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Scenes of Heisei: Kure Port faces dilemma of hosting base near A-bombed city

Volunteer guide Mitsuharu Kawanishi says he wants to convey "the importance of human lives, the misery of wars and the preciousness of peace through the history of the Battleship Yamato," at the Yamato Museum in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture. (Mainichi/ Tsukimi Goda)

KURE, Hiroshima -- In the Japanese manga series "In This Corner of the World," which portrays ordinary people's lives during World War II, is a scene showing the Battleship Yamato at a port here, reminding us of the wartime history of this western Japan city hosting a major military port.

"What is that?" asks Suzu, the young protagonist woman in the comic, to her husband Shusaku. They were in a terraced field looking over Kure Port. Suzu was a stranger to the seascape as she moved to the area from the city of Hiroshima to marry her husband.

"That's the Yamato! Have a good look at it. That's the world's greatest battleship produced at this port, the best military port in Asia," her husband replies emphatically.

The manga authored by Fumiyo Kono was first adapted into a TV drama in August 2011, and later into the namesake animated feature film in 2016. Another TV drama based on the manga was aired this summer.

Even today, the city of Kure offers a glimpse of the days when it was a military port city. From the "Rekishi no Mieru Oka (a hill with a historic view)" park, one can enjoy a commanding view of the large roofs that once covered the dockyard of the Kure Naval Arsenal, where the Battleship Yamato was built. The site is now owned by a shipbuilding company.

In 1992, a Self-Defense Forces (SDF) unit to be dispatched for United Nations peacekeeping operations in Cambodia departed from Kure Port, the first SDF mission of its kind overseas ever.

The blockbuster film "In This Corner of the World," directed by Sunao Katabuchi, has attracted a throng of tourists to Kure, and one of their destinations is the Yamato Museum that opened in 2005, featuring the history of the Battleship Yamato. Every year, nearly 1 million people flock to the museum, many of them youngsters including students on school trips.

-- Conveying the 'truth' to young generations

"The distinctive feature of the Yamato is this 46-centimeter-caliber main gun, the world's largest," explains Mitsuharu Kawanishi, 77, a volunteer guide at the museum, in front of a 26-meter-long replica of the Battleship Yamato, which is one-tenth of the actual size. "When fired, boom, the shell was capable of traveling as far as 42 kilometers away to Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, over Etajima Island. The speed was equivalent to Mach 2 aircraft. The battleship boasted the main gun with the world's fastest speed and most destructive power."

In the story of "In This Corner of the World," Suzu loses her niece to a bomb dropped by a U.S. B-29 bomber in June 1945, as well as her own right hand. In reality, Kure suffered six major air raids between March and July that year, when Kawanishi was just 4 years old.

He still has memories of the air raids etched in his mind. The most vivid one was the July 1, 1945 raid, which claimed the lives of 1,869 people overnight. Kawanishi was on his father's back as they fled the city on fire. He recalls how the skies were "burning like being lit up by fireworks," or the "spooky warmth" he felt when he stepped into a river under a bridge.

After retiring from a power generator manufacturer years after the war, Kawanishi started serving as a guide at the museum at the same time it was inaugurated. So far, he has provided guidance to a total of 10,000 visitors. "It is my responsibility as someone who knows the war firsthand," he said.

Aside from the model ship of the Yamato, many of the items on display at the museum focus on the legendary battleship, such as its blueprint and photographs. Such an approach, however, sparked controversy from its planning stage, with critical opinions including "The Battleship Yamato is a symbol of militarism" and "Is a museum glorifying the war necessary in Hiroshima?" -- the world's first atomic bombed prefecture in war.

Peace Link Hiroshima-Kure-Iwakuni was among the citizens groups and networks that called for a change in the plan for the museum. Yukio Nishioka, 63, a former high school teacher who represents the Kure branch of the network, lamented, "They have forgotten the spirit of the law for the conversion of former military ports."

