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Japanese WWII Shiden Kai Fighter to Get New Exhibition Hall

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A Shiden Kai fighter plane on display at the Shiden Kai Exhibition Hall in Ainan, Ehime Prefecture

MATSUYAMA — A World War II Shiden Kai fighter plane salvaged from the sea off the coast of Ainan, Ehime Prefecture, in 1979 is set to get a new exhibition hall. The model was produced toward the end of the war and used by the Imperial Japanese Navy.

The town’s Shiden Kai Exhibition Hall is the only museum in the country that still has one of the fighters. Due to the ageing of the hall, it will undergo its first thorough restoration.

Experts are calling for the plane to be “protected as a valuable piece of war heritage.” The Ehime prefectural government plans to survey the plane’s condition.

The Shiden Kai is 9.34 meters long, has a wingspan of 11.99 meters and boasts excellent speed and climbing ability. More than 400 were produced before the war’s end.

The aircraft on display is believed to have taken off from Omura Air Base in Nagasaki Prefecture on July 24, 1945, just weeks before Japan’s surrender, to intercept a formation of U.S. aircraft over the Bungo Channel. The plane is believed to be one of the six that failed to return, sinking off the coast of Ainan at the southernmost tip of Ehime Prefecture.

A local diver found the plane in 1978, and the following year the prefecture salvaged it from a depth of about 41 meters. The propeller blades were bent, but the plane retained its original shape. No human remains or personal effects were found.

In 1980, the prefectural government opened the Shiden Kai Exhibition Hall halfway up a mountain overlooking where the plane sank. The repaired and rust-proofed aircraft now stands in the center of the museum, with a generator, a fuel pump and other items also on display.

The museum, which attracts about 20,000 visitors a year, has become a place to share memories of the war. Families and former airmen have left video testimonies and donated items used during flight missions to emphasize the importance of peace.

Tomokazu Kasai, a former fighter pilot who passed away in 2021 at the age of 94, was one such airman. He often visited the museum from Itami, Hyogo Prefecture, and donated a purple scarf he had worn.

As the museum has become increasingly outdated in recent years, the Ehime prefectural government allocated about ¥42 million this fiscal year to commission the design of a new exhibition hall to be completed by fiscal 2026.

“There is a dwindling number of people around who can testify about the war. I want people to think about peace when they see this still extant plane,” said Kazuhiro Nagamoto, 60, a museum employee.

The prefectural government plans to survey the integrity of the aircraft as it is moved to the new building.

Preservation surveys

There is a movement to preserve wartime fighter planes by examining the condition in which they have been kept and designating them as cultural properties.

The Chiran Peace Museum in Minami-Kyushu, Kagoshima Prefecture, conducts regular inspections of its Hayate fighter aircraft, which has been on display at the museum since 1997.

The museum said it had identified the manufacturer of the plane’s components during inspection, and that the inspection results have been compiled into a report.

Additionally, the Minami-Kyushu municipal government designated the Hayate as a cultural property of the city in November 2020. Under the Cultural Properties Protection Law, public support is provided for the preservation of properties designated as cultural properties by the central or local governments.

In March 2022, the town of Chikujo in Fukuoka Prefecture decided to designate a Shiden Kai propeller as a cultural property. The plane bearing the propeller crashed after battling with U.S. aircraft over the town.

“Fighter planes are valuable cultural assets that convey the reality of war. We need to think of ways to protect them,” said Takashi Iwamoto, an associate professor at Shimane University well-versed in the preservation of war artifacts.