Manchukuo Aviation I

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Ki-9. Manchukuo National Military Force Air Corps, 1938-39. This trainer is Orange overall, with Black cowling, forward fuselage, undercarriage legs and wheel spats. MNMFAC roundels are applied in four wing positions, in (from top) Red, Blue, White, Black and Yellow. The fuselage script, indicating the donor of the aircraft, is in Black.

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Until just five years ago, Manchurians were little more than backward bandits squabbling over pieces of torn fiefdoms. Today, we operate our own air force against all the enemies of a modernized Manchukuo.

-Nobuhiro Uta, 1st Lieutenant, Doi ManshuTeikoku Kugun’

In 1640, Ming Dynasty control over China was falling apart. Widespread crop failures, followed by starvation on a scale too massive for government redress, and peasant revolts broke out to badly shake the nearly 300-year-old order. Taking advantage of these upheavals, Manchu raiders from the north approached the capital on May 26, 1644. Beijing was defended by an unfed, unpaid army unwilling to oppose the invaders, who entered its gates just as the last Ming emperor hung himself on a tree in the imperial garden.

The Manchus replaced his dynasty with their own, the Qing (or “clear”), that ruled until the early 20th century. Demise of the Manchurian imperium in 1912 had been preceded by decades of corruption, military defeats, and foreign exploitation, leading inevitably toward revolution. Organized society dissolved, as private armies fought each other for control during the so-called Warlord Era.

Observing this calamitous decline from afar were the Japanese. They knew that someone would eventually emerge from the chaos to unify the country, thereby fulfilling Napoleon’s dire warning about China being a sleeping giant that, once awakened, would terrify the world. In 1931, Japanese forces invaded Manchuria to extirpate its contentious warlords, restore some semblance of social order, and, most importantly to themselves, create a buffer state, rich in natural resources, between Japan and the USSR.

On February 18, 1932, Manchukuo was established with assistance from former Qing Dynasty officials, including Pu-Yi, “the last emperor.” Unlike Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 film of that name, the new “State of Manchuria” was not entirely a Japanese “puppet;’ or colony, although it had elements of both. Like most Asian monarchs of his time, including Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, Pu-Yi was mostly a figurehead: the nation’s symbolic personification. Real power lay in the hands of state council cabinet ministers, who belonged to the Xiehehui Kyowakai. This “Concordia Association” embodied the principles of Minzoku Kyowa, the “concord of nationalities;’ a pan-Asian ideology aimed at making Manchukuo into a multi-ethnic nation that would gradually replace the Japanese military with civilian control.

By granting different ethnic groups their communal rights and limited self-determination under a centralized state structure, a balance was created between federal power and minority rights, thereby avoiding the same kind of separatism that had undermined the Hapsburg’s Austro-Hungarian monarchy or Russia’s Czarist empire. Accordingly, emigres were allowed their own independent groups, which included a wide spectrum of agendas, from White Russian Fascists and Romanov monarchists, to Jews involved in several Zionist movements. Together with these diverse populations, Mongols, Hui Muslims, and Koreans, as well as native Manchu, Japanese settlers, and the majority of Chinese found workable representation in the Concordia Association that dispensed with former animosities.

Because the rights, needs, and traditions of each group were officially respected, religious liberty was guaranteed by law. Mongol lamas, Manchu shamans, Muslim ahongs, Buddhist monks, Russian Orthodox priests, Jewish rabbis, and Confucian moralists were equally supported by the state. Corporatist, anticommunist and anticapitalist, Minzoku Kyowa aimed at class collaboration by organizing people through religious, occupational, and ethnic communities. Manchukuo was intended to be the ideal and standard by which the rest of China was to be reconstituted.

Other similar states set up by the Japanese were the Mangjiang government for Inner Mongolia, the Reformed Government of the Republic, and the Provisional Government of the Republic for the eastern and northern areas of China, respectively. These last two were combined by 1940 in the Nanjing National Government headed by Wang Jingwei, perhaps the most brilliant Chinese statesman of the 20th century. After Sun Yat-sen’s death in 1925, as described in Chapter 13, Jingwei became the leader of the Kuomintang, China’s Nationalist Party, but was subsequently ousted by backstage intrigue to put Chiang Kai-shek in control.

Jingwei believed with the Japanese that China only avoided being a military, economic, and ideological threat to the outside world and itself, while preserving its culture from foreign influences, by a decentralized system of cooperative independence for the various provinces, with emphasis on their ethnic individuality. In this, the Japanese envisioned themselves as the power center of Asia’s Co-Prosperity Sphere. Heavy Japanese investment helped Manchukuo to become an industrial powerhouse, eventually outdistancing Japan itself in steel production.

Manchuria operated its first airline, the most modern in Asia outside Japan. Flying with the Manchukuo Air Transport Company were Junkers Ju.86s and Fokker Super Universals. The German Junkers was powered by a pair of Jumo 207B-3/V, 1,000-hp diesel engines, able to carry its 10 passengers nearly 1,000 miles above 30,000 feet, making it an ideal transport for China’s mountainous terrain.

The Dutch-designed Fokker F.18 Super Universal was actually produced in the United States during the late 1920s, later manufactured under license by Canadian Vickers and Nakajima in Japan. Chosen for its ruggedness, especially the reliability of its 450-hp Pratt and Whitney Wasp B engine in very cold conditions, a Super Universal known as the Virginia served in Richard E. Byrd’s 1928 Antarctic expedition. He additionally valued the conventional, eight-place, high-wing, cantilever monoplane for its 138-mph performance at 19,340 feet over 680 miles.

Even before the Manchukuo Air Transport Company was renamed “Manchukuo National Airways;’ the city of Changchun had likewise undergone a change to Xinjing, the “New Capital” of Manchukuo. The former whistle-stop town was transformed almost overnight into a beautiful, modern, and large city, the most culturally brilliant in China at the time. Manchukuo was officially recognized by 23 foreign governments from all the Axis powers and the USSR to El Salvador and the Holy See. The League of Nations denied Manchukuo’s legitimacy, however, prompting Japan’s withdrawal from that body in 1934, while the United States opposed any change in the international status quo “by force of arms;’ as stated by America’s Stimson Doctrine.

Still, Manchukuo experienced rapid economic growth and progress in its social systems. Manchurian cities were modernized, and an efficient and extensive railway system was constructed. A modern public educational system developed, including 12,000 primary schools, 200 middle schools, 140 teacher preparatory schools, and 50 technical and professional colleges for its 600,000 pupils and 25,000 teachers. There were additionally 1,600 private schools; 150 missionary schools; and, in the city of Harbin, 25 Russian schools. By 1940, of Manchukuo’s 40,233,950 inhabitants, 837,000 were Japanese, and plans were already afoot to increase emigration by 5 million persons over the next 16 years, in the partial relief of Japan’s overpopulation crisis.

Bordering as Manchukuo did the Russian frontier, the necessity for self-defense was apparent. In February 1937, an air force, the Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun, was formed. To begin, 30 officers were selected from the Imperial Army for training with Japan’s Kwantung Army at Harbin. By late summer, their first unit was established at the Xinjing airfield under the command of 1st Lieutenant Nobuhiro Uta. His taskto make something of the fledgling service-was daunting, because he had only a single aircraft at his disposal, a World War I-era biplane.

The Nieuport-Delage Ni-D.29 had made its prototype debut in August 1918 and looked every bit its age with its open cockpit and fixed tail skid. Even then, the French-built pursuit aeroplane did not pass muster, because it could not achieve altitude requirements. The Ni-D.29 received a new lease on life when, stripped of its cumbersome military baggage and its Gnome 9N rotary engine replaced by a 300-hp HispanoSuiza 8Fb V-8, it won eight speed records, including the Coupe Deutsche and Gordon Bennet Trophies of 1919 and 1920, respectively.

Nieuport-Delage executives cashed in on the aircraft’s new prestige by making it a lucrative export to Belgium, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Argentina, Japan, and Thailand. Their swift model saw action in North Africa, dropping 20-pound antipersonnel bombs on native insurgents unhappy with French and Spanish colonialism. By 1937, the old double-decker’s top speed of 146 mph and 360-mile range made it something of a relic, but Lieutenant Uta made good use of its forgiving handling characteristics in the training of his novice aviators.

Appeals to Japan resulted in more modern aircraft for the nascent Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun. First to arrive were examples of a Kawasaki KDA-2 reconnaissance biplane. It had been designed specifically for the Imperial Japanese Army by Richard Vogt, an aero engineer from Germany’s renowned Dornier Flugzeugewerke. Following successful trials, the KDA-2 entered production with Kawasaki as “Type-88-1, in 1929. Its unequal span wings and slim, angular fuselage married to a 600-hp BMW VI engine provided a respectable range of 800 miles at 31,000 feet.

The aircraft’s remarkable stability and rugged construction lent itself well to the light-bomber role when fitted with 441 pounds of bombs. Lieutenant Uta’s men also received the Nakajima Type 91, until recently replaced by the Kawasaki Type 95, Japan’s leading fighter. The parasol monoplane’s Bristol Jupiter VII, 9-cylinder radial engine was rated at 520 hp, allowing a service ceiling of 29,500 feet and 186-mph maximum speed. Twin 7.7-mm machine-guns synchronized to fire forward through the propeller arc were standard for the time.

