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Isoroku Yamamoto - The Poet Who Planned Pearl Harbor

Isoroku Yamamoto - The Poet Who Planned Pearl Harbor

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Published by: Marienburg on Apr 07, 2011
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Isoroku Yamamoto
The poet who planned Pearl Harbor.By Clive James Posted Tuesday, April 17, 2007, at 5:27 PM ET
The following essay is adapted from Clive James' 
Cultural Amnesia
, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20
is publishing an
exclusive selection
of these essays, going roughly from A to Z. (Note: There is no "X" in theClive's Lives series.)
 If we are ordered to do it, then I can guarantee to put up a tough fight for the firstsix months or a year, but I have absolutely no confidence as to what would happenif it went on for two or three years.
—Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to Prime Minister Prince Konoe, in late 1940
 Isoroku Yamamoto (1884–1943) was the son of a schoolmaster named Takano, and the famoussurname by which we know him belonged to the family into which he was adopted. After hiseducation at Japan's naval academy, he was wounded at the Battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War. He studied at Harvard after World War I and served as a language officer in theearly '20s before becoming naval attaché at the Japanese embassy in Washington later in thedecade. His wide knowledge of the United States extended to the factory floors, where he wasimpressed by American powers of production, and to the gambling joints, where he alwaysfancied his chances.As chief of the aviation department of the Japanese navy in 1935, and as vice navy minister from 1936 to 1939, he argued both for a main force based on aircraft carriers and for avoidingany policy that would lead to a fighting alliance with the Axis powers in World War II. Butafter being promoted to admiral and placed in command of the Combined Fleet, he dutifullyplanned the attack on Pearl Harbor.Romance continues to surround his name, not least in Japan, where he is a cult figure, and notexclusively on the political right. His distaste for a war with the Western allies has always runga bell with postwar liberals aware that, if the enemy had been as pitiless as the Japanese HighCommand, the defeat could have been more disastrous, the occupation more humiliating, andthe subsequent resurgence of both the culture and the economy much less impressive.The Yamamoto romance benefits from his artistic tastes. Like America's General Patton,Yamamoto wrote accomplished poetry. Again like Patton, and like other romantic commandersPage 1 of 4Print29-06-2009http://www.slate.com/toolbar.aspx?action=print&id=2164374
such as Rommel and Guderian, Yamamoto probably experienced battle as an aesthetic event:the most likely reason for his participation in a war of which he disapproved. Superior militaryminds share with poets the uncomfortable position of waiting for lightning to strike, and havingto act on it when it does. Yamamoto knew that World War II was the wrong war, but it was theonly war he had.On at least two occasions, Prince Konoe asked Yamamoto what Japan's chances would be in awar against the United States. Each time, Yamamoto gave roughly the same answer. Variouslytranslated into English, and variously rendered even into Japanese, Yamamoto's declaration of uncertainty is probably the second most famous thing any Japanese of the Pacific war periodever said, ranking only slightly behind the passage in the emperor's surrender broadcast thatconceded, in impossibly high-flown court language, that the war had developed in ways notnecessarily favorable to Japan.Yamamoto's advice to the government seems to have predicted that the unfavorabledevelopments would be inevitable in the long term. Later on he was much criticized for nothaving expressed himself more firmly, but he must have felt that he didn't need to. Yamamoto,sometimes at the risk of his life, had spent the whole of the '30s preaching the necessity of staying out of a war with the United States. He had seen America's factories and knew morethan any other top-ranking Japanese officer about America's war potential. What else could headvise Konoe?Why, then, did Yamamoto consent to lead the Pearl Harbor attack? First, he was a gambler anyway. He enjoyed gambling, possibly because he won almost every time. But he was alsoAdmiral Isoroku Yamamoto, supreme commander, Combined Fleet, Japanese navy. That washis career, those were his orders, and he had a job to do, win or lose.To hindsight, the second reason seems the more powerful. Like Nelson and Napoleon,Yamamoto was a short man whose military gifts had carried him to great heights. If you look atthe press photographs of his funeral cortège arriving at the Yasukuni shrine, the coffin looksabout the size of a shoe box. A coffin always looks smaller than the person inside, butYamamoto, even for a Japanese man of his generation, was of small physical stature. His moralstature meant a lot to him, and long before the war, it had already grown enormous. His tacticalbrilliance, organizational ability, and nonconformist daring were legendary, and they were allin service of the navy. Japanese naval aviation was practically his invention. He had opposedthe laying down of the last two great battleships,
