Pearl Harbor Reconsidered, Part I–How and Why…and Bathtub Party Day

This four-part essay will discuss four salient points regarding the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii:

  • How and why the mission was authorized
  • How the mission was carried out
  • The intent and failure of the mission
  • The response and aftermath

This will not be a mere rehash of what thousands of other scriveners have already said and what the sources tell us, but an analysis of these points from a Japanese point of view.

How and Why

To recap how there came to be an apparent requirement for the Pearl Harbor attack:

  • Japan had been fighting in China off and on since 1932 because, like Germany in WWI, she needed independent access to resources.
  • The US expressed its displeasure diplomatically and economically with minor sanctions and “limited availability” of critical resources from 1933 to the summer of 1941 when they cut off petroleum and scrap metals and froze Japanese assets in response to the Japanese occupation of French Indochina. Great Britain and the Netherlands soon followed.
  • The samurai culture that dominated Japan regarded the sanctions as merely a hiccup, but the samurai themselves badly needed the imports to supply their China fighting.

Fighting for resources while being cut off from supplies became a vicious spiral from which there was no apparent escape. War with America, the British Empire, and the Netherlands was, by Japan’s lights, necessary to secure resources to grab the resources of China. So was born the Southern Operation, to seize the petroleum and other materials of the East Indies. But these islands were in the hands of the Netherlands and Great Britain, who would object. These two were on friendly terms with the US, which had considerable military forces in the Philippines, and were well-placed to cut off Japan from any successes in the East Indies.

Route Map for Pearl Harbor Attack

The Pearl Harbor attack, known to the Japanese as the Eastern Operation, wasn’t undertaken lightly or easily. Attacking the United States, with which Japan had enjoyed cordial if not friendly relations, was more than a calculated risk: it was a fleet-wide gamble of enormous proportions. The entire Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had to be retrained and restructured to pull it off. Because the Eastern Operation was one of several missions taking place in three different directions at once in December of 1941, the IJN’s original strategic concept of a mid-ocean ambush that had been in place since 1922 had to be scrapped. Sounds simple, but the whole navy and nearly every ship in it had for a generation been built and trained for one titanic Tsushima at sea.

That said, there was another issue: the IJN wasn’t initially enthusiastic about the need for the Eastern Operation in the first place. While the IJN did get their carrier air combat experience in China, their enthusiasm for the China project was a great deal less than was the IJA’s. However, they were interested in the oil of the East Indies, and for that and that alone they appreciated the need to attack the United States preemptively.

However, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a bold trans-oceanic mission that had not only never been done before, but it was also far and away the most ambitious naval operation ever undertaken by Japan and required the largest fleet deployment in its history. Even while planning was ongoing, there were questions raised as to whether it was necessary at all. Militarily, the US Pacific Fleet in 1941 was something of a dinosaur, the only modern parts being the three aircraft carriers assigned there. If the American carriers could be sunk in a single blow, that would create an advantage…especially since the US had seven other carriers scheduled for launch in the next year. While true, it should be remembered that Japan was fighting not to win a war but to get the West to end their sanctions and give Japan a free hand in Asia. She was trying to frighten, not defeat, the US. Would not the other bold moves elsewhere be enough to cow the soft, decadent Americans? Those who spoke against the Pearl Harbor strike were relegated to other duties as official enthusiasm for the project grew.

Next week we’ll talk about how the Pearl Harbor strike was organized, and how it (probably) got its orders.

And then there’s Bathtub Party Day (C) on Wednesday, created by Ruth and Thomas Roy over at, purveyors of herbs and copyrighted holidays. They give no particular reason for the timing (though early December in these parts is chilly), but include the usual kinds of admonitions like turn the ringer off on the phone (how quaint), lighting candles and incense, and settling down with a favorite alcoholic beverage. This is all to be followed by scented oils and lotions and the usual big fluffy towels.


Um…how much relaxing is going on here?

But seriously, a party is much more like what we have to the left, isn’t it? I mean, alone, with a roomful of candles and incense that would take an hour to light, a newer towel that’s probably been in the closet for a year and was half-stale when it got there (and the wife was saving for some later “special occasion” that somehow is never entirely defined.)

So, yeah, bathtub party if you’re so inclined, but I’d instead do it with a smaller group if I do it at all…which I likely won’t since, well, I don’t see much point, and my better half usually looks at me with some disdain when I suggest such things.

Kido Butai and National Cake Day

So, glad you survived not only Thanksgiving last Thursday but Black Friday the day after, for those of you who indulge in that orgy of retail greed. But today is Cyber Monday, so those among you who want to wait in your living room watching your computer rather than standing in a checkout line for the same stuff–knock yourselves out.

On this day in 1941, the main portion of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s (IJN) Kido Butai (literally mobile force. but also known as the Carrier Striking Task Force, depending on sources) with the 1st Air Group embarked (sources differ, but this was more symbolic than a real operational command) left the fleet anchorage at Hittokapu Bay and headed for Hawaii. The six aircraft carriers in the Kido Butai were the largest concentration of naval air power anywhere in the world and would be the largest until the US invasion of the Marshall Islands in 1944.

