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USS Hornet and National Reconciliation Day

April already? Wow, what happened to winter? Oh, yeah, a new furnace, a busted toe while chopping ice, and another year on the roof. That’s what happened to winter. But hey, yesterday was Easter, so spring is just around the corner…for most of us in the Northern Hemisphere; you down south, yep, winter’s just around the corner.

So, 2 April. Charlemagne, king of Franks and Lombards and Holy Roman Emperor (at the time about half the known world) was born somewhere in Frankia (part of modern France) on 2 April 742. On this day in 1513, Ponce de Leon landed somewhere between modern St. Augustine and Melbourne Beach and claimed Florida (“land of flowers” in Spanish) for his masters in Spain. And on 2 April 1865, the Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee were forced out of their defenses at Petersburg, Virginia; that night, the Confederate government broke up and fled south, making the Southern Confederacy a dead issue. Also on this day in 1872 Samuel FB Morse, the guy with the keys and the code, died in New York.  On 2 April 1917, Jeanette Rankin first assumed her seat in the US House of Representatives, the same day that Woodrow Wilson asked the Congress for a declaration of war against Germany: she would vote against it. Speaking of wars, the Falklands Islands Crisis/Conflict/War began on this day in 1982 when Argentina invaded the islands. Today is also National Ferret Day and National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day. But today, we’re talking about the Doolittle Raid, and about reconciliation.

On 2 April 1942, USS Hornet (CV-8) departed San Francisco on what looked like a ferry mission to somewhere in the Pacific. Her decks were crowded with sixteen B-25 medium bombers and, as everyone knew, those airplanes were too large to be recovered on a carrier deck, even if they could take off. Therefore, it had to have been a ferry mission: even the bomber crews half-believed it. Well…

Wiki Commons
B-25 Mitchell medium bomber said to be that of Doolittle himself, launching 18 April 1942, from USS Hornet.

James Doolittle and his little band of bombers had intended to launch about 500 miles east of the Japanese Home Islands on about 18 or 19 April, but their plan was foiled by a picket line of Japanese vessels that included fishing boats and a 70-ton patrol craft Nitto Maru. that the US didn’t know anything about before they literally ran into them on 18 April. The intention was to have the B-25s bomb Japan, then fly on to join Claire Chennault’s airmen in China, but most of them wouldn’t make it that far.

What radars there were in Japan, and a bulk of the air observers were watching for a sneak attack from mainland Asia to the north and west, not from the sea to the east.

The true story here isn’t the well-known Doolittle Raid, but the lesser-well-known Japanese preparations for such attacks, the Japanese response to the attacks, and what happened afterward. Japan, unlike most histories of WWII say, was ready for an attack on the Home Islands, but not from the sea. Most Home Island air defenses were oriented to detect and intercept an attack from the Soviet Union. What radars there were in Japan, and a bulk of the air observers were watching for a sneak attack from mainland Asia to the north and west, not from the sea to the east.

The brave patrol boat Nitto Maru got its warning off just before one of the Hornet’s escorting cruisers, USS Nashville (CL-43), sank her with gunfire, capturing four of the crew.

But the air defense of the islands was an Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) responsibility, and the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) felt it imperative to watch the seaward side of the islands. The IJN set up their cordons from 400 to 750 statute miles away from Japan, calculating that the first line would detect an aircraft carrier strike at least two days before any attack could be undertaken. The brave patrol boat Nitto Maru got its warning off just before one of the Hornet’s escorting cruisers, USS Nashville (CL-43), sank her with gunfire, capturing four of the crew.

Therefore, when Tokyo received the message from the patrol line, they believed they had at least a day before any air attacks could be mounted.

But the warning didn’t say that Hornet was carrying twin-engined bombers, if indeed Nitto Maru saw them (the record isn’t clear). In addition, only one aircraft carrier in Task Force 16 was spotted, probably USS Enterprise (CV-6), which carried no bombers.  Therefore, when Tokyo received the message from the patrol line, they believed they had at least a day before any air attacks could be mounted.

When the first of the Doolittle Raiders were spotted over Japan’s eastern coast at about 11:00 Tokyo time, the spotting stations were told that what they were seeing simply had to be a large formation of birds.

The defenses of Japan were commanded by Higashikuni Naruhiko, an Imperial prince, career IJA officer and uncle-in-law to the Showa Emperor Hirohito. Higashikuni was a capable officer but lacked imagination. Though he was aware of the limitations of Japan’s homeland defense, he, like most of the IJA, felt that a serious attack on the Home Islands could not be mounted from aircraft carriers. On the morning of 18 April, he was alerted to the presence of at least one aircraft carrier at the outer limit of the early warning cordon (that the IJN had told the IJA about just that morning), but was assured by his staff that no air attack was to be expected before the next day. However, IJN officers familiar with US aircraft carrier doctrine were not sanguine that there was only one American carrier in the task force. When the first of the Doolittle Raiders were spotted over Japan’s eastern coast at about 11:00 Tokyo time, the spotting stations were told that what they were seeing simply had to be a large formation of birds.

 Japan’s resources were so thin that no Japanese radar even by 1945 was as accurate, powerful, or rugged at Allied units dating from 1940.