In July 1938, Soviet troops violated the 78-year-old Treaty of Peking between Russia and China by establishing their common Manchurian border, a move that alarmed the Japanese, suspicious of Stalin’s plans for a Communist China. On the 15th, Japan’s attache in Moscow called for the withdrawal of newly arrived Red Army forces from a strategic area between the Shachaofeng and Changkufeng Hills west of Lake Khasan, near Vladivostok. His demand was rejected because, he was told, 1860’s Treaty of Peking was invalid, having been signed by “Czarist criminals”2 Soon after, he learned that the Soviets had relocated the original 19th century demarcation markers to make their territorial claims appear legitimate.

Japan answered this deception on the 29th by launching its 19th Division and several Manchukuo units at the Red Army’s 39th Rifle Corps, without success. Although the Nakajima fighter planes stayed behind for homeland defense, the Manchurians used their Kawasaki reconnaissance aircraft to scout Russian weak spots without being detected. Based on photographic information made available by the high-flying biplanes, the Japanese renewed their offensive on July 31, this time expelling the enemy from Changkufeng Hill in a nighttime attack. Beginning on the morning of August 2, General Vasily Blyukher, commanding the Far Eastern Front, ordered a massive, relentless, week-long artillery barrage that drove the Japanese and Manchurians back across the border. Hostilities ceased on August 11, when a peace brokered by the United States came into effect, and Soviet occupation of the compromised Manchurian border was affirmed.

Far from being honored as the victor of the short-lived campaign, General Blyukher was arrested by Stalin’s political police and executed for having suffered higher casualties than the enemy. Russian dead amounted to 792, plus 2,752 wounded, compared with 525 Japanese and Manchurians killed, 913 wounded.

Although the Changkufeng Incident, or Battle of Khasan, as it is still sometimes known, was a Japanese defeat, it afforded the young Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun its first operational experiences. More were to come in less than a year during another, far more serious frontier dispute with the USSR, when Manchukuoan horse soldiers drove off a cavalry unit of the Mongolian People’s Republic that had crossed into Manchuria across the Khalkha River, near the village of Nomohan on May 11, 1939.

Forty-eight hours later, they returned in numbers too great to be removed by the Manchurians alone. The next day, Lieutenant-Colonel Yaozo Azuma, leading a reconnaissance regiment of the 23rd Division, supported by the 64th Regiment of the same division, forced out the Mongols. They returned yet again later that month, but as the Japanese moved to expel them, Azuma’s forces were surrounded and decimated by overwhelming numbers of the Red Army on May 28; his men suffered 63 percent casualties.

One day short of a month later, Japan’s 2nd Air Brigade, in conjunction with the Manchurian Air Force, staged a massive raid on the Red Air Force base at Tamsak-Bulak in Mongolia. Numerous Soviet aircraft were caught on the ground before they could get airborne, and those that did were mostly shot down. Manchukuoan-flown Nakajimas came in low to strafe the airfields, setting fuel dumps ablaze and holing bombers parked out in the open, defying intense and accurate ground fire. Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun fighters suppressed enemy opposition for the arrival almost immediately thereafter of their comrades flying Kawasaki Ki-32s. Just previous to the attack on Mongolia, these more modern light-bombers replaced the Manchurians’ Kawasaki Army Type 88/KDA-2 biplanes. Code named “Mary” by the Americans, the Ki-32 carried 990 pounds of bombs used by DMTK airmen to virtually obliterate the Soviet air base. The Red Air Force defenders of Tamsak-Bulak suffered heavy damage, with more than twice as many Russian warplanes than Japanese-Manchurian lost.

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Manchukuo Aviation II

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The effective strike had been ordered by Kwantung Army commanders without permission from Imperial Japanese Army headquarters in Tokyo, which grounded any further air raids. Henceforward, the battlefield situation went from bad to worse for the Japanese, who were decimated by waves of heavy armor attacks against which they had little defense, and forced to accept an armistice on August 31.

The very next day, Germany’s invasion of Poland precipitated World War II, an event that promised greater significance than the Nomohan Incident. Soviet forces halted at the Manchurian border, as Stalin concluded a neutrality agreement with Japan, then turned his attention to Europe. Fearing an inevitable resumption of hostilities in the uncertain future, the Japanese began seriously outfitting more Manchukuoan squadrons.

In July 1940, Japan’s Air Defense Headquarters worked in conjunction with the Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun’s 1st Air Unit at Xinjing. At first, only Japanese pilots and ground crews served in Air Defense, but Manchus underwent specialized flight training soon after. A flight school was established on August 30, 1940, in Fengtien to teach both military and civilian pilots. The following January, some 100 cadets, unused to strict discipline and incited by Communist agent provocateurs, murdered their instructors, then fled Manchukuo.

By 1941, the Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun’s 1st Air Unit at Xinjing had 5 Japanese and 6 Manchurian officers, 14 NCOs of similarly mixed backgrounds, and about 90 pilots. They were joined by a 2nd Air Unit at Fengtien, a 3rd Air Unit Ordnance Depot of 15 Japanese and 30 Chinese officers from the National Government of China Air Force at Harbin, the Aircraft Arsenal Air Unit (supply), and the Tongliao Independent Air Unit Flying School, which increased the following year to three squadrons. In September and October 1942, the school was issued more than 20 training aircraft. These included the Tachikawa Ki-9, a two-place biplane rigged for blind-flying with a folding hood over the rear cockpit for the student. Powered by a 350-hp Hitachi Ha-13a radial engine, the Spruce, as it was known to the Americans, topped 149 mph, making the Ki-9 a respectable intermediate trainer. Staff officer transport versions featured a glazed canopy.

Another Tachikawa was fitted was a 510-hp Hitachi Ha-13, a nine-cylinder, radial engine, that gave the advanced biplane an outstanding maximum speed of 216 mph. Air Ministry officials were so impressed with its performance, the Ki-55 was occasionally fitted with a single, fixed forward-firing 7.7mm machine-gun to serve as a fighter the Allies called Ida.

The Tongliao Independent Air Unit Flying School was also sent several examples of the Mansyu Ki-79 for advanced training. More immediately significant, the Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun received its first modern warplanes. These were the Nakajima Ki-27 and Kawasaki Ki-32, known in the West, respectively, as Nate and Mary. The former, as some indication of Japanese regard for the Manchukuo Air Force, was Japan’s premiere fighter at the time, and had been selected for production primarily for its outstanding handling characteristics, by virtue of which it rapidly assumed ascendancy over all other pursuit aircraft in Chinese skies.

K-27s were superior to their Red Air Force opponents at 1938s Battle of Khasan but roughly handled one year later during the Nomohan Incident by Polikarpov 1-16 Ratas able to outrun them by 12 mph. A weaker airframe additionally prevented the Nakajima from holding up under stress during high-speed maneuvers, allowing the faster, sturdier, if more unwieldy Soviet monoplane to escape in a dive the Japanese warplane could not follow. Moreover, the Ki-27 lacked pilot armor protection or self-sealing fuel tanks, and the 7.7-mm rounds spat by its twin Type 89 machine-guns were weak. Fortunately for the Japanese, Nate was replaced as their leading fighter by Mitsubishi’s more famous and altogether superior A6M Zero in time for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Dai Manchu Teikoku Kugun received fewer numbers of Kawasaki’s Ki-32. Vulnerable to flak and a sitting duck for enemy interceptors, the sluggish, low-wing monoplane with its non-retractable, drag-inducing landing gear, would have been butchered in any confrontation with the Red Air Force. Instead, an 850-hp Kawasaki Ha-9-llb liquid-cooled, V-12 engine enabled the tough, reliable light-bomber to deliver its 990pound payload over a 1,220-mile range, rendering Mary ideally suited for the antipartisan role to which she was assigned. In the hands of Manchurian pilots, her interdiction of distant enemy truck convoys and supply concentrations often came as an unpleasant surprise for both Communist and Nationalist opponents.

When Manchukuo came within range of USAAF heavy bombers, the Japanese 2nd Air Army assumed direction of the Dai Manshu Teikoku, augmenting it with the 104th Sentai (“Group”), plus the 25th and 81st Dokuritsu Chutai (“Squadron”). These units were equipped with the Kawasaki Ki-45, known appropriately as the Toryu, or “Dragon Slayer;” for the many American Superfortresses it claimed since four night-fighter sentais were established to defend the home islands in autumn 1944. One sentai alone scored 8 “kills” during their first engagement with B-29s, going on to destroy another 150.

Reorganization comprised the new Fangfu Air Corps of Manchu pilots manning 120 fighters, mostly Nakajima Ki-27s. With their service ceiling of 32,940 feet, they could not even approach incoming waves of B-29s operating 660 feet higher. More powerful 710-hp Ha-lb, nine cylinder, radial engines were installed to carry the Nates just above the Superfortresses’ operational altitude and boosted maximum speed to nearly 300 mph, but that was still 65 mph slower than the strategic bombers. Even if the old fighters were able to maneuver into firing position, their twin, 7.7-mm machine-guns were outmatched by-per B-29-10,12.7-mm Browning machine-guns firing from remotely controlled turrets.

