The Imperial Japanese Navy began experimenting with aviation as early as the British and Americans. But because Japan did not see much combat in World War I, it had fallen behind the other powers by 1918. To catch up, it turned to its traditional mentors: for the army, the French; for the navy, the British. A British naval mission arrived in 1920 complete with over one hundred demonstration aircraft in a bid to boost the British aviation industry. British pilots formed the first faculty of the newly established Japanese naval aviation school at Lake Kasumigaura. British naval architects helped Japan complete its first aircraft carrier, the Hosho, in 1922. British aircraft designers helped Mitsubishi design its initial carrier aircraft. Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War and Air, was confident Britain and Japan would never go to war—“I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in our lifetime,” he exclaimed in 1924—so what was the harm?
While the Japanese were always happy to learn from gaijin, they sought to achieve self-sufficiency as soon as possible. By 1941, they had succeeded—spectacularly so. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, Japan had the finest naval aircraft, pilots, and aircraft carriers in the world, all overseen by its Naval Aviation Department, created in 1927.
Japan not only had more aircraft carriers than any other navy—ten—but the most modern of them, the Shokaku (Soaring Crane) and Zuikaku (Happy Crane), built after the lifting of treaty limits in 1936, were superior to anything the U.S. Navy would deploy until 1943. These 29,800-ton monsters could carry seventy-two aircraft and steam over eleven thousand miles without refueling—easily enough to get to Hawaii and back—with a top speed of over 34 knots (39 mph). Their completion by the end of September 1941 made the raid on Pearl Harbor possible, and their subsequent absence at Midway may have tipped the outcome of that critical battle against Japan.
The Japanese navy had at first tried building aircraft itself, but by the early 1930s it had settled on a better division of labor: Navy engineers would come up with specifications for airplanes and private firms would compete to build them. Japan did not have a large civil aviation industry, but three major firms—Mitsubishi, Nakajima, and Aichi—developed a high degree of sophistication as they became the primary suppliers for the navy. (The army, which rarely spoke to the navy, acquired its aircraft separately, mainly from these same firms.) Japanese industry boosted its airplane production from 1,181 in 1936 to more than 5,000 in 1941. This was still only a fifth of the U.S. total that year, but the Japanese navy deployed more aircraft on the eve of Pearl Harbor—over three thousand—than either the British or Americans, and their aircraft enjoyed, on the whole, a substantial qualitative edge.
The planes that would devastate Pearl Harbor were designed in the mid-1930s. The Aichi D3A1 Type 99 dive bomber, dubbed “Val” by the Allies, was similar to the Stuka on which it was modeled. The Nakajima B5N2 Type 97 (Kate) was a versatile three-man bomber that could drop either one torpedo or several bombs. Its maximum speed was 100 mph faster than its British counterpart, the Swordfish, and 30 mph faster than its U.S. counterpart, the Douglas Devastator. To go along with these carrier-based attack aircraft, the Japanese navy developed two potent land-based bombers, each with twin engines, a crew of seven, and the capacity to carry either bombs or torpedoes. The Mitsubishi G3M2 Type 96 (Nell) was adopted in 1936; five years later came the Mitsubishi G4M1 Type 1 (Betty), with a phenomenal range of 3,700 miles—greater than the B-17, though it lacked the Flying Fortress’s bomb capacity. They were not used at Pearl Harbor, but they would be employed with deadly efficiency in the western Pacific. All of these attack aircraft struck fear into the hearts of Allied seamen in the war’s early days as they sank one ship after another.
The most feared of all Japanese aircraft was the Mitsubishi A6M2 Type O (Zero) fighter, which entered service in the summer of 1940. The Zero’s brilliant designer, Jiro Horikoshi, created a sleek airplane that was faster, more nimble, and had greater range than any contemporary fighter, land-or sea-based. Its armaments—two 7.7 mm machine guns in the nose, two 20 mm cannons in the wings—were also more formidable than those of any comparable aircraft. This lethal combination of firepower and high performance was made possible by the use of a newly developed zinc-aluminum alloy that was stronger and lighter than the materials used to build other airplanes.
Upon its introduction, the Zero allowed the Japanese to wipe the Chinese air force from the sky. In the early years of the war in the Pacific, it also ran rings around British and American warplanes. Not until 1943 did the U.S. produce a superior aircraft. By that time the Zero’s weaknesses, which it shared with other Japanese planes, had become apparent: Built to maximize offensive power, it lacked basic defensive elements such as armor and antiexplosive, self-sealing gas tanks. This was in accordance with the bushido ethic which placed a low priority on individual warriors’ self-preservation. (For the same reason, many Japanese pilots disdained wearing parachutes in combat because they did not want to risk the disgrace of being captured.) It meant that, once hit, Japanese airplanes did not have much ability to survive; the Betty bomber was later nicknamed “Zippo” by U.S. fighter pilots for its tendency to go up in flames. But in the war’s early days this was not much of a concern, because Allied defenders generally lacked airplanes capable of keeping up with, much less hitting, their attackers.
Japan’s edge in the quality of its personnel was even greater than its edge in the quality of its airplanes. Naval aviators, known as the Sea Eagles, formed a small, elite corps of volunteers. Unlike in the U.S. or British navies, most were not commissioned officers. They were generally either NCOs drawn from the surface fleet or teenage boys recruited straight out of civilian schools. Competition for flight training was ferocious, and cadets were disqualified for the slightest failing. In the 1930s the navy graduated only one hundred pilots a year. The crème de la crème were selected for aircraft carriers; landing on a bobbing strip of steel in the middle of the ocean was rightly considered the most demanding task a pilot could perform.
The pilots, and the rest of Japan’s navy, conducted tough drills in harsh conditions, including stormy weather and darkness, leading many to comment afterward, “War is so easy, compared with peacetime exercises!” Through relentless practice, Japan’s naval pilots attained unparalleled accuracy in dive bombing, high-level bombing, and aerial torpedoing, as well as learning how to coordinate these different modes of attack into a coherent tactical framework. The performance of many pilots was further enhanced by their participation in Japan’s war in China, which began in 1937. This taught the Japanese, for instance, about the need to have fighters escort long-range bombers to their targets—a seemingly obvious point, but one that the British and Americans would not grasp until they had suffered horrific bomber losses during the first few years of the war.
The fliers who attacked Pearl Harbor had an average of eight hundred hours of flying time, almost three times as much as the average U.S. Navy pilot, and most had combat experience that the Americans lacked. There was no question that Japanese aviators were vastly superior; the problem was that there were not enough of them. On the eve of war, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps had 8,000 active-duty pilots; the Japanese navy had only 3,500, and just 900 of them were carrier-qualified. This was not because of America’s larger population size (which did not prevent Japan from having almost twice as many men in uniform overall in 1941); it was mainly because the U.S. Navy emphasized quantity over quality. Japan made the opposite decision, which meant that if its samurai of the skies could not win a quick victory, they would be bled dry in a war of attrition.
This was one of many dilemmas confronting the commander in chief of the Imperial Japanese Navís Combined Fleet as he contemplated the prospect of conflict with the United States. Since August 1939 that job had been held by Isoroku Yamamoto, an unlikely candidate to be one of the leading Axis commanders. Yamamoto had become familiar with America as a student at Harvard, 1919–21, and as naval attaché in Washington, 1925–28. He admired the American people—Lincoln ranked high in his personal pantheon—and disliked Japan’s new allies, the Nazis. Moreover, he was well aware of the vast advantages the U.S., with its larger population, richer economy, and greater industrial capacity, possessed in any confrontation with Japan. He counseled Tokyo to avoid awakening this sleeping giant. “If I am told to fight regardless of the consequences,” he warned Japan’s premier, prophetically, in 1940, “I shall run wild for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second or third year.” On another occasion he wrote, “A war between Japan and the United States would be a major calamity for the world.”
Such views, though widely held within the upper ranks of the more cosmopolitan navy, were heresy to the narrow-minded, nationalistic army officers who dominated the government. While serving as vice minister of the navy from 1935 to 1939, Yamamoto’s life was in constant jeopardy from right-wing assassins; there was a price of 100,000 yen on his head. The navy appointed him commander of the Combined Fleet, rather than navy minister, in large part simply to get him out of Tokyo and out to sea, where he would be safe from attack by his own countrymen.
By 1941, Yamamoto’s views were in a decided minority in the government. After President Roosevelt embargoed all oil and scrap metal sales to Japan in July in retaliation for the occupation of southern Indochina, Tokyo decided it had no choice but to go to war in order to, as the Foreign Ministry put it, “secure the raw materials of the South Seas.” Because all the decision makers assumed (perhaps wrongly) that the U.S. would not stand by as Japan gobbled up Dutch and British colonies, it was decided that war against the U.S. was inevitable. And since the Imperial Navy had only enough fuel for eighteen months of operations, the sooner the better.
The fifty-seven-year-old Yamamoto would be at the forefront of the war effort. Like his hero, Admiral Togo, he was not very big, even by Japanese standards—only five feet three inches, 125 pounds—but his broad shoulders, shaved head, and thick chest conveyed an impression of strength. As a young ensign at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, he had been severely wounded by an exploding gun. For the rest of his life he walked around with two fingers missing on his left hand and the lower half of his body badly scarred. “Whenever I go into a public bath, people think I’m a gangster,” he good-humoredly complained. Among the geishas of Tokyo, whose establishments he liked to frequent, the admiral was jocularly known as “Eighty Sen,” “since,” a biographer writes, “the regular charge for a geisha’s manicure—all ten fingers—was one yen.” That he would gladly take this kind of ribbing suggests that Yamamoto was notably lacking in the pomposity that often comes with high rank. He had a good sense of humor as well as a tendency to speak his mind.
Yamamoto gave up alcohol as a young man, making him a rarity in the hard-drinking world of the Imperial Navy. His only weakness, other than the geishas (one of whom became his mistress), was an obsessive love of games of chance. He would bet on anything, from bowling to blackjack. He was skilled at shogi (Japanese chess), bridge, and especially poker, which he would gladly play for thirty or forty hours at a stretch. He often told his subordinates that if he retired from the navy he would move to Monaco to become a professional card player. He would apply this gambler’s mentality—always carefully calculating the odds and not being afraid to risk everything on one roll of the dice—throughout his naval career.
Although not a pilot himself, Yamamoto had spent much of his career around naval aviation. After a brief stint as second-in-command of the Kasumigaura flight school, he went on to command the aircraft carrier Akagi and then two carriers arrayed in a carrier division. These sea commands were interspersed with stints as technical director of the navís Aviation Department and head of the entire department. In these assignments, he came to the conclusion that in the next war, carriers would be the most important elements of sea power.
This view did not win the assent of many other admirals. In the 1930s the navy continued building battleships, including two of the biggest ever made, the Yamato and Musahi. Their advocates boasted that these 72,000-ton behemoths, with their eighteen-inch guns, were virtually unsinkable and unstoppable. Yamamoto, who noted that each one cost the same as one thousand airplanes, was not impressed. He echoed fliers who jeered that the “three great follies of the world were the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, and the battleship Yamato.” Indeed, both the Yamato and Musahi would be sunk during the war without ever getting a chance to inflict a single blow on the enemy.
In China and later in the Pacific, Japanese amphibious assaults were marked by surprise landings, often at night, at several spots simultaneously or in rapid sequence. Air and naval superiority were always present at the point of attack. Japan had no marine corps as such. The army was responsible for amphibious warfare and the navy for getting the troops to the invasion beaches and supporting the landings with gunfire and aviation. But Japan did possess an elite corps of “debarkation commandos,” special forces whose mission was loading the landing craft, moving them to the beaches, and returning the empty craft to the transports offshore. One keen student of Japanese warfare has observed that the nation’s warriors had a tendency to overplan, and “the more detailed the landing guidelines, the more difficult it became to hold to them.” This was the case when unexpected bad weather, high winds and surf, or unanticipated enemy resistance was encountered. As long as unforeseen difficulties did not occur, Japanese amphibious operations “ran like clockwork. But once a problem arose, confusion ensued,” and Japanese troops were likely to respond with foolish daring such as human-wave assaults in order to “win back full freedom to act.” Nonetheless, Japan conducted a series of major amphibious operations in China and the Pacific between 1937 and 1942 that rivaled in size and success those later undertaken by the Americans in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Gilbert, Marshall, and Mariana Islands between November 1942 and June 1944.
Japan’s preference for land-based naval aviation as an essential component of defensive warfare was given impetus by the war in China. Japanese forces followed up the Marco Polo Bridge Incident with a heavy air and land attack on the native sections of Shanghai. Within days, the army began a major thrust up the nearby Yangtze River valley toward Nanking and beyond, as Chiang Kaishek’s steadily retreating government lured the Japanese farther and farther from the coast.
Because of the vast distances involved, China inevitably became an air war— a strategic bombing campaign that in conception and scope if not scale prefigured those undertaken by the Allies over Europe after 1942. Such a campaign required the use of every plane and pilot in the Japanese arsenal. From the beginning, the navy consistently outperformed its army opposites in long-range bombing, often under terrible conditions of weather and terrain. Naval aircraft proved superb; the new Nell land-based bombers flew missions of up to 1,250 miles from Formosa and Kyūshū against targets in and around Shanghai, Nanking, Hankow (Hankou, now part of Wuhan), and other river cities. “The elation which swept the Japanese populace with the announcement of the bombing[ s] was understandable,” a Japanese historian recalled with chilling satisfaction. “We had a powerful, long-range, fair-and-foul-weather, day-and-night bombing force” with which to terrorize and kill thousands of civilians. Japanese casualties, however, were severe, especially during the first four months of the war, and until the end Japanese naval bomber aircraft, often unaccompanied by fighter escort until the advent of the Zero in 1939, were subjected to periodic savage maulings. Only in the crucible of battle did Japanese pilots learn the necessity of close-formation flying and at last master the art of dogfighting against skilled Chinese and Soviet pilots.
