“Japan Raid by U.S. Is Out of Question”


Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto stewed aboard his flagship, the Yamato, safely anchored off the island of Hashirajima in Japan’s Inland Sea. The fifty-seven-year-old commander of the Combined Fleet—and architect of the surprise attack on Hawaii—understood the danger the United States still posed to Japan, even as much of the Pacific Fleet now rusted on the muddy bottom of Pearl Harbor. Yamamoto had long warned his superiors about the industrial power of the United States. The victories Japan now enjoyed, he knew, were merely the prelude to the war’s main act. “Britain and America may have underestimated Japan somewhat, but from their point of view it’s like having one’s hand bitten rather badly by a dog one was feeding. It seems that America in particular is determined before long to embark on full-scale operations against Japan,” he wrote a colleague. “The mindless rejoicing at home is really deplorable; it makes me fear that the first blow at Tokyo will make them wilt on the spot.”

Yamamoto was unique among the empire’s senior leaders. The son of a former samurai warrior, he stood just five feet three inches tall, one inch shorter than Jimmy Doolittle. A graduate of Japan’s renowned Eta Jima Naval Academy, he shunned alcohol even as he nursed a lifelong love of gambling. Yamamoto had fought as a young ensign in the Russo-Japanese War. A gun explosion aboard the armored cruiser Nisshin in the 1905 Battle of Tsushima Strait robbed him of the index and middle finger of his left hand, earning him the nickname “eighty sen” from the geishas in Tokyo’s Shimbashi district who charged one yen for a ten-finger manicure. The explosion had peppered Yamamoto’s lower body with more than a hundred pieces of shrapnel, leaving the paunchy admiral forever scarred and self-conscious. “Whenever I go into a public bath,” he used to quip, “people think I’m a gangster.”

Yamamoto twice lived in the United States, where he studied at Harvard and later served as naval attaché at the embassy in Washington. An avid admirer of Abraham Lincoln, he devoured biographies of America’s sixteenth president, demanding that his subordinates read them. Visits to the Detroit auto plants and the oil fields of Texas convinced him that the world was moving away from a dependency on iron and coal and more toward oil, gasoline, and light metals better suited for planes. When his superiors shot down his request for cash to tour Mexico, the dedicated officer opted to pay for the trip on his own meager salary, ultimately drawing the scrutiny of Mexican authorities. “A man who claims to be Yamamoto Isoroku, a commander in the Japanese navy, is traveling around the country inspecting oil fields. He stays in the meanest attics in third-rate hotels and never eats the hotel food, subsisting instead on bread, water, and bananas,” Mexican authorities cabled the embassy. “Please confirm his identity.”

These experiences had convinced Yamamoto of the United States’ raw industrial might, even as isolationist policies in the wake of World War I had stunted America’s military growth. Yamamoto opposed Japan’s alliance with Germany and Italy and long resisted war with the United States, arguing that his nation’s limited resources would run out in eighteen months. His dissent had led some in Japan’s militaristic right wing to threaten to assassinate him, forcing the military police to guard him. One of Yamamoto’s top aides even slept each night with a sword. But the admiral refused to back down, voicing his concerns in 1940 to the then prime minister, Fumimaro Konoye, when pressed on Japan’s chances of success. “If we are ordered to do it,” Yamamoto had answered, “then I can guarantee to put up a tough fight for the first six months, but I have absolutely no confidence as to what would happen if it went on for two or three years.”

Despite Yamamoto’s protestations, Japan had continued the march toward war, leaving the admiral in the awkward position of planning an operation he opposed, a predicament he captured in an October 1941 letter to a friend. “My present situation is very strange. Because I have been assigned the mission, entirely against my private opinion, and also I am expected to do my best,” he wrote. “Alas, maybe, this is my fate.” In past war games the Japanese Navy had never won an overwhelming victory against the United States, leading to the maneuvers’ suspension for fear the Navy would be dragged into gradual defeat. The best way to improve Japan’s chances, Yamamoto realized, was a surprise strike against American forces in Hawaii. “The most important thing we have to do first of all in a war with the U.S., I firmly believe, is to fiercely attack and destroy the U.S. main fleet at the outset of the war,” he wrote. “Only then shall we be able to secure an invincible stand in key positions in East Asia.”

