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Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2000

Among the ghosts of the kamikaze


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD

CHIRAN, Kagoshima Pref. -- An aerial view of the Satsuma Peninsula, glimpsed from a light, low-flying craft such as a glider, would reveal a pastoral landscape of striking warmth, with green volcanic peaks, white stucco-faced houses and time-worn hot-spring inns tucked away down leafy lanes. In this emerald garden, the oil refineries and fuel dumps of Kagoshima to the north seem a world away.

The figure of a kamikaze pilot incised into one of the hundreds of stone lanterns that line the approach to Chiran's Tokko Heiwa Kaikan.

Such must have been the view, little changed today, that the tokko-tai (special attack forces), better known in the West as kamikaze pilots, flying from Chiran and other bases in southern Kyushu, would have taken in on the first leg of their one-way missions. Although Chiran is more strongly associated in the traveler's mind with walled lanes, one-story samurai villas, tea plantations and a set of wonderfully intricate, miniature Edo Period gardens, than World War II aviation, visitors should not pass up the opportunity to view the Tokko Heiwa Kaikan (Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots), a 3-km taxi or bus ride into the hills north of town.

The grounds of the museum, as meticulously laid out as the Commonwealth Graves Commission cemeteries for fallen Allied soldiers and personnel found in Thailand and Myanmar, are a fitting, if at times perplexing memorial to the 1036 tokko-tai pilots who flew from Chiran.

Established in January 1942 as a military airfield and training camp for the Imperial Air Force, it was inaugurated by a practice plane called the "red dragonfly" the following month. The war turned against Japan, however, and from April 1945 onward the aerodrome was requisitioned as a base for the special attack forces.

The unit was founded by Vice Adm. Ryutaro Onishi as a volunteer elite. In the final months of the year, however, the last Kikusui (Floating Chrysanthemum) formations were often made up of conscripts, many still in their teens. Planes were loaded up with thousands of tons of explosives, but only enough fuel, usually about two hours' worth, to reach their target, the armada of U.S. ships lying off the Okinawa coast. Pilots at Chiran, who often carried talismans, were given a brief Shinto blessing, a last cigarette and a cup of sake before taking off.

A rather splendid plane, superior to the hastily refurbished trainers most flew, greets visitors to the open space beside the museum where the statue of a pilot, the Tokko Kannon, provides the backdrop for tour-group photos. One thousand thirty-six strips of wood, each inscribed with the name of a pilot who perished, were placed inside the statue before it was sealed.

Another statue on the other side of the plaza depicts the figure of a mother peering proudly up at the skies above Chiran. Although the number diminishes with each passing year, guides and curators here have been recruited in the past from the ranks of ex-kamikaze pilots, those saved from joining their comrades by adverse weather, lack of fuel, or mechanical failure.

Visitors to the museum grounds often overlook a small Nissen hut, a building of the starkest simplicity, nestled in a copse of trees behind an altar, and a stone which has the names of all Chiran's lost pilots inscribed on it. Squat and partially sunken in the manner of an air-raid shelter, visitors shuffle through the dim and stuffy interior, an earthen floor passing between two raised platforms covered in rush mats and neatly folded blankets and futons, the olive and brown of military bedding, still in place. This Spartan setting, beneath an asbestos and cinder roof, is where pilots spent their last night.

The museum's centerpiece, its Peace Hall, was completed in 1975. Its collection, though chilling, is more sentimental than gruesome, with drawers full of uniforms, flying gear and adolescent mascots, its walls and cabinets bristling with letters and photos. In one image, a pilot tightens a rising-sun hachimaki head scarf, a symbol of samurai valor and pre-battle composure, around the head of a doomed but smiling youth. Another shows a boy, still in his teens, being presented with a puppy to cheer him in the remaining few hours left before takeoff.

"Why are they all so handsome?" asks writer Norma Field in one of her books, "the young men -- boys, many of them -- at least in the photos? And their letters so beautifully written, with brush, often explicitly cast as last testaments to their families. Always an apology for not being able to return the kindness of their parents, for going ahead of them . . ." The silk scarves, aviators' goggles and fearless expressions certainly make them look like dashing heroes, avatars of the skies.

Death begets death, however, and the pity of war, its absolute pathos, is brought home in telling details. Knowing their remains could never be returned to their families, for example, we learn that envelopes containing nail clippings and locks of hair were dispatched to mothers. In the faltering days of the war, cruel tricks of fate of an almost Shakespearean dimension were not uncommon. One son, learning that he would not after all have to fly his mission, returned home, only to discover that his mother, upon receipt of his package of death mementos, had already drowned herself.

Hundreds of cherry trees, a longtime favorite of the Japanese military, dot the crest of the hill on which the museum is located. The trees, synonymous with the desperately brief lives of the boy pilots, add poignancy to the scene, as they are no doubt meant to. Rather than being a monument to the antiwar movement as some people have generously interpreted the site, the Peace Museum is essentially a memorial to the repose of the spirits of the lost pilots.

Although a taxi or bus will get you there in just five minutes, the longer, uphill walk from Chiran to the museum provides more interest, with well-preserved watch towers, ammunition dumps and a long line of stone lanterns carved with figures of tokko-tai pilots lining the approach to the museum.

The Peace Museum, with the images it invokes, the moral questions it stirs and the ghosts it momentarily raises, is not for everyone, but Chiran's homage to a lost generation deserves a larger visitor response than the occasional bus loads of tourists, the few surviving cadet pilots, and still-grieving relatives of those who vanished into the Pacific.



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