Yet, odds against the defenders were not as hopeless as they appeared. The Superforts were unable to open their bomb bay doors above cruising speed at 220 mph, giving the Nates a temporary nearly 80-mph speed advantage. But the huge silvery enemy’s real Achilles’ heel was his oxidized aluminum skin, which was prone to fire in the worst way, consuming the entire aircraft, fore and aft. Japanese and Manchu pilots found that hits of even their puny, 7.7-mm rounds just about anywhere along the frame of a B-29 could sometimes set it entirely alight. But getting close enough to do so was made extremely hazardous by combined defensive fire thrown up by the Superfortresses, and many would-be interceptors paid with their lives before they could get within range of their own guns.

B-29s first struck Manchuria three years to the day of Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor. Their anniversary raid was not coincidental but deliberately timed to encourage the more than 1,600 American prisoners of war incarcerated near Mukden. The mission’s tactical objective was destruction of the city’s aircraft factories.

Of the original 108 Superforts that set out with the XX Bomber Command, no less than 17 were forced to drop out, due to unforeseen problems caused by extremely low temperatures. Inside and outside surfaces of canopies iced over, and the big warplanes struggled, not always successfully, to gain altitude in the thin air. These worsening conditions forced another 10 B-29s to haphazardly jettison their payloads over a railroad yard long before reaching Mukden, utterly missing this secondary target, before banking away for home base. When the remaining 80 Superfortresses arrived over the city, flight crews found it entirely obscured by a heavy smokescreen. Undeterred, they unloosed their combined 800 tons of bombs, which fell mostly within residential districts, killing about 1,000 civilians, injuring several thousand more. The primary targeted aircraft factories escaped unscathed.

USAAF commanders had anticipated no enemy interdiction, regarding the Manchukuoan Air Force as nothing more than a propaganda joke, while all Japanese fighters were believed to have been recalled to defend the home islands. But the Americans were to be deceived as much about opposition over Manchuria, as they had been concerning its climate conditions.

As they approached Mukden, Sergeant Shinobu Ikeda of the 25th Dokuritsu Chutai attacked one of the monstrous bombers from behind with his Kawasaki interceptor. Before he could draw a bead on the B-29, a stream of .50-inch caliber rounds found and shattered his canopy and set his right engine alight. Wounded in a damaged airplane on fire and spinning toward the ground, Ikeda eventually regained control of the Dragon Slayer, climbed back on one engine after the same target, and deliberately collided with its tail section. The Superfortress nosed over into a steep dive from which only one gunner parachuted to safety. Like the other 10 men aboard the big bomber, Ikeda perished in the collision.

Another Japanese pilot died when the B-29 he rammed with his Nakajima was consumed in a terrific explosion that fortuitously ejected a pair of surviving crew members uninjured into space. Two more Superforts fell under conventional attacks, one each shot down by Japanese and Manchurian pilots. Three B-29s, trailing debris and smoke, escaped the combat zone, but were so badly damaged they had to be written off. For the Superfortresses’ first raid against Manchukuo, they missed all their targets, losing 7 aircraft and 44 crew members for 1 Japanese and 2 Manchurians killed in action.

Fourteen days later, 40 of the survivors returned to inaccurately and ineffectually raid Mukden, veiled once more under its obscuring smokescreen. Eighty-eight tons of high explosive intended for the earlier targeted aircraft factory yet again fell wide of the mark. This time, a Manchurian Air Force pilot, 1st Lieutenant Sono-o Kasuga, crashed his Nakajima fighter into one of the Superfortresses, which exploded for the loss of its entire crew. Another B-29 was similarly destroyed by 2nd Lieutenant Tahei Matsumoto, a Japanese pilot serving with the Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun.

To oppose both December raids on Mukden, the Japanese and Manchurians lost 7 pilots and planes against 12 American bombers destroyed with 121 men killed and captured. Instead of taking heart at the appearance of USAAF warplanes high overhead, Allied POWS had watched in horror, as one Superfortress after another tumbled out of the sky in flames. Pilots of the Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun, together with their Japanese comrades in the 104th Sentai and the 25th and 81st Dokuritsu Chutai, achieved a real defensive victory, when, following the December 21 raid, XX Bomber Command terminated all further operations against Mukden as too costly for the negligible results achieved.

Thereafter, the war shifted away from Manchuria and virtual peacetime conditions prevailed there throughout most of 1945. By late summer, however, a buildup of Soviet forces along the Mongolian border made invasion from that quarter evident, and Manchukuo Air Force personnel underwent intensive training for ground-attacking armored vehicles. Between the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force and Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun, they were able to muster 1,800 aircraft, mostly trainers and obsolete types fit only for self-destruct missions.

Just 50 Nakajima fighters were on hand, without, however, enough fuel to operate them all against the 5,368 Red Air Force warplanes they faced. Manchukuo’s Defense Force comprised 40,000 troops in 8 divisions, insufficiently supplied and poorly equipped. Supporting them were more than 600,000 men in the Imperial Japanese Kwantung Army, but they, too, were threadbare. Their armor consisted of 1,215 light tanks and armored cars, together with 6,700 mostly light field pieces, opposed by 5,556 Red Army heavy tanks and 28,000 artillery.

On the morning of August 9, one-and-a-half-million Russian and Mongolian troops inundated the Manchurian border. Impossibly outnumbered, both the Manchukuo Defense Force and Kwantung Army melted away. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, a revisionist historian at the University of California (Santa Barbara), has shown that this Red Army offensive, not the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, prompted Japan’s capitulation.’ Japanese leaders knew that the Red Army juggernaut would not stop with the easy conquest of Manchukuo, but roll on into Japan itself.

Indeed, Stalin was ready to implement the invasion of Hokkaido long before U.S. commanders intended to put their forces ashore at Kyushu. Despite Emperor Hirohito’s broadcast surrender on August 15, the Soviets refused to halt their offensive, sweeping across northeastern China into Korea, coming to a halt at the 38th Parallel, where they met their American allies. It was also the place where the next war would erupt just five years later, in Korea.

Meanwhile, occupied Manchukuo was handed over to Mao Zedong, who, after a bloody purge of the country’s intellectual and propertyowning classes, used Manchuria as a headquarters for his ultimately victorious revolution.

German Advisory Corps In China 1937

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Falkenhausen 1937.

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Operation Iron Fist was the main German contribution in the initial stages of the Shanghai campaign, but it was far from the only one. German advisors were present both on the staffs and at the frontline. Their pivotal role was no secret, and even the newspapers regularly reported about them. Wearing the uniforms of Chiang Kai-shek’s army, the German advisors not only provided tactical input, but gave the Chinese troops an invaluable morale boost, showing them that they were not on their own in the struggle against the mighty and ruthless Japanese Empire. The “German War” was the name that some Japanese gave to the battle of Shanghai, and for good reason.

When war with Japan broke out in the summer of 1937, the German advisory corps consisted of nearly 70 officers, ranging from newly graduated second-lieutenants to five full generals. It was a major asset for the Chinese, and one that they were free to exploit. Even though most of the Germans were in China on short-term contracts and could have left once the shooting started, they felt an obligation to stay at a key moment when their host nation’s survival was at stake. “We all agreed that as private citizens in Chinese employment there could be no question of our leaving our Chinese friends to their fate,” Alexander von Falkenhausen, the top advisor, wrote later. “Therefore I assigned the German advisors wherever they were needed, and that was often in the frontlines.”

The situation was the culmination of a relationship that had evolved over a period of several years. Germany had started playing a role in China’s military modernization in the late 1920s, with initial contacts facilitated by Chiang Kai-shek’s admiration for German efficiency. The German government’s decision to abandon all extraterritorial privileges in 1921, followed seven years later by the diplomatic recognition of Chiang’s government, also created a benevolent atmosphere. In addition, as a result of its defeat in the Great War, Germany was a relatively safe bet for China. It was, in the 1920s and early 1930s at least, the only major power unable to resume its imperialist policies of the years prior to 1914. Germany and China were in fact in similar situations, Chiang once mused. “They were oppressed by foreign powers,” he said, “and had to free themselves from those chains.”

Yet another factor behind the expanding Sino-German military ties was the lack of suitable employment for officers in Weimar Germany, whose military, the Reichswehr, was severely curtailed by the demands of the post-war Versailles Treaty. The shadow existence they led at home contrasted starkly with the prestige they enjoyed in China. By the mid-1930s, the Germans had a status among the Chinese that no other westerners had ever experienced. When Chiang met with his generals, his chief German advisor at the time, Hans von Seeckt, would sit at his desk, giving the signal that the foreign officer’s place in the hierarchy, while informal, was near the top. When Seeckt had to go by train to a north Chinese sea resort for health reasons, he traveled in Chiang’s personal saloon carriage and was saluted at every station by an honorary formation.

Seeckt visited China the first time in 1933, and immediately set about salvaging bilateral ties strained by German condescension towards the Chinese. As the host nation and employer, China was to be shown respect, was his order to the German officers stationed in the country, and being a traditional German, he expected to be obeyed. When he arrived in China for his second tour the year after, he was accompanied by Falkenhausen. No novice to Asia, Falkenhausen hit it off with Chiang Kai-shek almost immediately. It helped that both knew Japanese, the language of their soon-to-be enemy, and could converse freely without having to go through aninterpreter. It was an additional advantage that Falkenhausen’s wife was on superb terms with Madame Chiang. Falkenhausen’s break came when Seekt, suffering from poor health, returned to Germany in early 1935. From then on, he was the top German officer inside China.

