Books: Cultural Amnesia — Isoroku Yamamoto |
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Isoroku Yamamoto (1884–1943) was the son of a schoolmaster called Takano, and the famous surname by which we know him belonged to the family into which he was adopted. After his education at the naval academy he was wounded at the battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War. He studied at Harvard after World War I and served as a language officer in the early twenties, before becoming naval attaché at the Japanese embassy in Washington later in the decade. His wide knowledge of the United States extended to the factory floors, where he was impressed by American powers of production, and to the gambling joints, where he always fancied his chances. As chief of the aviation department of the Japanese navy in 1935, and as vice navy minister from 1936 to 1939, he argued both for a main force based on aircraft carriers and for avoiding any policy that would lead to a fighting alliance with the Axis powers in World War II. But after being promoted to Admiral and placed in command of the Combined Fleet, he dutifully planned the attack on Pearl Harbor. After his defeat at Midway six months later, and probably before, he knew that to continue fighting was a mere formality; the war was already lost. The idea that his death by enemy action was tantamount to suicide, however, is almost certainly part of the romance that continues to surround his name, not least in Japan, where he is a cult figure, and not exclusively on the political right. His distaste for a war with the Western allies has always rung a bell with post-war liberals aware that, if the enemy had been as pitiless as the Japanese High Command, the defeat could have been more disastrous, the occupation more humiliating, and the subsequent resurgence of both the culture and the economy much less impressive.

The Yamamoto romance benefits from his artistic tastes. Like America’s General Patton, Yamamoto wrote accomplished poetry. Again like Patton, and like other romantic commanders such as Rommel and Guderian, Yamamoto probably experienced battle as an aesthetic event: the most likely reason for his participation in a war of which he disapproved. Superior military minds share with poets the uncomfortable position of waiting for lightning to strike, and having to act on it when it does. Yamamoto knew that World War II was the wrong war, but it was the only war he had. Strategy is a talent, and talent will out, even though it is hard to get the credit for it, since it becomes less possible to visualize the larger the scale grows. For that reason alone, the idea of a star strategist never transfers satisfactorily to film, because the action of even the smallest battle is too complex to be dramatized. (Hence the hero of Patton is shown to be decisive by the way he sorts out a traffic jam involving two trucks: the low moment of George C. Scott’s career.) In Tora! Tora! Tora! and Midway, both of them Hollywood films but made with Japanese participation, the Japanese producers eked out the necessary paucity of hardware by casting, in each film, one of their most venerable actors as Yamamoto. In Tora! Tora! Tora! he was played by Soh Yamamura and in Midway by Toshiro Mifune. Both actors conveyed genius with a flashing glance and resolution with a fixed frown. In either case, the viewer was left hungering for a more detailed characterization. It can be found in the extensive literature that has built up around Yamamoto in his own language, but almost every general study in English of the Pacific war has a chapter on Yamamoto, usually concluding that although the Japanse navy might have done no better had he lived, it was bound to do worse after he was dead. For the Pearl Harbor attack itself, the Readers Digest picture book of 1966, Tora! Tora! Tora!, with a text by Gordon W. Prange, might sound like an elementary proposition but is still the first book to have, if you can find it.

The book was translated into Japanese and had a huge success in the hero’s homeland. It seems a fair guess that the average Japanese reader got the same point as Yamamoto did: that the war with the United States was a wilful mistake. The idea that Japan was tricked into the war by the Americans is one held only by Tokyo right-wingers who dress up like Michael Jackson, by the priests at Yasukuni shrine, and by Gore Vidal in his dotage. Yamamoto would have laughed aloud to hear it. For young people who correctly suspect that a schlockbuster movie like Pearl Harbor dishonours the dead as well as insulting the intelligence of the living, most of the issues concerning Yamamoto and the opening shots of the Pacific war are covered in Prange’s later, more complete historical work At Dawn We Slept (1981), but a warning should be attached: once the reader is launched on the study of a war so huge and horrible, he should be prepared at least to consider the unpalatable proposition that the quick ending of it by recourse to the atomic bombs was not only inevitable, but justified. Any revisionist historian who contends that the millions of Japanese soldiers based in the home islands would not have opposed a landing is obliged to believe that the military commanders, without a specific instruction from the Emperor, would have seen reason and surrendered. For those who hold that view, a close study of Yamamoto’s face can be recommended. He knows your country well, admires its virtues, and doesn’t even think he can prevail: but he wants to fight anyway.