About ten minutes before the first bombs dropped, the warning sirens started going off, and the intercepting fighters were launched. The antiaircraft batteries opened fire soon thereafter. It was obvious that day that neither the Ki-27 fighters that were used for homeland defense nor the 75 mm antiaircraft guns without target predictors that made up a bulk of the batteries were adequate even against these low and fairly slow threats. The Nates (Allied code name) simply didn’t have the firepower, and the 75 mm’s lacked range and power over large aircraft. These inadequacies were addressed as quickly and as simply as Japan’s resources could, but one consequence was that the numerous 75 mm anti-aircraft guns were shipped out to defend island outposts, and often were turned into ground defense weapons. More work on radar did improve the early warning network somewhat, but Japan’s resources were so thin that no Japanese radar even by 1945 was as accurate, powerful, or rugged at Allied units dating from 1940.

The strengthening of the Home Island defenses was expensive enough; the ships, planes, and men that would be expended for the rest of 1942 on islands that meant nothing to Japan but everything to the Allies would be the beginning of Japan’s downward spiral to ultimate defeat.

But the most serious consequence of the Doolittle Raid on Japan was the outrage and overreaction to that military pinprick that caused the old Eastern Operation (Midway and Hawaii) and Expanded Southern Operation (Solomons Islands and Northern Australia) to be dusted off again, and sparse resources used to stretch the frontiers of the Empire even further beyond the sustainable limits. The strengthening of the Home Island defenses was expensive enough; the ships, planes, and men that would be expended for the rest of 1942 on islands that meant nothing to Japan but everything to the Allies would be the beginning of Japan’s downward spiral to ultimate defeat.

Why the Samurai Lost, available at the end of 2018, goes into more detail on the thought processes that brought Japan to its destruction. Follow us at https://JDBCOM.COM for more information.


Today is also National Reconciliation Day in the United States, a completely unofficial observance in America. In South Africa, Reconciliation Day has been observed on 16 December since 1994 and the end of apartheid. In Australia, Reconciliation Day will be observed in the Capital Territory for the first time on 26 May 2018. In South Africa, the “reconciliation” was to correct decades of injustice under a predominantly white rule. In Australia, the effort is aimed at a recognition and remembrance of the abuses suffered by the indigenous Australian population since the European colonization of the island continent since the late 19th century.

Reconciliation in accounting and banking suggests a balancing of the books. In the Catholic faith, it’s related to Confirmation. In most contexts, the concept of reconciliation suggests a process or act of making up differences. In Australia and South Africa, this process has had definite racial and political overtones.

The idea of a National Reconciliation Day in the US was popularized by the popular newspaper columnist Ann Landers beginning in 1989 and carried on in her columns until her death in 2002. Landers urged readers to try to repair broken relationships on 2 April every year. The success of her efforts, however, are unknowable. Still, the goal is noble. I’ve had my share of broken relationships in my time, but most of those people who I’ve been alienated from are gone now. Hard to reconcile with ghosts, or with the memory of them.

 

 

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26 February Incident and National Tell A Fairy Tale Day

This is the end of February, when the last snowstorms leave their wet, heavy loads in the Great Lakes…with luck, the last of the winter. Or not.

But 28 February tells us much about the state of the world today. Valentinian I, the last to rule a united Roman Empire, was born on this day in 364. The Inquisition in Rome delivered Galileo Galilei their demand he recant his announced heliocentric beliefs on 26 February 1616. Napoleon escaped from Elba on this day in 1815, starting the Hundred Days that would end in Belgium. Levi Strauss, developer of the popular denim trousers in the US, was born on 26 February 1829 in Germany. Husband E. Kimmel, hapless commander of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941, was born on this day in Kentucky in 1882. Richard J Gatling, inventor of the first successful automatic weapon, died in New York on 26 February 1902. Also on this day in 1935, the German Luftwaffe was formed in Germany and radar was first demonstrated in England: how’s that for irony. Today is also National Pistachio Day for whatever reason. But today we’re talking about a coup in Japan, and about fairy tales.

Though the national armed forces took on the duties of the old domains, the role of the old warrior traditions and its complex-but-unstated bushido code was, with the advent of parliamentary government, becoming more subordinate to non-royal masters. 

It’s impossible to talk about the 26 February Incident in 1936 without first talking about what had happened in Japan for the previous three generations: if I did, it would make no sense. Ever since the first Westerners began to compel Japan to open their ports and markets (first the Americans, then the Russians, followed by the British, and finally the French) in the mid-19th century, there had been a steady tension among the warrior caste, called samurai. Though the Meiji Emperor supposedly abolished the samurai traditions in Japan in the 1870s, it was impossible to just wipe out centuries of tradition, attitudes and class division with a single stroke, or even with a war (in this case there were two wars or major revolts). Though the national armed forces took on the duties of the old domains, the role of the old warrior traditions and its complex-but-unstated bushido code was, with the advent of parliamentary government, becoming more subordinate to non-royal masters.

…the IJA was relatively resource-poor compared to the IJN, which created even more resentment.

