Fusing Nationalisms in Postwar Japan

The Battleship Yamato and Popular Culture

Shunichi Takekawa, Associate Professor, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University [About | Email]

Volume 12, Issue 3 (Article 4 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 17 February 2012.


The battleship Yamato of the Imperial Navy has influenced many artists in Japanese popular culture. In Yamato-featured stories, critics tend to find shadows of right-leaning, conservative nationalism. However, this article stresses that Space Battleship Yamato, a TV anime series aired in 1974 and 1975, and Silent Service, a manga series published from 1988 to 1996, also suggest anti-conservative ideas such as pacifism, anti-militarism, internationalism, and world federalism, discussing the impact of an earlier literary work, Requiem for Battleship Yamato, written by its former officer in the early 1950s. This article, in conclusion, argues that the Yamato in popular culture tends to play the role of a vehicle fusing contradictory nationalist messages since the historical facts of the Yamato, such as being at the time the largest battleship in world history, and the deaths of over 3,000 seamen on its last mission, and the earlier literary work inspire artists in popular culture to do so.

Keywords: Nationalism in Japan, anime, manga, popular culture, politics.


The battleship Yamato of the Imperial Japanese Navy has been one of the favourite icons for artists in Japanese popular culture since the 1950s. Many novels, manga, films, anime, and videogames have featured the Yamato literally or symbolically. Its technological achievement as the world’s largest battleship, together with the tragedy of its destruction and the deaths of over 3,000 crewmembers on a suicidal mission near the end of the Pacific War in 1945, have intrigued many people in postwar Japan.

The Yamato and its last mission were first popularised by one of its former officers, Yoshida Mitsuru, in articles and books he published in the early 1950s. Based on one of these books, Senkan Yamato no Saigo (Requiem for Battleship Yamato), a war film titled Senkan Yamato (Battleship Yamato, Dir. Abe Yutaka) was released in 1953, becoming one of the hit films of that year. In the 1960s, the Yamato attracted young Japanese males through boy’s magazines along with the boom in senki-mono (war memoirs), as war machines and heroes were popularised in nonfictional articles and manga stories (Takahashi 2004; Sano 2009). In the mid-1970s, the Yamato was resurrected in a feature-length animated film and a TV anime series called Uchū Senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato, Dir. Nishizaki Yoshinobu; Matsumoto Leiji), which appealed to many Japanese teenagers. The next two decades were relatively quiet, but there were some notable works featuring the Yamato, including a live-action war film titled Rengō Kantai (Combined Fleets, Dir. Matsubayashi Shūe) and a manga series, Chinmoku no Kantai (Silent Service, Kawaguchi Kaiji). After 2000, there was another boom: a film, Otokotachi no Yamato/YAMATO (Men of the Yamato, Dir. Satō Jun’ya) was released in December 2005, and became one of the hit films of 2006. Also in 2005, the Kure Maritime Museum (Kure-shi Kaiji Rekishi Kagakukan), popularly known as the Yamato Museum, was founded in Kure-city, Hiroshima, where the battleship was built and based. One million and seven thousands people visited it in its first year.1 In 2009, a new anime, Uchū Senkan Yamato: Fukkatsu-hen (Space Battleship Yamato: Resurrection, Dir. Nishizaki Yoshinobu) was released as a feature film.2 In addition, the original story of Space Battleship Yamato was remade as a live-action film, SPACE BATTLESHIP Yamato (Dir. Yamazaki Takashi) in 2010, and it was also remade as a DVD series, Uchū Senkan Yamato 2199 (Dir. Izubuchi Yutaka) in 2012.3

Why has the image of the Yamato captured the interest of the Japanese for so long? Some scholars have already examined fictional representations of Yamato to discuss postwar Japanese nationalism and politics. The political messages that they have found in them are diverse, from conservative nationalism to left-wing pacifism, though they still do not answer the basic question of its enduring popularity. This article examines this complexity and the durability of the Yamato as a political icon in popular culture, focusing on the connection between Requiem for Battleship Yamato by Yoshida and two prominent fictional versions, Space Battleship Yamato and Silent Service. This article contends that the historical facts of the Yamato, such as its technological achievement and crewmembers’ tragic deaths, as well as the message in Yoshida’s literary work, tend to inspire artists in popular culture to use the image of the Yamato and fuse various kinds of nationalism in their Yamato-featured works as a way of restoring Japan’s national pride when the nation faces a crisis. This is the reason why the Yamato has attracted the attention of so many popular artists and people in Japan for such a long time.

To attain the goals above, this article discusses what kind of contradictory nationalist messages the Yamato-featured works send out to shape Japan and the Japanese, by interpreting and analysing their stories, scenes, lines, and characters against the backdrop of their respective time periods. This article also refers to what those who contributed to the two works thought at the respective time periods, as well as criticisms and analyses of those works by critics in order to discern the messages in the works.

Working Definition of Nationalism

Scholars have proposed a variety of definitions of nationalism to analyse it in particular contexts. This article accordingly needs a working definition of nationalism. It is defined as a competition as well as a fusion of ideologies, thoughts, and sentiments, which individuals and groups of individuals attempt to promote in order to influence national identity construction as well as political discourses of the nation-state that they belong to. Competition naturally occurs as they uphold different ideologies, thoughts, and sentiments for their nation-state. Fusion can be realised as they combine different ideologies, thoughts, and sentiments to develop more powerful, persuasive ones from time to time. Competition and fusion likely begin when they find that their nation and/or state are in a crisis and want to rejuvenate their nation and/or state to handle that crisis.

The working definition above is inspired by the conception of nationalism and national identity presented by Duara who has written that “Nationalism is rarely the nationalism of the nation, but rather marks the site where different representations of the nation contest and negotiate with each other” (1995: p. 8), as well as Yoshino’s cultural nationalism, which “aims to regenerate the national community by creating, preserving or strengthening a people’s cultural identity when it is felt to be lacking, inadequate or threatened” (1994: p. 1).