The course of the Kido Butai December 1941. Wiki Commons.

Though the details are sketchy, the Kido Butai proceeded on its course with strict communications discipline, giving position reports and little else. This in itself is somewhat unremarkable to serious analysts, but to conspiracy-minded Americans, it’s proof of a US government cover-up at the very highest levels.

Regardless, the Japanese force was proceeding, supposedly, under the strict control of the “government” in Tokyo, which in theory was in control of the entire mission, indeed the whole war. The story goes that there was a chance that the attack on Pearl Harbor–which had required a complete redirection of the IJN from a mid-ocean ambush of the USN strategy that had been planned since 1922 in a matter of months–would not be needed. This is an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying version of what was likely the truth: the Pearl Harbor attack was going in no matter what because stopping the samurai from going to war was not going to be possible. After 1938 they controlled the economy; by October 1941 they controlled the government outright. The negotiations with the diplomats in Washington were, as FDR’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull thought at the time, a stalling tactic.

The “go code” message “Climb Mount Niitaka 1208,” has been widely asserted to have been sent by Yamamoto Isoroku, commander in chief of the Combined Fleet, to Nagumo Chuichi, commanding the Kido Butai, on 2 December 1941. This has been interpreted to mean that the attack on Pearl Harbor was to go ahead as scheduled on 8 December (Japan time). There are many different versions of this episode, but none of these versions answer the simple question that any good analyst would ask:

WHO authorized Yamamoto to send such a message?  

THAT part of the story is left out, and there is no evidence of any discussions of any “authorizations” by Tojo Hideki’s government that would have unleashed the attack–or how a lack of any such instruction would have restrained it–outside the movies. In other words, the military government (bakufu) that ran the country didn’t appear to authorize it. Huh.

So, who was waiting for word from the negotiations in Washington? Not Yamamoto, apparently. Beyond that, where are the similar messages to all the other Japanese commands headed to Malaya and the Philippines at the same time, and those poised to strike at Hong Kong? Was it the same message for everyone? Was the Imperial Japanese Army going to be taking orders from the Navy? Really?

Another nagging part of this story is the “1208” tacked on to the end of the message, always interpreted at December 8th. Huh. Some code, eh? One would think that if they went to the trouble of encoding the actual order, the date would be too, yeah?

The “Climb Mount Niitaka” message was purportedly intercepted by the Americans and the British, and probably by the Russians (though that is unclear in the “sources”). Its significance was, of course, missed, or misinterpreted. Trouble is, there’s no original source on any intercepts, nor any record or memory of discussions of any meaning attached to such intercepts at any level. More than that, the “East wind rain” message that signaled imminent hostilities that was supposedly also sent sometime before the Pearl Harbor attack wasn’t transmitted according to Japanese sources and was almost certainly never intercepted by anyone.

The two supposed coded messages combine in some minds into a missed opportunity to alert Hawaii and minimize the loss of life on 7 December. However, they are more critical to post-war views that Japan was a rational actor, that they genuinely wished for peace, and that by extension the American peace overtures in 1945 should have been more strident…and generous. Without the “Climb Mount Niitake” message, the Pearl Harbor strike was merely ordered by a duplicitous regime, not allowed by a more reasonable one.

So, after all this…what about the Kido Butai? It was ordered to attack Pearl Harbor regardless of what happened elsewhere because the entire Southern Operation (seizure of the Duch East Indies) was the objective. Neutralizing the US Pacific Fleet, even if briefly, was seen as an essential element of that operation. These coded messages were needed for other purposes, and have no basis in fact or hard evidence to support the contention that they were final instructions.

Waking the sleeping dragon/tiger of the US was concerning, but not restricting. If the carriers were there, excellent and most desired; if not, it would have been impossible not to attack whatever ships and facilities were there.

Think about that.

Next week, I start a series called “Pearl Harbor Reconsidered” to frame the publication (finally) of Why the Samurai Lost Japan on or about 15 December. The series will explore Japan’s strategic and tactical options for that December in 1941, including the folly of the mythical Third Strike on Pearl Harbor. Hope you enjoy it.

National Cake Day…who’s idea was this? No one knows, apparently.  And yet, the world continues to turn…

The word cake to denote baked goods is said to be derived from the Old Norse “kaka.” However, “kaka” in English is borrowed from the Maori and used to describe a species of birds native to New Zealand…or, for children and gremlins, poop.

No one can know how many different kinds of cake there are worldwide. There are countless recipes, some are bread-like, some rich and elaborate, and many are centuries old. Cakes typically contain a combination of flour, sugar, eggs, and butter or oil, with some variety of liquid which may be milk or water, along with a leavening agent such as yeast or baking powder. Flavorful ingredients are often added, for example; chopped nuts, fresh, candied or dried fruit, fruit purees or extracts. Cake can be enjoyed with or without frosting or icing…or eating, as these two examples show.

