Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots, Minamikyushu, Kagoshima Prefecture

Originally built in 1974, the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots commemorates the lives of the kamikazes that left from Chiran airbase during World War II. Established as a flight training school for young air cadets in 1941, the Chiran airbase was only used as a launching site for kamikaze attacks towards the end of the war when it looked as though the US forces would win the Battle of Okinawa. One of many kamikaze bases throughout Japan and Japanese-occupied Taiwan, Chiran was home to over a thousand pilots who were nationally proclaimed as ‘thunder gods’ and promised divinity in their afterlife by senior command. Although the exact number of Japanese airmen killed in kamikaze attacks is unknown, it is thought at least 1,036 army kamikazes were killed in the Battle of Okinawa - a third of them classified as young boy pilots.

Entering the Museum for Kamikaze Pilots, visitors are met with the individual photographs of all 1,036 men who died in the army’s suicide missions. Lining the walls of the exhibition space, the photographs are paired with personal items donated by the pilots' families – military uniforms, notebooks, diaries, goggles, hachimaki headbands and flags inscribed with motivational messages from families and friends. Additional photographs and personal letters to loved ones uncover the mixed emotions many pilots experienced before commencing their final mission. Whilst most of the interpretative panels are in Japanese, a number of personal letters and diaries have been translated into English and can be accessed via electronic touch screens.

As well as personal artifacts, the museum displays four original planes used in suicide missions, including a Mitsubishi Zero fighter that was recovered from the ocean in 1980. Outside the museum, a replica barracks offers visitors an insight into the living arrangements the pilots experienced, whilst a number of statues and shrines throughout the grounds provide a space to commemorate the pilots and offer prayers. 1,036 stone lanterns are scattered throughout the park to honour each of the fallen pilots.

With thousands of domestic tourists and school children visiting the museum every year, there is some debate about the mission of the museum and the way it memorialises the kamikaze pilots. While the museum states the purpose of the space is “to commemorate the pilots and expose the tragic loss of their lives so that we may understand the need for everlasting peace and ensure such incidents are never repeated”, others believe that the museum glorifies the men and encourages more vocal right wing nationalistic ideas. As one journalist writes, the museum is more about inspiring sorrow for lost youth than critically analysing the past.

Similar debates have arisen in response to the nomination of the farewell notes of the Kamikaze to the Memory of the World Program. Countries such as China and South Korea were directly opposed to the nomination, stating the 333 items being put forward romanticise the role of the kamikazes in World War II and ignore the devastation they incurred. Alternatively, Japan saw the nomination as a way to preserve the story of the kamikazes and promote the need to eliminate war. The nomination was rejected in 2014.