According to Duara (1995: p. 8), national identity “exists only as one among others and is changeable, interchangeable, conflicted, or harmonious with them.” That is, a person maintains multiple identifications based on his/her nationality, race, religion, gender, and other factors. Similarly, within a nation, a variety of individuals and groups of individuals co-exist with each other to promote different identities to shape their nation. This is what this article presumes. Meanwhile, Yoshino (1992: p. 3) asserts that nihonjinron or the theory of Japaneseness as part of cultural nationalism is made of “‘thinking elites’ ideas of Japanese uniqueness.” Those elites are concerned about the general populace’s lack of understanding of Japan’s cultural uniqueness; and they therefore attempt to re-educate the population (through their writings) to perceive Japan as a unique, racially homogeneous nation. Anime and manga artists can be considered to be thinking elites, and may want to express their views on their nation and/or the state when they find their nation and/or state in a crisis. However, this article does not necessarily assume that those artists believe the people of Japan make a culturally unique, homogenous nation.

This article also takes it for granted that such nationalism is likely mediated. In today’s society, those who aim to influence or promote certain ideologies, thoughts, and sentiments send those out via the media. Mediated nationalism is woven into our everyday lives. Billig (1995) argues that even in the developed nations of the West, people are constantly reminded of being members of a nation in everyday life, and he calls this reproduction of the idea of the nation “banal nationalism.” The media play a crucial role in this reproduction by disseminating discourses of political leaders and national symbols. Artists and writers in popular culture can be part of it when they show their concerns about their nation-state through their works. For instance, Edwardson (2003) contends that the superhero of a series of comic books, Captain Canuck, has helped the construction of modern Canadian national identity. Dittmer (2005) discusses the way in which another superhero, Captain America, has assisted Americans in defining their identity vis-à-vis the rest of the world. This article accordingly assumes that popular films, anime, and manga make a site where different ideologies, thoughts, and sentiments compete and fuse with each other.

In addition, as the working definition above implies, nationalism in postwar Japan has already been recognised to go beyond right-left or conservative-liberal boundaries. Many authors contend that nationalists include anti-conservatives, such as socialists, communists, and progressive intellectuals. Those nationalists have confronted conservatives, including the government led by the Liberal Democratic Party and its ally, the United States (Oguma 1998, 2002; Gayle 2001, 2003; Takekawa 2007). Maruyama Masao, a progressive intellectual, sought to establish liberal nationalism, balancing individuals and community and minimising the role of the state (Gayle 2001). Progressive intellectuals attempted to forge ‘progressive nationalism’ (kakushin nashonarizumu) through the anti-Japan-US Security Treaty movement in 1960 (Oguma 2002: p. 555). For anti-conservatives, the postwar Constitution with its so-called ‘anti-war’ clause, Article IX, is sacrosanct because the Constitution suggests that the Japanese are destined to seek world peace because of their war experience (Takekawa 2007). Their nationalism consists of diverse political ideologies and thoughts, which can at times include anti-statist, pacifist, internationalist, anti-militarist, anti-American, and anti-nuclear beliefs.

Previously, it is believed that right-leaning conservatives have dominated political and economic nationalism. They tend to defend the actions of Imperial Japan during the Asia-Pacific War, and promoted the removal of Article IX of the Constitution, in order to allow Japan to develop a fully-fledged military and play a more independent role in world politics (Matthews 2003; Nathan 2004). They expect the government to play an active role in the development of the Japanese economy (Johnson 1982; Pyle 1996). Meanwhile, neoconservatives in the 1980s publicised new internationalism and attempted to promote Japan as an international state or a leader in the West (Pyle 1996). They criticise that liberals upheld ‘one-country pacifism’ (ikkoku heiwashugi) as they argued those liberals sought peace only for Japan and refused Japan’s military cooperation for international peacekeeping operations (Takekawa 2007).

In postwar Japan, the political spectrum is described from the right to the left or the conservative to the liberal or progressive (McVeigh 2004). Ultra-righters are at the right end, and conservative politicians are next to them. Moderate conservatives and moderate liberals are around the middle. At the left end, radical leftists, like splinters from the radical student movement in the 1960s, exist, and communists are next to them. Socialists are next to communists and close to the middle. But all of them can be nationalists. In addition, nationalist ideas are often contradictory, competing, and overlapping; in other words, ‘nationalism’ in postwar Japan is not monolithic but rather hybrid and multiple, and it should perhaps be seen in the plural, i.e. as ‘nationalisms’ (McVeigh 2004; Shimazu 2006; Doak 2007; Takekawa 2007). In the light of this discussion of nationalism in postwar Japan, this article argues that the messages in the Yamato stories make sense to their audiences within the context of the multiplicity of nationalisms in postwar Japan. The popular writers and artists of those stories have consciously or unconsciously absorbed ideas from various nationalists and fused in their stories, and then diffused them to their own audiences.

Previous Discussions of Yamato-Featured Stories

Several critics have noticed contradictory messages in Yamato-inspired works, studying their stories, scenes, lines, and characters along with the historical backgrounds of the works. Ashbaugh (2010) argues that, against the backdrop of the surge of conservative nationalism in the 1970s, one of the messages in Space Battleship Yamato (hereafter SBY refers to the original TV series or the first animated feature film based on the original TV series) is a justification for Japanese’s demand for a fully-fledged military, while asserting that the pacifist ideology based on Japan’s victimhood in World War II alluded to in Space Battleship Yamato is insincere. In SBY, the Yamato with a Japanese-named crew has to fight for the survival of humanity while the alien enemy ruthlessly drops radioactive bombs over the world. For Ashbaugh, the Yamato as a space battleship represents Imperial Japan, which claimed to fight the wars for its survival in the 1930s and 1940s, and the alien enemy is symbolic of the United States, which dropped firebombs and atomic bombs over the Japanese territory.

Similarly, Mizuno (2007) asserts that the fundamental message of SBY is Japan’s desire to be a normal state with a fully-fledged military, which enables Japan to protect itself without the aid of the United States, and notes that the pacifist aspects of the anime, such as the lament for battles by a crewmember, disguise this message. For Mizuno, SBY is counterfactual to Japan during the Cold War, as the space battleship represents a version of Japan that can independently fight with its enemy state. Mizuno argues that a pacifist Japan without military during the Cold War was feminised, being protected by a masculine male, the United States. SBY is a Japanese fantasy in which Japan regains its masculinity by independently fighting against the enemy, as Mizuno stresses that nothing in the story is symbolic of the United States. However, for Mizuno, a manga series, Silent Service, is not so easy to label in terms of conservative nationalism, though she asserts, “Silent Service captures post-cold war Japanese desires to create a new identity, new direction, and new leadership role” (2007: p. 117).