Happy birthday…cake!?

Look hard enough on the internet, and you can find some even more remarkable cakes. Since I strive to make this a family-friendly blog, I shall avoid including the more salacious images or links to them. The cake to the left is one of the tamer images I found on a particular site.

There are several “cake” days (and a month), according to at least one source. Here’s a list With luck, I won’t be punished for blatantly stealing it:

  • National Cake Month – February
  • National Lemon Chiffon Cake Day – March 29
  • National Hazelnut Cake Day – June 1
  • National Applesauce Cake Day – June 6
  • National German Chocolate Cake Day – June 12
  • National Angel Food Cake Day – October 10
  • National Cake Day – November 26



Demologos, Why the Samurai Lost Japan, and National Cat Day

Demologos, laid down on or about 29 October 1814, was a floating wooden battery built to defend New York Harbor and the first warship in the world to be driven by a steam engine. She was ordered by Congress in June 1814, during the War of 1812 but wasn’t finished until that conflict was over. Demologos (Latin for “voice of the people”) was designed by Robert Fulton and was commissioned as Fulton after his death in 1815. Demologos never fired a shot in anger, saw no action, and actually sailed under steam for exactly a day, carrying President Madison on a boat ride.


Conceptual Drawing of Demologos, Not as built.

Demologos was built to carry thirty 32-pounder guns all around and two 100-pounder Columbiads fore and aft. She served mostly as a hulk or receiving ship, and had her engines removed in 1821 and a two-masted lateen rig installed. While she was lying in ordinary the British and French governments expressed some interest in buying her, but the discussions ended as soon as they started. She was destroyed by a powder explosion 4 June 1829.

The most remarkable things about Demologos was her catamaran hull (not duplicated for warships until the 21st century) and single internal paddle wheel that protected the delicate machinery from gunfire. Future floating batteries and paddlewheel warships worldwide would emulate this construction, as would the City-class ironclad vessels built on inland rivers during the American Civil War.

American innovation often took leaps like this in the 19th century, but Japan in the 19th century went from having no railroads at all in 1854 to 5,000 miles by 1906. Doing this required far more than just buying trains and track: they had to adopt everything Western from clocks and calendars to calculus, coal-mining, and road-building to get there. In the meantime, they suffered three civil wars, imposed a constitution, introduced political parties, and modernized their military. In two generations, Japan technologically went from where Europe had been in about 1600 to where Europe was in 1900.


Cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan

But doing all this was neither easy or cheap. Japan was still an agrarian nation when it defeated Russia in 1904. Not a single Japanese capital ship at the battle of Tsushima was designed in Japan. Gold reserves, a recent innovation in Japan, dipped to less than three week’s expenditures by the end of the war: Japan was paying for naval artillery fuses from Britain with tons of raw silk–having run out of cash–by the end of the war.

These and many other fascinating bits and pieces of history that you probably didn’t already know can be found in Why the Samurai Lost Japan, available in December. Look for it either on this blog or at your favorite bookseller.

Today is also National Cat Day which, while celebrating felines of all descriptions, was founded by the Animal Miracle Foundation in 2005, since shut down. The intent was to raise awareness of homeless and sheltered cats and help raise money for their support. Though the AMF was accused of fraud in Portland and ended operations, the quasi-holiday has been adopted by many others, for both charitable and profit-making reasons.

This is what National Cat Day was meant to prevent

Those of us who have had cats recognize that they would as soon eat our livers as they would have us scratch their ears. We also must understand that modern domestic felines are perhaps the most prolific of all pets when it comes to reproducing save the rabbit. Feral cats in some areas are a severe problem enhanced by their prodigious rate of reproduction. In my neck of the woods, coyotes come into town to hunt them, finding them among the garbage that they also scavenge in.

But, yes, our domestic animals do have their moments, though, for the most part, our house cats are grifters. Dogs include their humans in their packs; cats include theirs in their staffs. Most dogs are at least alarm systems; cats are, mainly, foot warmers at best. The late Terry Pratchett, a scrivener of comic tales, once wrote:

Cats were once worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.


William Boeing, Popular History and National Hair Day

Gonna try something different this month. Bear with me.

William Boeing, the founder of the Boeing Aircraft Company and United Airlines, was born on this day in 1881 to well-to-do parents in Detroit, Michigan. At an early age, he went into the lumber business in the American Northwest, becoming fascinated with aviation after seeing an airplane demonstration in 1909. He took flying lessons from Glenn Martin and bought a Martin TA floatplane. When it was damaged, Boeing decided to build a better one himself.

Boeing B&W

The outcome of that was the Boeing B&W or Model 1, named for the co-designers Boeing himself and George Westervelt. There were two built–the aircraft above is a replica. The two units that were made were offered to the US Navy but eventually sold to New Zealand. Soon afterward, the US Navy ordered fifty Boeing Model C training seaplanes to prepare pilots for WWI, Boeing’s first real financial success.

