BOOK REVIEW – Clouds Above The Hill (“Saka No Ue No Kumo”)

Shiba Ryotaro, Clouds Above The Hill (“Saka No Ue No Kumo”) Edited by, Phyllis Birnbaum. Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, Paul McCarthy, and Andrew Cobbing, New York: Routledge, 2012-2014. 4 volumes.

Review by Robert P. Largess
Independent Scholar

Perhaps the most perennially fascinating conflicts in military history are those in which a weaker force seeks to defeat a numerically stronger opponent by superior tactics, materiel, and fighting quality. Classic examples are the German High Seas Fleet vs. the British Grand Fleet in WWI, and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia vs. the Union’s Army of the Potomac in the American Civil War. And of course, this was also exactly what the Japanese Navy hoped to achieve in its climactic struggle with the U.S. Navy in the Second World War. Each of these underdogs failed to gain a decisive victory through maneuver and spirit, and each struggle developed into a grueling war of attrition in which the stronger side won. Still, each of them secured some truly striking successes, enough to engender endless subsequent debate over whether Scheer, Lee, or Yamamoto could – through the right tactical choices or “the breaks of the game” – have possibly pulled it off.

Sometimes though, the conundrum has been solved, and the weaker force has won. The outstanding example of this is Japan’s victory over Russia in their conflict over possession of Korea, the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese possessed superiority in leadership, morale, discipline, and some important areas of materiel. But what prevented this struggle from descending into a long drawn out war of attrition, which Japan could hardly have won, was her stunning, crushing naval victory at the Tsushima Straits on May 27, 1905, which led to the annihilation or capture of almost the entire Russian Fleet. The largest contest of fleets since the Napoleonic Wars, this was one of the most decisive naval battles in history, and dealt the prestige of the Russian imperial system a blow from which it never recovered.

The 1904-5 war and Tsushima were the culmination of Japan’s Meiji Era, the remarkable period of Japan’s determination to Westernize and modernize its society to prevent its colonization following its opening to the West in 1853 – a phenomenon not quite like anything to be found in the rest of the world, a sort of national revolution by consensus, something repeated perhaps in Japan’s embrace of American democracy and culture in 1945. These issues form the subject of Shiba Ryotaro’s historical novel Clouds Above the Hill (“Saka no Ue no Kumo”) which first appeared in weekly serial form in Japanese newspapers 1968-1972, and was then published complete in eight volumes. One of the most published books in Japanese history; it is still in print and much read. Shiba retains an iconic status for the Japanese people as interpreter of their history through his many works, and most all this one. However, it has never before been translated into English until this four-volume 2013 edition, produced through the personal commitment of publisher Saito Sumio. Western students of naval history will recognize it as part of the groundbreaking flood of new knowledge from Japanese-language sources which has been enriching our field in the last few years, for example in Evans and Peattie’s Kaigun or Parshall and Tully’s Shattered Sword. Indeed, this work shares with Kaigun the major theme of how the 1904-5 war shaped Japan’s decision to go to war in 1942. It is of the deepest interest to anyone interested in modern Japanese history and culture, the 1904-5 war including the land campaign, navies of the Predreadnaught Era, and of course the Tsushima battle itself, described over 140 pages in minute-by-minute detail. It contains similar extensive and gripping descriptions of other naval actions including the Battles of the Yellow Sea and Ulsan in 1904, the Battle of the Yalu and the seldom-described night torpedo attacks on Weihaiwei which caused the loss of the battleship Dingyuan in the 1894-5 Sino-Japanese War, as well as the 1898 Battle of Santiago, where Japanese naval officer Akiyama Saneyuki was present as an observer with the U.S. fleet.

Clouds is not historical fiction in the American sense, but a dramatic recreation of history. It follows the background and events of the war from the viewpoints of many, many real historical people, but in particular Akiyama Yoshifuru, “father of the Japanese cavalry”, and his brother Saneyuki, who became Togo’s chief operational planner for Tsushima. (Kaigun calls his tenure at Japan’s new naval war college in 1903, “the beginning of independent Japanese naval thought.”) Clouds follows their boyhood as members of the newly-abolished samurai class, struggling to obtain Western-style educations and careers in public service, making unique contributions to Japan’s military development, and then achieving brilliant successes in action in the war. The exact genre of Clouds may puzzle American readers at first; it is neither exciting escape fiction nor a scholarly monograph. Actually, it most resembles something like Ken Burns’ TV series The Civil War. Shiba’s goal is to inform, and move us with the truth. The original serial format enabled him to take his time, exploring every aspect of his subject including diplomacy, national cultures, military science and technology, and the lives and personalities of many important figures. Like Burns, he introduces us to many scholars and first-person witnesses, bringing them onstage and letting them speak for themselves, delving into and summarizing many issues, but all unified by sweeping underlying themes.

