MINAMIKYUSHU, Japan — If a Japanese city has its way, the last letters home from World War II kamikaze pilots could be listed on a U.N. registry that seeks to recognize and preserve culturally important film, art and historical documents.
The letters, vetted by military censors, offer a striking glimpse into the minds of Imperial Japanese soldiers during the war: Some vow to kill American servicemembers, while others express sadness at their impending death.
“We had been thinking about a way to send out a message that there should be no wars to the world and how to eliminate wars,” said Takeshi Kawatoko, a retired Japanese Army colonel who now is an official at the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots, the old kamikaze air base-turned-custodian for the letters.
“We learned about a way to plead [our message] to the world.”
Minamikyushu, the city in southern Japan where the museum is located, submitted a proposal on Feb. 4, seeking recognition for 333 letters and farewell notes out of their museum collection — items that can be directly correlated to a specific pilot.
Officials from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo declined to comment and would not say whether the U.S. government would oppose such a move. Officials from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said a listing on the Memory of the World Register does not honor any person or event, nor does it indicate approval or endorsement.
Inclusion in the registry serves to raise awareness for the need to preserve historical records and understand different belief systems and ideologies as well as the motivation behind certain actions. The decision for inscription is made by a panel of experts working within a range of criteria to determine authenticity, world significance and uniqueness or rarity, UNESCO officials said. A decision on the letters is expected by mid-2015.
“Its registers serve to highlight those items that have had an influence, either positive or negative, on the course of history,” said Joie Springer, the program specialist responsible for Memory of the World. “From this perspective, they contribute to UNESCO’s mandate of building peace in the minds of men and women.”
The registry includes a wide assortment of entries from The Wizard of Oz to the Magna Carta. It also includes other items that might be deemed controversial, from archives of human rights abuses to records from the Holocaust and slavery.
“None of these generated any discussion in the press when they were listed, so presumably these records were not considered controversial,” Springer said. “The listing of slavery records did not commemorate their inherent atrocities or condone the practice.”
Just under half of the 1,036 army kamikaze to die in the battle for Okinawa at the end of World War II flew from Chiran, museum officials said. The majority were teens or college age — called “the young boy pilots.”
Their story in particular was uniquely tragic.
The base in Chiran, a small village that has since been absorbed by Minamikyushu, was set up in December 1941 as a branch of the Tachiarai Military Pilot School, museum officials said.
Aerial suicide attacks weren’t used until October 1944 at the Battle of Leyte, named for the typhoon that defeated Kublai Khan as he tried to invade Japan from the sea in 1281.
In March 1945 — with American forces bearing down on Okinawa and the Japanese mainland — the air base switched its focus to the kamikaze to “save” Japan’s mainland. The operation was over by July, with 439 dead from Chiran.
Before departing for their final mission, they left behind about 4,000 letters and other writings that are on display at the museum along with other items.
“Dear Mother,” wrote 2nd Lt. Haruo Ohhashi, who died at the age of 27 on April 1, 1945. “How have you been? I feel that my 28 years of life was like a dream. I thank you for your effort and love for me during these 28 years.”
“So I will go today with bravery. As for my wife Ayako, please take care of her. We did not have a formal wedding ceremony yet. And we wanted to go home for once. However, we could not until now.”
Many pilots ate their last meals at the nearby Tomiya restaurant, owned and operated by Tome Torihama, their “mother” away from home. It is widely accepted that the letters left at the air base were largely written under the thumb of military censors so they might not reflect the true feelings of the pilots. Uncensored letters were left with Torihama.
Torihama fought for the pilots to be acknowledged, even as Japanese public opinion about the war reversed after it ended. Until her death, she maintained these were young men who were forced to die for something they didn’t fully believe in.
These letters are not included in the package sent to the U.N., museum officials said. However, the proposal is supported by Torihama’s grandson, Akihisa, who runs the Hotaru-kan, or Firefly House, a museum that showcases items left behind with his grandmother.
“They only included letters at Chiran Peace Museum, which were censored,” said Akihisa, who hopes the recognition might bring visitors to his museum as well. “This was also the truth under the military administration, so I support the submission.”