By the early 20th century, with the creation of the Kwantung Army in Manchuria, hotheads in the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) had begun to prosetlyze among the junior officers the idea of an imperial “restoration,” where the emperor would eliminate the parliamentary government and restore the samurai to their rightful place in Japan, and imposing “morality”–theirs–on Japan for its own good. These hotheads got promoted, of course, and scattered throughout the IJA. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), however, was not quite as radical about their view of Japan, mostly because they worked closely with the government to get the material they wanted, which the IJA never did. As a result, the IJA was relatively resource-poor compared to the IJN, which created even more resentment.

The Imperial Way was led by an IJA general named Sadao Araki; Control by a former Kwantung Army officer named Tojo Heideki. 

Starting in 1928, a number of violent “incidents” from knife attacks to shootings were perpetrated by the myriad factions and groups within the IJA against other factions and groups or just people who disagreed with or criticized them in public. Many of the incidents were passed of without too much notice, the perpetrators receiving light punishment if they got any at all. By 1936, two factions emerged. The first called itself the Imperial Way, that advocated the abolition of the Diet and all political parties, repudiation of all international treaties, an end to compulsory education and the banishment of “western” learning, complete annexation of Manchuria, prohibition of Christianity, and the immediate seizure of the entirety of China. The other, much looser faction called itself Control, that supported some of the Imperial Way’s ideals but not how to get them. The Imperial Way was led by an IJA general named Sadao Araki; Control by a former Kwantung Army officer named Tojo Heideki.

The conspirators would murder their worst enemies in lightning moves across the Tokyo prefecture on 16 February, and invite the Showa Emperor Hirohito to take charge of Japan, just as they imagined his grandfather, the Meiji Emperor, had in 1867 (he really didn’t).

By early 1936, it was plain that the rule of law was–at least for the moment–suspended in Japan when it came to what the neo-samurai did to each other and their opponents. An order moving the IJA’s 1st Infantry Division out of Japan and to Manchuria in early February 1936 would have displaced and dispersed too many Imperial Way adherents away from the levers of power and influence, so a coup was planned. The conspirators would murder their worst enemies in lightning moves across the Tokyo prefecture on 16 February, and invite the Showa Emperor Hirohito to take charge of Japan, just as they imagined his grandfather, the Meiji Emperor, had in 1867 (he really didn’t).

They missed several other of their enemies, but also managed to disrupt the Asahi Shimbun, a liberal newspaper that the Righteous Army considered un-Japanese, and failed in their attempt to seize the Imperial Palace.

The coup started in the predawn hours of 26 February 1936 in Tokyo by an ad hoc group styling itself the Righteous Army, with part of the 1st Infantry Division taking part by capturing the Ministry of War and the Tokyo Police Department headquarters. In the meantime, the conspirators attempted to kill the Prime Minister, Okada Keisuke, but mistook him for his brother-in-law, who was shot to death. They also killed Takahashi Korekiyo, Finance Minister at the time who had been a Prime Minister, and Watanabe Jōtarō, the Inspector General of Military Education who had been a War Minister. They missed several other of their enemies, but also managed to disrupt the Asahi Shimbun, a liberal newspaper that the Righteous Army considered un-Japanese, and failed in their attempt to seize the Imperial Palace.

…in 1941 the Righteous Army finally got one of its demands granted: all political parties in Japan were merged into one IJA-controlled organization–the Imperial Rule Assistance Association–by Tojo Heideki, one of the leaders of Control.

The Showa Emperor was told of the violence early in the morning, and was never sympathetic to the Righteous Army’s goals as stated in the numerous pamphlets scattered around Tokyo. But there were factions in both the IJA and the IJN that both supported and opposed the uprising, though few others openly participated. Without additional support the coup was at a stalemate by dark on 26 February. It would be resolved on 28 February by a personal command from the Emperor. A bulk of the conspiracy’s leaders were arrested and tried for everything from murder to noblesse oblige, resulting in the execution of nineteen officers, prison terms and fines for scores of others. Several others not directly involved, including Sadao, were compelled to either resign or retire. This was the last of hundreds of incidents, and the end of the Imperial Way. Control, which no longer had a need to exist, also broke up. However, in 1941 the Righteous Army finally got one of its demands granted: all political parties in Japan were merged into one IJA-controlled organization–the Imperial Rule Assistance Association–by Tojo Heideki, one of the leaders of Control.


And then there’s National Tell a Fairy Tale Day, and that falls on 26 February every year. No one seems quite sure why it’s today, but there it is. Fairy tales, as we all know, were not originally intended to be for children, as most of them were quite dark. The Brothers Grimm, who collected a number of them for the first published book of fairy tales first published in 1812, referred to them as Children’s and Household Tales that included textual analysis and known origins. The first volume contained 86 of them; the second volume of 1815 contained 70. Eventually there would be 170 collected stories in there volumes, most originating in German folklore but, in the nature of storytelling, these easily crossed borders and paths.

But, then, that picture of Richard Nixon on the top of the page. Yeah, apparently he told some real whoppers during his time at the White House, and a few others besides. Those were real adult fairy tales. But a bigger tale is told by his critics about the “damage” he did to the presidency and the country. Whatever damage was done then was certainly minor compared to the “ambush” and “gotcha” journalism that followed, where purported journalists are more intent in making headlines and creating enduring scandals than they are in simply reporting facts. Some of those fairy stories have done some real damage all over the political spectrum by frightening those who can actually do something into inactivity.  Everyone with a microphone and a camera simply prompts anyone with influence or position for sound bites that can be manipulated and misused by the eye-rolling network blowhards inspired by the team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who covered the Watergate/Nixon story for the New York Times.