It is likely that Falkenhausen felt a deep sense of relief to be posted abroad. His mission removed any immediate obligation to return to Germany and work with the Nazis. “In the 30s we could have in good conscience stayed in China,” one of Falkenhausen’s subordinates later rationalized. “China was in much greater danger than Germany.” Falkenhausen had a very personal reason to adopt that rationale. His younger brother, Hans Joachim von Falkenhausen, a war veteran and a member of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary Sturm-Abteilung, was executed in a bloody showdown among rival factions inside the party’s ranks in the summer of 1934. He was 36 when he died.

Falkenhausen’s unhappy relationship with Berlin’s new rulers put him on one side of a political generation gap that divided most of the German advisors in China. Among conservative officers of his age and background, feelings about Hitler, a mere corporal in the Great War, ranged from skepticism to adoration; in between was quiet acceptance of an overlap of interests with Germany’s new Nazi rulers, who wanted rapid rearmament and the creation of a vast new army. The younger German officers serving in China were far less ambivalent. They were often ardent Nazis. The racist ideology the young Germans brought with them from home may have contributed to lingering tension with the Chinese. Since most of them expected to leave within no more than a few years, virtually none bothered to change their lifestyles in order to fit into their new surroundings. Rather, in the traditional way of Europeans in Asia, they lived in their own enclave in Nanjing, a small piece of Germany in the heart of China. If they paid any attention to local mores, it was with a shrug of the shoulder. Brought up on austere Prussian ideals, they considered, for example, the Chinese habit of elaborate banquets a costly waste of time and resources.

The Chinese, too, looked at the foreign advisors in mild bewilderment. The German habit of wearing monocles was a cause of wonder and led them to ask why so many were near-sighted on only one eye. A few Chinese did not just puzzle at the behaviour of the strange foreigners, but had attitudes bordering on hostile. Zhang Fakui, for one, appears to have had a particularly delicate relationship with the German advisors. He did not trust them, did not share any secrets with them, and did not take any advice from them. “I had always had a bad impression of the Germans,” he told an interviewer decades later.

Falkenhausen’s own outlook underwent profound change. At the time of his arrival, he had been somewhat indifferent to China, but he gradually grew fonder of the country, and in the end he was very close to accepting an offer of Chinese citizenship from Chiang. As time passed, he even showed signs of divided loyalties between his old and new masters, ignoring pleas from Germany to favor its weapon producers when carrying out arms procurements abroad. Instead, he bought the arms he thought would serve China best, regardless of where they had been manufactured. Finally, he developed a high degree of resentment of the Japanese foe. “It is sheer mockery to see this bestial machine pose as the vanguard of anti-Communism,” he wrote in a report to Oskar Trautmann, the German ambassador in Nanjing.

Once war broke out, Falkenhausen was in favor of an aggressive and all-encompassing strategy against the enemy. He advised that the Japanese garrison in Shanghai be attacked and wiped out, regardless of the fact that it was located inside the International Settlement. He even urged air attacks on western Korea and sabotage on the Japanese home islands. These steps went much further than almost any of his Chinese hosts was prepared to go. Perhaps they feared setting a task for themselves that they could not handle. Falkenhausen, on the other hand, never seemed to have harbored any serious doubts about China’s military prowess. Rather, its army’s willingness to make sacrifices appealed to his special German passion for absolutes. “The morale of the Chinese Army is high. It will fight back stubbornly,” he said. “It will be a struggle to the last extreme.”

THE PORTUGUESE IN JAPAN I

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Arrival of a Portuguese ship, one of a pair (Nanban screens), Six panel folding screen, 1620–1640.

After they appeared in Japan in 1542, the Portuguese quickly established themselves as an important part of the archipelago’s commercial networks. They did so almost by chance, moving into a fortuitous vacuum created by the collapse of official commercial links between China and Japan after the breakdown of the tally trade (kangō) system, which had previously permitted limited ties, in 1547. This gap was filled by Portuguese merchants, who were able to provide a reliable conduit for Chinese goods through their newly established base in Macao. After experimenting with a number of domainal partners, they eventually settled on Nagasaki as their primary terminus in Japan and the town quickly emerged as a thriving commercial entrepôt. Although other goods flowed along it, the Macao-Nagasaki route, the mainstay of Portuguese trade in East Asia, hinged on a straightforward silk for silver exchange. The carracks that arrived in Nagasaki imported Chinese silk and silk goods that were subsequently traded for a cargo of Japanese silver bullion. The quantities involved were impressive. A single carrack captured in 1603 yielded over eighty thousand kilograms of silk, while one traveler estimated that the Portuguese bring out of Japan “every yeere above six hundred thousand Crusadoes: and all this Silver of Japan.”

Although they played a key economic role, the Portuguese were, by the early seventeenth century, a controversial presence within Japan, and their relationship with the Tokugawa Bakufu increasingly strained. The tension stemmed in large part from their close connection with the Jesuits, who had engaged in an aggressive proselytizing campaign that had culminated in their expulsion from the archipelago in 1614. As its hostility toward Christianity mounted, the Bakufu became more and more suspicious of Portuguese merchants, who were accused, often with no real basis, of aiding the Christian community in Japan and of secretly ferrying in priests to continue missionary work. As much as it might have preferred simply to expel the Portuguese along with the Jesuits, the regime could not afford cut the Macao-Nagasaki route without finding a reliable alternative to access Chinese trade. As a result, it was forced to tolerate the Portuguese presence, but there was little trust on either side. Instead both parties found themselves locked together in an uneasy embrace made bearable only by their shared desire to preserve the steady flow of Chinese goods into Japan.

The strained relationship between the Bakufu and the Portuguese provided the backdrop against which the company attempted to carry its global war into Japanese waters. When the Dutch arrived in Japan in 1609, Portuguese shipping that sailed between Nagasaki and Macao was already firmly in their sights. As previously discussed, the company’s factory in Japan was only established as the result of a failed privateering expedition, and, for much of its early history, maritime predation was given at least equal and often far higher priority than trade. Considering the potential prize, this was not surprising. The sheer value of the cargo carried aboard the Macao-Nagasaki carrack, a single slow-moving vessel that plied a fixed route along a predictable time line, made it an irresistible target for company administrators and one that would continue to obsess them for decades. The first actual incident of VOC maritime violence in the waters near Japan did not, however, involve the great ship from Macao. Rather it centered on a small Portuguese vessel, the Santo Antonio, of no great value or importance. Its capture provided the first test of VOC efforts to bring its campaign against the Portuguese into Japanese waters, and it sparked a bitter legal dispute in which both sides converged on the shogun’s court determined to argue their case.

In August 1615, six years after the opening of the Japan factory, a VOC yacht, the Jaccatra, seized the Santo Antonio as it made its way from Macao to Japan. The incident took place against the backdrop of a renewed escalation in the company’s war with the Portuguese brought about by the collapse of a temporary truce that had come into effect in 1609 but had quickly broken down after both sides accused the other of violating its provisions. When it was seized, the Santo Antonio was near the island of Meshima, part of a small chain of five islands called the Danjo guntō that are located just over a hundred miles off the west coast of Kyushu. Uninhabited and lacking any economic value, Meshima possessed two attributes that made it disproportionately significant to its size. The island functioned, in the first place, as a key navigational signpost marking the correct approach to the archipelago. With its distinctive shape, described by one observer as “high and ragged,” it was easily recognizable, with the result that it featured prominently in contemporary sailing directions, both European and Japanese. Meshima was, for example, well known to the Dutch and appeared in Jan Huygen van Linschoten’s Itinerario, a famous 1596 manual that was an indispensable aid to the company’s mariners in Asia.

Alongside this role as gateway, Meshima had a second, less well-defined function. For European mariners, the island marked the outermost boundary of Japan proper. Approaching the archipelago after days out of sight of land, it was eagerly sought out by sailors as a concrete marker that they had reached the archipelago; sailing past Meshima meant moving out of the open ocean and into Japanese waters. From Edo, however, the view was far less clear. While the island was a familiar landmark to Europeans, who had all at one time or another approached Japan by sea, it lay on the furthest peripheries of the Tokugawa realm. Because of this, Japanese official records from this period are—in contrast to the confident declarations that appear in European sources—far less clear about Meshima’s status. Indeed, it was only after the Santo Antonio case that we see the first affirmation from the center about the island’s place as part of Japan.

After it was captured, the Santo Antonio was brought into Kochi harbor, a secondary port located a few miles away from the Japan factory, on 18 August.82 The arrival of the company’s prize prompted a flurry of activity both in Hirado, where the factory’s governing council convened to discuss its capture, but also in Nagasaki, where Portuguese merchants and their allies sprang into action. Tellingly, their response was not a military one, to assemble warships or launch reprisal attacks on VOC shipping, but rather legal, and it took the form of a protest demanding Tokugawa action. The logic of the argument was simple: the Dutch had no right to capture a Portuguese vessel in what were clearly Japanese waters and hence the Bakufu must intervene not only to punish the company but also to force it to provide restitution.

