Books: Death March on Mount Hakkōda (Jirō Nitta)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2011-02-04 19:52:32 No comments

Billed as a “documentary novel”, this book uses as its inspiration a true incident from Japan’s military history. In 1902, two platoons of Japanese soldiers competed to see who could cross the snowy wastelands of Japan’s far-north Mount Hakkōda. The whole exercise was seen as a prelude to a possible Russian invasion of the Japanese peninsula from that region, and was regarded as a pre-emptive way to determine what measures to take to fend off such an assault. At first the whole march seems like little more than a grueling exercise, but one problem after another is compounded by the bull-headed stubbornness of the commanders in charge, and almost everyone involved in the mission freezes to death. The few that live are compelled to keep their silence about their superior officers’ bungling, and feel unworthy of being fêted as heroes when they return home—just as the Russo-Japanese War begins. The whole thing is told in the kind of spare, unpretentious language used by other Japanese historical writers (the great Yasushi Inoue comes to mind); Nitta lets the facts speak for themselves, and only embellishes with poetic and dramatic license as a way to comment on the issues at hand (mostly at the start and end of the story). A grim footnote to Japan’s military history, but as revealing in its own way as many more broadly-documented incidents, and without the nostalgic sentimentality that usually clouds such retellings.

Tags: Japan Russo-Japanese War books fiction historical fiction history review