First, the Yamato Damashi or the 'Spirit of Yamato' is a phrase used colloquially by Nationalists and Rightists in Japan to speak in nostalgic ways about a a vague 'Golden Age' of Japanese culture. In this mythical imagining, life was simple and people allegedly were honest and worked hard.
The Yamato Empire had the concept of the state as led by a powerful singular leader (Emperor or Tenno). That was the idealized state, of course. In Japanese feudal times, the military caste, that included the bushi and the samurai, were organized in strict military forms and had a unified single headquarters-like structure, the Shogunate. The Shogun represented civil and political power. As is well known, the Shogunate ruled Japan in various forms from 1192-1868.
Second, Yamato refers to Nara Prefecture. Here, Japanese history indicates that the first political efforts of unifying Japan began in the Nara Basin from the third century until the fourth century. Thus, at the dawn of Japanese history Yamato was clearly the political center of Japan.
Which brings us to the battleship Yamato. Famous along with her sister ship Musashi as being the largest battleships ever built, the battleship Yamato embodies the mythos of the above, symbolized by the Imperial (teikoku) chrysanthemum crest on her bow. She was and is more than just a battleship.
The Yamato and its role in Japanese popular culture post 1945 have long been a barometer and proxy for Japanese nationalist and conservative efforts to portray the Pacific War. When in 1974 it was featured in an animated TV series (and later movies) Uchuu Senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato), it was widely and correctly seen as a replay of the Pacific War in the 'safe' mode of space battles with aliens.
Now in January 2006, the Yamato has made the jump to the wide screen. She is the star of a live action movie that portrays her death ride in 'Operation Ten-Go' as a heroic and noble sacrifice. It is the number one movie in Tokyo in December 2005 -January 2006. Here, Haruki Kadowkawa, the film's producer explains:
Losing is the ultimate eye-opener. Japan is no longer moving forward — it relies too much on rails that have already been laid and has forgotten how to make new types of progress. What is going to save us — our sense of duty? Or are we going to finally wake up? We are hoping for someone to lead the way, someone who has a fresh outlook for Japan. That is a motif of the film. When you lose you wake up — and Japan needs to wake up.In addition to the Yamato movie, there is now a full time Yamato Museum in the naval city of Kure. And the set of the movie has itself become a tourist attraction. The Yamato today exerts enormous impact on the contemporary Japanese psyche.
In other words, the core audience for this film is young people. I find it really interesting that the group I most want to see the film is the group that most wants to see it. That age group knows that Japan and America fought, but not much more. Some will ask you who won the war. (laughs) It's not hard to understand — looking at Japan today, it's hard to believe we lost.
And as Japan seeks to discover its identity and purpose in a 21st Century of Chinese ascendancy and U.S. strategic incompetence and hyper militarization, the Yamato and imaginings of the Yamato will have an important role.
Which is all very interesting and overly abstract to non-Japanese perhaps. Except yesterday the Stiftung was wandering through the blight of strip malls that litter the Imperial City environs. And what did we stumble across? Yes, Dear Reader, for our little boys and girls:
As Japanese soft power waxes and drives much of U.S. popular culture for those under 50 years old - either through toys above, videogames, animation/manga, or movies — it will be interesting to see how Yamato and the Imperial project emerges in the U.S. mind. Perhaps in the end, she and her crew will actually prevail. And Okinawa was not the end but merely the beginning.