Saturday, August 06, 2005

Battleship Yamato Museum in Kure

1/10 scale model of the Yamato
So now that we had our share of peace education, we went to the direct opposite: war education. We went to the Battleship Yamato museum in Kure, Japan. Kure is a port town, famous for its shipyard building capabilities. It was here that the Imperial Japanese navy built a shipyard to churn out its high-quality navy. After the war, this city converted to civilian use, and built many tankers and ships. (I used to play a card game called “Naval War” when I was in high school, and I was happy whenever I received a “Yamato” card, with its 18 in guns that could easily destroy other ships.)

Now you get a very different interpretation of the war than at the Peace Park. For one, you saw tons of models of Japanese navy ships. Then, this exhibit went into great detail about Japan’s wars: Sino-Japanese war, Russo-Japanese war, World War I, the Sino-Japanese War beginning in 1937, and then the Pacific War (what Japanese call the war with America, the British, and the Dutch). In a sense, this was the missing half of the Hiroshima Peace Park museum, which only focused on the suffering of the Japanese. But the interpretation of the war was more right-wing: the war was a quite justifiable affair. It focused on how Japan was continuously encircled by the West, and in order to avoid being colonized, it decided to take establish an empire in China, an action no different from what other Western nations were doing in Asia.

Also this museum does glorify the cult of the suicide warrior. The Yamato was sent out on a final tokko, or “special attack” (Japanese euphemism for “suicide mission”) in April of 1945: go to Okinawa without air cover and attack the invading American forces. With a small armada of escort ships, it went off to Okinawa, but never even made it far from the Japanese archipelago. Wave after wave of American planes picked off the escort ships, and continually rained bombs upon the Yamato, sending it to the bottom of the sea. Several thousands died and only a few hundred survived. This fits in with Japanese samurai movies, where the hero makes a doomed final attack, and is slowly cut down to pieces by masses of the enemy, but valiantly keeps charging forward until he dies. If you’ve watched the Last Samurai, you know what I mean. Anyway, here are some artifacts from the wreck of the Yamato salvaged via a deep sea submsersible like the one that explored the Titanic.

Little known among most people, even historians, is that a Japanese-American served aboard the Yamato. A Japanese author, who survived the Yamato’s final suicide mission, made reference to this point: the Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) was in Japan when the war was started and so he was drafted to listen to American radio intercepts. But because he was born in America, the Japanese sailors mercilessly bullied him and the author could hear the Nisei crying himself to sleep.

After seeing a memorial wall with the names of the Yamato dead, we then went to the other parts of the museum, a children’s museum, and then the fun part: the comics! We came upon a display for the cartoonist Matsumoto Leiji (why he used an “L” instead of an “R” I do not know). In the 19970s, he wrote Uchu Senkan Yamato, a sci-fi series about a spacecraft based on the battleship Yamato, complete with gun turrets and all.
In the conclusion of the series, the Yamato makes a suicide attack against the enemy, ramming itself (after most of the crew has one by one heroically died in combat) into the enemy spaceship, thus saving all of Earth. Hmmm...doesn`t it sound like the final mission for the real-life Yamato? This cartoon was reborn in the U.S. as Starblazers, heavily re-edited to strip away the Japanese military nuances of the film, and with an English version of the Yamato cartoon song (that sounds like some Japanese march): "We`re ooofff to outer space, we're leaving mother earth, to save the human race..."(Yes, click on the link. You'll hear a .mp3 of the theme song). BTW, here's a link to the Japanese version of the song. For some reason, it sounds less militaristic than the American version. A remix perhaps?

Afterwards, we went to a yatai street stall for some gyoza dumplings and ramen. Here is some oden, boiled goodies you can pick and choose. The customers at the stall were so funny. One older man, quite drunk, kept rambling about something. Despite all my Japanese language traiing, I could barely understand what he was saying. Kazuhiro told me not to worry as he could not understand either. Everyone was cracking up at what the man was saying. I asked to take his picture, and so he told me, “Do not show police” in Japanese and then took off his shirt! Then he posed for me with the yatai stall owner. So who made up the myth about Japanese being straight-laced and conformist?
And then, another shock. I asked the woman next to us if I could take a picture of her and her boyfriend’s tattoos. We had made small talk earlier. And then, only after I took her picture and was about to leave, did she spoke to me in very fluent killer English! Now why didn’t she just speak to me in English earlier? Other foreigners complain that the Japanese always talk to them in English. Me, being a kakure gaijin (hidden foreigner), people seem hesitant to talk to me in English, even when they find out I am an American. So sometimes I end up talking to people in Japanese, and only deep into the conversation do they even let on that they are fluent in English. Is this some kind of test of my Japanese ability?I found out from our conversation what she originally hailed from Osaka. When I left, I could hear the other customers compliment her on her English. Now she’s not yakuza, but simply has a very beautiful tattoo, which she kindly let me photograph. She learned the English while in college and from her foreign friends.

Her boyfriend also pulled down his shirt to reveal a tattoo. Again, who says the Japanese are shy conformists? Like I said, you never know who can speak English in this nation! The people you think can speak, like professionals, cannot speak, and the people you least expect to speak, are the most fluent.


Tony said...

Regarding the "L" and "R" thing about Matsumoto Leiji's name, I remember hearing from friends that in music, whenever a singer opts to use an "l" sound instead of an "r" (for example, "tsurai" becomes "tsulai"), it's because they want to sound more stylish and/or poetic. I'm not too sure if Matsumoto's name was meant to be that way, but I'm sure that is has something to do with aesthetics or something...

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