Japanese Air Operations: The Early Period in China (1937)

On 7 July 1937 a military clash between Japanese Army and Chinese Army units broke out near Beijing (Peking), while early in August a Japanese Marine officer was killed in Shanghai. These incidents were employed as ‘Cause célèbres’ to allow what rapidly became a full-scale war to develop between the two countries which would last until 1945. Nevertheless, it remained known to the Japanese as ‘The China Incident’ throughout its course.

Available as the ‘incident’ broke out, a number of new Kokutais had been recently formed within existing Kokutais. At Saeki Kokutai in Kyushu the 12th Kokutai, equipped with 12 Type 95 fighters, 12 dive-bombers and 12 torpedo aircraft was formed, while at Ohmura Kokutai – also located in Kyushu – the 13th Kokutai also came into existence with 12 new Type 96 Fighters, six dive-bombers and torpedo aircraft.

Thus at the start of the incident, the IJN had available to take part some 84 carrier aircraft, 118 land-based aircraft and 62 floatplanes (including those on ships of the 3rd Fleet). This represented some 65% of the service’s 408 first-line machines at the time.

An inter-air force agreement was reached with the Japanese Army on 11 July 1937, whereby the IJN would be responsible for aerial operations over central China. In mid August the carriers Kaga, Hosho and Ryujo were despatched to Shanghai. Kaga carried 16 Type 90 fighters, 14 dive-bombers and 22 torpedo-bombers; Hosho and Ryujo each had aboard 21 Type 90 fighters, 12 dive-bombers and nine torpedo-bombers.

As the IJN prepared for an initial strike on Chinese airfields and other targets on 14 August, a typhoon struck the ships offshore, preventing take-off. This allowed the Chinese to strike first, a force of about 40 fighters and bombers attacking the vessels and the Japanese Marine Headquarters in Shanghai. In the conditions prevailing only the single floatplanes from the cruiser Izumo and the light cruiser Sendai managed to get off, claiming victories over a Curtiss Hawk biplane fighter and a Northrop single-engined bomber. Fortuitously for the Japanese, aerial combat had become one of the items taught to two-seat floatplane crews since 1932, and such aircraft would frequently be launched to intercept incoming raiders.

Two days later on 16 August, another crew from Izumo claimed a Hawk destroyed, while on 21st six floatplane crews claimed six, suffering only damage to one of their number – although this was of a fairly serious nature. On 2 September three floatplanes engaged nine Curtiss Hawks, claiming three shot down and one forced down for a loss of a single floatplane. However, as these aircraft were also engaged in bombing and reconnaissance, their rate of attrition was rather high, 25% of the aircraft available and 7% of the crews being lost during a period of just one month. No floatplane aces were produced during the China Incident, but aircraft of this type had gained a good number of early victories. As a result, the idea began to be adopted that float fighters were an inexpensive and speedy expedient which allowed the creation of a floatplane base, rather than having to construct a front line airfield.

With an improvement in the weather, operations by the carrier-based air groups soon got underway, and on 16 August six of Kaga’s Type 90 fighters led by Lt Chikamasa Igarashi encountered four Chinese fighters, claiming three of them shot down over Jiangwan, Shanghai. Next day four more such aircraft led by Wt Off Mitsuo Toyoda claimed two further successes. At the end of the month the first of the new Type 96 monoplanes arrived by carrier from the homeland, and on 4 September Lt Tadashi Nakajima led two of these to their first victories, claiming three Curtiss Hawks shot down. On 7 September Lt Igarashi, now flying one of the new aircraft, led his flight of three to claim five victories over Taihu, three of which were credited to Igarashi personally.

Meanwhile the other carrier air groups had also been piling up successes. Lt Tadashi Kaneko leading four Type 90 fighters from Ryujo spotted 18 Curtiss Hawks over Baoshan on 22 August and ‘bounced’ these, he and his pilots claiming six without any of their aircaft suffering a single hit in return. Next day four more Ryujo fighters led by Lt(jg) Minoru Suzuki took on 27 fighters in the same area, and despite their numerical inferiority, claimed nine for no loss, three of them by Suzuki. The Hosho fighters were less fortunate in finding opponents. Their only success during this initial period amounted to a single twin-engined Martin monoplane bomber, shot down on 25 August by a trio of Type 90s led by Lt(jg) Harutoshi Okamoto.

Early in September Kunda airfield at Shanghai became available for use by the IJN, and at once the 12th Ku (12 Type 95 fighters, 12 Type 94 dive-bombers and 12 Type 92 torpedo-bombers) and the 13th Ku (12 Type 96 fighters, six Type 96 dive-bombers and six Type 96 torpedo-bombers) flew in. They were joined by six Type 90 fighters, six Type 96 fighters, 18 dive-bombers and 18 torpedo-bombers from Kaga.

In an effort to neutralise the Chinese fighters defending the Nanking area, Type 96 Fighters from Zhenru, Shanghai undertook 11 sweeps over Nanking between 19-25 September, accompanied by dive-bombers, torpedo-bombers and floatplanes. On 19th, the initial day of the attacks, 19 Type 96 fighters of the 13th Ku led by Lt Shichiro Yamashita, escorted 17 dive-bombers to the area, accompanied by 16 floatplanes. More than 20 intercepting fighters were encountered, the Type 96 pilots claiming 15 and three probables without loss while the floatplane crews claimed 12 for a single loss. By 25 September the IJN units had claimed a total of 42 destroyed and six probables. Following these raids, Kaga returned to Japan with its air group embarked.

Aircraft of the Chinese Air Force were now beginning to appear over southern China, and fearing that these might interfere with the Japanese naval blockade, or even launch attacks on Japanese bases in Formosa, attacks by Rikkos (medium bombers) were launched, while both Ryujo and Hosho took part in an attack on Canton on 21 September. Lt Cdr Yasuna Kozono, the Hikotai leader on Ryujo, led six fighters from each carrier to escort torpedo-bombers and dive-bombers to attack two airfields at Canton. Here the escorts engaged ten or more Curtiss Hawks, each unit claiming six shot down. However, during the return flight five Hosho fighters force-landed in the sea when they ran out of fuel; all the pilots were rescued safely by Japanese destroyers. A second attack followed, during which nine Ryujo fighters escorted the bombers, claiming five more shot down and one probable. Carrier aircraft were to launch further attacks on two following days, but encountered no opposition.

On land around Shanghai the situation became steadily more favourable to the Japanese despite overwhelming numerical odds. During November three Japanese infantry divisions landed in Hangchow Bay, south-west of Shanghai. The Japanese command now believed that if Nanking, the capital of China at that time, could be taken by the end of November, the ‘incident’ could be concluded satisfactorily. During this period the A5Ms (Type 96s) of the 13th Ku were regularly in action over the Nanking area. The commanding officer, Lt Yamashita, had been obliged to force-land in hostile territory and had become a prisoner of war, leadership of the unit being taken over by Lt Mochifumi Nango. On 12 October the unit’s pilots claimed five victories, while on 2 December six pilots fought more than 30 interceptors, claiming 13 shot down.

The 12th Ku, saw no action with its older A4Ns(Type 95s) at this time, becoming engaged in defensive patrols and ground support sorties as the unit began gradually to convert to the superior A5Ms. On 13 December Nanking fell to the Japanese, but far from giving up, the Chinese government fled to Hankow, determined to continue the war from there.

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THE SINO-JAPANESE WAR, 1894-1895

Several highly significant events occurred in 1894. Foreign Minister Mutsu Munemitsu’s negotiations with Britain to revise the unequal treaties began to make progress, finally reaching success with the signing of a more equitable commercial agreement that summer. This treaty became the basis for revision of the remaining unequal treaties Japan had had to agree to with other powers, hence excising a humiliation to the national honor.