After WWI, Boeing built airmail aircraft, fighters, seaplanes, and flying boats, producing the first aircraft intended for passengers, the Boeing 80 in 1928, followed by the 247 in 1933, recognizable as the first “modern” airliner.

As the firm grew, Boeing expanded his reach into commercial airline routes, eventually founding what would become United Airlines. That ended in 1934 when Congress compelled all aircraft manufacturers to divest themselves of their interest in airmail routes and airlines. Boeing himself backed away from the day-to-day business by 1937, exploiting a growing interest in horses.

Personally, popular history would excoriate Boeing for monopolistic practices (about which they would be right…sort of) and for racist attitudes for founding some communities north of Seattle that had segregationist covenants. These were fairly typical of the time, but contemporary historians also dismiss this explanation because, well, because.

Popular history also holds that Boeing’s business affiliation with the military made him a war-monger. That his firm built the B-29 Superfortress that would be used to firebomb Japan and deliver the atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki only proves the case. So there.

While Walter Boeing had nothing to do with either starting the war or personally with the development of the B-29 or the atomic bomb, he gets at least part of the blame for them in some circles. Boeing died 28 September 1956, long before anyone thought to blame him personally for the tools of war and industry his company provided.


Cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan

The illustration over on the left is the cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan which is now in its final stages and is scheduled to be available by the end of the year. The subtitle, A Study of Miscalculation and Folly, is a not particularly glib attempt to summarize our conclusions.

Popular history and even academic history has been selling one of two versions of Japan in WWII. The first is what could be called a triumphalist version of the United States clawing their way back from the smoke and ruins of Pearl Harbor to dictating a just peace to a thoroughly prostrated Japan after whipping them like a poor relation.

The second is more nuanced but still ends the same way. Some popular historians and a few academics have questioned the “true” motives for the American response to the initial Japanese attacks. Some have even wondered out loud if there hadn’t been some very deep race-based motives for “pushing” Japan to war with the sanctions that started in 1933 and concluded in 1941. After all, at least one American naval officer after the Pearl Harbor attacks publicly stated that he wanted to exterminate all Japanese.

Did race play a part? Unlikely. Though John Dower in War Without Mercy tries to sell this message, frankly he does not connect the dots between attitudes and behavior on the part of either the West or the Japanese. The Japanese were as convinced of the superiority of their race as were the Germans, though they didn’t stoop to genocide the same way. The West, as suspicious of other races as other races were of them, was in no way particularly “racist” about how their war was fought against any of their enemies.

The goals of Japan for their conflict against the West in 1941 were both simple and complex. They earnestly expected an easy victory, piggybacking on Germany’s anticipated defeat of the Soviet Union. At the same time, they expected Asia to follow their “natural” leadership in resisting further encroachments into their territories.

Why the Samurai Lost Japan isn’t a popular history in the sense that it reads in the “USA triumphant” vein or in the “Japan was a victim of western capitalist/racist greed.” It is a study of why a supposedly defunct subgroup of Japanese society reached across the Pacific to engage in a trans-oceanic war with the leading industrial power of the time, expecting to succeed in their goals–but not “win” the war in the conventional sense. It is a study of miscalculation and folly on the part of not only Japan but of nearly everyone else that affected the samurai’s fateful decision to go to war. Look for it in December.

The lovely lass above is celebrating National Hair Day, proclaimed in 2017 by the National Day Calendar at the behest of NuMe, a purveyor of hair care products. I personally don’t get it (except to clean it out of the tub drain) but I don’t have to.

Hair, as we know it, is endemic to human society, as it is to all mammals–in fact, it helps define us, in part.



Define us…how? Is this definition or is this just showing off? But then there…this…which is…what?



Suffice it to say I’m glad I don’t have to clean your drains. My hair…as you may appreciate, I don’t have that much more than I did here…

JDB_001 001

Your author, about age 2 or so.

Keep your cards and letters coming in, folks.

Pearl Harbor Planning and National Punctuation Day

Ah, late September in the Great Lakes…the colors, the light frost, the leaves in the gutters, the beds to clean up, the garage to get ready for snow…yeah, great. At least that air conditioning compressor isn’t running non-stop.

On 24 September 1541 Theophrastus von Hohenheim, better known to history as Paracelsus, died in Salzburg. Generally thought of as the father of toxicology, this physician, astrologer, and alchemist emphasized the value of observation in addition to received wisdom in the practice of medicine, a true pioneer in a field full of pioneers in the Renniassance. This date in 1869 is known to history at Black Friday when the “gold ring” of Jay Gould and James Fisk tried to corner the market on gold on the New York Gold Exchange. The speculators tried to advantage of bits of inside information on US government gold sales which backfired, triggering increased government species sales rather than decreased, cratering the prices and causing a panic on Wall Street. And on 25 September 1864, the Warren Commission’s final report on the assassination of President Kennedy was presented to President Johnson and made public three days later. Because of the nature of the Kennedy assassination and the tenor of the times, the conclusions–that Oswald acted alone in the killing of the president, and that Ruby acted alone to kill Oswald–have always been controversial. Today is also National Cherries Jubilee Day (no one knows why just go with it) and Schwenkfelder Thanksgiving (the Schwenkfelders are a small Protestant sect dating from the Reformation; they have celebrated their deliverance to Philadelphia since 1733). But today we talk about hasty-yet-brilliant-in-their-way plans, and about ending sentences.

