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The Tiger of Malaya

Acclaim can come to a soldier in many forms: promotion, decoration, appreciation by one's superiors or followers, and the judgment of history. Tomoyuki Yamashita (1885-1946), one of the most brilliant Japanese generals of World War II, laid claim to a much more unusual and certainly less desirable form of legacy: he had a legal principle named after him, one that was introduced just so he could be sentenced to death after the war.

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Tomoyuki Yamashita (Photo: Japanese Army)

Yamashita was born in the village of Osugi to a local doctor and the daughter of a wealthy farmer. He had a brother, who followed in his father's footsteps as a doctor, and two sisters. Tomoyuki himself decided to pursue a military career.
 
He graduated from the Imperial Japanese Army Academy in 1905, became a lieutenant in 1908, and fought against the troops of Imperial Germany in China during World War I, when Japan was still a member of the Entente, the alliance of France, Great Britain, Italy, Imperial Russia, Japan and the United States, fighting against the Central Powers of Imperial Germany, Austro-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. Steadily rising in rank, he became an expert in German military matters, and had spent years in Europe as military attaché to Germany, Austria and Switzerland between the World Wars. He married Hisako Nagayama, the daughter of a retired general, but the two never had children. In time, he became a proponent of mechanizing the Army and streamlining its air arm, developing a paratroop corps, using propaganda for military purposes, and centralizing control over the armed forces; ideas that earned him critics among the more hidebound members of the military.

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The Imperial Japanese Army Academy in Tokyo, 1907 (Photo: Unknown photographer)

One thing that fundamentally altered Yamashita's course in life was his involvement in Japanese army politics, so we must say a few words about the state of the Japanese military in the 1920s and early '30s. The army was divided among two factions. Both were militaristic and authoritarian, and both were skeptic of party politics and democratic institutions, but they nevertheless had important differences. The Kōdōha, the "Imperial Way Faction," was largely supported by junior officers. It wanted to bring about a revolution that would do away with the civilian political elite and return Japan to its pre-westernization social structure, all ostensibly in the name of the Emperor (regardless of what the Emperor himself thought about this). They also wanted a war with the Soviet Union to prevent it from becoming a serious rival. In contrast, the Tōseiha, the "Control Faction" (though the name was derogative and only used by their opponents) was fine with modernization as long as those pesky civilian politicians didn't accumulate too much power, and were somewhat less aggressive in their expansionistic goals.

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Prominent Tōseiha member and future Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō as a Lieutenant General (Photo: National Diet Library, Japan)

Yamashita sympathized with the Kōdōha, even if he didn't fully agree with them – specifically, he was a proponent of reducing the size of the Japanese Army. The long conflict between the two factions sparked the so-called February 26 Incident in 1936, a failed coup attempt against the government by Kōdōha officers. Violent acts by military hardliners against their political enemies were nothing new in Japan at this point, and perpetrators only receiving a slap on the wrist upon failure was something of a tradition and an expectation. This time, however, was different. Emperor Hirohito personally took a stance against the conspirators, and 17 of the ringleaders were sentenced to death, much to the shock of many Japanese soldiers. Then-Colonel Yamashita spoke out for leniency toward the rebels, and earned the disfavor of two very influential figures: Emperor Hirohito himself, and, perhaps just as bad, prominent Tōseiha member and future Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō. Yamashita was already unpopular for his pro-reduction stance, but this time he really went too far.

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Rebel soldiers from the Kōdōha outside the Japanese Prime Minister's residence during the February 26 Incident (Photo: Unknown photographer)

Yamashita was placed in command of a single brigade and removed to a backwater post in occupied Korea as punishment for his outspokenness. Here he reflected on his stance regarding the coup attempt, and started to study Zen Buddhism. He became a mellower person while finding a new source of discipline, and probably a respect for life; a belief that would be hard to reconcile with being a soldier. He was sent on a clandestine mission to Europe in 1940: he met with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and had observed the effectiveness of the German Blitzkrieg: rapid attacks with concentrated forces and air support to break through the enemy's lines and dislocate them.

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Hitler (left) shaking hands with Yamashita during the latter's visit to Germany (Photo: Presse Hoffmann)

Yamashita got a chance to redeem himself in 1941, when Japan entered World War II. The surprise raid on Pearl Harbor was accompanied by simultaneous Japanese invasions on numerous Allied locations in the Pacific. The attack on British Malaya and the port city of Singapore was assigned to Yamashita, now a Lieutenant General.
 
It was not going to be an easy operation. British forces on Malaya outnumbered Yamashita's army roughly 3 to 1, though Yamashita did have a superior number of aircraft and tanks (of which the British, believing the Malayan jungles to be impenetrable, had none). Additionally, Singapore was the lynchpin of British strategy in the Pacific: it was the Empire's main port in the Far East, roughly the strategic equivalent of America's Pearl Harbor, only located in a more vulnerable position.