Meanwhile, a more explosive sequence of events began when the pro Japanese Kim Ok-kyun was assassinated in Shanghai in April. Te Chinese government declined to release the body to Kim’s Japanese friends, instead returning it to Korea, certainly in full knowledge of what was likely to happen and how the Japanese government would react. The corpse was draped in a shroud inscribed “arch rebel and heretic.” On the same ship was the assassin, who received a hero’s welcome when the ship docked. The Korean king then mutilated Kim’s body in a particularly grisly manner, and punished his family members as well. While this treatment was considered appropriate for traitors, which from China’s and Korea’s point of view, Kim certainly was, the Japanese government perceived the manner in which it was carried out to have been designed to humiliate their country.

Japanese public opinion, fanned by angry articles in the nation’s news papers, was infuriated. The Japanese military, already resentful over the more conciliatory policies of the country’s statesmen, determined that it was necessary to intervene. Defeating Li Hongzhang’s well-regarded Beiyang army would free Korea defnitively from the Chinese sphere of influence as well as silence domestic critics who criticized their government’s unwillingness to take action. It might also serve to dissuade the Russian government from trying to establish a sphere of influence on the Korean peninsula, which Japan regarded as vital to its own security. Since the trans-Siberian railway would give Russia a direct conduit to the Pacific Ocean, Japanese statesmen were concerned that its completion would be tantamount to a Russian version of America’s Monroe Doctrine.

When the Tonghak (Eastern Learning) Rebellion broke out in Korea in 1894, the tinderbox of tensions was ignited. The Korean king, on the advice of Li Hongzhang’s representative in Korea, Yuan Shikai, requested that China send troops to help suppress it. In accordance with the Li-Ito Convention, China notified Japan that it was doing so. Ignoring the Korean king’s request that Japan not send troops, Japan immediately dispatched them nonetheless. Although the official explanation was that soldiers were needed to protect Japanese nationals and property, the large number of troops that were sent and their instantaneous dispatch indicated prior preparations. Japanese troops moved into Seoul and captured the king.

Tokyo announced that it would not withdraw the troops until the Korean government had implemented a program of thorough reform. Li Hongzhang, realizing that his troops would be unable to stand up to those of Japan, tried unsuccessfully to persuade foreign powers to mediate. There was considerable feeling among Western powers that the weak, corrupt Korean government was badly in need of reform; perhaps Japanese pressure was what was needed. At the end of July, the ship Kowshing, carrying more than a thousand Chinese troops, was intercepted by Japanese naval vessels and refused the commander’s orders to follow its ships to port. After several hours of negotiations, the commander, Togo Heihachiro, later to become the hero of the Russo-Japanese War, ordered the Kowshing sunk.

On August 1, 1894, each country declared war on the other. Japan’s declaration accused China of interfering in Korea’s domestic affairs, of refusing Japan’s offer to jointly sponsor reforms, and of opening fire on Japanese ships. China’s declaration repeatedly referred to the Japanese as dwarfs, woren, or dwarf pirates, wokou. Adding insult to insult in this face-conscious culture, the Chinese side had the declaration translated into English, accompanied by a note explaining that the word was used in an “opprobrious sense.” In her definitive study of the Sino-Japanese War, S. C. M. Paine characterizes such language as equivalent to repeatedly spitting in the emperor’s face. At frst, foreign observers assumed that Chinese forces would win. Tis was quickly proved wrong, as Japanese forces achieved victory after victory in what could only be considered a humiliating defeat of their larger neighbor. China’s regionally based armies had a tendency to avoid battle, feeling that they did not have a stake in the outcome. Battleships, including some modern vessels whose capabilities exceeded those of the Japanese, were hoarded rather than used. Corruption siphoned money meant for military modernization into luxury items for dishonest officials. A subordinate of China’s most outstanding admiral, Ding Ruchang, disobeyed Ding’s order to put the flagship in a position to fire on the Japanese fleet and instead fired the main guns at the bridge on which Ding was standing. The admiral escaped death, but his leg was crushed, seriously affecting his ability to direct the battle.

Incredibly, the Chinese managed to sustain the attitude of superiority even in the face of defeat. For example, in November 1894, an eminent scholar-official wrote:

The island barbarian Japanese have inscrutable temperaments and petty dispositions. Their hearts are like those of jackals and wolves, and they possess poison like the bees and the scorpions .. They dare to title their emperor as the son of heaven in the land of the rising sun. It look them 48,000 years before they made contact with China, while in 3,600 years they still have not accepted our celestial calendar. . [I]llegitimately assuming the reign title of Meiji [i. e., Enlightened Rule], they in reality abandon themselves all the more to debauchery and indolence. Falsely calling their new administration a reformation, they only defle themselves so much the more. . As for Korea, all the world knows it is a vassal of China. And yet Japan took military action there without reason. Is this not deliberately provocative? . How can we tolerate this willingness to act like the dog of the ancient tyrant Chieh barking at the sage-king Yao? Both the immortals and human kind are angry, the entire world takes offense.

This stoked the anger of Japanese, who were already passionate to become treated as equals if not superiors. The image of China among ordinary Japanese citizens also suffered. When soldiers whose educations had taught them that China was the land of the sages encountered the poverty and illiteracy of the Chinese countryside, and shared these observations through letters and conversations with relatives and acquaintances at home, the once revered land came to be regarded as far inferior to their own.

While some responded with their own disparaging characterizations of the Chinese, generally based on nativist views, others tended to be compassionate once victory had been secured. A case in point is the dialogue between Admiral Ito Yuku and his opposite number Admiral Ding Ruchang after the latter’s defeat at Weihaiwei. Tough fate had made them adversaries, the two had previously had cordial relations. Ito pointed out that the defeat had not been Ding’s fault, but that of a government which preferred to choose its officials on the basis of their literary accomplishments rather than their military expertise. He then invited Ding to come to Japan rather than return to Beijing to accept responsibility for the defeat. Ding responded by committing suicide, thereby earning the highest respect of the Japanese. As commented by a newspaper columnist of the time, enmity is temporary, respect endures forever. Admiral Ito ordered Ding’s body returned to China, with flags flying at half-mast and ships firing a salute as the vessel bearing his body lef port. Knowing that the war was essentially over at this point, Ito also returned Ding’s surviving officers. Ding’s own government did not react as well: his corpse was denied proper burial until 1912, and the emperor ordered his surviving officers beheaded.

A similar exchange of views occurred when Li Hongzhang again met Ito Hirobumi, this time to negotiate the terms of the peace treaty at Shimonoseki. Ito reminded Li that, at Tianjin a decade before, he had spoken with Li about reform, regretted that nothing had actually been reformed, and asked why. Li replied that “affairs in my country have been so confined by tradition that I could not accomplish what I desired.”

In a third example, also from the Shimonoseki negotiations, Premier Ito inquired of one of the Chinese translators, the brilliant Luo Fenglu, why China had not learned more from the West. Luo replied, “You see, in our younger days we knew each other as fellow students, and now you are prime minister in your country and I am an interpreter in mine.” As summarized by an astute observer, for years Japanese diplomats had offered the same advice to Chinese diplomats, only to see it ignored. From the Chinese point of view, “They would be damned before they would take advice from `dwarfs.’ And damned they were.”

Even in defeat, the Chinese government refused to treat the victors as equals. Te negotiations were stalled when the Japanese, confronted with a delegation of relatively low-ranking individuals who had arrived without power to make decisions, refused to deal with them. Meanwhile, a group of officials in China who clearly did not comprehend the difficult position that the devastation of their armies and ships had put them in, urged fighting on. A few days afer the envoys’ ship set sail, The Peking Gazette, the official organ of the Chinese government for the publication of memorials and edicts, referred to the Japanese by an even more demeaning term than dwarfs: “dwarf pirates”. After a member of the delegation asked the highly inappropriate question of when he could expect an audience with the emperor, the Japanese sent the delegation back.