In making this argument, the Portuguese and their Japanese supporters could draw on crucial precedents related to the nature of the regime’s juridical prerogatives. During the sengoku era (1467–1568), the absence of any policing from the center and the easy availability of weapons combined with a “habit of violent recourse—sanctioned by traditions of private justice and self redress of grievances”—to create endless space for conflict. The result was a period of endemic conflict that pitted families, villages, and warlords against each other in a series of seemingly endless confrontations. When Toyotomi Hideyoshi came to power, he worked to establish a more general state monopoly over the use of force. This process, which was subsequently continued and expanded upon by the Tokugawa Bakufu, involved the elimination of the physical means to wage war—through edicts such as the famous sword hunt order of 1588—as well as the legal basis for private redress. As they worked to first curtail and then to suppress private violence, the unifiers placed a high premium on their own role as legal arbiters over any violent clashes that took place within the archipelago. The point is well made by Elizabeth Berry who notes that the “unification regimes were politically aggressive … in only one arena: peace keeping.”

This process of pacification and the concomitant insistence on legal arbitration for any clashes was not limited to the land. As Peter Shapinsky has so clearly shown, it extended to the seas around Japan, where Hideyoshi gradually stripped away the rights of formerly autonomous “sea lords,” maritime daimyo based especially in the Seto Inland Sea, to engage in non-state violence. In his words, once “Hideyoshi had largely succeeded in unifying the country, he began enforcing his position as the sole sanctioning body for violence.” He did so by asserting his own sovereignty over the seas around Japan via an insistence on the central regime’s role as the arbiter of all violent clashes in Japanese waters. Given this overarching concern with peacekeeping, and assuming one accepted the Portuguese argument that the Santo Antonio had been captured in Japanese waters, there was thus a strong case to be made that the incident necessitated, like any other act of nonsanctioned violence, adjudication from the center.

But if there was an obvious parallel in Japanese history, the capture of the Santo Antonio also represented something quite different. The episode marked the first intrusion of the company’s global war, an essentially European conflict imported from a distant continent, into Japanese waters. Because of this, VOC representatives were fully prepared to defend the legality of the seizure, arguing that the incident should be seen as a properly sanctioned and lawfully pursued act of war—violence yes, but not violence that fell within the Japanese regime’s legal remit. In these ways the Santo Antonio incident looked markedly dissimilar from past episodes of maritime violence involving pirate groups or individual warlords, and there was no certainty how the Bakufu would respond.

At stake was much more than just the vessel itself. The Santo Antonio was not, by any criteria, a rich prize, especially when compared to the Macao-Nagasaki carrack, and it carried an entirely unremarkable cargo consisting primarily of ebony wood and pewter. Rather both sides were concerned with the question of precedent. If the Bakufu ignored the episode, opting not to assert its role as arbiter, or signed off on it, then the stage would be set for future attacks against the Macao-Nagasaki trade route, which was acutely vulnerable to VOC maritime predation. If, on the other hand, the regime ruled in favor of the Portuguese, the result could be disastrous for the company, which might be forced to halt its privateering operations in Japanese waters while paying out for Portuguese losses.

The company’s case was led by the incumbent opperhoofd, Jacques Specx, the same VOC official that subsequently orchestrated a shift in the organization’s diplomatic strategy toward Japan. As soon as he received word of the incident, Specx moved to prepare “letters of advice in the Japanese language” to defend the company’s position. One of these went to the governor in Nagasaki, the relevant local official, while a second document was dispatched to Honda Masazumi, who was described as the “president of the [shogun’s] council.” As the Bakufu had some knowledge of the 1609 truce with the Portuguese, which had been described in an earlier letter sent to Japan, Specx’s first step was to explain the resumption of hostilities by informing Honda that the Spanish and the Portuguese had not kept their promises, “but had falsely broken their word and tried to do all possible damage to us.” As a result, the Dutch in Japan had received explicit instructions from “our prince [Maurits] … to wage war and to do as much damage as possible.” If any the company’s ships encountered Iberian vessels at sea, they could not, therefore, allow them to pass but were duty bound to attack.

After the letters were sent on 18 August, the factory returned to normal business, but by the time its governing council met again on 10 September it was clear that something more needed to be done to combat Portuguese pressure. The solution was to dispatch a delegation to Kyoto, where the Bakufu was temporarily based, to “argue our matters against the Portuguese” directly before the shogun. As opperhoofd, Specx was tasked with leading the delegation, but the council also called in Jan Joosten, one of the original Liefde mariners who had been in Japan since 1600. To secure a favorable decision, Specx was authorized to spend whatever it took, but, even though it was prepared to open its cashbox, the council struggled to find appropriate gifts that might lure Bakufu officials over to its side. As the warehouse in Hirado yielded little of any value, it was necessary—as it had been in 1609 when the first VOC embassy arrived in Japan—to dispatch an agent to purchase some “beautiful” goods from Portuguese merchants in Nagasaki. There was of course an obvious irony, that it was necessary to secretly purchase goods from the Portuguese in order to defend their rights against the same group, and the council instructed their agents to do so in the most discreet way possible through multiple intermediaries to ensure that no word of the transaction leaked out. To make doubly sure of obtaining the right decision, the council resolved to present a cannon from one of its ships to Tokugawa Ieyasu, who had displayed a sustained interest in European military technology. Once these items were added to the gifts intended for other Bakufu officials, the final total came to 2,734 guilders, a large sum for a factory that had yet to turn a profit.

THE PORTUGUESE IN JAPAN II

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Merchant Ship of the Dutch East India Company, 1782. Nagasaki School, published by Toshimaya Hand coloured woodblock print.

On 24 September Specx and his delegation reached Fushimi, an important stronghold near Kyoto, where they discovered Portuguese agents already at work lobbying the Bakufu for a favorable decision. Their presence marked a stark contrast with the Santa Catarina incident, the foundational moment for VOC privateering in Asia, which was resolved within the walls of an Amsterdam admiralty court before Dutch judges. In this instance, representatives from both sides, each armed with their own arguments and allies, converged on a neutral space to make their case before a set of independent adjudicators. As expected, Portuguese representatives argued that the attack had taken place in the “king’s [shogun’s] waters,” that is firmly within the “territory of Japan.” Richard Cocks, the head of the English factory in Japan, who watched the dispute unfold, wrote that the Portuguese “complaine to the Emperour [shogun] because the Hollanders take them w’thin his dominions.”

Such claims hinged on an understanding that the assault on the Santo Antonio must be seen as piracy. Portuguese representatives across Asia had a great deal of experience in making this kind of argument as it was the standard proposition put to local rulers in an attempt to denounce the Dutch and in so doing deny them any foothold in the region. In China the Dutch were described as “Universal Robbers” and the “Arch-Pyrates of all Seas, whom all other Principalities did shun, as the most pernicious Danger in their Dominions.” In Japan Portuguese agents had made similar allegations on a number of occasions prior to the Santo Antonio incident. When the Liefde arrived in Japan in 1600, for example, its crew were loudly denounced as “thieves and robbers of all nations and were we suffered to live it should be against the profit of his Highness and of his country: for no nation should come hither without robbing them.” As part of this, Portuguese representatives argued that any appearance of honest commerce was nothing more than a thin veneer designed to conceal the true nature of the company’s activities. Thus, according to one Portuguese letter, even when Dutch merchants “bring cargo to your country [and claim they have acquired these through trade] this is a complete lie” as all these goods were simply plunder acquired through force.

Their role as pirates, stateless marauders marooned permanently outside the law, pushed the Dutch outside international orders. A later petition submitted to the Bakufu explained the “pirate ships of Holland are infesting the high seas…. Since they are nothing but pirates, no other country allows their ships to anchor in their ports.” If one accepted the attack on the Santo Antonio as piracy, then there could be only one conclusion. Piracy had been outlawed in the seas around Japan for decades, and there was a long-standing ban on pirate groups using the archipelago as a base. In 1588 Ieyasu’s predecessor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had famously banned pirates from operating in the “the seas of the various provinces [of Japan],” while enforcing strict penalties on any group that sheltered or supported maritime marauders. Given these facts, the company was, it seemed, doubly condemned, both for the initial attack, which had taken place in the waters around the “various provinces,” but also because the Jaccatra had brought its prize to Japan, thereby turning the archipelago back into a pirate lair.

In response, Specx put forward his own arguments designed to uphold the company’s rights to the captured ship. Pushing aside any discussion as to whether Meshima was or was not part of Japan, he insisted that the attack on the Santo Antonio was legal regardless of where it had actually taken place. His argument rested on one central assertion, that VOC privateering was a legitimate act of war in the service of a properly constituted state. The Dutch in Asia had, he explained, received orders from their prince, a figure still understood in this period as the “king of Holland,” to “wage war in any way and to do all possible damage [to the Spanish and the Portuguese] on water as well as on land.” Rather than pirate chiefs, the captains of vessels like the Jaccatra were thus soldiers who “have been expressly charged that wherever we may encounter one of their ships not to allow it by any means to pass without fighting but to attempt to capture it even if we die in the process.” In this way there was no room for personal choice and certainly none for individual enrichment; the Dutch were simply at war, and any encounter with a Spanish or Portuguese vessel—even if it was with an unarmed trading ship—must be seen in its proper context as part of this wider conflict.