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Yamashita (seated) making plans with his officers in the jungles of Malaya (Photo: Unknown photographer)

Knowing that his smaller force and limited supplies would spell defeat in a protracted operation, Yamashita relied on speed and shock. His forces landed in Northern Malaya and Southern Thailand, and swept down the length of the peninsula, using speed, air support and smaller landings by boat to keep the British commander in Malaya, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, constantly on the back foot and unaware of how badly the Japanese troops were outnumbered. Yamashita used large numbers of bicycles to get his infantry through the dense jungle. He kept morale high by sharing in the hardships of his men, and by always conveying to them his belief in ultimate victory. The fierce Japanese force fought its way down the length of the Malayan Peninsula in 70 days, reaching Singapore at the very southern end in early February 1942.

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Japanese bicycle troops in the jungle, 1942 (Photo: Unknown photographer)

Popular history has made much of how the British were so unprepared for an attack from land that the famous artillery guns protecting Singapore could not even be turned around to fire at ground targets. This is not actually true: most of the city's artillery pieces could, in fact, fire inland just fine. The real problem was that the British did expect any attacks to come from the sea, and thus most of the ammunition for the guns was armor-piercing rather than high explosive: good against ships, but largely useless against infantry.

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One of Singapore's defensive guns elevated for firing (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Knowing that his supplies were about to run out and that he was still significantly outnumbered, Yamashita decided to bluff. He attacked furiously, hoping that the British will run out of resolve before he himself runs out of food and ammunition. A feint toward the northeast corner of Singapore Island attracted most of the defenders there; then the real Japanese attack crossed over in the northwest. After a week of heavy fighting which pushed both sides to the limit, General Percival surrendered the city and the island. Over the course of the entire Malayan Campaign and including the defenders of Singapore, Yamashita captured 130,000 Commonwealth troops while suffering less than 10,000 dead and wounded.

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Lieutenant-General Percival (first from right) and other British officers on their way to surrender, escorted by a few Japanese soldiers (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The matter of Japanese war crimes is an unpleasant topic, but it must be brought up as it is closely linked to Yamashita's fate. Atrocities against civilians, especially ones who showed defiance, was extremely widespread among Japanese troops, as was a tendency to act behind a superior officer's back to do what that superior "probably wanted, anyway." Yamashita's troops were certainly involved in at least some war crimes. Patients and personnel at a Singapore military hospital were massacred during the fighting, and thousands of men (exact numbers are hard to come by), many of them considered potential resistance members, were killed in a cleansing after the city fell. Back in the forties, Yamashita was blamed for these actions, but modern historians offer a more nuanced view. Orders for the cleansing came from high-ranking officers serving under Yamashita, but there's no known incontrovertible evidence that they acted with Yamashita's knowledge and blessing. In fact, Yamashita is known to have forbidden rape, looting and arson among his forces, and punished perpetrators severely; it would have been strange if he had suddenly changed his mind about these principles and condoned a large-scale massacre.

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Japanese soldiers using blindfolded Sikh POWs for target practice after the fall of Singapore (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

In the eyes of Japan, Yamashita became the man of the hour, called The Tiger of Malaya. His old political involvement, however, soon came back to haunt him. In a speech, he called the citizens of Singapore "citizens of the Empire of Japan," which was both legally incorrect and embarrassing to Japanese leadership. He was posted to Manchukuo, Japanese-occupied Manchuria, soon after; a post that was clearly far too irrelevant for a man of his fame and ability. Many historians speculate that his old rival, Hideki Tōjō (now the Prime Minister of Japan) used his gaffe as an excuse to sideline him again. An alternative explanation is that the Japanese were following the battle of Stalingrad with a keen eye and planned to backstab the Soviet Union (with whom they had a non-aggression pact) if the city fell to Germany – with Yamashita leading the surprise invasion.

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Yamashita receiving a courtesy visit from sultans of the Malay Peninsula (Photo: Asahi Shimbun)

Yamashita sat out most of the war in Manchuria but was called back into meaningful action after the tide turned in the Pacific. By 1944, Japan was clearly losing and the U.S. was poised to retake the Philippines, which it had lost shortly after Pearl Harbor. Tōjō's cabinet had fallen from power, and the new leadership agreed it was time to put the Tiger of Malaya back into action in late September. Tokyo wanted Yamashita to defend the capital city of Manila, located on the isle of Luzon, at all costs. Yamashita himself realized that defending the city was impossible, and moved most of his forces into the jungle-covered mountains in the northern half of Luzon, preparing to wage guerilla war on American forces. He only left 3,750 security troops in the city. He hoped that by emptying Manila, he would not only avoid pointless and crippling losses, but would also protect the civilian population from the inevitable collateral damage that occurs during heavy street-to-street fighting.

