NEW YORK — Isn’t the Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi in Clint Eastwood’s film “Letters From Iwo Jima” idealized? That was a question my poet friend Geoffrey O’Brien asked on New Year’s Eve. A dedicated student of film, O’Brien had remembered a poem about the general that I translated three decades ago. Written in the fury of war, the poem might present Kuribayashi as a die-hard samurai warrior.
When asked the question, I hadn’t seen the movie and couldn’t answer. Now that I’ve seen it, twice, and read collections of Kuribayashi’s letters to his family, along with his biographies, my answer is: probably not. His letters, especially, do not appear to be those of a man who led 22,000 soldiers to death with bravado.
Kuribayashi, born in 1891, toured the United States as a cavalry officer for two years from March 1928 to May 1930. During this time, he chose to address letters home to his infant son Taro and adorn them with drawings. He drew not just himself in his daily activities, but also neighborhood kids on tricycles, a 4-year-old girl named Patsy who frequented his apartment, himself traveling by the Chevrolet K he bought, and so on.
Naturally, he made what today are called “cross-cultural” observations. In his letter from Fort Riley, Kansas, dated Oct. 29, 1929, for example, he drew a picture of a man and a woman on horseback, marveling that, in America, officers’ wives also rode horses: “It’s all so different (from Japan)!”
In the same letter he drew seven people at a table — four women, all in flapper dresses, and three men — and wrote: “Your father during a meal. These people talk so ceaselessly. I’m quite surprised. . . . Come to think of it, though, talking like this while eating is what we should do. Even so, everyone in Japan is so silent.” Takako, Kuribayashi’s second daughter, recalled him saying you could enjoy your meal only with everyone convivially babbling away, that it was no good to act as if you were at a wake.
His letters to “chatterbox Taro” were, of course, meant for his wife Yoshii; the letters he directly addressed to her that have been collected are the ones he wrote from Iwo Jima. In these he tried to assure her he was all right despite the foul conditions of the island — “so many flies and mosquitoes assault you that you can barely keep your eyes and mouth open” — and despite all the bombings and strafing. He constantly expressed concerns for her well-being.
With the onset of winter in Tokyo, for example, he worried about her chilblain, regretted he had failed to fix the kitchen floor and told her to fortify the air-raid shelter in their house. Yoshii had told him cold wind came in through the cracks between floor boards.
He did not touch on military matters in his letters from Iwo Jima, except to note Japan’s certain defeat and speculate about such things as the number of B-29s likely to fly to Tokyo to bomb the city — all left uncensored because he was the commanding general and his censor was his adjutant.
Expressions of love and other familial concerns do not necessarily make a general compassionate enough to save a private from the brutality of his superior officer, twice, as Kuribayashi does in the Eastwood film. Nevertheless, the real-life Kuribayashi affected at least one young man so deeply with his gentlemanly attitude that the man tried to follow him to Iwo Jima, “the hell of all hells.” That was Nobuyoshi Sadaoka (now 85), a civilian working for the army as a tailor. In fact, Kumiko Kakehashi begins her biography of Kuribayashi with a description of Sadaoka reciting Kuribayashi’s farewell wire to the Imperial Headquarters, on March 16, 1945, as his “sutra.”
Here, I think of the article Kuribayashi contributed to the army periodical “Kaiko” as a 28-year-old first lieutenant because it ended with his own resolve: “I will always be mindful of not losing my manners even to NCOs, sincerely valuing their status and personality, paying all due respect to them.” I haven’t learned what lay behind this public pledge, but it evidently proved not to be a vain one. Kuribayashi was known to be disciplined in his conduct and demanding on punctuality, but also courteous to all. He was “democratic.”
On Iwo Jima, where food was inadequate and the only source of water was the rain, he ordered the officers to “pay closest attention to the meals of your men” and absolutely forbade “preparations of separate meals for yourselves.” He observed the stricture himself. He told his cook to give him the same number of dishes everyone else got. When the cook demurred, he told him simply to set out on his table the number of plates specified for someone of his rank but to leave them empty.
“My meal is made up of one bowl of 70% rice, 30% wheat,” he wrote Yoshii in December 1944, “and what goes with it is mainly dried vegetables (mostly pumpkin and nappa).” Fresh vegetables were seldom available on the island. But he noted this to assure his wife that the amount was adequate, that he was even getting fat.
The Battle of Iwo Jima was a hopeless one from the outset. The official U.S. history records 74 days of consecutive bombing and bombardment before the U.S. Marines’ actual landing on Feb. 19, 1945. The bombs dropped during that period alone reached 6,880 tons. But the bombing and strafing of the island had begun months earlier. A week after Kuribayashi’s arrival on the island, on June 8, 1944, a huge bomb dropped near his shelter blew him down, though he wrote Yoshii that he was unharmed.
By September, he was reporting a “gruesome spectacle”: There were “no more grasses and trees as far as the eye can see. The entire land is pockmarked.”
When the predictable outcome became the reality, Kuribayashi, who had composed and distributed to all his men a six-article message, “On Fighting Hard” — characteristically, it was not an order but a pledge to fight with his men — wanted to pay tribute to them. So, in his last dispatch he said his men fought hard “with empty hands and empty fists” against an enemy of “unimaginable material superiority.”
Biographer Kakehashi was indignant to discover that the Imperial Headquarters deleted “empty,” etc., when the farewell dispatch was made public. Such duplicity never ends.
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.
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