Eventually, with the Japanese threatening to advance into Beijing- an action that was easily within their military’s capacity but that civilian statesmen preferred to avoid, fearing Western powers’ reaction-the Chinese dispatched an acceptable delegation. In the resultant Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed in 1895, China recognized the full and complete independence and autonomy of Korea, which was henceforth to refrain from paying tribute and performing ceremonies to China that were incompatible with this independence and autonomy. Taiwan, the Pescadores, and the Liaodong peninsula were ceded to Japan. China was to pay an indemnity of 200 million Kuping taels 35 (about 7.5 million kilograms of silver). Four new cities, Shashi, Chongqing, Hangzhou, and Suzhou, were to be opened to Japanese trade, and China granted most favored nation status to Japan.

The mood in Japan was ecstatic; the military had not only assuaged past slights but also brought much honor to the country. However, almost immediately a consortium of three European states-France, Germany, and Russia-intervened. Apprehensive for their own interests in the wake of the Japanese victory, the parties to the Triple Intervention advised Japan to retrocede the Liaodong peninsula. Aware that their military could not withstand the combined forces of the three, Japanese diplomats agreed. A concession that China would have to pay an additional 30 million Kuping, or 1.12 million kilograms, of silver for the retrocession of Liaodong, for a total indemnity of over 9 million kilograms of silver, was scant consolation. An imperial rescript urged the people to “bear the unbearable” and to refrain from rash acts of revenge. Although a number of ritual suicides were reported, citizens in general obeyed the emperor’s command. However, the intervention had other, very serious consequences.

Public opinion was outraged, charging that diplomats had surrendered a valuable prize that had been won through the sacrifices of thousands of valiant young men. The prestige of civilian government fell; that of the military rose. As did support for larger military budgets, so that Japan could never again be humiliated in this fashion, and the desire for revenge. Additionally, the Triple Intervention was interpreted as meaning that the Western powers had not yet accepted Japan as their equal, its impressive reforms not withstanding. In the Japanese view, this attitude extended beyond the three intervening powers: Tokyo had approached other Western powers for help against the consortium, but had been rebuffed. The conclusion was that Western powers understood only military force, and that Japan had best ready itself for such a confrontation. Japanese decision-makers were aware of the so-called Willy-Nicky letters, in which the German kaiser and his cousin, the Russian czar, discussed the dangers of the “yellow peril.”

Oilfields of Borneo – 1942

“Pacific Offensive, 1942: • Sergeant-Major, Infantry; Borneo, January 1942 • Superior Private, Infantry; Java, DEI, March 1942 • Seaman 2nd Class paratrooper, 1st (Yokosuka) Special Landing Unit; Celebes, DEI, January 1942”, Stephen Andrew

As the oilfields of Borneo – and two weeks later, the oil fields of Sumatra – would fulfill a strategic objective on the Japanese Southern Road, other moves made on the Dutch East Indies chessboard were designed to address tactical concerns. As the Japanese closed in on Java and Sumatra, the Dutch, who had barely defended Borneo, were concentrating their resources, just as General Arthur Ernest Percival intended to do with his British Commonwealth assets in Singapore.

Just as IJA and IJN airpower was keeping pace with Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 25th Army on the Malay Peninsula, moving into abandoned RAF bases closer and closer to the front, the tactical plan for the ultimate battle in the Dutch East Indies required a network of airfields on other islands which were closer to Java and Sumatra. One such island was the major Dutch East Indies island of Celebes (now Sulawesi) to the east of Borneo and due south of the Philippines.

Offshore, the Celebes operation was supported by a naval force commanded by Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka which included the cruiser Jintsu, his flagship, ten destroyers, two seaplane tenders, and several minesweepers. An additional covering force under Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi included the cruisers Nachi, Haguro, and Myoko, and two destroyers. They were all part of the growing IJN presence in the nearly 3 million square miles of Dutch East Indies waters.

The IJN surface fleet in this area was divided generally into two operating groups. The Western Force under Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, commander of the Japanese Southern Expeditionary Fleet, was tasked with operations in the South China Sea, and had supported the campaign in Malaya and Singapore. The Eastern Force, commanded by Vice Admiral Ibo Takahashi, conducted operations from eastern Borneo, east through Celebes, Ambon, Timor, and eastward to New Guinea.

Operations ashore in Celebes were conducted entirely by the IJN Special Naval Landing Forces, and occurred simultaneously with the IJA and IJN landings on Tarakan. This ground action, which was a brief one that history treats almost as a footnote to the Borneo operations, is notable for including the first Japanese airborne operation in Southeast Asia. The latter was a precursor to tactics that were to be revisited a month later in Sumatra.

Under the command of Captain Kunizo Mori, 2,500 men of the 1st and 2nd Sasebo Special Naval Landing Forces conducted the initial amphibious landings near the northern Celebes cities of Manado (also spelled Menado) and Kema before dawn on January 11, overwhelming the outnumbered KNIL defenders.

Meanwhile, staging out of Davao, 28 transport variants of the Mitsubishi G3M medium bomber carried more than 300 paratroopers from the 1st Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force to a drop zone behind the invasion beaches. Landing at about 9:30 am on January 11, the paratroopers surprised the Dutch defenders, and began an assault on the airfield at Langoan and the seaplane base at Kakas.

The unexpected attack from above certainly reminded the Dutch troops of the use by the Germans of airborne troops in the conquest of their home country in May 1940. Indeed, Japanese tactical planners in both the IJA and IJN had made note of the successful use of German Fallschirmjäger, or paratroopers, as a spearhead during the Wehrmacht spring offensive of 1940, and had begun training their own airborne troops. Germany’s capture of the entire island of Crete, solely by airborne troops, in May 1941, must have been especially noteworthy as the Japanese planners pondered the island-studded map of the Southern Road. In retrospect, it is a wonder that the tactic was not employed on a wider scale.

A second airborne attack by the 1st Yokosuka on January 12 brought additional landing forces to Celebes, and assured the capture of the Langoan airfield. Though some of the Dutch troops managed to hide out in the mountains for about a month, northern Celebes was secured by the middle of the month.

With this, Captain Kunzio Mori’s 1st and 2nd Sasebo headed south. Just as Sakaguchi had leapfrogged down the Borneo coast from Tarakan to Balikpapan, Mori embarked from Manado and headed for Kendari, at the southeast corner of Celebes. His Special Naval Landing Forces, aboard six transports, were escorted by a task force commanded by Rear Admiral Kyuji Kubo, which included the cruiser Nagara, his flagship, eight destroyers, and support ships. As with the task force that had supported Mori at Manado, Kubo’s contingent was part of the IJN Eastern Force.

Mori went ashore under cover of darkness on the night of January 23–24, the same night that Sakaguchi had landed at Balikpapan. Within 24 hours, the defenders had been overcome, and the Japanese were in control of the strategically important airfield at Kendari.

Capturing airfields was a priority second only to the petroleum facilities in the Dutch East Indies, for they brought land-based Japanese fighters and bombers incrementally closer to future battlefields farther south on the Southern Road. The air base at Kendari was destined to be one of the most important. Centrally located within the Dutch East Indies, it would be an important refueling stop. It was also the base of operations for the devastating air attack on Darwin, Australia, which would terrify the land down under three weeks later.

Just as the airfields on Celebes were part of the Sumatra and Java strategy, other Dutch islands far to the east hosted airfields that would be useful in operations against Dutch- and Australian-administered New Guinea, which were scheduled for April. Centrally located between Celebes and New Guinea was 299-square-mile Ambon Island, part of the Molucca (now Maluku) Archipelago, 500 miles east of Celebes, 1,600 miles east of Palembang, and 250 miles west of New Guinea. The strategic importance of Ambon and the substantial, paved airfield at Laha on the island had been lost on neither the Dutch nor the Australians. They had agreed to jointly reinforce the island, but the first contingent of RAAF Hudson bombers had not touched down at Laha until December 7, 1941, less than 24 hours before the general outbreak of hostilities across Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

The Australians also sent troops, but they had few to spare. As we have seen, three of the four infantry divisions which comprised the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) were in North Africa helping the British fight the German Afrika Korps. Most of the 8th Division, except the 23rd Brigade, was helping the British defend Malaya.

