Imperial Navy: Stronghold Armada

Imperial Navy: Stronghold Armada 1
(帝国海軍:要塞艦隊1)
Hayashi Jyouji

Today’s post promises to be a one of a kind contribution to the 2013 Science Fiction Experience. The book in question was a revelation for me, something wholly unknown despite my extensive Japan pretensions. Consequently, while I have written about a wide variety of Japanese speculative fiction, this breaks new ground. First, the back story. When a US-based Japanese friend made a holiday trip to see his family, I asked him to pick up a couple of books for me. I didn’t have any specific requests, just the names of some authors I would like to read. One name was Hayashi Jyouji, who has a book or two in English available from Haikasoru. His name pops up as a prominent and prize-winning Japanese Hard SF writer, so I was eager to dig into something beyond the meager English offerings. Little did I know what awaited.

My friend brought me a book by the same Hayashi, but the cover had a picture of a Mitsubishi Zero flying away from an exploding US battleship. “This looks nothing like Hard SF,” I thought. Later research unearthed a particular strain of Japanese alternate history that I had no idea even existed, let alone that it is being written by a Seiun Prize winning author. It turns out that the “Joy Novels Simulation” imprint churns out a bevy of alt history titles wherein Japan wins World War II. One would assume this to be the preserve of the Japanese ultra-nationalist movement, along the lines of those disgusting Kobayashi Motofumi manga that whitewash history and enrage other Asians. In Hayashi’s case however, it seems to be the work of a naval history buff toying with ideas and making a quick buck. Regardless, I had to check this out.

Unlike past reviews, I will neither translate any of this, nor will I give a detailed summary. I assume that nobody else is going to read it, so I will let the spoilers fly, but the bulk of my post will be my reactions to the book instead of a blow by blow account. In part this is because the Japanese was exceedingly difficult. I never really learned how to say, “Inform the Admiral that our 9 inch guns sank the enemy’s heavy cruiser under the capable direction of Gunnery Chief Suzuki.” This stuff isn’t in the text books. Because I am lazy, I didn’t look up many unknown words, instead piecing together what I could from context and bravely powering on. There was probably a lot that I missed, but I just didn’t care enough to figure out every word. It doesn’t help that Hayashi’s writing is as dry as toast and full of random infodumps.

The book is episodic anyway, lending itself to quick summary. There is a brief prologue wherein American airplanes are chewed up in an attack against the dug in Japanese. It is very exciting. Leaping back in time after that, we meet one Niiyama, who is herding Japanese civilians to safety amidst a Chinese counterattack. His quick thinking and heroics save most of the civilians, but at the cost of his own life. This is also a particularly dramatic and visceral bit. We then head back to Japan, where Niiyama’s brother is tasked with improving various processes and technologies within the Japanese Navy, in response to his brother’s death and in preparation for the imminent war with the US. The story follows this Niiyama through the rest of the book, with brief interludes to check in on his American counterpart, Woodlark. There is another piece in China, where something similar happens to the surviving Niiyama, but he leads the men out of the worst. Then a jaunt to the Malay peninsula where bases are under construction, before a look at the naval engagement there that saw the British ships Repulse and Prince of Wales sunk. Finally, Niiyama is off to Papua New Guinea and the Battle of the Coral Sea. The book ends at the close of this battle, with three more volumes to follow.

Up until the last chapter, things more or less follow history. I have no idea if the China parts have any basis in fact, but it would not surprise me if they did. The two British ships were indeed sunk off the Malay coast by the very ships that Niiyama is involved with. It isn’t until the Coral Sea, in the final chapter, that we find the counter-factual pivot upon which the alternate history is built. In reality, the Japanese lost the light carrier Shoho, while the carrier Shokaku was heavily damaged. The US lost the carrier Lexington and some smaller ships. In the book however, the Shoho takes dramatic but ultimately superficial damage, with an explosion failing to ignite the fuel supply. The rest plays out historically, with the US fleet withdrawing after heavy losses. It appears that in later books, the continued existence of the Shoho allows the Japanese to complete “Project MO,” the invasion of Port Moresby that would have given them a Guinean base on Australia’s door step. Presumably this enables the Japanese to both invade Australia and beat the US off in the critical battle at Midway. From there, I guess Japan somehow wins the war. I’m curious, but probably not curious enough to brave the rest of the series.