Carrier aircraft began making significant contributions to the Japanese offensive at Shanghai in August 1937 and continued to do so as the campaign moved up the Yangtze valley. The first generation of ship-based aircraft proved incapable of carrying out their missions, and the aircrews suffered terrible casualties. As late as the previous May, the fighter, dive-bomber, and attack aircraft aboard the Kaga were all biplanes. On August 17 the carrier launched its first strike against Chinese targets beyond Shanghai. A dozen Type 89 torpedo-bomber biplanes led by Lieutenant Commander Iwai roared down Kaga’s big flight deck and headed toward Hangchow (Hangzhou) to blast Chinese airfields. Only one plane returned. The bomber squadron failed to rendezvous with its fighter escort and had attacked alone.
The Japanese learned quickly from their mistakes. A year later Kaga had been joined by the smaller Hosho and the second-generation light carrier Ryujo, while Akagi completed a modernization program. From the beginning, the carrier air groups flying off Ryujo and Kaga were in the thick of the war. In late 1938 Akagi’s flyers joined the melee. The first carrier-based Type 89 attack bombers and then the Type 96 carrier-based fighters (Claudes) were badly mauled by the Chinese air force, increasingly manned with foreign volunteers and stocked with the best foreign aircraft. In response, Japan hurried new land- and carrier-based naval aircraft into production. “By importing many foreign aircraft and weapons,” two Japanese veterans of the campaign later wrote smugly, “we in Japan were able to gauge approximately what these weapons could and could not do. By keeping our planes and other armament within our borders and free from prying eyes, we led the world seriously to underestimate the combat strength of our naval aviation,” until the “China Incident” forced the Japanese to reveal how far their capabilities had advanced. In 1938–1939, Type 97 carrier attack bombers (Kates), Type 99 carrier dive-bombers (Vals), and the apex of Japanese aviation technology, the Zero fighter plane, all joined the fleet. As the Japanese army moved up the Yangtze beyond Nanking, chasing the always elusive Chiang and his forces, the carrier air wings moved ashore, following the army and bombing ahead of it in conjunction with the army air corps. By early 1940 land-based Nells, often escorted by Zeros or Claudes, were bombing Chungking, Chiang’s last haven of safety beyond the river gorges of the upper Yangtze more than a thousand miles west of Shanghai. Other bomber-fighter formations staging off carrier decks or, later, from advanced bases in Indochina ranged far and wide over southern China, ultimately closing down the vital Burma Road supply corridor.
The navy always boasted that its aviators were tougher and more adaptable than those in the army. Flyers and aircrew who trained ever more intensively for attacks against enemy surface fleets as the international situation shifted from Japan’s advantage in the late thirties nonetheless demonstrated from the earliest days of the China Incident an ability to strike land targets effectively. “Conversely, it was also determined that pilots trained specifically for maneuvers over land experienced great difficulty in over water operations, even in merely flying long distances over the ocean.”
In the mid-thirties as the carrier Ranger came into the U.S. fleet and Yorktown and Enterprise took shape in East Coast shipyards, the Imperial Navy bestirred itself to keep in step. Scarce funds were found to upgrade and modernize Kaga as well as Akagi. Training and war games had demonstrated that the best defense a carrier had was its own planes, and the unwieldy eight-inch batteries on both ships were removed. The crude three-deck hangar arrangement was abandoned, and the single flight decks were extended fore and aft to cover nearly the entire ship. As a result, Akagi’s and Kaga’s plane capacity increased from 60 to 90 (though both would normally carry about 72 planes in combat). At the same time, Japan pushed ahead with two ships roughly comparable to the American Yorktown class: the 34-knot Hiryu and Soryu, each 16,000–18,000 tons and capable of carrying at least 63 aircraft. A disastrous typhoon at sea in September 1935 damaged the fleet sufficiently to force designers to pay greater attention to strength and structural integrity. Both new Japanese carriers were built with higher hulls and forecastles. The carrier faction won an even greater victory in 1937 when it was able to place in the Fleet Replenishment Program orders for two superb 25,675-ton, 34-knot vessels to be named Shokaku and Zuikaku. Each ship embarked 72 aircraft, and each would be completed in 1941 in time to take part in the opening offensive of the Pacific conflict. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, Japan possessed six splendid frontline carriers—Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Zuikaku, and Shokaku—that operating together as a fast mobile strike force, the Kido Butai, could deploy more than 350 aircraft. The Kido Butai displaced more than twice the tonnage allotted Japan by the Washington Conference.
Doctrinal and administrative progress kept pace with new construction. Experience in China had finally convinced Japanese carrier and fleet commanders that the attack aircraft at their disposal could best be employed—and protected— as a massed group. “Extending these realities to air war at sea slowly but inevitably led to the conclusion that carrier forces must be concentrated,” and by late 1940 the navy’s tacticians had hit upon the box formation as the best way to deploy carriers in a task-force configuration. Within months, Rear Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa had come up with another advance. Scattered as it was throughout the Pacific islands and on carriers, naval aviation in time of war would inevitably be employed incoherently and ineffectively. He convinced Yamamoto to create an air fleet within the Combined Fleet structure and to split it into land- and carrier-based components for maximum effect. At the end of 1941, the Eleventh Air Fleet, comprising eight land-based groups, was ready to lead the navy’s thrust southward toward the Philippines, Malaya, and the East Indies that would win Japan an empire within a few months. The First Air Fleet, encompassing all the aircraft deployed on the three carrier divisions, plus two seaplane divisions, composed “the single most powerful agglomeration of naval air power in the world,” including the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Just as each of Japan’s warships had to be qualitatively superior to fleet units in putative enemy navies, so Japanese naval aircraft had to possess greater speed, maneuverability, and, above all, range than comparable American—and British—planes. Japanese carrier aircraft were designed to deliver the critical first strike, to find and hit an enemy fleet before it could come in range to deliver aerial and surface blows of its own. Japanese carrier aircraft would have be lighter and more vulnerable than their U.S. opposites to achieve this objective, but as early as 1936 staff planners at Imperial Navy headquarters concluded that the key to success in any coming conflict “was to be mass attacks” by carrier aircraft “delivered preemptively because of the advantages of surprise and of ‘outranging’ the enemy.”
Mindful of America’s industrial superiority, Japanese authorities realized that any protracted war, even if waged defensively, would require as many aviation resources as the empire could muster. The solution lay in building fast, medium size merchant and passenger ships that could be quickly converted to effective auxiliary carriers. Soon after Japan formally withdrew from the naval limitation system in 1935, its architects began planning for the construction of the appropriate ships. The NYK Line was given a substantial subsidy to build two 24-knot vessels designed specifically for conversion to carriers. Laid down in early 1939, both ships possessed greater height between decks and a stronger main deck than normal in merchant ships and more wiring than a passenger liner needed, together with better subdivision and a longitudinal bulkhead in the engine spaces. The design allowed for the quick construction of hangars, elevators, and provision for extra fuel and aviation gas tanks. But the superbattleships absorbed so much matériel and funding that Japanese fleet construction, no matter how imaginative, had to suffer somewhere, and the sacrifices eventually fell upon the destroyers and destroyer escorts needed to keep Japan’s huge merchant navy safe from enemy submarines. After 1940, as the final bills came due on Yamato and Musashi, the construction of small combatants virtually ceased. Japanese shipyards built no destroyer escorts between 1941 and 1943, whereas the Americans built well over three hundred. “The importance of merchant shipping was simply not appreciated” by a naval high command that in the last analysis could think no further in assessing command of the seas than a climactic Jutland-like battle between two lines of battleships heavily supported by airpower.
This modified Jutland model led to further crippling follies. The Yamatos, the Zuikakus, and their scores of support ships that Japan rushed onto the building stocks after 1935 would require thousands of new sailors and hundreds of new officers to effectively operate, but the elitist nature of the Imperial Japanese Navy fatally hindered rapid and efficient expansion. The Jutland scenario gave no consideration to the manpower and, above all, training needs involved in waging and surviving a prolonged war of numerous battles stretching over the vast distances of East Asia and Oceania.
A “solicitous” promotion system designed to guarantee every graduate of the naval academy at Eta Jima, no matter how marginal, at least a captaincy during his career meant that the naval officer corps had to be kept deliberately small. Moreover, the number of officers accepted at the academy as well as the number of personnel enlisted (and ultimately drafted) into the ranks were based on the size of the fleet at hand; thus, personnel requirements were determined only after naval construction and armament budgets had been approved. “In a navy that supposedly took ten years to develop a truly capable lieutenant and twenty years for a commander, training should have anticipated the numbers of officers and men required by the level of armaments ten years on.” It did not. In the mid-thirties, as the fleet began to expand, there were fewer than ten thousand officers and not quite ninety-eight thousand enlisted men to crew not only a rapidly growing surface fleet but also dramatically expanding submarine and air forces, the naval landing force, and the shore establishments. According to historians David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, the navy went to war in December 1941 against the United States and Britain “short at least two thousand combat and engineering officers.” Manpower swiftly reached crisis proportions in 1942–1943 when new-construction manning needs were increasingly undercut by widespread casualties and fatalities among the most experienced officers and men in the fleet. Fatally bound to a lengthy and rigorous training regimen for all, the Japanese navy never did develop a coherent program for effectively training thousands of new officers and recruits in a short period. New officers and men proved increasingly unqualified for their responsibilities “and thus generally lowered the navy’s efficiency.” Not until the end of the Solomons campaign in 1943 did the Personnel Department of the Navy Ministry reconsider its manpower and training policies, and “by then, the ministry realized, it was already too late to do anything effective about the problem.”
As the 1930s waned the Japanese army moved farther and farther up the Yangtze and along the China coast, fruitlessly seeking the final great battle that would bring the enemy to his knees and to his senses. In the process the army and navy learned how to integrate ground troops with gunfire-support ships, land- and sea-based aviation, and even on occasion submarines in devastating “triphibious” assaults against enemy coastal positions. Japan became the first nation to effectively meld sea and airpower in action, thus dramatically increasing the mobility, impact, and general effectiveness of its fleet. But the Japanese never found the conclusive battle they were looking for. As with another foreign power in Asia years later, their high command continually searched for the light at the end of the tunnel, and commanders on the ground constantly asked for just that one more division or two that would finally resolve matters once and for all. All too soon, mounting frustration triggered unmitigated and repeated barbarism. Troops and airmen bombed, pillaged, and slaughtered indiscriminately and unmercifully. Tokyo never understood that the behavior of its troops in China forfeited all claims to international respect and understanding.
Japan could not conceal its atrocities. There were too many Westerners to witness them. Chief among the observers was a remarkable community of sailors. For nearly a decade after the first battle for Shanghai in 1932, Western cruiser and gunboat crews lying off the city or steaming up and down the Yangtze had a front-row seat for conflict. At one point in 1937, the men of the American gunboat Panay became victims of that conflict. The Yanks—and their British and French colleagues—quickly acquired a profound distaste and contempt for the Japanese that was in no way mitigated by the frequent cowardice and incompetence of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese government and its troops. The sailors, and the reporters who followed them into the Chinese cauldron, conveyed their attitude toward the Japanese to the international community, further amplifying long-standing cultural and racial animosities that would inform the great global conflict that loomed ever larger.
In November 1938 Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe issued the famous— or infamous—“New Order” declaration in which the Japanese government formally pledged itself to the task of “fundamentally rectifying” nearly a century of Western imperial depredations in China:
[Nazi] Germany and [Fascist] Italy, our allies against Communism, have manifested their sympathies with Japan’s aims in East Asia. . . . It is necessary for Japan to not only strengthen still further her ties with these countries but also to collaborate with them on the basis of a common world outlook in the reconstruction of world order. It is high time that all of us should face squarely our responsibilities—namely, the mission to construct a new order on a moral basis—a free union of all the nations of East Asia in mutual reliance, but in independence.
Two years later, with Europe back at war and its own armies still slogging up the Yangtze, Admiral Sankichi Takahashi, former commander in chief of the Combined Fleet, confirmed that Japan’s proposed “new order in Greater East Asia” stretched from Manchukuo to Australia and eastward to the International Date Line. The new imperium would be “constructed in several stages. In the first stage, the sphere that Japan demands includes Manchukuo, China, Indo- China, Burma, Straits Settlements [that is, British Singapore], Netherlands Indies, New Caledonia, New Guinea, many islands in the West Pacific, Japan’s mandated islands and the Philippines.” Australia and what remained of the East Indies “can be included later.” Western observers noted that these statements were made not in advance of aggression, but in the midst of it. On the other side of the Pacific, fresh fictional accounts of an impending Pacific war had already appeared in American popular literature. A fuse had been lit.
With the rise of the samurai class to a position of power Japan became split by the bitter fighting of the Gempei War, fought between the rival clans of Minamoto and Taira. Much use was made of ships in Minamoto Yoshitsune’s pursuit of the Taira through the waters of the Inland Sea, which finished with the greatest naval battle seen in the Far East up to that time: the Battle of Dan no Ura.
The background is as follows. By early 1185 the Taira clan had been driven from their bases on the main Japanese island of Honshu and the island of Shikoku, by a series of battles, such as the famous Ichi-notani and Yashima. In both these cases the Minamoto victory had been somewhat nullified because the Taira had escaped to sea. Their power base had traditionally been in the west of Japan and the Inland Sea, and they possessed a large fleet, but in the pursuit of them the Minamoto had also built and acquired ships, and were becoming well prepared to meet the Taira on their own terms. The Taira’s trump card was that they controlled the narrow straits of Shimonoseki, between Honshu and Kyushu, but by April 1185 the Minamoto felt strong enough to try to attack them, and actually had more ships: 840 to the Taira’s 500.
On 24 April 1185 the Taira fleet, under the command of Taira Tomomori, left its main base of Hikoshima island, which dominates the western approaches to the Shimonoseki Strait, and reached Ta-no-ura on Kyushu, a few miles east of the modern city of Moji. At the same time the Minamoto fleet slowly advanced to Okutsu island, which is probably the island called Manjushima today. The two fleets were then about two miles apart. On the 25th, off a beach named Dan no Ura (east of the modern city of Shimonoseki), the ships, brightly decorated with flags and streamers, approached one another, reducing the gap to about four hundred metres. The Minamoto fleet was upstream from the Taira’s.
