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Books Clouds Above the HillShiba Ryōtarō is said to be one of Japan’s favorite authors. Prolific in multiple genres, he’s credited with over 500 published works from essay to novel as well as over 1,000 magazine travel articles.  He’s far less known in the West both because of the difficulty of Japanese-English translation itself, as well as American reluctance to buy and read translations [3% published translation in the U.S. compared to 14% in France.]  Clouds Above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War has as a partial aim the correction of that lack of interest. It has been immensely popular in Japan, selling over 11 million copies (the equivalent of 47 million in the US) after being serialized from 1968 to 1972 in a major news daily.  With Japan exercising an on-going fascination for Americans — James Clavell’s Shogun had sold over 15 million copies world-wide by 1990– a popular novel by a major writer would seem to be a good bet to attract readers.   I wish the translators and publishers well, (Ryōtarō himself died in 1996,) but offering a four volume novel, however thorough and diligent the translation, is going to be a tough sell.  And unfortunately the first volume, though terrifically informative about Japan during thirty years of amazing growth and change, is the strangest ‘novel’ I have ever read.

Ryōtarō apparently spent years in research and that is how it reads, not like a work of fiction at all.  Perhaps “History dusted with fiction” would be a better term even than “historical fiction.”  Shiba himself at one point used ‘historical journalism’ which seems a better fit to my ear. “I decided not to write anything fictional about the war” he said about his decade long endeavor.  Since the book is almost entirely about the war, with long explications of tactics, military equipment and training it is hard to know how fiction, under such terms, would enter at all.

The three main characters are all real men, not invented.  As far as I could tell there are no fictional characters such as Tolstoy’s Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace. Four pages of Principal Characters at the beginning, as I spot check them, all seem to have existed in the actual, not simply fictional, world.   If there are fictional events, say meetings  between the men, it is hard to make out.  Quotes and dialog are offered, though sparsely, which could easily have been extracted from letters and journals. 

“The Chinese don’t look on us as a true diplomatic mission.”
“How do they see us then?” asked Komura. [Komura Jitarō; deputy minister in Beijing,  1893]
“Most likely as children playacting as diplomats.”
“We’ve got to start a war. That’s all there is to it,” said Komura stoutly.

[Leaving aside the odd use of ‘stoutly,’ we don’t know if such an exchange took place, but think it likely: Komura existed in that time and place; Shiba researched deeply.]

There are no prolonged scenes of men at battle — at least in this volume– such as Stephen Crane offered about the US Civil War, written at a time not far removed from these events.  There are no developed authorial observations about the state of mind of the characters or prolonged dialog in which they share with each other their hopes and fears.  The one mention of man’s reaction to battle is, in a chapter mostly about Shiki, a poet and friend of the speaker, this:

“The deck was covered in blood.” Saneyuki strove to keep his face blank, but the horror of that crimson deck spattered with torn fragments of flesh and bone would haunt his dreams for the rest of his life.

This isn’t to say we don’t have ideas about the men, only that these ideas are buried beneath the overwhelming amounts of historical material of the book.

None of which means that Clouds isn’t interesting, just that it’s mainly interesting as history — of Japan, by a Japanese writer, about major protagonists in the transition from Japan-the-Self-Sequestered to Japan-the-World-Shaker.  And not just interesting, at times fascinating.  Readers who persist will come away with much to ponder. 

These were the years, after all, of Japan’s reaction to Perry’s armed demands in 1853, to the civil war that led to the Meiji Restoration and Imperial Japan, the mad scramble by Japanese of the governing classes, and especially the militarists, to learn from the West, to understand their material wealth and power.  These were the years in which Japan took on first Korea and China and then Russia — encouraged by Theodore Roosevelt and his band of Race Riders, though Shiba doesn’t say so — which led to the expansionism of the 1930s and eventually to the attack on Pearl Harbor and WW II in the Pacific. 

