A Japanese kamikaze heads for the USS Missouri during the Battle of Okinawa in the Pacific Ocean on April 11, 1945. / AP
TOKYO - A request that farewell letters from World War II kamikaze pilots be included in a U.N. world heritage agency's trove of treasured documents threatens to drag the organization into a battle over revisionist views as the international community commemorates the 70th anniversary of D-Day on Friday.
The city of Minami-Kyushu in southern Japan wants about 300 letters and wills written by the Japanese suicide pilots in the waning months of World War II to be added to the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Memory of the World Register, a program designed to preserve documents of global and historical significance such as the Magna Carta, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the diary of Anne Frank.
"Through inclusion in the Memory of the World Register, we hope to transmit to a wider audience the real voices and feelings that are contained in the wills of the 'special attack' pilots, who became victims of the national war policy," said Kanpei Shimoide, Minami-Kyushu's mayor.
Some questioned whether the nomination - which the Japan National Commission for UNESCO will decide whether to endorse next week -is appropriate.
"The topic of kamikazes as a Memory of the World nomination seems a bit shocking," said Michael Pearson, chairman of the Australian National University's Institute for Professional Practice in Heritage and the Arts in Canberra. "On the face of it, it seems to be an overflow of the recent revival of Japanese military revisionism into heritage, which would be a bit worrying."
The request comes amid deepening concern over a rightward drift in Japanese society. Relations between Japan and its neighbors plummeted after a visit in December by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class A war criminals - senior wartime leaders of Japan, including Army Gen. Hideki Tojo, who served as prime minister from 1941 to 1944 - are enshrined along with other war dead.
Recent statements by right-wing leaders and activists denying Japanese atrocities and other wartime excesses are also drawing fire. In February, the U.S. State Department delivered an angry rebuke when a senior Abe appointee charged that victorious Americans had fabricated war crime charges against Japanese leaders to cover up American atrocities.
In neighboring China and South Korea, the kamikaze letter nomination was denounced as part of an effort by right-wing agents to portray Japan as a victim of the war, rather than a perpetrator.
"The design behind the so-called application for the kamikaze pilots is very clear - which is to try and beautify the Japanese militarist history," said Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for China's foreign ministry.
Nearly 4,000 Japanese pilots - many of them barely trained teenagers - died in suicide attacks against American and Allied forces in the final months of World War II. About 10,000 Americans were killed or wounded in those attacks.
More than 1,000 wills and farewell letters - including those nominated for the Memory of the World Register - are maintained in Minami-Kyushu at the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots at the site of a former kamikaze air base.
"The magnificent day of my attack sortie has arrived," wrote 23-year-old pilot Toshi Anazawa to his fiancée, Chieko, on April 12, 1945. The museum said the translated letter was representative of others in the nomination package.
"Take courage, forget the past, and find new ways to be happy in the future," Anazawa told his fiancée. He lamented about the books he would not live to read and artworks he would not live to see. "You have to live from now on in the reality of each moment. I, Anazawa, no longer exist in the world of reality."
M.G. Sheftall, professor of Modern Japanese Cultural History and Communication at Shizuoka University, said the nomination reveals a "drastic disconnect" in how supporters and war revisionists view the kamikazes compared with the rest of the world, including many Japanese.
"It is impossible for anyone not blindered by the lingering effects of World War II Japanese propaganda to read those letters and not hear the death screams of the young men who wrote them - or not see those letters as evidence of the insanity into which a community can be pushed when it is in the losing stages of such a war and driven close to self-extermination by its own propaganda," said Sheftall, author of a book on the history of the kamikaze, Blossoms in the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze.
Roslyn Russell, chairperson of the UNESCO Australian National Committee for the Memory of the World program, cautioned against condemning the nomination.
"I can certainly understand why people would be concerned," Russell said. "But it's very important that people understand that Memory of the World isn't just about the good documents. It can be about things that are not always liked by people. It's about influence and impact. If the documents have had an impact or influence on people in the world, that's significant."
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