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Yoshida Mitsuru's 1946 "The End of the Battleship Yamato".

In April of 1945 Yoshida Mitsuru (1923-1979) (1) was an ensign in the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) assigned to the battleship IJN Yamato. He took part in Yamato's final sortie against American forces in Okinawa and was one of the few crewmembers to survive the ship's sinking. After the war he penned a stirring account of the legendary ship's final days, first published in 1949 in the magazine Salon (Saron). The serialized chapters were collected in a book titled Gunkan Yamato (Warship Yamato). In 1952, after occupation censorship had been lifted, the text was republished as Senkan Yamato no saigo (The End of the Battleship Yamato). This variant can be seen as an expansion of the 1949 version, with much of the same content included and some additions. The major change between the 1949 version and the 1952 version is the switch to bungo (literary, non-vernacular Japanese), and the use of the katakana phonetic syllabary, in the style of military diaries or official documents. Confusingly, collections refer to the 1952 version as the first edition, perhaps because it is the first to use the title Senkan Yamato no saigo, or perhaps because the author expressed dissatisfaction with the 1949 version. (2) Late in his life, in 1978, Yoshida published a "definitive edition" (ketteiban) that is similar to the 1952 version with some additional text and edits, but maintains the stylistic choices of the 1952 version. In 1985 Richard Minear translated the 1978 "definitive edition" into English as Requiem for Battleship Yamato. The text has been hailed as one of the finest examples of Japanese war literature. (3)

However, the story of Senkan Yamato no saigo does not end there. In 1979 the literary critic Eto Jun discovered a version of the text in the University of Maryland's Prange collection, which houses the occupation government's Civil Censorship Division (CCD) documents. (4) Submitted in 1946, this version had been entirely banned from publication. Eto published this version in the journal Bungakkai in 1981, after the author's death. Like the 1952 and 1978 versions (but unlike the 1949 version), the 1946 text also uses bungo and katakana. Written only a few months after the war, the 1946 text contains significant differences from the other three versions, especially in terms of tone. It is a section of this version which is translated here.

The IJN Yamato was the largest battleship ever built, displacing 65,000 tons. It boasted 46-cm guns, the largest guns ever mounted on a warship. It also bore the name of the ancient province where the imperial court had originated. It was a symbol of national pride and technological accomplishment--indeed, a symbol of the nation itself. It was also tragically obsolete even before it was launched in 1940. Advances in military technology had ushered in the age of the aircraft carrier, which could strike enemy ships with aircraft from hundreds of miles away. The era of "big ships with big guns" that hammered each other from close range was already over. Yamato would only once be able to maneuver close enough to American ships to use its 46-cm guns for their intended purpose, in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

In the desperate last months of the war, Japan's admiralty and war leaders were cognizant that Yamato could never be effectively brought to bear, and they were also painfully aware that the huge ship was nonetheless costing enormous amounts of fuel and food. As the war situation worsened and suicide attacks became almost expected, Yamato's fate was perhaps inevitable. When Allied forces landed in Okinawa, it was sent on a final mission--Japan's last major naval action--that captain and crew all understood to be a suicide mission. Briefly, Yamato and a handful of escort ships would steam from mainland Japan to Okinawa. Dispatched as it was without air cover, there was no illusion that the Yamato task force would be able to fight its way to the US fleet. Instead, the giant battleship would provide a tempting target for the enemy, drawing away the bulk of the US carrier aircraft and leaving US fleet ships vulnerable to kamikaze suicide aircraft launched from Okinawa. The strategy was certainly effective in attracting waves of carrier aircraft, which sunk the Yamato on April 7th, 1945, after a two-hour battle. Around three thousand crew members went down with the ship. Yoshida Mitsuru, the author of the present text, was one of only a handful of survivors rescued from the water by an escort ship. By contrast, the task force was only able to shoot down ten US aircraft.

The text Yoshida authored shortly after returning is written in the hard, angular katakana syllabary and stiff literary bungo, a style used in military and official documents. The content, as well, is written in a diary format in a clipped military reportage style with a startling economy of words, creating the impression that the text is an official battle report or a telegram from the front. This technique conveys a sense of immediacy and authenticity to readers. Perhaps the text's first reader, an American working for the CCD, writes: "The young author reports, it seems, anything and everything as he saw and as he heard with his own eyes and with his own ears. There is very little exaggeration, if any, but the effect is so penetrating and touching." (5) Eto Jun quotes approvingly from one of his students, who writes that the 1946 text is "close to reality" (jijitsu ni chikai) and has "the qualities of a record" (kirokusei). (6) The use of the style of military reports, then, is a technique that allows the text to disguise its more literary ambitions and pose as a transparent, unembellished record of Yoshida Mitsuru's personal experiences. Although we should not ignore the literary and poetic elements of the text, its ability to convey intimacy and immediacy of experience is certainly one of its strengths.