The book begins in the 1870s, the first years of the Meiji era after the Edo era of the Tokugawa Shogunate had all but ended.  Three main characters are introduced, two brothers and a friend, from the province of Matsuyama which, in fact, had been on the loosing side of the struggle to restore the Emperor, and Japan, to a higher plane.  [It would have been nice to have a map of their origins to go along with the excellent maps of Korea and the Liaodung Peninsula. Maps are good!] The young men are impoverished but the changes in Japan give them chances they would never have had.  Education, wide-spread if not universal, is the leading edge of the modernization plan.  Not only do we follow the brothers through several schools, aiming generally to become teachers themselves, but we get great dollops of Japanese school history.

It was in May 1872 that a teacher training school was first established in Japan.  There was only one, in Tokyo, in the grounds of the old Shōheikō, the official Confucian Academy of Tokugawa times. ‘Twenty four persons will be admitted,” the notice said; the teacher was to be a foreigner hired by the imperial government.

 One can see how such side panels, as it were, would be of interest to Japanese newspaper readers in 1968 where the novel was first serialized.  There is something perhaps in the nature of newspapers that invites such stops along the broader avenue of plot and story — and there are many such.  For the non-Japanese reader of a ‘novel,’ they seem strange at first until, well, until one gets used to it.  A novel from another culture, we may learn, is something else: it follows its own rules and logic.

Little tid-bits of time and place pop up.  An old man, a former samurai, stops the young protagonist.

“Aren’t you surprised to see me?” said Mr. Ikeuchi, meaning “You should show more surprise and pleasure in seeing me.” And we are informed that only farmers and townspeople stood around chatting; samurai, even impoverished ones, did not. 


The first Sino-Japanese war, growing out of Japan’s increasing worry about China’s position as Korea’s “protector,” and its own increasing assertiveness began in early 1894 following a peasant uprising in Korea, against which the Korean government was considering asking Chinese help.  The Japanese moved faster, landing at Inch’on on June 12, according to Shiba at the initiative of Kawakami Sōroku, vice chief of the Army General Staff and the equally belligerent Mutsu Munemitsu, the Foreign Minister, side-stepping the more pacific Prime Minister Otō Hirobumi.   This will be new history for most American readers, and should be very interesting. It is here, in less than a year, that Japan announced its presence on the world stage. 

The change in perception of westerners, above all the British who had supported China,  of Japan as a land of doll-like people to admiration of a formidable power came almost overnight.  After the battle of the Yalu, European navies for the first time thought to study Asian armaments and tactics.  China, defeated by a fellow Asian nation, could no longer deny its weakness.  As one observer says, ‘it kicked the bottom out of their world.’ Finally, the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the hostilities, and the subsequent Triple Intervention came to have somewhat the same effect in Japan that the Treaty of Versailles had years later on Germany. Shiba is forthright in his opinion

“Barely a week [after the treaty was signed,] Russia butted in, instructing Japan to give the Liaodong Peninsula back to China.  This idea was something Russia itself had dreamed up, but to cloak in int the respectability of world opinion, France and Germany were persuaded to join in the demand.  The pretext was that the peace of the Far East would be destabilized if Japan took control… Japan trembled … powerless to do anything but knuckle under.”

 Having beaten China ‘fair and square,” as it were, to have Germany, France and Russia dictate a revision of the treaty and strip Japan of some of its newly won possessions, above all the Liaodong Peninsula with its indispensable Port Arthur, and award it to a very threatening Russia was the equivalent to what right-wing Germans would later characterize as a “stab in the back,” propelling more resentment-fueled Japanese adventurism.