The war, of course, was the test of the reborn young Japan’s ability to survive in the face of Darwinian Western imperialism that swallowed up the other ancient civilizations of the earth: India, Islam, and (almost) China. But perhaps the most important and mis-learned lesson of the war was how much it was a near-run thing. Japan was at the point of running out of money, resources, manpower, even ammunition when the war ended. The Russian army, forced out of Korea by tactical reverses, withdrew into Manchuria with its superior strength intact, following the strategy that worked so well against Napoleon and Hitler, forcing its enemies to stretch themselves to the limit in a futile and ultimately desperate attempt to force a decision. What saved the situation for Japan – one can imagine the broken remnants of a retreating Japanese army struggling to reach the safety of the Korean ports in the winter of 1905-6 – was the crushing, total naval victory at Tsushima.

Japan found – or put – itself in the same strategic situation in WWII, of going to war with inadequate resources and military strength, banking on a decisive naval victory to pull the fat out of the fire. Kaigun analyzes how the Japanese Navy spent the years between world wars preparing itself to fight the decisive battle and neglecting everything essential for a war of attrition. Japan went to war in 1941 with the misplaced confidence – or hope – that it could bring off this very chancy result. But the window of opportunity for this was very short – gone at Midway, perhaps, or at least after the carrier battles later in 1942. What made things different in 1904-5? In fact, more than a year of constant hard naval fighting punctuated by several major engagements preceded Tsushima. But it proved hard to bring the Russian squadrons to action, armored warships proved quite resistant to gunfire, Japanese losses were high, and Togo himself apparently fumbled tactically on two major occasions.

The first decisive development occurred when the Japanese captured 203 Meter Hill overlooking the Port Arthur anchorage, and brought the Russian Far Eastern fleet there under spotter-directed fire, using its 11-in. (28-cm.) siege howitzers to sink four of the five remaining Russian battleships on Dec. 5-7, 1904. (Bringing these monsters into the field was an unprecedented feat; it inspired the Germans to create their mobile Krupp 16-in. howitzers which they used to reduce the Belgian border forts in the opening act of WWI.)

The second was Tsushima. The Russian Baltic Fleet had travelled 18,000 miles and spent seven and a half months away from a base or shipyard, a serious matter for ships in the age of coal, with crews subjected to back-breaking labor in tropical heat, constant recoaling and resupplying, mechanical wear and tear on their reciprocating engines. Their commander Rozhestvensky led them into a hopeless tactical situation, with no way to a base (Vladivostok) except through the Japanese fleet, and with their inferior speed no way of disengaging once battle was joined. Indeed he threw away any chance of eluding the Japanese by passing the Korean straits in daylight, out of a probably exaggerated fear of night torpedo attack. Not the least of their problems was his complete lack of a tactical plan to fight the inevitable battle, apparently relying only on his substantial superiority in heavy guns (41 Russian 10 and 12-in. vs. 17 Japanese).

Does Shiba have any biases? He is very hard – perhaps too hard – on Rodzhestvensky , who is portrayed as an egotistic tyrant, in contrast to the doomed and tragic figure presented in Richard Hough’s 1958 The Fleet That Had to Die. Certainly he had the force of personality and determination to flog his fleet halfway around the world, but lacked the leadership skills to weld it into a confident, effective fighting force. Shiba also blames Japanese war hero Gen. Nogi for the huge casualties and slow progress of the Port Arthur siege. However, Port Arthur was incredibly strong and the Japanese desperately needed to take it and destroy the Russian battleships there in time to refit their own ships before for the arrival of the Baltic Fleet.

One point that will surprise many Western readers regards the 11-in. siege howitzers. Many Western accounts, such as Wilson’s 1926 Battleships in Action, state that the Japanese siege train of 18 11-in. howitzers was sunk by Russian cruisers in the transport Hitachi Maru on June 15, 1904; providing replacements retarded the assault on Port Arthur. This is apparently still accepted by the authors of Kaigun, and is repeated on Wikipedia today. In fact, none were lost on the Hitachi Maru; the original howitzers were coast defense weapons from fixed permanent mounts in Japan; the decision was made to move them into the field in September 1904 only as an expedient after the initial assault ground to a halt. This writer is unable to say when this misconception crept in; a very cursory look at some contemporary news reports of the sinking revealed no mention of the 11-in. weapons. Could it be that the Hitachi Maru was carrying heavy siege guns, likely 4.7-in., and some Western writer confused them with the later 11-in.? But Shiba tells the correct story.

Clouds Above the Hill rewards study from many aspects, but for the student with a particular interest in the history, thought, ships, and leaders of the Japanese Navy it is essential reading. And easy reading; the translation is simple, clear, and direct. Published in Britain in a small edition, at $76.50 each for the four volumes or $233.75 for the set, it is not cheap. However, a less expensive paperback edition is apparently coming out soon. In any case, it is in the libraries, and available from the online booksellers. How did I come across it? A small disclaimer: this reviewer had the good fortune to be an old friend of the editor, and was asked to proofread it as – how shall I put it? – a known certifiable naval history fanatic. Thus far it remains obscure in this country; but may it receive the attention it deserves! The story of the Japanese Navy is brilliant and tragic, and no one tells it better than Shiba.

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)





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