The success of the attack on Pearl Harbor had made Yamamoto a national celebrity, a status he despised even as a stack of new fan mail nearly a foot high landed daily on his desk. A request by famed painter Yasuda Yukihiko to paint his portrait only outraged the admiral, who remained troubled by Japan’s failure to sink any of America’s powerful aircraft carriers in the raid on Hawaii. “As I see it,” Yamamoto wrote a friend, “portraits are vulgarities to be shunned only less rigorously than bronze statues.” Likewise, he rejected an offer to write the original calligraphy for a new monument in central Tokyo’s Hibiya Park. When presented with two military decorations, he refused to accept them, burdened by a sense of guilt that, even though he commanded sailors, he had yet to see an enemy warship or plane. “I could never wear them,” Yamamoto said. “I’d be ashamed.” In a personal letter he was more blunt: “I wonder how the men who’ve seen action in the front line would feel about it?”

Underlying Yamamoto’s unease was his fear that Japan’s euphoria over the attack on Pearl Harbor was premature. After more than four years of war with China—and with Japan already devouring its stockpiles of raw materials—Yamamoto knew the nation now lived on borrowed time. In his first wartime State of the Union address only weeks earlier, President Roosevelt had demanded that America produce 60,000 bombers, fighters, and cargo planes, 45,000 tanks, and 20,000 antiaircraft guns that year, along with eight million tons of ships. The Pearl Harbor attack was only the opening salvo of what promised to be a long and hard war, a view Yamamoto captured best in a letter to a colleague. “A military man can scarcely pride himself on having ‘smitten a sleeping enemy’; it is more a matter of shame, simply, for the one smitten,” he wrote. “I would rather you made your appraisal after seeing what the enemy does, since it is certain that, angered and outraged, he will soon launch a determined counterattack.”

Yamamoto’s fears ran counter to the views of his fellow military leaders, the press, and general public. In the weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, newspapers printed photos and dramatic accounts of the raid, described by the Osaka Mainichi newspaper as “the brilliant curtain raiser for the destruction of the United States and Britain.” Other papers published poems celebrating the attack, while a motion picture compiled of edited assault footage played for packed theaters nationwide. With each passing day—and as Japan’s victories mounted—the national ego swelled. The press began to refer to Japanese forces as “superhuman” and even celebrated them as gods. One newspaper article went so far as to proclaim that Japan’s conquest of the oil-rich Dutch East Indies fulfilled a centuries-old prophecy of the deity Boyo Moyo. “As our country was founded by God,” declared planning board president Lieutenant General Teiichi Suzuki, “so our men in the fighting forces are God’s troops.”

Yamamoto watched as this national fervor reached a climax with the February fall of Singapore. Members of the House of Representatives erupted in shouts of “Banzai.” Schools suspended class, while newspapers published special “Victory Supplements.” Despite rationing, the government announced each family would be given two bottles of beer, rubber goods, and red beans; children under thirteen would receive caramel drops. Even Emperor Hirohito put in a special public appearance—dressed in his military uniform and mounted on his favorite horse, White Snow—to accept the banzais of the adoring crowd of thousands gathered in front of the Imperial Palace. “The downfall of Singapore,” the Osaka Mainichi wrote, “has definitely decided the history of the world.” The Japan Times & Advertiser compared the victory to Hannibal’s legendary crossing of the Alps and Genghis Khan’s passage through the Hindu Kush. “Our men,” the paper declared, “are now among the world’s immortals.”