The presentation was a pale version of Grotius’s submission, lacking the overlapping arguments that made his case so effective. In part this was because one of the key points used by Grotius to justify the offensive strategy, that the VOC was a natural ally for Asian sovereigns in a shared struggle against Iberian tyranny, had failed to make any real headway at the shogun’s court. It was not for want of trying, with Dutch agents in Japan frequently repeating the charge made in Maurits’s December 1610 letter to Tokugawa Ieyasu that Spanish ambitions to universal monarchy were a direct threat to the Bakufu. To buttress the case, they conjured up a vast master plan for domination involving the Portuguese, the king of Spain, and the Jesuits, all of whom were working together to destabilize the Japanese realm. If Spanish tyranny could be made to seem a genuine threat, it turned the Dutch into natural allies because they had faced and overcome precisely the same danger. But although the argument was put persistently to them, Bakufu officials showed no interest in joining the fight against the Spanish, who were still seen in this early period as potential trading partners. Because of this, Specx abandoned any notion of the company as the natural champions of Asian sovereigns and any sense that the attack on the Santo Antonio could be read as part of a shared struggle.

Instead, he worked to divorce the conflict from the shogun, who must, he insisted, not intervene even as the company’s war was brought to his shores: “We reverently seek from His Imperial Majesty [the shogun] that if we encounter the Portuguese or the Castilians somewhere around his majesty’s land [to allow us] to wage war and do all possible damage or to capture their ships.” Although phrased in typically obsequious terms, the proposition represented a bold declaration of the company’s right to wage its global war unimpeded by legal structures in Asia. Encounters such as the one off the coast of Meshima were simply a “matter between enemies at war with each other (vianden oorloge mett malcanderen)” and must be treated as such. Put more bluntly, the shogun should stay out of a conflict that did not concern him by permitting any assault on shipping coming to Japan as a legitimate act of war. In this way the company’s global conflict should, he insisted, take precedence over local legal structures.

The Dutch delegation did not have to wait long for an answer. Far more preoccupied with domestic matters including the winding down of its successful campaign against Hideyoshi’s heir, the regime moved quickly, and on 26 September Bakufu officials informed the Dutch that they had awarded them the “junk, people and everything connected.” The decision was significant for a number of reasons. It affirmed, first of all, that Meshima and the waters around it were part of Japan. When the question as to the island’s status was first raised by VOC agents after the capture of the Santo Antonio, there was a clear hope among the factory’s staff that the Bakufu would simply declare that its authority did not extend out into the ocean to encompass this isolated chain of uninhabited islands. This is what happened, for example, in later instances of VOC privateering that had taken place on more distant sea routes, which Tokugawa officials pronounced as lying beyond their jurisdiction. In 1615, however, the Bakufu did the opposite, moving to confirm that the waters around Meshima were part of Japan and hence fell under the shogun’s authority. The result was to fix the island’s role as the outermost boundary of Japan proper and to confirm to European mariners that it must be treated as part of the shogun’s realm. There Meshima would remain for the rest of the Tokugawa period, appearing in map compilations like the Nihon bunkeizu as the outer marker of Japanese territory.

Second, the decision confirmed the Bakufu’s role as legal adjudicator. Instead of washing their hands of a European conflict involving no Tokugawa subjects, Bakufu officials accepted the petitions presented by both sides, considered their arguments, and came to a decision. In taking this action, the regime effectively marked out its right to act as an arbiter for a maritime dispute between two foreign groups that had taken place hundreds of miles away from its headquarters in central Japan. The result was a confirmation that any act of nonsanctioned violence—regardless of motivation or participant—required adjudication from the center. As was the case with Hideyoshi, this was in effect an affirmation of the central regime’s maritime sovereignty over the waters around the archipelago, although it extended only to a limited set of rights related to the arbitration of violent disputes.

But, if the decision affirmed a basic willingness to adjudicate any maritime dispute that had taken place in Japanese waters, it was paired with a strikingly limited definition as to the extent of Tokugawa legal protection and hence as to which plaintiffs could expect to find redress for their claims. Before issuing its verdict, the Bakufu dispatched an envoy to speak directly with the captured Portuguese mariners at the heart of the dispute. The subsequent interrogation consisted of a single question that illuminated the extent of the regime’s concern: did their vessel carry the shogun’s “seal,” that is, a shuinjō? When the captives confessed that they possessed no such pass, the interview was terminated and their request for protection dismissed. Once it became known that a shuinjō was not involved, the Bakufu showed no interest in draping its protection over the Santo Antonio regardless of the fact that it had been captured in the seas around Japan. The message was clear: the regime’s concern extended only as far as the shuinsen, and it had no intention of either enforcing punishment or mandating compensation if the incident did not involve one of these vessels.

If there was no ambiguity in this regard, the Bakufu’s view on the essential legality of Dutch privateering was less obvious. While Tokugawa officials did not denounce the incident as piracy, something they would do when faced by later instances of VOC maritime aggression, they offered no affirmation of Specx’s argument that the actions of the Jaccatra’s captain should be seen as a legitimate act of war. What is clear, however, is that the decision to award the Santo Antonio to the company did not derive from an especially positive attitude toward Dutch privateering activities but rather from an overriding concern with shuinjō vessels to the exclusion of any other shipping making its way to Japan.

For the Portuguese, the ruling represented a clear setback, but it did at least offer a slender reed of hope. Although the decision had gone against the Santo Antonio’s owners, the Bakufu had confirmed its role as legal arbiter over all acts of violence within Japanese waters, even those stemming from an intra-European conflict. In the aftermath of the Santo Antonio incident, it was clear that the shogun’s court could be pressed into action as an international legal node, a space for petition, investigation, and arbitration of maritime disputes. While this offered scant consolation in the short term, it was possible that the Bakufu might be persuaded over time to expand the boundaries of its protection to include ships that did not carry a shuinjō.

The company, for its part, took a very different lesson. Pushing to one side the possibility that future decisions might go against them, Specx and his superiors read the successful resolution of the Santo Antonio case as a clear endorsement of VOC privateering operations and a wide-ranging dispensation for further action. This was the position taken by the soon to be governor-general, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, who became increasingly convinced that the company could launch extended privateering campaigns against Portuguese ships sailing to Japan, even if it resulted in the extension of the conflict into the shogun’s harbors. Coen’s letters after 1615 reveal a persistent belief that the Bakufu was either clearly sympathetic or essentially indifferent to VOC privateering and that it did not necessarily hold coastal waters or even its own harbors as a special preserve. The result was a reckless pursuit of prizes that would ultimately prompt a Tokugawa backlash.

 

The Epoch Of The Samurai

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Japan is a mountainous country with a wide range of climate differences, from extremely cold in the northern parts to the hot climates of the islands of the south. A high percentage of the country is clad in mountains and forests, and much of the population dwell on the fertile plans and coastlines. The history of Japan can be divided into different eras, yet the world is primarily interested in a single thousand-year period—the epoch of the samurai. Before the samurai, Japan was a land heavily influenced by Chinese culture. This influence soaked into all areas of life. Much earlier, Japan moved through early “civilized” culture. It passed through its own stone ages, all of which were sophisticated in their own way. Around 800–900 AD—and taking a few hundred years to develop—the samurai started to form, adapting to a changing socio-political environment. Fast forward, they evolved into the now famous warrior culture known across the world, a culture that came to an end around the 1860s and 1870s.

Ignoring the rest of Japanese history, but without forgetting its existence, the age of the samurai can be broken up into sections. These are classifications that only exist here and are theoretical; their only purpose is to help form a visual understanding of the progress of samurai history. This timeline has been simplified for ease. Japanese history can be divided into many individual ages; however, this aid focuses on the samurai’s development and the major changes that occurred.

Proto-Samurai

In the ninth and tenth centuries of the first millennium—that is, before 1000 AD—the samurai began to develop, moving from an obviously pre-samurai warrior template into a more identifiably Japanese form, the birth of the samurai.

The First Great Samurai

From around 1000 AD to 1450 AD comes the classical age of the samurai. This is the age of the samurai as the mounted warrior. His principle weapons include the bow and arrow; warfare is wider and more open. The Genpei War (1180–85) rages and the Kemmu Restoration (1333–1336) takes place. The land is at times in turmoil, heroes are created, and iconic images are crafted for future samurai to adore.

The Age of War

From around the 1400s to the early 1600s, Japan enters a fierce and bloody part of its history. The country is changed from collections of practically self-governing societies, under diffident warlords, to a unified country. A change achieved through consistent campaigning, in which military tactics are developed, classical samurai ideals are giving way to well-structured and formulated “modern” war-craft; gunnery is introduced and explosives gain a more solid foothold while warrior knights are supported by masses of foot soldiers. In a climactic clash at the battle of Sekigahara and the victories at the sieges of Osaka Castle, the Tokugawa family take control of the country and “peace” is restored to Japan.

