Kamikaze statue stirs up emotions

Monday, August 15, 2005

MABALACAT, Philippines -- Even now, 60 years later, it's an arresting sight: a life-size statue of a Japanese kamikaze pilot next to a former U.S. Air Force base.

Yet as the Philippines and the rest of east Asia remember the Japanese surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, the statue commemorating the first suicide pilots seems to sum up their ambivalence toward Japan's imperial era of aggression and brutal occupation.

Some have protested about the fiberglass statue since it went up 10 months ago, while others see in it an act of forgiveness. But it's also a recognition of the power of the yen: Japanese tourists flock to the airfield to see the World War II museum and honor the pilots who took off from here on their one-way missions against the advancing U.S. Navy.

Japan, the world's second biggest economy, has a gigantic economic footprint in the region. Trade with other east Asian countries totaled $1 trillion for the year ending in March. Last year China replaced the United States as its biggest trading partner.

Japan is the biggest buyer of Philippine exports, and the two states are negotiating a free-trade agreement.

In that context, what happened 60 or more years ago tends to lose relevance. "The Japanese were very brutal, very hostile to Filipinos," says Faustino Arceo, the toothless 68-year-old gardener who tends the shrubbery around the statue of the goggled, helmeted flier. "Before, I was angry. But now, I can't do anything. It's the past."

In China and South Korea, which bore the brunt of wartime aggression, anti-Japanese sentiment erupts periodically, stoked by perceptions that Tokyo has never fully atoned for its wartime conduct. This year the issue that sent protesting crowds into the streets was Japanese school textbooks which they said whitewash atrocities.

At the same time, many Asian countries look to Japan, home of the main U.S. force in east Asia, to serve as a counterweight to China's rising economic and military might.

Here in Mabalacat, next to former Clark Air Base in the northern Philippines, city tourism chief Edgar Hilbero says there was "a lot" of criticism of the statue, and concedes the decision to put it up was driven by tourism as much as by history.

Every October, hundreds of Japanese tourists, war veterans, students and Buddhist monks travel here to honor the kamikaze with flowers, incense and prayers.

Japan captured the Philippines in 1942, and it was from the airfield at Clark that the first kamikazes took off. From October 1944 to August 1945, 618 Allied ships were damaged or sunk by 2,526 suicide pilots, according to Japan's Kanoya Air Base History Museum. Some historians put the number of kamikaze at 5,000.

The Americans recaptured the Philippines in 1945 and gave it full independence a year later, but kept their bases here until 1991. Clark has since been transformed into a tourism zone, with a commercial airport, hotels and golf courses.

Hilbero said he is also working on putting up a memorial to U.S. Capt. Colin Kelly Jr., who died when his B-17 bomber crashed at Clark three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. For bombing a Japanese warship, Kelly became the first U.S. serviceman decorated in World War II.

"We are not taking sides," Hilbero said. "We are using war history to promote good will, friendship and closer relationship between nations ... not to glorify anybody, not even kamikaze. War is evil. It's not the people who fought the war. That is our message."

A similar message comes from 95-year-old Elizabeth Choy in Singapore, where Japanese troops killed as many as 100,000 ethnic Chinese.

A national heroine, she features prominently in school textbooks for her 200-day ordeal of imprisonment and torture by the Japanese secret police for helping to smuggle money, food, medicine and radio parts into the prison that held some 75,000 Allied POWs and civilians.

Choy says she has no hard feelings toward today's Japanese. "They've always been a very hardworking and ambitious people and they want the best for their nation."

She added: "What I detest is not the Japanese, but war itself."

Many of the territories Japan invaded were ruled by Western powers -- Singapore and the Malayan peninsula by the British, Indochina by the French, the Philippines by the Americans, Indonesia by the Dutch -- and Tokyo presented its invasions as acts of national liberation.

But Singapore, is also cashing in on war tourism, though its travel packages are tailored for veterans and former POWs from Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

In Australia, war veterans in the farming town of Cowra tend the graves of 231 Japanese POWs machine-gunned as they launched a suicidal stampede for their camp's barbed wire fences on Aug. 5, 1944. In 1979 a 12-acre memorial garden opened and has become a tourist attraction.

The Filipino behind the kamikaze initiative is a local historian, Daniel Dizon, who spent much of his life studying the suicide squadrons and built a museum in his house with rusty guns, bayonets, old photos and Japanese uniforms.

"It was very agonizing because people hated Japanese so much. Anything that you bring about in public regarding the Japanese was met with intense hostility and anger, and nobody wanted to listen," he said.

Dizon was 15 when Angeles city, which now encompasses Mabalacat, was full of kamikaze pilots. He says he was fascinated by their determination and patriotism. In the early 1970s, Dizon tracked down what he says was the house in Mabalacat where Japanese Vice Adm. Takijiro Ohnishi and his staff had the meeting on Oct. 20, 1944 that led to the birth of the first 23-man kamikaze squad.

For years, he struggled to persuade the owners to allow him to put up a small marker on the fence around the nondescript, single-story house. They relented only after Dizon enlisted the help of a local businessman, who saw a chance to make money in a landlocked province with few other attractions.

When it saw Japanese tourists starting to pour in, he said, the city prodded him to find and mark other kamikaze spots.

Now 75, Dizon believes the suicide pilots should not be equated with Japanese aggression and atrocities, "because the kamikaze acted in self-defense."

Other Filipinos are less conciliatory.

Rechilda Extremadura is a spokeswoman for more than 100 women among the thousands enslaved in Japanese military brothels in several Asian countries. She said the women protested to the provincial governor about the kamikaze statue.

"Why should we have a monument to glorify that war? We were victimized," she said. "It's OK for me for Japan to glorify their troops, but not for a country like us, who were pillaged and destroyed by the Japanese. It's not proper."

In Manila, writer Francisco Sionil Jose applauds the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"I haven't changed my feelings, and I am 80 years old," he said. "If you were here during the Japanese occupation, you would understand how I feel. And this is precisely the problem -- that many Filipinos don't have a living experience of that occupation, so they can afford to be very blase, very forgiving.

"But not those of us who lived through it."

EDITOR'S NOTE -- Associated Press reporters Gillian Wong in Singapore, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Annie Huang in Taipei and Kana Inagaki in Tokyo contributed to this story.

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