.

“For me, the Tarumizu Maru sinking was a sample of wartime local experience that has slipped through the national narratives about the war, which mainly focus on what happened in 1945, like the Battle of Okinawa and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” said Hisamitsu Mizushima, a professor of media studies at Tokai University who led the production of a 2008 documentary titled “Fuyu no Nami” (“Winter Waves”), which explores the Tarumizu Maru.

“February 1944 was a delicate time. While Japanese forces were being defeated in the southern seas, the people in Kagoshima Prefecture had not yet experienced air raids,” he said. “To them, the war was something happening in remote places. The sinking has opened for me a new research field — learning what kinds of lives ordinary people in the countryside around that time were leading and their thoughts and feelings about the war.”

The Tarumizu Maru incident represents the second-worst maritime accident in Japanese history after the sinking of the train ferry Toya Maru, which went down off Hakodate, Hokkaido, during Typhoon No. 15 on Sept. 26, 1954, with the loss of 1,155 lives.

Mizushima himself did not know about the Tarumizu Maru disaster until 2006, when he attended a meeting in Kanoya, Kagoshima Prefecture, which hosted an Imperial Japanese Navy air base from which many kamikaze planes made sorties during World War II.

During the meeting, a locally published book looking back on the sinking was read. Mizushima said he was surprised that none of the participants, who were in their 50s and 60s, knew about the tragedy, although the victims were from towns and villages on the Osumi Peninsula, including Tarumizu and Kanoya.

Why is the incident so little known?

“It’s because the accident was so appalling that people refrained from talking about it,” Mizushima explained.

Asako Kawasaki, a member of a nonprofit group specializing in community development for Tarumizu that keeps records related to the sinking, said: “Many people saw the accident with their own eyes. It was both vivid and heartbreaking,” she said. “In addition, survivors had a sense of guilt about the very fact that they survived while many others died. That’s why people sealed off their memories.”

Hideo Kawabata, the father of Terushi and Akio, the two boys who left without Kawaida, actually saw the capsized Tarumizu Maru No. 6 while going to his mikan (mandarin orange) orchard, according to Kawaida. (Full disclosure: Hideo is a cousin of this reporter’s late father, Buei.)

“On that Sunday morning, Hideo Kawabata told his wife, Naru, not to let their two sons go together to Kagoshima, perhaps because he had a premonition that something bad might happen,” Kawaida said. “He knew that a lot of people would board the ferry due to the war situation. Then the worst thing that could happen happened, causing immense grief and pain to the family.”

Kawaida does not hide his own feelings of self-reproach.

“I myself feel that my mother died for me because she boarded the ferry to get medicine for me in Kagoshima as well as stocks of clothes for the family shop,” he said. “I also learned from survivors that Terushi was saying that morning, ‘Minoru hasn’t come. Where is he?’ I still have a lot of regret because I broke my promise with him and was not with him at his last moment. When I was well, I used to visit his tomb frequently — it was my way of apologizing to him.”

Kawaida, Terushi Kawabata and his 22 classmates — all wanting to enter junior high school in Kagoshima — used to go to the city on Sundays for medical treatment. Kawaida was being treated for a lung condition and the others for trachoma. The schools would not allow students with such diseases to take the entrance exams.

Akio Kawabata did not have a medical appointment but just happened to board the ferry for a fun visit to Kagoshima.

The Tarumizu Maru No. 6 backed away from the pier at 9:50 a.m. that morning, overloaded with passengers. It lurched to port at 9:54 a.m. when it turned to make headway to Kagoshima, then suddenly capsized some 180 meters from its departure point, according to the Maritime Accident Tribunal.

Although the ferry’s sinking was not a result of enemy action, the documentary by Mizushima, the professor, makes the claim that the calamity would not have happened had it not been for the war.

The reason is because the Imperial Japanese Army had planned to hold a visitation day for relatives and friends of soldiers in an auxiliary unit attached to the 45th Infantry Regiment in Kagoshima, on Feb. 6, 1944.

That made the day very special for many on the Osumi Peninsula whose loved ones belonged to the unit. A kind of festive mood prevailed as those looking forward to the meeting pounded rice to make mochi (glutinous rice cakes) for the soldiers and picked out their best clothes for the occasion.

One survivor, a woman who was going to meet her husband, said in the documentary, “Because the war was becoming intense, there was a rumor that this would be the last visitation day. So I dressed up.”

For those people wanting to visit the army unit, the ferry was the only way to get to Kagoshima. So more people scrambled aboard the Tarumizu Maru No. 6 than the 340 it could officially hold. A booking clerk remembers selling 660 tickets, with many who couldn’t get one running to the pier to get on the ship anyway.

A military officer with a sword had to threaten the ferry captain when he hesitated to steam off, the website of Tarumizu’s tourist information center says.

“The Tarumizu Maru No. 6 was a sacrifice to the war. With all the other ships on the Tarumizu-Kagoshima route requisitioned by the military, Tarumizu Kisen Co. was forced to operate just one round-trip service in the morning and another in the afternoon,” said Kawaida. “The ship was at the time the most stylish of all ships operating in Kagoshima Bay.”

There’s a tragic spinoff to the sinking. Soldiers who lost relatives in the disaster were temporarily discharged. But they were called up again and sent to Iwo Jima (now called Iwoto) to face the U.S. in one of the fiercest battles of the war from February to March 1945.

Efforts have been made to help keep the memory of the Tarumizu Maru sinking alive. It was only in 2009 that the association of relatives was established and in 2010 that the memorial cenotaph was built. A story based on the sinking is read during cultural festivals held at elementary and junior high schools in the area, Kawasaki said.

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