The Age of Peace

From the early 1600s, “peace” was established in the country. “Peace” has been placed in quotation marks because it is wrongly considered a “peaceful” time. The start of the seventeenth century was full of rebellion and attempted coups, including the siege of Osaka Castle, the slaughter of the last Toyotomi members, the brutal murder of the Christian horde at the siege of Shimabara, and the attempted take-over led by Yui Shosetsu—possibly ordered by the Kishu domain. These are only a few examples of this bloody “peace.” By 1650 the country had “calmed down” and the Tokugawa clan held an iron grip. “Peace” is provided through a feudal dictatorship and true power is held by the Shogun. All of the other clans are placed under the Sankin Kotai system, which means that each clan has to biannually move its chief personnel to the capital—at great cost. This was a measure designed to prevent anyone from rising in rebellion against the Tokugawa family. With the country under dictatorship and war at an end, the samurai class—in the main—moved towards bureaucracy, with less importance placed on combat efficiency. Armor and weapons become more decorative, ethics and the ideals of Confucianism take a stronger hold. Our idea of the perfectly honorable knight is shaped in this age, but in truth, the samurai declined in power and ability.*

The Modern Age

In the 1860s Japan once again became a land of war as the Meiji Restoration developed. The now weakened samurai class were outdated as a product of the old world. Modern society crashed into Japanese life. The samurai were disbanded, ending a thousand year rule of the shoguns, restoring the emperor to “power” under the guidance of a modern government.

The importance of a basic understanding of the above cannot be underestimated. Often these major divisions of the samurai age are mixed together and placed over each other. The ideas of honor, and a spiritual life that gained popularity in the “age of peace,” are attached to the classical age—the “first great samurai.” The warfare strategies of the “first great samurai” are mistakenly used to explain the “age of war.” As a modern reader you must understand that these ages were divided by change—yet connected by the identity of the samurai. The role itself of these Eastern knights is a golden thread that runs through a millennium of change. However, remember that although the samurai were always samurai, they did change with time.

The epoch of the samurai can be expressed as a thousand year rule that starts with the emergence of a warrior class. This then moves from classical warfare, through the bloody years of unification, to the decline of practicality—the eventual fall of the warrior. Each part has its place in Japanese history and should not be mixed together nor mistaken as a single, continuous form.

History as the Samurai Saw It

History is ever changing. A modern understanding of history may not be the understanding that the samurai had. To the samurai and the shinobi, history, folklore, and legend existed in the same space. The Japanese considered their world created from the great Japanese gods in the Age of the Gods. They knew that China influenced Japanese culture. Yet they also knew that the ancestors had a hand in the making of their own history. Often a samurai school of war may have a divine origin and inspiration, meaning that their gods blessed their school. Most origin stories for samurai schools start with the founder leaving to undertake an episode of training in remote mountains. Here, after months of intense study, a god comes to them in the form of a spiritual or earthly creature that then gives the holy swords-man the secrets of the martial arts. This became the storied birth of their style. The origins and histories of samurai (and shinobi) schools can be put into three categories. Sometimes they include all three, and sometimes they only contain one or two of these elements:

1. The mythological element—A god or supernatural creature is the initial inspiration for the school and has conveyed divine wisdom and skills to that school.

2. The legendary element—A hero figure that may or may not have existed is factored into the school’s history. The King Arthur or Robin Hood types of Japan include Kumasaka the famous thief, Yoshitsune the child warrior, and even Kusunoki Masashige, the famed but doomed hero figure; Real historical figures pushed into legend.

3. The historical element—A historical figure, episode, or fact that is without a doubt correct and that is considered true history.

The third is the only element that we now consider as proper history. However, it was not improper for a samurai to pass on the idea of the first two. As observers of history, we should not condemn samurai for taking this angle. Their schools were historically correct even with their origins being a mix of truth and legend, sometimes even claiming historical figures that had become famous.

Society in Japan

The concept of Shi-no-ko-sho—the four classes of feudal Japan—is well understood in the realm of samurai history. Below are some of the lesser-known aspects highlighted to create a balanced view.

The four main tiers:

1. 士 – Shi: The gentry or warrior class

2. 農 – Nojin or Nofu: The farmer

3. 工 – Ko or Shokunin: The artisan or craftsman

4. 商 – Shonin: The merchant

The above system is inherited from Chinese doctrine and influenced by Confucianism. It was not a solid practice until the beginning of the Edo Period, in the early seventeenth century. Most people are interested in periods of warfare when they contemplate samurai history. They tend to overlay this idea onto earlier times. Before the times of peace that came with the control of the Tokugawa family (after 1600), social mobility was more fluid. Lines between the classes were blurred—yet they still existed. The samurai were a social class with clearly developed identities; yet movement between or living on the border of two social classes was more common. A reader of history has to constantly avoid the “Disney Trap.” This is the belief that a peasant is a poor creature who lives in a leaking hovel, a toothless grin reflecting the orange of a crackling fire. The lord is the opulent, fat, cruel dictator on a throne. The knight is the hero on the horse. The merchant is the jewel-encrusted, slimy fellow who rubs his hands together in anticipation of gold. The embedding of these images from childhood by countless mediums creates a thick coat of obscurity. It is paint that needs to be removed from an analytical mind. Peasants are not the lowest creatures. In most cases, slaves, outcasts, and the unseemly came below peasants. They weren’t always poor. The merchant is not always affluent, and the ruler is not always all-powerful. Of course the knight is not always the hero. It is of great importance to identify your own cultural, opinionated distortions of class. Once they are identified, do the utmost to eradicate these falsely formulated ideas. Consider social class and the effects it has on the individual; see it as something fluid and in motion. From the standpoint of the person in history these things were fixed. From the standpoint of the historian these move with time—and for a historian, time can pass instantaneously. As students of history we can pass over 400 years in a moment, seeing an image of a nation change from static to fluid. Therefore, erase these social stereotypes, understand the basic principle: chronology and geography are factors that will determine the outcome of the image you create.

To paint a portrait in your mind: imagine that a given domain has a fair lord, who governs well. The state has satisfactory resources; a peasant may own two slaves and a small cottage in a rural area. A warrior family that rules fairly protects this area, yet they have a strict attitude. The cottage may be an extensive compound on the edge of the farmland that the occupants work, either for another or under their own control. They farm and spend surplus on luxury goods that are sold by the merchant class—an idyllic picture. This picture may be idyllic, yet it can also be realistic to a degree. On the other hand: another province may come under the control of a tyrant, taxes may be levied to unfair levels and the peasants may not even produce enough crops to feed themselves—let alone purchase luxury items. When civil war breaks out, the peasants (in classic horror movie fashion) march against the dictator with firebrands and pitchforks. Again, this is stylistic, yet realistic to a degree. In reality, most historical situations are somewhere between these two extreme examples. That does not mean that these two examples were never realities. Simple factors easily show truths of history. For example, if peasants—in the Japanese case, farmers—were hovel dwelling, disease ridden, skulking figures, then the merchant class would not exist. A merchant needs a customer base, and most of the population were peasant-farmers. Peasant-farmers fed the country, samurai ruled and defended the land, artisans crafted products, and merchants sold them across the islands. Finally, the outcasts perform the duties that the aforementioned will not undertake. Here, again, when imagining the social systems of Japan, do not fall into the “Disney Trap”—or have a blanket outlook. The blanket approach is filled with stereotypes and associated connotations. Instead, adopt the balanced approach of looking at Japanese history as a whole. Consider the merchant to be a hardworking shopkeeper, the craftsman to be the busy woodcarver or blacksmith. Consider the peasant to be a healthy farmer in the field. Consider the samurai a militarily trained landowner; a local power. Then, with this level playing field in place, investigate times and place. Learn how that at times the population became wealthier and life was easier; while at other times existence was harsh. Discover how these harsh times caused rebellion. It is not until a date and a place is identified that a correct understanding can be achieved—make sure to remember this.

Japanese Banzai on Okinawa

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On April 29, Emperor Hirohito’s birthday and the most important holiday in Japan, Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima summoned his top commanders to his headquarters in a tunnel underneath Shuri Castle. For days they had been privately arguing over Isamu Cho’s proposal for a massive counter-stroke against the Americans. Now Ushijima wished them to discuss whether or not his strategy for defending Okinawa should be changed. Some historians say Ushijima was not present, others insist that he was. It does not seem likely, however, that the Thirty-second Army commander—even though it was not his custom to attend staff discussions—would ignore such a momentous meeting called by himself.

Ushijima’s chiefs sat on canvas camp chairs at a rough flat table covered with maps. Around them the stones of the tunnel glistened with sweat. Water from the moat surrounding medieval Shuri seeped through crevices in the wall or dripped incessantly on the floor of beaten earth. Dim light glinted weakly off the glasses worn by most of the officers in attendance or winked on the stars of the numerous generals present.

Isamu Cho sat close to Ushijima, staring arrogantly into the questioning gaze of his arch rival, Colonel Hiromichi Yahara. Just as he had predicted the debacle of General Cho’s abortive counter-attack of April 12-13, the rigidly rational Yahara was now prepared to oppose what he knew would be a plan for an even greater and more disastrous counter-stroke. By his patrician bearing he made it clear that he could not be bullied by either the rank or the fiery rhetoric of the burly general now rising to address the meeting.

Cho began with an incredible untruth: that the Japanese soldier—in the main from four to six inches shorter than his American enemies and from thirty to fifty pounds lighter—was a superb hand-to-hand fighter who could easily overpower the soft, effete American devils. A general clearing of throats and grunts of approval followed this absurd remark, either born of the School of the Rosy Report or emanating from the sake bottles being passed freely around. Very quickly most of the commanders present supported Cho’s plan: Lieutenant General Takeo Fujioka, commander of the Sixty-second Division, and also the plan’s coauthor; Lieutenant General Tatsumi Amamiya, swallowing his detestation of the boastful Fujioka in his eagerness to lead his untested Twenty-fourth Division into battle at last; and Major General Kosuke Wada, chief of the Fifth Artillery Command. Wada agreed with the others that the Thirty-second Army had made an achievement unprecedented in Pacific warfare: it had preserved its main body intact after a month of fighting.