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Drake, French Indochina, and Tokyo Rose

As September ends and the richness of fall is upon us, we should reflect on events on 26 September that have nearly nothing to do with the season–or not.  But the completion of Drake’s circumnavigation, the Japanese occupation of French Indochina, and the death of Francis Aquino all happened on 26 September, with a half millennia or so separation.

On 26 September 1580, Frances Drake, a career navigator, scoundrel, pirate, politician and seaman sailed his 300 ton galleon Golden Hind into Plymouth harbor in southern England, completing the first circumnavigation of the world as captain, and the second ever (Magellan died on his voyage).  Elizabeth I knighted him soon thereafter.  What was most extraordinary about the voyage wasn’t the three years it took to complete, or the six tons of Spanish gold she captured, but that it was completed with a crew that was half of what he started out with. Drake’s circumnavigation, though mostly a military expedition, was also the first time a English ship had crossed the Pacific Ocean, and may have been the first time that an Englishman saw Indonesia.

What was most extraordinary about the voyage … that it was completed with a crew that was half of what he started out with.

Since the beginning of the “China Incident” in 1937, the Vietnamese port of Haiphong in French Indochina (northern Vietnam) had been one of several ports used by China to receive arms shipments (until 1939, China’s was Germany’s best arms customer), and was an important source of foreign currency for the cash-strapped Vichy French government in Hanoi. After several months of dithering, the Japanese finally got around to moving into French Indochina and, later, what was then Cochinchina (southern Vietnam) on 26 September 1940, after weeks of unsuccessfully negotiating with the Vichy into allowing some sort of “guest” occupation.  The Japanese occupation of French Indochina was the last straw for the Roosevelt administration, which moved to embargo oil, scrap metals, and Japanese funds in American banks.  This embargo was one of the driving forces behind Japan’s attacks on American, British and Dutch holdings in East Asia beginning in December, 1941.

The Japanese occupation of French Indochina was the last straw for the Roosevelt administration

“Tokyo Rose” was the nickname for several female English-language, American-vernacular Japanese propaganda broadcasters during World War II.  The best known announcer was Iva Toguri D’Aquino, a native American caught in Japan at the outset of the war.  Broadcasting her ten to fifteen minute harangue (sometimes accurately naming units, commanders and even enlisted men and their stations) during the Zero Hour program of popular American music, most regarded her broadcasts as harmless, and for the most part useless as an anti-morale weapon.  Though cleared of war crimes in Japan, she was tried and found guilty of treason in 1949 when she returned to the United States.  Released in 1956, she was eventually pardoned in 1977 by Gerald Ford. D’aquino died in Chicago on 26 September, 2006.

 Broadcasting … during the Zero Hour program of popular American music, most regarded her broadcasts as harmless, and … useless as an anti-morale weapon.

From Drake’s epic 16th century expedition to the death of Tokyo Rose in the early 21st, East Asia, Europe and the Pacific have been tied to 26 September, and to many other dates.  Though D’aquino was largely a victim of circumstance, so too was French Indochina, caught as she was in between quarreling giants in a conflict not of her making.  Drake’s ship, one of the first ever to be put on public display, gradually rotted into destruction, and two replicas have also been lost over the years.  Tokyo Rose, too, had copies, like Pyongyang Sally during the 1950-53 war in Korea, and Hanoi Hanna during the American involvement in Vietnam.  The threads of human events are often interwoven in common calendar dates.  We’ll continue to explore this line of thought next week.

 

 

 

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12 November: Sun Yat-sen and Akihito

For Asia, 12 November has been an auspicious day.  In China, a future leading reformer was born; in Japan, an emperor was installed.  Ironically, the first had a role in ensuring the second.

In 1866, Sun Yat-sen was born during what was then the Qing (in the West, the Manchu) dynasty of China.  As a young man Yat-sen (of his many names, this one will be used) was educated first in Hawaii, then in Hong Kong under missionary hospital doctors, picking up fluent English.  Soon after he was licensed to practice medicine and was baptized a Christian, he fell into revolutionary movements and was exiled in 1895.  While living in Japan he was active in arming the Philippine nationalists against the Americans.  Traveling extensively in Europe, Asia and the Americas to raise money for one failed revolt after another from 1900 to 1907, another failed revolt had him exiled to Japan once again.  The successful 1911 Wuchang uprising caught him by surprise and still in America.  He had returned to China by the end of the year.  Elected the provisional president of a Chinese republic, he took office 1 January 1912.  But he was not president of a great country, but a lot of territory with an economy in a shambles, a government without any enforcement power, and several splintered factions.  While he was popular enough to stay in power, stepping down and up again several times, his influence over most of China’s affairs was limited to the power of the warlords who backed him, and they changed with the seasons.  At his death in 1925 China had got rid of the empire, but not of its internal issues.

