In April 1945, the Japanese battleship Yamato — the largest and heaviest in history — embarked upon a suicide mission. The ship sailed to Okinawa, where a huge American assault was taking place. Under extensive enemy fire, it sank, as was expected, to the bottom of the Pacific. With it, it took 2,280 of its crew. Survivors’ accounts exist and continued to be taken until very recently. They describe seamen lost even on board, unable to find their living quarters because of the sheer size of the vessel; arrows painted on decks to indicate the direction of the bow or stern; and the testing days before what the crew knew would be the battleship’s last mission.
Jan Morris, however, does not include the human stories of the Yamato. Rather, in this illustrated essay of sorts, she follows the ship’s journey from a distance. She has us watch with her, from somewhere above the ship — perhaps like gods — as it sits in wait off the Mitajiri shore, and from ‘across the darkening water’ as it prepares to set out on its final journey. Rarely does Morris venture on board; while she speculates about the tiny details of the ship and conjures a sense of something that can only be described as its character, she does not linger on the moods or emotions of the crew. The book, however, is no less human for it, since Morris’s tremendous skill is in breathing life into — and making it possible to empathise with — the inanimate: buildings, cities, ports and, this time, a ship.
The Yamato, built at Kure, on the Inner Sea of Japan, at the end of the 1930s, was a heavy, solid, angular and ultimately brutal machine, weighing 65,000 tons, and measuring, in length, 263 metres.