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Human Bullets: A Soldier’s Story of the Russo-Japanese War

by Tadayoshi Sakurai, Kegan Paul, London, 2005, $127.50.

Although Human Bullets is rather expensive, the book is a rare English translation of a firsthand participant’s account of one of the most important events in the beginning of the 20th century: the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). Besides foreshadowing the sort of warfare that would characterize the rest of the century, it was the first time that a non-Western power had defeated a power that could be regarded, at least partially, as European. Previously, in 1896, Ethiopians had outmaneuvered and overwhelmed the Italian army at Adowa, but Japan had won its victory using the latest European-style weaponry and technology—it had defeated Europeans on their own terms.

That said, however, the human rather than the technological factor dominates Human Bullets. The diary of a Japanese army officer provides invaluable insight into the Japanese elite’s vision of the non-Japanese in the beginning of the 20th century. That attitude explains a lot about Japan’s history thereafter, its expansion and its treatment of other people during its empire-building campaigns in the 1930s and 1940s.

On the way to the battle front, Tadayoshi Sakurai and his soldiers encountered some Chinese, whom he describes as the dregs of society. To start with, the Japanese regarded the Chinese as extremely dirty people, though the author later saw a lot of unpleasant stuff on the battlefield, and he vividly described the bloody corpses on the ground. For him, however, Chinese dirtiness had much broader implications. He believed it was a manifestation of the nation’s spiritual rottenness, with an absence of any sense of patriotism.

In fact, to Sakurai the Chinese did not even understand that they had a stake in their government, or that the state has an obligation before the citizens—for example, that it should not just collect taxes but protect them. The greatest problem with the Chinese people, he believed, was they were totally corrupt and had no other interests than money.

Sakurai goes on to reveal his views of the Russians, who were not much better in his eyes than the Chinese. As with the Chinese, Sakurai saw the Russians as having no social ethos, no sense of public duty or a high cause. Russian soldiers who became prisoners of the Japanese had no inkling of who their commanders were. They had no understanding of war and why they were fighting. Those who were mortally wounded were not concerned with the possibility that Russia might lose the war or that that they were dying without fulfilling their duties. Their concern was only for their families.

Again, as with the Chinese, Sakurai claimed that the Russian soldiers thought only about their personal interests—that they were mainly interested in robbing the Chinese and harassing their women. Even the officers had no high sense of purpose, never evoking their tsar or motherland when captured by the Japanese. They shamelessly stole from their own soldiers, and some of them––clinging to life at all costs—were ready to betray their country. This kind of crass materialism and egotistic self-centeredness—according to Sakurai—had been combined in the Russians with brutality and ingratitude.

Sakurai’s diary contrasts the spiritual pollution of the Russians and the Chinese with the spiritual wholesomeness of the Japanese. For him, absolute negation of personal interest and the willingness to sacrifice their own lives for the motherland was seen as the most essential characteristic of the Japanese.

Sakurai’s memoirs provide more than just a glimpse into the mentality of Japanese officers and soldiers during the Russo-Japanese War. The diary explains—in many ways—why the Japanese vanquished the Russians, but it also gives modern-day readers a telling glimpse into the psyche behind the ideological framework of the empire that started to emerge after the 1905 victory.


Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.