On 12 November 1990, Japan’s Emperor Akihito was enthroned.  As the 125th (traditionally) emperor, he succeeded when his father the Showa emperor Hirohito died in 1989.  As a teenager in 1945, Akihito received a much-ignored letter from his father, which explained why the emperor issued his Imperial Rescript withdrawing his support for the war.  The reasons the Showa cited were that they dynasty had to survive even if he did not, and the soul of Japan, then embodied in the Imperial Objects, could not fall into non-Japanese hands. Though likely too young to understand the implications, it would appear to Japan watchers that Akihito took his father’s implied admonition to heart: the first duty of the emperor is to serve the throne and the dynasty.  As the first emperor in a dynasty over two millennium old who did not accept living divine status, his service, indeed his life, is as the symbol of modern Japan and little else.

While Sun Yat-sen died years before Akihito was born, the chaos that China’s civil wars fueled from 1911 onward made China a tempting target for Japan.  While the United States always had a soft spot for China, its sympathies for Japan have waxed and waned over the past century.  When Japan went to war with China starting in 1932 (technically with Manchuria, which was legally separate at the time) it was because Yat-sen’s constant revolution weakened China so severely that Japan merely took the opportunity for expansion.  After a generation of war, America and China stood over the wreckage of Japan, yet preserved the monarchy.

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3 November: Emperors and Cars and Frozen Peas

Normal people, of which I am not one, wouldn’t deign to put these topics together in a single blog entry, but…

On this day on 1852 a son named Mutsuhito was born in Japan who, in 1867, would ascend to the Chrysanthemum throne as the Emperor Meiji.  The tremendous structural changes that his reign would oversee would bring Japan from an isolated, agricultural, semi-feudal island state to world power status, defeating China and Russia in clockwork-like conflicts that thrust Japan onto the world stage.  By the time of his death in 1912, Japan had a manufacturing base unrivaled in Asia.

On 3 November 1900, the first ever automobile show ever held in the US opened in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.  About 150 different motor cars were on display from American pioneers now gone from the scene that included Duryea, Winton, Locomobile, Stanley, Columbia and Electric, as well as the more familiar Ford and Oldsmobile.  These were mostly steam and electric powered, but with a scattering of diesels and gasoline engines.  The show was well enough attended, but sales were not spectacular.  The modern  infrastructure for automobiles of any kind was still under construction, and would be decades before it was ready to support a large population of automobiles, regardless of how cheap they got.

Swiss race car driver Louis Chevrolet founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company, with financing by Will Durant and William Little on 3 November 1911.  Starting with the Classic Six, Chevy grew to be the best-known passenger car brand by the end of the 20th century,  Able to manufacture roughly an automobile a second worldwide by 1960, Chevrolet, part of the General Motors Corporation since 1916, has been called the consumer-fueled rock upon which the foundation of the automotive industry rests.

Clarence Birdseye seems an unlikely character to join this list, but on this day in 1952 the company he started introduced the first flash-frozen peas to the US consumer market.  Peas were harder to flash-freeze than other vegetables, their form already somewhat mushy.  Birdseye had formed the firm in the 1920s and developed his flash-freezing methods first for fish and then for vegetables.  His active mind had moved on to other interests by the time frozen peas hit the market.

Other than the date, what connects these seemingly disparate events?  The Meiji presided over the expansion of Japan’s economy, and the superficial modernization of its society.  Unfortunately, he was unable to restrain or even modify the virulently nationalistic attitudes of the members of the former samurai class, which migrated into the army and the navy.  When he introduced his constitution to Japan, it was hailed as a landmark of moderation, but in practice it was a licence for the samurai to dominate.

At the same time, the United States was growing its automotive industry and developing its infrastructure based on consumer demand for inexpensive cars, and with it a manufacturing base unsurpassed by any other on earth, ever.  The Duryeas and Locomobiles fell out, but the General Motors’ kept on providing not only cars and trucks, but a pool of manufacturing and engineering knowledge that, come 1941, would eventually decide the contest in the Pacific that the Meiji would enable.  And the American forces, as they crossed vast oceans, were the best fed military organizations in history, provided in no small part by flash-frozen foods preserved by a process developed by a college dropout named Clarence Birdseye.

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The Madness of March for Japan

The last days of March have some special significance to Japan, for it was in March from 1854 to 1945, things seemed to go a little…mad.  And it all started, ironically, with a treaty.

On 21 March 1854, Matthew C. Perry secured the signature of the Tokugawa shogun of Japan on what was called the Treaty of Kanagawa, ensuring enduring peace, friendship and diplomatic ties.  While contemporary audiences may not think a great deal of that, it was shocking to Japan.  Traditionally, Japan was a closed-off, secluded place, with a single paved road, a few wheeled carts, no seagoing ships to speak of, and a dominant, militaristic social group–the samurai–that made 19th century Prussian militarists seem like pacifists.  For centuries they had imprisoned or simply murdered shipwrecked sailors, and for two hundred years they had but one trading outlet on Kagoshima Island in Nagasaki harbor.

But then came Perry, and Perry came because the Americans, sharing Pacific Rim status after their purchase of California from Mexico (at gunpoint, but purchased nonetheless), were concerned about their whaling and trading fleet.  More than one shipwrecked Yankee had been hanged or crucified in Japan.  Further, the growing Russian presence in the Pacific was of some mild concern, as were the Russian trading posts in Alaska, along the Canadian Pacific coast, and the growing British bases in Hong Kong and Hawaii–then the Sandwich Islands.  The growing United States needed some assurances that American trade with China–America’s oldest trading partner–was safe from predation.

