~written by Jirō Nitta
~translated by James Westerhoven
Death March on Mount Hakkōda: A Documentary Novel by Jirō Nitta (the pseudonym of Hiroto Fujiwara) is a semi-fictional account of a disastrous winter military exercise that occurred in the Hakkōda mountain range in Japan in 1902. I first learned about the Hakkōda Mountains Incident while reading Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt's work Yurei Attack!. I was intrigued and wanted to know more about the tragic event which is what lead me to Death March on Mount Hakkōda. Although dramatized, the book is one of the few extensive resources about the incident that is available in English. In fact, Death March on Mount Hakkōda, written by Nitta in 1971 and adapted into the film Mount Hakkōda in 1977, is one of the major reasons that so many people know about the disaster. Even in Japan, the Hakkōda Mountains Incident had largely been forgotten only a few decades after it happened. Stone Bridge Press first published James Westerhoven's English translation of Death March on Mount Hakkōda in 1992 and then again in 2007 in a reprint edition.
As war with Russia was looming on the horizon, the Japanese military began to prepare for the conflict. Of particular concern was that an attack might occur in winter. The Russian army was equipped and able to cope with the intense snow and cold while the Japanese had limited experience with winter assaults. In an effort to change this, the 8th Division was given the task of determining the possibility of crossing the Hakkōda mountain range in the middle of a harsh winter, a challenging enough endeavor even in good weather. Two captains, Kanda from the 5th Regiment and Tokushima from the 31st, were charged with planning and developing the exercise for their respective regiments. Scheduled for January 1902, the already difficult crossing coincided with one of the worst winter storms and lowest temperatures to ever be recorded in Japan. The 31st Regiment was largely successful in its attempt. The 5th Regiment, however, was not so lucky--out of the two hundred ten soldiers, only eleven made it out of the mountains alive.
After addressing the basic stages of planning and preparation of both regiments, Nitta turns his attention to the 31st's attempt at crossing Mount Hakkōda. Tokushima was able to secure complete control over the exercise, developing a longer and more involved trek than that of the 5th's. Tokushima and his men faced dangerous conditions and deadly fatigue. Even with everything going as well as it could, they had an extremely difficult time. Nitta captures this exceptionally well and realistically. It also drives home how dire the 5th Regiment's plight was. One mistake after another complicated matters more and more as Captain Kanda was met with repeated interference from his superior officers. Even knowing that the tale of the 5th Regiment ends in tragedy doesn't detract from the novel's tension and effectiveness. If anything, it makes it even more nerve-wracking since even the smallest mistake and poor decision is known to play a part in the resulting disaster.
Nitta's writing style in Death March on Mount Hakkōda is very straightforward, even factual, with very little embellishment. This actually works to his advantage. Based on a true story, Death March on Mount Hakkōda doesn't need to exaggerate an already disastrous event to make it a compelling story. In addition to the main novel, Nitta also incorporates a small section explaining the real life consequences of the deadly winter exercise. There is also an excellent afterword by the translator which places Nitta and Death March on Mount Hakkōda into historical and literary context, including the known differences between the novel and confirmed history. Although Death March on Mount Hakkōda is based on actual events, it is important to remember that the novel is a a fictionalization and dramatization of the Hakkōda Mountains Incident. It can be easy to forget this fact--Nitta has done his research and how he presents the story is chillingly realistic and believable.