Introduction by Christopher Smith, University of Floria.
The IJN Yamato was the largest battleship ever built. Its 46 cm/45 caliber main guns were the largest ever mounted on a ship. It was a feat of engineering, the pride of the Japanese fleet, and—bearing the name of the province where the imperial court originated—a symbol of the nation as well. It was also already obsolete by the time it was launched in 1940. The age of the primacy of the aircraft carrier had arrived, as the Japanese navy itself would demonstrate so effectively a year later, at Pearl Harbor, just before Yamato was formally commissioned. Now fleets would seek each other out from hundreds of miles away with carrier aircraft, and only rarely would two enemy ships ever get close enough again to fire on each other with guns. The Yamato itself only had one opportunity to fire those impressive main guns at American ships, in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
In 1945 the war situation was desperate. Yamato was the only operational capital ship remaining to the Imperial Japanese Navy. The United Sates had pressed the war to Japanese waters, was bombing Japanese industrial and civilian targets, had cut off supplies from the mainland Empire with submarine attacks, and food and fuel were in desperately short supply. Realizing that the Yamato would never again be useful for its intended purpose of directing heavy fire at enemy ships, but also, perhaps, cynically calculating that it could not afford to continue fueling and feeding the massive ship and its crew of more than three thousand, Naval command sent Yamato on a suicide mission (tokkō 特攻) in April of 1945. Named operation Tengō (天号), the last major action of the Imperial Japanese Navy, the plan was for Yamato and a few escort craft to steam without air cover to Okinawa, where US forces had begun their invasion. If they made it to Okinawa they would attack ships and troop transports, but the expected result was that the Yamato would be too tempting a target for the US to ignore, and that the US commanders would commit enough carrier craft to sinking Yamato that the US ships would be made vulnerable to kamikaze suicide aircraft launched from Okinawa.
IJN Yamato departed the Japanese mainland on April 6, 1945. The next day, April 7, it encountered waves of hundreds of US carrier aircraft, as expected. Without air cover and defended only by its notoriously inaccurate anti-aircraft guns, the outcome was all but pre-ordained. Yamato was capsized and sunk after a battle lasting only two hours or so, along with several of its escort ships. Of the three-thousand strong crew compliment, fewer than three hundred were rescued from the ocean; the rest perished. The US lost only ten aircraft in the battle.
Yoshida Mitsuru (1923-1979) was an ensign on Yamato during its final sortie. Assigned to bridge duty the day of the final battle, he was in the best possible position to witness events unfolding. He was one of the few men rescued after the ship sank and returned to Japan. He wrote several accounts of his experiences during Yamato’s final mission. In 1978 he published a “definitive edition” (ketteiban 決定版) of Senkan Yamato no saigo (戦艦大和の最後), which was translated into English by Richard Minear as Requiem for Battleship Yamato. However, in 1979 the scholar Etō Jun discovered another version of the text in the University of Maryland’s Prange collection of Civil Censorship Division records. This 1946 version had been entirely censored by the occupation government for its perceived glorification of the warship (Yoshida was able to publish a different version in 1949, when censorship had relaxed somewhat). Written less than a year after the end of the war, the account was penned before much of the postwar discourse about the war had set in. It is therefore quite different from the later versions Yoshida wrote. It is this 1946 version that is translated here.
Although this text is a sort of first-hand testimony, it is also a kind of prose poem, written in a terse military reportage style that becomes almost lyrical. Like all such accounts it is ultimately engaged in certain projects of representation. In all versions, arguably, Yoshida was trying to eulogize his fellow sailors who died with the ship. However, the form of this eulogization shifted as discourses about the war shifted. The ketteiban emphasizes the crew as diverse individuals doing their best but victimized by a callous Japanese state and incompetent war planners. In this 1946 version, however, he eulogizes them more in terms native to wartime discourse, emphasizing their unity (“three thousand sailors aboard, all comrades in arms”), their excellent training, and how they fought a worthy enemy to the best of their ability and can face defeat without shame.
