Avalanche Press Homepage Avalanche Press Online Store




Japan Goes to War
By David Lippman
April 2013

Escorted by a military policeman in plainclothes, Imperial Japanese Navy Vice Minister Isoroku Yamamoto rides through the streets of Tokyo in his limousine to the Imperial Palace. It is a working day in Japan's capital city, and the residents, who live in wooden and paper houses, bustle about their business in the city's modern downtown, its factories, and shops. Streetcars grind along tracks, pausing before the Imperial Palace, where conductors debark, give the Tenno's residence a deep bow, and resume service.

Isoroku Yamamoto.


So do all Tokyo citizens when they pass the palace, as it is not merely the home of their emperor, but the abode of a living god—a direct link to the sixth-century goddess Amaterasu, creator of Japan.

Ironically, the occupant hailed as divine, Emperor Hirohito, is to his family and friends a quiet, mild, ineffectual marine biologist. Hirohito is staunchly monogamous, even though Empress Nagako produces four daughters before delivering a male heir to the throne. Hirohito has installed a nine-hole golf course on the Imperial Palace grounds, plays tennis, wears Western clothes on all but the most ceremonial occasions, and eats eggs and toast for breakfast, a taste he developed on his 1924 tour of England, when crown prince.

But to his 74 million subjects in the Japanese Empire—which now stretches from China to Hokkaido to Hainan Island and the Marshall Islands and includes an additional 25 million subject members—Hirohito is a living god, the center of the universe. Millions swear to fight and die for him. Children recite oaths in school, saying that their life's goal is to die for the Emperor, as taught in the syllabus. In occupied Manchukuo, colonized Chinese, Mongol, Manchu, and Korean residents, including the puppet emperor Henry P'u-Yi, begin their day with elaborate bows eastward to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

Yet Hirohito is also an utter mystery. He never speaks in cabinet meetings. His voice is never heard on radio. He is rarely photographed, makes few personal appearances, and his Imperial Rescripts, read in ancient and courtly phraseology on radio by others, are prepared by the government. He is not even measured by his tailor, who must use photographs to determine sizes. As a result, Japan's living god must appear in public looking baggy and ill-clad.

This paradox leaves no impression on Yamamoto. He doesn't say much to his plainclothed MP escort. The man is not just a security guard, but a spy for the omnipresent War Ministry, reporting on Yamamoto's views, which include the firm belief that Japan cannot defeat its potential enemies, which include the United States and the British Commonwealth.

When Yamamoto's car reaches the Imperial Palace, the MP emerges from the car and waits for Yamamoto's return. When Yamamoto emerges, the MP hops on the car's running board. Yamamoto briskly dismisses the security man. "I am no longer a Navy vice-minister," Yamamoto says. "I no longer need a police escort."

Indeed, Yamamoto has just been given a more important appointment. At the age of 55, he has been named commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet, replacing Admiral Zengo Yoshida.

Yamamoto is being sent to sea because he has opposed the Army's demands for alliance with Nazi Germany. With the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, the Japanese Prime Minister Kiichiro Hiranuma has resigned, along with his cabinet, including Navy Minister Yonai. Yonai's last act is to put Yamamoto at the head of the Combined Fleet, keeping him safe from Army assassins and preventing his dissenting views from being heard in public.

That evening Yamamoto goes to the Shimbashi geisha quarter for entertainment, ignoring his 21st wedding anniversary. His wife Reiko, with whom he has a chilly relationship, is away. The geisha call Yamamoto "eighty-sen," referring to his missing index and middle fingers on his left hand, blasted off when a gun barrel on the cruiser Nisshin exploded during the 1905 Battle of Tsushima, during the Russo-Japanese War.

Even so, Yamamoto does not go to geisha houses for sex. Nor can he tolerate alcohol. He's obsessed with gambling—mah-jongg, billiards, roulette, shogi, go, bridge and poker. "If I can keep 8,000 ideographs in my mind, it is no trouble to remember 52 cards," he tells friends. He also says, "Do you gamble? People who don't gamble aren't worth talking to." Yamamoto, who runs thin bluffs and tends to overplay his poker hand, will in two years launch Japan's ultimate gamble.

