Discovering japan's war on a Zen garden sea
Touring the tranquil Seto Inland Sea of Japan, Bob Wurth makes surprising discoveries of wartime past...
Etajima in the bay of Hiroshima is a pleasant island transfixed in time. Nestled by the sea below the wooded peaks of Mount Furutaka, is a naval academy which has changed little in appearance since the war years when it was the bosom of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Etajima’s ceremonial hall is a grand white granite building of two floors fronted by three massive doors topped by arched windows and surrounded by manicured Japanese pine. Climb the stairs in the oppressive summer heat and feel the delightfully crisp, cool air in the cavernous holy of holies. You might call this the cathedral of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
When you walk your footsteps echo loudly on the white stone floor. You can hear a pin drop. The predominant colors are red and white. The chandeliers hanging from the dome ceiling high above are modelled after the wheel of a ship. The auditorium accommodates 2,000 standing. Seating is provided for special guests only and a naval band pumps out martial airs in the high gallery level overlooking proceedings.
You walk across the floor, devoid of seating, towards what appears to be a vast altar. You could be in a Christian cathedral but here flags predominate. One is the national flag of Japan. The other is a symbol that once provoked fear and hatred. Still displayed proudly with its 16 red rays of sunlight emerging from a red ball of the sun on a white background is the ensign that flew from the stern of every wartime Imperial Navy ship as Japan rampaged through the Pacific. The flag of the Imperial Navy is now that of Japan’s modern day Maritime Self-Defense Force. It is considered offensive especially to some Asian countries - the victims of Japan’s aggression.
Here in this vast solid auditorium the princes from the family of Hirohito and the commanders-in-chief of the Combined Fleet, including Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, reviewed the naval officer graduates in their sparkling white formal tuxedo uniforms before their passing out. They would be sent on their way with words of glorious death and honour, duty, and service to nation and emperor.
The stage area is raised five steps covered in a strip of carpet at the centre where young men still march, just as they did over six decades earlier, to receive their graduation certificates or medals. The stage is backed by elaborate timber panelling in which two sets of double timber doors lead to private chambers at the rear.
Here upon this altar you imagine the diminutive and much-loved Yamamoto speaking quietly and sincerely to the graduates who hang on his every word which is heard loudly and clearly, absorbed and remembered. At the beginning of wartime and throughout, the graduates would emerge through this great portal and file down the steps invigorated, flushed with patriotism, pride and confidence, busting to come to grips with the enemy about which they knew so little.
It was the site of the Imperial Japanese naval academy from 1888 to 1945 and ‘recognised as one of the three greatest naval academy’s of the leading naval powers in the world' until the end of World War II’, we are told. It still is Japan’s naval academy for its growing maritime self-defense force. In appearance, little has changed since this was the bosom of the Imperial Navy.
Implausible linkage with Japan's violent past...
It’s the serenity of the Inland Sea that makes its linkage with the violence of Japan’s war years seem so implausible. Yet the Inland Sea was the heartland of the Imperial Navy’s aggressive Combined Fleet.
The preponderance of these elegant islands floating on various hues of blue makes the sweeping panoramas from the water so special.
Each island is shaped differently, often remarkably so. From smooth and rounded to jagged and jutting. Some like those found in parts of China, all generously scattered in nature’s great karesansui, the tranquil Japanese Zen garden of sand, gravel and rock.
Uninhabited islands with magnificent crescent beaches bearing no footprints and nothing inland but wild, untamed foliage. Islands with tiny fishing villages. Even small towns, with hillsides of precarious rice paddies and vegetable gardens.
Offshore, fishermen going about their business, swinging their power boats with sail at the stern this way and that, positioning their nets in the running tide to capture the fleeing shoals of fish.
More like a vast lake than a sea, it is powerfully alluring; peaceful, soft, sheltered and safe, surrounded as it is by three of Japan’s main islands, Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku. One side provides access to the Sea of Japan and nearby Korea while the other opens to the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.
Having researched the debates about invading Australia and elsewhere aboard the flagships of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the old battleship Nagato and the newer super battleship Yamato, I developed a quixotic desire to travel to the place of this debate in the Bay of Hiroshima. I had been through the Inland Sea on a great liner many years ago as a youth and, fascinated, I had itched to get off and explore.
Now I was on a narrow laneway climbing in the summer heat through the jungle-like growth of a very special island. This was the most secret of places, hidden remotely in the twisting aquatic alleyways of a great Inland Sea, out of public gaze. Even the local fishermen during the war were banned from venturing near the anchorage of the great fleets off tiny Hashirajima (jima, meaning island) from where the fleets headed out on their briefly triumphant rampage through the Pacific.
We were politely informed in advance told that accommodation was available, but islanders couldn’t cater for foreigners, as they ‘did not speak our language’ and ‘they might not like our food and we would be embarrassed.’ Perhaps an example of regional coyness or even bad memories of the Australian occupiers after the war who, as one expert advised us, ‘married all the best looking girls’.
Past tumbled down fishermen’s cottages and a golden beach, the winding landway revealed glimpses of a turquoise sea and islands. We stopped for water at a tiny Shinto shrine, and before long stretched out before us is the anchorage. From this sandy beach early in the war years you would see the great fleet and hear the strains of the ship’s band on the afterdeck played while the officers in their summer whites dined on fine china with white linen. Admiral Matome Ugaki writes of coming ashore on the islands to hunt and fish. At the centre of long beach, there’s a grand circular concrete staircase that ascents to, well nothing now.
In the heat the senses relax. Could the atmospherics of this stunning place have contributed to the luring war planners of the Imperial Navy away from their grip on reality? Because that is precisely what happened here in early 1942. Men - discussing like passionate students in a debating society - the madness of an ever expanding Japanese empire.