The one brigade held back was given the precarious and impossible task of the forward defense of Australia itself. It was divided into what were known as the “Bird Forces,” having been given what the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs historical factsheet colorfully describes as “ominously non-predatory names.” Forward defense of Australia meant outposts on islands north of that country and east of Malaya which were astride important sea lanes between Japanese-held territory and Australia. It was Gull Force that was dispatched to Ambon, while Sparrow Force went to Timor, and Lark Force went to New Britain, far to the east.

Each of the Bird Forces was essentially a single battalion, roughly a thousand or fewer infantrymen, reinforced with artillery and support troops. Deployed in 1941 before the full weight of the immense Japanese offensive had been experienced, each was sent to do a job that should have been done by a force a dozen times larger.

Deploying about ten days after Pearl Harbor, the 1,100-man Gull Force, centered on the 2/21st Battalion of the AIF, arrived on Ambon, joining a Dutch garrison on the island that consisted of the poorly trained 2,800-man KNIL Molucca Brigade, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Kapitz. Gull Force was initially commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Leonard Roach, but he was replaced on January 16 by Lieutenant Colonel John Scott, who was no stranger to amphibious operations, having participated in the Gallipoli campaign during World War I. Scott arrived to find his new command in pitiful condition, with malaria and other diseases rampant in the equatorial heat, which still swelters in January.

Both USN and Koninklijk Marine flying boats operated out of Ambon, flying patrol missions, as well as frequent evacuations of civilians, but they were pulled out in mid-January, against the backdrop of increasing Japanese air attacks. Air defense of Ambon consisted of a few Brewster Buffaloes, which rose to meet IJN seaplane bombers that began visiting Ambon early in January at the same time as the offensive against northern Borneo.

The Buffaloes held their own for a while, but they were no match for the carrier-based IJN Zeros that first appeared over the island on January 24, the same day as the invasions of Balikpapan and Kendari. For the Ambon operation, the IJN brought in the carriers Hiryu and Soryu, both of which had been part of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Pearl Harbor strike force. At Ambon, they targeted Dutch and Australian aircraft, compelling Wavell to make the decision to pull out the last of the Allied aircraft to preserve them to fight another day. When the invasion fleet was sighted at dusk on January 30, the Allied ground troops knew they would have to face the enemy with no air cover.

The fact that the IJN had used seaplanes and carrier-based aircraft to conduct operations against Ambon is, in itself, an illustration of why the Japanese needed to have airfields at locations across the sprawling Indies.

The remainder of the naval escort for the ten transport ships of the invasion fleet to which the Hiryu and Soryu were attached was largely the same contingent that had supported operations against Manado on January 11. Commanded by Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, this force was comprised of his flagship, the cruiser Jintsu, as well as eight destroyers and support vessels. The same covering force under Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi that had supported Tanaka at Kendari also accompanied him to Ambon.

As in Borneo, the ground operation at Ambon was to be a joint operation between the IJA and the IJN Special Naval Landing Forces. The latter contingent included 820 men from the 1st Kure Special Naval Landing Force, while the IJA contingent of approximately 4,500 men was centered on the 228th Infantry Regiment, one of three regiments in the 38th Division, which had taken part in the conquest of Hong Kong. This joint force was known as the Ito Detachment and commanded by Major General Takeo Ito, who had commanded the entire 38th Division at Hong Kong, and who operated at Ambon under the banner of the division’s headquarters.

The first wave of IJA Ito Detachment came ashore during the night of January 30–31, with the IJN landing forces in the north, and the 288th mainly in the south. Ambon is nearly bisected by Ambon Bay, which cuts into the island from the southeast. The southern part contains the major population centers, while Laha airfield was across the bay on the northern part. Most of the defenders were located in these areas, but the initial Japanese landings were on the lightly defended north, and the least-defended area on the south side, well away from coastal guns guarding the entrance to Ambon Bay. Of course, established beachheads can be expanded more easily than landing troops under fire.

During January 31, the Japanese moved rapidly, reaching Australian-defended Laha from the north, and capturing Ambon City in the south by around 4:00 pm.

As the Allies shifted troops to face the landings, they left holes in their lines, which were exploited by the Japanese. A second wave of Ito Detachment troops came ashore at Passo (also written in some accounts as Paso) at the neck of the Laitimor Peninsula, effectively cutting the island in two. At the same time, the Japanese also snipped the telephone line which was the only way that the Allied troops could communicate with one another. The absence of communications isolated the various units and created confusion.

Kapitz ordered his men to continue fighting, which they did. However, shortly after midnight, the Japanese captured Kapitz, who had moved his headquarters close to Passo. For most of February 1, the action involved an Allied withdrawal, away from Passo and Ambon City, toward the southeast tip of the Laitimor Peninsula. These troops, with Colonel Scott still in command, had their backs to the Banda Sea, and realized that their position was essentially hopeless.

As this was ongoing, Admiral Tanaka ordered his minesweepers into Ambon Bay to clear the mines laid by the Koninklijke Marine, before they withdrew from Ambon earlier in January. This was in preparation for landing additional troops inside the bay. However, much to the immense joy of the troops fighting for their lives on the peninsula, one of the minesweepers struck a mine, blew up, and sank. Another was damaged.

Nevertheless, the jubilation that the Allied troops enjoyed at this juncture was certainly qualified by the pounding that was being dished out to them in the form of offshore naval gunfire and air attacks from the air wings aboard the Hiryu and Soryu. Throughout February 1, the naval bombardment also fell on the Australian and Dutch troops that were still trying to defend the airfield across the bay at Laha. On the morning of February 2, having encircled Laha, the landing troops, under Commander Kunito Hatakeyama, launched a ferocious assault aimed at dislodging the defenders. At around 10:00 am, Major Mark Newbury, commanding the joint force at Laha, decided that any further resistance would waste lives in an impossible situation, and ordered his men to surrender. Scott surrendered the defenders of the Laitimor Peninsula on February 3. About 30 Australian Diggers managed to successfully escape Ambon by canoe.

Newbury’s hopes of saving lives by his surrender were darkened when, over the ensuing two weeks, Hatakeyama randomly murdered around 300 prisoners at Laha. Newbury himself was killed on February 6. Scott survived the war as a POW, although most of the troops who surrendered on Ambon died in captivity. In 1946, witnesses and makeshift graves were located, and Hatakeyama was tried, convicted, and executed as a war criminal.

The Saipan Mission – Plan for a “Special Attack of IJN Battleships”

The disastrous Philippine Sea battle left the Imperial Navy in the position of having important forces in a combat zone completely dominated by the Allies. Not only were more than 15,000 sailors caught in the trap, but also those endangered included skilled ship artificers and aircraft mechanics, Japanese communications intelligence experts, naval infantry, and the staffs and commanders of the Central Pacific Area Fleet, First Air Fleet, and Sixth Fleet.

For days, talk of rescue expeditions roiled across Tokyo. Navy staff officials promised salvation. Junior naval officers clamored for action, accusing the Japanese Army command of obstructing a rescue. Many others thought the whole idea ludicrous. The scheme might have had some chance while Ozawa’s Mobile Fleet monopolized Allied attention, but the day after Prime Minister Tojo approved the mission the Mobile Fleet went down in defeat at the Turkey Shoot.

Combined Fleet chief of staff Kusaka Ryunosuke, anxious to succor his old boss Nagumo, dreamed up the first scheme for the Saipan mission, revolving around two old battleships. Staffers thought Kusaka’s idea silly, but he was determined to go ahead. Captain Yamamoto Chikao (no relation to the great admiral), who led the operations section of the NGS, completed the plan on June 21.