Therefore, the text seems like a retrenchment of imperial, wartime ideology, at least until the very end. After the Yamato has sunk, while the narrator is floating in the water, he has a kind of epiphany. He strains to hear “music” as he floats there, music standing for the fulfillment or reward he expects to feel after throwing his life on the pyre of nation and duty. But he hears nothing. He experiences a realization that the ideology of death and sacrifice for the nation was empty, and thereafter becomes determined to live, and to save as many lives as possible. Later he reflects, “In the end, did I stand up and look death in the face? No, didn’t I just willingly submit to death? Hiding behind the glorification of suicide attacks, just intoxicated in the palm of death’s hand. That’s it. A superficial act.” The ideology that the imperial soldier or sailor had mastered death and was happy to die in service to the empire and emperor are revealed to the narrator to be merely superficial. He had allowed himself to be intoxicated by the ideological glorification of death. He then rejects this wartime fetishization of death and sacrifice, concluding “Only when my life is fulfilled, only then will I be able to look death in the face. Living out life sincerely is the way to face death.” Therefore, although this 1946 document does partake of wartime discourse, it also ultimately rejects the ideology of the wartime imperial state.
The translation below presents part of the 1946 Senkan Yamato no Saigo, from when the ship is ordered abandoned, through the narrator’s rescue, to his reflections the next day. Because this work is still under copyright, extremely judicious editing has been applied in order to present a coherent narrative while still keeping the length to 10% of the original work. Several internal lines have been left out based solely on my judgement that they did not contribute as much to the main interest of the account. Those interested in the excised portions should contact me or consult the original. This translation was originally published in:
Smith, Christopher. “Yoshida Mitsuru’s 1946 ‘The End of the Battleship Yamato.’” Delos: A Journal of Translation and World Literature 34, no. 2 (November 14, 2019): 247–60. https://doi.org/10.5744/delos.2019.1026
How trustworthy do you think this text is as a historical account? Do you think Yoshida really had these revelations about wartime ideology in the moment, or is he imputing a postwar understanding to his past self?
Does representation of the suffering of Imperial Japanese sailors and soldiers somehow detract from or obfuscate accounts of those who suffered at their hands? Can both be countenanced and read with sympathy?
Have you seen other representations of the Yamato, perhaps in Japanese pop culture (anime, manga, games, etc.)? If so, how does that representation resonate or clash with the account here?
Yoshida, Mitsuru. Yoshida Mitsuru chosakushū. Tokyo: Bungei Shunjū, 1986.
Excerpt from Senkan Yamato no saigo (The End of the Battleship Yamato), 1946 version
List at thirty- five degrees.
XO to the Captain: “There is no hope of righting the list.”
The Chief of Staff salutes the Commander . . . silence.
The Commander returns the salute. Silently he looks around to his right and left, shakes the hands of the Staff Officers, enters the command cabin.
(This is the end of the commander of the second fleet, Vice Admiral Itō Sei’ichi)
Now there are only ten people left on the bridge.
There are some who pathetically try to escape.
Where will you go if you abandon your post? Is there any better place to die?
Those who want to leave should leave. This is a precious moment.
I wonder if they have not even a shred of regret in their hearts.
We should take the time to savor this moment, be thankful for it.
The Chief of Staff yells angrily: “You young ones will swim! What are you doing?”
To change our hearts now and just cling to life makes us endlessly resentful.
What’s the point of a suicide mission if you try to escape at this stage?
Unbeknownst to us, a few minutes earlier a signal had been sent to the escorts instructing them to return to base after rescuing personnel.
Suddenly there is no one to be seen on the bridge.
At those stations that should never be abandoned.
A peerless place to die, the bridge.
Is there nothing left for me to do here?
Standing on the starboard side of the bridge, I see the survivors lined up on the starboard gunwale. Their recitation of three banzais is over in a moment.
This is the end of Captain Aruga Kōsaku.
(He tied himself to the compass in three places, still in his steel helmet and flak jacket. He finished his final disposal, recited a banzai and hit the lookouts on their shoulders, forcing them one by one into the water. The last sailor, saying “Here, Captain,” gave him a leftover biscuit. When the list reached 85 degrees, he surrendered himself to the ship with it still in his mouth.
This is according to one of the lookouts. He was unable to leave the Captain in the end, and entered the water brushing shoulders with him.)
Rounds for the main guns slide around inside the magazine and punch through the ceiling, causing secondary explosions.
(The ship is already underwater, my body is caught in the current.)
While the current bats us around, it also reduces the explosive pressure.
Without the explosion we would have been spun around in this swirling current until we reached the sea floor.
The force of the explosion of the forward magazine alone is not enough to overcome the current, and near the surface I am pulled down again.
About twenty seconds later the aft magazine explodes. The shock wave pushes us to the surface.
Red hot fragments of steel and hunks of wood fly through the air and come down thunderously, killing many who had managed to surface.
Those of us who come up last do not see this. We just see dense smoke.
We are at the limit of our breath, and barely make it to the surface.
If that explosion had been five seconds later, we wouldn’t have made it.