But societies are closed for a reason, and the reasons Japan was closed from 1635 up to the mid-19th century are somewhat complex, but they usually begin and end with the Japanese concepts of cultural and racial purity, and of the supremacy of Japanese exceptionalism.  These concepts were enforced at the point of the sword by the samurai, who had dominated Japanese society since anyone could remember.

In practice, Japanese society was stratified into three layers.  The nobility, notably the Emperor and his family, but also other petty nobles (daimyos) who had little function other than to provide brides (and the occasional groom) to the royal family, sat at the top.  Directly beneath them were the samurai, who had since time immemorial been providing a totem/warlord/top gang leader called a shogun, who enforced what little civil law there was but mostly just kept the peace.  In 1604, the Tokugawa clan took over the shogunate after a disastrous invasion of the Asian mainland that ended in 1600.  Beneath the samurai there was everyone else.  Social mobility was practically unheard of.

The shoguns may have ruled the country, but they were not the only ones who had, or craved, power.  Since the provincial warlords had a great deal of power themselves, rivals to the Tokugawas were numerous, and dangerous.  Japan’s polity was never inclusive: the bottom 90% existed to support the top 10%.  Peasant revolts–primarily over food– averaged two a year, and were always put down in oceans of blood.  When Ieyoshi signed the Kanagawa treaty, he was signing the death knell for Japan’s way of life.  Almost instantly rival clans claimed that the Tokugawa shogun, whose duty it was to keep the long-nosed barbarians away from the emperor  and the islands of Japan, had betrayed his duty.

Within two years, Japan was in civil war along the length and breadth of the archipelago.  There were two factions: the one that favored Western contacts and expanded trade–generally aligned with the Tokugawas–and those who did not.  Ironically, it was the samurai that did not favor expansion of trade who modernized first, adapting western firearms and artillery.  By 1867 the Meiji Emperor proclaimed the end of the samurai tradition…which in fact only meant the end of Japan’s social structure.  While Japan modernized its industry and economy, its society was left to itself.  The result was, eventually, a polity that regarded China as a resource-rich wilderness infested with vermin–the Chinese–that would have to be subjugated so that the 70 Million (as the Japanese began to refer to themselves) could take what they needed.  On 27 March 1938, one of the most ferocious battles of that subjugation began at Taierzhuang (or Shandong), on the eastern bank of the Grand Canal of China.  When the battle ended on 7 April, there were some 44,000 casualties, a ruined city, and a defeated Japanese host.

But Japan’s March Madness continued.  in the very early morning of 27 March 1943, two Japanese heavy cruisers, two light cruisers  and four destroyers commanded by Boshiro Hosogaya met a US Navy heavy cruiser , a light cruiser and four destroyers under Charles McMorris near the Komandorski Islands in the north Pacific.  After four confused hours the Japanese retired, not understanding how much damage they had done.  What might have been a Japanese victory turned into a strategic disaster, as it ended the surface resupply efforts for the Japanese garrisons in the Aleutians, leaving it to submarines and condemning many to starvation.  It was also one of the last daylight naval actions conducted without air power: in fact, it was Hosogaya’s fear of American air attacks that compelled him to pull out.

Two years later, as Iwo Jima was declared secure on 26 March 1945, the garrison on Okinawa grimly watched the huge Allied fleet gathering and bombarding offshore, and wondered when the madness would end.  On 1 April, the Americans landed on Okinawa, and the last stages of Japan’s Madness in March began.

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Compare and Contrast: Java Sea and Bismarck Sea…and Kendo

Taking place only a year apart, the battles off Java between 27 February and 1 March, 1942, and the air attacks on a Japanese task force in the Bismarck Sea between 2 and 4 March, 1943, could not have been more different in outcome or in net result.  Together, they also serve to show how Japan intended their Pacific War to be conducted: more like a kendo match than a struggle for survival.

The battles around Java took place only weeks after Japan started her Pacific/Dutch East Indies offensive in December 1941.  On 27 February, a Japanese escort of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and fourteen destroyers under Rear-Admiral Takeo Takagi, met a scratch force of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and nine destroyers under Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, commanding the naval contingent of the ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian) Command that was trying to attack a Japanese amphibious tack force approaching Java in the Java Sea.

The outcome was never really in doubt.  The Allied ships had never fought or maneuvered together; the largest group of them with any coherence was the four ships of the US Navy’s Destroyer Division 58.  The Japanese had trained together for a year, and had already fought two successful actions as a unit.  In a running battle over some seven hours on 27 February half the Allied fleet was sunk and Doorman killed to no Japanese losses.  Next day two of the Allied survivors were sunk at the Sunda Straights by another surface escort, this time two small Japanese ships were lost. At the Java Sea again on 28 February, three more survivors of the earlier battle were lost.  Ten ships and over two thousand men were lost to total Japanese personnel loss of probably less than a hundred.  The Dutch Asiatic fleet and the US Navy’s Asiatic Squadron were irreparably damaged.  The Netherlands never regained its prewar presence in Indonesia.

