Some years ago I watched the movie The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi and enjoyed it, though it did not match my expectations. I watch martial arts movies from time to time, but usually not for the plot or character development. As a kid, I watched any movie I could with big explosions. Now I am a sucker for the balletic action common in many great kung-fu movies from the east.
Certainly the movie has its share of sword fights, but the style of fighting surprised me, ignorant as I was (and am) of Japanese fighting styles. I expected long, drawn out battles. In fact, the fights lasted mere seconds as the combatants focused on short, intense stabs. Towards the end of the movie the best swordsman of the bad guys and Zatoichi face off alone. “Ah, here we go,” I thought. No . . . this was the shortest fight of all, consisting of each man doing only one move.
I thought of this movie reading Japanese Destroyer Captain* by Captain Temeichi Hara of the Japanese Imperial navy. During W.W. II his record made him Japan’s best captain of destroyers, if not one of their top captains in the whole navy. Much of his memoir reads like I suppose an American or British naval man would recount the war. I hoped also to glean something of the culture of Japan that would help illumine the war beyond the narrow confines Hara discusses.
Captain Hara avoids using too much military jargon. At times I had to strain to understand the battles he describes, but usually not. He writes openly without any obvious agenda. He has criticism and praise alike for certain American actions, and even sharply criticizes certain member of Japanese high command (I believe he was the first to do so after the war).
I mentioned The Blind Swordsman because the whole atmosphere of Hara’s account has its roots in samurai lore. Hara often references maxim’s from different literature and famous swordsmen, but he seems to do more than just quote them. He gives evidence of living inside of them. His grandfather actually was a samurai and he speaks at the beginning of the book of his deep connection with his grandfather. He obviously sought to live out this connection in battle. Often his thoughts on tactics and strategy come couched in aphorisms of the samurai, especially Mushashi Miyamoto.
But this applies to the whole Japanese naval effort. Certainly Japan faced certain strategic limitations given their relatively small industrial capacity, but their tactics reminded me of the final sword battle of Zatoichi. The best samurai win with one stroke. The Japanese developed torpedoes that had longer range and ran without leaving a distinct trail in the water. This gave them an advantage that they attempted to exploit in samurai like fashion. They sought to fire first from long range, well before U.S. ships could fire. If successful, the naval battle would over immediately. But if not–and the long ranges from which they fired made this less than likely–the advantage would immediately swing to the Americans. On the one hand, their concepts make sense apart from samurai lore. If you have a smaller chance of winning a close-fought battle (Americans never had to worry about supplies of ammo) try and win it from long-range. Even so, we still see the samurai connection.
We this seeking after a decisive final-blow in other aspects of Hara’s account. He frequently criticized any effort of Japan that failed to use its forces en masse in decisive faction, citing the adage, “A lion uses all its strength when catching a rabbit.” Even in April of 1945, with no chance of victory, Hara seems strangely at peace with their final naval assault. Many eagerly sought death in samurai fashion in an entirely hopeless battle. Hara, if I may venture a guess, seems pleased in a more detached sense that the navy had marshaled all its remaining ships and at least would now use them all at once. In this last moment for the Japanese navy we see the Zatoichi sword fight connection. Rather than keep their ships back to defend Japan, they sought a grand offensive thrust at our beachhead in Okinawa (which also mirrors how they used their torpedos).**
When discussing Guadalcanal Hara shows a keen understanding of strategic and tactical success. The Japanese at one point won a key battle by sinking several U.S. ships. The Japanese celebrated. Hara did not. He noted that nothing about the situation in Guadalcanal had fundamentally changed. The U.S. could still supply its men, and the Japanese still could not supply their own. Soon after the Japanese evacuated their troops.
I thought of this earlier section of the book when reading the last paragraph. Hara writes,
The powerful navy which had launched the Pacific war 40 months before with the attack on Pearl Harbor had at last been struck down. On April 7, 1945, the Japanese Navy died.
That’s it? After giving many opinions and demonstrating time and again the ability and courage to criticize and analyze situations, I found myself mystified that he offered no general conclusions. Why? Again, I am guessing . . . but in the midst of battle, Hara dedicated himself to victory at (almost) any cost.^ Part of this ‘cost’ came in the form of even criticizing high command. But once the war ended, perhaps Hara thought of himself as a ronin, masterless and without purpose. Reflection about some grand meaning after the fact might for him resemble one hand clapping in a void of space–what would be the point? Perhaps . . . perhaps, Hara resembled Zatoichi in more than just a sense of samurai vocation. Perhaps his field of psychological vision was likewise obscured.
*I assume this is a poor translation and the title in Japanese is not so wooden.
**Perhaps another connection . . . Hara laments that the Japanese could not build small torpedo boats akin to our PT class ships. They had the requisite physical capability, of course, but not, it seems, the ability to match the mental will and physical capacity. Hara offers no explanation for this so my guess will be exceedingly tentative . . . the PT boat offered nothing that would produce a decisive and grand blow. No samurai wanted to inflict a death of 1000 cuts.
I mentioned one effect of the democratization of the samurai ethos in this post. In a more mild vein, Hara mentions a samurai drinking ceremony related to battle. Now, with all supposed to embody the samurai spirit, all would drink as the samurai did. But, there are many more men in the navy than there were samurai. Hara recounts several amusing instances when he “had” to drink many many toasts with his men, with almost any occasion an excuse to drink.
^Hara felt that too many in Japan’s military applied the bushido ethic too far and too liberally, merely seeking death as preferable to life. Hara did not fundamentally object to suicide missions, but he did believe that they must serve some purpose beyond the merely symbolic. He object to the final sortie to Okinawa not because it would involve the destruction of the fleet, but because it would needlessly destroy the fleet. Hara wanted instead to sell his life attacking supply and transport ships, to do at least some damage to the U.S.