In contrast, Napier (2005) stresses another aspect of SBY, which is that the space battleship only fights with the enemy if they attack it first throughout the series, contending that the Yamato is “transformed from the emblem of the prewar Japanese military to a global emissary… of peace and love to the universe.” This is not compatible with Ashbaugh’s and Mizuno’s arguments. For Napier, the Yamato in Silent Service is “a symbol of the desire for Japanese autonomy from America,” as the series makes Americans look foolish. It is similar to Mizuno’s argument.

Meanwhile, Satō (1992) points out that both SBY and the Silent Service are under the influence of postwar pro-left, liberal values, such as pacifism, internationalism, and anti-statism. According to Satō, those works suggest that humankind should realise universal peace while attempting to disregard conflicts among states or abolish the state as a primary actor in politics. At the same time, SBY and Silent Service are apparently nationalistic for the Japanese, as they feature warships named Yamato with Japanese crewmembers. Also, they incorporate anti-American messages, as they suggest alternate histories of Pacific War naval battles. In sum, Satō believes that the stories suffer from incorporating contradictory perspectives under the influence of pro-left liberal values.

Senda (2007) thinks that SBY is a reworking of the tragedy of the Yamato in Requiem for Battleship Yamato. Several episodes in SBY resemble those of the real Yamato’s last battle. But he also suggests that SBY fails to adopt an anti-war stance, which appears through the brutal deaths of the crewmembers in Requiem for Battleship Yamato. More importantly, Senda (2007) points out two aspects of the history of the Yamato which are particularly attractive to the Japanese: (1) the fact that it represents the zenith of prewar Japan’s technology and (2) its tragic loss in its final battle. The Imperial Navy successfully constructed the world’s largest battleships, the Yamato and the Musashi, in the late 1930s, and was able to compete with the other naval powers as long as battleships constituted the core of naval power (Minear 1999). Accordingly, Japan demonstrated a first-rate technological capability long before Japanese-manufactured products developed a global reputation after the War. The Yamato could thus be seen as a precursor to postwar Japan’s unprecedented economic success. As for the Yamato as tragedy, over 3,000 men, mostly around twenty years old, died in a battle with US Navy aircraft between Kyūshū and Okinawa on April 7th, 1945, in a failed bid to halt the US attack on Okinawa. Its mission was described as tokkō, a special or suicidal attack, since the Yamato had little protection against aircraft attacks and was unlikely to return to mainland Japan (Hirama and Asakawa 2003). The brutal deaths of crewmembers, for Senda, represent tragic losses of war and, hence, project an anti-war message. Thus, the Yamato became a symbol connecting wartime and postwar Japan, simultaneously symbolizing Japan’s technological advancements and mourning for its war dead.4

Ways of interpreting the image of the Yamato in the works of popular culture vary, and often contradict each other. This article embraces the appearance of these contradictions and contends that they reflect diverging nationalisms in postwar Japan. In addition, this article uses the two aspects of the original Yamato story that Senda emphasises as the basis of an analysis of the later stories featuring the image of the Yamato.

Requiem for Battleship Yamato

The tale of the Yamato was first popularised by Yoshida Mitsuru, a surviving Yamato officer. Yoshida wrote about the last battle of the Yamato in his memoirs in the fall of 1945, and later he attempted to have this account published in a magazine, but the US occupation authority censored it (Yoshida 1994). It was later published as a book entitled Gunkan Yamato (Warship Yamato) in 1949 after Yoshida revised it. He finally published it in another book, Requiem for Battleship Yamato, as he had originally intended just after the end of the occupation in 1952. This book is exclusively about the last suicidal mission of the Yamato, which started out from its home port of Kure and ended in its sinking by US aircraft attackers between Kyūshū and Okinawa.

Many regard Requiem for Battleship Yamato as one of most important literary works about the Japanese war experience (Matsuoka 2004).5 However, the seemingly contradictory messages in it have been discussed from time to time. Yoshida (1994) noted that many readers criticised it for upholding belligerent pro-war sentiments. However, the book can also be thought of as anti-war. Fujiwara (2007) notes that he saw it as pacifist when he read it in the late 1950s, and argues that it is in line with other Japanese literature on unsuccessful heroes like the classic Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike), a genre which is popular among many Japanese. Thus, the story can be regarded as a tragedy.

More importantly, the book sends out a strong message to postwar Japan. The message is in a remark by one of the Yamato’s young officers, Lieutenant Usubuchi Iwao, who died in the last battle:

The side which makes no progress never wins. To lose and be brought to one’s senses: that is the supreme path.

Japan has paid too little attention to progress. We have been too finicky, too wedded to selfish ethics; we have forgotten true progress. How else can Japan be saved except by losing and coming to its senses? If Japan does not come to its senses now, when will it be saved?

We will lead the way. We will die as harbingers of Japan’s new life. That’s where our real satisfaction lies, isn’t it? (Yoshida 1999: p. 40)6

This remark concludes a furious debate between young officers from the Naval Academy and temporarily-mobilised officers from universities. The former, who were educated to be patriots, contend that they must be glad to die for the Emperor and the nation. On the other hand, the latter, having learned more sophisticated ideas about life and society at universities, attempt to find something more meaningful in their fruitless, suicidal attack.

Subsequently, Usubuchi’s remark that the dying crewmembers would be the “harbingers of Japan’s new life” has been seen as sending a strong message to postwar Japanese. The two live-action films, Senkan Yamato in 1953 and Otokotachi no Yamato/YAMATO (Men of the Yamato)7 in 2005, lend credence to Usubuchi’s remark. It has been also cited by many others, including in political speeches (Hashimoto 2010). Yet, the deaths of seamen in an unwinnable battle are not used merely to glorify Japanese patriots in the past, but also to motivate those who were born after the war to build a better Japan. This is a message not only for conservatives, but also for liberals. For instance, Iimuro (2006) argues that Usubuchi’s remark provides a lesson about war and peace, and that the postwar Constitution originated from these kinds of lessons. For him, Usubuchi’s remark is an anti-war message, asking the Japanese to keep the postwar Constitution with Article IX. The Yamato can represent not only the glory of prewar Japan but also the new values developing after the war. This also applies to the two popular works which I will discuss next.

