The man behind Pearl Harbor

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto as Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy
(Photo: National Diet Library, Japan)

If there's one World War II Japanese military leader every American could name, it's Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (1884-1943), the man who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor (Read our earlier article) and led the Japanese Navy. The attack earned him the dubious honor of being the most hated man in America, even ahead of Hitler and Emperor Hirohito. The American pilot who eventually killed him later described him with the words "A conceited and arrogant man, Yamamoto, with a face like a frog but with a calculating mind that functioned precisely. An evil man with a personal calendar for the conquest of Asia and America." The New York Times wrote "The dominant force in Yamamoto’s life, according to those who knew him, was hatred of the white race, particularly of the United States and Britain."

Today, eight decades after the war, we can perhaps take a cooler, more objective look at Yamamoto. In our view, he was a Japanese patriot and a talented naval officer who got caught up in a web of political intrigue that he clearly saw was going to spell ruin for Japan, but which he was powerless to break free from.

Yamamoto was born Isoroku Takano, the son of Sadayoshi Takano, a mid-ranking samurai. ("Isoroku" means "56," the age of the father at the time of his son's birth.) Growing up in a fishing community in northeastern Japan after the fall of the traditional samurai class, his choice was to either become a fisherman or join the Imperial Japanese Navy ("IJN"). He graduated from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in 1904 and served aboard the Italian-built armored cruiser Nisshin during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. He lost two fingers at the Battle of Tsushima, where the IJN devastated the Russian Navy. (Had he lost one more, he would have received a mandatory discharge on medical grounds.)

The heavily damaged forward turret and superstructure of the Nisshin after the battle of Tsushima
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Showing promise as an officer, he studied at the Naval Staff College and earned the rank of lieutenant commander. He was also adopted by the Yamamoto samurai clan the same year, a common practice at the time to ensure a childless clan's survival. He was made commander in 1919; he moved to the United States and studied at Harvard for three years. His classmates there taught him poker, and he became an enthusiastic and talented gambler. He kept playing poker, bridge, go, mahjong, shogi (Japanese chess) and billiards for the rest of his life. He used his poker winnings at Harvard to finance a tour across the U.S. and learn more about the country.

Yamamoto (left) and his lifelong friend Teikichi Hori as young officers, photographed between 1915 and 1919
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Showing competence, Yamamoto gradually became a pillar of the naval establishment, serving in a variety of both administrative and shipboard positions. At the time, the rivalry between the Japanese Army and the Navy was growing bitter. A faction within the Army, including future prime minister Hideki Tōjō, gradually insinuated itself into the government and eventually came to control the nation. The Army faction was bellicose and intent on dominating Asia, but its wisdom fell far behind its grasp. Its leaders were narrow-minded and doctrinaire, and regularly failed to consider their plans from the perspective of other countries. The Army's plans for the Navy also rubbed Yamamoto (and the IJN at large) wrong. Yamamoto believed in gunboat diplomacy, the use of naval power to assert influence over other nations, without land wars, if possible. Meanwhile, the Army wanted the Navy to be a glorified ferry service for invasion troops to China and other Asian nations to be conquered. Yamamoto opposed war both against China and America. He served as naval attaché to Washington in 1925-27; becoming familiar with U.S. industry and the extent of American oil reserves made it clear to him that Japan could not win a war against the United States.

Yamamoto (left) as naval attaché in Washington, with Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur, Captain Kiyoshi Hasegawa, and Admiral Edward Walter Eberle
(Photo: U.S. Naval Historical Center)

During the 20s, Yamamoto also became a pioneer of naval aviation. Later in his career, when he achieved higher rank, he established a naval air force that could operate from land bases and carriers alike. He also influenced the development of the Mitsubishi G3M and G4M medium bombers, insisting that they must have long range and the ability to carry a torpedo. His strategic vision also drove the development of the A6M Zero, which was notable at the time not just for its nimbleness, but also its unusually long range for a fighter.

Two G3M bombers, one of the plane types the development of which was influenced by Yamamoto’s strategic thinking
(Photo: public domain)

Yamamoto reached the rank of captain in 1923. His first command was the cruiser Isuzu in 1928, and his next the carrier Akagi (which would eventually be scuttled during the Battle of Midway). In 1930, he attended the London Naval Conference. The conference and the resulting treaty were the second of three attempts to limit and regulate the expansion of navies between the two world wars. The military's growing influence over the Japanese government ensured that a military expert would accompany the diplomats, and Yamamoto, a rear admiral at the time who was familiar with the U.S., was the perfect man for the job.

Signed 1928 portrait photo of then-Captain Yamamoto
(Photo: Harris & Ewing)

The earlier Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 established a ratio of 5:5:3, meaning that for every five capital ships the United States and Britain had, Japan was allowed to have three. This was ostensibly to ensure that each nation's navy was strong enough to defend itself but not strong enough to threaten the others. The Japanese, however, felt that the ratio made them vulnerable, and strenuously argued for a revised ratio of 10:10:7 eight years later in London. The western powers stuck to their guns, and the ratio for battleships, battlecruisers and carriers remained 5:5:3. As a sign of compromise, the ratio was raised to 10:10:7 for cruisers and destroyers.

