AS A hairy 6ft 2in foreigner, you stand out anywhere you go in Japan – but perhaps nowhere more so than walking around the Chiran Peace Museum. Dedicated to the memory of some of the 1,400 kamikaze pilots who gave their lives for the Emperor at the end of World War II, the site is the former airbase from which Japanese army pilots flew most of the suicide sorties against the US fleet off Okinawa in 1944 and 1945.
From our perspective, this was a nasty form of warfare and the West’s opinion of suicide bombers hasn’t improved in recent years. When you are in Japan, however, as is often the case, things look very different. Reading letters from these young men you cannot fail to be moved by their courage and devotion to duty. Up against impossible odds, the only weapon they thought they had left was their own lives, which they gave to protect their families and the land of their birth.
With the passing of time, it’s easier to appreciate their bravery as you read the tear-jerking messages they sent to loved ones – mostly parents as the majority were too young to have had wives or even girlfriends. One old enough to have a daughter, Motoko, was 25-year-old Lt Sanehisa Uemura, who wrote: ‘In my aeroplane I keep as a charm a doll you had as a toy when you were born. So it means Motoko was together with father. I tell you this because my being here without your knowing makes my heart ache.’
The museum contains aircraft, weapons and uniforms, photos of each pilot and a reconstruction of the barrack room they slept in on their last night on earth. Many of their last letters were found under tear-stained pillows by the cleaners and smuggled out past military censors. Chiran is on the outskirts of Kagoshima and has long links with the samurai tradition.
Near the museum, you can visit 250-year-old samurai houses that still belong to the same few families of warriors. An English-speaking guide will explain some of the bewildering nuances of gate styles denoting places in the intricate hierarchy. Mostly you’ll just admire the craftsmanship of the houses themselves – all tatami mats and sliding wooden doors – and the individual artistry of each garden.
The samurai here were the Shimazu clan of the Satsuma domain (yes, where the oranges come from). In 1865, 17 of them took on a top-secret mission that was to change Japan for ever. Defying a ban from central government they sailed to Victorian England to learn the secrets of the British Empire. Returning home, they converted sword-making skills to cannon-making and introduced other industrial breakthroughs such as steam engines.
At Senganen, in the shadow of Mount Sakurajima, the original Satsuma industrial site shows off some of that early technology as well as a breathtaking collection of traditional arts, including a vast display of truly beautiful imperial dolls. The nearby Iso-teien gardens are worth a visit too for their various styles, including a small stream where courtiers would float poems to each other. A cat shrine was set up by Lord Yoshihiri in the 16th century and cat-lovers still leave messages on wooden plaques, hoping for good things for their feline chums.
Perhaps leaving their cats and dolls behind them but bristling with their new weaponry and modern tactics, in 1867 the Satsuma clan marched on Tokyo to remove the Shogun, restoring the Emperor and bringing Japan into the modern era. One of those 17 students – noted womaniser Ito Hirobumi – in 1885 became the country’s first prime minister.
This Meiji Restoration and a later rebellion for the rights of the samurai led by Satsuma hero Saigo Takamori were immortalised in The Last Samurai, with Tom Cruise lending the ‘backward’ Japanese a hand – Hollywood never letting any facts get in the way of a good story. The film does show the xenophobia in Japan towards the humiliations imposed by foreigners and we need to step back in time to tell of the death of English merchant Charles Lennox Richardson who, in 1862, was out riding near Tokyo when he met the retinue of the Lord of Satsuma.
Ignorant of the correct protocol, he was cut down by a samurai sword for bad manners, causing outrage in London. In short order, a gunboat had bombarded Kagoshima and a large amount of compensation was handed over. Impressed with this show of force, the Satsumas then signed a treaty with Britain and soon after sent their students to University College London, starting Japan’s fascination with the odd English way of life.
And that’s why you can find a No.37 Routemaster, a red phone box, Sherlock Holmes, a guardsman and a fine collection of Earl Grey tea, cups, pots and doilies in the Anglo-Satsuma museum in Chiran. Mr Richardson’s sad story is told through the pages of the Illustrated London News of the time, while a copy of the receipt for the £100,000 compensation takes pride of place among the Welsh dressers and bowler hats.
Oddly, I felt less out of place in the Peace Museum.