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Finding beauty amid defeat: Jan Morris’ ‘Battleship Yamato: Of War, Beauty and Irony’

by Hiroaki Sato

Contributing Writer

The Yamato, the subject of British historian Jan Morris’ “Battleship Yamato: Of War, Beauty and Irony,” was the “mastodonic” yet “very beautiful ship” that U.S. historian Rear Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison lauded in his 1963 book, “The Two-Ocean War.”

Battleship Yamato: Of War, Beauty and Irony, by Jan Morris.
96 pages
W.W. NORTON & COMPANY, Nonfiction.

Toward the end of World War II, the Imperial Japanese Navy put together the remnants of its warships to form a fleet of 10 — a battleship, a cruiser and eight destroyers — and sent it toward Okinawa, “naked of air cover.” Within two hours of U.S. air attacks beginning, the fleet was no more. Among the six ships sunk, along with about 3,700 officers and sailors, was the Yamato.

In his 1952 tribute to survivor Mitsuru Yoshida’s book, “Requiem for Battleship Yamato,” Yukio Mishima invoked the Battle of Thermopylae, calling the hopeless sortie “a perfect imperative,” a “beauty.” “Down the centuries,” Morris writes, men have “paradoxically drawn inspiration of many kinds” from war, “the pride and splendor of it all, the undeniable beauty, the excitement of battle, the elegiac calm of defeat, the magnificence of human strength and courage,” all of which she finds in “the story of Yamato.”

Amply illustrated with photos of the Yamato and its crew, and paintings such as Jacques-Louis David’s “Leonidas at Thermopylae,” Picasso’s “Guernica,” and Velazquez’s “The Surrender of Breda,” Morris likens the Yamato’s finale to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” — “at once somewhat grand, pathetic and grateful.”