The Act on Reconstruction of Cities that Formerly Served as Naval Ports was applied to the cities of Kure, Yokosuka in Kanagawa Prefecture south of Tokyo, Maizuru in Kyoto Prefecture in western Japan and Sasebo in Nagasaki Prefecture in the southern part of the country, to promote the peaceful use of former military facilities in those port cities.

In a local referendum on the law, more than 95 percent of Kure residents voted for the introduction of the legislation, allowing it to come into effect in 1950. Under the measure, what were once military facilities were transformed into factories and school buildings.

However, the sight of defense vessels dotting the bay would never leave Kure. When the Defense Agency, the predecessor of the Ministry of Defense, was established in 1954, the Maritime Self-Defense Force's Kure District and Kure District Headquarters were set up in the city, alongside a base.

In 1991, SDF minesweepers were sent to the Persian Gulf in the wake of the Gulf War between Iraq and U.S.-led coalition forces, the SDF's first overseas mission of its kind. This was followed by the deployment of SDF troops for peacekeeping operations in Cambodia the next year. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, SDF vessels were sent to the Indian Ocean in 2001, then to Kuwait in 2004 and to waters off Somalia in 2009.

When the first batch of SDF troops set sail for Cambodia on a September morning in 1992, the base in Kure heard a mixture of the tune of "Gunkan March" (warship march) and chants against the troop dispatch. At the pier, SDF members and their families were seen hugging each other. A group of 40 people in a dozen rubber boats protested the deployment, carrying banners reading "The dispatch of troops from Hiroshima must not be allowed."

However, the deployment "has served as a precedent of ensuing dispatches overseas, with the size of vessels growing and the base expanding in a visible manner," said Nishioka.

--- The Yamato as a tourist attraction

In 2007, the JMSDF Kure Museum, also known as "Tetsu no Kujirakan" (Iron whale museum), opened just across from the Yamato Museum, with exhibitions housed in a 76-meter retired submarine. The popularity of the facilities has helped boost the number of visitors to Kure, which has jumped to an annual 4 million from less than 2 million. At a souvenir shop, T-shirts bearing the teachings of a former naval academy are on sale, while restaurants in Kure started serving "Kure MSDF curry," which tastes exactly like the menu served on vessels belonging to the MSDF base. Banners bearing such characters as "Kaigun (navy)-san" and "MSDF" are hoisted on the streets, and those words also appear in tourist guidebooks.

Nishioka, who is a second-generation atomic bomb survivor, has also been guiding children visiting Hiroshima to the cenotaph for the A-bomb victims at Peace Memorial Park and other war-related remains, alongside fellow second-generation A-bomb survivor teachers.

In 2016, then President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, encouraging many Hiroshima people opposed to nuclear weapons.

However, even among second-generation hibakusha, it is becoming increasingly difficult to pass down the harrowing experiences of the bombing, as they are also aging with the oldest being past 70.

"Precisely because our city hosts a base, we should keep advocating against sending SDF troops to battlefields," said Nishioka. "Continuing to raise our voices will serve as passing down the memories (of A-bomb survivors)."

As citizens face the dilemma of opposing war while living in a city hosting the base, visitors to the Yamato Museum also vary in their thoughts on national defense. Some visitors are military geeks or model buffs. Says Kawanishi, "It is impossible for us to change their ways of thinking. The most important thing is to pass down the historical facts and truths accurately. The rest is left up to the visitors themselves. Whatever way people may think, I want them to come here to see the exhibition." While some people criticize the museum's exhibits, Kawanishi believes "it is essential to pass down the truths to younger generations."

This past summer, the museum was open as usual despite the torrential rain disaster that hit Kure and elsewhere in western Japan in July. Kawanishi told visitors as he guided them inside the museum, "The Battleship Yamato sank 350 meters deep into the sea, such a sad way of ending its mission. But the Yamato was not to blame. Those who maneuvered it were wrong. Let's not forget that a mistake made by humans led to the tragic war."

(Japanese original by Tsukimi Goda, Kyushu News Department)

This is Part 10 and the final article in this series.

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