Space Battleship Yamato

Space Battleship Yamato was originally a TV series presenting a science fiction war adventure. In addition to the original series, there have been several other TV anime series, animated and live-action feature films as well as manga series. Yet the original TV series, which aired from October 1974 to March 1975, was unsuccessful in terms of viewer ratings. Eventually, in 1975, its reruns received an average viewer rating of 20% (Natsume 1997). In 1977, the animated feature film, SBY, based on the original TV series, became a hit in cinemas. By then, SBY became a social phenomenon and a legend in the Japanese anime industry: it helped establish the status of anime as a serious art form by attracting a much wider audience than children (Yamaguchi 2004; Arai 2010).

SBY was unique among anime at the time, and its uniqueness was perhaps one of the reasons for its success. Unlike other previous hit TV anime, SBY was not based on a popular manga story or novel, and it featured no giant robots or super athletes to attract children (Yamaguchi 2004). SBY was a more complex story with various episodes and messages, as the producer Nishizaki Yoshinobu gathered a varied group of animators and let them bring their own ideas to the storylines, episodes, and character design (Degitaru Kontentsubu Web Gendai 2002; Hot Wax 2007; Ito 2010). Nishizaki intended to transmit certain nationalistic messages to young Japanese people, together with the animators that he asked to join. To examine their messages, this article focuses on the original TV series and the second feature film, Farewell to the Space Battleship Yamato. The original series was chosen simply because it was the origin of the recurrent SBY series. The second feature film was chosen because it was an immediate continuation of the original TV series and the first feature film.

The story of the original TV series is apocalyptic, with nuclear terror, radiation, and many battle scenes. Massive attacks using radioactive meteorite bombs by unknown aliens, who are later identified as coming from the Empire of Gamilas, have contaminated the earth’s atmosphere and dried up all the surface water. By 2199, humans live in underground cities: nothing is able to live on the surface of earth. Humans are losing space battles with the aliens whose spaceships are superior. Then, from a planet named Iscandar, humanity receives a message and the blueprints for a ‘wave-motion engine,’ an advanced space travel technology that allows humans to travel through galaxies and for a ‘wave-motion gun,’ an advanced, powerful weapon that allows them to fight with Gamilas battleships on even terms. The message invites humanity to travel to Iscandar (148,000 light-years away from earth) in order to receive a ‘Cosmo Cleaner’ that can decontaminate earth. They travel to Iscandar in the space battleship named Yamato, which has been built secretly in order to help find a planet suitable for human emigration. Throughout the journey, the Yamato crew suffers from severe attacks by the Gamilas space fleets, but the Yamato narrowly wins the battles using the new technologies from Iscandar and successfully brings back the Cosmo Cleaner to earth.

The original series can be seen as nationalistic by the Japanese. The space battleship is built and named after the Yamato of the Imperial Navy at the place where the old Yamato sunk. In the story, the wreck of the old Yamato is used as a cover for the construction of the space battleship. The original Yamato’s last suicidal mission is also introduced after the building of the space battleship is completed in the second episode of the original TV series. In addition, all the crewmembers have Japanese names, so the Japanese represent humanity, as Mizuno (2007) points out.

Nishizaki contended that the young people should learn that when they faced a crisis, they needed to develop comradeship to handle it, and also stressed that young Japanese faced a crisis as at the time Japan experienced economic stagnation and dehumanisation by excessive industrialisation (Matsumoto and Nishizaki 1978). In fact, Japan in the early 1970s was not growing as quickly as before, during the 1950s and 1960s, and the future did not seem bright. Also, the Japanese had begun to see the negative consequences of Japan’s concentration on economic growth in the early 1970s. The Japanese economy was further destabilised by the ‘Nixon Shock,’ which caused the appreciation of the Japanese Yen and disturbed Japan’s exports, and by the ‘Oil Shock,’ a sharp rise in the price of oil triggered by a war in the Middle East. In 1974, the Japanese economy experienced negative growth for the first time since the beginning of the postwar boom. Japan was also struggling with pollution problems. In addition, pollution diseases plagued many people from the 1960s until the 1970s. Accordingly, the pessimism of the Japanese was reflected in popular culture. Two best-selling books, Nosutoradamusu no Daiyogen (Prophecies of Nostradamus, Michel de Notrdame) and Nihon Chinbotsu (Japan Sinks, Komatsu Sakyo), represented the mood of the society at the time, as Natsume points out (1997). The former book predicted that doomsday would happen in 1999 through nuclear wars, environmental problems, and other catastrophes, quoting prophecies by Nostradamus, a French soothsayer from the 16th century. The latter book was a science fiction novel depicting the sinking of the Japanese archipelago due to a series of massive earthquakes and tsunamis. Indeed, in the early plan for SBY written in 1973, Nishizaki noted that Nihon Chinbotsu reflected the Japanese people’s anxiety about the situation that Japan faced, and implied their desire for reform, a message that he wanted to convey through the original SBY series (Matsumoto and Nishizaki 1978). In addition, Toyota Aritsune, (2000) wrote that he also had pollution and environmental problems in his mind when he made some early suggestions for the SBY plot. The chief scenario writer of SBY, Fujikawa Keisuke, (1998) also pointed to this background as one of the reasons for the success of SBY. In sum, Nishizaki and animators intended to cheer up and educate young Japanese who were being influenced by the gloomy situation of Japan, by showing how the young crewmembers of the space battleship gradually build a strong sense of comradeship and together cope courageously with the crises facing humanity.