And the literary qualities of the text are worth noting. The author plays into the expectation of military reportage by crisply reporting factual events, but then casually undermines it by dropping in intensely personal observations. The text flows seamlessly from explanations of anti-submarine tactics to lucid poetic observations. Therefore, the 1946 version is a kind of prose poem. While later versions might arguably be better narrative accomplishments (with better transitions and clearer exposition), the 1946 version can be admired for its poetic qualities.

The text is written in present tense, contributing to its sense of immediacy. The text does subtly hint at an implied author recalling events after the Yamato has sunk; water metaphors such as "the ship is filled to the brim with anticipation" or "the bridge overflows with smiles" ironically foreshadow the disaster that readers know is coming, and suggest the implied author is aware of it as well. Overtly, however, the narrator of the 1946 version is firmly rooted in the narrative present. He is a sailor in the Japanese Imperial Navy of 1945 through-and-through, affirming the ideology surrounding war, nation and suicide attacks at the time.

Until, that is, the emotional climax of the story. Swimming on the open sea after the Yamato has sunk, the narrator listens for "true music," the epiphany that he has been promised he will experience after throwing his life on the pyre of nation, duty, and suicide attacks. He hears nothing, and his world falls apart as he realizes everything he has built it around is a lie. This is the moment the war ends for the narrator; afterwards he decides his new mission must be saving lives and living fully, rather than taking lives and dying gloriously. The story ends the next day, months before the surrender, but after that moment the narrator has relieved himself of wartime ideology and made the transition to a postwar self. The CCD reader who blocked the 1946 version from publication warned that the text "cannot fail to arouse in the mind of the readers something like deep regret for the lost battleship, and who can be sure that the warlike portion of the Japanese do not yearn after another war in which they may give another Yamato a better chance?" (7) Certainly the sinking of the Yamato is emotional and rousing, but ultimately the text describes, quite relevantly in 1946, one military man's whole-hearted transition from wartime to postwar ideology. This is one of the main points of interest of the 1946 version, as it is much subdued in the later versions which imbue the narrator with skepticism about the war and the nation from the beginning.

After the war Japan largely embraced pacifism, democracy, and a commitment to peaceful prosperity. The glorification of soldiers and war and death that had been central to the wartime era was soundly rejected and driven to the political margins. Yet, even in this peaceful era there remains a strain of wistful nostalgia for Yamato. To name just a few prominent examples, in 1974 an iconic animated TV show titled Uchu senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato) featured the battleship being retrieved from the ocean floor, retrofitted for spaceflight, and used to defend humanity. The anime was recently remade in 2013 as Uchu senkan Yamato 2199. In 2005 the film Otoko-tachi no Yamato, (The Men's Yamato) hit movie theatres in Japan, raking in both box office sales and awards. Afterwards the set of the movie, a full scale replica of part of the Yamato, was opened to the public and became a significant tourist destination for almost a year until it was disassembled. In a nation that has typically eschewed its imperial military past and relegated those interested in it to the social fringes (ultranationalists or military otaku), somehow fondness for Yamato has become mainstream. This is probably because the discourse surrounding Yamato simultaneously contains elements of national pride as well as the futility of national ambition; the bravery of sailors dying for their nation as well as the monstrousness of the wartime leaders who callously sent brave young men to meaningless deaths. Although it was not published, the 1946 Senkan Yamato no saigo was written mere months after the end of the war, and gives us a glimpse at the very beginning of this Yamato discourse, before postwar ideology had set in.

The changes between versions of Senkan Yamato no saigo is a study in changing attitudes and ideology in the postwar. At each juncture Yoshida rewrote the text to accommodate the discourse surrounding the war at that moment. Yoshida himself wrote:
My motivation for taking up the pen was this; in order to reflect upon
and meditate on myself, the self whose point of departure into society
had been snatched away by the emptiness of defeat, I would try to etch
the raw experiences that war brought about exactly as they happened. (8)

Although he tried to write about experiences "exactly as they happened," he also acknowledges the act of writing is an act of reflecting on his self, a self that is moving with time through the ever-shifting discourse on the war, defeat, suicide attacks, and Yamato itself. This means, inevitably, the act of writing will cover or uncover, emphasize or deemphasize, different aspects of his experience according to the social discourse of the moment.