Onishi Takijiro had been studying feasibility without specific information about the November 1940 Fleet Air Arm attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, which didn’t reach Japan until early 1942.

On this day in 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) began their preliminary research for a proposed attack on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. Most readers would take careful note that this was only 74 days–two months and change–before the attack took place. While the general offensive against the West was authorized on 2 July, the Pearl Harbor operation was something of a question mark. While Genda Minoru’s tactical air attack plan dated from February 1941, Onishi Takijiro had been studying the feasibility since November 1940–albeit without specific information about the November 1940 Fleet Air Arm attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto, which didn’t reach Japan until early 1942.

Yamamoto Isoroku managed to sell it to his fellow admirals, but many of them had little faith in the power of aircraft to sink maneuvering warships at sea: before December 1941, it had never been done. 

The issue was that the IJN was entirely unprepared for such an attack. Since the 1920s, the entire fleet had been built around a mid-ocean ambush of the US Pacific Fleet as it made its way across the ocean. Though discredited for years, the plan and doctrine had its adherents throughout the halls of Japanese power. Yamamoto Isoroku, the head of the Combined Fleet, had the Pearl Harbor strike in his head and managed to sell it to his fellow admirals, but many of them had little faith in the power of aircraft to sink maneuvering warships at sea: before December 1941, it had never been done.

There was no master switch to throw that could shift a generation’s worth of planning, doctrine, training and ship design from a mid-ocean ambush to throwing a force of projection across a third of the Earth’s surface.

So the entire fleet had to be retrained, reallocated, and reorganized for what it was to do in December 1941, and that took a great deal of time. More, the resources for such a long-distance air strike had to be gathered, and the rest of the fleet had to be re-purposed to support the Imperial Japanese Army’s (IIA) attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines. There was no master switch to throw that could shift a generation’s worth of planning, doctrine, training and ship design from a mid-ocean ambush to throwing a force of projection across a third of the Earth’s surface.

…the brilliantly-executed air attacks that Sunday morning were primarily meant to destroy the key elements of the Pacific Fleet, and that was about the only thing they could have done.

Nonetheless, it was done, and starting in September the actual nature of the area was carefully studied and scrutinized. The primary targets were to be the American aircraft carriers–failing that, there were no primaries. Though much ink has been spilled since 1941 on the value of hitting the fuel storage tanks and workshops–the supposed targets of the never-launched IJN third strike on 7 December 1941–it is difficult to assess what damage could have been done to them. First, it is difficult at best and impossible at worst to tell the difference between a warehouse and an engine workshop from an aircraft traveling at 300 plus miles an hour while someone is shooting at you. Thus, target identification was problematic. Second, attacking fuel oil bunkers with the bombs available to single-engined aircraft primarily intended to sink ships might cause some damage, but anything close to total or catastrophic was unlikely. Third, while single-engined planes might have damaged the drydocks and other facilities with their bombs, these are much smaller targets than ships, and thus hitting them hard enough to cause lasting damage would have been lucky at best. For these reasons, the brilliantly-executed air attacks that Sunday morning were primarily meant to destroy the critical elements of the Pacific Fleet, and that was about the only thing they could have done.

The plans that were undertaken in September 1941 were drawn up with hope as a planning tool: the hope was that the US would be cowed to the negotiating table by a series of lightning attacks. As others have learned to their peril, hope is an inferior contingency plan. Our book, Why the Samurai Lost Japan, published at the end of this year, covers this and many other aspects of the Pacific War.

Now, no one in their right minds really knows anything about National Punctuation Day, and absolutely no one would actually found such a thing let alone build a website around it, right? Well, turns out that’s wrong. Someone did. A fella named Jeff Rubin founded National Punctuation Day and made a website. He’s the publisher of a newsletter called The Exclamation Point that goes on and on about punctuation. As my editor and verbal sparring partner Frank will tell you, I’m personally a punctuation minimalist. I eschew as many commas as I can get away with, but that also tends to lead to long sentences that he has to break up in our laborious editing process for everything but this here blog. But he bears with me as much as I believe any friend of…well, Clinton had just been elected when we met. Leave it at that.

Anyway, today is National Punctuation Day, and if you write anything at all today (recent research indicates that most people actually write less than a thousand words a day), please pay attention to what you’re doing. Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynn Truss is an excellent and easy-to-read guideline much more approachable than most other guides. And, as a general rule, there are certain parts of punctuation that not only baffle the “experts” but are not published anywhere because English is simply too flexible. There are rules, but not everyone agrees on all of them.

