CHIRAN, Japan – On April 12, 1945, Lt. Shinichi Uchida faced a terrifying mission — crash his plane into a U.S. warship. But the young kamikaze's final letter to his grandparents was full of bravado.
"Now I'll go and get rid of those devils," the 18-year-old wrote shortly before his final flight, vowing to "bring back the neck" of President Roosevelt. He never returned.
For many, such words are redolent of the militarism that drove Japan to ruin in World War II. But for an increasingly bold cadre of conservatives, Uchida's words symbolize something else: just the kind of guts and commitment that Japanese youth need today.
Long a synonym for the waste of war, the suicidal flyers are now being glorified in a film written by Tokyo's governor, Shintaro Ishihara, a well-known nationalist and co-author of the 1989 book "The Japan that Can Say No." And a museum about the kamikazes in the southern town of Chiran, near the airstrip where Uchida and others took off, gets more than 500,000 visitors a year.
"The worries, sufferings, and misgivings of these young people ... are something we cannot find in today's society," Ishihara said when his movie, "I Go to Die For You," opened this spring.
"That is what makes this portrait of youth poignant and cruel, and yet so exceptionally beautiful," he said.
No one is publicly calling for young Japanese to kill themselves for the nation these days. But the renewed hero-worship of the kamikazes coincides with a general trend in Japanese society toward seeing the country's war effort as noble, and mourning the fading of the ethic of self-sacrifice amid today's wealth.
The government has stepped up efforts to expunge accounts of Japanese atrocities from history books and reinstate patriotic instruction in the public schools. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, like his popular predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, is pushing to revise the pacifist constitution.
The estimated 4,000 kamikaze — or "divine wind" — pilots were named after a legendary typhoon that foiled the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan's invasion of Japan in 1281. Chiran museum officials say as many as 90 percent failed to reach the U.S. warships they were meant to attack.
Despite the pilots' reputation abroad as suicidal fanatics, Japanese hearts have always had a soft spot for the kamikazes. Long celebrated in movies, books and comic books, the pilots are seen as innocent young men forced by a desperate military into sacrificing their lives to protect their country.
Ishihara's film plays these tragic-hero sentiments to the hilt, with a strong dose of patriotism: Strapping young pilots proudly sing war songs and down cups of sake before taking off, while townspeople kneel in tearful gratitude as they fly overhead. Girls paint Rising Sun flags with their own blood.
The film is set in Chiran, about 630 miles southwest of Tokyo. From here 402 pilots took off, among them Uchida, whose fate remains unknown.
Today's kamikaze-boosters deny they are pro-war, and indeed, the Ishihara film does not shy away from the futility of the suicide missions. But the nationalist sentiment is clear.
While insisting to reporters that the movie's message is anti-war, director Taku Shinjo said Japan launched the war in Asia in self-defense, and that the decision to send young men on suicide missions was the only option left as the conflict neared its end.
"When you get to the roots of the Japanese soul, I think they are embodied in the kamikaze pilots," he said.
While the Japanese have not fired a shot in wartime since 1945, some critics see peril in the new trend.
"It's extremely dangerous to glorify the kamikaze pilots as tragic heroes. The people who glorify them want to connect the prewar period with the present and future Japan," said Atsushi Shirai, a historian who has written about the pilots.
"These views also block critical analysis of the tragedy of the war, what it signified and why it was carried out," he added.
Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, a University of Wisconsin anthropologist and author of "Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers," said that the pilots' private writings and other evidence show that rather than stoic warriors, many of them were tortured souls, browbeaten and abused into flying to their deaths.
With the dwindling of the wartime generation, which knew the brutal reality of the kamikaze missions, it is becoming easier for nationalists to present the kamikazes as "the model Japanese, who knew how to dedicate themselves and discipline and all of that," she said.
The Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots in Chiran goes to great lengths to make the point that the flyers nobly gave their lives for their families. On display are final letters home, photographs of cheerful pilots, and warplanes such as one dredged from a nearby harbor. A large painting in the lobby shows angels bearing the broken bodies of the pilots to heaven.
However, any parallel between kamikazes and the 9/11 terrorists is angrily rejected.
Museum director Takanobu Kikunaga said the pilots gave their lives for their families, not the emperor, and they were attacking military targets, not civilians. He also argued that it was hypocritical of Europeans and Americans to compare kamikazes with terrorists after colonizing wide swaths of the world, including Asia.
"This wasn't terror," Kikunaga said. "The media always makes the connection with terror, but this is totally different."
Indeed, the museum attempts to walk a fine line, letting visitors draw whatever message they want. Teacher Ineko Yamada, leading a group of junior high school students from Nagasaki, which was destroyed by an American atomic bomb in 1945, insisted that the proper lesson of the museum was pacifism.
"We want to teach them to think about keeping the peace," she said of her students. "That kind of sacrifice was a mistake. It's much better to live."
Go Kuroki, a 27-year-old hairdresser visiting the museum from the Tokyo area, is one of many for whom the kamikazes are ancient history.
"At that time, I guess that kind of thing had some meaning. But if you think of the times we live in now, I don't think it has any value," he said. However, looking around at other visitors, some of them old enough to have served in the war, he added: "Though I can't say that too loudly."