NAGAOKA, Japan – Seven decades after the death of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in an aerial ambush in the South Pacific, Japan is still struggling with how to remember the charismatic naval commander who opposed war with the United States, but nonetheless planned the deadly attack on Pearl Harbor.
With tensions once again growing in East Asia and public acceptance of Japan’s military forces beginning to rise, Japan could be ready for a more open discussion of the war era – and its leaders.
“They don’t teach about this period in high schools, so people under 50 years old don’t know much about it. But because of the Senkaku problem, people are beginning to get interested,” said Yukoh Watanabe, an amateur naval historian who attended a private memorial service in Yamamoto’s hometown last week.
“Senakaku” is a reference to a ongoing standoff between Japan and China over islands in the East China Sea. The dispute is at least partly responsible for Japan’s first increase in defense spending in more than a decade and the return to power last year of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party.
Yamamoto was commander in chief of the Imperial Navy’s Combined Fleet when was killed on April 18, 1943. American code-breakers had learned he would be inspecting Japanese bases in the Solomon Islands and sent a squadron of fighter plans to shoot down his aircraft. Although the war already had begun to turn in America’s favor, Yamamoto’s death was a shock to Japanese morale and deprived the Imperial Navy of one its ablest and most inspiring leaders. It is considered a pivotal event in the war by many historians.
But for all that, only about 80 people attended the ceremony – mostly family members, local dignitaries and a smattering of elderly veterans. A Buddhist priest offered prayers and a few words of remembrance. No government or military representatives attended the service. No honor guard or laying of wreaths.
That shouldn’t be surprising. Japan has long been ambivalent about its war history. Yamamoto’s name can be found in few school textbooks. No ships or military bases carry his name. The only statue or memorial to his memory can be found in this small city in Western Japan.
And yet Yamamoto may be the most recognizable of all Japan’s wartime leaders — and certainly the most sympathetic. As deputy naval minister in the 1930s, he received death threats from rightists angered by his opposition to Japan’s alliance with Nazi Germany and Italy. Later, as commander of the Combined Fleet, he argued against the decision to attack the United States.
Yamamoto studied at Harvard and served as naval attaché in Washington D.C., spoke fluent English and toured much the United States. A small but well-appointed museum in Yamamoto’s hometown is a showcase to his wide travels and world view: well-thumbed volumes of Shakespeare; a leather-bound Bible; post-cards from across the United States; snapshots with passersby in New York’s Central Park and workers in Texas oilfields.
Yamamoto’s travels had convinced him that Japan could not defeat the industrial might of America. Yet, he remained intensely loyal to the Emperor, and when the decision was made to strike the United States, he formulated a bold plan that he hoped would knock America out of the war early. In the end, the attack on Pearl Harbor served only to galvanize American public opinion and led to Japan’s near-total destruction.
“People say he was pro-American, but that’s not really true. He was a patriot who did what he believed was best for his country,” says retired admiral Yoji Koda, who commanded the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force battle fleet from 2007 to 2008. Koda is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Asia Center and has written extensively on Japan’s military history.
Koda says Yamamoto faced a commander’s worst nightmare: Lead his men into a war he knew they could not win and should not fight; or step aside and let them face defeat alone.
“He must have been thinking, ‘What a stupid bunch of people we have in Tokyo.’ But that’s the difficulty of (military) leadership. Whatever the nation decides, that’s your duty. You fight the enemy in front of you, no matter who it is. I would have done the same thing,” says Koda.
Unlike the Yushukan museum at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, the Yamamoto museum does not appear to re-write or glorify Japan’s war history. A small exhibit notes Yamamoto’s role in the attack on Pearl Harbor and the devastating defeat at Midway. The main hall is dominated by a mangled wing from the aircraft Yamamoto was flying in when he was shot down in the Solomon Islands.
Yamamoto’s legacy may be evolving, at least in the popular media. Several generally sympathetic books have been published in recent years and a well-received movie was released in 2011. The film deals largely with Yamamoto’s clashes with the Imperial Army, which initiated the war in China and pressed for a wider conflict. Indeed, Japan’s small but vocal nationalist fringe has little use for Yamamoto today, considering his lack of greater support for Japan’s war aims to be nearly treasonous.
The degree to which Yamamoto supported Japan’s expansionist policies and colonial ambitions in Asia has not been closely examined in public. Nor is it clear that the architect of the pre-emptive strike on Pearl Harbor would have been spared charges of war crimes had he lived longer.
Gentaro Yamamoto, grandson of the wartime leader, said after last week’s memorial service that China’s growing military strength and assertiveness and the continuing threats from North Korea may provide some perspective for those reflecting on Yamamoto’s legacy.
“He never wanted to go to war with the United States. He knew that if we fought with the United States, it would be fatal. But it was the decision of the government and he felt it was his duty — that he had no choice,” says Gentaro Yamamoto, a theater director in Tokyo.
“Now with the territorial dispute on going, this is the time to think about how difficult it is to gain the peace. What did my grandfather want to achieve in exchange of his own life? We should think about that so that his death was not in vain.”