I recently re-read SAMURAI by Saburo Sakai. I’d first read this WWII autobiography when I was a boy. In fact, SAMURAI is one of those books that has stayed with me for nearly four decades now–it was that powerful.
SAMURAI gives us a look into the Japanese side of a rigid, serious life, from Sakai’s failure at school, his begrudging enlistment in the navy, and the brutal treatment he and other flight cadets received during training.
What makes the book different from other post-war first-person accounts is Sakai’s talk of the women in his life: the pretty and politically-connected Fujiko, and his cousin Hatsuyo. He rejected the former and married the latter, and writes in great detail as to how these relationships developed, even as he was fighting over Rabaul and later, Iwo Jima.
It’s remarkable that Sakai lived to see the end of the war. He was Japan’s leading surviving air ace with 64 confirmed kills. He lost sight in one eye after being shot in the head during a skirmish over Guadalcanal, on the day that island was invaded by General Vandegrift’s Marines–August 7th, 1942. How Sakai flew back to his base is astounding–he could barely see his instrument panel, never mind navigate the long flight back alone.
After a lengthy hospital recovery, and with Japan’s fortunes of war reversed, Sakai ended up being assigned to a suicide squadron, but had to turn back due to bad weather over the target.
Each time Sakai would return to Japan for rest or recuperation, he would listen to his cousin Hatsuyo play the piano. She had a fondness for Mozart and played exquisitely for hours. Sakai writes about her recitals in a very beautiful way. He wrote how his mind went to peaceful places while she played. She told him, “A woman is happy only when she’s with the man she loves, even if it’s for a short time.”
Sakai resisted love: “you don’t want to be married to a fighter pilot in this war.” Indeed, he had spurned Hatsuyo’s friend Fujiko with this very sentiment. It was when Sakai was flying the suicide mission, in a worn out, sputtering plane, in the dark, in a rainstorm, did he realize his love for Hatsuyo was real. Blind in his right eye and struggling to lead his men to the US Navy, Sakai imagined Hatsuyo’s Mozart piano recitals and cursed himself for not heeding her words.
Sakai and Hatsuyo were married upon his return to Japan. They lived out the remaining months of the war together. This was a terrible time for Japan, with daily and nightly American bomber raids destroying the Japanese means to wage a continued war. Before the hostilities ended, Hatsuyo had asked for a small dagger, in case of an American invasion. She was going to kill herself. The book ends with the announcement of the surrender, their embrace, and her flinging the dagger to the floor.
Unfortunately, the immediate post-war years in Japan were very bad and Hatsuyo died in 1947 of malnutrition. She had to have been about 26.
For me personally, the war accounts are interesting but the Hatsuyo interludes are what have stuck with me most. Hatsuyo is Japan: she was a gentle traditionalist, whose dreams started and stopped with the love of her life. How could she not influence my life; I was an eleven-year-old reader jut starting to engage in real friendships. Hatsuyo crossed pages to whisper in my ear; in doing so, she showed me another side of her nation and people.
I’ve arranged my Hiko drawing alongside Hatsuyo’s portrait, below.