Daily Archives: 26 January 2007

Wordcatcher Tales: Rengou Kantai, Ketteisen

The other old mass-market paperback that I recently bought for $1.39 was The End of the Imperial Japanese Navy, by Masanori Ito (1956), translated by Andrew Y. Kuroda and Roger Pineau (1962). It offers an interesting critical retrospective on the Pacific War from the point of view of the Japanese Navy’s high command. It also offers a chance to combine book excerpts with Wordcatcher Tales.

聯合艦隊 rengou kantai – 聯合 rengou ‘combined, united’ has now been simplified to 連合. The first character also occurs in the abbreviated name of the old Soviet Union (ソ連 soren [so- is short for sobietto ‘Soviet’]) and in the translation of United Kingdom (連合王国 rengou oukoku). The second word, which can mean either ‘fleet’ (if large) or ‘squadron’ (if small) is composed of 艦 kan ‘warship’ and 隊 tai ‘squad, troop’. In Japanese, navy submarines are warships, not “boats”: 潜水艦 sensuikan ‘submerge-water-warship’. The 隊 tai can also translate ‘corps’, as in 挺身隊 teishintai ‘volunteer (lit. ‘offer-body’) corps’, which is the standard term for the military ‘comfort women‘ in Korean (chŏngshindae).

TO THE JAPANESE PEOPLE “Rengo Kantai” is a familiar and honored term meaning “Combined Fleet.” When World War II began, the Japanese Navy—the third most powerful in the world—included some of the mightiest ships in naval history and was a force worthy of the pride and trust of the Japanese people. Then, in less than four years, this great war machine fell from glory to oblivion. Of ten battleships riding in Hiroshima Bay in December, 1941, nine were sunk. The lone survivor, Nagato, died at Bikini Island as a target in an atomic bomb test.

As early as the spring of 1946, Bungei Shunju magazine urged me to write of the last days of the Combined Fleet. I refused because I did not wish to disturb the dead bodies of my friends. Even if I had forced myself to write, I would not then have been able to assemble all the material now available to me. In the years since Japan’s defeat, the war-troubled mind of the people has been calmed, but I find that there is still nostalgia for the Combined Fleet in many hearts. It was at the request of Japanese readers that my newspaper articles were assembled into this book.

Movements to romanize our language may some day succeed [!!], but the ideographs for Rengo Kantai [聯合艦隊] will always stir Japanese hearts, just as do some of Admiral Heihachiro Togo‘s famous words. His dispatch as battle was about to be joined at Tsushima Strait: “The enemy has been sighted; the Combined Fleet is moving to annihilate him. The waves are high but the day is clear.” [pp. 1-2]

決定戦 ketteisen ‘decisive battle, showdown’ – The components are 決める kimeru ‘to decide’, as in the Sino-Japanese compound 解決 kaiketsu ‘solution, settlement’; 定める sadameru ‘to decide, fix’, as in the compound 定食 teishoku ‘set meal’; and 戦う tatakau ‘to fight’, as in the compound 戦争 sensou ‘war’. The term can refer to any kind of decisive showdown, whether between sumo wrestlers, gameshow contestants, or dinosaurs.

Army leaders in Japan believed that the United States could be easily defeated. But Admirals Yamamoto and Nagano knew the temper, traits, and character of the American people, as well as the military history of the country, and they had no illusions of an easy victory for Japan.

Their hope was that Japan might quickly achieve such overwhelming successes that the United States would accept a compromise peace. There was risk involved, but Yamamoto decided in favor of decisive battle. The question then remained as to where the battle should be fought. The Naval General Staff hoped that it could be in the Solomons.

The Solomon Islands, stretching southeasterly from Rabaul to Guadalcanal, could provide valuable bases for the Japanese fleet. The General Staff figured that seizure of these islands would constitute such a threat to Allied lines of communications that the United States Navy would oppose their occupation, and could then be annihilated. This concept depended heavily on the enemy’s rising to the bait. If the enemy shied from decisive battle in the Solomons, Japan would be faced with a long war.

Admiral Yamamoto, on the other hand, advocated Midway as the battleground. He reasoned that Japanese occupation of Midway and the Aleutians (all part of the same operation plan), would guarantee a challenge from the United States Navy. He felt that Americans could accept the fall of Guam and Wake, but that they would not tolerate Japan’s advance beyond the 180th meridian. He also felt that his Midway plan had a better chance of success than the Solomons strategy.

The Midway strategy, however, involved a greater risk. The distance from Japan’s Inland Sea to Midway is more than twice the distance from Pearl Harbor to Midway. Midway’s comparative proximity to Pearl Harbor would make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Japan to support an island garrison. The chance was very great that the enemy could easily recapture the atoll.

But Admiral Yamamoto argued that the opportunity for a decisive battle must be expected to entail risk. Midway should be seized. If the enemy came out to regain the island, Japan’s long-sought opportunity would be provided. A fleet-opposed action of Japan’s choosing would lead the way to another “Pearl Harbor,” in which, this time, enemy aircraft carriers could be destroyed. With the U.S. Navy’s strength divided between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Yamamoto felt that the Pacific half would fall easy victim to the concentrated Combined Fleet of Imperial Japan. [pp. 52-53]

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