‘Yamato’ Means ‘Great Harmony’

Fifteen miles down the rail line from Hiroshima, City of Peace, is the Kure Maritime Museum, more commonly called The Yamato Museum, a paean to the greatness of Japan’s navy in WWII. The Yamato, largest battleship ever built, was completed at Kure Dockyard the week after Pearl Harbor and was sunk by the US in the spring of 1945.

In a direct tie between war production and the pride-in-process of Japanese companies now (such as Toyota), signs in English in the museum explain that Kure was famous for its “efficient production systems,” and that “Kure’s aspirations for self-reliance as an industrial city were united with the navy’s aspirations to raise national defense consciousness.”

“The Yamato represented an attempt by Japan to use ‘quality’ to counter the national superiority in ‘quantity’ on the American side. This battleship can be said to have been a crystallization of the state-of-the-art technologies of its time. Those technologies contributed to the recovery and high-level growth of postwar Japan, and have been inherited by the industries of the present day.”

As I understand it, some Japanese technologies (such as radar) developed slowly in the war, and others began to fall behind, which helped the United States in the Pacific. The Yamato was in port or drydock for repairs and upgrades much of its life, and fired its big guns in battle only once, at Leyte. Mostly it served as flagship for the Combined Fleet.

During the war the Kure Dockyard and Naval Arsenal was a massive facility. In addition to the shipyard that made and repaired warships, freighters, and kamikaze vessels, and which converted passenger liners to aircraft carriers, its steelyard was the “only site [in Japan] able to carry out the whole series of operations—research, development, and manufacture—for the production of the large-caliber guns wielded by battleships and cruisers.”

It was said in the war that “the economy starts at the Kure Dockyard.” Hiroshima’s many military and industrial installations made the city a target for the atomic bomb.

Kure is still an active naval base, port, and shipyard, prickling with cranes. Supertankers lie at anchor, waiting their turn. A 250-foot long, diesel-electric submarine, decommissioned in 2004, sits on a pedestal outside the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force Kure Museum, across the road.

(There has been criticism from Japanese media that tribute paid in the museums is too militaristic. While the JMSDF is called Japan’s Navy, it is meant, by constitution and treaties, to be only for self-defense.)

The port and the Yamato Museum are interesting enough to make the trip from Hiroshima. A large statue of Poseidon sits outside, along with a long gun and screws of another warship. Inside is a 1:10 model of the Yamato, 86 feet long. Items salvaged from the ship, such as a crushed fire extinguisher, are on display, as well as personal effects and stories of officers and crew. A brief video shows footage from a 2016 submersible dive on the ship, and there is a diorama of what it looks like on the sea floor, broken into three main pieces, surrounded by hundreds of smaller ones.

The museum also has a kamikaze mini-sub (and some personal effects, including a bottle of raw garlic, of one of the 100 kamikaze sub pilots who died in the war), another small sub, a Mitsubishi A6M Zero, torpedoes, and artillery shells on display. A well-stocked gift shop offers Yamato-branded items, such as t-shirts and hats, rice crackers, “baked chocolate,” teaspoons, trinket boxes, travel mugs, bosun whistles, penholders, hourglasses, letter openers, pendants, keychains, and collapsible fans.

Museum goers were almost exclusively Japanese the day I went. They were silent, their faces reverent. A sign says Japan lost 651 warships, and almost 3,000 other vessels, in the war. A large map of the Pacific lists the names of vessels still unaccounted for. Visitors leaned in, traced last-known locations, and made tsk-tsk noises. An angry-looking man purposely moved in front of me at two displays, so I could not see them, despite no one else being around. Later he knocked into me and then my friend.

The Yamato was an object, a piece of machinery, a little piece of Japan (the country was once referred to as “Yamato”) that one could place one’s pride in. It was hit by bombs and torpedoes a number of times in its brief tenure, and more than once took on 3,000 tons of water. The crew flooded compartments on the undamaged side to bring its list under control—and still made 20 knots.

But like Japan in the war, her fate was sealed. She was ordered to beach herself on Okinawa to be used as a gun emplacement until destroyed, a kamikaze mission of its own in defense of the home land. On the way she was discovered by American ships and subs and sunk by naval air power, just as the Japanese feared. One of her magazines exploded after she had already capsized, making a tower of smoke four miles high that could be seen 100 miles away on Kyushu. Of her 3,332 crew, 3,055 died. She lies in 1,100 feet of seawater, but in 2015 Japanese nationalists looked into raising what is left and recovering any remains as a way to honor the cause and return some pride in defeat.

An older Westerner in a John Deere cap had been walking around the exhibits, slowly and respectfully, with his hands behind his back. He finished up and exited the hall. As he passed, he said softly in an American accent: “Galls your ass, them coming, all yakkin’ and loud, to see the Arizona. Sneak attack.”

He waved back to the crushed bits of the Yamato on display. “All they got to pat themselves on the back for is this big-ass ship. And they do a lot of pattin’. Now it’s lying on the goddamn bottom of the ocean.”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.