A year later the tables had turned.  After abandoning Guadalcanal and losing the Papua peninsula, the Japanese planned to reinforce their lodgement in New Guinea by sending a reinforcing brigade to Lae on eight troop transports and eight destroyers out of Rabaul.  The Australian/American Allies intercepted their messages and determined to stop them.

The Japanese convoy’s route was out of American aircraft carrier range, but well within range of medium bombers.  Commanded by Rear Admiral Masatomi Kimura, the convoy was to leave Simpson Harbor on 28 February skirt the northern coast of New Britain and round the island on the eastern end, running in to Lae by 4 March before the Americans knew they were there.  Even so, the Imperial High Command only believed the odds of success were about 50-50.

The Allies knew where the Japanese were most of the time due to their network of aerial observation, radio intercepts, coast watchers and submarine patrols.  By 4 March only 1,200 of the 6,700 soldiers that left Rabaul had arrived at Lae, and the rest were either killed in the five destroyers and eight transports sunk by American and Australian aircraft, or had gone back to Rabaul in the one destroyer that turned back.  The Allies lost less than twenty men.  In two days of free-for-all attacks on the convoy. Australian Beaufighters had strafed with 20 mm cannon, PBYs had dropped bombs, and medium bombers had strafed and skip-bombed their way into the history books as the second sea fight fought primarily by land-based land force aircraft (the first was when the Japanese sank HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales 8 December 1941).  The Japanese, as a result, elected not to reinforce New Guinea through Lae again.

Looking at these two actions, one is struck not only by the reversal of Japan’s fortunes in the Pacific War, but by the reasons for it.  Neither action depended on or were affected by the fast Japanese carrier forces–the Kido Butai— that had been devastated at Coral Sea and Midway.  So, was the Bismarck Sea fight affected by the loss of the Japanese carriers just three months after their decisive win around Java?  On the outside, no.  But Japan’s attitudes towards the war were.  At Midway, the Japanese task force turned around and went home after the fourth carrier was sunk.  Why?  They had nothing to do with the landings, and by some analyses the landing itself was bait for the American carriers.

The answer lies partly in the expectations of the samurai leadership or their Pacific War, and in the sport of wooden swords called kendo.  Japan earnestly believed that the Western powers, once they had felt the devastating power of  Japan’s navy and army, would shrink from any further violence and seek peace.  This, they believed, would take no more than a few months.  When the Allies kept fighting, even after the fall of Java and the bombing of Australia, Japan pushed harder, planning “final blows” in the Solomons, Alaska and the very end of the Hawaiian archipelago at Midway.  When the Americans had the temerity to attack Japan itself with the Doolittle stunt, these plans became reality.

Then came the Coral Sea, and then Midway.  To the samurai mind, their plans failed not because the Americans fought well, but because someone had failed their plans.  Their opponent would not recognize the superior skill of Japan’s sword masters and bow to their inevitable defeat.  The gods judging this global kendo match were not calling their death blows correctly.  Thus, strategically, the samurai leadership of Japan became confused and went into a defensive stance until their opponents grew weary.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look At Japan At War, 1941-45 examines the Japanese war in the Pacific, and how the swaggering swordsmen of Japan decided to take on the whole world.  Available in hardbound, paper and PDF.

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The February 26th Incident: A Window on the Samurai Soul

It is sometimes puzzling to the casual observer how very caustic the attitudes of the samurai leadership of Japan were before 1945.  Most non-Japanese would meet the February 26th incident with either blank stares or some attempts at putting the event on some bridge in China or a railway in Manchuria.  Though these events are distantly related, they are not, ultimately, what happened on 26 February 1936.
It was on that day that a faction of the Japanese Army attempted to eliminate their rivals in the military and the government.  The faction, called the Kodo-ha or “Righteous Army” (sometimes, Kokutai Genri-ha, or “national principle”), was composed primarily of company grade and junior field grade officers who were convinced that the country had strayed from the traditions of the Meiji Restoration of 1876, and that the Emperor should return to direct rule, instead of governing through a constitution or a parliament.  This would restore national prosperity, return Japan to its rightful and natural place in the scheme of the world, and enable Japan to purge itself of all evil western influences.
It was easy for the rest of the Army to oppose this movement, partly on the basis that many of the “western influences” that enabled Japan to even get a seat at the table of negotiations with the United States and Great Britain were not on the list of “evil” that the faction decried.  Like many radical movements, parts of it simply don’t make any sense.  But others, like ensuring the Emperor’s peace of mind, carried the seeds of samurai arrogance that wished to spread beyond the bounds of the Home Islands.
The attempted coup failed after some four days of tension and violence, but not before the murder of two former prime ministers, Takahashi Korekiyo and Saitō Makoto, and a number of others.  The secret trials took eighteen months.  Nineteen of the conspirators were executed.  But rather than have any thought of a Showa Restoration be extinguished, it became what could be called today a meme, if a false one.  The Army would use the idea that everything they would do right up to 1945 was in the name of, and for the well being of, the Emperor.  Unfortunately, Hirohito was more than willing to go along with whatever they wanted, aware that there was not a lot he could do to stop it.  If provoked, the samurai leadership would either assassinate or imprison him, name his young son emperor and place some general in place as regent (as had happened to his father, the Taisho).  It would be 1945, under the direct threat of invasion of the home islands, before Hirohito would cast caution aside and stop the militarists by withdrawing his support for their actions.
What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan At War, 1941-45 examines the consequences of an isolated society dominated by a subgroup that saw themselves as “moderates” if they only wanted to exterminate one neighbor, as opposed to the “extremists” who wanted to dominate a third of the world.  Available in hardbound, paperback or PDF.