For example, the 1946 version emphasizes the skill and bravery of the crew's American opponents as the main reason for the Yamato's defeat:
[phrase omitted]

The attack was extremely skillful. They evaded carefully and targeted
boldly, probably the most elite pilots in the American military.

[phrase omitted]

Their approach is extremely skillful. They don't give us a single
aircraft to fire at, and take advantage of the weather to tail us while
appearing and disappearing.

[phrase omitted]

The enemy is adept at every method of attack. Making it harder for us
to aim at them, of course, but also holding their breath and attacking
from a high angle in a low cloud ceiling allows them to approach
relatively easily. And the machine guns are overwhelmed by the large
number of enemy aircraft and their quick attack, making it hard to
cover them.

Here the narrator and his comrades are proud crewmembers of the IJN flagship, at the peak of their training, furnished with the finest battleship ever built. They are simply overwhelmed by the elite skill and superior numbers of a worthy adversary. Their defeat is tragic but fair, and no one can find fault with the battle. As the powerful, ringing last line of the text puts it: "[phrase omitted]," "Intense fighting spirit. The highest level of training. An end that knows no shame under heaven."

Later versions, by contrast, emphasize much more strongly the technological inferiority, unpreparedness and hard-headedness of the Japanese military. This comes out most strongly in the text's portrayal of one Lieutenant Usubuchi. The 1946 version touches on him briefly, simply quoting him as saying,
[phrase omitted]

Those who don't progress will never win. Losing is the best path. How
else can Japan be saved? If we don't awaken now, when will we be saved?
We're the forerunners of that.

By the 1949 version Usubuchi's statement is expanded:
[phrase omitted]

People who don't progress can never win. Losing and waking up is the
best option. Japan has come to scorn progress. We've become obsessed
with personal fastidiousness and morality, we've forgotten true
progress. Losing and awakening; how else can Japan be saved? If we
don't wake up now, when will we be saved? We'll be the forerunners of
that. We'll die as the forerunners of a new life. (9)

By 1949 Usubuchi's remark has changed from a vague warning about failure to progress to a specific criticism of the militarist ideology that placed spiritual discipline above technological or tactical improvement.

In the 1952 text, Usubuchi's criticism of the Japanese military becomes even sharper. The narrator states that the muzzle velocity of the Yamato's antiaircraft machine guns is simply not fast enough to catch American aircraft. He recalls a training manual that denies this claim, asserting that any failure to shoot down planes is a problem not with technology, but with the training of the gunners. In the margins of the training manual, Usubuchi has written "What a complete idiot [obaka-yaro].--Lieutenant Usubuchi." (10) (obaka-yaro is a vicious insult)

As the versions progress, the Japanese military's shortsightedness becomes much more strongly emphasized as the reason for the Yamato's tragic sinking. Naturally, each version reflects the discourse about the war that was contemporary to its writing. The foolishness of the war in general, and especially the shortsightedness of the Japanese military for dragging the nation into a war it could not win, are characteristic of postwar thinking. The role of science and technology, and Japan's failure to prioritize them, were particularly prominent features of postwar discourse. (11)

Another striking difference between versions is the text's depiction of the sailors' unity. In the 1946 version the text tends to ascribe the same loyalty, resolution, courage and sense of mission to all the sailors. "Three thousand sailors aboard, all comrades in arms," the narrator proclaims, "a tumult of voices clamors for a decisive final battle," or "the ships sit unmoving on the black sea. Countless firm wills slumbering within." These sentences depict the entire crew as of one mind, with one purpose (although the text does not shy away from describing cowardice and desperation). Since, as mentioned above, the 1946 version maintains a narrated "self" thoroughly saturated in 1945 military ideology, this is entirely appropriate.

By the 1949 version, however, the unity depicted in the text begins to break down. A prime example is the treatment of one Ensign Mori. The 1946 version gives him the most cursory of treatments: "I still vividly remember the voice of the Captain's Aide, Ensign Mori, shouting 'Don't give up!' and the sight of him hitting sailors on their shoulders until the moment he drowned." By the 1949 version, however, the narrator has much more to say about Mori:
[phrase omitted]

[phrase omitted]

Thick eyebrows casting dark shadows on cheeks illuminated by moonlight,
it is ensign Mori. Known for his frank personality, being the biggest
drinker on the ship, and for his beautiful fiancee.

