In the latter years of World War II, as Japan was pressed back from her Pacific conquests, 1036 army pilots sortied from air bases in the southern part of Japan.
They would never return.
Their memories live on however, at the Chiran Peace Memorial Museum for kamikaze pilots (known in Japanese as tokko), an incredibly detailed and poignant exhibition that sits on the outskirts of the lovely samurai town of Chiran. Here, pictures of the over one thousand army pilots who perished in the kamikaze cause adorn the walls while military paraphernalia – planes, uniforms and documents – form the bulk of the exhibit. English information is incredibly sparse, which is why the audio guide is absolutely necessary. You can simply walk around to see the numerous faces, but only the audio guide will share their stories. The pilot who crashed on an island south of Kagoshima but was determined to make a final flight and rowed back to the mainland so he could sortie again. The officer who demanded that at least his unit have decent, workable planes in which to meet their doom (he was denied). The pilot whose wife and children tragically took their own lives so that he would feel more at peace with his own impending death. Each pilot’s last letters are displayed below his picture. Whether you can read them or not, it’s a moving sight.
The audio guide takes about a good hour and a half to go through and it doesn’t even cover all of the sections of the museum. Japanese speakers/readers might find themselves engaged here for much longer, reading through all of the displays. While some of the planes on display are replicas, at least one fighter – a Zero – was pulled from the ocean and sent here for display. There is also a reconstructed barracks outside, giving you the idea of the spartan accommodation the pilots endured in their final days.
War sites are a delicate thing in Japan. In some cases, they are heart-rending and slightly guilt-inducing, as is the case with the museums at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Both are worth a visit, in my opinion.) In other cases, they are bombastic and clearly presented from a slanted point of view (ie the history museum at Yasukuni Shrine). The Chiran Peace Museum walks a fine line between glorifying the pilots and glorifying the cause. For the most part, I feel they succeed. While there is the occasional glossed over comment in the English commentary that made me raise my eyebrows (referring to the conflict merely as the Pacific War for the entire script), the focus here is on the pilots. Their lives, their stories, the impact they had on others during their short time on earth. It makes you remember that, in spite of national attitudes or policies, this was a war fought by people – often people with few choices – and those people deserve to be remembered.
Chiran is best reached by car or bus from Kagoshima or Ibusuki. The museum website provides details on visiting times and prices, as well as giving a pictorial overview of the exhibit. On site, pictures are not allowed, a policy that is strictly enforced.