Contemporary caricature about Japan’s dissatisfaction with the 5:5:3 ratio
(Image: Punch)

In the 30s, Japan gradually set a course that Yamamoto felt would lead the nation into an unwinnable war. Japan invaded Manchuria in Northeast China in 1931, launched a full-scale war against China in 1937 which became the Second Sino-Japanese War and only ended in 1945 with the end of World War II, and signed the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in 1940. Yamamoto and some other IJN admirals spoke out against these decisions, which they considered contrary to Japan's interests. Yamamoto in particular received regular death threats from Japanese nationalists and pro-war militarists for voicing his opposition to the reckless warmongering. The Army assigned military police detail to Yamamoto, ostensibly to keep him safe, but really to keep an eye on him. In the summer of 1939, he was removed from his position as Deputy Minister of the Navy and assigned commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet. This, one of the last political acts of outgoing Minister of the Navy Mitsumasa Yonai, was an attempt to keep him safe from assassination by keeping him at sea.

Yamamoto (right) as Deputy Minister of the Navy, and Minister of the Navy Mistumasa Yonai in the 30s
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Yamamoto’s troubles in Japan coincided with the breakdown of the international effort to limit naval armament. In 1934, Yamamoto, a vice admiral at the time, traveled to London for a second conference, which preceded the signing of the Second London Naval Treaty in 1935. This was the first time the American public truly noticed him. He chose to travel from Japan to Vancouver and cross the American continent to New York before boarding a ship to London. His trip was followed by the press daily. This coincided with a time when American aviation pioneer General Billy Mitchell was filling the headlines with warnings of an inevitable war between the U.S. and Japan. Yamamoto was cornered by a reporter in a New York hotel and asked about his opinion. His reply was "I do not look upon the relations between the United States and Japan from the same angle as General Mitchell, and I have never looked upon the United States as a potential enemy. The naval plans of Japan have never included the possibility of an American- Japanese war." The claim of not having any plans for a war was false, but the reply did remain true to Yamamoto's hopes of avoiding the war.

1936 cartoon criticizing the Japanese “greed” at the Second London Naval Conference
(Image: David Low)

The Second London Naval Conference failed. Displeased with Japan's action in China, the U.S. and Britain took a hard line and refused all of Japan's demands to revise ratios. Yamamoto once remarked at a dinner party that even though he was smaller than his hosts, he was not expected to eat only three-fifths of what they did; the witty remark garnered some attention but failed to achieve a result. On another occasion, he got into the headlines by cheekily proposing the complete abolition of battleships and carriers by all nations, claiming that the only defense countries would need was "justice and international friendship."

None of these stunts moved the western powers, and Japan withdrew from the conference and the preceding treaties, effectively rendering them pointless and making it clear that the country was preparing for a major naval war in the Pacific. Yamamoto went on a trip to Europe before returning home, but, true to his belief that Japan should avoid currying favor with Nazi Germany, refused to meet Hitler.

British Ambassador to Japan Robert Craigie and Yamamoto at a party hosted by the latter
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Yamamoto was promoted to admiral in November 1940, when the war in Europe had already been raging for over a year. Over the course of that year, he had already established the 11th Air Fleet, a ground-based naval air unit, which would later prove its usefulness by using G3M and G4M bombers to bomb Douglas MacArthur’s planes in the Philippines. (Read our earlier article) Yamamoto's land-based naval aviation ideas would also triumph against Britain on December 10, 1941, when Japanese planes would sink the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, eliminating the naval unit named Force Z and allowing the Japanese invasion of British Malaya to proceed (Read our earlier article).

Photo taken from a Japanese bomber during the attack on Force Z
(Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

Yamamoto went even further with his attempts at naval reform, and proposed a complete revision of Japan's strategy. The Japanese strategic plan for a war against the U.S. at the time called for the invasion of the Philippines, which would force the U.S. Pacific Fleet to sail out from Pearl Harbor. Japanese submarines, air units and light surface forces would gradually wear the fleet down, until the bulk of the IJN could finally deal a death blow to the U.S. Navy in a decisive battleship-to-battleship fight at the Philippines, far away from any American bases.

Yamamoto pointed out that the plan never worked even in Japan's own wargames (Read our earlier article), and he also knew well that Japan could not compete with America's industrial capacity. Knowing that the Army will force the country into war against the U.S., the best he could come up with was to start the war with a preemptive strike which would weaken the U.S. Navy and level the playing field, possibly prompting America to seek a peace treaty after serious early losses. The Naval General Staff was reluctant to go ahead with Yamamoto's vision, so he threatened to resign. He was so popular within the navy by this point, however, that the General Staff caved in to his demands – at least as far as allowing him to draw up plans for such a strike – which would become the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Our article on Admiral Yamamoto will continue next week with his actions during World War II.

Yamamoto as commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet aboard the battleship Nagato in 1940
(Photo: National Diet Library, Japan)

Save 10% with our V-E Day promotion

A priest shows students a newspaper announcing Germany's surrender at a Catholic school in Chicago (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)
On May 8, we will celebrate the 79th anniversary of V-E Day, standing for Victory in Europe Day, marking the date of the formal unconditional surrender of the German armed forces in World War II. On this occasion, we are offering all our tours with a 10% discount if you book and pay in full until May 8, 2024. Note that this offer applies only in case of new bookings, and it can be combined with selected special offers. If you have any questions related to this or other tours, please contact our travel consultants at info@beachesofnormandy.com or by calling our toll-free number: +1 855-473-1999.
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