The Yamato as a space battleship is apparently a reincarnation of the Imperial Navy’s Yamato, but this does not necessarily mean that SBY embraces jingoistic militarism. Rather it questions war and militarism. As Napier (2005) notes, the Yamato is reactive: it fights the Gamilas battleships only when they attack. This was intended by Nishizaki, as noted in the early plan in 1973 (Matsumoto and Nishizaki 1978). In this aspect, SBY embraces postwar Japan’s pacifism. In addition, SBY manages to humanise the enemy. In the thirteenth episode, the Yamato crewmembers see the pilot of a combat spacecraft from Gamilas for the first time, and they are surprised to find that he looks like a human. Although Kodai Susumu, the main character of the series, attempts to kill the alien in a fit of rage, the Yamato’s captain, Okita Jūzō, orders Kodai to treat the Gamilas pilot respectfully, as a prisoner of war. Kodai wonders why the Gamilas, who look like humans, can perpetrate such horrible attacks on humanity on earth. Nishizaki and his colleagues also intended to humanise the arch-enemy of the Yamato, Lord Desler of the Gamilas, as an evil but attractive character in the story (Fujikawa 1998). Desler is a snobbish, cruel dictator but is good-looking and demonstrates his aesthetic tastes from time to time. The crewmembers of the Yamato gradually come to appreciate the ability of their opponent. In the second feature film, Desler and Kodai even develop a mild friendship as former rivals, showing sympathy for each other.

SBY also questions a prewar value: colonialism (Arai 2010). In the fourteenth episode, the Yamato crewmembers find aliens on a planet colonised by Gamilas forced to provide Gamilas with natural resources. The Yamato crewmembers show sympathy for the colonised aliens, but one of them argues that their sympathy is superficial since they are also about to take food from the colonised planet without permission. In sum, some elements of the plot of SBY are apparently based on the lessons that postwar Japanese learned from their pre-1945 history.

These elements do not necessarily disprove the idea that SBY reflects the conservative nationalists’ desire to embrace prewar Japanese values or to possess a fully-fledged military. For conservatives, the Japanese were the victims of massive US air raids, including the atomic bomb attacks, which appear metaphorically in SBY. The Japanese push back the attackers using their more advanced technologies in SBY, an attractive narrative for Japanese conservatives. However, it should not be ignored that SBY can also be read as a transformed version of World War II. First, the Gamilas shows a greater resemblance to Nazi Germany than to the United States.8 For example, the name of the ruler, Desler, sounds like Hitler when it is pronounced in Japanese. Similarly, his officers also have German-sounding names, and their uniforms resemble those of the Nazis. Desler uses special elite troops called shin’eitai in Japanese, a reference to the Nazi Schutzstaffel or SS. In the last battle with the Yamato, however, the Gamilas look like Japan at the end of the Pacific War or in the science fiction novel, Nihon Chinbotsu. The battle takes place on the planet Gamilas, which is about to collapse as a result of massive volcanic eruptions. That is the reason the Gamilas have attempted to invade earth with radioactive meteorite bombs—the Gamilas are only able to live in radiation-polluted air. Desler insists on a “showdown battle in the homeland” with the Yamato and orders his military to attack it at full strength. In the meantime, in order to survive the battle and the volcanic eruptions, the Yamato directs its wave-action gun at volcanoes. As a result, the planet Gamilas collapses. The Yamato becomes the victor, but has destroyed a planet and an empire in the process of winning. That is, the Yamato is also a victimiser, not simply a victim of Gamilas’ aggression at the end. When Kodai Susumu notices what has happened to the Gamilas, he bemoans the deaths and destruction that the Yamato has caused. The Gamilas appears to be a metaphor for an Imperial Japan that could not give up the war until the very last moment, while the Yamato appears to be more like the United States that thoroughly destroyed major cities of Japan. This episode is thus based on a bizarre transposition of reality.

In addition, anti-nuclear sentiments can easily be detected in the original SBY. As suggested above, humanity has suffered from radiation and has to live underground. Also, Captain Okita eventually dies from a radiation disease. These remind the Japanese of their victimhood resulting from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, as well as an incident in the South Pacific Ocean in 1954, in which the crewmembers of a tuna boat, the Lucky Dragon (Daigo Fukuryumaru), were exposed to radiation from a US hydrogen bomb test. These experiences provided the impetus for anti-nuclear movements in Japan as well as anti-American sentiments.

The second feature film presents a more explicit metaphor of anti-Americanism and Japanese conservatives’ embracing of prewar Japanese values. As Satō (1992) points out, one of the enemy commanders in the second film is named Balsey, seemingly after US Admiral William Frederick Halsey Jr., who commanded the fleet against the Imperial Japanese Navy in the South Pacific Ocean. The mission of the Yamato in this film is to fight against a huge colonial empire, in order to protect earth and bring about galactic peace. This is like Imperial Japan’s self-claimed mission, liberating Asians from Western powers. At the end of the story, Kodai Susumu decides to carry out a suicide attack against the evil colonial empire, ordering the other crewmembers to evacuate the Yamato. This was the point that critics at the time attacked as praise for Japan’s prewar militarism, according to the director of the first and second films, Masuda Toshio (1978). Nonetheless, it should be stressed that the director of the original TV anime, Matsumoto Leiji, who designed the characters and spaceships and created the basic plots for many episodes, did not like the idea of the suicide attack, which was introduced by the producer, Nishizaki. Instead, Matsumoto wanted to reduce prewar nationalistic sentiments and ideological positions in SBY (Matsumoto 2010). To Matsumoto, SBY was a space fantasy not only for the Japanese but also for the world, and not simply a tribute to the Yamato of the Imperial Navy. That is why he stresses that the space battleship is named Yamato in katakana; not in the kanji used by the Imperial Navy’s battleship. He criticises Nishizaki for preferring heroic self-sacrificial deaths for the anime characters.

A more important theme appears at the beginning of the second film. An unknown planet, one of the victims of the evil empire’s aspirations, sends a message asking the inhabitants of earth to help them out, but the Earth Defense Force leaders decide not to respond to the message. Kodai Susumu, the captain of the Yamato in the second film, questions that decision and argues that crewmembers of the Yamato did not die in the battles with the Gamilas to support such inaction by earth. He demands that the Earth Defense Force leaders should rescue other planets. This recalls Usubuchi’s message in Requiem for Battleship Yamato. Like the deaths of the original Yamato seamen, the deaths of crewmembers are sacrifices to allow earth to progress, but from Kodai’s viewpoint, the Earth Defense Force leaders are betraying the memory of the dead and their sacrifice.