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If we are ordered to do it, then I can guarantee to put up a tough fight for the first six months or a year, but I have absolutely no confidence as to what would happen if it went on for two or three years.

ON AT LEAST two separate occasions, Prince Konoe asked Yamamoto what Japan’s chances would be in a war against the United States. Each time, Yamamoto gave roughly the same answer, which is nowadays usually quoted and printed as if it had been given once. Variously translated into English, and variously rendered even into Japanese, Yamamoto’s declaration of uncertainty is probably the second most famous thing any Japanese of the Pacific war period ever said, ranking only slightly behind the passage in the Emperor’s surrender broadcast which conceded, in impossibly high-flown court language, that the war had developed in ways not necessarily favourable to Japan. Yamamoto’s advice to the government seems to have predicted that the unfavourable developments would be inevitable in the long term. Later on he was much criticized for not having expressed himself more firmly, but he must have felt that he didn’t need to. He was already on record as having advised that “Japan and America should seek every means to avoid a direct clash, and Japan should under no circumstances conclude an alliance with Germany.” That last part was in line with the genro Prince Saionji’s advice to the Emperor: advice which the Emperor ignored. Yamamoto never lost hope, however, that the Japanese government, even when Tojo was running it, would see sense and reach an agreement with the United States. He still had hopes even as the Pearl Harbor operation got under way. His last briefing to Admiral Nagumo was that if the negotiations in Washington were successful then the attack would have to be stopped even if the aircraft had already taken off from the carriers, and that there could be no arguing with such an order. Yamamoto, sometimes at the risk of his life, had spent the whole of the thirties preaching the necessity of staying out of a war with the United States. He had studied at Harvard, seen America’s factories, and knew more than any other top-ranking Japanese officer about America’s war potential. What else could he advise Konoe?

Why, then, did Yamamoto consent to lead the Pearl Harbor attack? There are several possible answers, all leading by separate paths into the brain of a complex man. Speculations about the subtlety of “the Oriental mind” we can safely discount: they never amount to much more than ignorance and racism snuggling together under a duvet of rhetoric. Yamamoto would have been complex if he had been born and raised in Brisbane. First, he was a gambler anyway. He enjoyed gambling, possibly because he won almost every time. Second, he might have thought the chances reasonably good that the war would be short. If the Japanese diplomatic service had not botched the declaration of war, Pearl Harbor would still have been a surprise attack—an attack on Hawaii, a full two-thirds of the way across the Pacific from Japan, was not much more likely than an attack on Seattle—and might conceivably have brought America to terms, especially if the American aircraft carriers had been put out of action along with the battleships. Third, he was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, supreme commander, Combined Fleet, Japanese navy. That was his career, those were his orders, and he had a job to do, win or lose.

To hindsight, the third reason seems the most powerful. Like Nelson and Napoleon, Yamamoto was a short man whose military gifts had carried him to great heights. If you look at the press photographs of his funeral cortège arriving at the Yasukuni shrine, the coffin looks about the size of a shoebox. A coffin always looks smaller than the person inside, but Yamamoto, even for a Japanese man of his generation, was of small physical stature. His moral stature meant a lot to him, and long before the war it had already grown enormous. His tactical brilliance, organizational ability and nonconformist daring were legendary, and they were all in service of the navy. Japanese naval aviation was practically his invention. He had opposed the laying down of the last two great battleships, Yamato and Musashi. He was for more aircraft carriers and a lot more aircraft. He represented the transition from heavy steel to light metals—from deep keels to free air. The bright young officers adored him for it. Though he was always self-deprecating about his poetry, he was probably serious when he wrote this poem on New Year’s Day, 1940.

Today, as chief
Of the sea guardians
Of the land of the dawn,
Awed I gaze up
At the rising sun.

He wrote the poem on board the battleship Nagato, his flagship as commander in chief Combined Fleet. So the rising sun would have been the ship’s pennant. The land of the dawn, of course, was Japan: the two characters Ni-hon (usually pronounced Nippon) mean Sun Source, or the Land Where the Sun Rises. Yamamoto, if we may translate a subtle thirty-one-syllable Japanese poem into blunt English words, was on top of the heap. It would be foolish to imagine that he did not enjoy his eminence, even as he saw the looming threat of getting into a war with the wrong enemy. He enjoyed a battle as he enjoyed women, and might even have found a losing battle more interesting, just as he obviously found multiple love-trouble more interesting than a single alliance. On that last point, whenever the time came to quit Tokyo to join his ship, he had to set out early so that he could say his goodbyes without undue haste. He had big appetites, and they weren’t just lustful. They were also emotional: a clue to his taste for drama. He might have quite liked the idea of being at the centre of a big story, and what could be a bigger story than working the miracle of saving Japan from the doom he himself had predicted? After all, going ahead with the attack wasn’t his idea. He wasn’t that crazy. He had, however, planned an excellent attack.