Assessing Stronghold Armada proved difficult. I must admit that, while I know a great deal about the politico-economic roots of the conflict, and have read extensively about the atomic bomb, none of my studies gave more than a cursory look at the actual Pacific War. I was forced to conduct exhaustive research to prepare for this post, which consisted of reading one book and watching an old documentary series on Netflix. Without this, I would never have spotted the truth and fiction in the narrative. I remain skeptical, however, about the plausibility of Hayashi’s vision. As an amusing exercise, it works quite well; but the realities underpinning the war loom too large for a single carrier to have much of an effect.

It is true that many of the key battles in the Pacific were won by the side that made fewer mistakes (especially Leyte), or were decided almost purely by luck. Even so, simply winning more engagements would only have prolonged the inevitable for Japan, a feeling shared by prominent Japanese planners long before the Pearl Harbor decision was made. Most rational observers agree that it was quite foolhardy for Japan to pick a fight with a country that not only had an industrial and population base orders of magnitude larger than its own, but also supplied a majority of the most critical resources for war. The outcome of the war was effectively decided in the late 1930s, when the US cut off exports of oil and iron to the Japanese. Once the US was fully engaged, none of the Axis powers could resist the pure industrial might.

Japan’s only hope, well recognized by its military, was to grind up as many American men as possible in delaying actions, hoping that the supposed moral weakness of the decadent West would cave to Japan’s glorious fighting spirit. Sadly for Japan, the Pearl Harbor treachery, treatment of POWs, and general fanatical conduct on the battlefield undercut any chance they may have had, instead galvanizing the US to fiery effort. Add to this some tactical errors and a code system thoroughly broken by the Americans, and the final result was never truly in doubt. This is a lot of momentum for Hayashi to overcome.

This sort of historical inevitability never stopped the Civil War reimaginers though, so I cannot fault Hayashi’s intellectual exercise. I am sorely tempted to keep reading, but I will have to wait until my Japanese reading speed picks up. The book was interesting, especially the ways Hayashi glides over Japan’s uglier conduct in favor of a blander focus on military honor. In some ways, I am more interested in his readership than the books themselves, but that will have to be a research project for another day. For now, we’ll file this under “Stuff I Never Expected to Read” and get back to exploding spaceships.

5 thoughts on “Imperial Navy: Stronghold Armada

  1. “Inform the Admiral that our 9 inch guns sank the enemy’s heavy cruiser under the capable direction of Gunnery Chief Suzuki.” This stuff isn’t in the text books.

    Liar. I’ve got it right here in Japanese for Busy People. Book 2, Chapter 5. Right after John Smith and Kenji make seat reservations on the shinkansen.

    Obviously The Man in the High Castle is the go-to comparator here, so I’ll skip over that. What’s more interesting to me is that this seems to really focus on the minutiae of how history might have changed, rather than how the present might be different. Most of the alternate history I’ve read in English generally hand-waves away the pivot point (“Thank god the Archduke made a full recovery.”) and looks at how things might now be under those alternate conditions. This seems to be more about revisiting the moment exactly to hit replay and see how the battle could have been won.

    That all sounds a little familiar, actually…

  2. Yeah, it was not quite what I expected. I feel like I’m making some sweeping assumptions without reading the other three books, but realistically, I just don’t have time to get through the rest. If I was some unfortunate literature PhD candidate, I might read the whole Joy Novels catalog and write a dissertation.

    Mostly I’m just glad that Hayashi didn’t wander into apology/denial type stuff. That would have just made me angry.

  3. I should also mention that, because of the title, I spent most of the book expecting the Japanese to build a Secret Island Base somewhere in the Pacific, possibly inside a volcano. I was somewhat disappointed when that didn’t happen.

  4. Yes, that is definitely a first for The Science Fiction Experience. You win as the most unique and unexpected book ever read for the event over the several years I’ve been hosting it. 🙂

    It is too bad this isn’t translated as I have a friend who is a huge WWII buff and likes alt. history as well. He recently read a long nonfiction book about Japanese battle maneuvers during the war and was obviously geeking out about it every time he talked to me about it. He would dig this.

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