At Etajima island, just a short ferry trip from Kure and Hiroshima, there is no need for imagination. It is like stepping back in time. Etajima’s modern day naval academy was the original Imperial Navy academy that produced all the pre-war admirals and churned out candidates before and during the war.
All of the original buildings remain, for the Americans spared the academy from the horrendous bombing all around, especially nearby at Kure, with the exception of one aircraft attack spraying bullets that killed two young Etajima graduates. These days they will escort you through the vast ceremonial hall where graduation ceremonies are still held.
One of the shells from the Yamato standing almost two metres tall is on display at Etajima.
To appreciate the Seto Inland Sea opf Japan you’re best advised to become a passenger on one of the big car ferries that amble all over the Inland Sea. You can take them from many towns but if you are interested in the war history, visit Hiroshima and then take a short train ride to Kure port.
Many years ago in the 'sixties I sailed through the Inland Sea on a great P. and O. liner, the Orcades. A fine day of sunshine and joy, but it was all gone in a flash. I still recall itching to get off and explore and experience the islands. For many years the closest I came was Donald Richie’s paperback The Inland Sea, often described as ‘a masterwork of travel fiction’, although I’m still not convinced that, with its more bizarre aspects, it is entirely fiction. If ‘doing’ the Inland Sea, be warned that Japanese cruise ships often pass through these island jewels at night and you might see very little.
That’s what I find disturbing. Commerce and industry and trade seem to utterly dominate the Inland Sea to the detriment of nature. This is a seaborn highway first and foremost. Kure still is a heavy industry and Navy port, one of Japan’s three major shipbuilding and naval bases in the war. Factories, even pathetic little runts probably producing nails or sake bottles, line the foreshores with absolute water frontages. When we asked at Kure if there was somewhere we could look across the bay at sunset, maybe have a drink and a meal, we were taken by a Japanese host to the top floor cocktail bar of a high-rise hotel, looking in the wrong direction, away from the Inland Sea. . “This is about it” our host confessed as we gazed across the factory roofs.
From the port of Iwakuni you take the fast ferry journey of an hour to the dot of Hashirajima in the great Bay of Hiroshima. Hashirajima is typical of the endless little islands which support a score of fishermen and a few farmers. It’s not a service for tourists. There’s no standing on the decks admiring the scenery. For that you’re best advised to become a passenger on one of the big car ferries that amble all over the Inland Sea.
Contacting a few residents offering accommodation on Hashirajima, we were politely told that accommodation was available, but they could not cater for foreigners, as they did not speak out language and ‘they might not like our food and we would be embarrassed.’ It was a good example of regional shyness.
In this beauty the senses relax, the soft sea breeze in the heat encourages the mind into a trance-like atmosphere. Could the atmospherics of this place have contributed towards the luring war planners of the Imperial Navy away from their grip on reality? Because that is what happened here in early 1942. Men discussing - like passionate students in a debating society - the violent, madness of an ever expanding Japanese empire.
Uninhabited islands with magnificent crescent beaches bearing no footprints and nothing but wild, untamed greenery behind. Or Islands with tiny fishing villages, or even small towns, with hillsides of precarious rice paddies and vegetable gardens.
Offshore, fishermen going about their business, swinging their power boats with sail at the stern this way and that, quickly positioning their nets in the running tide to capture the fleeing shoals of fish.
The closest islands are of dark; deep, green almost black, some with craggy valleys and many with brilliant white crescent beaches and clear water of turquoise blue.
The tourist people won’t like me for saying so, but apart from a few notable exceptions, the Seto Inland Sea of Japan for the most part seems not to seek the tourist. The exceptions include …. Miyajima and Hiroshima.
Tips on travelling the Inland Sea
A weekly Japan Rail pass, purchased via internet or through travel agents, is cheapest purchased in advance from outside Japan. Travelling on the Shinkansan ‘bullet train’ is a fast, affordable and interesting way of reaching sites mentioned on the Inland Sea. The train departs Tokyo frequently each day and stops at Osaka and Hiroshima, which is the stop-off point for Kure and Etajima.
Considered a classic, the small paperback The Inland Sea, by Donald Richie (Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, California, 1971 and revised in 2002) is a handy travel guide, although supposedly written as fiction.
After taking the Shinkansan or bullet train from Tokyo to Hiroshima, a local train took us further south to the old city of Iwakuni, with its Kintai bridge of five arches and its castle. Iwakuni, now also the site of a US air base, is the port for the fully enclosed sealed fast ferry calling to tiny fishing islands before eventually reaching the dot called Hashirajima an hour later.
But one tip.... don't be in a hurry on the Inland Sea. Amble from island to island on car ferries and enjoy the ride. You can always stretch out on a deck chair with a cool drink in hand.
Bob Wurth's travels on the Seto Inland Sea of Japan are included in his book:
1942, Australia's greatest peril, Pan Macmillan Australia, updated and reprinted in 2010.
Naval academy at Etajima, both in wartime and today.
Anchorage of the great Imperial Navy ships, the island of Hashirajima.
Guns of an old Imperial Japanese warship on Etajima island.
Imperial Navy officers would hold sake parties and go shooting here on Hashirajima island.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.
An officer of today's modern Japanese Navy at Etajima island on the Inland Sea.
Fishing trawler on the t ranquil Inland Sea of Japan.
Midget sub at the Etajima naval academy.
Imperial Navy flagship the Yamato.
The end of the Yamato, attacked by US aircraft and submarines near Okinawa in 1945.
Giant model of the world's biggest battleship, the IJNS Yamato at the Yamato maritime museum in Kure, on the Inland Sea, near Etajima.
Inside the cavernous ceremonial hall at the naval academy on Etajima island.
Naval headquarters at Kure both in wartime and today.
A pleasant beach on Hashirajima island.