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A Japanese Town Wants UNESCO Recognition for Kamikaze Memorabilia


Tokko “kamikaze” pilots before their final mission. Image: Wikimedia.

The small town of Chiran in southern Japan has sparked global controversy after announcing it will seek UNESCO recognition for its collection of “kamikaze”-related documents.

In the final days of the Pacific War, as part of its campaign of industrialized total warfare where every element of society was mobilized in the war effort, Japan sent kamikaze pilots, better known as tokubetsu kogekitai (特別攻撃隊) or tokko in Japan, on suicide missions against American warships.

Chiran, now part of the municipality of Minamikyushu on the southwestern tip of Kyushu, once served as a base and departure point for tokko pilots. More than 1,000 pilots from Chiran alone went on to die on such suicide missions.

Before the young pilots flew to their deaths, many left behind letters, personal diaries, photographs, commemorative headbands and other memorabilia. Many of these items are preserved and are on display at the Chiran Peace Museum.

Minamikyushu is applying for these documents to be given UNESCO's “Memory of the World” status.

“With 70 years now passed since, this period of human experience is quickly vanishing from the realm of living memory,” Kampei Shimoide, mayor of Minamikyushu, said in a news release to the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Japan (FCCJ) announcing the UNESCO application. “It is in this solemn spirit that the city of Minamikyūshū is submitting for UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ recognition its collection of documents related to the tokko campaign in Chiran.”

UNESCO's Memory of the World programme is devoted to preserving historical documents, and sometimes confused with the UNESCO World Heritage list, which highlights natural heritage sites and human cultural achievements.

“This is not an attempt to glorify or rationalize Japan’s kamikaze legacy,” said Shimoide. “Rather, it is an attempt to share with the world this unique documentary record of a unique human experience to serve current and future generations of all nations as a permanent reminder of the horror of war and as a contribution to the cause of world peace.”

Comments about the announcement were mixed on popular English-language news Japan Today, which reported on Minamikyushu's bid for Memory of World status. Several commenters were unaware that the purpose of the Memory of World programme is to preserve important historical documents rather than celebrate cultural achievements.

One commenter on the Japan Today story said:

Some kamikaze pilots also violated the Geneva Convention by attacking hospital ships. This was a war crime, and the UN shouldn't entertain the underlying suggestion here in this UNESCO application that military combatants in “desperate conditions” can be forgiven for violating the Convention. If Japanese soldiers had followed the Geneva Convention (which they were required to do), their “horror of war” would have come to an end much sooner.

According to another commenter:

This is part of Japan's history and should be preserved, hopefully as cautionary artifacts, and made available for public viewing. However, I do not believe they should receive UNESCO certification.

Another commenter pointed out that, in order to achieve Memory of the Word status, the Japanese Ministry of Education must approve the application. According the Minamikyushi website, the commenter says, so far the Japanese government has rejected the application.

M.G. Sheftall, a history professor at Japan’s Shizuoka University and an adviser for Minami Kyushu's Minamikyushu project, said the group would drop the plan if any effort was made by the authorities to distort its message.

Sheftall is the author of Blossoms in the Wind, a book about the Kamikaze pilots that incorporates interviews with tokko corps survivors and extensive research of primary sources, such as the letters, diaries and other documents that Minamikyushu hopes preserve with Memory of World status.

The full press conference can be viewed here:

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