The next day, Yamamoto, in white uniform, wearing the Order of the Sacred Treasure, First Class, walks through the VIP passage at Tokyo Station across a red carpet. Government ministers, military men, old Navy cronies and women from the geisha houses line the carpet to greet him. Yamamoto gives snappy salutes, although he dislikes the pomposity. He calmly trails the stationmaster onto the observation car of the "Kamome," enduring the cheers.

At precisely 1 p.m., the train glides out of the station. Yamamoto stands at the back, waving his cap slowly in circles, his standard greeting until the last day of his life in 1943. On the platform, three Nichiren-sect devotees bang traditional paper drums. Nobody notices that one of Yamamoto's favorite geishas has also boarded the train.

The train clatters along twisting tracks through the great Kanto Plain, past factories and rice fields. Only 20 percent of Japan's land is level enough for cultivation, and a system of wet-field rice farming prevails, unchanged for centuries. Tens of thousands of patches averaging 2.5 acres apiece provide Japan with her supplies of rice. Peasant farmers rely on community irrigation networks to water the grain. Japan's geography, a twisting trail of volcanic archipelago, has provided her residents with a temperate climate and plenty of sweet water. With no space to raise cattle, meat and beef are expensive. Fish is the co-staple of the diet. The Japanese people are thus tall by Asian standards and thin.

Japan's population is extremely homogenous, her land densely populated, promoting a group culture. The Japanese work, play, live, and do business in groups. Government must be by consensus, obedience vital, and dissension impractical.

Despite the beautiful mountains, green valleys, and industrious and obedient people, Japan suffers major weaknesses. The islands have a total land area slightly larger than that of Italy, with no spot more than 70 miles from the sea. The Japanese islands lack nearly all forms of mineral resources: coal, iron, and above all, oil. These shortages are crippling Japan's two-year-long war in China and her industrial efforts.

Her primary source of oil and scrap metal is the United States. Even as Yamamoto's train clatters down its set of tracks, American demolition crews in front of New York's new Radio City Music Hall are dismantling the Sixth Avenue Elevated line. The scrap metal being hauled away in rugged General Motors trucks will be sold at public auction on City Hall steps in December to a businessman named George Weissbaum, acting as a buyer for Japanese interests. The structural steel that once carried commuters and wooden trains will be converted into 14-inch shells for Japan's powerful battleships. With special fins attached at Yamamoto's direction, these shells will be used as bombs to sink America's proudest battleships at Pearl Harbor.

This morning, most of the industrial sites and machinery beyond Yamamoto's windows are foreign-made, as her cars and trucks. Japanse Toyota cars are poorly built. The only reliable vehicles in the Japanese army's inventory are the Chevrolet trucks she has captured or looted in China. Japan's factories are supported by piecework done in wood-and-paper homes scattered around the chimneys and blast furnaces. While women work in textiles, coal mining, and commercial fishing, they don't work in Mitsubishi's aircraft factories or Yokosuka's shipyards. Like many nations, Japan does not regard assembly-line industry, welding, or heavy industry as women's work. As in many nations, those views will change in the coming years.

The train puffs past Yokohama and the great navy yard at Yokosuka, where the Mikasa, flagship of Admiral Heihachiro Togo's victorious 1905 fleet, lies at anchor as a training ship and museum. Now the harbor is full of gleaming new destroyers named for weather formations and submarines with enormous cruising ranges, as far as the Oregon and California coasts.

As the train passes through cities, local residents offer presents: cigarettes at Yokohama, sausage at Numazau, which forces the admiral to leave his car, thank the well-wishers, and then return gloomily to his observation car, where staff aide Cdr. Matsuhige Fujita waits.

Yamamoto in 1934.