 In the middle and later sections, after the Akiyami brothers are out of school, each now in the military, one setting out to create from scratch a cavalry for the army –native Japanese horses were only the size of ponies– and the other joining the growing naval fleet, the play of government and history begin to take their place in the book.  Akiyama Yoshifuru is sent first to France and then to Germany to study horsemanship and tactics.  His brother, Saneyuki,  after several false starts winds up on an American troop transport ship, with other military observers, at the Battle of Santiago Bay and the breaking of the Spanish fleet,  July 1898 — the tactics of which mightily impressed him and led in 1904 to Admiral Togo’s surprise attack on Port Arthur, initiating the Russo-Japanse war — which in turn was a model for the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

Shiba doesn’t mention it but there is much rich material here for a study of Japanese and American relations, including, for example, Saneyuki’s admiration for the American historian and strategist Albert Thayer Mahan whose views about the importance of sea power were gospel for Theodore Roosevelt.  As Assistant Secretary of the Navy he had almost single-handedly prepared the US fleets for the conflict with Spain which Saneyuki was taking such an interest in.

As the first volume comes to a close Shiba races through the Russian occupation of ‘outer Manchuria’ in 1900, skipping through a few Japanese newspaper headlines blaring the news that “Large Russian Contingent Headed for East Asia,” and “Looming Danger of Russian Occupation of Manchuria a Threat to Peace in East Asia.”  Japanese elite opinion berated Prime Minister Ito for weak-kneed diplomacy.  The stage is set for Volume II and the commencement of the Russo-Japanese war and the beginning, as some have written, of the Pacific war of 1941-35


I came to Clouds Above the Hills expecting to like it.  I confess I’ve had to struggle harder to stay involved than I would have thought.  Partly, this is a matter of language and style, including many translation choices, but all bedded on Shiba’s shaping of the text.  The more I think about it, the more I think “newspaper.” The book is virtually all exposition with no narrative drive or immersion in individual characters; none of the usual tension and release we expect in fiction; very little exploration of psychology and emotion.

A breezy, familiar locution is mixed in with detailed history and military tactics, in what in linguistics is called mixing of registers, the casual with the formal, for example. To take a some random examples:

It was lucky for Yamagata that Omura fell victim to his enemies’ swords.. Yamagata was nothing special as far as military ability and knowledge were concerned…

Since Yamagata was by no means a brilliant man, he was especially good at managing bureaucrats. (Good at managing does not follow from being less than brilliant.)     

The use of modern colloquial English sometimes intrudes. From a poet of the 1880s,

“Lately I slammed traditional tanaka poets so hard…” 

or in a discussion of writing

“There’s no ultimate standard for beauty.  I figure you can’t measure beauty by any fixed criterion.”                                                                                                     

This casual manner is often seen in Shiba’s use of  “digressions” to leave the flow of the narrative.  Apparently this is common and acceptable in the Japanese writing voice.  In English it strikes us as odd, particularly as interruptions of otherwise quite fact-rich text,  as here, for example: 

“A digression: the contemptuous term “monkey” was often applied to the Japanese…”


“Here our story takes another turn…”


“We will now part company with Shiki for a while…”


“This was 1893, the year before the start of the first Sino-Japanese war.” [Starting a new paragraph and section.] 


‘To tell the story from the Japanese side…

Some of this might have been tightened up by the translators and editors — who set themselves a herculean task in taking on the work in the first place.  The acknowledgments made to those who tracked down English equivalents for Japanese, Russian and Chinese military technology and tactics only hints at the work that had to be done.  But if, as I suspect, this mix of the casual with the factual is woven into Shiba’s way of seeing and speaking, small stitches wouldn’t do.  “Get me re-write!” would have to called and an entirely different effort made. [It struck me as I was thinking about this that perhaps, as Yoshifuru had to cross-breed European horses with Japanese to create his cavalry, perhaps something similar could be done with the book — someway to bring the the narrative line of western fiction into the expositional line Shiba is so good at.]

In their defense I’d also say we’ve been greatly spoiled lately by American popular historians who are excellent story tellers. David McCullough’s 1776 and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit come easily to mind. 

The second thing that stalled my reading has to do with expectations: assuming I’d find a novel I found history; reading a history I kept tripping on novel-like elements but not long, immersive fictional passages.  Reading Shiba is not like reading E. L. Doctorow, for example, integrating fact and fiction with his ‘faction‘, shown wonderfully in Ragtime (1975) and The March. (2005)  What characterizes Shiba I think is not only an overwhelming amount of exposition but a certain didacticism — as if, in writing for a newspaper audience, he was trying to instruct them in the details of their history, forgotten or suppressed, of 100 years earlier, and the attitude he had come to think was proper to have. 

