Book Review: Battleship Musashi by Akira Yoshimura

Also known as Build the Musashi! – The Birth and Death of the World’s Greatest Battleship.

My basic policy is to not review books that I feel don’t contribute much to my personal library (usually I just get rid of them), but this book serves as a teachable moment. I read this book several years ago and wanted to give it another shot to see if my evaluation on it changed. Indeed, it has, but not in a good way.

Battleship Musashi by Akira Yoshimura (translated by Vincent Murphy) is oddly difficult to review. On one hand, it’s a fairly easy read, but on the other hand, it’s rather underwhelming. The best way to describe it would probably be mediocre. The book can be divided up into two distinct parts. The first two-thirds of the book describe the construction of the battleship Musashi (the sister ship of the famous Yamato), along with all the challenges that came with building such an enormous vessel, and the last third explains the final hours of the ship and her crew as she was sunk.

Unlike the Yamato, which was built at the Kure Naval Arsenal, the Musashi was constructed at Nagasaki Shipyards. Much of the challenges involved in building the Musashi revolved around, 1.) whether or not they had the adequate facilities at Nagasaki to construct such a huge vessel, and 2.) how they could keep its construction a secret, when the entire harbor is surrounded by the city in which there exists a large population of foreigners (including the U.S. and British Consulates). Yet, the Japanese Navy, ship designers, and engineers managed to overcome both problems through a bevy of solutions, some ingenious, some absurd, and some outright tyrannical in their conception and implementation. For example, they hid the construction of the hull behind a huge hemp-rope curtain to keep it out of sight, and they even had the police haul in all Chinese male foreigners for a midnight “interrogation.” The majority of the construction workers knew nothing about the entire layout of the enormous ship they were building. Secrecy and paranoia were so high during that time and the reader really gets a glimpse of an extreme state where the military-controlled government held absolute power over the populace.

Once the Musashi was outfitted and commissioned, again like her sister ship, she saw very little action during the course of the war. These were the largest battleships ever constructed and they were armed with the largest guns to ever be fitted on a warship. However, the Japanese Navy was so dead set on the idea of a decisive battle with the U.S. that these behemoths ended up having very unremarkable operational careers since they were being saved explicitly for an event that would never occur. As the Pacific War played out, the aircraft carrier rose to prominence and naval aircraft were able to strike the Musashi well before she was able to close the distance to engage anything with her massive weaponry. Ultimately, both of the Yamato-class battleships, for all their impressive firepower (including numerous anti-aircraft batteries), were defeated by several waves of carrier-based aircraft dropping bombs and torpedoes on them.

The main problems with the book deal with the writing and the historiography in relation to the lack of sources. Although Yoshimura did manage to create a passable narrative of the Musashi’s construction and destruction, the writing (or perhaps the translation) comes off as rather lacking in terms of details. This book probably won’t satisfy either die-hard military historians or those seriously interested in naval engineering. Although it does address those topics, it does so in a very cursory manner and is definitely nowhere near the quality, or detail, of technical works like the Garke and Dulin trilogy. The lack of details might be for a number a reasons, either because (due to the secrecy of its construction) details of the ship were extremely hard to come by, or because the book was written to make it more accessible to the layperson. Also remember that the Japanese put a great many documents to the torch immediately post-war to prevent their specifics from falling into Allied hands. The book doesn’t contain a great deal of military/naval terminology nor is the Musashi’s final battle written in a very clear or interesting way. A number of ship designers and naval officers are introduced, but unfortunately, their personalities aren’t fleshed out very well. Mostly, this book could be seen as an overview of the logistical and managerial problems that went into building such a ship in a country ruled by militaristic attitudes during an era of worldwide war. In many ways, the story provides more insight into the political and military mindset of the times, but offers little else for the armchair admirals. Yoshimura does have some background as a military historian, and he has published a number of works on various military history topics. Still, the writing is lacking.

Lastly, and most seriously, this book contains no footnotes, no end notes, and no bibliography. This leaves the reader wondering where the information was attained from (either from primary or secondary sources). There are enough direct quotes from various people in the book to make the reader ponder how Yoshimura knew such conversations took place. It begs the question, how did he know exactly what they said at that particular moment? Did he interview the shipyard workers and naval personnel? Did he find some long lost documents or someone’s memoir concerning the construction of the battleship? Is Yoshimura speaking from personal experience? (Although, he was born in 1927 and would’ve been around 11 years old when the Musashi was laid down, so that’s unlikely.) It’s never made clear where this in-depth knowledge came from and it seems as if Yoshimura is “putting words in people’s mouths.” That is to say, he may have made up dialogue to suit the narrative. In some ways, the dialogue would be better suited for a work of historical fiction, except the narrative doesn’t contain any character arcs or thematic elements. In other words, it’s clearly written as non-fiction. While Yoshimura may indeed be telling the truth, there’s no way to know for sure. We’ll likely never know since Yoshimura passed away in 2006. While it may seem like a minor point to be making a big stink over, the lack of sources is a serious red flag for any historian because they have no way of verifying the accuracy of the information other than to corroborate it with other sources that actually do have notes and bibliographies. (In which case, it’s better for the historian to use those cited sources, anyway.) Without sources, the reader is left to conjecture if the work itself is merely a product of pure extrapolation. Indeed, as I’ve read more and more history books over the years, I’ve become very particular about how I examine each book I read. The first place I look in any new history book I pick up is in the bibliography, and for any end notes or footnotes. That information alone tells me a lot about what sources were used, how detailed the information is, and how the author conducted their research. In the case of this book, sure, a lot of the information seems reasonable, but there’s still that element of uncertainty because nothing is cited. Then again, this may be the fault of the translator for failing to include a list of sources. Even at that, it’s a serious oversight. What in the world were they thinking?

Overall, I’d give this book 2 out of 5 stars. Parts of the overall narrative are intriguing, but I found myself wishing for more detail. On the upshot though, the appendix does contain some nice technical drawings of the ship, unfortunately, they’re rather small and difficult to read. This book definitely caters more to the popular history market, but unfortunately its utility as a reputable source for a naval historian is severely handicapped by the lack of sources. It just goes to show that every once in a while, you come up with a stinker.

3 comments

    1. Thanks for pointing that out. I’ve amended my review to make that clear. It’s definitely written as non-fiction. Even at that, apart from the dialogue, there are no elements that you would associate with fictional writing.

      Liked by 1 person

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