I asked a Japanese friend how he would characterize Shiba Ryotaro’s famous historical novel, “Clouds Above the Hill.” I’ve known its immense popularity, but Shiba had started its newspaper serialization after I left Japan in 1968, and the size of the finished work — six volumes in book form — had daunted me, so I’d never read it. My friend’s reply: “The nation’s favorite book.”

CLOUDS ABOVE THE HILL: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War, Vols. 1 and 2, by Shiba Ryotaro, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter and Paul McCarthy. Routledge, 2012, 388 pp. and 399 pp., $85 each (hardcover)

Now it’s in English translation, in four large volumes — two of them out, the remaining two to come out later this year. As the English subtitle says, the novel concerns the Russo-Japanese War, from February 1904 to September 1905 — a war that has special, even nostalgic, meaning for the generations of Japanese who, like Shiba, lived significant chunks of the 20th century.

First, the war marked the heroic culmination of Japan’s Westernization. In just half a century after Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy pried it open, the country that had started out quaking with fear that it might become an imperialists’ punching bag challenged Russia, the colossal empire reputed to have the strongest army in the world, and beat it.

This was in stark contrast to the war that Japan muddled into three decades later and that brought the country to the brink.

There were other differences.

In going to war with Russia, the Meiji leaders knew their country had a 50-50 or less chance of winning. Keenly aware of Japan’s severe materiel and personnel constraints, they started the war with suing for peace as an integral part of their strategy, and they did sue for peace when they won a series of battles.

In going to war with China, then with the U.S., the Netherlands, and Great Britain, the Showa leaders apparently had no such plans.

The Meiji leaders knew the importance of world opinion. The Showa leaders apparently ignored it.

In fighting Russia, generals and admirals mostly acquitted themselves well. In fighting China, U.S., et al., few appeared to have done so.

The war with Russia over, some commanders, such as Adm. Heihachiro Togo (1847-1934) and Gen. Maresuke Nogi (1849-1912), were honored and feted worldwide. With the calamitous defeat in 1945, a large number of military officers, high and low, were charged with war crimes, and many were executed.

Such contrast between the two wars raised one vital question in the midst of “peace-loving,” antiwar sentiments that prevailed during the U.S. Occupation and in the years that followed: Couldn’t Japan have avoided war with China, the U.S., et al, had it not fought with Russia?

To this, Shiba Ryotaro brought a clear-cut answer (Part 3, Chapter 5, “Toward war”).

“From the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th, the world’s countries and regions had only two paths open to them: to be colonized by another nation, or, if that was unacceptable, to create industries, gain the necessary military strength, and join the ranks of the imperialist powers.”

Given those circumstances, just to wonder, in retrospect, if Japan should not have “adopted a policy of ‘neither invade nor be invaded’ ” and “focused only on the peace of mankind” would be to indulge in a pure “fantasy.”

This strong historical diagnosis is notable as it comes from an exceedingly popular, prolific writer of historical fiction who professed disgust with the Japanese military’s conduct and attitudes during World War II. He was a junior officer in the army’s armored division when Japan was defeated.

Shiba brings in another perspective to his grand account of the Russo-Japanese War: Men of that period unabashedly aspired to be the very best in the fields of their choice. He accordingly selected two military figures in that mold as protagonists to tell the tale.

One is Yoshifuru Akiyama (1859-1930), who created a cavalry out of thin air, as it were, in an army struggling to turn itself into a modern army, and crushed the most powerful cavalry at the time, the Russian Cossacks; the other, his younger brother Saneyuki (1868-1918), who, as Adm. Togo’s chief strategist, helped destroy one of the most powerful naval units of the day, the Baltic Fleet.

Shiba brings in another man of ambition, the haiku and tanka reformer Shiki Masaoka (1867-1902), who was also the naval aspirant Saneyuki’s close friend. He dies two years before the war starts, however.

Shiba is known to have avowed to stick to “facts” in telling this roman-fleuve. That, and the narrative serialized for four years faithfully reproduced in book form, occasionally creates repetitions and digressions, but Shiba is a master storyteller.

One thing that makes his story lively is the international element. Reflecting the age when the Japanese compulsively turned to Western ideas and practices, some of the famous figures put in their appearance.

Among them are Wilhelm Meckel (1842-1905), the Prussian Army officer who, during his three-year stint in Japan, helped shape the Japanese Army; and Alfred Mahan (1840-1914), the U.S. naval strategist whose opinions Saneyuki sought while he was assigned to the U.S.

Shiba incorporates foreign views and assessments. The most important in this regard is Sergei Witte (1849-1915), the Russian count who, while serving as Czar Nicholas II’s finance minister, strongly opposed war with Japan and was thus demoted. He later played a crucial role in the peace negotiations presided over by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

The first half of “Clouds above the Hill” ends on Nov. 26, 1904. That morning Gen. Gentaro Kodama (1852-1906), diminutive yet brilliant chief of staff of the expeditionary Manchurian forces, faces to the rising sun and prays for the success of Gen. Nogi who is several hundred kilometers southwest, at Port Arthur (Lushun).

Nogi, commander of the Third Army who had already mounted two disastrous frontal assaults on the Russian fortress where Russia’s Pacific Fleet is based and protected, is to begin his third attack that day.

That battle and two more major battles — the one at Mukden (today’s Shenyang) and the naval battle at Tsushima Strait — will be told in the two volumes to follow. Stay tuned.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.