The original SBY, as Senda (2007) points out, appears to be a reworking of the tragedy of the Imperial Navy’s Yamato, while the second SBY was seemingly influenced by Usubuchi’s remark which had appeared in Yoshida’s earlier literary work. They consist of contradicting ideas and thoughts from various people who joined the production of the SBY series, while reflecting political ideologies and sentiments emerging in postwar Japan. They also incorporate the lessons from Japanese war experiences. Indeed, Nishizaki, Matsumoto, and other artists appeared who worked for SBY were born in the 1920s and 1930s and observed Japan’s defeat and wartime destruction and its astonishing recovery. Those prewar-born artists’ complex views on the war likely made SBY more nuanced and complex.

Silent Service

Silent Service was a hit manga series, published in a weekly manga magazine for adult males, Uīkurī Mōningu (Weekly Morning), from September 1988 to March 1996. The story mainly consists of battles between a Japan-made nuclear submarine named Yamato and US Navy warships, along with diplomatic negotiations between the major powers, the United States and Japan in particular, and domestic political confrontations in these two countries. This work enjoyed considerable attention beyond the normal manga fans, as the story questioned Japan’s security policy and relationship with the United States. Politicians, journalists, and social critics, with different ideologies, discussed this manga and its implications. A pro-right politician, Ishihara Shintarō, recommended Silent Service in an article in the conservative newspaper, Sankei Shinbun (Ōshita 1991). A member of the Komei Party referred to the manga in a regular session of the Lower House of the Diet, and Socialist Party members formed an unofficial study group for it. The Defense Agency’s magazine, Securitarian, published a series of articles on it. Kinsella (2000: p. 87), who has studied the Japanese adult manga industry, notes that Silent Service is “the experimental fusion of left-wing and right-wing ideas and symbols in a new political era” without its details.

Silent Service was serialised against the backdrop of the Cold War and its sudden end, as well as Japan’s economic ups and downs. The story was set during the Cold War, reflecting relations between the major states: the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan, and others, although the end of the real Cold War undermined the premise of the story. The tensions between East and West provided the historical backdrop for this manga series, but the tensions between the United States and Japan over trade and their problematic cooperation in security that originated in the Pacific War were even more important.

The story seeks to present an alternative role for Japan in world politics during the Cold War. The chief editor of the weekly magazine at the time, Kurihara Yoshiyuki, inspired a manga artist, Kawaguchi Kaiji, to create Silent Service, and Kurihara thought that the submarine would symbolise Japan as”‘an island country” (shimaguni) as well as “a seafaring state” (kaiyō kokka) to present “an example of nihonjinron” (Ōshita 1991: pp. 270-271). Kawaguchi wanted to question the role of the United States as a world leader and Japan’s relationship with the United States (Kimura 2011). Kawaguchi eventually attempted to picture the future of the post-Cold War world and of Japan’s position within it (Kawaguchi and Fukui 2010). That is, Silent Service was Kawaguchi’s proposal for a more active role for postwar Japan in world politics, being inspired by Kurihara’s suggestions. In the story, Kawaguchi makes Japanese leaders and an alternative Japan, represented by the submarine Yamato, play more active roles in an attempt to achieve a world government and nuclear disarmament for world peace, while outsmarting the US government and Navy.

Silent Service does not introduce the original Yamato, but naming the submarine Yamato was bound to remind many readers of the original Yamato and its last mission. As Tazaki (2002) stresses, the name suggested to the reader that the submarine’s self-proclaimed mission could be a suicidal one-way operation, like that of the original Yamato. The voyage is indeed suicidal and one-way: the submarine Yamato survives hard battles but finally sinks in New York harbor, although all the crewmembers except for the captain survive. Accordingly, their voyage is another reworking of the tragedy of the prewar Yamato.

The Japanese government has secretly constructed a nuclear-powered submarine with nuclear strike capabilities at a dockyard in Sasebo-city, with the support of the United States. A minister of the Japanese Defense Agency emphasizes that Japanese engineers have built the most advanced nuclear-powered submarine, though the submarine, originally named Seabat, belongs to the US Navy Seventh Fleet. Its crewmembers, however, are those of the Yamanami, a submarine belonging to the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. The Japanese government must hide the Seabat in cooperation with the US government because possessing a nuclear submarine with nuclear strike capabilities is against postwar Japan’s fundamental defense principles, the exclusively defense-oriented policy (senshu bōei) and the three non-nuclear principles (hikaku sangensoku), which were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s. Under the Constitution’s Article IX, which prohibits Japan from possessing and using a fully-fledged military in order to resolve conflicts with other states, the postwar Japanese government has upheld the exclusively defense-oriented policy to justify its de-facto military, the Self-Defense Force. The SDF is not considered to be a fully-fledged military as it fights only when others invade or attack Japan’s territories. In the meantime, the three non-nuclear principles prohibit Japan from possessing and producing nuclear weapons and from allowing the stationing of nuclear weapons on Japanese territory by others. The fictional nuclear submarine with nuclear strike capabilities in the manga series does not fit these principles, and so the Japanese government stages a false accident involving the Yamanami, and announces that all of its crewmembers have diedin order to let them work for the Seabat. The crewmembers of the Yamanami, led by Captain Kaieda Shirō, are chosen for this secret mission after demonstrating their exceptional capabilities by outwitting US Navy warships during joint drills between the two countries.

Captain Kaieda and the crewmembers, however, have a secret, audacious plan for the submarine: they aim to end the system of world politics based on the balance of military power and to transform the United Nations into a world government. In other words, they are challenging the contemporary nation-state system, believing that humanity as a whole can demilitarize states and realize true world peace. They demand that only the world government be allowed to possess military forces and use them to suppress rogue states that fight against other states or the world government. They assume that the most advanced nuclear submarines with nuclear strike capabilities will provide the world government with an effective threat against rogue states. They aim to become the precursor in mobilising nuclear submarines for the world government, a force called the silent service, and the harbinger of a new Japan that plays more active roles in world politics.