We have some idea of the appearance of these war vessels through a large screen painting commissioned in the fourteenth century, but apparently based upon contemporary materials. One Taira ship was a large Chinese-style vessel with battened sails and a double hull, which was used as a decoy to fool the Minamoto into thinking that the child Emperor Antoku was on board. The other ships on both sides were small, clumsy, oar-propelled junks. They are referred to as war vessels, but they do not seem to have differed particularly in construction from ordinary ships, and were probably mainly fishing or ferry boats commandeered for the purpose. This is not of itself remarkable, for the major function of war vessels in those days was to bring two armies within bow range and then sword reach. Ships, in other words, were merely platforms for land warfare to be transferred to the sea, and had no defensive or offensive weapons of their own.
Neither fleet could boast any definite organisation. The officers and men were largely untrained in naval warfare, although the Taira had much more experience because for generations they had been entrusted with the task of clearing the pirates from the Inland Sea. Until Dan no Ura their naval supremacy was secure. The Minamoto fleet was numerically superior because many chiefs from Shikoku and from the provinces of Suo and Nagato in south-western Honshu had gone over to the Minamoto, taking their crews with them. But the Minamoto forces were largely composed of warriors from inland districts in north-eastern Japan, and had much less experience of naval warfare. On the other hand the Taira’s fleet was encumbered by the women and families of the Imperial court, who had to be protected.
The Minamoto ships went into battle with bows and sterns abreast. The Taira formed three squadrons. The battle started between 6 and 8 a. m. with a long-range archery duel at about 300 metres. The Taira took the initiative in the early stages, Taira Tomomori evidently using his knowledge of the ebb tide flowing slowly through the Strait into the Inland Sea. His three squadrons attempted to surround the Minamoto fleet and kill the commander Minamoto Yoshitsune. He succeeded in the first part of the manoeuvre, and almost achieved the second when Taira Noritsune, a giant of a man, pursued Yoshitsune from boat to boat, finally committing suicide by jumping into the sea, holding two Minamoto warriors under his arms.
By 11 a. m. the two forces were closely engaged with sword and dagger fighting, but at about this time the tide changed, and began to flow westwards out of the Strait. This gave the advantage to the Minamoto, who exploited it to the full. Gradually the battle turned in their favour, and victory was assured when one of the Taira commanders, Miura Yoshizumi, turned traitor and attacked the Taira from the rear. He was also able to inform the Minamoto that the Emperor was not aboard the largest ship in the fleet, so the Minamoto turned their forces on to the correct target. The archers concentrated their fire on the rowers and the helmsmen, and the Taira ships were soon virtually out of control and began to drift back with the tide. Realising that the battle was lost, many of the Taira committed suicide. The commander Taira Tomomori tied himself to an anchor, and the grandmother of the infant Emperor flung herself into the sea with the child in her arms. The account of the end in the chronicle Heike Monogatari speaks of the sea turning red from the blood of the slain and the dye from the scarlet banners of the Taira. The area of coastline at Dan no Ura was regarded as a haunted place from then on, and even the crabs found in the vicinity have on their shells the faces of dead samurai.
Prince Shōtoku flanked by younger brother (left: Prince Eguri) and first son (right: Prince Yamashiro), drawn by unknown author
[His mother] was suddenly delivered of him without effort. He was able to speak as soon as he was born, and was so wise when he grew up that he could attend to the [legal] suits of ten men at once and decide them all without error. He knew beforehand what was going to happen …
Prince, war leader, statesman. Seer, scholar, patron of the arts. A gentleman, a humanitarian, and an easy birth to boot. The man known to posterity as Prince Shōtoku often appears less as a historical figure than a character in a fairy tale. In many ways that is exactly what he was. His wondrous deeds come down to us for the most part via one of the archipelago’s oldest works of literature. And we cannot be entirely sure that he ever existed.
And yet the ‘Prince of Holy Virtue’ commands our attention because all the stories told about him are, in their essentials, true. They go right to the heart of a remarkable transformation taking place across the sixth and seventh centuries in central Honshū: the coming together of powerful families, disparate gods and ideas from near and far in the fashioning of the archipelago’s first recognizable state.
Celebrated as that state’s founding father, Prince Shōtoku didn’t so much create it as find himself created by it, becoming a hook on which it hung its most precious claims about itself. Above all, where this new state owed an enormous debt to Chinese and Korean civilization – for its politics and poetry, its laws and religion, its food, clothing and architecture – the Prince is recalled as a cultural diplomat of rare judgement and vision. He is the archipelago’s first great integrator-in-chief. His life takes us from settlements and chiefdoms to the very cusp of ‘Japan’.
Prince Shōtoku’s origins lie in Queen Himiko’s demise. In the decades following her death around 248 CE, burial mounds of the kind in which she was interred began to multiply. These kofun (‘ancient graves’) were built to house great leaders’ wooden or stone coffins, alongside the tools and treasures – swords, shoes, mirrors, jewellery – that marked their status in this life and may have been thought useful in the next. Kofun became progressively grander over time until one appeared around the middle of the 400s that was nearly 500 metres long, 300 metres wide, and rose thirty-five metres above the surrounding landscape. Known as the Daisen Kofun, from the air this awesome structure looks like a keyhole – a circle atop a triangle – set amidst lush greenery and surrounded by three broad moats. It may be the final resting place of ‘Nintoku’, one of the greatest leaders of a chiefdom in the Yamato basin, in south-central Honshū, which across the fourth and fifth centuries was expanding and steadily consolidating its status as regional hegemon.
Tall figurines called haniwa, crafted from reddish-brown clay and arrayed along the external slopes of burial mounds – perhaps as a form of spiritual protection – give us a flavour of how this power was accrued. Farmers brandish hoes. Women carry water vessels on their heads. Whether this up-and-coming Yamato chiefdom was an outgrowth of Himiko’s Yamatai or a geographically distant realm that rose as hers receded, it relied on the extraordinary wealth that came from controlling richly fertile tracts of rice land. Horses saddled for journeys, and men helmeted and armoured for war, reveal the serious military capability purchased with the proceeds. Other haniwa suggest a regime that prospered by honouring the spirits and making alliances, often intermarrying with smaller but strategically important chiefdoms. We find female shamans with ritual headdresses and mirrors; musicians and wrestlers.
By the turn of the sixth century, these Yamato chiefs had taken to calling themselves ‘Great Sovereigns’ (ōkimi), binding their allies ever closer by bestowing upon them lucrative – and hereditary – roles and titles in their own administration. In this way, wealth and power began to depend more upon family, or ‘clan’, than territory. And what started out as a confederation of chiefdoms, with Yamato at its head, steadily morphed into a single polity stretching all the way from Kyūshū in the south-west up into central Honshū.
Never before had so much of the archipelago come under the control, however tentative, of a single leadership. Yet life at the royal court, moving from place to place around the Yamato heartland, was fragile and fractious. The ‘Great Sovereigns’ were rarely so great that they didn’t have to worry about intrigue, murder and violent uprising at the hands of the influential cluster of rival clans now gathered close around them. How, then, to keep the show on the road? How to govern on this scale? How to gain and maintain legitimacy amongst people up and down the archipelago, and even beyond?
Finding solutions to these problems proved to be the work of two long and frequently bloody centuries, culminating in two great creative acts in the early 700s. The first was the building of a capital city in 710, at a place called Nara. The second was the finalizing, under official auspices, of two chronicles: the Record of Ancient Matters (Kojiki) in 712 and the Chronicles of Japan (Nihon Shoki) in 720. The oldest surviving pieces of writing to come out of the archipelago, neither offered a straightforward chronology of the Yamato chiefdom’s rise. They were both less and much more than that. Combining myth, history and high ideals, they furnished the people of the archipelago with some of their earliest exemplars, their founding heroes and heroines, while striving above all to answer that profound, perennial question – ‘Who are we?’
The groundwork had been laid in the centuries since Himiko, as some of the mysterious, impersonal forces with which she communed steadily acquired names, functions and favoured features of the landscape – often great rocks or trees – which they were thought to inhabit on a seasonal or a more or less permanent basis. Clan heads linked themselves with local spirits, or kami, taking personal responsibility for the rituals that ensured adequate rainfall and good harvests. Some went as far as ‘adopting’ particular kami as ancestors, with the Yamato clan choosing a female solar deity called Amaterasu. She was worshipped at Ise on the eastern coast of south-central Honshū, at a site facing towards the rising sun.
The Yamato clan then went one very significant step further. They took a rich oral tradition of kami stories from around the archipelago and wove them into a single fabric, producing in effect a family history, running from the moment of creation down through generations of kami, including Amaterasu, into their own times. This became the substance both of the Record of Ancient Matters, which bursts with poetry, song and saucy anecdote, and the Chronicles of Japan, with its attempt at a more sober ordering of time – closer to the Chinese chronicles in which Queen Himiko had featured.
The ‘Great Sovereigns’ now began to style themselves as ‘Heavenly Sovereign’: tennō, usually rendered in English as ‘emperor’. The Chronicles of Japan read this new self-designation right back into the distant past. It described an Age of the Gods giving way to a line of divine emperors of Japan, beginning with the mythical Emperor Jimmu in the seventh century BCE. From 201 CE to 269, an Empress Jingū was said to have ruled the land, following the death of her husband Chūai, the fourteenth emperor. The compilers of the Chronicles of Japan equated Jingū with the ‘Queen of the Wa’ mentioned in the Records of Wei, sidestepping potential complications by avoiding any use of the name Himiko. By the 500s and 600s, rulers begin to appear in the chronicle for whom there is strong historical evidence.
Allied clans of the Yamato were worked into this grand mytho-historical mix. Their place in the earthly pecking order found itself mirrored in the position of their adopted clan kami, within a hierarchical pantheon that featured Amaterasu at its apex. There was always the risk in such a strategy that allies – both human and divine – might feel underrated or under threat. For all that the Record of Ancient Matters and the Chronicles of Japan treated Yamato rule as a cosmic inevitability, they also hinted at serious bumps along the road as the new state coalesced. It is at just such a moment of crisis that we first encounter Prince Shōtoku, working his diplomatic magic.
As told in the Chronicles of Japan, the trouble began in 552, when an envoy from the Korean kingdom of Paekche arrived at the Yamato court bearing an impressive gold and copper statue of the Buddha, along with a collection of scriptures.
A thousand years had passed, by this point, since the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was said to have laid out his ‘Four Noble Truths’ at a deer park near Varanasi: namely, that human existence is a mass of suffering and frustration; that our appetites and attachments make it so; we can end this situation; and the means of doing so is the Noble Eightfold Path. Centuries of contact with other Indian and Chinese ideas had helped to transform these insights into an enormously rich and varied set of cosmologies, rituals and art forms. But aside from perhaps a few pockets of practice here and there, Buddhism was unknown on the archipelago. And it was controversial from the start. The Chronicles of Japan reports that opinion amongst powerful families at court was divided, in 552, over whether or not to welcome the newcomer. The Mononobe clan feared the wrath of the native gods, the kami, while the rival Soga clan argued – successfully – that Buddhism should be adopted on a trial basis. Members of their clan would perform rituals in front of this new statue, and see what happened.
What happened was a disastrous epidemic, allowing the Soga’s opponents to claim that the kami were indeed offended by this interloper. The statue was duly thrown into a canal and a newly built pagoda was burned to the ground. A second attempt at adoption in 584 again met with natural disaster. This time a Buddhist image, a pagoda and a temple were all set on fire, while three Buddhist nuns were stripped and flogged.
There was politics at play here. The Mononobe’s influence at court rested on their specialist ritual role worshipping the kami. The Soga clan, for their part, seem to have been descended from some of the many Korean migrants who brought with them to Yamato valuable expertise in everything from metallurgy and medicine to irrigation and administration. The Soga perhaps saw in Buddhism another element of the advanced culture of the peninsula, to be welcomed like the rest. For the Mononobe, here was an immigrant god, sponsored by an immigrant clan – and both were quite possibly after their jobs.
In the Chronicles of Japan’s version of events, it is just as hostility between the Soga and Mononobe descends into bloodshed in 587 that Prince Shōtoku appears, quite literally riding to the rescue. He is said to have been born in 573, to parents with both Yamato and Soga blood running through their veins: the great sovereign Yōmei (reigned 585–7) and his consort Princess Anahobe no Hashihito. The Chronicles of Japan refers to Prince Shōtoku as ‘Prince Umayado’, a nickname of sorts relating to the story that his mother’s effortless delivery of him occurred near to a stable door (umayado). The teenage Prince is depicted now taking to the battlefield on horseback, fighting for the Soga in a short but epoch-making conflict. As enemy arrows rain down, and the Soga are pushed back for a third time, the young Prince thrusts himself forward. ‘Will we be beaten?’ he cries. ‘Let us make a vow!’ With that, he cuts down a tree, whittles tiny images of four Buddhist gods known as the Heavenly Kings, places them in his top-knot, and proceeds to pray:
If we are now made to gain the victory over the enemy, I promise faithfully to honour the Four Heavenly Kings, guardians of the world, by erecting to them a temple with a pagoda.
The tide of battle abruptly turns. The Soga forces win out. The promised temple is built, and the Prince now begins to emerge as the leading light in a period of Buddhist-inspired enlightenment across the Yamato kingdom.
The puzzle of how closely Prince Shōtoku’s legend fits a real historical figure, who achieved some or all of the things with which he is credited, may never be solved. But the Soga clan do indeed seem to have enjoyed ascendancy after 587, capable in 593 of placing their favoured candidate on the throne. The Chronicles of Japan refers to her as ‘Empress Suiko’, although the title of tennō (‘Heavenly Sovereign’) was probably not in regular use at this point. According to the Chronicles of Japan, Prince Shōtoku was her nephew, appointed as regent by her in 594 and granted ‘general control of the Government … entrusted with all the details of administration’.