Tenbun Hokke Disturbance and Left-Hander’s Day

August drags on…nearly the middle of the month now…the heat is unrelenting…the air conditioner drones day and night…resist…temptation…to wish…for January…

OK, 13 August. Most remarkable things happened on this day. For example, in 3114 BC, the Mayans started their calendar; so would somebody tell me, please…how did they know that it would be the middle of August? (ba-dump-bump). On 13 August 1851, Johnny Clem was born in Newark, Ohio; he managed to join the Union Army sometime during the Civil War, but there’s no evidence he was hurt at Shiloh, or even that he was there, making the “Johnny Shiloh” moniker the stuff of legends. Nonetheless, he did retire in 1915 a brigadier general, the last Civil War veteran serving in the Army.  On this day in 1913, British metallurgist Henry Brearley announced his formulation of 12.8% chromium and 0.24% carbon as an additive to steel, making what some claim was the true first stainless steel. There had been patents for stainless as early as the 1820s, but the formulation of a minimum of 10% chromium wasn’t established until 1911. As in anything else industrial, the bragging rights for being “first” are just that. And on 13 August 1953, Omar Bradley finally caught the brass ring in the US Army’s merry-go-round by being named Army Chief of Staff, working for his old friend Dwight Eisenhower, the recently-elected president. It’s also National Prosecco Day because some vintner says it is and the National Day Calendar agreed. But today we’re talking about Japanese warrior monks and southpaws.

This was one example that disproves the idea that all Buddhists are and have always been peaceful, and was one of many examples of the Japanese tradition of Gekokujō.

On 13 August (traditional date 27 July) 1536, Buddhist Sōhei (literally “monk warriors”) from Kyōto’s Enryaku Temple set fire to 21 rival Nichiren temples throughout Kyoto in what has come to be known as the Tenbun Hokke Disturbance. This action was just one example of many that disprove the idea that all Buddhists are and have always been peaceful, and was one of many examples of the Japanese tradition of Gekokujō.

The warriors-monks protected land as extensions of their patrons, becoming a significant factor in the spread of Buddhism and the development of different schools during the Kamakura (1185-1333) period.

The Buddhist warrior monks of feudal Japan held considerable power, at certain points in Japan’s history, they obliged the imperial and military governments to collaborate. By the 12th century, the Go-Shirakawa Emperor complained that he could not control the monks of Enryaku-Ji sect. These monks of different sects acted as auxiliary armies for Japan’s rival daimyos, often marching alongside their patrons on campaigns. The prominence of the sōhei rose in parallel with the ascendancy of the Tendai Buddhist school’s influence between the 10th and 17th centuries. The warrior-monks protected land as extensions of their patrons and intimidated rival schools of Buddhism, becoming a significant factor in the spread of Buddhism and the development of different schools during the Kamakura (1185-1333) period.

After the Tenbun Hokke (so called for the period of Japan’s history ) Disturbance, the Ashikaga shogunate in Kyoto found it almost impossible to control this band of brothers and turned against them.

The warrior monks living high in the mountains above the (southern) imperial capital were intended to protect Kyoto from evil, but in fact, they were there because theirs was the most militarily powerful sect in proximity to the imperial throne, and thus to the resources of money, food, and influence.  After the Tenbun Hokke (so-called for the period of Japan’s history ) Disturbance, the Ashikaga shogunate in Kyoto found it almost impossible to control this band of brothers and turned against them.

Revolts both small and large were commonplace. One source claims that there were at least two Gekokujō revolts large and small each year for nearly four centuries, and often more.

But other daimyos and other priorities got in the way, not the least of which was the tradition of Gekokujō. Literally, this word means “the low shall rule the high,” and by the 15th century, it had come to be a matter of faith in Japan among the samurai and those who served them that was as deep as any religion. As odd as it may seem to a more ordered society, Gekokujō was seen by peasants, monks, minor lords and even groups of artisans or merchants to be tacit permission to violently rebel against an overlord. Revolts both small and large were commonplace. One source claims that there were at least two Gekokujō revolts large and small each year for nearly four centuries, and often more.

Gekokujō slept for a time in the 19th century, only to be resurrected in the 20th by the militant neo-samurai who provoked “incidents” that led Japan farther along the path to war, and who refused to even think of their oncoming defeat against the West in 1945. 

In 1571, as part of a program to remove all potential rivals and unite the country, shogun Nobunaga Oda ended this Buddhist militancy by attacking the Enryaku-Ji temple complex, leveling the buildings and slaughtering the monks. Other, less powerful warrior monk sects were similarly treated for the next twenty years, but the rise of the Zen Buddhists did more to eliminate (or convert) the militants who got away from the purges. But the Gekokujō tradition remained after the Tokugawa shogunate started in 1604. Gekokujō slept for a time in the 19th century, only to be resurrected in the 20th by the militant neo-samurai who provoked “incidents” that led Japan farther along the path to war, and who refused to even think of their oncoming defeat against the West in 1945.