Just after a secret gathering held by the two governments to celebrate the maiden voyage of the Seabat, Kaieda secretly renames the submarine Yamato. Next, the Yamato deserts from the US Seventh Fleet to begin its own mission. The US government regards the submarine as a deserter and a potential nuclear terrorist, and the Seventh Fleet begins to chase it in order to capture or destroy it. At the first battle in the South Pacific Ocean, Kaieda declares that the submarine has been designated the independent state of ‘Yamato’ and contends that they will fight back if any other states or military forces break into their territorial waters extending for twelve nautical miles. The submarine engages in a series of battles with the US Navy, which Kaieda calls a “War of Independence,” and approaches the Headquarters of the United Nations in New York City to persuade UN member states to accept the Yamato as part of the forces fighting for a future world government. Throughout the story, Kaieda and his crewmembers continue winning battles with the US Navy, shake the status of the United States as a superpower, and demonstrate their ability as part of the silent service working for the future world government. After skillfully surviving battles with powerful US forces by using the submarine’s advanced technologies, they reach New York City. However, the UN General Assembly rejects the idea of silent service but decides to launch a preparatory committee for world government.

The invincible submarine named Yamato symbolises Japan. The Yamato attempts to realise what Japan is expected to do as a major economic power in the world, but something that the real Japan has never been able to do. In other words, Kaieda and his crewmembers are harbingers of a new Japan, like the crews of the old battleship and the space battleship Yamato as Usubuchi intended. The name itself alludes to this. When Kaieda renames the submarine, he inscribes Yamato in hiragana on its outer hull and tells his lieutenant that the submarine will not be a pawn of the United States. Probably, naming the submarine Yamato in hiragana means that the submarine represents more Japaneseness.9 That is, through the story, the author probably hoped that Japan would be a true independent state and leave the de-facto supervision of the United States. Hence, Japan follows the harbinger, Yamato.

In the story, the Yamato makes Japan escape from supervision by the United States. To handle the issues that the Yamato raises, political leaders of Japan begin to think and behave decisively and independently, and they eventually join the Yamato’s effort to establish a world government, upsetting the US government. For example, the fictitious prime minister, Takegami Toshio, decides that Japan will sign the treaty with the Yamato in order to prevent a possible nuclear war between the Yamato and the United States. Although Takegami tries to maintain the Japan-US Alliance at first, he eventually supports the ideas of world government and the demilitarisation of world politics. Yet, when the Japanese government accepts the Yamato as an independent state, the US government begins to think that it will need to re-occupy Japan as it did from 1945 to 1952. These aspects of the story seemingly reflect anti-Americanism, or an anti-American nationalism in Japan.

Meanwhile, conservatives are pleased to see Japan play a more independent and decisive role in world politics under the Cold War in Silent Service. It was in the 1980s that conservatives argued that Japan should become an international state (kokusai kokka), a leader among capitalist states in the West against socialist states in the East. It was a neoconservative version of internationalism and was well popularised by Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro (Pyle 1996). Yomiuri Shinbun, a conservative national newspaper, was another crucial proponent (Takekawa 2007). But these conservatives did not intend to terminate the Japan-US Alliance at all.

However, Anti-America nationalism looks more pronounced in other scenes of the story. For example, US Navy officers are often made to look arrogant, calling the Yamato “Jap” or “yellow Seabat,” while Kaieda and his crewmembers always appear calm and professional. However, the anti-Americanism looks nuanced upon a more careful reading. First, the second-most-important character in the story after Kaieda, US President Nicholas J. Bennett, is the de-facto rival to Kaieda, but they seem to develop a degree of friendship near the end of the story. Bennett himself also questions the military, prior to the desertion of the Yamato. He eventually shares the idea of world government, but he attempts to take credit for it from Kaieda by having the US Navy destroy the Yamato in New York Bay. The people of the United States are also depicted favourably. A cable news network company and its president, modeled after CNN and its founder, Ted Turner, fervently support Kaieda’s ideal, as do its news crew and numerous people in New York City. Kawaguchi apparently believes that Americans are idealists and ready for a drastic change of the world for universal betterment. The exception in this respect is the US military-industrial complex, which opposes nuclear disarmament and which seemingly attempts to assassinate President Bennett at the UN General Assembly. But Kaieda saves Bennett from assassination at the risk of his own life. Natsume (1997) points out that an important motif of the story is the love-hate relationship between the Japanese and the United States, and believes that motif is especially important for Kawaguchi, a member of the baby boomer generation.10 Baby boomers understand the past and present rivalry of Japan and the United States, but also appreciate American culture, from popular culture to democracy, with which they grew up. It is not based on simple-minded anti-Americanism.

As an alternative Japan, the Yamato seeks to establish a world government and achieve the nuclear disarmament of states for world peace, challenging the United States as a superpower and attempting to terminate US defense strategy that relies on Mutual Assured Destruction. These goals for the Yamato echo anti-conservatives’ ideologies and sentiments that appeared in postwar Japan. The idea of world government is from the World Federalist Movement, which enjoyed a considerable amount of attention in Japan after WWII and originated in movements in European countries throughout WWII and the early postwar period. In the early postwar period, Ozaki Yukio, a renowned liberal-conservative politician, attempted to promote the idea of world federal government, and Ryu Shintaro, the Editorial Board Chair of Asahi Shinbun, a liberal national newspaper, introduced world federalism as an ideal that the Asahi Shinbun should promote in its editorials (Sekai Renpō Kensetsu Dōmei 1969). Indeed, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Asahi often argued that the United Nations was the precursor of a world federal government and that Japan should contribute to its development while attempting to promote world federalism to raise Japanese national pride (Takekawa 2007). For example, its editorial on January 1st 1958 argued that a Japan with no military is the best proponent of world federal government. World federalism is, in this respect, another aspect of postwar pacifist nationalism. Thirty years later, Silent Service upholds this ideal.

Another aspect of pacifism often appears in the battles between the submarine Yamato and others. Like the space battleship Yamato, the submarine Yamato fights almost always only when others attack first. The MSDF ships, which the Japanese government has dispatched to escort the Yamato, are also reactive while being attacked by US Navy ships. They decisively embrace Japan’s defense strategy, the senshu bōei. In the meantime, the US side often ridicules this policy throughout the story. It seems that the author intended to promote the policy as a foundation of the world government’s military. Pacifist reactive military is another aspect that the Yamatos in Silent Service and in SBY share with each other.