He had fought in WW II, both in Manchuria in 1945 when the Russians were advancing [see the marvelous film trilogy The Human Condition by Masaki Kobayashi for a look at this desperate struggle] and was prepared to fight in the last-ditch defense of the homeland in the summer of 1945.  After the war ended he came to condemn the leaders who had pushed the nation into it — his moment of recognition triggered by a commanding officer telling him, in the chaos of preparing for a possible American invasion, to “run over any Japanese who were in the way.” 

By the late 1960s, Japanese were removed enough from 1945 to begin to try to psychologically extricate themselves from losing the war, and the shame of having brought it on themselves.  Shiba says all his fiction is an exploration of the question “When did the Japanese become so stupid?” 

And ‘becoming’ was an important point.  Japanese had not always been, nor were they now, “stupid.”  But to re-conceive themselves they needed a point of pride, as all peoples have shown themselves to need:  “well, perhaps our fathers were abusive failures, but our grandfathers, now there were proper men!”

As Shiba came to understand the story, and share it with his readers, the Meiji Restoration –Japan becoming a nation equal to others around the globe– was the finest measure of the people.

“I want to be the best in Japan at something,” said Saneyuki.
“Everyone feels like that,” said Shiki.
This was the common hope of these chosen young men … and as a child of the age, he held bright hopes for himself and was neither skeptical nor cynical nor defeatist.

The amazing climb from the well of backwardness of Tokugawa Japan (militantly removed from the rest of the world for 220 years) to being an Imperial power provided just the needed point of pride.

The Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars were ‘good’ wars — Japan defending itself against China and then against the Russia, consolidating its grip on formerly Asiatic Mongolia, while at the same time sending a message to western Imperial powers: Don’t Tread On Me.  The British had invented the policy of “balance of powers.” The Japanese were quick studies.  There was much to be proud of, he concluded. 

What had gone wrong, then?  What led to the disasters of the ’40s and the ’30s?  In victory lay the seeds of defeat he came to think.  In rising to suppress the arrogance of the Chinese, the Japanese themselves had succumbed, to arrogance.

This two difficulties of mine, mixed language and mixed genre, don’t make Clouds Above the Hill, unreadable at all, just differently readable — and worth the effort, especially for those interested in Japan or the roots of nationalism and war or, as a link to curiosity and knowledge about western Empires of the time.

As to the question that brought me to the book, as it has to all the books on war I’ve been immersing myself in –fiction or history– I was rewarded:  why did we do this?  Why do men throw themselves, or walk blindly, into wars that predictably will bring so much misery to themselves and others?

I was rewarded, not so much at the individual level, though I was reminded about young men’s pride, patriotism, senses of shame and honor,  but at Shiba’s revelation of how a nation makes its way.  I got a good sense of Japan in its transition to nationalism, its taking stock of itself and others.

Foreign Minister Mutso, along with Kawakami Soroku, for example, “believed that only cannon fire could end the diplomatic intimidation Japan had long suffered in Korea at the hands of China.” 
Akiyama Yoshifuru, creator of the Japanese cavalry (which latter would defeat the feared Russian Cosssaks) thought that “Lack of heroic valor could be made up for by an unyielding sense of responsibility such that a man told to defend his position would do so to the bitter end.”
Russia’s Sergei Witte, Chair of the Committee of Ministers, provides the counterpoint:
  “Japan won’t do Russia’s bidding, and China won’t do as Russia says either.  That’s because Russia has taken too conciliatory a tone toward those Far Eastern Nations all along.  There’s only one way to make them toe the line–intimidation.” 

These ways of seeing the world are not new,  but always worth remembering and reminding ourselves.  What we hear coming from Russian mouths in 2014, and Euromericans for that matter, seem stamped from the same old stone.