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Iwo Jima: Strategic Convenience and Shape of Things To Come

The 19 February 1945 American invasion of Iwo Jima in the Bonin islands  was one of those peculiar events that means different things to different people.  The Bonin archipelago (also called the Ogasawara islands) is a volcanic desert: Iwo Jima, the largest of the islands, had no natural water sources and no place that could be used as a harbor.  The only reason anyone ever went there before the 1940s was because it was empty.  An American whaling outpost was established there in the 1830s after Spain and Britain had laid claim to it over the centuries, and Japan was the last to claim ownership in 1862.  No permanent residents were ever “permanent,” but transient fisher folk.

By early 1945, it was clear that the Americans were headed for the home islands of Japan.  Japan had fortified the place and built air fields, they realized that they could not hold the Bonins.  The Japanese 31st Army,  therefore, would be sacrificed in place.  The scanty air units were withdrawn in the face of fifty-odd American aircraft carriers.

At the time, the reasoning given for the invasion was to provide a fighter escort base for the B-29s attacking Japan out of the Marianas islands, and as an emergency landing field for crippled bombers.  About halfway between Japan and Saipan, the northernmost of the Marianas, this claim passes basic geographic muster,  But since the place was useless as a base for either the Army ground forces or the Navy, did the Air Force really need a base with no natural water?

Even the “fighter escorts for the bombers” claim was dubious.  Army fighters had the range to reach some of the big Honshu Island of Japan from the Bonins, but lacked the navigational equipment necessary for long flights over water.  Further, the Air Forces were changing tactics since their European-style high level daylight bombing wasn’t working in the Pacific.

After some 25,000 casualties (nearly 7,000 dead) in the six weeks fighting for Iwo Jima (Chichi Jima, a smaller rock with fewer flat spaces, its own water and a small harbor to the north, fell almost bloodlessly in less than a week) it raises a question: how many Marine lives does it take to save Army Air Force lives?  Of the 2,600 bombers that landed there, less than half “needed” the emergency fields, according to one estimate.  In this view, then, some 13,000 Army air crewman were saved.  The Japanese lost over 18,000 over the sulfurous wastelands.  “Worth the cost” has a whole new meaning with such numbers.   Furthermore, there is a school of thought that suggests that the three Marine divisions used in the Bonins were used up to be kept away from Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines, or his plan for Formosa.  Idle, those 50,000 men and supporting fleets were a tempting tool.  Deployed, they were beyond MacArthur’s reach.

Ultimately, however, like Peleliu, the Japanese needed the Bonins more than the Americans did, and that was the point. The Americans were taking strategic targets from the Japanese because they could, and each one hurt.  But too, like Okinawa would in a few months, it demonstrated to the Marines what the Army had found out on Saipan: the Japanese would fight to the death; military, civilian, man, woman, child–it mattered not.  What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan At War, 1941-45 is a study of the Japanese mindset, available at fine bookstores everywhere.

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The Founding of Japan and the Meiji Constitution

On 11 February in the year 660 BCE, it is said that the emperor Jimmu founded the empire of Japan.  Jimmu is said to have been descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu through her grandson Ninigi, and from the storm god Susanoo.  All of this is founded on myth, but far more reliable sources indicate that the Meiji emperor Mutsuhito’s constitution for the restored Japanese state/empire/arsenal was adopted on this date in 1889.

Most readers think “representative democracy” when they read the word “constitution,” but this is not always the case, and certainly it wasn’t for Japan.  The Meiji Constitution was a document that, by intent, ensured the tyranny of the hereditary samurai class by placing veto power for any policy in their hands, and their hands alone.  All the samurai had to do was withdraw their war minister (appointed from the ranks of the Army, samurai all), or later the navy minister (ditto) to force the imperial cabinet (selected from the Diet) to reform the government.  This they would do, repeatedly, when the governments–especially under the reign of Yoshihito, the weak Taisho emperor that followed the Meiji in 1912–did not support another of their unsanctioned outrages such as grabbing German territory in the Pacific at the outset of WWI, invading Manchuria, then China proper, in 1914, 1932 and 1937, respectively.  The process would be repeated during the reign of the Showa emperor Hirohito right up until 1941, when the appointment of General Tojo Hideki as prime minister obviated the need.

Most of the early 20th century was punctuated by assassinations, violent uprisings (food riots were common in japan, averaging two a year for the better part of a thousand years) and attempted coups d’état in Japan that everyone caught in the middle would support any measure that looked like it pointed to stability.  To the samurai, of course, this meant them running things.  And they “ran things” right up to August of 1945, when their emperor had had enough.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan at War 1941-45 examines the political reality of the samurai against a backdrop of a world that moved beyond the need for them.  Available from fine booksellers everywhere.