The next day Admiral Ozawa’s vanquished Mobile Fleet anchored at Okinawa on its way home. As the fleet neared Japan, C-in-C Toyoda Soemu held the options open by ordering Ozawa to concentrate in the Inland Sea and prepare for an immediate mission. Under a revised rescue plan, the one available fleet carrier, Zuikaku, and every other two-bit aviation ship the Navy could scrape up would be loaded with whatever planes could fly, scrounged from both the Army and the Navy. The planes would have to take off only once. They would be expended in the fight.

This improvised carrier fleet would sail several days behind a convoy escorted by the Fifth Fleet, Japan’s northeast sea frontier protection force, expected to leave the port of Yokosuka carrying an Army infantry regiment. The carrier force would cover its approach with a one-way air attack. The next day Japan’s Second Fleet, the Navy’s big-gun unit, would steam in and crush the Allied fleets off the Marianas. The Fifth Fleet would then arrive with the Army’s regiment, and a day after that would be another convoy with a full Army division.

The rescue, still merely on paper, already looked shaky. The Ozawa fleet had been smashed in a full-scale battle and could hardly be ready for another. That went for the Second Fleet as well—it had been part of Ozawa’s force. Admiral Ozawa himself estimated he needed two months to get the ships back in fighting trim. About the only naval units really at hand were the Fifth Fleet and the old battleships. The aged Yamashiro of Battleship Division 2, and a pair of converted battleship–aircraft carriers, the Ise and Hyuga, were just completing modification to this hybrid status. There was also the Fuso, then in the southern Philippines after participating in a similar—but abortive—sortie to aid the Japanese defenders of Biak Island. The two hybrid ships, still working up, were ultimately left out of the plan.

Operations officers wanted to send at least the Yamashiro. She could dash to Saipan, deliver the regiment to stiffen the defenses, and then ground herself to serve as an artillery battery. The Army might contribute one of its own transport ships. Cruisers of the Fifth Fleet could carry more troops as well as the landing barges to put them ashore. With a handful of escorts these warships could become a relief mission. The Fuso, sailing independently, would shoot up Allied convoys headed to the battle areas. Combined Fleet alerted her for that mission on June 17. But the battleship-only rescue was a nonstarter. Three days later the Navy scrubbed the Fuso raiding mission. Combined Fleet commander in chief Toyoda Soemu thought the entire concept reckless and rejected chief of staff Kusaka’s proposals. According to Kusaka this was among the few times Toyoda ever did that.

Historian Anthony Tully attributes the rescue to Captain Kami Shigenori. A notorious hothead in the Imperial Navy, Kami might well have dreamed up this kind of scheme. Tully reports that Captain Kami, ready to accept any risk, volunteered to skipper the Yamashiro to her destiny. Contrary to some claims, however, at that time Kami was no operations specialist with either the fleets or the NGS. He was captain of the light cruiser Tama. That vessel at least belonged to the Fifth Fleet and could have participated, but it leaves the captain as just another advocate, not the planner of this extravaganza. It is true that Kami had spent much of his career in staff billets, but by the same token he had minimal command experience. The Tama had been his first ship in many years. Why the Navy should put Kami in charge of a battlewagon goes unexplained. In November 1966, Admiral Kusaka personally claimed credit, regretting the rescue had not been carried out, claiming that with the right timing it could have worked.

Meanwhile the plan had also envisioned that a long-range air unit (the “Hachiman Force”) would cooperate with the surface fleet, flying out to strike the Allied armada and paving the way for the surface ships. Cobbled together ad hoc, and composed of crews picked from the Yokosuka Air Group and Twelfth Air Fleet, the Hachiman Force actually deployed to Iwo Jima, but it never comprised more than sixty aircraft, and half those were lost in June and July.

Serious fliers thought this enterprise could only be a death ride. How a small air unit would penetrate the dense Allied umbrella, where the entire Mobile Fleet had failed, remained a mystery. Similarly, an ancient battleship was supposed to sink the mighty Blue Fleet, and another would get through to Saipan and reverse the strategic balance. The rescue plan had no substance. Admiral Toyoda stuck to his guns, and the Army high command dismissed the idea out of hand. The Army had spent six months reinforcing the Marianas with really significant forces—more than a few of which had been sunk en route by Allied subs. A single regiment sent now would achieve nothing, a regiment plus a division not much more.

But these plans, empty as they were, are important for other reasons. Such a degree of desperation now prevailed in Tokyo that the most extreme alternatives suddenly appealed. There is an argument from cultural history that the Japanese held special esteem for showing nobility even in failure. In the Pacific war in late 1944, Japan stood at the brink of that very deep chasm.

A more mundane reason would turn out to be a distraction in the next real battle. That is, the rescue plan envisioned taking the Fifth Fleet away from its geographic mission, employing it instead as an integral element in a battle concept. Once the Imperial Navy finally finished reconfiguring the force for the next battle, that element stuck—the old northern force would morph into the anticipated vanguard for the Ozawa fleet.

Emperor Hirohito sided with the young Navy officers. He demanded action. He had told Admiral Shimada on the eve of the Philippine Sea battle that with sufficient determination Japan might achieve a success like Tsushima, the glorious 1905 victory against the Russian fleet in the Sea of Japan. Hirohito warned Prime Minister Tojo of air raids on Tokyo if the Marianas were lost. They had to be held. IGHQ chiefs kept bringing him bad news. The emperor ordered Navy minister Shimada to craft a rescue. On June 24 Tojo and Shimada united to tell the emperor the bad news that Combined Fleet now felt the plan unworkable. Hirohito countered, demanding a second opinion from the Board of Field Marshals and Fleet Admirals, a military appendage of the jushin, or senior statesmen, who had a behind-the-scenes role in Tokyo. When the board also nixed a rescue, the emperor ordered them to put that judgment on paper, turned on his heel, and stalked off. The Yamashiro mission evaporated.

One jushin with whom diplomat Kase Toshikazu discussed Japan’s situation was Admiral Okada Keisuke. Okada had been Navy minister and prime minister in the 1930s. Now he told Kase that a rescue operation would only deepen the disaster, though perhaps that was a good idea—“he thought it advisable to let the ‘young fellows’ have their own way once in order to reconcile them ultimately to their inevitable fate—defeat.” Admiral Yonai Mitsumasa, another jushin, agreed the loss of Saipan would be a calamity, but he refused a useless gesture.

On June 29 Prince Takamatsu conceded to associates that the recent defeat had stymied the Imperial Navy for the present. The Navy captain’s remark, coming from the second brother of Hirohito, suggested the emperor had accepted reality.

The only efforts to rescue the Japanese in the Marianas would be by submarine. The big fleet submarines, I-boats, and smaller medium-range craft, RO-boats, were used in these operations. Two subs went down in futile missions to Saipan to recover Sixth Fleet commander Vice Admiral Takagi Takao. Thirteen Japanese submarines were lost in the Marianas, nearly half in rescue attempts. The sole success came to Lieutenant Commander Itakura Mitsuma’s I-41. Itakura managed to get his boat into Apra Harbor on Guam and spirit away more than 100 airmen.

Sikorsky MH-53E Sea Dragon

The MH-53E Sea Dragon mine countermeasures helicopter was developed for the US Navy to replace RH-53Ds. Identifiable by their extra large composite construction sponsons which house extra fuel, the MH-53Es tow a hydrofoil sledge carrying mechanical, acoustic and magnetic sensors for mine detection.

The Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force retired the Sikorsky MH-53E Sea Dragon (export designation S-80M-1) on March 3, 2017. On February 20, 111 Kokutai carried out its last training flight on aircraft serial number 8625 from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni. Japan is the sole export customer for the Sea Dragon, operating 11 airframes since 1989. In May 2015, the US Navy signed a contract to purchase two decommissioned MH-53Es from Japan for parts, including 12 engines and two tow booms. Agusta-Westland MCM-101 Merlins now conduct the duties once performed by the Sea Dragon using the AQS-24A airborne mine hunting system: the AES-1 airborne laser mine detection system and the Mk104 acoustic mine-sweeping device.

On December 23, 1981, Sikorsky produced the latest in the CH- 53 series, the MH-53E Sea Dragon, Airborne Mine Counter Measure (AMCM) helicopter. Sikorsky engineers provided the Sea Dragon with an additional 1,000 gallons of fuel, along with a modified electrical and hydraulic system to accommodate the mine-sweeping equipment towed behind the aircraft on a floating sled. Additional Sea Dragon duties include shipboard replenishment with both internal and external cargo and SAR missions.

The MH-53E is based on aircraft carriers and other warships and is an upgrade modification of the CH-53E Super Stallion, offering more power and endurance than the Super Stallion. The MH-53E can carry 55 troops. It can carry a 16-ton payload for a distance of 50 nautical miles or a 10-ton payload for a distance of 500 nautical miles. Additionally, the aircraft can tow a variety of mine-sweeping countermeasures systems.

The MH-53E Sea Dragon first flew in 1982 and is the largest helicopter in the West. It is propelled by three General Electric T64-GE-416 turboshaft engines and has a range of 1,120 nautical miles. Ceiling is 27,900 feet, top speed, 172 miles per hour. It is crewed by two pilots and one to six crewmen, depending on mission.

Specification

The Sikorsky-built MH-53E Sea Dragon, a mine countermeasures derivative of the CH-53E Super Stallion, is heavier and has a greater fuel capacity and range. Capable of transporting up to 55 troops, the MH-53E can carry a 16-ton payload 50 nautical miles or a 10-ton payload 300 nautical miles. In its primary mission, the MH-53E is capable of towing a variety of mine countermeasures systems, including the MK-105 magnetic mine-sweeping sled, the AQS-24A side-scan sonar and the MK-103 mechanical mine-sweeping system. Mission duration can exceed four hours. All MH-53E aircraft employ the T64-GE-419 engines. The fleet of MH-53Es is being modifed with crash-attenuating crew and troop seats, Helicopter Emergency Egress Lighting Systems and Blue Force Tracker for situational awareness.

MH-53Es provide mine-sweeping and strike group logistics support for worldwide military operations and humanitarian assistance. The Navy operates 28 MH-53Es in two helicopter mine countermeasures squadrons, HM-14 and HM-15, and one fleet replacement squadron, HM-12. Two retired MH-53Es were acquired from Japan in 2015 for spare parts. The operational squadrons are manned by an 80/20 mix of active and Reserve personnel.

FUSELAGE LENGTH: . . . . . 73.3 feet

OVERALL LENGTH:. . . . . . . 99 feet

HEIGHT: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .28.3 feet

WEIGHT: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . empty, 36,745 pounds; maximum gross, 69,750 pounds

MAX SPEED: . . . . . . . . . . . . .172 miles/hour (150 knots)

MAX MISSION RADIUS: . . . …272 statute miles (237 nautical miles) with 32 troops at 3,000 feet

POWER PLANT: . . . . . . . . . . .3 General Electric T64-GE-419 turboshaft engines (4,750 shp each)

CREW: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2 pilots, 1-6 aircrew, depending on mission

ARMAMENT:. . . . . . . . . . . . . ..1 GAU-21, 2 XM-218 .50-caliber machine guns

CONTRACTOR: . . . . . . . . . . .Sikorsky Aircraf Corp.

AN/AQS-14 and AN/AQS-14A (Aviation Systems) – The AN/AQS-14, an active-controlled, helicopter-towed mine-hunting sonar, is currently used in MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters. It is a multi-beam, side-looking sonar with electronic beam forming, all-range focusing, and an adaptive processor. The system consists of three parts: a stabilized underwater vehicle, electro-mechanical tow cable, and airborne electronic console. The 10.7-foot long underwater vehicle can be maintained at a fixed depth above the seafloor or below the surface, and the thin, coaxial cable is armored and nonmagnetic. Sonar information is presented on two continuous waterfall displays. An upgrade to the AN/AQS-14 system, the AN/AQS-14A, modifies the airborne electronics from an analog to a digital system and increases the size of the operator’s monitor. A Post Mission Analysis (PMA) station has been incorporated into the system for use with the contact tapes after the mission is complete to identify and classify mine-like contacts.

AN/AQS-20 – The AN/AQS-20 is a helicopter-towed mine-hunting sonar consisting of a Mission Control Display Subsystem, an AMCM Console Subsystem located in the helicopter, and a Towed Body Subsystem. The towed body includes side-looking, gap-filling, volume-searching, and forward-looking sonars. The AQS-20 will be effective against bottom and moored mines in both deep and shallow waters. It will provide an increase in area coverage rate in comparison to the current AQS-14 system and can provide single-pass detection of both bottom and moored mines. Six of these systems were fitted to MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters.

Commodore Perry Anchors in Tokyo Bay

American Navy Commodore Matthew Perry arrives in Japan, August 7, 1853
Woodblock Print

8 July 1853

Japan Opens up to the Modern World

The military and warlike strength of the Japanese had long been to Europe like the ghost in a village churchyard, a bugbear and a terror…Our nation has unclothed the ghost…

An American sailor (1853)

The officer who steered his two frigates and two sailing ships into the fortified harbour of Uraga near Edo (Tokyo) on 8 July 1853 was well versed in naval diplomacy, the realities of war and the advanced technology of his time. Commodore Matthew C. Perry (1794–1858) had commanded the USS Fulton, the American navy’s second steam frigate, and organized the US’s first corps of naval engineers; he had also seen action during the American–Mexican war which had ended with the annexation of the previously Mexican province of Texas. The victory had realized some of the ambitions of American politics’ ‘manifest destiny’ movement which was convinced that the country had a duty to expand – ‘the farther the better’ according to Walt Whitman. But Perry was also a careful strategist who had studied Japan’s two centuries of isolation and concluded that only a show of naval force along with a ‘resolute attitude’ would persuade the Japanese to establish diplomatic and trade relations with the US. Appreciating Japanese veneration for rank, Perry called himself an ‘admiral’ and refused to leave when the representatives of the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan’s hereditary military rulers, told him to go to Nagasaki. This, their only port open to foreigners, was where they allowed a limited trade with the Netherlands. Perry threatened a naval bombardment if he wasn’t allowed to fulfil his mission of delivering a letter from the US president. The Japanese looked at his vessels and decided to let him in. Ever afterwards ‘black ships’ would be their phrase for a western threat.

On 14 July, at Kurihama, Commodore Perry handed Fillmore’s letter to the shogunate’s delegates and told them he would be back for a reply. In February 1854 he returned with four sailing ships and three steamers as well as 1,600 men. The Japanese had prepared a draft treaty of acceptance and, after a face-saving diplomatic standoff, Perry was allowed to land and negotiations began. On 31 March Perry signed the Treaty of Kanagawa which promised ‘permanent’ Japanese–American friendship. Having seen China’s defeat by superior western technology in the Opium War, Japan now wanted to win time while developing her defences. The treaty allowed US ships to obtain fuel and other supplies at two minor Japanese ports, enabled a consulate to be established at Shimoda and paved the way for trading rights. The shogunate had proved incapable of maintaining Japanese isolation. In a characteristic postscript Perry anchored off Taiwan on his return journey and spent ten days investigating the island’s coal deposits with a view to future American mining. Taiwan, he thought, might be a useful base for the US’s future exploration of the region just as Cuba had been for the sixteenth-century Spanish in America. The US government, however, refused his offer to claim American sovereignty. There was, after all, enough Asian adventure to look forward to.