Nuclear disarmament for world peace is another ideal for the submarine Yamato. They attempt to disable the nuclear strike capabilities of the superpowers, as well as other states, by making the world government monopolise nuclear arms. Using nuclear weapons to realise the nuclear disarmament of states may offend supporters of the anti-nuclear movement in Japan. Yet the Yamato itself never uses nuclear weapons and actually they pretend to own nuclear weapons throughout battles. In relation to this, a scholar of the anti-nuclear movement, Tazaki (2002), argues that Silent Service is a new type of anti-nuclear literature. In any case, world peace without nuclear arms is an ideal that pacifist-nationalists like those who write for the Asahi Shinbun promote (Takekawa 2007). Silent Service shares ideas with them.

In short, Silent Service attempts to reconcile contradictory types of nationalism in relation to postwar Japan’s political ideologies, thoughts, and sentiments. The submarine Yamato as a surrogate Japan is an agent for reconciliation. The contradictions of world federalism, pacifism, and anti-nuclear sentiments developed and supported mainly by progressives and leftists in postwar Japanese society, as well as the aspirations of the conservatives, to promote Japan as a real world leader, are all reflected. Silent Service is a powerful use of the Yamato image in popular culture to promote a new Japan that many have envisioned in postwar Japan. Silent Service is also a continuation of the spirit of Usubuchi’s remark, a pursuit of a new Japan initiated by harbingers from the old, and a reincarnation of the voyage of the Yamato to struggle for betterment although the Imperial Navy’s Yamato never appears directly in this story and the crewmembers survive.


History education in primary and secondary schools in Japan pays little attention to the battleship Yamato; however, the Yamato has remained one of the most popular wartime icons throughout the postwar period due to its popularity in Japan’s popular culture. Watanabe (2001) asserts that young Japanese receive more images of the war from popular culture than other sources. Asaba (2004) contends that the people develop a national consciousness based on popular, emotional stories in addition to logical and objective educational publications. Mizuno (2007; p. 121) asserts that SBY and Silent Service make “a site of a constant construction of national identity.” Therefore, we need to examine anime and manga in popular against backdrop of their respective time periods and along with their historical backgrounds.

As this article has demonstrated, popular culture stories featuring the Yamato make more sense if they are placed in the context of postwar Japanese nationalisms and the perceptions of the past and contemporary Japanese society that popular culture artists observed at the respective time periods. Major figures in the popular culture of every country can play a role in the development of nationalism or national identity construction, but the role that the Yamato has played can only be understood by observing the past and present development of politics and economy in postwar Japan. Stories from popular culture and the way they are used and manipulated can, at the same time, tell us something about the development of nationalisms in a country. In the early 1970s, the anime artists led by Nishizaki Yoshinobu for SBY were concerned about the stagnation that Japan had faced after the end of its high-growth economy. Kawaguchi Kaiji and the chief editor of the weekly magazine, Kurihara Yoshiyuki, attempted to show the Japanese a certain direction for Japan to survive the post-Cold War world politics. That is, they attempted to contest and fuse different nationalist ideas in their works in order to send out certain messages to the Japanese when they saw their nation-state facing crises. Apparently, the account of the real Yamato by Yoshida Mitsuru, including the remark by the Yamato officer Usubuchi, influenced these artists, given that the Yamato could suggest a diversity of messages.

Artists in popular culture usually do not call themselves nationalists. However, as this article has shown, those who contributed to the two Yamato-featured works had the nation in their mind as their primary audiences and attempted to send out nationalist messages to them. In recent years, many Japanese anime and manga works with no Yamato image enjoy enormous international popularity. It would be interesting to study those works to know if they include nationalist ideas like the two Yamato-featuring stories. Regardless, the Yamato in popular culture still continues to its voyage as the Yamato-featured works are being made in Japan. The Yamato would perhaps come back to popular culture again and again when artists find the nation facing a crisis.


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[1] See Nakagawa, M., 2006. Kaikan 1-nen, Yamato mūjiamu ni 170-man nin, Asahi Shinbun, 23 April, Hiroshima section.

[2] Uchū Senkan Yamato: Fukkatsuhen is a sequel of anime series of Uchū Senkan Yamato in the 1970s and 1980s. This anime appears to be more right-leaning as a pro-right politician and a novelist, Ishihara Shintarō, was hired as an advisor.

[3] The story of SPACE BATTLESHIP Yamato is similar to that of the original, but featuring more females than the original. It probably has adapted to today’s situation in Japan where more women are active in working places than before. The DVD series, Uchū Senkan Yamato 2199 has not ended yet.

[4] Hirama (2003) similarly points out these two aspects, and he also stresses that the self-sacrifice of the naval personnel attracted the post-war Japanese, resulting in the Yamato being taken up in popular culture.

[5] It is debatable whether some episodes in the book are fiction or non-fiction. See Senkan Yamato (Kurihara 2007).

[6] This quote comes from the English version translated by Minear (1985).

[7] The film, Otokotachi no Yamato/YAMATO, is based on Henmi Jun’s nonfictional work, Otokotachi no Yamato, published in 1983 by Kadokawa Shoten.

[8] The reason why they used the image of Nazi Germany is unknown. It could be said that Nazis were stereotypical enemies for Japanese boys at the time as they watched US-made war movies and TV dramas, in most of which Nazi Germany was the evil enemy. Though, Mizuno (2007) argues that German elements in SBY were used to make the Japanese audience not be reminded of their aggressions during World War II.

[9] Kanjiis mostly based on Chinese characters. Hiragana was invented in Japan using modified Chinese characters. Katakana is usually used to spell words from foreign languages. Thus, hiragana is more Japanese than others. In contrast to the Yamato in Silent Service, the Imperial Navy’s Yamato is spelled in kanji, and in SBY Yamato is written in katakana.

[10] The editor Kurihara is also in the same generation. Both were born in the late 1940s.

About the Author

Shunichi Takekawa is Associate Professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University.

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