Now, today is either International Left-Hander’s Day or it’s just Left-Hander’s Day: sources differ. The point is that we’re supposed to be either celebrating or commemorating or just recognizing all those southpaws out there today.

But there’s a fly in that soup. In the first place, the very nature of “handedness” isn’t all that clear. Some of the eggheads with more research money than sense claim that the reason the 90/20 ratio of righties to lefties exists is that the evolutionary models all show that the more social an animal, the more they tend to be commonly-handed. Regrettably, these same people can’t really say why such a distinction exists, anyway. Some say genetics, others say the environment.


Famous Lefty…genetics or environment?

Famously, the Housecarls of early medieval Britain were all left-handed. Being some of the most massive men in England wasn’t enough, and all carrying the most feared weapons of the age–the heavy battleax–wasn’t enough. These guys could all step inside any shield wall and batter it to pieces on their opponents’ off-side. Regrettably, for Harold in 1066, they couldn’t stop arrows that easily.

Nearly everyone who went to a parochial school before the 1970s who was unfortunate enough to claim to have been left-handed was converted to right-handedness without fail, but often without success. The reason for this attempted conversion was old but was not because of the Latin sinister (left) and dexter (right). It was because the inkwells on 19th-century school desks were all on the right, and because dragging one’s sleeve through the wet ink when writing from left to right soiled the robes or other sleeves with impossible-to-remove ink.

To read one study of left-handedness, one would be given to believe that more top athletes were left-handed than were right-handed, but that doesn’t wash. Left-handed pitchers (southpaws, so-called because of the geographic orientation of important early baseball fields) have a slight edge in the game but not as disproportionate as might be expected, as are left-handed batters (strike zone is different). Left-handed golfers are rare, however, and almost unknown in the shooting sports. Only goaltenders are common lefties in hockey; left-handed quarterbacks are in smaller proportions than they are in the general population.

The woman above’s plight is, of course, made-up but emblematic of our modern culture of wanting something to be recognized for. I was ambidextrous as a lad but gradually switched to right-only, even though I always wore my watch on my right for unclear reasons, and I still do. A story my mother used to tell about me in kindergarten was that my teacher was convinced I needed to go to a special school because I couldn’t write correctly. My dad looked at a sample, went to a mirror and held it up: it was perfectly backward. “It’s OK with his right hand, but backward with his left,” Dad told her. “Don’t worry about it.” Dad, apparently, had the same problem as a kid and outgrew it by 2nd Grade, and so did I. I’ve heard since that this kind of thing is not that unusual. That my dad survived it, however, probably was.





Meiji Emperor and National Father-In-Law Day

Dog days of July…hot and getting hotter in the Great Lakes. “Dog days” are:

  • Mid-July through mid-August or,
  • 3 July to 11 August


  • Dogs are said to go mad/contract rabies;
  • Sirius the Dog Star is visible in the northern hemisphere within that window;
  • Someone called them that long ago and it stuck.

Take your pick. The ancient Egyptians paid attention to Sirius because it coincided with the periodic flooding of the Nile, which enriched the otherwise desert soil with nutrients. The Greeks, not relying on a periodic flood for survival, thought that same star just made the world hotter. But 19th-century American farmers thought that rain during the dog days made for a bad harvest. And they had a rhyme (From the Old Farmer’s Almanac):

Dog Days bright and clear
Indicate a happy year;
But when accompanied by rain,
For better times, our hopes are vain.

But 30 July was an eventful day in history. On this day in 1419 was the First Defenestration of Prague, when Bohemian Hussites (a Catholic sect) threw a burgomeister and several town council members out a town hall window (that’s what defenestration means, by the way: to throw something or someone out a window). This action triggered the Hussite Wars (1419-1434) and a number of crusades that I just don’t have space to go into here and now. Yes, there was a Second (and better known) Defenestration of Prague in 1618 that triggered the Thirty Year’s War. And, on 30 July 1898, the “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck died in Friedrichsruh in Schleswig-Holstein. Bismarck had been responsible for the machinations that created the Concert of Europe in the late 19th century, the one that created the German Empire out of a customs union and put Wilhelm II on the throne of it; Willie didn’t like being restrained, so he had fired Bismarck in 1890. Finally, on 30 July 1997, Emperor Bao Dai–the last emperor of Vietnam–died in Paris. Born Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh Thụy, was the last of the Nguyen emperors who ruled that part of the world from 2879 BC (traditional) to the abolition of the monarchy in 1945. Bao Dai was briefly Head of State of South Vietnam, but after 1949 he spent most of the rest of his life in France. Today is also National Cheesecake Day (for reasons beyond understanding) and National Whistleblower’s Day (commemorating a Congressional resolution passed in 1778). But today we’re talking about the death of another emperor, and about fathers-in-law.

