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Hotaru Museum

In 1942, the Army's Tachiarai Flight School opened a branch school at Chiran Air Base, located in Japan's southernmost prefecture of Kagoshima. In 1945, the base served as the main sortie base for the Army's Special Attack Corps (tokkōtai) operations against Allied ships around Okinawa. Tome Torihama operated Tomiya Restaurant, which the Army in Chiran used as a designated eating place for personnel during the war. Tome served many Special Attack Corps pilots at her restaurant, and she treated the young men in their late teens and early twenties as if they were her own children. In 2001, Hotaru Museum opened in the same two-story building that was Tomiya Restaurant. Akihisa Torihama, Tome's grandson and museum director, explains the museum's purpose, "We must communicate to the next generation so that a war where blameless young men must die will never occur again" (Miyazaki Nichinichi Shimbun 2003).

This museum focuses on the personal stories of the pilots rather than the military aspects of the special (suicide) attack operations. The first floor presents a variety of episodes from the lives of about twenty pilots who departed from Chiran Air Base. These stories include the following:

  • Chūji Asami loved the phonograph at Tomiya Restaurant, but he ran whenever someone came near with a cat even though he showed his daring in a plane.
  • Katsuo Katsumata told Tome at the time of his departure that she would go bald if she did not stop crying.
  • The wife of Haruo Araki found out after her husband's death that she was pregnant with his child.
  • Hiroshi Kōno always played his shakuhachi (five-hole bamboo flute) on Tomiya's second floor.
  • The parents of Masato Shimohira came to Tomiya Restaurant to see their son just before his departure. The museum displays his final photo with his parents taken at a nearby photography studio. Masaru Tanaka, Shimohira's good friend and classmate, made sorties in the same special attack squadron.
  • Fumihiro Mitsuyama revealed at Tome's restaurant his Korean descent when he sang a folksong in both Japanese and Korean the night before his final sortie. 

Next to each story, the pilot's photo is shown on a plaque with his home prefecture, Army unit, and age at death. The museum displays the pilot's letters and other personal effects, such as a shakuhachi (bamboo flute) played by one of the pilots. The first floor also has photos of Chiran Air Base, the restaurant's radio and clock used during the war, and the sewing machine used by Tome's 18-year-old daughter Miako to sew mufflers and other items for the pilots.

The name of the museum comes from one pilot's story. The word hotaru means firefly in English. On the night before Saburō Miyagawa's sortie to make a suicide attack, he promised to return the next day to Tomiya Restaurant as a firefly. The following night a firefly came into the restaurant, and the group gathered around the tables mourned his death when they spotted the firefly.

The Japanese movie Hotaru, released in 2001, combines into one character the stories of Saburō Miyagawa, who returned to Tomiya Restaurant as a firefly, and Fumihiro Mitsuyama, the Korean pilot who sang a folksong in Korean the night before his departure. Although the movie is set in 1989, several flashback scenes take place at Tomiya Restaurant in 1945. The sound system on the museum's first floor continuously plays the haunting melody of the folksong, which also served as the musical theme for the movie Hotaru.

The museum's second floor has a six-minute film in which Tome Torihama, before she passed away in 1992, briefly describes her experiences with several pilots whose stories are presented on the museum's first floor. The beginning of the film has several clips of Japanese special attack planes falling into the water or crashing into ships. The second floor also shows photos from Tome's life after the end of the war, when she for many years showed her devotion to the dead pilots by visiting regularly a shrine dedicated to them and by welcoming their families when they visited Chiran. One exhibit has the wheelchair and cane she used in the last years of her life, and behind there is displayed an award (Sixth Order of Merit) granted by the Japan's Emperor to Tome in 1977 for her dedicated service during and after the war. Tome wanted to pass on the stories of the pilots so that war would never happen again [1].

The images of Special Attack Corps pilots portrayed at Hotaru Museum represent what Tome and her two daughters witnessed during the time right before the pilots' flights to make attacks on American ships around Okinawa. Many of these young men in their late teens and early twenties felt they could more freely reveal their innermost feelings at Tomiya Restaurant, away from the strict discipline and censorship at the air base. Tome became a surrogate mother for many of the pilots with their families far from Chiran.

Hotaru Museum can be reached in about one hour by bus from Kagoshima City, and many tour buses include Chiran as one of their stops. However, almost all tour buses just drive past Hotaru Museum and only stop at the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots. Admission to Hotaru Museum costs 350 yen (about US$3). All information at the museum is in Japanese. The museum sells the book Hotaru Kaeru (The Firefly Returns), coauthored by Tome's daughter Reiko. The Torihama family built a ryokan (Japanese-style inn) in 1952 next to the Tomiya Restaurant as a place where families of pilots who died in the war could stay when they visited Chiran. Hatsuyo Torihama, the wife of one of Tome's grandsons (deceased), now runs the ryokan, which still contains many of Tome's belongings and photos.

Date of most recent visit: November 18, 2006


1. Based on Miyazaki Nichinichi Shimbun (2003), interview with Hatsuyo Torihama, and statement in museum pamphlet.

Source Cited

Miyazaki Nichinichi Shimbun. 2003. Hontō no Nihon shiritai: Tokkōtai o kenkyū (Wanting to know the real Japan: Investigating special attack forces). September 12, p. 10.