The Prince’s battlefield vow in 587 proved that by bringing in new, Buddhist gods Yamato was not risking its divine protection, but rather reinforcing it. Where rulers like Himiko had interceded with forces or kami for the protection and prosperity of their realms, the role of Yamato sovereigns was now expanded to include the worship of Buddhist deities to the very same ends. In practice, much of this work was delegated to Buddhist monks and nuns, who recited sutras at the temples that began to spring up around the country. Some forty or more were commissioned during Prince Shōtoku’s lifetime alone, the most famous being Hōryū-ji. Said to have been completed under the auspices of the Prince himself in 607, it later burned down and was rebuilt in the late 600s or early 700s. Hōryū-ji went on to become a centre for the veneration of Prince Shōtoku, celebrated in modern times as the world’s oldest wooden building.
Cosmic protection was to remain the primary role of Buddhism for many years to come. It would be a while before it evolved into a religion of the people. But the impact of the new temple complexes on people’s imaginations was nevertheless enormous. With a network of shrines to the kami yet to develop, these were some of the first permanent structures in the archipelago to be dedicated to ritual worship. A typical temple complex consisted of several heavy wooden structures, each topped with a cascade of tiles, situated within a walled enclosure. One of these buildings would be a multistorey pagoda, housing sacred relics and tall enough to dominate the surrounding landscape.
These complexes, including colourful, awe-inspiring temple interiors, were based on Korean and Chinese designs. Many were actually built by Korean hands, with Buddhist monks doubling as carpenters and wood-carvers, roof-tile makers, sculptors and wall-painting artists. Builders, buildings and the rituals that went on within – the wearing of robes, the use of incense and chanting – combined to make a deep impression, putting down permanent cultural roots.
Prince Shōtoku is credited with making all of this possible by replacing ad hoc continental contacts up to this point with something far more systematic, establishing relations around the year 600 with a newly reunified China under the Sui dynasty. Alongside priestly and practical expertise, the Prince drew deeply and thoughtfully on Chinese and Korean scholarship – in Buddhism, classical Chinese philosophy, history, law and administration. According to the Chronicles of Japan and the cult that grew up around his memory, Prince Shōtoku was one of very few people in Yamato to see beyond Buddhism’s ritual potential and appreciate its philosophical depths. He delivered lectures on Buddhism at the Empress’s request – one talk apparently lasted for three days – and composed sutra commentaries that were later sent to China as part of diplomatic missions.
One of the most celebrated products of all this learning was the archipelago’s first constitution, credited to the Prince in 604, though thought in fact to have been the work of a later generation. Consisting of seventeen articles, it was less a legal document than a series of principles on which an ideal state should be based. They included harmony and good faith, the acceptance of differing views and the recognition of merit. Feuding and gluttony were to be strenuously avoided, as were flattery, covetous desire, sycophancy and anger. Government officials were enjoined to place the greatest value on hard work, public-spiritedness, ‘decorous behaviour’ and open debate. Above all, people were encouraged to show reverence for Buddhism and for imperial commands.
These were more than mere airy ideals. Power in Yamato depended upon family, spanning blood ties and claims of godly descent. Prince Shōtoku was suggesting something revolutionary: that leadership and privilege should henceforth be conferred on the basis of merit and moral conduct instead. He instituted, for court officials, a Chinese-style system of ‘cap-ranks’ similar to one that was in use in Korean kingdoms at this time. There were twelve in all, each named after a Confucian principle – virtue, benevolence, propriety, sincerity, justice, and knowledge – and each distinguished from the others by the design of the silk cap worn by a person of that rank.
Anyone aspiring to rise through the new ranks would require, on top of the personal qualities laid out by Prince Shōtoku, a familiarity with Chinese. The lingua franca of East Asian Buddhism, it was also essential to continental statecraft and diplomacy. From the Prince’s time onwards Yamato saw a rapid increase in Chinese literacy amongst the courtly elite, making possible the compilation of the Chronicles of Japan (in literary Chinese) and the Record of Ancient Matters (in a more experimental linguistic blend of Chinese mixed with an early attempt to render spoken Japanese in Chinese script).
Renewed contact with China had all sorts of other impacts besides. Courtiers began to adopt Chinese clothing: for women, a tunic emphasizing a flowing, plaited skirt beneath; for men, a loose, longer tunic with a stand-up collar, atop a pair of trousers tied with a sash. Imported Chinese dress codes meant that, as with the administrative caps, certain colours could be worn only by people of a certain status. Early in the 700s, a new ‘clothing code’ required that all robes be fastened left over right, according to Chinese practice – the origins, some have argued, of what would one day become the kimono.
The archipelago now embarked on a long-term love affair with Chinese styles of poetry. A highlight of diplomatic banquets, the composition of short lines capturing a moment or a mood became a source of cultured competition at court. A few decades after the Record of Ancient Matters and the Chronicles of Japan were completed, the first poetry anthology appeared: The Ten Thousand Leaves (Man’yōshū), featuring more than 4,000 poems composed between the mid-600s and mid-700s and taking for their subject matter the lives of courtiers and the coarser-born alike. The islands, of course, had their own pre-existing poetic traditions. But as in ritual and statecraft, so in the worlds of fashion and literary pursuits the great theme of this era was the integration of the foreign and the domestic.
This was also the case for music and dance. Native traditions included kami songs, folk songs and drinking songs, alongside singing competitions that would end in carnal revelry. Accompaniment was provided by varying combinations of flutes, drums, bells and rattles. To these domestic traditions was added – probably as early as the 400s, but gathering pace during and immediately after Prince Shōtoku’s era – a range of new instruments, songs and dances from mainland Asia. Within the Prince’s lifetime the most important newcomer, from Paekche, was gigaku. Taught at Buddhist temples and performed at court and elsewhere, this was dance-drama using brightly coloured masks of animals, including lions and horses, alongside famous historical figures and caricatures of barbarians and kings. Later on came a form of dance called bugaku, with more of a narrative focus, accompanied by the koto, a horizontal stringed instrument that was laid on the floor and plucked.
The Prince is said to have made a modest musical contribution of his own, burnishing in the process his Chinese-style credentials as a man of virtue and filial values. One day in 613 he was walking along when he noticed a starving man lying in the road. He stopped and gave him food and drink. Taking off his own robe and covering the man with it, he wished him peace and composed for him a song of lament:
The wayfarer lying
Hungered for rice …
Art thou become
Hast thou no lord
Flourishing as a bamboo?
The wayfarer lying
Hungered for rice.
When the man died not long afterwards, Prince Shōtoku had a burial mound built for him. Suspecting that this had been no ordinary human being, the Prince sent one of his attendants back to check the mound. The tomb was found to be empty, with only the Prince’s robe remaining. Writers in later years linked this story to those of Jesus Christ and the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, both of whom left empty tombs and appeared to people after their deaths. Some went further, wondering whether the Prince’s many talents might have extended to helping bring the dead back to life.
As if to counter any impression that Prince Shōtoku was responsible for too slavish an approach to continental culture, his legend extends to one final celebrated act. The Chinese at this point still regarded their neighbours across the water – the ‘Wa’, using the same demeaning ideograph as always – as a vassal people. Given all that the Yamato kingdom was achieving, this would clearly no longer do. So around 608 the Prince drafted a letter for Empress Suiko to send to her counterpart in China. It began with the words: ‘The Child of Heaven [tenshi] of the land where the sun rises sends a letter to the Child of Heaven of the land where the sun sets.’ Other sources credit the Prince with conjuring the term later chosen by the Yamato sovereigns to refer to themselves – ‘Heavenly Sovereign’ (tennō) – and with trying it out for size on the Chinese around this time.
The Yamato kingdom had not yet formally adopted the name ‘Nihon’ (‘root of the sun’), the appellation which, passing through various Asian and European languages, eventually gave the world ‘Japan’. And given the vantage point of mainland Asia, the ‘land where the sun rises’ could be interpreted as no more than a geographical observation. But there were already connotations here of cosmic importance – of a newcomer destined to outshine an old-timer and, above all, the audacious assumption of parity between the two sovereigns. The Chinese Emperor appears to have understood. ‘This letter from the barbarians’, he is said to have complained to one of his staff, ‘contains improprieties. Do not call it to my attention again.’
What some refer to as the broad ‘Yamato period’, beginning around the mid-200s with grand burial mounds suggestive of up-and-coming chiefdoms, gave way in 710 to the ‘Nara period’, named after the location of an impressive new imperial capital established that year. Laid out on a Chinese-style grid pattern and featuring buildings with stone bases and tiled roofs, the archipelago’s first great capital city became home to 100,000 people – out of a national population of around 6 million. When the Chronicles of Japan was completed ten years later, in 720, it confirmed Prince Shōtoku as the person who had laid the city’s cultural and political foundations.
Nara became the focal point of the sort of centralized and professionally managed bureaucratic state, based on Chinese-inspired criminal and administrative codes, that the Prince had envisaged. Government was split into two branches. The Great Council of State (Dajōkan) featured a Chancellor, Ministers of the Left and the Right (each responsible for various specific ministries) and four senior counsellors. The Office of Deities (Jingi-kan) managed rituals and shrines for the kami. A parallel network of Buddhist temples was meanwhile emerging, home to monks and nuns who were regarded essentially as state bureaucrats to be trained, regulated and charged with reciting sutras for the good of the realm.
The realm, encompassing the southern two-thirds of Honshū and most of Kyūshū, was divided up into around sixty provinces, and from there into districts and villages. Villagers paid taxes in kind: a combination of rice and vegetables, raw materials, labour and military service – all of which helped to fund and secure a courtly culture in Nara that was ever more firmly rooted in the Chinese imports facilitated by the Prince. People across the land were encouraged to keep a careful eye on their neighbours as a way of promoting virtuous behaviour: a cheap and effective means of surveillance.
Not everything turned out as the Prince might have liked. His hoped-for meritocracy was conspicuously absent. Family feuding remained intense, with the Soga clan overthrown in the mid-600s and many more violent comings and goings thereafter. When career-minded young men went to study the Confucian classics at Nara’s State Academy (Daigaku-ryō), they did so knowing that districts and villages were controlled largely by influential local families, while provincial governorships were handed out to major clan allies – the country’s emerging aristocracy. Talented individuals of lowly stock might work their way up temple hierarchies as Buddhist monks or nuns, but otherwise birth trumped graft every time.
The impact upon the imperial institution of this heavy focus on family would be profound over the centuries to come. The Yamato sovereigns had achieved something remarkable in remaking themselves as divine emperors, establishing in the sixth and seventh centuries an imperial line that is still going strong in the twenty-first. But the feeling in the realm never went away that they were really just one elite family amongst others. When their earthly fortunes faltered, other families would be quick to muscle in.
For now, however, the emperors enjoyed considerable authority, advertising their divine descent ever more forcefully. Imperial edicts were not personal missives, they were drafted and promulgated by the Great Council of State. But from the reign of Emperor Tenmu (673–86) onwards they opened with the words: ‘Hear ye the edict of an emperor who is a manifest kami’. Emperors also boasted their own armed forces. Clan chiefs had been successfully turned into imperial military commanders, with each province required to raise and maintain a unit of at least 1,000 men and the realm’s roads shored up to accommodate swift and easy troop movements.
The Chronicles of Japan, completed at the beginning of this golden era of Sinicized, centralized imperial governance, made clear in its treatment of Prince Shōtoku’s passing the immense debt owed by the new state to the great diplomatic and integrating feats that he had come to represent:
Spring, 2nd month, 5th day 
In the middle of the night the Imperial Prince died in the Palace of Ikaruga. At this time all the Princes … as well as the people of the Empire [mourned him]. The old, as if they had lost a dear child, had no taste for salt and vinegar in their mouths. The young, as if they had lost a beloved parent, filled the ways with the sound of their lamenting. The farmer ceased from his plough, and the pounding woman laid down her pestle.
They all said: ‘The sun and moon have lost their brightness; Heaven and Earth have crumbled to ruin: henceforward, in whom shall we put our trust?’
At 6:35 A.M., as sunrise revealed a grayed-out and hazy dawn, the most powerful concentration of naval gun power the Japanese empire had ever assembled reordered its geometry in preparation for daylight operations. Twenty-five miles to Taffy 3’s north, lookouts on the heavy cruiser Chokai and light cruiser Noshiro reported aircraft approaching. So Halsey’s planes were coming after all, Takeo Kurita must have thought. Almost simultaneously, cat-eyed lookouts on the battleship Nagato spied masts on the horizon visible here and there through the rainsqualls that dropped down from the heavens like gauzy shrouds. An eight-knot easterly wind roused low swells from the sea. From the Yamato’s gunnery platform high above the bridge, Cdr. Tonosuke Otani, Kurita’s operations officer, squinted through a range-finding telescope and spotted the flat-topped silhouettes of American aircraft carriers.
The presence of carriers meant this was not Nishimura’s squadron. Kurita could not believe his luck. Here, within gun range at last, were the fast, first-line Essex-class fleet carriers that constituted the heart of the American fleet. There looked to be six or seven of them, accompanied by what lookouts took for Baltimore-class heavy cruisers, powerful combatants only six feet shorter than South Dakota-class battleships. The imagination of Admiral Koyanagi, Kurita’s chief of staff, ran wild. He believed they faced not an escort carrier group, but four or five big carriers escorted by one or two battleships and ten or more heavy cruisers.
As Ziggy Sprague’s task unit flees eastward into the wind, its six jeep carriers scrambling their pilots and aircrews, Kurita’s Center Force begins its high-speed pursuit, its battleships firing heavy salvos at extended range.
At 6:59, loaded with rounds designed to penetrate heavy armor, the great 18.1-inch rifles of the battleship Yamato trained to starboard and opened fire on Taffy 3 at a range of nearly twenty miles. One minute later Kurita issued a fleet-wide order for a “general attack.” The Kongo turned out to the east, in fast but independent pursuit. Ahead of the Yamato to port, the six heavy cruisers of Cruiser Divisions 5 and 7 formed into a single column, trying to take the lead in the chase. Angling to the southwest, the Nagato turned her sixteen-inch rifles twenty-five degrees to port and opened fire at a range of more than twenty miles. The swift Haruna loosed fourteen-inch salvos using its crude radar set.
Apparently unaware of the speed advantage his ships held over their American prey, Kurita seemed eager for his heavy cruisers to press the fight before the Americans could escape. A more disciplined (or better-informed) commander might have drawn his ships into a single line of battle, with destroyers in the forward van to scout the enemy and maneuver for a deadly torpedo attack.
