Take flight into the past
Kanoya, in the far south of Japan’s southernmost main island, is a rather inconvenient location for an air museum. It’s more than 500 miles from Tokyo and getting there via public transport requires taking a Shinkansen bullet train to the nearest major city and then finding a bus to drive an addition two hours to get to there.
But that inconvenience is part of what make the location historic and part of the reason it has an air museum. Kanoya is more than 500 miles from Tokyo... but only 400 from Okinawa.
A Mitsubishi Type 0 fighter plane armed with a single 500-pound. bomb on a one-way trip could clear that distance on less than half a tank of fuel. Almost half the Imperial Japanese Navy’s kamikazes flew from Kanoya during the last months of World War II, many to that embattled island.
The Kanoya Naval Air Museum, or Kanoya Air Base Museum, covers the history of Kanoya Air Base from its inception as an Imperial Japanese Navy air base in 1936 to its use by today’s Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. The sight of modern white JMSDF helicopters flying in formation overhead was a contrast to their grounded aviation ancestors gathered around the museum below.
The museum itself is two-story building that is very full of artifacts and wonderful museum things to see, but for an aviation enthusiast nothing beats seeing real airplanes on display and Kanoya has 18 to enjoy. Most of them are from the JMSDF period of the base’s history and cover everything from its beginning in the 1950s to the last generation of JMSDF aircraft. All of this would make the museum worth seeing, though honestly the thing that compelled me, and probably only me, to go this far afield to visit a museum is their one of a kind flying boat.
I first heard of this boat about ten years ago from a retiring F-14 Tomcat pilot who told me about this decrepit flying boat that sat in pieces at NAS Oceana for years until the Japanese asked for it back in the 1970s. It was lovingly restored and displayed in Tokyo for two decades before coming to Kanoya in 2004.
If this aircraft has a name it’s “Emily,” if only because she is the only Emily left in existence. Formally the Kawanishi H8K2 flying boat, Allied reporting name “Emily,” this very large airplane with a fat boat-hull was well-armed, had a longer range than its allied contemporaries and is considered to be one of the best flying boats of its time.
Unlike the other airplanes, Emily has her own special park across the museum with a row of palm trees for company so nothing takes away from her grandeur.
Emily is the only World War II Japanese aircraft on outdoor display, though not the only World War II veteran there. When the JMSDF’s air arm came about, it began with second-hand U.S. Navy aircraft and the museum has two of these former enemies, an R4D and SNB-5, better known by their Army Air Force designations of C-47 Skytrain and C-45 Expediter.
I’ve seen C-47s in D-Day markings, Italian Air Force, Royal Air Force and even Air France livery, but until coming to Kanoya I’d never seen one sporting the red hinomaru! My grandfather would call that sacrilege I’m sure, but seeing American aircraft in foreign markings is one of the best parts about visiting foreign air museums.
Unlike its predecessor service, the JMSDF’s role is defensive in nature so there are no jet fighters or bombers in Kanoya. What it does have are Cold War aircraft that illustrate the service’s missions such as maritime patrol, anti-submarine warfare, minesweeping and search-and-rescue. Highlights for me where the P-2 Neptunes and US-1A.
The P-2 Neptune, forerunner of today’s P-3 Orion, is a maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft that began its service in the 1940s and participated in the Vietnam War. They’re under-represented at air museums despite the years of service and important role they played. So if you’ve never seen one, then visiting Kanoya you’ll get to see your first three. One is an original P2V and the other two were modified by the JMSDF to prolong their useful service life as an alternative to purchasing the more costly P-3 Orions. The P-2 served until the 1990s when they were fully replaced by today’s P-3s and with the roll out of the P-1 (the first Japanese-built and designed jet patrol aircraft) hopefully a P-3 will join its predecessors here in the near future.
A Kanoya aircraft that is not shared by the U.S. Navy but is uniquely Japanese is the Shin Meiwa US-1A flying boat, which is still being used for search-and-rescue operations. Having never seen one and only becoming recently aware the JMSDF still fielded flying boats, I was impressed by the aircraft’s sheer size and the fact they still use flying boats in the 21st century. Given that Shin Meiwa was originally Kawanishi, the US-1A is in a way a descendant of the Emily.
While the outdoor collection focuses primarily on the JMSDF, the inside collection is heavily focused on the Imperial Japanese Navy and the kamikazes who flew from Kanoya.
Except for the handily translated “No Photo” signs everywhere, there are almost no English displays inside the museum. The museum compensates by showing an English-language video that told the base’s and museum’s story.
The lack of English really wasn’t a problem as the museum has a lot of artifacts arranged chronologically from the time of Togo’s victory over Russia to thae end of the Imperial Japanese Navy on display. The biggest and best artifact is a restored A6M5 “Zero” fighter which they did not care if I took pictures of or with, just like everyone else there. The Zero has been very well restored and stairs leading up to the open cockpit allowed me to peer in and examine the controls closer than any other Zero I’ve seen.
While the Zero was the biggest draw for me, there’s another section of the museum that is equally important, if not more so for the Japanese who visit, and that is the Kamikaze section. Kanoya launched more navy Kamikazes than any other base during the war and so the rooms dedicated to them have pictures of what seems to be every navy Kamikaze pilot that flew from Kanoya on the walls and display cases of belongings and final letters.
Looking at their pictures and faces I couldn’t tell that they were Kamikaze pilots. Just pilots. Young men mostly, some in dress uniforms in studio photos, some were boot camp photos but a lot were just photos that had been taken of them. A pilot standing with his aircraft, a sailor in dress uniform standing a guard post, some were obviously cropped from group photos or from the background of a shot in which he wasn’t the focal point. I’d imagine they didn’t intend that to be the last photo taken of them before doing what their country told them they needed to do.
The JMSDF has a floor, which while it doesn’t have endless artifacts, is far more interactive with two walk-through aircraft, the S-61 and P-2. The cutaway P2V has equipped crew stations visitors can sit at and get a feel for life as a crewman, though I preferred to get up in the cockpit to throw on a helmet and play pilot. Feeling up to the task, I also squeezed through the crawlway under the cockpit to get to the nose compartment. The backlight bay view photo in front of the cockpit and nose is a nice touch. The walkthrough P2V and an S-61 helicopter performing rescue operations are the last displays in the museum and I’d imagine these closeups of the JMSDF’s more recent past and role in saving lives at sea and protecting Japan’s waters, are designed to get people thinking about a career in the service.
The visit was a lot of fun for me as I got to see a lot of historic aircraft, some I’d never seen before, get up close with a Zero and Emily, as well learn a little about the role the JMSDF air arm plays in the Japan Self-Defense Force. Despite the photographic limits, I still shot a lot outdoors and had plenty from the allowed areas indoors as well. Total museum time was a little more than two hours, though I did have to run to make the bus when I left as it only stops by Kanoya once every few hours.
As there is little English in the museum a good website to checkout before or during your visit is http://www.kamikazeimages.net/museums/kanoya/index.htm, which explains a bit about some of the museum artifacts.
How to get there
For a Sasebo-based sailor, such as me, getting to the museum requires riding the Shinkansen from Shin-Tosu to Kagoshima-chuo. I spent the night in Kagoshima, which also has a lot of historical sites and museums. The next morning I took the Kagoshima-Kanoya bus from Kagoshima-chuo east gate bus terminal #15 and got off at the Kanoya Naval Aviation Museum stop. Head toward the a sign and turn right. The Emily will be on your left after a short walk. Museum admission is free.