Less than a year after Mutsuhito’s birth, Perry’s squadron muscled its way into Tokyo, and Japan was never quite the same.

The Meiji Emperor Mutsuhito was born Sachinomiya in Kyoto on 3 November 1852 to the Komei Emperor and a favored concubine, Nakayama Yoshiko. That the boy survived to adulthood was both a good omen that suggested he was destined to lead Japan to great things, and a medical miracle, as five of his brothers and sisters (and ten of his fifteen children) died in childhood. Less than a year after Mutsuhito’s birth, Perry’s squadron muscled its way into Tokyo, and Japan was never quite the same.

By the time the Komei Emperor died in January 1867 and the fourteen-year-old Meiji Emperor was enthroned, Japan was ripe for civil war.

There are conflicting accounts of Mutsuhito’s childhood, but he was given his adult name in 1860 not long after he was named the heir to the Komei Emperor. By that time the great daimyos were making restive noises about the Tokugawa shogunate and their bakufu–all the more restive because those nasty treaties with the West were bringing foreign influence into Japan. By the time the Komei Emperor died in January 1867, and the fourteen-year-old Meiji Emperor was enthroned, Japan was ripe for civil war.

The seventeen-year-old Meiji Emperor had better advisors and had the allegiance of the great daimyos that his father did not. 

Emperors in Japan had always been more-or-less powerless figureheads, but the daimyos were using his happiness or unhappiness as an excuse for what they did. The Meiji Emperor, very early, wasn’t immune, but by the end of the Boshin War in June 1869, he was ready and willing to take some command of his country. The official change had been made a year before, but the seventeen-year-old Meiji Emperor had better advisors than his father and had the allegiance of the great daimyos that his father did not.

The Meiji Constitution made the War and Navy ministers co-equal with the civil government, enabling the samurai in the Army and Navy to control the destiny of the country.

As Japan modernized and industrialized externally, its social structure and core values could not move ahead at the same pace. The samurai–the class of swaggering swordsmen who had dominated the archipelago for centuries– was a dominant physical, social and economic influence whether their traditions had been abolished or not. When the Meiji Constitution (issued in his name but he didn’t write it) took effect in 1890, it enabled political parties and an elected lower house (Diet), but real power was reserved for those who wielded it in the non-elected cabinet: traditional lords and strongmen. Worse, the Meiji Constitution made the War and Navy ministers co-equal with the civil government, enabling the samurai in the Army and Navy to control the destiny of the country.

The Meiji Emperor had a son and five daughters who lived to adulthood. Yoshihito would become the Taisho Emperor on the Meiji Emperor’s death on 30 July 1912. The Meiji Emperor, after all of that, was primarily a pacifist who penned this poem:

The seas of the four directions—
all are born of one womb:
why, then, do the wind and waves rise in discord?

His grandson, the Showa Emperor Hirohito, read this poem in an Imperial Conference in September 1941 to show his displeasure at the samurai’s growing threat of war with the West.

Today is also National Father-in-Law day for reasons unknown. Generally speaking, fathers-in-law are older gentlemen who are the parents of one’s spouse who are privileged with some title associated with “father.” My quasi-step-son-in-law has never, to my knowledge, acknowledged any such relationship with me, and my step-father-in-law Howard, an estimable gentleman that I didn’t meet until my wife and I had been married for 22 years, has never asked anything of me at all. There’s a great deal to be said for having your in-laws always living in another time zone, though in-laws generally get a bad rap that they may or may not deserve.

The trouble is, some fathers-in-law come with nothing but trouble: the guy at the top of this blog was the father-in-law from hell for Galeazzo Ciano. Ciano served Italy from 1934 onward, and when his government dismissed him, he fled to Germany to escape his country’s wrath after his ouster in September 1943. Nope, guess again: the Germans turned him over to Papa Benny, who had his fellow fascists declare him guilty of treason, then try him, sit him in a chair and shoot him. Gee, thanks, Papa.

So, for all those of you who have fathers-in-law who weren’t (or aren’t) like Mussolini, think pleasant thoughts about the old boy today. For those who are, hope your day it at least quiet.

And in News of the Future-Past, on this day in 2018 Beezelum (pronounced “Smith”),  Professor of Studies-Studies at The Miskatonic University Extension-Wherever, announced, “Beezelum has determined that reality as you know it does not truly exist in time and space because it lacks definition.” Beezelum, who eschews titles of all kinds and whose personal pronoun is “Deity of Deities,” insisted that “reality, as it is now known, can only exist in non-sis-gendered racially defined time and ethnically-challenged and redefined non-space, and therefore does not deserve the distinction of being real.” To further study this post-Derridasist pseudonarrative, Deity of Deities announced a new studies program intended to redefine definition and is seeking a grant of $1,000,000,000,000 from the US Department of Education for the effort. Contacted for further information, a Department of Education spokes-entity replied “what?”

Now you don’t know that either, future archivists.