Isoroku Yamamoto was NOT his birthname. He was born Isoroku Takano, another surprise of buried history.
(And to make it easier for those who find Japanese names hard to follow, I will still refer to him by Yamamoto for this post.)
Indeed, his father Sadayoshi Takano, was a very proud and well respected samurai in the mid-1800’s. He lived his life as one. By this time, the samurai were peaceful and to while away their time, they studied art, philosophy and poetry. They were twiddling their thumbs, so to speak.
However, Admiral Perry showed up and caught the eye of many politicians and of a changing class of samurai who saw the European military style and assets.
The world had passed Japan by due to their isolationist ideals.
Tensions rose – the faction who wanted to keep Japan as it was and the faction who wanted change (modernization). A bitter civil war erupted; it is referred to here in the Western World as the “Boshin War”.
Sadayoshi Takano, being the consummate samurai, chose to defend the existence of the samurai way of life and therefore isolationism. While overall war casualties were low, indeed, he and his two oldest sons were wounded.
Unfortunately, he chose the wrong side. His side, mired in old traditional ways of close quarter combat, i.e., samurai swords, was no match for the winning forces as they were armed with European rifles and cannon.(1) Takano’s losing side even resorted to wooden cannon barrels bound with ropes towards the end. They shot rocks instead of cannon balls and the wooden barrels would burst after but firing several rounds.(2)
After peace was achieved, the end result were that the samurai culture was abolished and troops were now called Imperial Army soldiers. This period in history is referred to as the Meiji Restoration.(3)
His Unusual Name
Being on the losing side, the proud samurai father Sadayoshi encountered a financially brutal life. Because he had supported the wrong side, the victors would not give them employment. He, his wife and four sons wandered from place to place trying to survive. They decided to return to Nagaoka where they had a small shanty.
His wife died shortly after and Sadayoshi married her younger sister. She gave birth to three more children: a girl and two boys. Isoroku was the youngest, born in 1884.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had an unusual first name even by Japanese standards. In Japanese, it is spelled with NUMBERS: 五十六, or five-ten-six (56). It turns out his father Sadayoshi was 56 years old when Admiral Yamamoto was born. (Sadayoshi beat me by seven years. I last fathered at 49 years of age.)
Yamamoto was small; he was but 5’3″ as an adult. He was quite sickly in youth but he persevered; his father even kept a diary on his numerous bouts with the flu. (Like his father, Yamamoto himself ended up keeping detailed diaries.) At first, he attended missionary schools but never adopted the Christian religion – but he carried a Bible around and had critical exposure to this Western religion.
At his elementary school, there was a missionary named Mr. Newell. With him, he achieved his introduction to the English language. He would even stop by Mr. Newell’s house to have coffee of all things (very bizarre for 1890’s Japan) and further his exposure to Western culture and learning English – a very critical influence towards his rise to the admiralty.
Another critical influence on his young life began when Mr. Newell moved to another city. Once immersed in Western ways, he was now in an elementary school steeped in Japanese culture.
Although very poor, he was fortunate enough to be in Nagaoka and in 1894 began attending a progressive middle school, one of the largest in Japan. With Japan’s modernization in mind, the school focused on Western technologies and sciences; yet, it expounded on the Japanese spirit. Philosophies like individual responsibility and seeking opportunity, fortitude and cooperation were infused into the students. The young Yamamoto absorbed it all, getting them embedded in his soul. It would follow him for the rest of his life.
While not strong, he loved gymnastics and participated in a very small gymnastics program. He knew he would have to try harder than the other boys due to his condition but he succeeded. Gymnastics also becomes important in his naval career’s development as you will see.
He studied vigorously, realizing at his young age that to get out of this poverty, he would need to excel. He knew some kind of scholarship or program would be the only way out.
His studious, serious nature paid off. He placed second in the entire country in a very competitive entrance examination. In the summer of 1901, at the age of 16, he therefore earned an appointment to the Japanese Navy’s Naval Academy on the small island of Etajima, just off the shores of Hiroshima.(4)
A young and focused Isoroku Yamamoto was on his way to become Admiral Nimitz’s most feared enemy 40 years later.
More to follow in Part III.
Part I is here.
(1) To clarify, both sides had rifles and used samurai swords. Takano’s Western armaments, however, numbered many times less.
(2) Another Hollyweird movie tries to depict this period of the Boshin War: “The Last Samurai” with the nutty Tom Cruise depicting an American soldier brought over to train the “winning” side on rifles. He is captured by the “losing” side (the samurai) and at the end, fights for them. Long story short, the fictional American soldier he portrays somewhat follows an actual man, a French soldier named Brunet.
(3) Meiji banned samurai from carrying swords; in fact, nearly all swords had to have their handles ground down so they would be difficult to wield. Sounds like California. However, my grandmother told me several times “the long nose, long legged invaders” (the occupying Americans of which my dad was one) came to each house and confiscated all ancestral swords. She tells me their ancestral swords that were taken away were from the 1600’s.
(4) Understandably, the occupying Americans shuttered the Naval Academy in 1946 but Japan reopened it in 1957. It is now home to Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force. I was extremely fortunate to have been given a personal tour in 1999 but the few pictures that were allowed are now lost. Their is a solemn memorial hall for kamikaze. Maybe that will be another post in the future.