The Russo-Japanese War is a fascinating conflict that, arguably, was one of the most important events in the 20th century. It contributed to the decline of the Russian Empire, paving the way for the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and gave rise to the Japanese Empire, paving the way to Pearl Harbor. And yet, this war is often overlooked in the West, leading to a dearth of first-hand English language accounts. Thankfully, Human Bullets (1906) by Tadayoshi Sakurai survives to fill that void.
While the origins of the Russo-Japanese War are complex and deeply rooted in 19th-century geopolitics and imperialism, it began mainly as a conflict of interest between Japan and Russia over their spheres of influence. Russia had a sizeable military force in Manchuria and was threatening Japan’s interests in Korea. The world thought Russia would crush little Japan, but the Japanese had been preparing for this war.
Sakurai was a second lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army and a very cultured man. He references the 300 Spartans, showing just how much educated Japanese had learned about Western history since the dawn of the Meiji Era. His memoir is also a valuable resource to see how the war was perceived by the public. Much like the carnival attitude of 1914, the Japanese people seemed to greet orders of mobilization with a “mysterious kind of spiritual electricity”.
Indeed, according to Sakurai, it was the happiest day of his life. He even relates that many unqualified men attempted to enlist but had to be politely turned away because of their physical disabilities. Contemporary reports seem to confirm this general sense of national elation, with most Japanese throwing their support to the war. Of course, not every Japanese supported the war, but it does appear that they were in the minority.
Russia initially greeted the war with enthusiasm, only to become embittered after a wave of defeats in the field. Lieutenant Sakurai makes note of this:
“Yes, Russian fighters were brave and strong, but lacking in morale, the first requisite of a successful war. We, on the contrary, had an invincible spirit called Yamato-damashii…”
Human Bullets was actually the first book to introduce the concept of Yamato-damashii aka Yamato Spirit, or the Spirit of Japan, to the West. At this time, Yamato-damashii was a sort of ultra-patriotism, unity, devotion, and self-sacrifice that all Japanese were encouraged to adhere to.
Lieutenant Sakurai even sees something to admire in the Russian enemy. When he witnesses the death of a captured Russian, wounded from a sharpshooter, Sakurai is moved to tears by his devotion to his country, fighting without even knowing the reason why.
By contrast, Sakurai has pure contempt for the Chinese. As the war was fought in Manchuria, which was part of the officially neutral Qing Empire, many Chinese acted as porters and spies for both sides, selling their talents to the highest bidder. Sakurai and many other Japanese soldiers despised this mindset of the Chinese, commenting that “Money is the only god they worship.”
While the prose contains flowery patriotic rhetoric, Lieutenant Sakurai does not shy away from the grim realities of war. Officers and men are cut down without mercy, ground into pulp by the 20th century’s first mechanized conflict.
Indeed, the book climaxes during the famous Battle of Port Arthur, a sort of dress rehearsal for Verdun, in which thousands of Japanese lay siege to a Russian fortress, only to be mowed down by machine guns. Lieutenant Sakurai loses an arm in the battle, and the book’s ending is somewhat unsatisfying because we don’t follow the war to a close firsthand.
Nevertheless, Human Bullets became a classic of Japanese literature, reprinted again during the war fever of the Manchurian Incident (1931-1932) and translated into English in 1907, soon after its publication. It remains today one of the best accounts of the Russo-Japanese War and a valuable literary time capsule.