For all the strength the Japanese Center Force brought into play, its commanders were unsettled about the manner in which the battle began. In the midst of the shift to a daytime antiaircraft formation, with each captain operating at his own freewheeling discretion, confusion took command of the Center Force. Vice Adm. Matome Ugaki, commanding Kurita’s First Battleship Division, composed of the Yamato and the Nagato, observed, “each unit seemed very slow in starting actions due to uncertainty about the enemy condition.” “I feared the spirit of all-out attack at short range was lacking,” Admiral Ugaki would write.
The heavy cruisers led the Japanese charge on Taffy 3. Cruiser Division 7’s commander, Vice Adm. Kazutaka Shiraishi, was a fifty-two-year-old Nagasaki native who had not had a seagoing command since 1940. Shiraishi received Kurita’s order, “Cruiser divisions attack!” and turned his ships to the southeast, steaming at their maximum speed of thirty-five knots. Aiming to flank the American ships from the east, he radioed each of his captains in succession: “We are closing the enemy. Intend to engage to starboard.” Then—bizarrely—though a general attack had been ordered, the vanguard of any such attack, the Center Force’s two divisions of hard-hitting destroyers, led by the light cruisers Noshiro and Yahagi, were ordered to the rear. Though there were doubters in his midst, Kurita was overjoyed by his perceived good fortune in encountering American carriers. At seven o’clock the Center Force commander dispatched a message that delighted Combined Fleet Headquarters: “WE ARE ENGAGING ENEMY IN GUN BATTLE” … and then “BY HEAVEN-SENT OPPORTUNITY WE ARE DASHING TO ATTACK THE ENEMY CARRIERS. The emperor’s fleet had been handed a dreamed-for chance. Carriers were queens of the seas, mobile and lethally armed with ship-killing planes. Now it was the Imperial Japanese Navy’s turn to move on the Philippine chessboard. Its rooks had America’s queens, so Kurita thought, lined up for slaughter.
As flecks of antiaircraft fire dotted the northern horizon around Bill Brooks’s Avenger, Ernest Evans emerged from his sea cabin on the destroyer Johnston and sized up Taffy 3’s predicament in an instant. Situated closest to the advancing enemy fleet, he could not have missed his ship’s consignment to quick destruction. Faced with it, Evans evidently saw no need to await orders from Commander Thomas aboard the Hoel or from Admiral Sprague. If carrier commanders traditionally saw the destroyers’ primary battle role as laying smoke screens to cover the flattops’ escape, Evans had other ideas about what he was supposed to do. Destroyers sortied. They interposed. They sacrificed themselves for the ships they were assigned to protect. Evans would do his duty for the Fanshaw Bay, the St. Lo, the Gambier Bay, the White Plains, the Kalinin Bay, and the Kitkun Bay. If that meant closing with an enemy whose guns were big enough to sink him with a single hit, so be it. He would make good on his commissioning-day promise—his warning—to his crew: the Johnston was a fighting ship. He would not back down.
Recalling his skipper’s speech in the context of the present situation, Bob Hagen, the Johnston’s gunnery officer, grew ill. As the ship’s senior lieutenant, he knew his skipper. The certainty that Evans would turn the ship into the teeth of the Japanese fleet saddled him with dread. This is an impossible situation with this skipper, Hagen thought. He’s not going to run. He doesn’t know how.
Hagen practically heard the orders before his skipper delivered them. His rapid-fire sequence suggested he had rehearsed all his Navy life for a moment such as this.
All hands to general quarters.
Prepare to attack major portion of the Japanese fleet.
All engines ahead flank.
Commence making smoke and stand by for a torpedo attack.
Left full rudder.
Lt. (jg) Ellsworth Welch couldn’t help but be impressed with his skipper’s brio, his calm, his directness of action, and clarity of thought. Why didn’t I think of that? he found himself wondering. Nothing like having a pro in charge.
Left full rudder meant that the ship would peel off to the north-northwest, away from the illusory sanctuary of the formation and charging toward the enemy fleet. The order made Robert Billie, a Minnesotan, want to go to ground like a gopher. “That was the only time I ever wanted to dig a trench.”
Bob Hagen ran his numbers—the fire-control computer could not help him here—and drew the same conclusion Jack Moore had on the Samuel B. Roberts: there was probably a fifty-fifty chance of survival. The long odds notwithstanding, he was in no hurry to climb up to the gun director. Though the situation seemed to demand urgent action—and indeed, he could count on his men being inside each of the five main gun mounts within about ninety seconds of going to general quarters—what was the point of hurry-up-and-wait? The gunners would have nothing to shoot at until the range to the enemy had closed from 35,000 yards to 18,000 yards, about six miles. Until then, the gunnery officer felt no immediate need to gaze upon the enemy ships through his binoculars.
The shellfire put out by the Japanese force was overwhelming. Battleship main battery rounds plunged down at the Johnston, shrieking like locomotives, smacking the sea with a slap and roar and sending up towers of dye-stained seawater. At that moment Hagen had as good a view of the Japanese dreadnoughts as he cared to have.
The Johnston’s gun boss contemplated the audacious path his captain had chosen and said quietly, “Please, sir, let us not go down before we fire our damn torpedoes.”
He did not doubt that Ernest Evans would do his best. Like the other officers on the Johnston, Hagen had come to see him as “a captain who could strike fighting spirit from his men the way steel strikes spark from a flint.” Evans’s conduct impressed him indelibly. “I can see him now,” Hagen would write, “short, barrel-chested, standing on the bridge with his hands on his hips, giving out with a running fire of orders in a bull voice.”
That Evans acted on instinct, ahead of actual orders, was elemental to his constitution and his experience. The crew in turn vested their faith in the all-encompassing will of the Cherokee warrior who had sworn that he would never withdraw. And who knew, perhaps promises as portentous as his carried with them some kind of implicit magic that assured their survival. The laws of probability and the lessons of recent combat history, however, heralded a different outcome. At the Battle of Savo Island, Japanese cruisers and destroyers had needed only six minutes to annihilate an Allied cruiser column. At Midway, American dive-bombers had wiped out most of a Japanese carrier task force in four decisive minutes. Alone against heavy cruisers and battleships—cruising through shell splashes fired by vessels up to thirty-five times her size—the Johnston would have no business surviving even that long. As the Army troops at Bataan or the Marines on Wake Island could attest, Americans had been overwhelmed in battle before. The Pacific had afforded them several occasions to refight the Alamo. Now, it seemed, it was the Navy’s turn.
As his ship sped to the northwest, alone against the Japanese fleet, Ernest Evans had no illusions that the Johnston’s five-inch main battery would do much damage. He knew that his only chance to send Japanese iron to the bottom of the Philippine Trench was to get close enough to fire his ten torpedoes, mounted in two quintuple mounts amidships, and plant a little torpex into their underbellies. Until then, all he could do was make his best speed and blow out as much smoke as his boilers were capable of making.
When the firemen received Captain Evans’s order to make smoke, they misinterpreted it as a reprimand. “But we are not making smoke,” came the defensive reply. Boiler room personnel trained hard to do anything but make smoke, lest the ship betray its location or foul its boiler tubes and require a painstaking cleaning. Evans grabbed the sound-powered phones and yelled, “I want a smoke screen, and I want it now!”
On the fantail, Lt. Jesse Cochran, the assistant engineering officer and head of a repair party, had trouble getting the chemical smoke generator going. Its valves were stuck fast from saltwater corrosion. Torpedoman first class Jim O’Gorek used a big adjustable wrench and vise grips to jog them loose, while Cochran and his party set depth charges on safe and dogged down all hatches and doors on the aft part of the ship. After a minute or so of urgent wrenching, the gray concoction was billowing in the ship’s wake, hanging close to the sea in the humid monsoon-season air. As the Japanese star shells burned overhead like miniature midday suns, advancing the light of the early morning, black smoke flowed from the ship’s two stacks, turning dawn back into night.
Smoke making was an act of sacrifice: the smoke flowed behind the ship that made it, shrouding everything in its wake. It gave its maker no protection. If Taffy 3 had a prayer to survive, it would depend on confusing Kurita and shielding the retreating escort carriers from view. “We were making smoke, zig-zagging and heading for the Jap fleet,” seaman John Mostowy would write, “at flank speed and alone.”
As the Johnston came around to port on Captain Evans’s order, taking a northwesterly course toward the Japanese fleet, seaman first class Bill Mercer pulled on a kapok life jacket. He was fastening it tight when a seaman named Gorman asked him if he was scared. Mercer, a Texan, said hell yeah, he was scared. In fact, his heart was thumping so hard beneath his ribs that he feared the Japanese might hear it. The only words Gorman could find in reply were a strange non sequitur: “This is fun.”
To quartermaster Neil Dethlefs, the situation seemed like the work of a cruel and uncaring universe. He had been on the Johnston for only three weeks. Not long ago he had been working aboard the hull repair ship Prometheus at Tulagi when the Johnston entered the harbor flashing signal lights requesting a replacement for a quartermaster who had trouble with seasickness. Dethlefs and another quartermaster on the Prometheus fit the job description, so they cut a deck of cards to determine who had to go. Dethlefs pulled an eight to his colleague’s king and dutifully reported to his yeoman for transfer to the destroyer. The bitter thought seized him now: he had arrived aboard the Johnston just in time to get himself killed.
As Captain Evans rang up flank speed, officer of the deck Lt. Ed DiGardi knew the Johnston wasn’t ready for an extended high-speed engagement. The fuel report indicated that the ship had only 12,000 gallons of fuel oil. At standard cruising speed, the ship burned 500 gallons an hour. But at a flank speed of thirty-six knots, the rate jumped to 5,000 gallons an hour. In just over two hours the tanks would be bone dry. The ship would go dead in the water, whether it was hit or not. Lieutenant DiGardi told the engineering officer, Lt. Joe Worling, to do what the engineer already knew had to be done: mix the oil with the 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel the ship carried in separate tanks. Though engineers hated the way the dirty-burning grog fouled the delicate boiler tubes and required a painstaking cleanout, there was no alternative in these desperate circumstances.
Not everyone was entirely despondent. Looking down to the bridge from the gun director, Bob Hagen swore that he could see Captain Evans’s “heart grinning” as he led his ship into the fight.
From the bridge of the Fanshaw Bay, Ziggy Sprague took in the vicious columns of water rising around the White Plains and the other CVEs on the edge of the formation nearest the enemy and saw a terrible beauty. The splashes from the salvos rose in a rainbow of colors: red, pink, purple, green, yellow—each so dyed in order to help the enemy gunners correct the fall of their shots.
In the whole horrible course of the war in four wide oceans, not once had an American aircraft carrier been sunk by gunfire from an enemy surface ship. The historic nature of Sprague’s plight was not lost on him. In the triumphant closing phase of the war against Japan, Admiral Sprague, an emissary of the world’s greatest sea power, was going to see all six of his flattops sunk by gunfire. It was certain to happen. It wouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes. There was no other possible outcome.
For the kid from Rockport, the situation was beyond imagining. “I wouldn’t say it was like a bad dream, for my mind had never experienced anything from which such a nightmare could have been spun.” Once Clifton Sprague had dreamed of going to West Point, of parading on horseback before cheering crowds down his hometown thoroughfare. He had become a Navy admiral instead. Now he would have his appointment with notoriety, leading thirteen ships whose pending destruction would go down in history just as surely as they would go down to the bottomless deep of the Philippine Trench: “Neither could such dream stuff have been recalled from my reading in some history book, because nothing like this had ever happened in history.”
By any measure the mathematics of the engagement were preposterously against them. The Yamato displaced nearly seventy thousand tons. She alone matched almost exactly in weight all thirteen ships of Taffy 3. Each of her three main gun turrets weighed more than an entire Fletcher-class destroyer. Her armor belts—sixteen inches thick at the waterline and more than two feet thick on her gun turrets—were impenetrable to an American destroyer’s guns. Her nine 18.1-inch rifles were the biggest guns that ever went to sea, firing 3,200-pound shells more than twenty-six miles. Their development was so secret that even Admiral Kurita did not know their true size. The superbattleship’s secondary battery of six six-inch guns packed twice the hitting power of anything Ziggy Sprague’s largest escorts had. The ship was a great gray beast whose bulk pressed down into the ocean and possessed it, displacing enough water to raise measurably the level of a small lake. At flank speed of twenty-seven knots, the Yamato sliced the sea and drew it back around her in a roiling maelstrom, leaving a wake that capsized small boats.
The Yamato was not the only ship that completely outgunned Sprague’s task unit. The Nagato, displacing 42,850 tons, fielded eight sixteen-inch guns, and the Kongo and her sister ship the Haruna (36,600 tons) were fast frontline battleships armed with eight-gun fourteen-inch batteries. Kurita’s six heavy cruisers were thirty-five-knot killers that had a cumulative displacement equal to that of the Yamato. Finally, Kurita had two flotillas of destroyers, eleven in all, each led by a light cruiser, the Yahagi and the Noshiro (8,543 tons), with six-inch batteries. On paper each of the destroyers matched the Johnston, the Hoel, or the Heermann in speed and torpedo power if not quite in gunnery. The only weapon in Sprague’s modest arsenal that Kurita could not match was aircraft. Each of the six American jeeps carried about thirty planes. But loaded with depth charges, antipersonnel bombs, rockets, and the machine guns in their wings—not to mention the propaganda leaflets they sometimes carried in lieu of more kinetic payloads—they were not armed for attacking heavy surface ships.
A fighting force cannot be reduced to its order of battle any more than a ship’s value can be reduced to the number of guns she carries or the shaft horsepower her turbines can generate. A vessel draws life from the spirit of her crew, which derives in large part from the leadership qualities of her chiefs and officers. Morale defies quantification—and yet it weighs significantly on the ultimate lethality of the tools of war. A ship’s effectiveness is the product of thousands of bonds that develop between individual officers and crew. The bonds form and break in a chain reaction, the power of which is determined by drill, by relationships, by fortitude, faith, and values. Task force commanders can be only abstractly aware of these uncountable qualities as they exist on the particular ships under their command. The officers of the ships themselves see these qualities more clearly but still can only guess how the chemical reactions will coalesce when the real shooting starts and men begin to die. And so orders of battle are drawn up to focus on the tangibles: speed, displacement, armament, and sensors. On that score Taffy 3 scarcely even registered on the scale of force that Takeo Kurita brought against them.
