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Sunday, June 22, 2008

South Korean kamikaze memorial shelved as anger remains

Hyung-Jin Kim, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SEOUL, South Korea - For decades, Tak Kyung-hyun and 17 other Koreans who flew kamikaze missions for Japan in the Second World War were reviled as traitors at home.

A half-century after his death, however, Tak's hometown of Sacheon pushed to change that legacy with the first memorial in South Korea to a former kamikaze. But the five-metre-high stone memorial stirred up so much protest that it was taken down and stored at a nearby temple before it was even unveiled.

The response to the memorial shows just how much anger remains over Japan's brutal colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

"Tak was a pro-Japanese collaborator who died for and pledged allegiance to the Japanese emperor," said Kim Hyung-kap, who led protests against a scheduled unveiling a month ago. The city should commemorate Korean independence fighters from the town rather than a kamikaze, he said.

The memorial was born out of revisionist thinking that the Korean kamikazes were not collaborators, but rather victims of the Japanese colonial period who were forced or pressured to take on suicide missions.

"It's time to save those who have been lost in the black holes of history," said Hong Jong-pil, a South Korean historian involved with the project.

It was also an attempt to foster closer ties between Korea and Japan. The state-run Korea Tourism Organization planned to promote the memorial to Japanese tourists.

Japanese actress Fukumi Kuroda proposed the memorial last year and paid most of the construction costs.

But city officials cancelled the unveiling when protesters and riot police blocked Japanese officials and tourists from entering the site for the ceremony. Recently, Kuroda and Hong sent a letter to the city warning they would sue unless the monument was restored to its original site.

"I feel sorry for Tak as I failed to bring his wandering soul to his hometown," said Kuroda, 51.

Kuroda said the project was inspired by a dream she had in 1991 in which she met a former kamikaze pilot on the beach in southern Japan.

"He was smiling, telling me he was a pilot who died here," Kuroda said, speaking fluent Korean. "He said he didn't care about dying during a war but felt bad because he died under a Japanese name although he is indeed Korean."

In 2000, Kuroda described the dream to the daughter of a former restaurant owner who was a mother figure for kamikaze pilots on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. The mother, Tome Torihama, cooked the pilots' favourite foods, kept their farewell letters and gave them final hugs.

Her daughter, Reiko Akabane, told Kuroda that the tall, dark-skinned man in her dream "must be Tak."

"Reiko said her mother especially cared much about him as he always came to the restaurant alone, stayed there quietly and looked so lonely," Kuroda recalled.

On the eve of his mission, the 24-year-old Tak visited the restaurant, jammed on his military cap and started singing "Arirang," a popular Korean folk song on love and separation, "in the saddest tone they had ever heard," Kuroda quoted Akabane as saying.

Tak's family moved from Korea to Kyoto, Japan, in the early 1930s because of financial trouble at home, according to Kuroda and documents from Sacheon City Hall.

He landed a job in a pharmaceutical company after finishing college and was engaged to a Korean nursing student in Kyoto called Kim Ok-hee. But when she went to Korea to discuss the wedding date with her parents, she never returned. Her parents feared it was dangerous in Japan.

She eventually married another Korean man.

"Mom has always told me she drove Tak into becoming a kamikaze," said her daughter, Jung Min-young.

Figuring he would be drafted anyway, Tak entered a military academy in 1943 so he could become an officer and better support his family. He died in May 1945 when his explosives-laden plane is believed to have crashed in the water short of a U.S. warship that was his target.

Sacheon officials are waiting for the anger to subside before deciding what to do with the memorial, a rectangular pillar topped with a sculpture of a three-legged crow from Korean mythology.

Lee Hyung-chul, a Japan expert at Seoul's Kwangwoon University, expressed reservations about the planned memorial.

"I know Kuroda means well, but reviewing history should not be conducted lightly," he said. "That is not something that we should do based on an individual's dream."

© The Canadian Press, 2008

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