“In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.” – Admiral Yamamoto to Japanese prime minister Fumimaro Konoe.
The date of Admiral Yamamoto’s death was ironic.
Admiral Yamamoto was killed exactly one year after the famous Doolittle Raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942.
It was like an omen.
The Japanese military and government did not disclose his death for about a month. When they did, they conducted a grand state funeral.
Here is a link to a Japanese video of his funeral. At the beginning, it shows the last known movie footage of him on Rabaul, waving to the pilots as they take off to attack Guadalcanal in Operation I boosting morale tremendously. There is also a glimpse of the only memorial statue of Admiral Yamamoto and a look inside his small home that is now in disrepair. During the funeral procession, it is very important to note you see Tokyo as it once looked before being leveled. I wonder if my grandparents, mom and aunt were in the crowds:
While his ashes were met in Tokyo by his widow (1), one half of his ashes remained in Tokyo, the other half taken back to his home town of Nagaoka. There, an unremarkable crypt of about three feet tall entombs one-half of his remains in a small family plot that is visited much more so by history nuts and the curious than by family and relatives.
In a bit of lost history, the funeral procession passed in front of his favorite geisha Chiyoko’s residence.
Similar to how WWII history has become to being taught here in America (meaning forgotten), Japan had chosen post-war to teach very little of WWII if anything. Because of this, many Japanese younger than say 55 years of age know very little about the war with America… except for the atomic and fire bombings.
For instance, my second wife and her mother never even heard of Iwo Jima. When I told them it was an island and part of the Tokyo prefecture, they were in disbelief. They didn’t even know there was a horrendous battle that took 30,000 young Japanese and American lives. Imagine that… but “the forgetting” is happening here in America too because of misguided emotional beliefs and attitudes of the teachers and school administrations.
Here in America, we have ships, airfields and streets named after heroes. Aircraft carriers USS Chester Nimitz, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, USS George H. W. Bush, O’Hare International Airport, or John Basilone Road near Camp Pendleton.
Yamamoto has nothing. He is rarely even mentioned in Japanese textbooks. There are no ships, airfields or streets named after him. Just two unassuming crypts and they are rarely visited by offspring or family. There is a small museum I was able to see back around 2001 soon after it opened during a business trip but it was hard to find. Even the train conductor whom I asked for directions didn’t even know who Yamamoto was. He told me to go to the police kiosk and luckily, one of the officers heard of it and gave me directions – about a 15 minute walk. It does house a piece of the wing that was part of the Betty bomber he was shot down in. Oh, there is a small statue of him in his hometown near his crypt.
The lack of honorariums is an insult, in my opinion, as he gave his life to a war he knew he couldn’t win. He was simply loyal to his emperor. I also believe from my civilian’s chair that Yamamoto was one of the greatest prophetic naval minds in history – so much so that Nimitz viewed him as his greatest threat.
In his time, those in the Japanese military who wanted to see him assassinated believed he was “pro-American” or just a cowardly “dove”. I don’t see it that way. I believe he was a patriot, loved his country and was the consummate military man wearing the uniform of his country – just like Patton, Ike, and Nimitz. He simply did what he thought best for his country given his orders and conditions – that the pompous Army-led government wanted a war that Yamamoto knew they could not win. He therefore believed the only way to achieve this haughty vision of victory against the US and England was to execute a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and disabling the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet.(2) He may have succeeded if Nagumo had indeed attempted to carry out Yamamoto’s full orders and battle plan. Nagumo failed to do so.
(Note: As an American, I fully accept that any attack on a country should be preceded by a declaration of war. However, just as I/we believe a declaration of war is necessary before hostilities, the samurai roots of Japan totally accepted surprise attacks as the norm. Just a fact.)
…but as a military leader, I feel for him. He knew Japan could not win. What was he to do? Step aside and let others lead the young men to their deaths under less competent leadership? Or lead them himself into a war they could not win and should not fight? Of course, he chose the latter and appropriately so. In my opinion, he should not be condemned because he did.
But it cost him his life.
The man whose name was his samurai father’s age at birth, the man who did handstands to break the thick air and bring laughter, the man who was a winner at gambling around the globe, the man who was nicknamed “Eighty Sen” by geishas… died fighting for the country who would then quickly bury him in their lost history.
If he was not killed in the daring and risky attack hastily put together by the USAAF, what would have happened to him if he was alive on the day of surrender?
Would he have killed himself? Many did. He was the son of a respected samurai.
Or would he have surrendered like General Yamashita did in the Philippines only to be hung shortly thereafter as a war criminal in a hasty trial?
Would MacArthur have spared Yamamoto to be used as a liaison with his understanding of America and his fluent English during the Occupation? After all, he was revered in Japan as was Ike and Patton here. That may have been ideal but unlikely due to the immense hatred bred onto him by American propaganda.
We will never know.
Perhaps it was best he died a warrior while leading his troops.
(1) In the first video, Admiral Yamamoto’s ashes disembark from the train after its arrival in Tokyo on May 23, 1943.
This second video is the “official” national footage of the state funeral procession. You can glimpse the infamous General Tojo at about the 3:10 mark and his widow and three children at about the 3:20 mark:
(2) Against Admiral RIchardson’s stern advice to FDR for which he was fired, the US Seventh Fleet was moved out of San Diego to Pearl Harbor by FDR. Yamamoto, just like Richardson, saw it as a dumb military move. They were both right. This is one reason why I firmly believe FDR wanted Japan to attack the US and get us into a war which he campaigned against.