Thanks to Ensign Brooks’s diligent sighting report, Admiral Sprague knew precisely what he faced. “I thought, we might as well give them all we’ve got before we go down,” he later recalled. That meant getting into position to launch planes and putting as much distance as possible between his ships and the faster Japanese. Both of those goals could be met by heading east, into the wind.
Ziggy Sprague coolly measured what would become a steadily shifting matrix of variables—enemy course headings, patterns of wind and squalls, the effectiveness of his own ships’ evasions and protective smoke laying and the effect of the enemy fire—and instinctively planned his escape. He ordered his ships to turn from their northerly course to an eastward one, on heading 090. Three factors recommended that course: first, it was directly away from the Japanese fleet; second, it brought a strong wind rushing from bow to stern over his carrier decks—an apparent headwind of twenty-two knots was necessary to get a fully loaded Avenger airborne, even with catapult assistance; and third, it took him toward open ocean, where he could hope for the intervention not only of rainsqualls but perhaps also of other American ships. “I wanted to pull the enemy out where somebody could smack him,” he would write; either Oldendorf or Halsey, wherever they were, could handle that job. “If we were going to expend ourselves I wanted to make it count.”
At 6:50 Sprague flipped on the TBS radio and ordered the skippers of his command, “Signal execute on receipt. Shackle baker uncle easy unshackle turn.” Between the words shackle and unshackle was the coded numerical heading Sprague intended to follow. Baker Uncle Easy were the encoded integers for a heading of 090. All as one, the helmsmen on twelve of Taffy 3’s thirteen ships turned to the right, bringing their ships on an eastward heading. Sprague also passed the order to begin making smoke for concealment. Aboard the jeep carriers, flight deck crews raced to ready their planes for launch.
It took only five minutes to turn the six nimble carriers onto a windward course. Sprague ordered, “Launch all planes as soon as possible,” then hedged against the long-shot possibility that the fleet opposing him might yet be friendly: “Caution all pilots to identify all ships before attacking.” The roar and colorful splashes of incoming shells, however, all but removed that distant possibility.
Many of Sprague’s planes had been airborne since first light, flying off before daybreak to strike targets on Leyte. Now, needing the bombs they carried, he ordered them to abort and return. He also needed help from the other two Taffies to his south. On the TBS circuit he raised the commander of Taffy 2, Rear Adm. Felix Stump, “Come in please. Come in please…. To any or all: We have enemy fleet consisting of BBs and cruisers fifteen miles astern closing us. We are being fired on.”
Admiral Stump got on the line, already briefed by intercepted radio transmissions, and said, “Don’t be alarmed, Ziggy, remember we’re back of you. Don’t get excited! Don’t do anything rash!” Since Stump’s Taffy 2 was the only of the three Taffies not under direct attack—Taffy 1 would be fighting off land-based Japanese aircraft most of the morning—he was best positioned to help Sprague. Still, something about his tone tended to undercut his advice.
Thomas Sprague, in simultaneous command of Taffy 1 and all three Taffies, recognized that in the coming fight Ziggy Sprague should be free to decide how to conduct it. All that Thomas Sprague could do for him was cover bureaucratic bases and ask the Seventh Fleet’s commander of support aircraft for permission to launch all available torpedo bombers and “go after them.” The request was duly granted, and thereafter, according to Admiral Stump, “no orders were received from anyone during the entire day, nor were any necessary.” It was Ziggy Sprague’s battle to win or lose, “using the initiative that was required under the prevailing circumstances.”
Ziggy Sprague knew that help was a long way off. What he didn’t know was that Jesse Oldendorf’s battleships, idling in Leyte Gulf after their historic victory in Surigao Strait, would be kept from coming to his assistance because Admiral Kinkaid feared the Southern Force might turn around and attack again through Surigao Strait. Though one might question the wisdom of ensuring against a contingent disaster when a very real one was already at hand, the cold fact of October 25 was that Admiral Sprague, the ships and men of Taffy 3, and their brothers to their south, would have no help from the overwhelming naval power marshaled to their north and south. They were on their own.
Sprague’s moves in the crucible of imminent combat were swift but not rash. One trait of good commanders is that they make simple decisions at the right times and without delay. Sprague was an instinctive and forceful decision maker. He played golf in a hurry. He didn’t line up his putts. He just walked up to the ball and hit it. When he met his future wife, Annabel, he knew immediately he would marry her. At Pearl Harbor he knew right away what to do with the few weapons he had on the Tangier. On the morning of October 25, with an overwhelming Japanese task force pressing down on him, he saw instantly the surest route to his slim hope of survival. If he did not completely resign himself to dying, he at least accepted the reasonable certainty of an imminent swim. If no assistance came from other ships, Sprague would settle for the intervention of a heavenly being of whom during quieter periods of his life he had asked, and to whom he had given, relatively little.
“Aoyama; Kanpeishiki no Zu”. Emperor Meiji holds a military review at army camp in Aoyama.
The Reorganized Superintendency
In May 1885 the army ministry revised the garrison regulations. The commander of each garrison became a division commander while the superintendent controlled two divisions and became a corps commander.48 This was the army’s first step to convert the fixed garrisons to more mobile and modern infantry divisions, but it also required a more thorough overhaul of the superintendency. With Meckel serving as an adviser, recently promoted Maj. Gen. Katsura, chief of the army ministry’s general affairs bureau, and other like-minded general staff officers set to work to reorganize the superintendency to accommodate the command and control requirements of the new division force structure.
Based on preliminary studies, in late 1885 Katsura recommended to Yamagata that the current superintendency be abolished as an operational headquarters and converted to the army’s training command. Simultaneously, the army would introduce a centralized promotion system based on competitive examinations, not seniority, and establish age limits for active-duty service. It would also revise current regulations that made promotion to full general conditional on command of large units during wartime and subsequently on wartime command. These measures were designed to sweep away the deadwood in the officer corps and promote outstanding younger officers by competitive examination based on individual talent.
With Yamagata’s blessing, in March 1886 Katsura established the Provisional Committee to Study Military Systems, a nineteen-member group chaired by Col. Kodama Gentarō, to consider army reorganization. Meckel advised the committee and met with Kodama on a bi-weekly basis to discuss force structure issues and the national army’s mission. Meckel also drafted position papers, including one that addressed the command and control implications of converting the fixed garrisons into mobile divisions.
Meckel saw no need for a wartime corps echelon because the army would be small—only seven divisions —and its strategy defensive: to repel invasion of the home islands. Relying on mobility, individual divisions could quickly deploy to their assigned defensive sectors in wartime and, with attached artillery and technical units, conduct independent operations, much like a small corps in a European army. Thus the division became the army’s operational maneuver element. If a corps echelon was superfluous, so was the current superintendency system, which functioned as a wartime corps command equivalent. According to Meckel, the superintendent could administer two divisions during peacetime, thereby providing unified training at all levels, but would have no wartime role.
In line with previous studies, Meckel further recommended the creation of an inspectorate who would supervise army-wide military training and officer education and report directly to the emperor. The inspector-general would be equal in rank to the chief of staff and the war minister (which replaced the army minister under the newly installed cabinet system, discussed below). Finally, he proposed a personnel section to manage officers’ promotions and assignments. War Minister Ōyama submitted Meckel’s recommendations to the cabinet on July 10, 1886.
Soga, Miura, and their allies adamantly opposed the abolition of the existing superintendency and its replacement by an inspector-general of military education under Yamagata’s control. From their powerful positions—Miura commanded the Tokyo garrison and Soga was vice chief of the army staff—they insisted that neither the general staff nor the war ministry (which had been established in December 1885) had jurisdiction over the regional superintendents because they reported directly to the emperor, and therefore an imperial decree was needed to change their positions. They rejected reforms such as competitive examinations for promotion and drew support from officers whose professional careers were tied to the traditional seniority-based promotion system. Lt. Gen. Tani (agricultural minister at the time but still on active duty) and Chief of Staff Prince Arisugawa likewise rejected the reforms, especially placing the inspectorate functions under the war ministry, which they believed vested excessive power in the war minister’s hands. According to rumors, Emperor Meiji agreed with them and hoped to appoint Miura as chief of staff. Yamagata, however, ignored the emperor’s preference and schemed with Ōyama to undercut Miura by removing him from command of the Tokyo garrison.
After a July 12, 1886, imperial audience with Arisugawa, Emperor Meiji temporarily postponed the initiatives to allow Prime Minister Itō time to broker a compromise. Itō got Arisugawa and Yamagata to agree that the newly established war ministry would manage infantry officer promotions and the inspectorate for all other branches. They also concurred that the general staff would control the new inspectorate based on Itō’s promise that the inspectorate would be subsequently reorganized. The army abolished the superintendency on July 24 and replaced it with the so-called new inspector-general, which was administratively under the war minister.
By moving the inspectorate’s peacetime administrative functions to the war ministry, the army empowered the war minister with the authority to control personnel promotion policies and to issue operational orders to garrison commanders. This change diminished the authority of the regional inspector-generals by converting them from an operational headquarters that issued orders to a training one that took orders. The 1886 revisions also dropped the requirement for wartime command for promotion to flag officer, made selection to full general a matter of imperial appointment, and replaced promotion by seniority with a promotion system based on competitive examination results. For their persistent opposition, Soga was transferred from vice chief of staff to the commandant of the military academy and Miura was transferred to Kumamoto. Miura resigned rather than accept the demotion. Both remained outspoken critics of the army’s direction.
The settlement left unresolved the relationship between the new division force structure and the regional inspectors because the latter still reported directly to the emperor and served in wartime as corps commanders. During the transition period to divisions, the war ministry, as Itō promised, again reorganized the inspectorate. The July 1887 imperial order finally standardized army-wide training by placing it under the new inspectorate general, which was directly subordinate to the emperor and coordinated all military training and competitive examinations. Yamagata, concurrently home minister, was appointed the first inspector-general but served only nine months, apparently to ensure that the new organization got off the ground. The agency was the forerunner of the inspector-general of military education established by imperial order in January 1893 to enforce army-wide proficiency standards.
General Staff Reforms
Regulations issued in December 1885 created ten ministries in the newly organized cabinet. The war minister (formerly the army minister) continued to manage the army’s administrative functions—annual budget preparation, weapons procurement, personnel issues, and relations with the Diet—and reported to the prime minister on such matters. The new rules allowed the chief of staff to report directly to the throne on classified military matters without informing civilian cabinet members. Notwithstanding the chief of staff’s direct access to the throne, the war minister was encouraged to report such occurrences to the prime minister. The chief of the council of state had previously controlled the other ministers and held military command prerogatives; the newly designated prime minister, however, would have no say in matters of military operations or command.
The new cabinet authorized a separate naval general staff under the navy ministry. Two general staffs—one army, one navy—necessitated further reorganization, and in March 1886 the cabinet established a centralized supervisory agency to separate operational military matters from affairs of state. The new agency, in effect a joint general staff, was responsible for joint planning and operational coordination. A neutral imperial family member, Prince Arisugawa, became chief of staff to keep the lid on simmering internal service discord. He had two vice chiefs of staff—one from the army, one from the navy—who directed their respective staffs, and a joint staff to conduct joint planning to enable the services to react quickly to emergencies. This restructuring harkened back to the arrangement under the council of state and reflected the services’ inability to resolve roles and missions. Instead, a compromise imperial figurehead presided over two competitive general staffs that operated independently of each other.
Arisugawa’s appointment as chief of the joint staff attempted to capitalize on the direct link between the army and the throne. The flawed organizational arrangement proved unsatisfactory, in part because army infighting over the nature of the joint staff’s authority continued unabated, in part because the differing expertise of army and navy officers complicated coordination, and in part because Arisugawa, like many of his veteran contemporaries, lacked the formal military education, specialized military knowledge, and technical expertise demanded in a rapidly changing army and navy.
To remedy these deficiencies, two years later—in May 1888—the army again reorganized the general staff, changing the name to the army and navy staff directorate, eliminating the vice chief positions, and replacing them with an army and a navy general staff responsible to a single chief of staff for imperial forces. Arisugawa became chief of staff and served as the emperor’s military adviser on matters of operational planning and national defense. Arisugawa, however, had no staff, only a deputy, and depended on the service staffs for advice. In theory, the chief of staff was the ideal mechanism to coordinate joint planning and large-unit operations, but the services refused to cooperate with each other, joint planning did not materialize, and attempts at unified command again failed.
Articles eleven and twelve of the new Meiji Constitution promulgated in February 1889 formally institutionalized the military’s prerogative of supreme command. Article eleven made the emperor supreme commander of the army and navy, and article twelve established the emperor’s authority to set the peacetime organization of his military forces. Constitutional scholars interpreted the former to empower the general staff to assist the emperor without reference to the cabinet, effectively placing the services beyond the control of the prime minister. This was a major goal of the oligarchs—to keep the army out of politics or, phrased differently, to keep party politicians and political factions from running the army.
Senior army officers also feared that under the new constitution one general officer could in theory control two separate service staffs, a situation that might impinge on imperial prerogatives of command. To prevent this possibility and to retain its dominant position in military affairs, army leaders convinced the emperor to eliminate the chief of staff and place the naval general staff under the new navy minister. The army general staff, however, would be independent of the newly created war ministry and enjoy direct access to the throne. Arisugawa became the chief of the newly reorganized general staff, and the serving army chief of staff moved to the vice chief position. This latest change made the chief of staff the de facto army chief of staff because the navy staff had to issue its orders through the navy minister, who did not enjoy direct access to the throne. The arrangement left the military without an integrated joint staff to oversee operational command and control.
