Mon, Jul 09, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Kamikaze increasingly symbolizes Japanese pride

STRONG FORCE Kamikaze, which means `divine wind,' was the name of a legendary typhoon that stopped the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan's invasion of Japan in 1281


Three women look at photos of Japanese kamikaze pilots hanging on a wall at the Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots in Chiran, Japan, on Wednesday.


On April 12, 1945, Lieutenant Shinichi Uchida faced a terrifying mission -- crash his plane into a US warship. But the young kamikaze's final letter to his grandparents was full of bravado.

"Now I'll go and get rid of those devils," the 18-year-old wrote shortly before his final flight, vowing to "bring back the neck" of President Franklin Roosevelt. He never returned.

For many, such words are redolent of the militarism that drove Japan to ruin in World War II. But for an increasingly bold cadre of conservatives, Uchida's words symbolize something else: just the kind of guts and commitment that Japanese youth need today.

Long a synonym for the waste of war, the suicidal flyers are now being glorified in a film written by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, a well-known nationalist and co-author of the 1989 book The Japan That Can Say No. And a museum about the kamikazes in the southern town of Chiran, near the airstrip where Uchida and others took off, gets more than 500,000 visitors a year.

"The worries, sufferings, and misgivings of these young people ... are something we cannot find in today's society," Ishihara said when his movie, I Go to Die For You, opened this spring.

"That is what makes this portrait of youth poignant and cruel, and yet so exceptionally beautiful," he said.

No one is publicly calling for young Japanese to kill themselves for the nation these days. But the renewed hero-worship of the kamikazes coincides with a general trend in Japanese society toward seeing the country's war effort as noble, and mourning the fading of the ethic of self-sacrifice amid today's wealth.

The government has stepped up efforts to expunge accounts of Japanese atrocities from history books and reinstate patriotic instruction in the public schools. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, like his popular predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, is pushing to revise the pacifist Constitution.

The estimated 4,000 kamikaze -- or "divine wind" -- pilots were named after a legendary typhoon that foiled the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan's invasion of Japan in 1281. Chiran museum officials say as many as 90 percent failed to reach the US warships they were meant to attack.

Despite the pilots' reputation abroad as suicidal fanatics, Japanese hearts have always had a soft spot for the kamikazes. Long celebrated in movies, books and comic books, the pilots are seen as innocent young men forced by a desperate military into sacrificing their lives to protect their country.

Ishihara's film plays these tragic-hero sentiments to the hilt, with a strong dose of patriotism: Strapping young pilots proudly sing war songs and down cups of sake before taking off, while townspeople kneel in tearful gratitude as they fly overhead. Girls paint Rising Sun flags with their own blood.

The film is set in Chiran, about 1,000km southwest of Tokyo. From here 402 pilots took off, among them Uchida, whose fate remains unknown.

Today's kamikaze-boosters deny they are pro-war, and indeed, the Ishihara film does not shy away from the futility of the suicide missions. But the nationalist sentiment is clear.

While insisting to reporters that the movie's message is anti-war, director Taku Shinjo said Japan launched the war in Asia in self-defense, and that the decision to send young men on suicide missions was the only option left as the conflict neared its end.

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