The press went so far as to boast that it would be easy for Japanese soldiers to storm the beaches of California. “Once a landing is made on the American continent, it will be a simple matter for a well-trained, courageous army to sweep everything before it,” argued an editorial in the Japan Times & Advertiser. “The contention that the United States cannot be invaded is a myth.” At the same time the possibility that America might actually strike back at Japan was viewed as impossible, if not laughable. “Japan Raid by U.S. Is Out of Question,” declared one headline; another stated, “No Fear of America Attacking Empire.” Most pointed out that Japan, after seizing American bases across the Pacific, now controlled much of the seas and the skies. “As for aerial attacks from aircraft-carriers,” argued a correspondent for the Asahi newspaper, “any such attempt is believed suicidal because, unlike Hawaii, a very vigorous vigil is kept along the Japanese coasts and American raids will be nipped in the bud.”

Yamamoto wasn’t so cocky, particularly since he knew how few the resources were to protect Japan’s crowded cities from attack. Most of the nation’s fighters had deployed to the front lines, leaving behind just three hundred planes to safeguard the homeland—two hundred Navy and one hundred Army. Only fifty of those were dedicated to the defense of Tokyo and the industrial suburb of Yokohama. The Osaka and Kobe regions were equally ill equipped, with just twenty defensive fighters, while Nagoya counted only ten. Many of the planes were older Nakajima Type 97, code-named Nate by the Allies, a single-seat fighter with a fixed-landing gear. Yamamoto knew that antiaircraft defense was likewise inadequate. Tokyo had just 150 of the nation’s 700 antiaircraft guns—most 75 millimeter—while Kobe and Osaka had a combined 70 and Nagoya a mere 20. “Compared with the Japanese forces in the overseas areas,” one postwar Japanese report noted, “the air defense units in the home islands were poorly equipped and trained.”

Many of Japan’s senior leaders, however, did not share Yamamoto’s fears. During a meeting with his military councillors on November 4, 1941, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo dismissed the threat of an air raid against Japan, insisting that the nation dedicate its forces to overseas operations. “I do not think the enemy could raid Japan proper from the air immediately after the outbreak of hostilities,” Tojo said. “Some time would elapse before the enemy could attempt such raids.” That same confidence led him to reject the first comprehensive air defense measures proposed by the War Ministry in mid-January, which called for dispersing factories, protecting utilities, communication and transportation systems, and even evacuating major urban centers. Tojo likewise shot down a proposal in February to at least evacuate women and children, claiming that such action would merely threaten Japan’s important family structure. Only cowards, he argued, evacuated.

Yamamoto disagreed. The veteran admiral had set a precedent with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. He understood that America’s strong national character—coupled with Japan’s failure to sink the nation’s flattops at Pearl Harbor—would no doubt lead to a retaliatory carrier strike against the Japanese homeland. Yamamoto recalled that during the Russo-Japanese War when a Russian naval force arrived off Tokyo’s shores, many terrified residents fled to the mountains while others stoned the home of Vice Admiral Kamimura, the officer trusted to protect the homeland from attack. Yamamoto vowed never to let that happen again, and his determination to protect the seat of the emperor, aides remembered, grew into an obsession. “He never failed, before giving his attention to any thing else, to ask for the latest Tokyo weather report,” recalled Mitsuo Fuchida, the pilot who led the air attack on Pearl Harbor. “If the reports were bad, he felt relieved because they gave added assurance that the capital was safe.”

Yamamoto ordered daily long-range air patrols in the waters east of Japan, along with the creation of a fleet of picket boats, a force that would eventually count 171 such vessels, most small fishing boats requisitioned from private owners that ranged in size from 50 to 250 tons. Armed with radios to flash reports of any approaching enemy fleet, the boats operated anywhere from eighty to a thousand miles off shore, anchoring during the day and patrolling at night. Despite these precautions Yamamoto remained so concerned he even advised a geisha friend to move her property outside the city. “A lot of people are feeling relieved, or saying they’re ‘grateful to Admiral Yamamoto’ because there hasn’t been a single air raid,” he wrote. “They’re very wrong: the fact that the enemy hasn’t come is no thanks to Admiral Yamamoto, but to the enemy himself. So if they want to express gratitude to somebody, I wish they’d express it to America. If the latter really made up its mind to wade in on us, there’d be no way of defending a city like Tokyo.”


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