Diehard conservatives like Miura detested the thought of a powerful centralized government, which had already displayed its corrupt nature by promoting regional factionalism within the army. They had devoted most of the decade of the 1880s trying to block the Satsuma-Chōshū monopoly on senior army posts and army reforms, only to see institutional reforms, a new force structure, a reorganized general staff, and a revamped administrative system that strengthened Yamagata, Ōyama, and their respective regional cliques’ grips on the army. Miura claimed that factionalism had led the restoration astray and that Japan’s proper course should be to field a small army tailored to defend the main islands. Together with army Vice Chief of Staff Soga and retired generals Tani and Torio he doggedly opposed Ōyama’s and Yamagata’s attempts to introduce a big army organized in a German-style military system.
Allied with Miura and Soga were an anti-mainstream group of officers, who formed a well-organized opposition centered in the Getsuyōkai, a fraternal organization of army officers established in 1881 by graduates of the military academy’s initial two classes. The Getsuyōkai originally encouraged research into the latest developments in military science to improve army officers’ professional expertise, contribute to national defense, and aid understanding of large-unit operations. Membership soon exceeded fifty officers. Other specialized professional associations for officers—from cavalrymen to veterinarians—proliferated throughout the army.
In 1884 the Getsuyōkai chairman, the Francophile commandant of the Toyama Infantry School, appointed Miura, Soga, Tani (now retired from active duty and director of the Peers Academy), and Torio (also retired and director of the government statistical bureau) the association’s advisers. The French faction of Miura and Soga dominated the organization, using its lectures, newsletter, and later its journal, the Getsuyōkai kiji, to lambaste Yamagata and the army leadership, denounce the army’s Prussian reforms, and promote a small-army, antiexpansionist agenda. Under Soga’s direction, the journal published biting critiques of senior officers, deriding them as superannuated veterans of the wars of restoration living on their past reputations, unaware of the advances in military science, and sitting idly at their desks while real soldiers were maneuvering troops in field exercises.
Stung by charges that they were ignorant of modern military technology and doctrine, top army leaders counterattacked. Maj. Gen. Nogi, a brigade commander, and Vice Chief of Staff Kawakami Sōroku, who had recently returned from a year in Germany, publicly dismissed the critics as irresponsible tyros whose conduct was detrimental to military regulations and undermined army discipline and military order. But the Getsuyōkai would remain a thorn in the army leadership’s side throughout the decade of the 1880s.
Filling the Ranks
The overwhelming majority of conscripts came from farming communities and were overrepresented in the army. Almost 80 percent of the 1888 cohort, for example, was drawn from primary industry (forestry, agriculture, and fishing) at a time when roughly 65 percent of Japanese worked in that sector. Mining, manufacturing, and construction—the second and tertiary sectors—accounted for about 35 percent of all workers but only 11 percent of conscripts in 1888.
In 1887 the army adopted the Prussian system of one-year volunteers to build a reserve officer pool. Instead of facing conscription after their student deferments expired, middle school graduates could volunteer for specialized training designed to produce reserve officers. Candidates volunteered for a one-year specialized active-duty service, at the end of which they were commissioned as reserve second lieutenants. They could select their branch of service, live outside the garrison confines, and were exempt from routine fatigue duties in the barracks. They wore special insignia on their uniforms and were promoted to superior private after six months. With their regimental commander’s endorsement and successful completion of qualifying tests after six more months, they became reserve officers. In exchange for the privileges, the volunteers paid for their clothing, food, and equipment, which the army assessed at 60 yen (80 yen for cavalry to care for a horse). These sums were far beyond the reach of most Japanese, accounting for the tiny number (only 0.7 percent) of volunteers of the total cohort.
About 100 men volunteered the first year of the program, but by 1897 more than 1,000 volunteer reserve officers were enrolled in the program, spurred in part by the 1889 conscription reforms described below.67 Following their year on active duty, reserve officers went into the reserves for seven years, which was better than three years’ active duty followed by nine years in the reserves. They were subject to annual call-ups to active duty to maintain their military proficiency.
Of the more than 35,000 volunteers between 1906 and 1916, almost half chose the infantry branch, but a quarter selected transport or intendance specialties and overloaded branches the army had scant use for. Subsequent reforms created an abbreviated six-month voluntary active-duty training course designed to replace continual student deferments. As the active force gradually grew from about 65,000 in 1888 to 77,000 in 1893, the army simultaneously built a responsive reserve force capable upon mobilization of doubling the size of the force in wartime.
Major changes in 1889 to conscription regulations also followed the Prussian model in order to build a large enlisted reserve that would fill out the wartime divisions. Legislation eliminated deferments and established four categories of service: active duty, first reserve, second reserve, and national militia (territorial reserve), making a clear distinction between active duty and reserve forces.
The new law also delineated induction categories: graded A through E, with A and B being the source of conscripts. In 1899 the B category was subdivided into two groups, identified by minor physical differences. An annual preinduction physical rated 20-year-olds for military duty in this manner: A, fully fit; B, fit with minor deficiencies such as weaker bone and muscle structure, rashes, scars, or tattoos that did not interfere with the execution of military duties; C, those between four foot, eight inches and five feet in height, ineligible for frontline duty but placed in rear service positions; and D, those shorter than four foot, eight inches or suffering from habitual illness or deformity. The “A” candidates were conscripted, served three years on active duty, and then automatically went into the reserves for another four years, available for recall to fill out wartime augmentations. The “B” group usually was placed in the first reserve, and the “C” group went into the second reserve. The first reserve served as replacements and fillers for wartime mobilization whereas the second reserve was assigned to the transport branch to augment the expanded wartime logistics table of organization. Reservists received ninety days of basic training and thereafter were liable for one call-up per year for training, not to exceed sixty days. These remained the induction categories through 1945.
Conscripts, who were forbidden by army regulations from marrying during their first three years on active duty, were separated by year-group (first-, second- , or third-year soldiers) for training purposes. Each year was subdivided into seven training periods. A recruit underwent six months of basic training (periods one through three), followed by six months of unit and field training with second- and third-year soldiers (periods four through seven). Third-year soldiers were less involved in drills and exercises, so their proficiency decreased as their longevity increased. The model stressed technical and weapons proficiency and march-discipline for rapid mobility. After 1889 the army emphasized leadership, the intangible or morale qualities of battle, and tougher discipline.
By the early 1880s, the army had adopted western (mainly French) court-martial regulations for various serious offenses such as mutiny, desertion, disobedience to orders, rape, and mistreatment of prisoners. Caning on the back or buttocks was a standard punishment. Concurrently, a system of harsh, informally administered corporal punishments to deal with minor infractions developed in the barracks. Slapping conscripts was routine, gang beatings were common, and harassment and bullying were constant. The aim was to guarantee absolute obedience to a superior’s orders and instill unquestioning compliance as a reflex or habit in the tractable soldier. Henceforth, a combination of informally administered punishments and officially established courts-martial enforced Spartan discipline, linked to the notion that one’s ability to endure physical hardship and suffering stoically was the essence of the Japanese spirit.
Parallel with the 1889 conscription reform, the army encouraged local jurisdictions with village and city neighborhood associations to honor departing conscripts with neighborhood send-offs and conduct ceremonies to recognize returning veterans. Except for the Imperial Guard, which recruited nationwide, each division was administratively responsible for four local regimental conscription districts (one for each regiment in a division). Because each regiment recruited locally, conscripts knew each other, but more important were known to villagers, neighbors, and local authorities, increasing local peer pressure on conscripts to do well in the army.
The army’s transition during the twenty-year span was remarkable. During the 1870s a hard-pressed, slapdash force had defeated samurai uprisings large and small, ending the warrior threat to the new government. It had crushed peasant uprisings and suppressed the people’s rights movement, eliminating the risk of popular insurrection. By the mid-1890s the army had organized itself into a modern force structure, tested concepts in extensive field exercises, and improved communications and support functions. Its professional officer corps was well versed in tactics and operational concepts, though somewhat weaker in military strategy. A highly trained and well-disciplined NCO corps ensured order and control in the ranks. Conscription reforms in 1883 and 1889 had produced a large, trained reserve force available for mobilization. The army also created a professional military bureaucracy that by 1890 had eliminated French influence in the army and introduced educational and structural reforms to ensure promotion based on merit and ability.
The institution was less successful in the formation of a general staff, which despite several reorganizations still could not coordinate joint planning, much less joint operations. Furthermore, the military’s new bureaucratic processes worked well so long as the civilian and military leaders shared common objectives and respected the informal policy-making apparatus. The gradual appearance of a professional officer class, however, promoted institutionalized processes and mechanisms that undermined the unofficial personality-dependent system. Over time, the emerging military bureaucracy would prove fatal to the traditional dominance of the army’s Chōshū and Satsuma officers because it rewarded professional expertise and education, not personal connections, regional affiliations, or past wartime service.
Even though the genesis of the turbojet began long before World War 2, it would take the war to accelerate the development of this new powerplant to the point that by the close of hostilities jet aircraft had been blooded in battle. Germany can, by some, be considered the leader in turbojet technology during the war, but the US and Britain were not far behind. Japan, too, was not idle in producing its own turbojet but it would take German knowledge to give their industries a boost. One such results was was an historic aircraft in the annals of Japanese aviation history: the Nakajima Kitsuka.
Because the Kitsuka (which in Japanese means ‘Wild Orange Blossom’) was probably the most important Japanese aircraft to use a jet engine as its powerplant, it seems apt to provide a general overview of Japanese turbojet development in this section. The first axial-flow turbojet was patented in 1921 by Frenchman Maxime Guillaume. However, the technology of his day was not enough to realise a working model. In 1930, Englishman Frank Whittle designed a turbojet using a centrifugal compressor and, despite relatively little interest being shown in it, he patented his concept. In 1933, German Hans von Ohain designed a turbojet similar to Whittle’s but it would not be until 1936 that Ernst Heinkel took an interest in the engine and hired von Ohain to continue his work. By March 1937, this resulted in the Heinkel HeS 1, the first German jet engine although in fact a hydrogen demonstrator. The following month Whittle tested his first jet engine, the WU or Whittle Unit.
Around this time, Rear Admiral Kōichi Hanajima became aware of Whittle’s work as well as that of Secondo Campini, an Italian who began work on a thermojet and an aircraft to use it: the Campini Caproni N.1 in 1934. This rekindled his interest in jet propulsion and using his position as head of the engine division of the Dai-Ichi Kaigun Kōkū Gijutsu-shō, saw to it that studies were conducted in such engines. Hanajima reached out to the Tōkyō Imperial University and Mitsubishi Jūkōgyō K.K. and together all manner of rocket and jet engines were investigated such as ramjets. To Hanajima’s disappointment, little official interest was generated from the results.
1938 saw German firm BMW begin their research into turbojets and the Heinkel He 178 V1 prototype was built to test the HeS 3 turbojet that was being developed from the earlier HeS 1. In late 1938, Messerschmitt started work on what would become the world’s first jet fighter to enter squadron service, the Me 262. In Japan, and despite the lack of interest being shown in jet propulsion, Captain Tokiyasu Tanegashima was appointed as the head of the Engine Test and Field Support Shop of Kūgishō. He was issued with a meager sum to fund jet engine research although, with the assistance of Professor Fukusaburō Numachi, he would initially focus his efforts on turboprops. Both men were able to source the Ishikawajima-Shibaura Turbine Company and Ebara Seizō K.K. to help build a number of test engines that used compressors and gas turbines, but these labours did not bear fruit.
By 1939, BMW had tested its first axial-flow turbojet design and on 27 August of that year the He 178 V1 made its first flight, the first turbojet powered aircraft to fly. In February 1940, the British Air Ministry ordered two examples of the E.28/39 research aircraft from the Gloster Aircraft Company to serve as testbed aircraft for Whittle’s engines. 1940 also saw the Italian N.1 fly for the first time and Heinkel began gliding tests of the He 280 jet fighter prototype as it waited for its two HeS 8 turbojets now under development (the He 280 did not enter production). November would see Junkers test the Jumo 004 turbojet and Gloster’s jet fighter proposal, the Meteor, was ordered in February 1941. Also in November, Lockheed commenced work on the L-1000 axial-flow turbojet, the first American jet. Finally, in December, Whittle’s W.1X turbojet, a flight ready engine, was tested for the first time.
Japan though, was not idle in 1940. Early in the year, Tanegashima, with the help of the Mitsui Seiki Kogyo K.K., created a free piston compressor for a gas turbine based on a Junkers design, but it was not a success as a means for aircraft propulsion. Another attempt was tried by a different department. Under the leadership of Lieutenant Commander Osamu Nagano, head of the Kūgishō aircraft engine division, and Masanori Miyata, who led the Kūgishō electric parts section, built a tiny free piston compressor gas turbine, generating one tenth of a horsepower at 12,000rpm that drove a magneto that lit a lamp. Despite this measure of success, apathy on the part of the IJN continued to stymie progress. Tanegashima soon realised that the Japanese industry was not capable of constructing a free piston engine and switched his studies to axial flow jets.
On 15 May 1941, the Gloster E.28/39 flew for the first time, but previously in April, Heinkel’s He 280 V1 had flown under jet power on its maiden flight, the first jet fighter to fly. 1942 saw the Junkers Jumo 004 under test while BMW focused efforts on the BMW 003 Sturm. Heinkel was instructed to concentrate on developing the HeS 011, a turbojet that was to power the second generation of German jets. On 18 July, the Messerschmitt Me 262 flew under turbojet power, becoming the second jet fighter to fly, and on 2 October, the American Bell XP-59 Airacomet jet fighter made its maiden flight. By this time, Japanese engineers and scientists had learned of the flight of the He 178 as proof that an aircraft powered by a jet engine was feasible. This was just the boost the flagging Japanese jet engine research desperately needed.
As a result two different paths were taken with renewed vigour. The first employed the principle of the thermojet (as used by Secondo Campini) and was called the Tsu-11. While this engine was to be selected for use in the Kūgishō Ōka Model 22, it was found to be unsuited as a powerplant for a jet aircraft. The second route, that of a pure jet engine, was pursued further. Kūgishō’s Vice Admiral Misao Wada was the man who oversaw the development of a turbojet and the first result was the TR-10. This had a single stage, centrifugal compressor with a single stage turbine and was, in essence, built by adapting a turbosupercharger. The engine was constructed by Ebara Seizō K.K. When the TR-10 was first tested in the summer of 1943 its performance did not meet expectations. The TR-10 was renamed the Ne 10 and the engine was further developed by adding four axial stages in front of the engine inlet. This reduced the load on the centrifugal compressor, lowered the engine RPM and produced more thrust. The revised jet engine was designated the Ne 12. The problem with the Ne 12, however, was its great weight and so steps were taken to lighten the engine, which resulted in the Ne 12B.