Yamamoto has good reason to be depressed. The Hiranuma resignation and the German-Soviet pact will increase the Army's power, and the Army has driven Japan on a wave of conquest. Since 1931, the Japanese Army has fought an undeclared war with China, conquering many of her cities. Japanese troops have laid waste to these cities, killing hundreds of thousands of people in Nanking. Army leaders are talking grandiosely of conquering all of Asia, so as to establish a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." Their real goal is "hakko isshiu," the establishment of "all corners of the world under one roof," in the name of the emperor. Ignoring the realities of industrial power and logistics, a continuous Japanese failing, expansive Japanese Army plans even call for the conquest of Central America, the Caribbean, British Columbia, and Washington State.

To generals and colonels raised on the samurai spirit and little else—Japanese army schools stress spirit and tactics, ignoring logistics and foreign languages—the concept seems easy. To Yamamoto, who has studied at Harvard, and lived in the United States and England, the concept is impossible. He knows that Japan cannot defeat the Americans and the British. Yet as commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet, this is the very task he will be required to perform.

The "Kanome" arrives in Osaka at 9:20 p.m. Yamamoto, Fujita, and the geisha go to the New Osaka Hotel. The Combined Fleet has suspended exercises and sailed into Wakanoura Bay to await its new chief.

Suspending exercises is a great rest for the Imperial Japanese Navy. The Combined Fleet is always short of oil fuel, as is Japan in general. Most Japanese fuel comes from the United States and Mexico, and Japanese exports and capital cannot purchase enough to support the economy, maintain the war in China, and fill the fleet's tanks. Consequently, from the minute Japan's warships "shift colors" to leave port to the instant they drop anchor again, they drill, drill, and drill, regardless of weather conditions or other hazards. In heavy North Pacific storms, Japanese warships fire live ammunition, launch torpedoes, and practice air attacks. Nobody stops to pick up men who fall overboard. Sailors are expected to take precautions to prevent that. If they fail to do so, they're dead—just like in battle.

To add to the exhaustion, Japanese sailors endure crowded messdecks, mediocre food, and living conditions that would appall American and British sailors. Damage control methods are primitive, as the Imperial Navy is expected to strike first and not withstand punches. Only the cruisers Tone and Chikuma offer decent accommodations. The two heavy cruisers are configured to carry extra seaplanes to provide reconnaissance for the carriers they escort. Consequently, they have a large and well-ventilated hangar deck. Tone and Chikuma sailors flop their tatami mats and mattresses there to sleep.

But the rest of the fleet endures constant drills, little sleep and poor food. On the carriers Akagi and Kaga, both converted battleships, the side-venting funnels spew dust, smoke, gases, and sparking embers directly into the crew quarters. The Japanese Navy is built along Spartan lines.

However, these Spartan conditions have succeeded in their aim. The Imperial Japanese Navy is unbelievably tough and resilient. Its ships are well equipped, its men well trained, and its morale extremely high. Japanese heavy cruisers, unlike their American rivals, are armed with torpedoes as well as eight-inch guns. Those torpedoes are the Type 95 Long Lance, the fastest and most powerful in the world. Japanese torpedo crews are trained to launch and reload their fish in a matter of seconds.

Japanese lookouts are selected for their high night vision and are capable of detecting an enemy force at ranges greater than American and British radar. Japanese naval squadrons are highly skilled in night fighting and train realistically. And the Japanese naval aviation arm, which will soon gain new Zero fighters and already has pilots with 600 hours in China, is the finest in the world. Despite aging ships, fuel shortages, divided counsels at the high levels, the Japanese Navy is one of the most formidable ever to cut the waves.

And the man about to lead it is one of the greatest naval geniuses ever to go to sea.

Great Pacific War sees the Japanese Empire's ambitions played out
on a global scale; get a copy now and play it out for yourself!

David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the New School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He maintains the World War II Plus 55 website and currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J. We're pleased to add his work to our Daily Content.