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How The Japan Times saved a foundering battleship, twice

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

Mikasa! The name of the mighty Japanese battleship will be as familiar to the world’s naval historians as it is now to viewers of NHK’s Sunday evening drama “Saka no Ue no Kumo” (“Clouds Over the slope”). It was the Mikasa that all but decided the fate of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, when it led a devastating attack on the Russian fleet in the Battle of Tsushima — a battle set to be played out with due dramatic bluster in the final episode of the NHK TV series next week.

But the Mikasa’s much celebrated triumph at sea over a century ago has almost been overshadowed by a subsequent history of on-again, off-again efforts to have the ship preserved. In the past, lack of funds, international treaty agreements and simple forgetfulness have been responsible for the old steel-hulled ship falling into disrepair — and even being threatened with scrapping. And yet, on every occasion that such a crisis has emerged, a group of supporters has risen up to fight for the ship’s preservation. Perhaps surprisingly, that community has been led on two occasions — in the 1920s and 1950s — by staff and readers of The Japan Times.

The 1950s tale is well known, for it is documented in exhibition panels hanging inside the ship itself, which is now ensconced in a permanent concrete berth at Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. According to those panels, a Briton named John S. Rubin visited the ship in 1955 and later wrote a letter to The Japan Times expressing his shock at its state of disrepair (by then it had been used for a time as a dancehall). “This (letter) garnered wide public response and reaction around Japan and helped gather momentum to restore the (ship),” one panel explains.

Rubin’s letter appeared in these pages on Sept. 24, 1955, and it turned out that he had good reason to regret the Mikasa’s deterioration.

“I saw the Mikasa launched and completed at Vickers Sons and Maxim’s Shipbuilding Works at Barrow-in-Furness, England,” he wrote, explaining that the ship was built there between 1900 and 1902.

Rubin goes on to note that during his visit to Japan he saw the old boat. “The outer surface is fairly presentable,” he wrote, “but the interior is a shambles and ghostlike in its decrepitude.”

It’s unlikely that Rubin anticipated the scale of the response his letter would receive. Prominent politicians and former Naval officers saw it as a veritable call to arms, and by 1961 restoration work on the ship’s interior had been completed and it had attained the state in which it remains to this day.

One letter to a newspaper can go a long way.

But it was actually during the earlier crisis, in the 1920s, that The Japan Times really proved its worth. According to a 1941 history of this newspaper, the effort to preserve the Mikasa (in the 1920s) was “one of the first media campaigns ever to be carried out in this country.”

The key player in this campaign — whose name is nowhere to be found in the exhibition panels now on display inside the ship — was Sometaro Sheba, a longtime newspaper man who had worked in Hawaii before serving as The Japan Times’ editor and general manager during the 1920s until he retired in 1932. (His name is sometimes rendered Shiba.)

The campaign commenced on June 13, 1923, when The Japan Times ran an article attributed to “Week-end Rambler” recounting that author’s trip to Yokosuka to see the naval boats, and, in particular, the old Mikasa.

“The Mikasa is now lying idle, in actual desolation, in the harbor, stripped of all her power and dignity, like an aged warrior rancouring over the forgetfulness of the nation that he helped to save from the malignant attacks of her enemies,” Rambler wrote. “Why is there no cry to save the warship, I wonder.”

Comparing what little information there is available about Sheba’s life, it is possible to deduce with a fair amount of certainty that Weekend Rambler was in fact Sheba. Likewise it was very probably he who penned the following day’s editorial, which echoed Rambler’s sentiment and provided a little more context:

“If the Mikasa be among the ships to be scrapped in consequence of the Washington (Naval Treaty), as one believes she is, we are of the opinion that another can be easily found to replace her for that purpose with the consent of the signatories. Save the ship by all means! She need not be commissioned to any service of practical nature. Her preservation is all we ask.”

It is highly likely that this was the first public call made by anyone for the Mikasa’s preservation. And it probably came just in the nick of time. The Mikasa had in fact been listed for scrapping almost immediately after the Washington parley, which had ended in February 1922, but since then only preliminary dismantling work had been conducted.

Sheba’s first move in his fledgling “media campaign” was to solicit the support of prominent members of society. Over the next few months testimonials appeared in The Japan Times by Isoh Yamagata, Editor of the Herald of Asia; Count Yoshinori Futara; Marquis Masaaki Hachisuka; educator Ernest Wilson Clement; and Marquis Yorimichi Tokugawa. Many of those writers agreed with Sheba’s own observation that the Mikasa could become Japan’s equivalent of Britain’s Victory or the U.S.’s Olympia — both old battle ships that were at the time slated for preservation.

On July 21, 1923, Sheba took a further step, appending his English-language publication with a page of Japanese text in which he attempted to rally Japanese citizens less adept at English to his cause.

The campaign suffered a setback when the Great Kanto Earthquake struck on Sept. 1 1923, but it was only temporary. A March 1924 editorial took up the cause again, explaining how the three keys to the campaign’s success would be the will of the public, funding and also the problem of winning an exception for the Mikasa from Japan’s treaty agreements.

“A happy solution to the (third) problem is now developing,” the editorial continued. It went on to say that the Japanese-American Club, consisting of some 2,000 Japanese returnees from the United States, had promised to lobby the U.S. Ambassador in Tokyo to allow Japan to keep the boat in contravention of the Washington treaty.

The club members even proposed towing the ship to Shiba, in Tokyo, and using it as their club headquarters. It would thus become a place “promoting international peace and friendship,” the editorial explained.

Soon after this, Sheba’s media campaign appears to have taken on a life of its own. In March 1924, The Japan Times carried a report of a meeting of sponsors of the “Save the Mikasa” movement, at which a permanent association was established. Attendees at the meeting included Hachisuka and others from whom Sheba had solicited texts a year earlier.

That group continued to lobby the government and, on January 1925, Prime Minister Takaaki Kato announced that preserving the ship had been made official government policy.

Jump forward another 22 months, to Nov. 12, 1926, and the Washington Treaty signatories had been won over, funding had been secured and restoration work on the ship completed. In what The Japan Times described as an “impressive fete,” the restored ship was unveiled before the Crown Prince Hirohito (later Emperor Hirohito) and the aged Admiral Heihachiro Togo, who had led the Mikasa into battle against the Russians.

No mention is made of whether or not the guest list at that unveiling included The Japan Times’ Sheba. Either way, he had his own soapbox. Three days later the newspaper ran an editorial that quietly noted the editor’s role in getting the movement off the ground: “Today, when the work of preserving the Mikasa has become one of the significant national movements, it is almost inconceivable to believe that those early sponsors of the plan had to meet such great difficulties.”

Inconceivable, indeed, but we now know that this was not the last of the difficulties that supporters of the Mikasa’s preservation would face. Three decades later, John Rubin would pen a letter expressing his disappointment at the ship’s condition. And, whether by calculation or coincidence, he would send it to the same newspaper that had already saved the ship once in the past.

Click the following links to read the original Japan Times articles in PDF form:
The Japan Times, June 13, 1923
The Japan Times, June 14, 1923
The Japan Times, Sept. 24, 1955

The Mikasa is preserved in Mikasa Park, Yokosuka. For details see www.kinenkan-mikasa.or.jp . The final two episodes of “Saka no Ue no Kumo” will air on NHK-G from 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 18 and 25.