• Title: Human Bullets: A Soldier’s Story of the Russo-Japanese War
  • Author: Tadayoshi Sakurai
  • Page Count: 256

Some Historical Context

For some time, Japan isolated itself from the West (except for seldom trade with the Dutch). In the mid-19th century, the United States changed the course of Japanese history by “suggesting” this extreme isolationist policy be reconsidered. Fast-forward half a century and Japan is shockingly in the fruitful, painful, controversial throws of an industrial revolution. She had modernized, perhaps more swiftly than any country ever has.

Part-and-parcel to modernization, in Japan’s eyes, was expansion and imperialism. All the powerful people wore green shirts, so I guess we need to wear one, too. This is, of course, an oversimplification. Japan had true, long-chronicled interest in China, who had until now been the dominant Asian force (particularly in East Asia). After Japan defeated China and took Korea, Manchuria was naturally the next option. Russia, with railways stretching out East to Manchuria, seized Port Arthur (which Japan had coveted) and all but dared Japan to do something about it.

Well, they did. In 1904, Japan invaded Manchuria and made a bee-line for Port Arthur. The Russo-Japanese War had begun. The significance of this conflict was not so-much the geography (more conflict and diplomacy would be waged over the next thirty years before Japan took final control of the area), but more-so the optics of the outcome. When Japan handed Russia the “L,” Russia was shocked. In fact, the whole world was surprised, because never before had an Asian power defeated a European power at their own game.

Now, To the Book

Human Bullets is LT Tadayoshi Sakurai’s first-hand account of the Russo-Japanese War. He was not among the first soldiers to storm Manchuria, but he got his fair share of action. After reaching the beach-head, his group traveled and fought through Nanshan, Waitu-shan, Kenzan, Taipo-shan, and Port Arthur.

It is a thrilling read. Originally in Japanese, Masujiro Honda’s translation work seems to pay good dividends. Sakurai was a wonderful writer and artist in his own right. Apparently, he was quite a charismatic man. His depictions of the Russo-Japanese war go beyond primary source value. He aims most of all at explaining the spirit, heart, mentality, and ambition of the Japanese forces. This is truly a unique glimpse into the culture and spirit of Japan at this time.

Sakurai’s writing is very good. I never grew tired of reading. I always knew where I was chronologically and geographically, but it read nothing like a text-book and everything like a novel. It was at the same time more about the Japanese army yet all about Sakurai’s experience in it. These are difficult threads to pull together into one narrative, but Human Bullets does this, and more.

I do highly recommend this book, but only to certain audiences. First, it is not a book for children. Scenes of warfare are often described in graphic detail, both physically and psychologically. Second, while it is a wonderful primary source document, it only fits into a niche of historical study. A high school or college student may obtain a good, solid education without ever even hearing of this book, because truth be told, the Russo-Japanese War was not a very important war, in the context of history.

So, who do I recommend this book to? Two people. First, the person who is or wants to study Asian, East Asian, Japanese, and/or Russian history. Basically, if you need to know about the Port Arthur conflict, you need to read Sakurai’s account. Second, the person who enjoys Japanese history. If Japan is a vein of history that you particularly get a kick out of learning about, then I think you are missing out by not adding this book to your library.

A third use of this book I can foresee is having a high schooler read a small portion of it. Reading a few chapters on the aftermath of Nanshan or the siege of Port Arthur would do much to introduce a young adult to the realities of warfare. This would be particularly helpful if a teenage boy is interested in enlistment, or if you are instructing them on ethics.

There are many different (and poor) versions of the book available. I recommend purchasing this one.

Below is a short essay I wrote on the theme of duty in Human Bullets.

“Think not of honor or of merit – only be faithful to thy duty,” wrote Tadayoshi Sakurai’s elder brother from Tokyo.[1] This admonition captures a central theme of Human Bullets: duty as the supreme ethic. Through new experiences, new hardships, new paradigms, and new enemies – duty remained all and in all.[2] This duty fulfilled beget glory, to the shock of Russia and worldwide spectators, and that glory was the ultimate aim of Sakurai’s Human Bullets. He argued that the Japanese triumphed gloriously in the Russo-Japanese War by fulfilling duty.

The duty of Japanese soldiers in the Russo-Japanese War was to assail and prevail against Russian forces. Sakurai veered away from a sadistic or pessimistic infatuation with death.[3] Death was a fine end, but only in the honorable fulfillment of responsibility (which was to fight the Russians).[4] For Sakurai, this seemed to have been an often-indistinguishable blend of victory and sacrifice. For example, in the aftermath of Nanshan, even a “non-combatant groom seemed like a hero,” as they gleaned every detail that he was willing to share about the battle they had missed.[5] Not long afterwards, in the assault on Port Arthur, “sure-death” detachments would throw themselves upon the enemy.[6]Japanese soldiers saw their wounds as manifestations of fulfilled duty – faithfulness robed in flesh. Whereas they enjoyed stories of dutifulness, Sakurai argued that they all longed to live it, to have righteousness incarnated within them.[7] They even admired this attribute when manifested in their enemies.[8]

