Mon, Aug 15, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Japanese flock to museums to peer into war's darkest days

Popular destinations include the Kure Maritime Museum in Tokyo, where visitors can learn about the `Yamato,' the massive battleship sunk by the Allies in 1945


Japan is seeing a surge of interest in World War II as it marks 60 years since its surrender, with veterans and the young alike packing military museums that for some serve as a warning never to return to battle.

Some 4,000 people are pouring into the Kure Maritime Museum west of Tokyo every day to look at a one-10th scale replica of the Yamato, the legendary Japanese battleship sunk in the closing days of the war.

Both young and old take photos in front of the 26m long replica, the main feature of the ?6.5 billion (US$58 million) museum built in April at Kure port, a former bastion of Japan's Imperial Navy.

"She was really great," says Shinao Katsuhira, a former gunner of the 5,897-tonne Yamato, the world's largest battleship at the time, now lying on the seabed in the East China Sea.

"The replica reminds me of the good old days and makes me recall my navy spirit," said Katsuhira, 82, who was away serving in Papua New Guinea when the Yamato was sunk off Japan's southwestern island of Kyushu on April 7, 1945.

Yamato is remembered as a tragic ship.

The mammoth vessel was first planned in 1933 as part of a naval strategy Japan formulated in 1905 when it stunned the world by crushing Russia at sea, the first such Asian defeat of a Western power.

But by the time the Yamato was launched in 1940, the main battleground of the war had shifted from the sea to the air.

Yamato's five-year-career was put to an end on its way to the Japanese island of Okinawa in a failed attempt to carry out a suicide attack on a US fleet.

In an attack that was said to have included almost 400 US planes and lasted some two hours, some accounts say the Yamato took at least 10 torpedoes and five bombs before listing and finally sinking.

Some 2,500 of Yamato's crew were killed, although 260 others miraculously survived.

In a sign of the enduring legacy of the saga, a star-studded cast has filmed a drama on the Yamato set for nationwide release later this year.

"When I was going to military school, even students laughed at Yamato as one of the world's three absurdly gigantic structures together with Egypt's pyramids and the Great Wall of China," Mitsuyoshi Kajimoto says.

"I don't want Yamato to be just a sightseeing attraction," adds the 79-year-old former midshipman, who helps run the Kure Navy Cemetery.

"I want visitors to realize that the war caused many victims. I want them not to repeat such a daredevil, stupid thing again," he says.

Japan has seen its relations slide this year with China and South Korea, which were occupied by Japan and accuse the nation of not atoning for its wartime atrocities.

They point to a textbook Japan approved in April that makes little mention of the dark deeds during imperial rule.

Like the older generation, young people born in a rebuilt and pacifist Japan feel a mix of awe and revulsion at the Yamato exhibit.

"It's really cool," says Suzumi Nakamoto, a 16-year-old schoolgirl wearing a torn denim miniskirt and a shoulder-strapped yellow shirt.

"I knew nothing about the ship before, but it appears to have been a manly place to work. I wish I could get on it," she says.

Hajime Hoshikawa, an eight-year-old elementary schoolboy, echoes the teenager.

"I like this ship because it was the greatest ship in Japan. But I don't respect the soldiers because they kill people," he says.

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