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A museum in Japan humanizes kamikaze pilots. But it also glorifies them.

An institution devoted to World War II suicide pilots reflects a dilemma for any nation telling its story about war or other dark times.

By David Waddell

I’m walking along a road in Chiran, Japan, lined with 1,000 stone lanterns — each one representing the life of a pilot who died on a suicide mission in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. The lanterns and the road lead to the Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots. It’s built on the site of a former air base in southwest Japan, the closest point on the country’s mainland from which the Japanese launched attacks on enemy warships.

This is the largest kamikaze museum in Japan, opened in 1975 and visited by 700,000 people a year, and an extreme example of a universal impulse to write our own history. While the museum is designed as a somber experience, it also stirs up feelings of patriotism — which underscores a dilemma for any nation telling its story about war or other dark times. They say that the victors write history, but it’s also written by the vanquished. Either way, it’s sometimes easier to glorify the fight than to deal with the lessons from the past.

Japanese leaders dubbed their suicide pilots “kamikaze,” a word that means “divine wind,” a reference to the fortuitous typhoons that repelled the successive Mongol invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281. Nearing defeat in World War II, the Japanese hoped the gods would intervene again to spare them foreign occupation. But in truth, they had to create their own painful fortune: In 1944, Captain Motoharu Okamura proposed crashing bomb-laden planes into Allied aircraft carriers and destroyers to turn the tide of the war, an echo of the samurai tradition of death before surrender.

A restored fighter at the Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots. Photo by Yuri Kageyama/Associated Press. Top photo of a display of kamikaze pilots by David Guttenfelder/Associated Press.

Westerners often see the kamikaze as fanatics who readily died for the emperor. However, anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierny’s research indicates that the truth of the matter is far more complex. After reviewing an extensive collection of pilots’ letters and diaries, she concluded that many of them were victims of propaganda, peer pressure, and coercion. Surprisingly, a large number of kamikaze were university students.

Local people wanting to honor the memory of the pilots helped create the museum, which opened on the site of the former airbase in Chiran in 1975. The collection includes a couple of well-preserved fighter planes and the tattered remains of a Mitsubishi Zero that was retrieved from the bottom of the ocean. It also displays personal items from pilots and assorted military memorabilia, such as swords, flags, manuals, uniforms, flight goggles, and flight suits. Photos and videos of grainy footage show kamikaze diving through flak-blackened skies. Outside the museum there is a reproduction of a pilots’ barracks. Most of the displays are written in Japanese and English. An audio tour is available in English, Chinese, and Korean.

Visiting this place is an emotional experience. The main exhibit consists of a replica fighter plane and statues of ground crew waving farewell to departing pilots.

Japan is hardly the only country to sanitize its history.

The aircraft is surrounded by photos of the pilots, as well as their last letters and personal effects. The displays also contain locks of hair and fingernail clippings that they sent to their families before going to battle. On the day I went last spring, a number of visitors wept as they listened to the guide’s commentary on the fate of the fallen.

The photo gallery of the pilots who perished is equally moving: hundreds of proud, stern faces peer out from black and white pictures. Most of them were between the ages of 18 and 25 years old, but some were just 17.

The letters that they composed to their loved ones before being sent to their deaths are poignant. One reflects the resignation about dying and the patriotism that some of them felt:

“Insignificant little pebbles that we are

 The degree of our devotion for our country does not falter

 As we move towards our final resting place.”

Like many others in the museum that day, I lingered for a moment of quiet reflection over the pilots’ youth and the reasons they made the ultimate sacrifice. Between April and June 1945, a total of 1,036 kamikaze pilots died while killing an estimated 4,500 Allied navy personnel. The kamikaze sunk 34 enemy ships and damaged another 364, almost one-quarter of the invasion fleet. American forces bore most of the attacks. But the suicide tactics didn’t affect the war’s outcome: Japan surrendered that August.

Although the museum aims to educate people about the tragedy of war, it seems to canonize the pilots. A mawkish painting shows a kamikaze surrounded by angels ascending to heaven as flames engulf his plane. The museum tells us the pilots were volunteers who died fighting for “peace and prosperity.” In reality, they were pawns in a desperate strategy.

The museum also fails to put Japan’s involvement in World War II into a broader historical context. It makes no mention of the suffering its military inflicted on neighboring Asian nations and Allied POWs. Other war museums in Japan suffer from the same sort of amnesia, rarely mentioning the nation’s role as an aggressor.

Visitors walk by a display of beds where young kamikaze pilots rested before takeoff. Photo by Yuri Kageyama/Associated Press.

Japan is hardly the only country to sanitize its history. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has encouraged a rehabilitation of Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator responsible for the murder of millions between the 1920s and 1950s; a war museum focused on Stalin, three hours west of Moscow, raves about Stalin’s military prowess but includes no critical commentary about him. Last year, Poland banned references to Polish guilt for Nazi war crimes, but reduced the maximum penalty from prison time to a fine after a worldwide outcry. This year, the Polish government blocked the reappointment of a Polish-Jewish history museum’s director, who spoke out against the law. And this summer, when the New York Times’ 1619 Project argued that aspects of American life, from capitalism to traffic jams, have slavery’s legacy at their core, some vocal conservatives denounced the project as propaganda.

Old international conflicts often live on in museums and history books, as the citizens of once-rival nations tell dueling stories of the conflict. Cuba’s Museo Giron tells the story of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in a very different way from Miami’s Bay of Pigs Museum & Library, maintained by Cuban-exile veterans of the CIA-backed attack. And Americans whose knowledge of the War of 1812 revolves around “The Star-Spangled Banner” or the Battle of New Orleans might be surprised to read Canadian historians’ accounts of the war as a multifront U.S. invasion of Canada.

In Japan, nearly 50 years after the Peace Museum first opened, the population is grappling again with how to describe the nation’s history and identity. As tensions on the Korean Peninsula have escalated and China has grown more brazen with its territorial ambitions, hawks in Japan have demanded that the pacifist constitution be revised. Prime Minister Abe is spearheading controversial legislation that would permit Japan’s Self Defense Forces to assist in conflicts overseas. That’s led to concern in China and Korea that Japan could return to its belligerent past.

A model of a Japanese fighter plane on display at the Chiran museum. Photo by David Guttenfelder/Associated Press.

But it’s highly unlikely that militarism would ever sweep this nation again. Japan’s economy is heavily dependent on trade with the rest of Asia, and the vast majority of Japanese today are opposed to the use of force to settle disputes.

In the past several years, movies like “The Eternal Zero” and “For Those We Love” have celebrated the bravery of the kamikaze pilots, but filmmaker and anti-war critic Hayao Miyazaki claims they merely perpetuate the “myths” surrounding kamikaze.

Meanwhile, the Peace Museum continues to tell its emotional version of events to a steady stream of visitors. In Japan, as in the rest of the world, patriotism and history co-exist uneasily. When a clear view of the past challenges national pride, countries and their museums often rewrite history into comforting, misleading tales.

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David Waddell is a writer based in Kyoto, Japan.

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