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American soldiers in the Walled City inside Manila (Photo: U.S. military)

Unfortunately, one man disagreed with Yamashita's intention of handing over the city to MacArthur. Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi served with the Imperial Japanese Navy, but was placed under Yamashita's command. There was no love lost between the Army and the Navy in Japan, and Iwabuchi was the sort of officer who would ignore his superior's orders if they went against his own perception of the Bushido, the Japanese warrior code, as interpreted by the ultra-nationalist military establishment during World War II. Once Yamashita's soldiers were out of Manila, Iwabuchi moved into the city with his own 16,000 naval troops, asserted command over Yamashita's rearguard security detail, and set about preparing for a last-ditch battle. The resulting bitter fight lasted an entire month over February 1945. Over 100,000 Filipino civilians died, over half of them massacred by Iwabuchi's desperate soldiers who took out their frustration and hate on the locals in a wave of rape, mutilations and mass killing. Iwabuchi himself committed suicide during the fighting.

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Dead woman and child, two of the countless victims of Japanese atrocities during the Battle of Manila (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

Yamashita withdrew into the mountains and continued fighting. Meanwhile, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs, and Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's surrender on August 15, 1945. The surrender was officially signed on September 2, bringing World War II to a close. Yamashita continued resisting American forces until the very same day, when he finally surrendered. He surrendered to American General Jonathan Wainwright, and the same British General Arthur Percival who surrendered Singapore to him years before.

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Yamashita, followed by his soldiers, emerging from the jungle to surrender (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

After the war's end, Yamashita was charged with war crimes related to the Manila massacre and many other atrocities in the Philippines. The case was highly controversial. The prosecution could not prove that Yamashita ever actually gave orders for these atrocities; instead, they contended that he failed to prevent them. Yamashita's counsels argued that with a breakdown in communication, Yamashita neither had a way of knowing about the atrocities, nor a way of controlling his troops located in other regions; they also pointed out that massacres in Manila were committed by Iwabuchi's soldiers. One of his counsels stated that the prosecution wanted Yamashita dead not for anything he did, but for simply being the Japanese commander in Manila: "The Accused is not charged with having done something or having failed to do something, but solely with having been something...American jurisprudence recognizes no such principle so far as its own military personnel are concerned...No one would even suggest that the Commanding General of an American occupational force becomes a criminal every time an American soldier violates the law...one man is not held to answer for the crime of another."

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Yamashita's defense counsels during the trial (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

It has been suggested that the American authorities needed a scapegoat for the atrocities, and since Iwabuchi was already dead, Yamashita had to be it. It has also been speculated that the British wanted him dead as revenge for the humiliating defeat at Singapore, and event that Churchill called the “worst disaster" in British military history. Even at the time of the trial, the judges drew criticism for their unprofessional handling of the case: hearsay was systematically accepted as evidence for the prosecution, while evidence submitted by the defense was categorically rejected regardless of how solid it was.

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A testimony being delivered during Yamashita's trial (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

Yamashita's death sentence was a foregone conclusion. The defense appealed to General MacArthur, who upheld the sentence. A further appeal was submitted to and rejected by the Supreme Court of the Philippines, and another one by the Supreme Court of the United States. It should be noted that two Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with the decision and published their reasons. Justice Frank Murphy protested procedural issues and the tribunal's lack of neutrality. Justice W.B. Rutledge attacked the decision on more profound grounds, its perceived violation of the U.S. Constitution: "More is at stake than General Yamashita's fate. There could be no possible sympathy for him if he is guilty of the atrocities for which his death is sought. But there can be and should be justice administered according to the law. ... It is not too early, it is never too early, for the nation steadfastly to follow its great constitutional traditions, none older or more universally protective against unbridled power than due process of law in the trial and punishment of men, that is, of all men, whether citizens, aliens, alien enemies or enemy belligerents."

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Wiley Blount Rutledge, who argued that Yamashita's conviction was a violation of the U.S. Constitution (Photo: U.S. Supreme Court)

A final appeal for clemency was made to President Harry Truman, but he chose to leave the matter in the hands of the military authorities. General Yamashita was executed by hanging before dawn on February 23, 1946. Shortly before his death, he gave some of his personal items to his American defense counsels as a gift: a tea service set, brush pens, his insignia, and decorative parts of his uniform; to one lawyer, who was a cavalry officer, he gave his gold ceremonial spurs.

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Yamashita's tea service, gifted to one of his lawyers, Colonel Harry E. Clarke, Sr. (Photo: Clarke's family)

The U.S. Supreme Court decision to reject Yamashita's appeal set a legal precedent called the Yamashita standard or "command responsibility." For better or worse, this principle states that a commander can be held responsible for the actions of his troops, even he did not order them, allow them, know about them, or have the means to stop them. The principle is also included in the Geneva Convention, and had been invoked in dozens of cases – though never to charge an American commander for the actions of his soldiers.

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