Or it would have been excellent, if it had caught the American aircraft carriers in harbour. When the returning aircraft reported that the American carriers had not been present, Yamamoto, supervising the operation at long range from the Nagato anchored at Hashirajima in the Inland Sea, knew straight away that the Americans had the wherewithal to go on fighting. He was also absorbing the dreadful information that the Japanese declaration of war had been sent too late; that his surprise attack had been transformed into a sneak attack; and that the Americans therefore had redoubled motivation as well as insufficiently depleted means. The deadly combination of the two factors was proved all too soon. In May 1942, only five months after Pearl Harbour, the American carriers fought him to a draw at the battle of the Coral Sea. At Midway, scarcely more than six months after Pearl Harbor, they destroyed him. He had been right about making things tough for the Americans for six months. Six months of supremacy were all that the Japanese enjoyed. After Midway, they had no chance of keeping the initiative. But we make a mistake if we think they were crazy not to admit defeat. There was always the possibility that they could bring their opponents to terms by making it too costly to go on fighting. Because Yamamoto died early, and because the English-speaking gambler is such a sympathetic character, we tend to enrol him in the ranks of those who would have seen reason and sought a sane way out. It is just as likely, however, that he would have gone on fighting to the end, in the manner of his comparably brilliant army equivalent, Yamashita. Though the army’s lack of a victorious future in the land battle did not become apparent to all until much later, Yamashita was just as aware as Yamamoto, and just as early, that Japan’s adventure was over from the day that supremacy on the sea, and therefore over the supply lines, was lost: and that day was the very first day of the war.

People of a literary bent tend to idealize the poet warriors, of whom, in modern times, Yamamoto must count as the most conspicuous apart from General Patton. But we need to ask ourselves whether a flair for the poetic might not be a limitation to generalship, in which a considered appreciation for the mundane is essential. A poetic flair has an impatient mind of its own: it likes to make an effect, and it has a propensity for two qualities that can easily be inimical to a broad strategic aim. One of those qualities is what A. Alvarez called the shaping spirit, and the other is what Frank Kermode called the sense of an ending. Yamamoto’s plan for deciding the war on the first day was not only the equivalent of a roulette player’s betting his whole bundle on a single number, it was also the equivalent of trying to cram the whole of The Tale of Genji into a single haiku. There was bound to be material that didn’t fit. Even if the American aircraft carriers had been in harbor they would not have sunk far enough in the shallow water to be beyond salvage. One way or another, the American fleet was bound to come back.

It has been said in Yamamoto’s defence that the six months’ grace he promised was all the Japanese forces needed to consolidate the Strike South. But there were senior officers who didn’t believe it. One of them was Admiral Tomioka, who accurately assessed the risks Yamamoto was taking, and, more importantly, was doubtful about the efficacy of the outcome even if the plan had worked. (Tomioka’s analysis is well outlined in Gordon W. Prange’s At Dawn We Slept, a work by no means unfavourable to Yamamoto, but one from which Tomioka emerges as the voice of reason on the Japanese side.) If the Japanese command structure had been as well organized from the outset as America’s command structure very quickly became, Tomioka would have been in a position to overrule Yamamoto. But the Japanese never did get organized at command level. The drawback of military government was that there was no government to control the military, whose commanders formed a perpetual discussion group from which policy emerged as the highest common factor of contending opinions. The Americans, on the other hand, appointed, as supreme commander in the Pacific, Admiral King, to whom both General MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz reported directly. Though MacArthur hogged most of the limelight, Admiral Nimitz was the key man. His unspectacular qualities, coalescing into an authority all the more daunting for being so reasonable, can be assessed from E. B. Potter’s biography, Nimitz. The Japanese continued with Yamamoto, who wrote his Pearl Harbor poem all over again at Midway, except that this time the masterpiece came apart completely. In the Japanese language there is an expression to cover the concept of making an almighty hash of things: to serve the dish with bean paste. At Midway bean paste was the whole dish.

