The ceremonial daggers are gone, and the uniforms have a definite Western cut, but the daily life closely resembles that of 40 years ago when Japanese midshipmen steeled themselves for service in an Imperial Navy rather than in something called a Maritime Self-Defense Force.
Each morning on the small Japanese island of Eta Jima, eight buglers snap to attention and play a stylized version of “Kimigayo,” the Japanese National Anthem. As the rising sun flag is slowly raised, uniformed men in precise formation salute and begin their day. To them, it is an ordinary colors ceremony, but not for the small groups of older men who are frequently present. Some stand rigidly at attention, while others interrupt picture-taking to wipe away tears. These men are Japanese Navy veterans, and they are watching a ceremony identical to that used 40 years ago when this was the site of the Imperial Naval Academy.
Today, Eta Jima is the Officer Candidate School (OCS) of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), a place where much of the Imperial Navy’s heritage and tradition are quietly but carefully preserved, providing a foundation of pride and patriotism for training Japan’s current maritime officers.
The location of the OCS is uniquely Japanese. Rural Eta Jima, in the heart of the Inland Sea of western Japan, was selected as the site of the Imperial Naval Academy in 1888, when it was decided that the original site in Tokyo was providing too many distractions to the midshipmen. The ship-building city of Kure, where the famous battleship Yamato was constructed, and Hiroshima, the regional economic center, are short ferry rides from Eta Jima.
The Meiji pioneers who had established the Academy in 1869 were determined to pattern their new navy after the finest in the world, so they invited 34 Englishmen, led by Commander A. L. Douglas, to instruct at the school. The training conducted was very similar to that given at Dartmouth, and the British even donated a lock of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s hair to be put on display at the school.
When the Academy was abruptly moved to Eta Jima, no preparations had been made. While facilities were under construction, all training was conducted on board the Tokyo Maru, a steam schooner moored in Eta Jima Harbor. The Japanese purchased bricks from England and shipped them to Eta Jima. In 1893, the midshipmen, under the direction of British engineers, used the bricks to construct the first Academy building, known as Aka Renga, literally “red brick.” Their labors ensured that this Georgian-style building would become the symbol of the Japanese Navy’s officer corps; Aka Renga still serves that role for the JMSDF, as the OCS headquarters and main dormitory.
Today’s JMSDF midshipmen study and sleep in rooms which often contain a portrait of Admiral Marquis Heihachiro Togo, hero of the Russo-Japanese War. In these same rooms, a later admiral, Isoroku Yamamoto—a 1904 graduate—learned the basics of his profession. Yamamoto and the officers who served with him in World War II were products of an institution that was, for prewar Japan, quite democratic. Entrance into Eta Jima was by competitive examination open to all men aged 16 to 19, although the percentage of men who completed high school and were thus eligible was relatively low. Competition was severe; during the 1930s only one applicant in 30 was accepted. They were attracted not only by the prestige of the naval service but by the unusually well-balanced education, including instruction in English, the natural sciences, and world history, in addition to nautical, military, and physical training. Japanese naval officers did not suffer from the narrowness of background for which their Imperial Army counterparts were sometimes criticized.
During the 1950s, the men who created what was to become the JMSDF were, unlike their counterparts in the ground and air arms, largely World War II veterans, men who were anything but ashamed of their wartime service or of the naval profession. In 1953, officer training resumed and when the OCS was moved to Eta Jima in 1956, it was natural that these leaders would rely on their own experience, instilling in the officers of their new service what they believed were the best aspects of the Imperial Navy officer corps.
Former OCS Superintendent Vice Admiral Yutaka Tamura says, “We must provide, first, a determination that no matter how grim a situation might become, one must never give up, and second, a strong bond of fellowship with one’s brother officers. Imperial Navy traditions are maintained day-to-day at Eta Jima not for their own sake, but to foster these qualities.”
The daily schedule of today’s JMSDF midshipman shows strikingly little change from that of 40 years ago. The day still begins with outdoor calisthenics followed by a cold towel rubdown, as there are still no hot showers at the OCS and the communal bath is used only in the evening, and ends with well-earned sleep in barracks-style rooms. Almost all activities are performed in the traditional 22-25-man sections called buntai or in slightly different academic groups.
