The Kaiser’s Navy: The Final Voyage

David Jenkins

[A]n Osaka swordsmith has made six traditional Japanese swords using part of a 4.6 billion-year-old meteorite that landed in Arizona. The brilliant surface is similar to that of swords made in the middle of the Heian Period, experts say.

Japan, late 12th century:

Oh! the Moon!
It comes back young, every month,
while I am getting older,
running out of life.

How can this be?

How pure the coming paradise.
As the era changes,
and we look to the end of the world,
the moonlight,
still and clear,
on each and every thing.


Northern Scotland, early 20th century:

Immediately following the First World War, as a guarantee of compliance with the Armistice, the German fleet sailed, with skeleton crews, to the great British naval mooring in Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Isles. The German fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, consisted of 11 battleships, five battle-cruisers, eight light cruisers and 50 destroyers. On June 21st, 1919, under the mistaken impression that hostilities were about to break out again and that the British would seize the fleet, von Reuter ordered its sinking by his own men.

In that one day this enormous fleet of quietly anchored vessels simply keeled over one after another. One witness, a schoolboy at the time, later recalled:

Out of the vents rush steam and oil and air with a dreadful roaring hiss . . . sullen rumblings and crashing of chains increase the uproar as the great hulls slant giddily over and slide with horrible sucking and gurgling noises under the water. The proud vessels slowly disappear with a long-drawn-out sigh.

A total of 52 sank, while the rest were somehow saved or beached. Most were later salvaged for scrap, and the steel was used by both British and Germans to rebuild their fleets for the next world war. But still lying on the bottom of Scapa Flow are three battleships and four light cruisers.

These submerged hulks are among the very few sources of steel made in the days before the nuclear age added so much unnatural radiation to the air that is used in the steel smelting process. This kind of uncontaminated steel is needed in spacecraft to protect those instruments that are themselves designed to measure minute amounts of inter-stellar radiation.

This is therefore where the American space agency NASA must buy much of its steel, which almost certainly means that bits of the Kaiser’s navy have now reached the Moon.

And beyond.

Late in 1989, the Voyager 2 spacecraft passed beyond the outermost planetary orbit of the Solar System, so now the Fleet sails on, in silence, for all eternity, into the depths of space.

Japan, late 12th century:

From high,
the moon shines on Mount Shumi. It
shines upon the water of the Lotus Pond
There’s a turtle at the waterside,
where the Seven Gems gleam.
It’s playing there,
as eternity glides by.

Japan, late 16th century:

The moon sets,
our boat is moored
the town is near
for we can hear the temple bell
we lie,
our pillows side by side
rudder left
rudder right
we reach for each other,
wet with evening dew


be still

and sleep

just the moon

-light makes

the crows

cry so


Outer solar system, early 21st century:

On July 1st, 2004, after a journey of almost a billion kilometers, a European Space Agency mission named Cassini-Huygens will arrive in the vicinity of Saturn.

Its trajectory will have taken it from Earth, then twice around Venus, once more round Earth, and past Jupiter, each time accelerating by means of the “sling-shot” effect. Upon arrival at Saturn, the probe Huygens, named after the Dutch inventor of the pendulum clock, will detach from the Cassini craft, and make a landing on Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons.

The craft will land in what is thought to be a brown sludgy lake of liquid ethane, and will briefly transmit data from the surface. As usual on these missions, one of its objectives will be to seek conditions that may be, or may have been, or may conceivably become, conducive to the presence of biological life.

Twelve years earlier, on the August 6th, 1996, the 51st anniversary of the obliteration of Hiroshima, NASA had announced the discovery of evidence of the existence of fossil life on Mars.

This evidence, in the form of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, had been discovered in a meteorite, code-named ALLEN HILLS 84001, that landed in the Antarctic 13,000 years ago, having supposedly been ejected into space by asteroid impact from the surface of Mars 13 million years before.

The space-craft Huygens will carry its own form of life, a CD-ROM, bearing the so-called “signatures” of various people who were able to connect to the European Space Agency site on the World Wide Web during January and February 1997.

