Requiem for Battleship Yamato
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 26 Feb 2006
By the time I was perhaps 30 pages into the book, I told myself how terribly depressing the book was. The word death, or ideas associated with it, must have appeared on every page. Time after time, the author Mitsuru Yoshida repetitively asked himself about the useless nature of his current mission, then encouraged himself to die honorably in the defense of his home country. It probably took until the halfway point in this 152-page book before I realized that I was being offered an incredible insight into the psyche of a Japanese junior officer. It was an insight into the concept of self-sacrifice for the greater good and the mentality of absolute dedication to a profession.
When it was first built, the battleship Yamato was the largest ship ever built in history, but its immense firepower sat nearly untapped for the entire duration of the war. Bearing the name of an ancient mythical Japan, it was understandable; if the ship was ever lost, the damage on morale would be profound. However, by Apr 1945, the situation dictated Yamato to take action. Operation Ten'ichigo, or Operation Ten-Go as it was more often known, called for Yamato to lead 9 other lesser ships in a suicide attack against the American task force in the process of invading Okinawa. The author of this book was a radar officer aboard the ship, and was one of the junior officers present at the bridge to be able to observe the reactions of high ranking officers of the ship and the task force.
I have in the past few months just read two books about WW2 naval disasters, both American warships. I felt there were eerie similarities and stark contrasts. One major difference was the mentality toward death. The American sailors in the previous books I have read fought just as hard as their Japanese counterparts, but once abandon ship order was given, what went through their minds were the safety of their comrades and themselves. Yoshida, however, described a different mentality when Yamato was doomed to sinking. He was concerned of his mission; he was sent to die fighting for the defense of Japan, so how could he leave his post and seek rescue if he could not accomplish his mission? Other officers in his book also exhibited similar thoughts, with some chaining themselves to the ship with operation code books and portrait of the Emperor in their grasps, refusing to let the code books, the portrait, or their honor fall into enemy hands. In Yoshida's mind, however, a philosophical debate existed. What was the good of such self sacrifice? Was this mission an opportunity to do his duty? If so, why did the men look at Ensign Suzuki with anger when he broke his glass while toasting?
"Raising his glass in toast, assistant navigator Ensign Suzuki (O.C.S.) loses his grip on it; it fall on the deck, shattering into a thousand pieces.
They say it is most unlucky to break the glass with which one toasts a departure.
He pales and is crestfallen; there is nothing he can do.
Our scornful glances pour in on him immediately - on the eve of departure, why should omens have frightened us?"
And what were we relying on, those of us who held him in contempt?
How did we maintain our calm?
In fact, weren't we deluding ourselves that our own deaths would have the honor due to the chosen few?
Imagining that we would die spectacular deaths in a suicide attack, weren't we clinging to the excitement of the extraordinary?
Or finding ourselves on a path offering no escape from certain death, weren't we intoxicated by the empty dream that we alone would return alive?
What awaited us was death and nothing else. Death, beyond a doubt.
No matter how splendid its raiment, death is death.
Were we prepared to accept a death from which all color had faded?
Only Ensign Suzuki had gone beyond illusion and faced up to his own death.
Look it straight in the face! Don't deceive ourselves!
Our wineglasses have all shattered. It is only for this short while, with great effort, that we grasp them with both hands.
Death is already nearby. Nothing stands in its way.
Meet death face to face!
Death: it can stand truth.
Let this opportunity slip and you'll have no chance to do a final reckoning of your short life, your lifetime of twenty-two years.
Ah, what a coward!
Deadening your senses now by taking refuse in alcohol.
Cloaking yourself in barbaric valor and false pride, laughing at your fellow officer who fears death."
The natural urge to survive was probably the most notable similarity between the disasters. However, the Japanese mentality as expressed by the experiences of Yoshida took on a different spin. He noted that, once adrift in the water, he thought about letting go and succumb to the waves. However, he paddled on and stayed afloat. What seemed to him like twenty or thirty minutes of paddling actually was two or three hours in time before a destroyer rescued him; in the mean time, he debated in his head between letting himself die as he had promised at the start of the mission and the natural urge of survive.
This book was originally written in Japanese, and the version I read was translated by Richard Minear. Minear's translation, according to his own notes, was true to Yoshida's writing to the best of his ability. The result was a uniquely beautiful writing style. Meanwhile, the Japanese attention to details that a western sailor might not have done also added an interesting, sometimes deeply metaphoric, element to the book. Below is a passage that I particularly felt stood out. It took place amidst American air attacks on the battleship.
"How much time has elapsed since the first shot was fired? Hasn't it been only an instant?
At least for me, the aftertaste is like from a stint of good hard work or several minutes of pleasure.
A sense of delight bubbles secretly in my breast. I am not in the slightest bit tired.
Remembering my empty stomach, I eat some candy as I keep my eye on the clinometer.
The sweets and cookies I had stuffed into both pockets of my raingear are already half gone. Have I fumbled for them before without realizing?
Delicious. Indescribably delicious."
What caught me off guard with this passage was not just the unusual time for him to think of food, but how he remembered the deliciousness of the sweets and cookies while American aircraft rained fire on the battleship. There was, perhaps, an eerie satisfaction that he was fulfilling a promise he had given for his country. He was brought up and shaped by the Bushido spirit. Against natural urges to remain alive, he seemed almost able to transcend the fear for death.
Unique in style, this small book ended up being a great read.
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945