The JMSDF devotes only a slightly greater percentage of time to academics than the Imperial Navy did; the emphasis is still on the essentials of the naval service such as seamanship and navigation. Today’s midshipmen receive training that Imperial Navy midshipmen did not, including classes in combat information center operations and management techniques. There is a small, but well-used computer facility and a modern language lab. All midshipmen who will earn a line commission are still taught English, currently supplemented by classes in Russian and Spanish for selected groups of students.
Unlike the four-year Imperial Naval Academy, the JMSDF OCS is one year long. All midshipmen except prior enlisted men have completed their college education. Of the 250 midshipmen who take the one-year line officer course, about 100 are graduates of the National Defense Academy in Yokosuka, a joint services school which provides general military training as well as a fine, although not widely accredited, undergraduate education. The Defense Academy also supplies the air and ground arms with officer candidates. Admission to the Academy is by examination, and competition is still keen; one in 20 applicants was admitted in 1980. However, for a variety of reasons, top university prospects almost always ignore the Defense Academy in favor of prestigious civilian schools. A disproportionately large percentage of JMSDF officers still come from the relatively economically depressed islands of Kyushu and Hokkaido.
Figure 1 Daily Schedule
1942 Imperial Navy[*]
0535—Morning exercises, cleaning of spaces
0605—Morning exercises, cleaning of spaces
0750—Morning colors formation
0750—Morning colors formation
0810—1200 Morning classes
0820—1200 Morning classes
1310—1400 Afternoon classes
1300—1545 Afternoon classes
1410—1500 Free period
1530—1630 Physical training
1545—1715 Physical training
1830—1945 Free period
Perhaps the biggest difference between today’s officer candidates and those of the pre-1945 era lies in their sense of place in Japanese society. As Admiral Tamura, who graduated with the last class of Imperial Navy midshipmen in 1945, says, “Prior to and during the war midshipmen here could feel that the whole citizenry solidly supported their efforts. Such a feeling is definitely missing today.” The JMSDF and the school administration work hard to instill in the midshipmen a sense of the importance the naval service.
In each class at Eta Jima, there are 60-70 competitively selected graduates of civilian colleges and universities. These students usually have more trouble adapting to the strict military discipline and frantic pace. Even so, perhaps because of typical Japanese determination, the average attrition rate for all causes at the OCS is an amazing 3%.
Continuing another prewar Imperial Navy tradition, a full one-third of the midshipmen are selected from among petty officers who have demonstrated superior performance and scored well on the entrance exam. The curriculum for these bunai, or “insiders,” concentrates less on basic naval service skills in order to provide time for college-level instruction in calculus, physics, and computer technology. Once commissioned, the bunai provide the junior officer corps of the JMSDF with a very high level of technical expertise and hands-on experience. In addition to the general line course, there are six-month classes for limited duty officer candidates selected from senior petty officers and warrant officers. Another six-month course commissions already qualified aviators.
One group that most certainly was not present in the Imperial Navy days is the female midshipmen, anachronistically referred to as Waves. Only six or so enter each year; they receive their training at Eta Jima and other JMSDF facilities throughout Japan. Since the inception of the program in 1976, these women have done very well, despite being given relatively few allowances in the grueling physical training, which is a big part of midshipman life.
Curiously, Japan has never had a formally established Marine Corps. During World War II, amphibious landings and some island campaigns were conducted by Special Landing Units of the Imperial Navy. To prepare them to lead in such operations—or perhaps, as some instructors admit, just to give them an idea of the difficulty of such tasks—JMSDF midshipmen receive some training in basic infantry procedures and tactics. They practice infantry assaults on hilltop positions of varying difficulty, under the supervision of officers whose only infantry training was an identical exercise during their OCS days. The four-day training period ends with a 23-mile march back to the OCS.