. He was for moreaircraft carriers and a lot more aircraft. He represented the transition from heavy steel to lightmetals—from deep keels to free air. The bright young officers adored him for it. Though hewas always self-deprecating about his poetry, he was probably serious when he wrote thispoem on New Year's Day, 1940:Today, as chief Of the sea guardiansOf the land of the dawn,Awed I gaze upAt the rising sun.He wrote the poem onboard the battleship
, his flagship as commander in chief Combined Fleet. So the rising sun would have been the ship's pennant. The land of the dawn,of course, was Japan: The two characters Ni-hon (usually pronounced Nippon) mean SunSource, or the Land Where the Sun Rises. Yamamoto, if we may translate a subtle 31-syllableJapanese poem into blunt English words, was on top of the heap.Page 2 of 4Print29-06-2009http://www.slate.com/toolbar.aspx?action=print&id=2164374
It would be foolish to imagine that he did not enjoy his eminence, even as he saw the loomingthreat of getting into a war with the wrong enemy. He enjoyed a battle, and might even havefound a losing battle more interesting. He might have quite liked the idea of being at the center of a big story, and what could be a bigger story than working the miracle of saving Japan fromthe doom he himself had predicted? After all, going ahead with the attack wasn't his idea. Hewasn't that crazy. He had, however, planned an excellent attack.Or it would have been excellent, if it had caught the American aircraft carriers in harbor. Whenthe returning aircraft reported that the American carriers had not been present, Yamamoto,supervising the operation at long range from the
anchored at Hashirajima in the InlandSea, knew straight away that the Americans had the wherewithal to go on fighting.In May 1942, only five months after Pearl Harbor, the American carriers fought him to a drawat the battle of the Coral Sea. At Midway, scarcely more than six months after Pearl Harbor,they destroyed him. He had been right about making things tough for the Americans for sixmonths. Six months of supremacy were all that the Japanese enjoyed. After Midway, they hadno chance of keeping the initiative. But we make a mistake if we think they were crazy not toadmit defeat. There was always the possibility that they could bring their opponents to terms bymaking it too costly to go on fighting. Because Yamamoto died early, and because the English-speaking gambler is such a sympathetic character, he tends to be enrolled in the ranks of thosewho would have seen reason and sought a sane way out. For those who hold that view, a closestudy of Yamamoto's face can be recommended. He knows your country well, admires itsvirtues, and doesn't even think he can prevail: But he wants to fight anyway.People of a literary bent tend to idealize the poet warriors, of whom, in modern times,Yamamoto must count as the most conspicuous, apart from General Patton. But we need to ask ourselves whether a flair for the poetic might not be a limitation to generalship, in which aconsidered appreciation for the mundane is essential. A poetic flair has an impatient mind of itsown: It likes to make an effect, and it has a propensity for two qualities that can easily beinimical to a broad strategic aim. One of those qualities is what A. Alvarez called the shapingspirit, and the other is what Frank Kermode called the sense of an ending. Yamamoto's plan for deciding the war on the first day was not only the equivalent of a roulette player's betting hiswhole bundle on a single number, it was also the equivalent of trying to cram the whole of 
TheTale of Genji
into a single haiku. There was bound to be material that didn't fit. Even if theAmerican aircraft carriers had been in harbor, they would not have sunk far enough in theshallow water to be beyond salvage. One way or another, the American fleet was bound tocome back.Spiritually, Yamamoto died at Midway. In the matter of his physical death, however, it seemsunlikely that he committed suicide in expiation. Romantic interpreters sometimes favor theappealing notion that Yamamoto invited the American ambush that resulted in his being shotdown into the jungle of Bougainville on April 18, 1943. But when the Japanese search partytracked down his corpse in the jungle, he was still strapped into his seat. His sword was besidehim. If he had wanted to commit suicide, he would probably have done so on dry land or on thedeck of a ship, included the sword in the ceremony, and written a poem first.Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the
New York Times Book Review
The New Yorker 
. He lives in London.
Article URL:http://www.slate.com/id/2164374/
Page 3 of 4Print29-06-2009http://www.slate.com/toolbar.aspx?action=print&id=2164374

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