1944 was an ominous year for Japan. When the Mariana Islands of Saipan and Tinian were wrestled from the Japanese by US forces in July and August, Japan found herself well within striking distance of the Boeing B-29 Superfortresses. Prior to this, B-29 raids had to fly from remote bases in China and India and so the bombing of Japanese targets was relatively rare. Staging from Saipan and Tinian, B-29s were far closer, could be more active and the Japanese were only too aware of this. In addition, it was surmised that it would only be a matter of time before the main Japanese islands were targeted for invasion. In August 1944, the Kaigun Koku Hombu called for a meeting to discuss changes in air strategy to combat the air and land threat as well as to consider the aircraft that would be used. The Kaigun Koku Hombu invited aircraft designers from both Nakajima and Kawanishi to attend and the outcome of this meeting was the proposal for three classes of aircraft termed Kōkoku Heiki (one literal translation being ‘Empire Weapon’). The first class, or Kōkoku Heiki No.1, was the adaptation of current aircraft to accept a 800kg (1,760 lb) bomb with which their pilots would undertake shimpū missions and target enemy invasion ships. If the bomb overloaded the carrying capacity of the aircraft, then RATO (Rocket Assisted Take-Off) units would be used to get them airborne. Kōkoku Heiki No.3 was to be a conventional, radial engine aircraft designed by Kawanishi as the Tokkō-ki, which would be used for shimpū missions, but this project was soon abandoned (perhaps because the IJN was to build the similar Nakajima Ki-115 as the Showa Toka). It would be Kōkoku Heiki No.2 which provided the seed for the Nakajima Kitsuka. This ‘Empire Weapon’ was to be an aircraft that used the Tsu-11 and, when available, the Ne 12 turbojet.
However, three months prior to the meeting, efforts were underway to obtain the Me 262 from Germany. In May 1944, the Japanese negotiated for the manufacturing rights to the Me 262 and the Germans initially agreed to the release. However, the deal was not concluded due to the large number of modifications that the design was found to require after its flight testing. It was not until July 1944 that orders were given to provide the Japanese with blueprints of the Me 262 fighter and the Junkers Jumo 004 and BMW 003 turbojets.
On 22 July 1944, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring authorised the licensing of the Me 262 to Japan and the delivery of one sample aircraft. However, the Japanese submarine I-29 had left Lorient, France, on 16 April with a sample Junkers Jumo 004 turbojet and plans for the Me 262 and BMW 003 turbojet among its cargo. Also aboard the submarine was Technical Commander Eiichi Iwaya who carried on his person a portion of the documentation on the German fighter and turbojets. By 14 July, the I-29 had arrived in Singapore. Iwaya, seeking to reach Japan as soon as possible, disembarked from I-29 and took only a portion of the German documentation. From Singapore, Iwaya flew to Tōkyō. On 26 July, Allied code intercepts pinpointed the location of I-29 and the USS Sawfish sent her to the bottom near the Balintang Channel in the Luzon Strait, taking the precious cargo with her.
When Iwaya arrived in Japan, all he possessed of the German files with regards to the Me 262 and turbojets was a single copy of a cross-section of the BMW 003A turbojet. The subsequent news of the loss of I-29 was a crushing blow, but not a fatal one by any means. In studying the BMW 003A document, the Japanese found it to be of a similar design to the Ne 12 but instead of the centrifugal compressor the German engine used an eight stage axial-flow compressor. It was adjudged that this method was superior to the Ne 12 and as such, efforts should be concentrated on building the Japanese equivalent to the BMW 003A. Despite the decision against it, work on the Ne 12B continued. Four companies were involved in the development of the new turbojet. Each was to be provided with a copy of the BMW 003A cross-section and other available data and to build their own versions. Ishikawajima-Shibaura Turbine Company was to develop the Ne 130, Nakajima Hikōki K.K. the Ne 230, Mitsubishi Jūkōgyō K.K. the Ne 330, and Kūgishō would move forwards with the Ne 20.
Following the August conference with the Kaigun Koku Hombu, Ken’ichi Matsumura, chief designer for Nakajima and with the assistance of Kazuo Ōno, produced a number of concept drawings for the Kōkoku Heiki No.2. Within Nakajima, the new aircraft was given the codename Maru-Ten. On 14 September 1944, IJN representatives met with Nakajima at their Koizumi plant to discuss the concepts which had been put forward. The design that stood out was based on a description of the Me 262 as provided by Technical Commander Eiichi Iwaya who, while in Germany, was able to view and study the German jet. Thus, Matsumura’s drawing bore an outward resemblance to the Me 262. After reviewing the concept, the design was approved as the Kōkoku Heiki No.2. In keeping with the shimpū mission of the aircraft, the initial design had no landing gear and was to be launched from catapult ramps, boosted with RATO units. The calculated range was a mere 204km (127 miles) due to the designated engine, the Ne 12, which burned fuel at a rapid rate. At sea level the estimated speed was 639km/h (397mph). A single bomb fixed to the aircraft was the only armament. Another feature was the inclusion of folding wings to allow the aircraft to be hidden in caves and tunnels and protected from bombing attacks.
On 8 October, Kūgishō ordered Kazuo Yoshida, plant director for Nakajima, to have a wooden mock-up of the aircraft completed and ready for inspection by the end of the month. In addition Nakajima was told to have the initial structural plans finished by the same date. This was ordered so that production of the aircraft could begin without delay. Unfortunately, delays would be a major problem. The IJN promised that the Ne 12 would be ready for testing by November 1944 and in short order thereafter, production engines would be available. Based on this assumption, Nakajima was to construct thirty aeroplanes by the end of December 1944. Because of the rush to produce the aircraft, a myriad of problems arose with the design which necessitated changes. A major issue was the lack of critical war materials which required the use of substitutes and brought additional delays. To compound the problem, Nakajima was concerned that the Ne 12B would not be ready despite the IJN’s promises.
Meanwhile, Kūgishō proceeded with the Ne 20. The engineers were forced to use alloys which were not to the standards of the German engine and would be a source of problems during testing. The design of the Ne 20 was smaller than the BMW 003A but it retained the combustion chamber shape of the German engine. While it used the same size of burner as the BMW 003A, it only used twelve instead of sixteen due to the smaller size. Kūgishō would draft and refine the design of the Ne 20 through December.
On 9 December 1944, the IJN called a meeting to discuss the progress and outlook of the Kōkoku Heiki No.2. Based on the problems Nakajima were having with the aircraft, not to mention the doubts about the Ne 12, the production schedule was revised. Nakajima were requested to produce the first prototype by February 1945 for use in static testing. It was also during this meeting that the aircraft’s specifications underwent a revision. Instead of a fixed bomb, the bomb could now be released by the pilot. The role of the aircraft was also changed. No longer was it to be used for a shimpū mission but instead for close air support, the aircraft acting as a fast attack bomber. As a consequence of these changes, the design had to incorporate a landing gear. The IJN issued its specifications for the new jet, which was now called the Kitsuka, and the documents requested:
Span: no more than 5.3m (17.3ft) with the wings folded
Length: no more than 9.5m (31.1ft)
Height: no more than 3.1m (10.1ft)
Powerplant: Two Ne 12 jet engines
Maximum Speed: 513km/h (319mph) with 500kg (1,102 lb) bomb
Range: 204km (127 miles) with a 500kg (1,102 lb) bomb or 278km (173 miles) with a 250kg (551 lb) bomb
Landing Speed: 148km/h (92mph)
Take-off Run: 350m (1,148ft) using two 450kg (992 lb) RATO bottles
Manoeuvrability: The aircraft had to be highly manoeuvrable, have a short turn radius and be stable at speed to facilitate target tracking
Protection: Shatter proof glass for the canopy. Front windscreen to have 70mm of bullet proof glass. 12mm of steel armour plate below and behind the pilot. Fuel tanks to be 22mm sandwich types
Basic Instrumentation: Tachometer, altimeter, artificial horizon, airspeed indicator, Model O Type 1 flux gate compass, fuel pressure gauge, oil pressure gauge, oil temperature gauge, tail pipe temperature gauge and a pitot tube electric heater
Basic Equipment: Type O parachute, automatic fire extinguisher, Type 3 dry battery, Type 3 radio receiver, Type 1 life raft and a reserve weight of 30kg (66.1 lb)
1945 would open with more misfortune for the Japanese war machine. Japanese troops were pushed out of Burma from 5 January and B-29s would bomb Tōkyō the next day. Two days earlier, Matsumura and Ōno, along with others involved in the Kitsuka project, discussed the possibility of using the Ne 20 turbojet in place of the Ne 12. In the debate, some suggested that the Ne 20 was not as far in development than the Ne 12 and would delay progress if used. On the other hand, some argued that the Ne 12 was not achieving significant results. In the end, the consensus was that the Ne 12 should remain as the powerplant only because it was projected to be ready before the Ne 20.
On 28 January 1945, the wooden mock-up of the Kitsuka was finally ready for inspection at Nakajima’s Koizumi plant. Vice Admiral Misao Wada and his staff visited the plant and inspected the mock-up with both Matsumura and Ōno in attendance. It was made clear to the Kūgishō inspectors that the Kitsuka was a very simple aircraft that could be constructed in 7,500 man-hours. By comparison, it took 15,000 man-hours to build a Mitsubishi A6M Reisen. Following the inspection, Nakajima was told to make two slight adjustments to the Kitsuka. The first involved the windscreen. Originally, the front windscreen was rounded but now it was desired that it should be flat panelled. This change may have been suggested to allow for the future installation of a reflector gun sight because such a sight requires flat panels to avoid sighting problems due to canopy distortion. The second alteration was to make the canopy slide to the rear instead of opening to the side. At the conclusion of the meeting, Nakajima was told to cease all work on the Nakajima J5N1 Tenrai and the company was also informed that they could expect the Nakajima G8N1 Renzan to be terminated as well. These changes in production and development were done to speed the coming production of the Kitsuka. The close of January also saw the final design draft of the Ne 20 completed and almost immediately work began to build the first engine. Kūgishō’s Aero Engine Division provided 400 machine tools and engineers and labourers began to toil day and night to realise the Ne 20.
February 1945 opened with the Japanese naval docks in Singapore targeted and destroyed by B-29 bombers along with continued fighting in the Philippines. A second inspection of the Kitsuka was called for on 10 February. Present at the inspection, among the other engineers and Kūgishō personnel, were Technical Commander Iwaya and the man who was destined to fly the Kitsuka, Lieutenant Commander Susumu Takaoka. The Kitsuka was given final approval and production was to commence at once, even before the Kitsuka had been flight tested. The first five Kitsuka aircraft, No.1 through No.5, were to serve as prototypes and none would be fitted with armour plating or self-sealing fuel tanks. In addition the first two aircraft would not to be equipped with the bomb carrying apparatus. February would also see the Ne 12B tested for the first time.
Unfortunately for the Kitsuka, US bombing ensured that production did not go smoothly. Due to the ever increasing number of strikes against the industrial centres of Japan, it was felt that it was only a matter of time before the Nakajima Koizumi plant would attract the attention of US bombers. Therefore, on 17 February, engineering staff for the Kitsuka was moved to Sano in Tochigi Prefecture. Despite the move, a sizable portion of the Kitsuka component construction remained at Koizumi while the wings, tail assembly and the centre and aft portion of the fuselage were constructed by Kūgishō in Yokosuka. In the face of further bombing attacks, production was dispersed among silkworm factories and buildings in Gunma Prefecture (northwest of Tōkyō).
March arrived in a blaze of smoke and fire as the US ramped up their incendiary bomb campaign against Japan’s cities. Tōkyō and Nagoya were particular targets, the burning cities lighting the night sky. On March 26, the first Ne 20 engine was successfully test run from a cave set into a cliff in Yokosuka. With the success of the Ne 20, the Kitsuka engineering team began to seriously consider replacing the Ne 12B with the Ne 20. It was clear that the Ne 20 outperformed the Ne 12B and, based on the higher thrust potential, it was decided that the Kitsuka should use the Ne 20 even if it meant a longer delay while the engine became available. Although the current Kitsuka production did not yet involve the engine mountings, a revision of the aircraft design plans was required to accommodate the Ne 20. By March 31, these revisions were complete and the Kitsuka program entered a stage of finality.
With the revised Kitsuka, some of the specifications were adjusted as follows:
Maximum Speed: 620km/h (385mph) with a 500kg (1,102 lb) bomb at sea level
Range: 351km (218 miles), at sea level, at full power
Take-off Run: 500m (1,640ft) with two 450kg (992 lb) RATO bottles
Landing Speed: 92km/h (57mph)
Bomb Load: 500kg (1,102 lb) as normal with the ability to carry a 800kg (1,763 lb) bomb; a Type 3 rack would be used for the larger bomb
Protection: Reduce the bullet proof glass thickness to 50mm and add 12mm of armour to the front of the cockpit, while the fuel tanks would incorporate an automatic fire suppression system
Engineers working on the Ne 20 found that, although the initial test of the engine was a success, there were many issues to solve. At first, the blades were prone to cracking but this was soon overcome. An electric starter was fitted into the compressor spinner that could spin the engine at 2,250rpm; the engine would reach maximum RPM within 10-15 seconds of engine start. Gasoline was used to start the engine and once running the fuel was switched to a pine root distillate using 20-30 per cent gasoline. What was becoming a problem was how to position the tail cone. Lieutenant Commander Osamu Nagano and his team, along with Captain Tokiyasu Tanegashima, laboured to refine the Ne 20. The worsening bombing situation saw the Ne 20 team moving to Hadano in Kanagawa Prefecture, a three hour drive from Yokosuka.