Even compared to the Imperial Navy, physical training for JMSDF midshipmen has not been subordinated to either academics or military training. The staff takes pride in the fact that the physical training there is at least as strict as officer candidates receive anywhere in the world.
During July and August, all activities take a back-seat to long-distance swimming training, another throwback to a revered prewar tradition. After a few sessions in a swimming pool learning technique, the midshipmen train for two or three hours daily in the grimy waters of Eta Jima Bay, their bobbing heads seemingly outnumbered only by the jellyfish. All swimming is done breaststroke, and precise formation is maintained throughout the swim by each buntai group, which is accompanied by a skiff bearing the section officer and a helper on a sweep oar.
All the swimming is a buildup to a punishing eight-nautical mile ocean-endurance swim. The midshipmen are transported by boat to a remote beach where they form up into buntai, salute the superintendent, and march into the water, swimming away in formation. At the halfway point, they cluster around their shepherding boat, where balls of gummy rice and cups of hot tea are handed over the side to them. After this quick lunch, they resume their breast-stroke and finally, about nine hours after they started and still in formation, march out of the water at the OCS. Some of the midshipmen were complete non-swimmers just two months earlier. During the 1930s, about 10% of the students each year failed to complete the swim and were immediately expelled from the Imperial Naval Academy. Today, far fewer fail, and those who do get a second chance later in the pool. The Waves swim “only” four nautical miles.
More feared by most midshipmen than the swim is training in the nine-meter oared craft referred to as cutters. These 1.5-ton wooden boats are rowed by 14-man crews in numerous long training sessions and in hotly contested races of up to a grueling eight miles in length. Many buntai sacrifice their short free time on weekends to practice.
Towering over the Eta Jima campus is the 329-meter Mount Furutaka, as much a symbol of the OCS as Aka Renga. In 1888, a midshipman, Hirose, wishing to display his strength of spirit, used his scant free time to run to the top of Furutaka more than 200 times in an eight-month period. Today’s JMSDF midshipmen pay tribute to Hirose and evince their own energy by running up Furutaka, as well as up the 2,000 steps leading to the top of Mount Misen on the nearby shrine island of Miyajima.
As a link with the Japanese martial spirit that far predates the Imperial Navy, all midshipmen at Eta Jima are required to take instruction in either judo or kendo. Judo is now an Olympic sport practiced worldwide, but until recent years kendo was little known outside Japan. More popular with the midshipmen, kendo is the samurai’s art of swordsmanship turned into sport, the long sword now a bamboo instrument used to strike at a few particularly vital locations on the opponent’s body. If the bamboo were steel, one such blow would be deadly, so they strike with a controlled violence unequalled in most other martial arts. Even so, winning a bout is not emphasized—correct form and spirit are considered far more important. Judo and kendo stress knowledge of one’s opponent through intuition rather than the conscious mind, a practice evident throughout 20th-century Japanese naval history.
Athletics are the most popular extracurricular activities. including karate, shoorinjikenpoo (which resembles kung fu), soccer, team handball, volleyball, and another throwback to the British influence—rugby. Training in the tea ceremony and foreign language clubs are also available.
As they have for decades, midshipmen at Eta Jima during their liberty periods (Saturday afternoon and Sunday, as well as some Wednesday evenings) go to the homes of area residents. These families, for a very low fee, provide room and board, a family atmosphere, and a place to escape the pressure of the OCS.
The midshipmen have the traditional Japanese sense of focus on the job at hand; as was true in the Imperial Navy, discipline problems are virtually nonexistent. In 1932, the Academy adopted the “Five Reflections,” characteristically not as an honor code but as a basis for self-discipline. They are still in use at Eta Jima. Every evening, five minutes prior to the end of the study period, a bugle call signals the cessation of study and the beginning of meditation. As the duty cadet utters each of the reflections, with some interval between, the other cadets reflect on each clause:
► “Have I been sincere?”
► “Have I been fair in my words and behavior?”
► “Have I been enthusiastic?”
► “Have I been energetic?”
► “Have I been industrious?”