This, Yahara bluntly interjected, happened only because the Americans had not yet hurled their full strength against the Naha-Shuri-Yonabaru line. But now that the outer defenses had fallen, because of the April 12-13 fiasco, the American commander was strengthening his assault forces, according to intelligence reports. An even bigger disaster would ensue if Cho’s massive counter-offensive were approved, he warned. And to speak of the valor of the troops was foolish, because even now, since there had been no issue of sweet-potato brandy on the emperor’s birthday, the men were discontented. For thirty days these gallant men had risen every morning to look down upon a Hagushi Anchorage still choked with enemy ships. The Divine Winds had not blown them away. It was difficult for even Japanese soldiers to believe that the Navy would come to their rescue—nor could they be blamed for complaining about being asked to fight alone one day’s sail from the homeland.

It was true, Isamu Cho replied slowly, that the Americans had not thrown in all their strength. But they were doing so now. There was a new Marine division in the enemy’s assault line, the First, the hated butchers of Guadalcanal. Another—the Sixth—was due to join them. This was the moment to destroy the Americans’ fresh power. But, Cho continued, the Thirty-second Army had also been reinforced. Had not our chief General Ushijima in his wisdom concluded that the enemy was not interested in storming the Minatoga Beaches, and so had ordered our comrades of the Twenty-fourth Division and Forty-fourth Brigade to join us here? Now it is we who are at full strength. Let us strike the enemy immediately and annihilate them before they can grind down to our main line.

Careful, full-scale counter-attack, not the foolish glory of the Banzai, would crush the Americans. There must be help from the kamikaze, then massed artillery fire with the troops attacking all along the line. The fresh Twenty-fourth Division would be hurled at the center and open a hole through which the Forty-fourth Brigade would pour in a thrust to the west coast. The Forty-fourth would then wheel south and the First Marine Division would be isolated and annihilated. The American Twenty-fourth Corps would be rolled up. There should also be counter-landings on both flanks. The Twenty-sixth Shipping Engineer Regiment would embark from Naha in barges, small boats, and native canoes to strike the rear of the Marine division. Later, the youths of the Twenty-sixth, Twenty-eighth, and Twenty-ninth Sea Raiding Squadrons would cross the reef and wade ashore to help the engineers. A similar counter-landing would strike the rear of the Seventh Infantry Division on the east.

It would be difficult to conceive a more complicated plan of attack, and Cho’s proposal calling for so many disconnected and disparate sallies—a montage of uncoordinated sorties if ever there was one—paid absolutely no heed to what the enemy’s reaction might be. Moreover, it was made doubly difficult by the Japanese unfailing reliance on a night attack to cancel out the American superiority in artillery, even if this meant confusing their own troops. Yet, when Colonel Yahara arose to criticize the operation, he praised it as tactically excellent, probably because he was about to demolish it as a strategic monstrosity and did not want to alienate Cho entirely. Yahara said:

“To take the offensive with inferior forces against absolutely superior enemy forces is reckless and will only lead to certain defeat. We must continue the current operation, calmly recognizing its final destiny—for annihilation is inevitable no matter what is done—and maintain to the bitter end the principle of a strategic holding action. If we should fail, the period of maintaining a strategic holding action, as well as the holding action for the decisive battle for the homeland, will be shortened. Moreover, our forces will inflict but small losses on the enemy, while on the other hand, scores of thousands of our troops will have been sacrificed in vain as victims of the offensive.”

Yahara sat down.

It was now up to Ushijima.

He nodded to Cho.

The attack would begin at dawn on May 4. Before that, the flank counter-landings would be launched. Before them the artillery would commence, and before everything would come the kamikaze.

The Japanese aerial assaults began at six o’clock on the night of May 3. Once again, the bombers sought to get at the rich pickings in the Hagushi Anchorage, but thirty-six of them were shot down and the rest forced to unload at high altitude, with little damage. Only the suicide-diving kamikaze broke through. They sank destroyer Little and an LSM, while damaging two mine layers and an LCS. After midnight, sixty bombers struck Tenth Army rear areas, coming in scattering window. Terrible antiaircraft fire rose in crisscrossing streams of light, as though a million narrow-beamed searchlights were aimed into the night, and the bombers dropped their loads aimlessly—though some of them landed in a Marine evacuation hospital.

An hour later Marine amtanks guarding Machinato Airfield on the west coast fired at voices on the beach. American cruisers, destroyers, and gunboats on “flycatcher” patrol shot at squat Japanese barges sliding darkly upcoast from Naha. The barges lost their way. Instead of landing far enough north to take the Marines in their rear, they veered inshore and blundered into the outposts of B Company, First Marines.

The Japanese sent up a screeching and gobbling of battle cries and the surprised Marines sprang to their guns. All up and down the sea wall the battle raged, with Marine amtracks moving out to sea and coming in again to grind the Japs to pieces between two fires. Some five hundred Japanese died in this futile west-flank landing.

The east-flank landings came to the same annihilating end. Navy patrol boats sighted the Japanese craft. They fired at them and turned night into day with star-shells. Soldiers of the Seventh Division’s Reconnaissance Troops joined the sailors to complete the destruction of four hundred men.

At dawn, the main attack began.

It went straight to the doom that Colonel Yahara had predicted. Wave after wave of the Twenty-fourth Division’s men shuffled forward to death in that gray dawn, moving among their own artillery shells, taking this risk in hopes of getting in on the Americans. But the soldiers of the Seventh and Seventy-seventh Divisions held firm—while American warships, sixteen battalions of division artillery, and twelve battalions of heavier corps artillery, plus 134 airplanes, smothered the enemy in a wrathful blanket of steel and explosive. Ships as big as the fourteen-inch-gunned New York and Colorado, as small as gunboats with 20 mm cannons, ranged up and down the east coast firing at the Japanese on call.

Across the island, the kamikaze dove again on ships in the Hagushi Anchorage, again falling on the luckless small vessels of the radar picket screen. With them were the baka bombs. This May 4 one of the baka hit the light mine-layer Shea and set it temporarily on fire. The kamikaze also sank two more destroyers, Luce and Morrison, as well as two LSMs, while damaging the carrier Sangamon, the cruiser Birmingham, another pair of destroyers, a minesweeper, and an LCS. Again, they failed to get at the cargo and transport ships. And they lost 95 planes.

Ashore, Isamu Cho’s massive counterthrust was being broken by that material power for which Mitsuru Ushijima had shown such profound respect. Much of the Japanese assault died aborning. Sometimes the Japanese closed, but rarely. There were seesaw battles up and down some of the ridges held by the Seventy-seventh, but they ended with the GIs either in command of their previous position or holding new ground farther inside the Japanese territory. One battalion of the Japanese Twenty-fourth Division got behind the Seventy-seventh on the left, but it was annihilated by a reserve battalion of the Seventh Division in a three-day fight. Otherwise the Twenty-fourth Division never punched that hole through which the Forty-fourth Brigade was to race and isolate the First Marine Division.

And the First began attacking on the morning of May 4. Even as the GIs on their left bore the brunt of Cho’s big sally, these Marines were battling southeast toward the key bastion of Shuri. They scored gains of up to four hundred yards. The next day they attacked again, once more pushing the Japanese back—even though their advance was made more costly by the fact that they were up against rested battalions of the Japanese Sixty-second Division. By the night of May 5 the Marines had picked up another three hundred yards. By that time Lieutenant General Isamu Cho’s massive stroke had been completely shattered. Those two days of fighting had cost the Japanese 6,227 dead. The Seventh and Seventy-seventh Divisions had lost 714 men killed or wounded while holding the line, the First Marine Division had taken losses of 649 men in the more costly business of attack. The next day the First gained another three hundred yards, and added a fourth Medal of Honor winner to its rolls since coming into the line on May 1. That day Corporal John Fardy smothered a grenade with his life, as had Pfc. William Foster. Sergeant Elbert Kinser did it on May 4. Two days before that, Corpsman Robert Bush had risked his life to give plasma to a wounded officer, driving off a Japanese rush with pistol and carbine, killing six of the enemy and refusing evacuation though badly wounded.

There would be more Medals of Honor won in the days to come. The First Division by May 5 had come against Ushijima’s main line, as had the GIs on their left. In front of the First was the western half of the Shuri bastion. To their right was Naha, and this would be assigned to the Sixth Marine Division the next day. In the sector of both these Marine divisions were systems of interlocking fortified ridges such as those encountered on Iwo Jima. Nor would the way be made easy here by further counter-attack.

A change had taken place at Shuri Castle. In tears, Lieutenant General Ushijima had promised Colonel Yahara that from now on he would listen to no one but him. The Ushijima-Cho relationship had ended in the recrimination of a red and useless defeat. Isamu Cho argued no longer. He became silent and stoical, convinced now that only time stood between the Thirty-second Army and ultimate destruction.