“Battleship Yamato: Of War, Beauty and Irony” by Jan Morris

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Now in her 10th decade, it would be understandable if Jan Morris could no longer cope with the amount of research she once so enjoyed. But she has not abandoned her craft. In her most recent work she has undertaken to memorialize the sinking of the Japanese battleship Yamato, a subject which she says has fascinated her since childhood.

Her account is presented as a “reflection on the meaning of war”. She presents the ship as “…an allegorical figure of war itself, in its splendor and its squalor, its heroism and its waste”. She describes herself as inspired by “…the pride and splendour of it all, the undeniable beauty, the excitement of battle, the elegiac calm of defeat.” Despite having served in World War II herself, Morris seems taken with the idea that many servicemen enjoy conflict and sing their way into battle.

 

Battleship Yamato: Of War, Beauty and Irony", Jan Morris (WW Norton, March 2018; Pallas Athene, March 2018)
Battleship Yamato: Of War, Beauty and Irony, Jan Morris (WW Norton, March 2018; Pallas Athene, March 2018)

The book might more correctly have been titled The Sacrifice of the Yamato. Yamato in fact served for 34 months in the South China Sea, the Carolines and the Philippines, but none of that is discussed. For Morris, it is the ship’s last suicide mission that interests her.

With the defence of Okinawa in full swing and even kamikaze pilots and planes running short, Okinawa was the moment for the imperial navy to throw what were almost its last ten ships into its own suicide mission to defend the motherland. It’s widely known that Japanese servicemen were explicitly trained to fight to the death and if necessary to commit suicide in preference to surrendering. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they did so. In this case Morris points out that without air cover,

 

There [was] not a hope in hell for Yamato, her nine consorts and her patriots of the Second Fleet, except the wan and glorious hope of sacrifice.

 

That is what fascinates her. And in fact the mission made it only about half way to Okinawa before the Yamato and most of its escort were sunk by American torpedo bombers. About 500 of the crew survived at least briefly (about 1 in 6), but Morris ignores them and focuses instead on those who went down with the ship as intended. She refers to that as “touching”.

The heart of the account is Morris’ imagining the atmosphere on the ship as it sails to its demise. It is not so much a history of the ship’s last few days as her imaginings of what must have taken place and of the emotions of the officers and crew. That fictional re-creation deals with the ship’s final three hours only through Morris’ imagining of the colors, the smoke and the noise. The sinking is detailed only in an appendix based on American observations which re-creates what the ship’s log must have recorded during its final battle. Morris adds an order to abandon ship which may be a flight of imagination a bit too far. It seems out of keeping with the sailors’ standing order to die fighting.

 

Morris describes the sinking as “…perhaps even the end of the imperial idea itself, the world over.” The USSR collapsed only 44 years later, and China, the US and the UK among others maintain colonial possessions to this day. It’s hard to understand what she might mean.

This thin, small-format work is essentially a coffee table book for a very small coffee table. I suppose any reviewer would feel a bit guilty failing to unequivocally recommend a book by Jan Morris. I know I do. But I’m afraid that even the most avid war buff may find 107 pages, 6000 words however well-composed and 40 mostly indistinct photographs difficult to justify when there is, for example, Mitsuru’s Requiem for Battleship Yamato instead.


Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People’s Republic.