Duty was fulfilled by meeting the Russians in battle, but the origin of this duty was Japan herself. Specifically, the honor of the emperor, and subsequently the country, hung in the balance of the Japanese soldier’s dutiful sacrifice. Sakurai and the other Japanese soldiers were blessed. They had “to repay the favor of the Emperor and of the country.”[9]“We left Japan fully determined to turn into dust under the hoofs of His Majesty’s steed, saying, ‘Here I stand ready to die.’”[10] The Emperor did not send them to war; he himself was at war, fighting on behalf of Japan. His Majesty had swung his sword at the Russians, and the Japanese soldier had no more cause to refuse the strike than a blade of steel had cause to turn and protest being so used. Therefore, as Sakurai depicted, duty flowed from the Emperor and into Port Arthur. Should the Japanese soldier follow this path of duty, glory would await him and his country.[11]

Therefore, the merit of dutiful sacrifice was not found in the sacrificed object, but in the one for whom the dutiful sacrifice was made. Sakurai and his comrades seemed motivated by the majesty of Japan and her emperor. This explains why Sakurai could respect Russian soldiers who fought by similar principles. Duty was a stronger ethic than human rights or utilitarianism. The greatest support for this may be in Sakurai’s treatment of horses.[12] Duty was the supreme obligation, and duty beget glory.

Sakurai explained how the duty of Japanese soldiers made the journey from the point of genesis to the glorious consummation. First, they were exposed to warfare largely for the first time. Dangerous travel and vast casualties were Sakurai’s introduction to war.[13] “I saw for the first time in my life the shocking scenes after a furious fight.”[14] As the Japanese soldiers pressed-forward on the path of duty, they became more accustomed to the sacrifice of duty.[15] Second, they kept duty in its proper place before themselves. The strategy at Nanshan, where over four thousand Japanese troops were killed, was to throw men at the Russian defenses. There was hardly more respect showcased towards the Russians than when this same tactics was used against the Japanese (though to no avail).[16]

Victory was attained by the Japanese at Port Arthur, and Sakurai’s clear aim was to depict the glory of that victory. He was not satisfied with explaining the fact of victory, however. Tadayoshi Sakurai intended to demonstrate how and why the triumph came. He argued that it came from the fulfillment of duty, which also explains why the Russians were not victorious. They left their duty on the battlefield and retreated.

[1] Sakurai, Human Bullets, 179.

[2] This concept of duty in Sakurai’s account undergoes no small amount of stress and play. Duty never changes, but it does travel. Where the Japanese go, duty follows after. Duty never changes, but it does affect change. The Japanese undergo a type of maturation under the yoke of duty, as wine becomes ripe with age.

[3] e.g. “Death they were ready for, but to die and become refuse top the sea, without having struck one blow at the enemy now close at hand, was something too hard for them to bear” (31).

[4] See pages 128, 158, 177-8.

[5] Page 47.

[6] Page 233.

[7] At Port Arthur, Sakurai asked a soldier on a stretcher where he is injured. “My legs broken,” the soldier replied, to which Sakurai exclaimed, “Well done! Go quietly” (219). After Kenzan was taken and defended, Lieutenant Sugimura’s attendant, Fukumatsu Ito, “dropped a few tears, and said: ‘I do regret that I was not wounded together with my lieutenant’” (121). See also the story of Heigo (123).

[8] Page 55. This is ultimately what Sakurai believed to be Russia’s downfall in the war. Though they exhibited honor and faithfulness to duty at times, they were not overall committed to the conflict, and therefore could not attain to the glory of victory. Whereas the Japanese were propelled by a righteous spirit like bullets (214-15), the Russians were mechanical (37-38) and shot with a “spiritless sound” (91). Russian morale was much lower than Japanese (9-10). Their non-committal to the war, in Sakurai’s eyes, was perhaps most greatly manifested in their criticism of the Japanese practice of not retreating (154-55). It seemed contradictory to the Japanese that the Russians would be careful with their lives, yet stubbornly resist attack (192).

[9] Page 179.

[10] Page 194. See also 256. Country came before family (5-6). “National calamity” came before “private sorrow” (17).

[11] e.g. page 135, “…the true spirit of Japanese warriors, doing their duty til the last moment and even after death.”

[12] “We must not forget what we owe to the help of our faithful animals…. These loyal horses also are heroes who die a horrible death in the performance of duty” (58). See also 32.

[13] Pages 34 and 45, respectively.

[14] Page 53.

[15] “The oftener flying bullets are encountered the less sensitive we become to the horrors of war” (61). The surface-level meaning of this statement has broader undertones when the full concept of “human bullets” is brought to bear upon it. It could be said that desensitization occurred, not simply for the inanimate objects flying towards Sakurai, but also for the human projectiles flying towards the wall of Russian resistance. Even so, the “spirit” of the Japanese never allowed full desensitization (e.g. 60, 234, 241).

[16] Pages 53 and 93-94, respectively.

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