The Japanese response to Perry reflected a power struggle within the Japanese ruling class and the issues raised by his arrival were not new. An unarmed American merchant ship had been fired on in 1837 when it had sailed into Uraga channel; Commander James Biddle commanding two ships – one being a seventy-two-cannon warship – had anchored in Edo Bay in 1846 and been denied trade agreements; Captain James Glynn had sailed into Nagasaki in 1848 and returned to tell Congress that Japan would need a demonstration of force before agreeing to trade negotiations. The Tokugawa shogunate, recognizing that the Perry threat was graver than these earlier forays, received conflicting advice when it consulted the nobility. Many stuck to intransigent isolationism, but Li Naosuke counselled a superficial conciliation which won the day: Japan needed just enough foreign contact to allow her time to build up her strength in order to reimpose isolationism. This approach won and in the next few months Britain, Russia and the Netherlands won their own trade agreements.

This policy divide coincided with a crisis in the succession to the hereditary shogunate since the current holder, Tokugawa Iesada, was childless. Different camps signed up for the competing claims of the shogun’s first cousin, Iemochi, who was still a minor, and those of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, who, although only distantly related to the clan, was the son of the powerful Tokugawa Nariaki. Li Naosuke was among those who promoted Iemochi as heir apparent, calculating that his youth would allow a noble clique to control the shogunate. Nariaki became the chief representative of imperial loyalism within the shogunate and now tried to involve the imperial court in the shogunate’s administration.

By 1858 Naosuke was in a position of real power as tairo or chief adviser to the government and his candidate Iemochi had been chosen as shogun on the death of Iesada. However, his decision to sign a further treaty with the Americans proved to be his undoing. Powerful isolationists had hampered the negotiations and Naosuke calculated that a signed treaty with the US would strengthen Japan’s negotiating position with the British and the French whose squadrons were on the way and whose negotiators would want even more far-reaching agreements. He therefore instructed the negotiators to sign without gaining imperial permission. This provoked the isolationists who, increasingly, saw the emperor as fundamental both to Japanese honour and to their own standing. Armed followers of Nariaki attacked Naosuke in 1860 and beheaded him. In 1862 Yoshinobu, following his father Nariaki’s death two years earlier, became the boy shogun’s guardian. His own succession (1866) to the shogunate, following young Iemochi’s death, proved to be an empty inheritance. The forces of imperial loyalism which had elevated both him and his father – and helped to make him shogun – would turn against the shogunate as an institution, abandon isolationism, and associate the new imperialism with a state-strengthening modernity which took what it needed from western technology.

The Tokugawa shogunate of the 1860s had been destroyed by contradictions. It wanted to strengthen Japan against the foreigners but the only way of doing this was by giving the already rebellious nobility of feudal lords (daimyo) the economic means of self-defence. Such a revived force would inevitably be turned against the Tokugawa. At the same time samurai warriors were pushing their lords to more aggressive isolationism while asserting their own authority through sword warfare. The shogunate had become a prevaricating regime which told its domestic critics that it was opposed to further concessions while at the same time trying to conciliate the great powers with trade agreements.

Power, however, was not just drifting away from the shogun and towards the imperial court. It was, once again in Japanese history, flowing to the provinces. The samurai warriors were dominant in the Choshu region following a successful coup and their forces fired on the foreign shipping in the Shimonoseki Strait. They were then bombarded by western powers and a shogun army forced the province to re-submit to the Tokugawa authority. But the Choshu samurai refused to accept the legitimacy of the submission and a further coup brought to power nobles who had originally been isolationists. Choshu became a centre for discontented samurai from all over Japan.

But Japanese power dynamics were shifting in other directions too. Choshu’s newly dominant daimyo were no longer simple-minded xenophobes; they had studied western military methods in order to reform their military units to dramatic effect. The Shogun army was defeated (1866) when it tried to reassert control in Choshu and in Satsuma – Chosu’s neighbouring province and new ally. Now the daimyo saw how western methods applied in Japanese conditions might help them achieve their goal of a renewal. Yoshinobu lasted just one year as shogun. A group of radical samurai seized the palace in Kyoto and declared an imperial restoration. The military units of Satsuma and Choshu were joined by those of Tosa province to become the new imperial army which marched on Edo and forced it to surrender. The emperor Meiji Tenno, who had succeeded to the imperial throne the previous year (1867), moved into the Tokugawa castle in Edo, which was renamed Tokyo (‘eastern capital’); he presided over the Meiji restoration and its experiment in modernity, wore western clothes and liked western food. But as a prolific poet versed in his country’s literary traditions he also personified the uneasy dynamism of Japan’s experiment in east–west fusion.

A feudal and rural state became an urbanized and bureaucratic one within a generation–a development which had taken centuries in western Europe. The speed of change demonstrated the paradox of embracing emperor worship as a solvent of feudalism, a patriotic duty, a guarantor of unity and a path to modernity. Japan’s ancient religion, Shintoism, was reinvented as an ideology at the expense of Buddhism and supplied a pantheon of national deities. The national education system established by the Imperial Rescript on Education (1890) was western in structure and in much of its content. But Shintoism, as well as Confucianism, was an important element in a curriculum which taught Japanese how to be obedient citizens. The adoption of western techniques in technology, government and business was justified and presented as a way of enabling Japan to work towards the eventual revision (1894) of the unequal trade treaties she had been forced to sign. A telegraph and railway network linked cities and towns while Japan’s seventy-two administrative prefectures replaced the 250 domains of the daimyo. The samurai, who, together with their dependants, numbered some two million, were eventually, after some rebellions, suppressed thereby losing their right to bear swords and sport a distinctive hair-style. A new power – that of the financial cliques (zaibatsu) with close government connections – developed with the government selling industrial plants to chosen private investors. Germany, another country yoking modern capitalism to the remnants of feudalism, provided the parliamentary model which tried to balance the claims of representation with those of imperial control. Japan’s first bi-cameral Diet met in 1890 with the lower house elected on a franchise of 500,000 males chosen on an annual tax threshold of fifteen yen. European-style peerages had been created in 1884 and their holders went into the upper house. The cabinet system, whose members were imperial nominees, was instituted in 1885 and universal conscription strengthened the newly established national army. Japan experienced the pleasure of defeating its ancient enemy China in the Sino-Japanese war, made an alliance with Britain and savoured the first defeat in modern history of a European power by an Asiatic state when it won the Russo-Japanese war in 1904–5. Commodore Perry, by forcing modernity on Japan, had enabled a new sun to rise in the east.

Tokugawa Ieyasu Wins the Battle of Sekigahara

Japanese screen depicting the Battle of Sekigahara

21 October 1600

The Age of the Shoguns

There are seven emotions: joy, anger, anxiety, love, grief, fear, and hate, and if a man does not give way to these he can be called patient… I have practised patience.

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616)

Japan, after the death of its feudal overlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1535–98), was threatened by anarchy. A council of five co-regents had been nominated by Hideyoshi to rule Japan after his death and during the minority of his son Toyotomi Hideyori. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616), as head of the regency council, emerged as a dominant figure but Ishida Mitsunari (1563–1600), another council member, challenged his authority.

Mitsunari and Ieyasu were supported by the war lords of, respectively, western and eastern Japan, and came to do battle at Sekigahara, a narrow pass of strategic importance between Lake Biwa and Nagoya in central Japan on 21 October 1600. At about 8 a.m, as the mists cleared after a night of driving rain, the first shots of musketry were heard. The contest between the 80,000-strong army of the west and the slightly smaller army of the east was even until midday. But Ieyasu’s espionage network, ahead of the battle, had already persuaded elements of the ‘army of the west’ to defect. A force on the hill above that army’s southern line advanced on its own allies and delivered the victory to Ieyasu.

