Kamikaze, the Original Suicide Bombers?

Today, Chiran has become a testament to Japan's renewed fascination with the suicide pilots. It's now home to the country's largest kamikaze museum, which attracts nearly 1 million visitors a year. Many are moved to tears by the haunting faces of the boys about to die and the emotional poems and farewell letters they wrote.

"At the moment of death," a visitor remarked, "they must have been calling out for their mothers."

The museum has become a favorite of Japanese nationalists, who want Japan to stop apologizing for the war and to build a strong military again. For them, the kamikaze embodied Japan's samurai warrior spirit and should be idolized.

‘They Could Not Back Down’

That's exactly what Akihisa Torihama hopes will never happen. He is the grandson of Tore Torihama, a woman once called the kamikaze's "mama-san." She ran a small restaurant in Chiran where many of the pilots had their last meals and confided all the things they could not say in their heavily censored letters home.

"My grandmother told me the boys knew the war was lost, knew their lives were being thrown away by their commanders," he said through a translator. "They flew their missions because the social pressures on them were so great, they could not back down."

Today, he has transformed the old restaurant into an alternative kamikaze museum, to keep alive the message passed on by his grandmother — that the suicide pilots were not heroes, but the victims of fanaticism.

And what's the verdict of the surviving kamikaze? Kuniki says he has no regrets.

"My nation and my family were in danger," he said. "History will judge if we were right or wrong."

But Onuki said it was wrong to waste so many young lives.

"Yes, we volunteered, but we were ordered to volunteer," he said. "It could have taken real courage to disobey that order."

‘Not a Single Civilian’

The surviving kamikaze, like most Japanese, bristle at suggestions that the kamikaze were the same as the al Qaeda suicide pilots.

"They killed only military personnel," Kase said. "Not a single civilian."

That distinction is not lost on Spiro, who as an American sailor who faced the kamikaze in combat.

"At least it was a military tactic and they were not attacking our wives, children, friends, mothers," Spiro said.

Still, there's no question that recent events have cast Japan's suicide pilots and their motivations in a very new light.

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