Book Review: Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War

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by Shiba Ry Tar, translated by Juliet Carpenter, Andrew Cobbing, & Paul McCarthy

New York: Routledge, 2015. Four vols, 1592 pp. Maps, chron., gloss., personae, appends. $23.95 paper, per. ISBN: 9781138858862

While StrategyPage rarely reviews fiction, an exception is sometimes made for works that might be termed “faction”, that is a fictional work of unusual historical accuracy.

A Monumental Novel of the Russo-Japanese War

Titled Saka no Ue no Kumo in the original Japanese, Clouds Above the Hill, is both extremely obscure, and extremely important to the military and naval historian concerned with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. “Clouds”, by Japan’s most iconic writer, Ryotaro Shiba, is very nearly the most-published and most-read book in modern Japanese history since it first began to appear in 1962. It was not translated into English until in 2012, at the expense of Shiba-admirer publisher Sumio Saito, essentially as a personal gift to the Western world. But it has not been widely promoted, and remains generally unreviewed, unread, and unknown to those who would find it most valuable. “Clouds” corrects much false information and fills in some notable lacunae regarding the Russo-Japanese War that have been in some cases accepted without question in the West for a century.

For example, in H.H. Wilson’s otherwise very good 1926 work Battleships in Action, he states that when Russian cruisers sank the Japanese transport Hitachi Maru on June 13, 1904, she was carrying 18 11-inch siege howitzers, which disastrously set back Japanese plans for taking Port Arthur; this is not true, yet the story has been repeated ever since and is generally accepted today. But Shiba tells us that the howitzers were originally permanently emplaced coast defense weapons. Only after two attempts to storm the fortress had already failed did engineer Gen. Arisaka Nariakira suggest the wholly novel idea of moving the guns into the field in September 1904. Without the existence of tractors, this was a remarkable technical feat; in required a huge number of men pulling on a huge number of ropes to move them into their field emplacements, much like the Egyptians building the pyramids. The costly, bloody assault on Port Arthur was ended when the Japanese captured “203-meter Hill”. This position permitted them to observe and spot the fire of these monster guns, and essentially sink the Russian Far Eastern Fleet in a day.

How could this and many other misperceptions go uncorrected for so long? The answer is the language barrier; few Westerners have been fluent enough to freely consult Japanese-language sources, and translations into English of Japanese historical books and primary sources have until just recently been rather few. Hence the importance of this translation of “Clouds”, though it is more a work of serious journalism than genuinely scholarly history, and introduces a few new errors of its own. It is not what we would call a “historical novel”, permitted to create imaginary characters and events, but rather a dramatic recreation of factual history, a genre which we perhaps lack, falling between our categories of fiction for entertainment, and academic monographs for fact. But there are many areas where it provides a unique source of valuable information to the Western reader.

For example, the book tells much of its story through the biographies of two real brothers. Saneyuki Akiyama was Japan’s first genuine naval intellectual, and Fleet Admiral Togo’s chief operational planner, responsible for the tactics and strategy that produced the Tsushima victory. His elder brother, Yoshifuru, was the “father of the Japanese cavalry”. His tactic of packing machine guns and dismounting to fight the Russian Cossack cavalry from entrenched defensive positions cost them dearly.

Also very valuable are the detailed descriptions of the war’s land campaigns. The successful yet bitterly costly assault on Port Arthur prefigured W.W.I., the first example of the powers of resistance of infantry defenses in the industrial age – with machine guns, barbed wire and concrete. And in Manchuria the Japanese repeatedly maneuvered the Russians out of position without being able to force a decision. The Russians had room to fall back and lure the Japanese into exhausting their limited resources, much like they did with Napoleon and Hitler. Only the overwhelming naval victory at Tsushima forced Russia out of the war in time to prevent the retreat and perhaps collapse of the Japanese army. Tsushima was one of the most decisive naval battles in history, and the largest sea battle of the “predreadnaught” era, the age of steel ships, coal-fired reciprocating engines, advanced armor, and breech-loading guns. Shiba describes this battle in minute-by-minute detail, essential reading for anyone interested in this period. Many other sea battles of the 1890s and early 1900s are also described, including Santiago (Saneyuki was there with the U.S. Navy as an observer), the Yalu, the night torpedo attacks at Wei-hai-wei that sank the Chinese battleship Ding Yuan, Uhlsan, and the Yellow Sea.

This book has a huge amount of other things to tell us about Japan and its culture during the Meiji period. The chief drawback is that it is huge – at four volumes and nearly 1600 pages. Its price was originally huge too, at nearly $100 per hardbound volume, but now it is out in paperback and kindle at well under $20 per volume. So – if it’s so obscure, how did this reviewer come to know about it? The answer is that its editor happens to be an old friend, and asked me to proofread it, as a sometime writer on naval history. I managed to fix many errors not apparent to the non-specialist – and hope I did not introduced a couple of my own. In any case, it deserves much more serious attention than it’s gotten. And for those with a special interest in the Russo-Japanese War or predreadnaught navies, it’s a treasure trove of new knowledge.

 

Note: Clouds above the Hill is also available in hardback and e-editions

 
Our Reviewer: Robert P. Largess is the author ofUSS Albacore; Forerunner of the Future’ and articles on the USS Triton, SS United States, the origin of the towed sonar array, and the history of Lighter-than-Air. He has contributed book reviews to The Naval Historical Foundation (http://www.navyhistory.org) and The International Journal of Naval History.
 
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Reviewer: Robert P. Largess   


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