Death March: A Documentary Novel by Jiro Nitta (1971, translated from Japanese by James Westerhoven, 1992, Stone Bridge Press , 204 pages)
Death March: A Documentary Novel is a historical novel written in near journalistic style about a military exercise in the middle of winter in 1902 on Honshu Island in northern Japan. This is not an at all well known book in its English translation. There are no book blog entries on it and no goodreads.com reviews. It was a million copy best seller in Japan on publication. It is the fictionalized account of a military training routine gone tragically wrong. It is set right before the time of the Japanese-Russian War (1904 to 1905). The military leaders knew war with Russia was on the horizon. The Imperial Japanese Army leaders wanted to prepare themselves for a possible land invasion of Russia. With this in mind they assembled a group of about 200 men and officers to do a march with full military equipment around a huge mountain on Honshu Island in the middle of the winter. It is the coldest place in Japan. The leaders of the march are all quite uninformed as to the needs and dangers of leading an army on a march in the middle of a horrible winter. As luck would have it, a severe blizzard broke out in the middle of the march.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel was seeing how things got done in the Japanese Army in 1902. Most of the officers were descended from Samurai families and those few officers who were not were looked down upon and had little chance for advancement. Unquestioning obedience is expected and seen among all soldiers. It is common for Japanese officers to slap soldiers for even seeming to question an order. The common soldiers are all young and mostly were drafted. Seven local guides were hired by the lead officer of the regiment to guide them on their march. Things quickly turn very wrong in terrible way. Nitta gives us a very good feel as to what this march was like for the soldiers and officers. He gives us a very clear idea as to how death comes to people during the march and we can really almost see and feel the men freezing to death. We see the efforts of the officers to help their men deal with frost bite by suggesting they make boots of straw. We see their efforts to ration food and sake. (The officers could have easily brought all the food they might have needed but they intentionally made this a hardship march for training purposes and to learn how to fight in sub-zero conditions.) The death scenes are very well done and we can see what happens easily. (The book was made into a movie in Japan). Of 210 in all who started the march, only 21 survived plus all of the seven guides (the guides, civilians, returned home when they decided among themselves they were not being paid enough now that a blizzard had begun). The officers were completely incompetent.
When the few surviving troops were rescued the army tried to keep what happened quiet. They could not do it as the parents of the soldiers (many in their teens) demanded to know what happened to them. In one very moving scene a father confronts the commander of officer over the march and tells him if his son had died in battle he could have accepted it but to die at the orders of a fool cannot be accepted. The incident gets in the media and there is a public outcry. All of the higher officers deny any knowledge of it, of course. Payments are made to the families of the dead. The payments were actually quite substantial and were enough for them to buy land which could support the survivors from then on. Of course, this must be seen as more or less a payment for silence.
Jiro Nitta was by profession a meteorologist. When he retired from the Japanese government meteorological department in his middle fifties he became a professional writer. The description of the weather conditions show his extreme knowledge on this. Three of his books have been translated into English but this book is the only one in print.
In his very good afterword, the translator James Westerhoven (a teacher at Hirosaki University very near the actual setting of the novel) says one of the dominant themes of Nitta's work is the effect of the cult of blind obedience on Japan. Nitta served in the Japanese army in WWII in China and ended the war in a POW camp. (I tried to find out more about his war experiences but I could not.) Westerhoven also tells us what happened to the surviving men in real life and how the investigation of the march turned out. Westerhoven does let us know that Nitta had a problem with authority in most forms, even on a personal level.
Death March: A Documentary Novel does a very good job of doing what Nitta says he wanted to do, that is see and feel what the march was like. It feels somehow like a novel a skilled newspaper reporter might have written. The writing about weather are superb. I have also posted on another novel set in the very same time frame, Kusamakura by Natsume Soseki. By contrast, Kusamakura is a near lyrical deeply beautiful work. Jiro Nitta has numerous works not yet translated.
Death March: A Documentary Novel is easy to read and follow. (The production qualities of the book are high.) It teaches us a lot about the Japanese army. When I read of the common practice of slapping soldiers I was reminded of One Man's Justice by Akira Yoshimura in which I learned that after the war Japanese who had slapped American POWs were hung as war criminals. Death March: A Documentary Novel is not a work of great genius, it is not a "must read" Japanese or war novel but it is a good solid book by a man with very strong values whose goal is to let us see the truth about the things he writes about.
Jiro Nitta was the pen name of Hiroto Fujiwara (1912-to 1980).