He moves his eyes away from the wave troughs he had been staring at,
puts his mouth to my ear, and says as if angry, "I'm going to die, so
I'll be fine. Those who go to die are lucky. I'm fine. But what about
her? How can she be happy? Surely some guy better than me will come
along, marry her, and make her even happier. Surely.... Her happiness
connected to me is over. I am going to die. That's why I need her to
grasp an even greater happiness. Marry someone better. I want her to be
able to accept that happiness." (12)

Despite his claim that he is "fine," Ensign Mori is clearly angry and filled with regret at leaving his fiancee behind. The unity of resolve suggested in the 1946 version breaks down in the 1949 version. Of course, Ensign Mori's qualms about participating in a suicide attack resonate with a postwar discourse that was vilifying suicide attacks as a tragic and foolish wartime atrocity.

Perhaps the most profound indication of the collapse of the crew's unity depicted in 1946 is the inclusion, in the 1952 version, of Ensign Nakatani, who is one of the story's most compelling characters but does not appear at all in the two previous versions. Nakatani is a Japanese American who was drafted while attending university in Japan, and faces the unfortunate fate of being forced to fight against his home country. The narrator encounters him sobbing in his bunk after receiving, finally, the day before the sortie, a letter from his mother in America via neutral Switzerland. (13) Not only does Nakatani, like Mori, have profound regrets about participating in a suicide mission, but his very nature is anathema to a unity of purpose or will among the crew. Even in 1949, it seems, Yoshida was reluctant to include him. Only by 1952 was he able to admit to such plurality among the crew. By 1952, of course, with the occupation over, democracy and plurality had become more highly valued than the top-down, enforced "unity" of the war. Senkan Yamato no saigo again reflects this shifting discourse.

The 1946 text, therefore, is valuable both for its own artistic merits and for the insight it gives into how a single narrative can change as it traverses the discourse of different authorial moments. A reader of the translation of the 1978 "decisive edition" will (with some exceptions) get all the content of the previous editions, plus some additions. It is this 1946 version which is dramatically different, in terms of both content and style, and therefore one of the most interesting to examine. The portion I have translated here begins when the battle is all but over and the ship has begun to sink, and contains the narrator's dramatic awakening to the value of life. Some judicious editing has been applied to omit some sentences in order to reduce the overall length of the excerpt.
List at thirty-five degrees.
XO to the Captain: "There's 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
(This is the end of the commander of the second fleet, Vice Admiral Ito
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
What's the point of a suicide mission if you try to escape at this
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 Kosaku.
(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
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.
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
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. But
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's hard to suppress my
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
April 8th
I have completely recovered my strength, I go up on deck and wash my
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
Intense fighting spirit. The highest level of training. An end that
knows no shame under heaven. (End)

(1) Japanese names are given here with the last name first, followed by the personal name.

(2) Yoshida Mitsuru, Yoshida Mitsuru chosakushu (Tokyo: Bungei Shunju, 1986), 641. Translations from this work are mine.

(3) Yoshida Mitsuru, Requiem for Battleship Yamato, trans. Richard Minear (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985), xxiv. Roman numeral pages indicate Minear's introduction.

(4) Jun Eto, Ochiba no hakiyose: haisen senryo ken'etsu to bungaku (Tokyo: Bungei Shunju, 1981), 230-63. Translations from this work are mine.

(5) Yoshida, Requiem, xxix.

(6) Eto, Ochiba no hakiyose, 208.

(7) Yoshida, Requiem, xxix-xxx.

(8) Yoshida, Yoshida Mitsuru chosakushu, 641.

(9) Yoshida Mitsuru, Gunkan Yamato (Tokyo: Ginza Shuppansha, 1949), 31.

(10) Yoshida, Yoshida Mitsuru chosakushu, 75. (1978 version)

(11) John W Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999), 494.

(12) Yoshida, Gunkan Yamato, 27.

(13) Yoshida, Yoshida Mitsuru chosakushu (1978 version), 15.

doi: 10.5744/delos.2019.1026

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Publication:Delos: A Journal of Translation and World Literature
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Date:Sep 22, 2019
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