Among those signatures will be the following poem, from the 12th-century Japanese collection Ryojin-hisho, contributed by yours truly. It reads:

At times I sense and
seem to breathe the
haze, a garden full of
midnight moon and
autumn meadow

Love does not care
if you are high or
The water at the falls also
trickles through the rocks.

Japan, early 16th century:

The scent of fine incense leaks
through the reed screen

cold wind in the trees

on such an evening
you can even sense
the fragrance of the moon

Western Africa late 20th century:

For two or three days I travelled north, by bus, by truck, and finally by means of a door-less taxi, the driver of which deposited me at the border with the assurance that a bus would soon be along from the other side. The border “post” was a small shack, in front of which was a fruit and drinks stand. All around was an expanse of scrub and billows of red laterite dust. The actual border was marked with a huge triumphal arch, of the kind so beloved by Kwame Nkrumah. On the down side, it said “Welcome to Ghana.” On the up side, where I stood, it simply said, “Bye Bye.”

Foolishly, I crossed the border to try and find some trace of a bus. It soon became clear that there was no bus, on that day or any other day. Trying to re-cross the border, I was told that I could not, not without a new visa — obtainable only in Ouagadougou, a hundred miles to the north. I have always disliked bribing petty officials, and this time it went so completely against the grain that I decided just to sit there in the dust and wait for something to come along. The next two hours I spent literally nowhere, my nose filling with scorched dust.

Eventually a Peugeot appeared and disgorged three French-speaking Africans. They were Malians, and yes, they would take me to Ouagadougou although they had some relatives to visit on the way if I didn’t mind.

We must have stopped in eight or ten different village-compounds, increasingly impoverished as we travelled north into the Sahel. One of the three Malians handed out small wads of money, for which we received jugs of dolo, a millet beer. As we bowled along, they regaled me with stories of the crippling drought, the dimensions of which were only just becoming clear to the outside world.

In one village, they said, the children were foraging in the ant-hills to retrieve the single grains taken by the ants. Pretty soon, whole countries would be consumed by the dust.

I was unprepared for Ouagadougou. We entered suddenly, at speed. From nowhere I had arrived somewhere, and it was France. Long tree-lined roads, bordered with loose gravel and open cafes, beside which men were playing petanque.

At that time, the National Museum building gave the impression of a very large village hut. It gave directly on to the street, so that inevitably as you walked in you were accompanied by a red swirl of gritty dust. The museum housed a marvellous collection of masks. The lighting was rather dim, but picked out in the hazy gloom, these masks of wood and bone and feathers and straw produced a powerful effect.

Incongruously set in the center of the main display room was a small, austere stand, made of a kind of perspex. It was a gift of the United States Information Agency, as it was then known, and it was a commemoration of the manned Moon landing in 1969, four years before.

In the case was displayed the twin of a tiny plaque of the Upper Volta flag that had been planted on behalf of that nation on the surface of the Moon. The case also contained some fragments of Moon rock. Only, peering in the half-light, I could see that it did not. Walking around, I found that the back of this display case was open, in fact missing.

The fragments of Moon rock had fallen out and by now had been swallowed up by the accommodating red dust of Africa.

Just the Moon coming home.

Japan, late 12th century

May you live as long as
the speck of dust
that settles once
in a thousand years
then builds
into a mountain
topped with a
white cloud

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David Jenkins

Author's Bio

David Jenkins, a long-term Kyoto resident, embarked on his Final Voyage on April 10th, 2000, surrounded by fully blooming sakura. Translating in collaboration with Yasuhiko Moriguchi since 1981 (and with sumi-e artist Michael Hofmann), David contributed greatly to Kyoto Journal with classic selections of poems from the Ryojin-Hisho in KJ 12, the Kanginshu in KJ 24, the Hojoki in KJ 30 — all from fine books published separately — and Noh songs in our Word bookzine (29). (The poem beginning “How pure the coming paradise,” featured as the cover of KJ 24). David is also remembered for his readings at the Kyoto Connection and elsewhere in Kyoto (often in collaboration with musician Preston Houser), where medieval classics (and classical shakuhachi) became absolutely contemporary, and then timeless. Kyoto was a richer place for David’s presence here. Our sincere condolences to his family.