What is Gyokusai? 玉砕とは何でしょう?

Guyokusai PaintingAfter 25 years of living and working in Japan I have had an extraordinary opportunity to go to some of the battlefields where Japanese soldiers fought. I have been able to travel to relatively isolated areas of China and the Asia-Pacific, crawl through numerous bunkers,ascend ridge lines and dive underwater,  explore the crumbling remains of the battle sites and, at times views the bones of soldiers killed in what the Japanese call the Pacific War and the Greater East Asia War.

I have also been lucky enough to develop a level of Japanese proficiency to be able to translate the memoirs and some narrative histories, of the Japanese soldier. The Japanese retain an amazing ability to absorb and translate western histories of  their battles against the west. Interest or capability in the west of translating Japanse narratives is not comparable. While several tens of books on the Pacific War may be translated into Japanese from English every year, there are entire years with no Japanese account being translated into English. Part of this is due to what many regard as the arcane,  nuanced use of Japanese – few are motivated to tackle it.  There is also a certain almost unconscious willingness to believe the western narrative as inclusive of all events, encapsulating mostly all there is to know about a given batttle  of operational outcome. This narrative is however very largely a function of western interpretations of death in combat.

Most of what is usually written and translated into English is of an academic nature usually covering aspects of social, cultural and developmental studies — issues important but tangential to military history.

With this in mind I have decided to start a blog adding translations of Japanese soldiers memoirs or recollections from various engagements with Western, Russian and Chinese armies. The blog will cover aspects of the Japanese last-stand battles of World War II.

The blog is entitled “Shattered Jewels,” or in Japanese Gyokusai  (玉砕). It is a word not commonly used or known in the younger generation of Japanese and virtually unknown outside of Japan. When Japanese use this term it implies a usually isolated outpost of men or civilians, usually in the Pacific (though there have been Gyokusai battles on the Asian mainland), who having no hope of relief, either condemn themselves to a battle of annihilation with the enemy or are ordered to fight to the death. The end result is the almost total elimination of every Japanese  since surrender is not an option.

While it is possible to directly translate “gyokusai” – it literally means “jewel/bead breaking” – or more interpretively “shattering like a jewel” — its exact meaning very much typifies the problems of Japanese translation. While the term has its origins in ancient China – like many Japanese concepts – its has achieved unique meaning in the Japanese experience.  Gyokusai objectifies fighting to the last and giving and accepting no quarter.

It probably should more properly be translated as “an honourable death in combat.”  It has connotations of an act one does in service to the emperor, but is not necessarily linked to either the Bushido code or Emperor worship.  It carries a particular aesthetic, one not obviously linked to the often cited “code of Bushido.” It is a deeply felt idea that in the final battle to the death, one joins in a form of collective beauty of national destiny by shattering oneself like a beautiful jewel.

The great Japanese aesthetic Yamamoto Jocho in his book Hakakure wrote at length on the principle of death as the preferred choice when faced with a choice between life and death. This route being seen as favourable, not to shame as commonly percieved, but as a tribute to life by joining death at an earlier possible momemt. Death as seen as a permament state of perfection preferable to the often contradictory elements of life.

At some point Gyokusia’s meaning is ineffable — like much of Japanese cultural archetypes the meaning is more felt and experienced than explained. It applies to soldiers and civilians equally, and so stands outside of any strict Bushido interpretation, or at least is not necessarily part of a warrior tradition. The sacrifice of Japanese civilians on Saipan is also regarded as an act of Gyokusai.

The expected national annihilation that some in Japan accepted and encouraged towards the end of the war was a form of Gyokusai. Japanese historians may share in some of the blame in perpetuating western stereotypes since it is often accepted that the last actions of Japanese soldiers and civilians expressed a high moral standard not needing any definition or defence in the eyes of the Japanese.

Such a definition is a far cry from the traditional facile idea of screaming atavistic “banzai” charges. Though Gyokusai often took the form of  “Banzai charge”, it was not conceived in such raw and rough terms. As a Kamikaze crashing into a ship was referred to as a “cherry blosson falling” Gyokusai was more often thought of in euphemistic terms, hence the term “shattered jewel,” — a most beautiful jewel which cannot be possessed after destruction. It exists in only its most perfect state.  Beauty like life is ephemeral. Dying in such a way encapsulates and enshrouds the fleeting beauty of life in a way not achievable during all the messy complications and vagaries of life. Beauty cannot be eroded after death.

Such a notion is of existential significance and raises more questions than answers. Reason turned on the concept of Gyokusai quickly highlights the contradictions. Gyokusai does not stand totally outside western thought but is rather inscrutible to reason despite Japanese acceptance of the entire western edifice of scientific enlightenment leading to its rapid rise as a world power.  That like many aspects of Japan including Zen, and an highly evolved aesthetic, Gyokusai is the pith of paradox in Japan. Rather than explain the meaning of “and honourable death” in western terms it is incumbent for western thought to realise that their warriors also at times inhabit a strange irrational understanding of death not so far from the Japanese soldier.

This blog will be and is many things, but it is overall an attempt to bridge the gulf in the interpretations of the battle character/ identity of the Japanese soldier.

The collections here are translations and narrative from Japanese to English. Some of the translations will rely upon my understanding of the respective battles and my ability to relate them in context of the words of the storytellers. Some will be verbatim. I will post as I complete them.  This is a hobby, one of very many pursuits and competes against winter alpinism, hiking, general adventuring, running and judo. I also have a day job and family to where it is essential I put in an appearance from time to time. Trust that new material will be added through the weeks.

Rod Szasz


5 thoughts on “What is Gyokusai? 玉砕とは何でしょう?”

  1. Was the concept of gyokusai popularly understood in the late Meiji period? Could I reasonably apply it to Port Arthur?

    1. Good question Rob. It would have been understood as it is a colloquailism that educated Japanese would have known about. It was not totally integrated into teh Japanese psyche as well as it was in WWII for several reasons.
      – the Imperial Rescript on education was responsible for providing the fertile ground for Emperor worship, which Gyokusai fit within
      – the extension of Samurai “ethics” had not really been given time for fruition and,
      – Japanese war methodology would not have conceived of Gyokusai as a method of war making.
      – most importantly Gyokusai in the Japanese use of the term has a stated definition of annihilation of an entire fighting unit without hope of coming through. At Port Arthur and Mukden, that concept was not implied or inferred in spite of the horrendous casualities.

      There are certain elements of Gyokusai operating in 1905, but I would think they were not really intellectually developed or harnessed on the level of national polity until the 1930s.

  2. Thank you very much for the speedy reply, It was as I thought but I am aware I lack the necessary specialist Japanese knowledge to be certain. Once again thank you.

    1. The final battle in Saipan on July 7 1944 was a big mistake by the 27th Army. They left a big hole between two Battalions, I know as I was there in Tanapag after coming of the line in July 4th or 5th. I was one of the Marines of 1st Bat 29th. On July 7th they { I don’t know who} rounded up the few of us that were left from the Battle { We landed June 15th with 1200 Marines and on July 4th there were only 200 of us left. We left Tanapag Harbor and proceeded to walk to were the Japanese were pouring thru the gap that the Army had left. It was really a gruesome site. I am tired of the poor memories ,or lack of information, or the excuse of the Army screw up leaving a big gap between two Battalions.

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