A fine rain falls on the heavy oil on the surface. We fight cold, machine gun strafing, sharks.
Heavy oil like muddy paste, waves on the open sea like small mountains, a surface of bubbles, miserable floating pieces of wood.
Some sing loudly to encourage themselves, some struggle against the heaviness of their bodies.
Some poor souls go mad and sink away.
The death throes of what sounds like a young sailor, calling for his mother.
Singing voices that seem happy.
I gather sailors whose faces are hard to differentiate, calm them, and wait quietly for something.
Although we peer between the waves with eyes stung by heavy oil wide open, the silhouette of our ship will never appear again.
Just regret. And cold.
I think that freezing to death is like sleep, deep and peaceful.
What about the tenacity of these swarming sailors, eyes clouded by oil, mouths gasping?
All we can hope for is to wait for the right moment and make our deaths gallant, so we whip ourselves on.
Suddenly I realize.
This is a precious moment.
When will I hear true music, if not now?
If I strain I can hear it.
I can obtain that one instant.
Don’t I have my own music?
Is everything a lie?
Wait, what I just heard, that was indeed music.
No, wasn’t it fake?
Don’t think about it. Don’t care about it.
Ah, if I had known at this moment that I would be saved, how calm would I have been?
A destroyer (Tsuki-class) arrives at full speed.
It threads through the spaces between us, signaling “Standby” (signal lamp and flag signals).
We take heart. (Are they going to rescue us to replenish their personnel and attack?)
It barely misses us. Those separated from us by just a few meters are sucked into the propeller.
Seeking people, seeking voices, I look up. It is hard to suppress my impatience.
My eyes burn, my lower body feels numb.
Crowds of hands clamor for lifelines soaked in muddy oil.
In a moment the number of sailors is halved, lost beneath the surface.
I don’t know.
I just have to save as many as I can, even one sailor more.
I wrap the line around a sailor’s arm so tightly that he bleeds, then beat away the hands clinging to him as he is pulled up.
Should I respect this strength they have to live? Resent it? Don’t think about it.
From the deck, shouts of “Hurry! Hurry!” The ship begins to move forward silently.
Without a doubt, my mission is to save as many as possible.
I am truly grateful to those who haul us up.
I check to make sure there are no more sailors left, then cling to the last rope ladder.
“Live! You can’t die after making it this far!” My own voice inside my head.
I have completely recovered my strength, I go up on deck and wash my face.
I cry out at the brightness of the sun, the beauty of the mountains.
“I guess living is good too.”
In the end, did I stand up and look death in the face?
No, didn’t I just willingly submit to death?
Hiding behind the glorification of suicide attacks, just intoxicated in the palm of death’s hand.
That’s it. A superficial act. Was I ever diligent in my normal duties?
Was I ever sincere in every step and every action? Did I ever give my all every moment?
And furthermore, what was the reward for all that training?
Should I be thankful that I was accorded the good fortune to die?
Or should I be thankful for the good luck that snatched death away from me in the end?
If there had been a hair’s difference in that dark fight, what would have happened?
Would death have greeted me?
That wretched thing, would that have been my death? In any case,
What was it that separated me from my many comrades-in-arms and bathed me in sunlight once again?
What was in their hearts at the end?
Don’t think about it.
Death wanted nothing to do with me.
This is the turning point, the chance to become serious about life.
Death came up next to me, but then went away. Only when my life is fulfilled, only then will I be able to look death in the face.
Living out life sincerely is the way to face death.
Don’t think about it.
The mission is a failure. Over half the task force is lost, we returned to base halfway through.
Words of thanks from Combined Fleet Command.
Thanks to your heroic sacrifices, the success rate of our suicide aircraft improved dramatically, they say.
They say that no tactical consideration went into the mission, that it was a completely reckless strategy, or that we threw away our most valuable asset.
In any case, on the sea twenty nautical miles west of Tokunoshima the Yamato was sunk and her huge hull scattered, 430 meters under the water.
Of more than three thousand sailors, only two hundred and a handful return.
Intense fighting spirit. The highest level of training. An end that knows no shame under heaven. (End)
(Translated by Christopher Smith)
[Selective secondary sources]
Smith, Christopher. “Yoshida Mitsuru’s 1946 ‘The End of the Battleship Yamato.’” Delos: A Journal of Translation and World Literature 34, no. 2 (November 14, 2019): 247–60.
Yoshida, Mitsuru. Requiem for Battleship Yamato. Translated by Richard Minear. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985.
Dower, John W. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999.