The Truly Reluctant Admiral Yamamoto – Part VI

Admiral Yamamoto on Rabaul in 1943 and shortly before his death.

The Imp and a Nickname

In direct contrast to his smug and no nonsense military face while on duty, Admiral Yamamoto was indeed a complex yet unselfconcious man.  He was a strategist and used spontaneity to his utmost advantage…

…and typical of that time, Admiral Yamamoto sought relief and amusement in true geisha houses. (1)

The Impish Admiral Yamamoto

In Part II of this series, you learned that Admiral Yamamoto pursued gymnastics given his small build and illness-ridden childhood.  He had persevered and became quite good at it.  This skill came into good use throughout his military career.

Even as a young ensign, he would love to see his companions’ reactions; on the spur of the moment, for example, he would do a handstand on a ship’s rail.  He was that confident in his gymnastic abilities. I wouldn’t even get near the handrail just standing on my two aging feet.  I hate heights.

Admiral Yamamoto doing a handstand at a geisha house. Source unknown.

Still later in life, at dinner parties most often held in geisha houses, he would refrain from drinking more than a small cup or two of osake while his other navy fellows would drink to excess.  If you recall, he couldn’t drink as he would turn bright red even after a sip like my Dad.  All of a sudden, he would do a handstand to the amusement of not his fellow sailors but the geisha as well.  As they would break out into laughter at his spontaneity then settle down, he would quietly observe them as he knew they would either serve together or under him.  He sought out their weaknesses and strengths.

This is what is meant by “a cup or two” of osake.

On yet another show of spontaneity, he was sailing to America in 1919 on board the Suwa Maru.  His Japanese contingent was dining with Western diplomats when the Westerners started to get drunk and began to sing and dance.  They tried to get the stoic Japanese to also dance but they refused.  Very typical; I am like that. Yamamoto saw a relational rift already developing and to break it, did yet another handstand to the joy of the Westerners.  He then took some dishes from a bus boy and began spinning them on his fingers to the great joy of the Westerners.

It was also said that upon his return in 1935 from failed talks in London, the now Rear Admiral Yamamoto childishly stuck his tongue out at some Akasaka geisha who were at the Tokyo train station just to get a reaction.

The Gambler Admiral Yamamoto

Admiral Yamamoto was indeed a gambling man – and a very good one at that.  He would empty many a pocket of his opponents in several countries during his official and unofficial travels… even in Siberia.  He remarked that the British were the easiest victims.  Indeed, he had mastered bridge and later poker during his travels in America and England.

He was so openly against warring with America that the navy “hawks” despised him so much that he was “put out to pasture”, so to speak, in the Navy Affairs Bureau in 1935.  At that time, he was depressed to the point that he confided with his closest friends that he was thinking about resigning – and that he would be totally happy retiring in Monaco while opening up a casino there.  He was that confident in his gambling abilities.

A Nickname from the Geisha

In Part I, it was mentioned Admiral Yamamoto was given a nickname by the geisha – it has to do with money.  But before I disclose what it was, some time machine action has to take place.

Admiral Yamamoto with apparently one of his favored  geisha named “Chiyoko”. Someone unfamiliar with the military had written on April 18, 1954、「軍神も人間だった!」or “Gunshin mo ningen datta!” I translate it to read “The army God was a human!” As you know, Admiral Yamamoto was not army; he was Navy and despised the Army. Source unknown.

Admiral Yamamoto would often get his manicures from the geisha.  At that time, manicures would run about one yen.

“Yen” is the monetary unit in Japan as you all know.  In the 1920’s, just one yen went a long ways; it was a different time.  I understand one yen could have bought about a dozen eggs or about 5 pounds of rice (which was hard to get your hands on) or about ten bowls of ramen. However, there are “100 sen” in “one yen”.

Well, he was lovingly called “八十戦” or “Eighty Sen” by the geisha.  They apparently felt bad charging him one yen for a full manicure.

He only had eight fingers.


More to follow in Part VII.



(1) There are only several hundred true geisha left in Japan.  A once ancient tradition, their number and appeal has diminished so much that many Kyoto merchants who had solely serviced the geisha for centuries (silk kimono making, elaborate accessories, wooden sandals, etc.) have closed their doors.


24 thoughts on “The Truly Reluctant Admiral Yamamoto – Part VI”

  1. Not being able to drink (red face) likely turned out to be a gift –
    And laughing at him sticking out his tongue – or doing headstands – and on the rail like that – yikes – that took some boldness –

    1. Thank you, Sir. I will be wrapping up his story in the next two parts. You would be amazed as to what you can find on Japanese websites but like any source, there will be discrepancies or exaggerations. Thanks again, Mr. Vet!

    1. So you did visit, Curt? It must’ve been toasty then. I hope you realize that the sole “reconstructed” barracks there was built to ridiculous California building codes. It even has a lit EXIT sign when the occupants had but one light bulb. 🙂

  2. Let me say that silliness is not an unusual event among adult males. Admiral Yamamoto’s antics seem to rival those of young lieutenants back in the day during “happy hour” at the O’ Club and as a point of reference, the so-called career-ending Navy Tail hook Association scandal that gained national attention some years ago that implicated even a few very senior officers. So the impishness Yamamoto displayed was not a factor of Japanese culture as much as it was a matter of that special culture ethat develops within tight-knit military and naval societies. That such behavior was (and remains) “unacceptable” in polite society there can be no doubt, but most of the people who make the rules for polite society never (ever) place themselves in harm’s way. In this, I don’t simply mean having been exposed to combat, but even including those stalwart aviators who land very fast jet aircraft on the deck of aircraft carriers in the dead of night during blackout conditions, or those who experience a dead stick aircraft at Angels 20 … examples that would cause a good man to over imbibe and become silly if he lived through the experience.

    Koji-san, this is an excellent investigation into the life of a man who served his country honorably, even though he knew that his government had taken a ruinous path. Pride … even (or especially) national pride is dangerous. The Bible warns us, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” (Proverbs 16:18).

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Sir, and for your insight and comments. I would tend to agree with your sentiments about spontaneity – which was lacking, I feel, at the more serious upper ranks in Japan. Indeed, those that never “shit in their pants” as Old Man Jack oft said, were never in a life changing event like war. Surely, jovial outbursts would help relieve such memories. And thank you for your kind compliment. I just wish I had the organizational skills you demonstrate as a true military historian.

  3. Hollywood I believe gave geisha a poor reputation, but I know you are certain that Smitty straightened me out on that one.
    I thought I knew Yamamoto – until you started this series. Thank you, Koji.

    1. Sir, please accept my apologies. I just saw your kind comment. Yes, there are entire battles missing from our children’s history books as well. These “textbooks” here in LA County focus solely on the discrimination encountered by Blacks, Native Americans and “Japanese-Americans” while serving or in the home front. They leave the children feeling that America was the villian. D-day may take up two sentences and these books don’t even mention Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima or Okinawa… but use a couple of paragraphs teaching them we dropped two atomic bombs.

      1. What’s the old expression. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. That means all of it, the good, the bad, and everything in between. I just finished a book called “The last Battle” by Stephen Harding. It’s about the last battle fought in Germany when Americans and Germans teamed up to save a bunch of prisoners the SS was out to kill. This is the stuff they should be talking about. Or President Kennedy meeting with the commander of the Japanese destroyer that but PT109 in half.

      2. Never knew JFK met with the commander. I did read (very little) of the joint US/Germany effort against the hard-core SS (the Japanese kempeitai were a loose facsimile) and would like to read more.

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