Mitsunari’s defeat led to his execution and Ieyasu either banished the nobles who had supported him or deprived them of their lands. He then redistributed the fiefdoms among his own supporters. But since many feudal nobles supported Hideyori’s legitimacy the ambitious, but cautious, Ieyasu allowed the seven-year-old boy to keep his father’s stronghold, Osaka castle, and gave him his granddaughter in marriage. The battle was the last major opposition to Tokugawa power. The emperor, whose power was merely nominal, confirmed Ieyasu’s authority when, in 1603, he appointed him shogun – supreme military ruler of Japan. When Ieyasu retired in 1605 he ensured that the title of shogun was transferred to his son Tokugawa Hidetada. A dynasty had therefore been established but Ieyasu retained effective control until his death.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century Japan had dissolved into a collection of some 400 effectively independent states and the emperor’s authority was just a formality. But Japanese attempts at establishing central authority dated back to the country’s emergence as a distinctive civilization in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. The constitution of 604 had asserted the emperor’s authority over the nobility, the national reforms of 646 established the emperor’s title to all Japanese land, and Nara became the country’s administrative capital. Buddhism, imported from China through the adjacent Korean peninsula, was used to elevate imperial power. But Japan, unlike Korea, failed to transplant the much-admired Chinese example of a hierarchical and centralized administration. Buddhist monasteries and great families were granted private estates as a reward for crown service and this diminished the imperial patrimony. In 794 the emperors decided to move their court to the new capital of Heian (Kyoto) in order to escape the political influence of Buddhist monks at Nara. However, they then found themselves dominated by the Fujiwara clan, whose members intermarried with the imperial family and became the country’s predominant power. The absence of a central army meant that the country’s provinces were run by the monasteries and by the private armies of nobles. Samurai soldiers roamed the countryside and observed their own chivalric code. By the twelfth century, a time when Fujiwara power was waning, the samurai were influential in court politics.

Shoguns, as supreme military rulers, ruled with the aid of provincial subordinates – the shugo. The flow of power to the peripheries proved to be a chronic feature of Japanese political and military life: the shugo established themselves as regional rulers and the shoguns’ power diminished. But the shugo themselves lost their authority in the provinces after the civil war (1467–77) caused by a quarrel about the shogunate succession. The real victors were a new class of feudal warriors and provincial power-brokers known as the daimyo. Samurai warriors provided the daimyo with private armies, which led to internecine warfare. They in turn, as befitted their vassal status, received their own small estates. In the west such feudalism had led to national legal and political structures but Japanese feudalism militated against any such authority. Daimyo castles dominated their particular areas as centres for trade, urban development and the arts. Within their fortresses some of the daimyo became influential patrons of the ritualized Noh drama, the tea ceremonies, painting and prose romances which gave Japan a national cultural style despite the fragmentation so evident elsewhere.

The man who ended the chaos by establishing a centralized despotism started life as a victim of the age of Japanese anarchy. Tokugawa Ieyasu was born into a struggling warrior family and his father’s alliances meant that Ieyasu’s mother was separated from the family when her son was two. At the age of seven he became a hostage of the powerful Imagawa clan and two years afterwards Ieyasu’s father was killed by one of his vassals. The Imagawa educated Ieyasu as both warrior and administrator and his earliest campaigns were waged on behalf of the clan. But the age’s dominant figure was Oda Nobunaga, with whom Ieyasu formed an alliance after Nobunaga’s defeat of the Imagawa. Nobunaga had captured Kyoto and started an anti-Buddhist campaign, slaughtering monks and destroying temples. The Portuguese had by now introduced firearms into the country: muskets were reproduced and tactics changed. Nobunaga exploited these developments. The castle of Azuchi, built as his base on the shores of Lake Biwa in central Japan, showed the novel quality of his power. Earlier castles were defensive citadels built in remote mountain strongholds but Azuchi, built on the plains, asserted political and administrative order rather than just military control. Ieyasu was able to return to his family’s estates, near Nagoya on the central east coast, where he established a tax regime and a system of civilian administration to run his small army. He replaced the Imagawa during the 1570s as the dominant regional power so that he became the daimyo in charge of a prosperous and well-populated area.

Nobunaga, following an attack by one of his vassals, died in 1582 and Toyotomi Hideyoshi emerged as his successor within the Oda territories. During the 1580s Hideyoshi extended his authority over the daimyo of south-west Japan and his defeat of the Hojo clan enabled him to consolidate control of eastern Japan. Hideyoshi suggested that his ally Ieyasu should surrender his coastal provinces in return for the Hojo lands further east and the Tokugawa vassals and army were therefore transferred to land centred on the fishing village of Edo (Tokyo).

Hideyoshi in his vast domain and Ieyasu in his compact one followed policies designed to sustain their authority. Hideyoshi disarmed the peasantry and insisted that the samurai should now live in castle towns rather than roam the countryside ever ready to lend support to rural rebellions. A land survey yielded new taxes and Hideyoshi moved to suppress the Christian faith established in Japan by the Portuguese in 1572. Ieyasu placed large tracts of land under the direct administration of his own officials, drew up land surveys, and confiscated villagers’ weapons. Artisans and businessmen were encouraged to come and work in his new castle town.

After his victory at Sekigahara Ieyasu issued regulations and established administrative bodies which controlled the activities of the nobility, the Buddhist clergy and the daimyo. His aim was the creation of a stable and self-sufficient state by autocratic means: farming and trade were segregated, private investment banned and different parts of the country were only meant to communicate with each other by travelling along the strictly controlled five Imperial highways which converged on Ieyasu’s court. The Japanese were stopped from travelling abroad and, after the ban on the building of large ships (1638), had few means of travel to tempt them. Japanese hostility to trade grew since they saw from the examples of Goa, Malacca and Macau how missionaries always followed in the traders’ footsteps. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary, had first arrived in Japan in 1549 and Christianization had been rapid. By 1615 some half a million of Japan’s eighteen-million population were Christian. Ieyasu embarked on a systematic anti-Christian policy which later culminated in the slaughter of 37,000 Japanese Christians at Hara castle near Nagasaki after Christian peasants, aided by samurai mercenaries, rose in rebellion. Three thousand one hundred and twenty-five officially recognized Catholic martyrdoms occurred during the Tokugawa era. All Japanese now had to register at local Buddhist temples and alien faiths were proscribed.

The need to control the daimyo ensured that both Ieyasu and his son kept them hard at work building, extending and embellishing the castle at Edo. By the time of Ieyasu’s death it was the world’s largest castle. Surrounding it were the mansions in which the daimyo lived as virtual hostages. The issue of the succession to Hidetada still plagued his father, especially when Toyotomi Hideyori attained his majority in 1614. The seventy-one-year-old warrior therefore led an army to seize Osaka castle and finally crush the Toyotomi clan with the help of Hidetada, who raised an army of 90,000 warriors. After a year-long campaign the castle fell and Hideyori, along with his family, committed suicide.

Ieyasu established the isolationism of the Edo period (1603–1867), which was dominated by the Tokugawa shogunate and as a prolonged period of peace is without parallel in advanced societies. Economically, the experiment was successful for a long time: cities boomed and agriculture expanded. The population grew to some thirty million by the early eighteenth century, but with virtually no foreign trade the state had to be financed almost exclusively from agricultural taxes whose burdens caused many peasants to leave the land. Samurai fell into debt and rural discontent spread. The peace meant that the army was largely redundant and the educated samurai joined the ranks of the bureaucrats who ran the highly centralized administration created by Ieyasu and which remains in place today. This concentration of power also produced enormous powers of patronage which proved to be another longterm national legacy. Japan’s introspective sense of its cultural uniqueness – and of its distinctiveness among its Asian neighbours – deepened during this period. But keeping the west at bay proved a high-cost policy. Japan could not assimilate western technology on its own terms. And western technology meant western power. A secluded society grew vulnerable to the feared ‘barbarian’.