Spiritually, Yamamoto died at Midway. In the matter of his physical death, however, it seems unlikely that he committed suicide in expiation. Romantic interpreters sometimes favour the appealing notion that Yamamoto invited the American ambush that resulted in his being shot down into the jungle of Bougainville on April 18, 1943. While airborne on an inspection tour of the forward areas, he was caught by a flight of P-38s. In a big sky, they knew exactly where to find him. But it is a long step, even for conspiracy theorists, to argue that he had deliberately tipped off the enemy. At Midway, it was indeed true that Admiral Spruance, armed with signals intelligence, knew where to intercept the Japanese aircraft carriers. But the Japanese, like the Germans, were reluctant to accept that their military codes were being read: reluctant even when there was no other plausible reason for a defeat. When he saw the P-38s forming to attack, Yamamoto might have guessed that they were acting on information received: i.e., that the coded radio messages announcing his route had been read in Hawaii. He might even have guessed that the P-38s had intercepted from below—making it look like an accidental encounter—in order to protect the secret in case anyone escaped from the two aircraft carrying him and his staff, or from the escort of Zeros. But by then the guesswork could avail him nothing, and down he went. When the Japanese search party tracked down his corpse in the jungle, he was still strapped into his seat. His sword was beside him. If he had wanted to commit suicide, he would probably have done so on dry land or on the deck of a ship, included the sword in the ceremony, and written a poem first.

It is another romantic notion to suppose that Yamamoto would have become a voice for common sense had he survived. He had been ready to fight a war that he had long predicted was bound to be lost, and he would probably have gone on fighting it long after it became obvious that there was no hope even for a truce. That things were as bad as they could be was already evident on the day after Midway: so evident that the military tried to conceal the scale of the disaster from the Emperor. Talking about a Japanese national character might be pointless, but to talk about a Japanese military culture in the modern period is perfectly legitimate—and one mark of that culture was that its senior officers were ready to fight on far beyond the limits that might have been set by military sanity, let alone political reason.

Imminent defeat was always seen as the climax of the battle. There was even a valid idea behind that view. The idea was to make victory so expensive for the enemy that he would call a halt. The idea was not quite as crazy as it sounds now. In Europe, after the catastrophe of the second Schweinfurt raid in October 1943, the American 8th Air Force had to think twice about continuing with the daylight bombing of German targets. They thought twice and continued, but another massacre of air crew on that scale might have dictated a breathing space for the Luftwaffe to regroup. (It would never have had time to replace its lost fighter pilots, which was the real damage that the Allied air bombardment inflicted on the enemy; but the German fighter aircraft could have been switched to the eastern front, where they were sorely needed.) Similarly, in the Pacific, and very late in the day, Admiral Ohnishi’s kamikaze strategy might well have done more than it did to slow down the American navy. Yamamoto, had he been on the scene, would have had no ships to fight with—a fact partly his fault—but he might have been fertile in ideas for how the kamikaze weapon could have been used to better effect. He was never against the concept: until his flight commander, Genda, came up with a less wasteful scheme, Yamamoto’s plan for the Pearl Harbor attack entailed the expendability of the pilots. He might have flown a suicide mission himself, if he had ever learned to fly. Like General Yamashita, he might have remained dangerous to the end. When Tojo finally overcame his jealousy and brought Yamashita back from purdah to lead the defence of Luzon, Yamashita turned the expected American walkover into a protracted nightmare.

There is no reason to think that the Japanese home islands would have been defended with less tenacity. Revisionist historians and commentators who deplore the use of nuclear weapons against the two Japanese cities have a humanitarian case, but they weaken it by supposing that they have a military case to back it up. The same pundits who maintain that the bombing campaign against Germany was useless are fond of saying that the conventional bombing by B-29s would have been enough to ensure Japan’s quick surrender. There is also a fond confidence that an invasion by the Russians would have brought the same result, although the consideration is usually ignored that the Red Army, which had no amphibious equipment, might not have been in an ideal condition to fight after its troops had swum to Hokkaido.The awkward truth is that the Japanese generals had correctly guessed which beaches the Americans would have used to invade Kyushu and Honshu.The Japanese had several million troops available to fight the battle. The only objection the Emperor raised to what would surely have been a long and bloody last stand was that the preparations were not going ahead fast enough. The atomic bombs changed his mind and he recorded his surrender speech. Some of the young officers tried to kidnap him before it could be broadcast. Older heads prevailed. The best we can say for Yamamoto is that he would almost certainly have been among them, but mainly because his loyalty to the Emperor was undying—the very factor that led the poetic admiral to write his miniature masterpiece in the first place.