There is one building on campus where a view of Imperial Navy history is displayed for all to see: the Sankokan, or “educational museum,” which opened in 1936 as the Imperial Navy Museum, closed at the end of the war, and reopened in 1956 when the JMSDF came to Eta Jima. The museum and its contents receive almost shrinelike reverence—JMSDF members bow upon entering. Visitors ascend a broad staircase to face a large bronze door cast with basrelief scenes from the life of Fleet Admiral Togo. Preserved behind the door is a special capsule containing some of Admiral Togo’s hair.
Much of the museum’s emphasis is on the Imperial Navy of Togo’s day. In 1910, Japanese Submarine Number Six settled to the bottom of Hiroshima Bay, unable to surface because of a defective part. When the submarine was salvaged, it was discovered that the crew had remained working at their posts to the end, and that the submarine’s commander, Lieutenant Sakuma, had written an account of the last hours as well as an apology to the Emperor for his vessel’s loss. Sakuma’s account is on display at the Sankokan.
Most surprising about the Sankokan is that by far the largest amount of space is given to exhibits of the navy’s special attack “kamikaze” aircraft and submarine units of World War II. Dozens of photos, last letters (some written in blood), portraits, and personal effects are on display. The names of the more than 2,600 men who died in such service are inscribed on a large marble plate. The JMSDF maintains the Sankokan not to honor blind obedience or to glorify a futile death for one’s cause, but to serve the midshipmen as an inspiration to patriotism and to a sense of pride in their profession.
OCS graduation ceremonies are held in a large, old granite hall, completely unadorned except for a large national flag draped behind the podium. During Imperial Navy days, the Crown Prince, or occasionally the Emperor himself, would attend. The graduating midshipmen would kneel, heads bowed to the floor, as the Emperor entered and proceeded to the front of the hall. The midshipmen would then raise their heads and see the imperial presence before them. Ceremonial daggers were presented to the honor graduates, the new officers would once more bow, and the Emperor would depart—the entire ceremony having been conducted completely in silence.
Today’s ceremony runs along more Western lines—folding chairs are used and long speeches are not uncommon. At its beginning, the new officers rise and sing the Japanese National Anthem. The graduating class members are given the traditional hat-waving send-off by the school staff; then they board ships of the JMSDF Training Squadron for a month-long training cruise around Japan, followed by a six-month world training cruise. By the time the new ensigns reach their first operational assignment, the majority of them will have been in continuous training for almost six years.
Under the Japanese system, an officer’s class standing upon graduating from Eta Jima is critically important to his future success. As was true during the prewar period, “comers” in the officer corps are identified at this time. Even after decades of service, OCS class rank can be a factor in promotion or placement.
The last of the Imperial Naval Academy graduates are now approaching the service’s mandatory retirement age. Their positions in the top levels of the JMSDF will soon be filled by officers who were among the first to start their careers with four years of training at the Defense Academy and the year-long grooming at the Eta Jima OCS. They will head the officer corps of a small but highly professional maritime force, one which in the 1980s will be torn between political and economic constraints at home and pressure from abroad to assume a broader role in its nation’s defense. In facing these challenges, these officers will be well-served by the thoughtful legacy of their predecessors both recent and long past.
A 1974 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, Lieutenant Dean entered Aviation Officer Candidate School that year and was designated a naval aviator in 1975. He was then assigned to Patrol Squadron Ten, where he received designation as patrol plane mission commander and served as pilot training officer. After a tour as weapons officer on the Commander, Patrol Wing Five staff, he received one year of Japanese language training at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Lieutenant Dean is currently serving as an exchange officer to the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Officer Candidate School under the Personnel Exchange Program.
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep
While making my rounds as officer of the guard, I came upon a young sailor who had obviously fallen asleep while standing up at his post.
As I approached, he sensed my presence and quickly raised his head, softly whispered “Amen,” and snapped to attention.
His quick thinking saved us both a lot of embarrassment!
(The Naval Institute will pay $25.00 for each anecdote published in the Proceedings.)
[*]Thomas E. Flynn, “Eta Jima, The Japanese Naval Academy,” Proceedings, December 1943, p. 1598.