Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Soldier of Monarchy: General Tomoyuki Yamashita

When one thinks of the great military figures of World War II, the names most likely to come to mind are, naturally, those from the winning side; names like General Eisenhower, General Patton, General MacArthur or Field Marshal Montgomery. Some, even at the time, did also point out the military talent employed by the Axis forces and names like Manstein, Model and Rommel are remembered as well. Not as often remembered is the name of General Yamashita of the Japanese Imperial Army. Yet it was General Yamashita, nicknamed the “Tiger of Malaya” who inflicted the most stunning defeat ever suffered by the forces of the British Empire. One would think the man who accomplished what so many at the time considered absolutely impossible, the capture of the British fortress-city of Singapore, would be better known. It was possibly the most astounding single victory of the entire war and yet, while the fall of Singapore has certainly not been forgotten, little is ever said about the man who carried it out. There are presumably a number of reasons for this, but it may also be possible that part of the reason is that the fate of General Yamashita after the war must stand as one of the great injustices of the period which the presiding Allied powers would prefer to be forgotten.

Yamashita Tomoyuki was born on November 8, 1885 in Osugi village (today Otoyo village) in Kochi prefecture on Shikoku. His father was the town doctor but Yamashita was trained for a military career from early in life, his family sacrificing to send him to military school and finally to the Imperial Japanese Army Academy from which he graduated, a respectable eighteenth place in 1905. Promoted in the following years, Yamashita saw his first combat as a junior officer in World War I in the capture of the German colony in Shantung, China in 1914. Promoted to captain, he graduated from the Army War College, sixth in his class, in 1916. That same year he married the daughter of a veteran, retired general. From World War I and into the following years Yamashita became known as an expert on Germany. He was posted to Switzerland and Germany in those years before returning to Japan in 1922, was promoted to major and served at the Staff College and the Imperial high command. He earned further promotion but his career suffered due to the political intrigues within the Imperial Japanese Army.

As part of the “Imperial Way Faction”, Colonel Yamashita was part of the group that wanted to return to ancient Japanese values, eradicate all western influences, socialism, capitalism, bureaucrats and political parties. They imagined having a “Showa Restoration” that would restore the Emperor to total, direct power over the government and then wage a climactic fight to the death against the emerging power of the Soviet Union. However, opposing them was the “Control Faction” led by General Hideki Tojo, composed of more mainstream conservatives who favored a more cautious and defensive approach to national expansion. They also tended to favor more industrialization and technological developments in weaponry over spiritual purity and the samurai warrior code (and the big business capitalists would be key to funding that) while keeping politics centralized and apart from the person of the Emperor. When General Tojo and the “Control Faction” gained ascendancy Colonel Yamashita and his compatriots were moved out of the way and he was transferred to Austria in 1928, though still promoted to full colonel the next year.

Fortunately for Yamashita, his talent continually allowed him to escape from difficult situations brought on by his nationalist political beliefs. In 1930 he was given the very prestigious command of the third infantry regiment of the Imperial Guard. By the summer of 1934 he had achieved the rank of major general. However, on February 26, 1936 a group of young army officers attempted a coup. Part of the plan included the assassination of the prime minister and taking control of the Imperial Palace. They were unsuccessful and Yamashita had no part in it, however, he asked for leniency toward the perpetrators and because of that earned the disapproval of the Emperor who was appalled by such a breakdown of discipline. In the aftermath of this incident, Yamashita changed his politics somewhat and became increasingly alarmed by the belligerency of many of those in power. He opposed expanding the war with China, in fact he favored ending it completely as Yamashita viewed it as a drain on the Japanese army with little to gain from it. He also opposed those in power who advocated a war against the United States and Great Britain. This was not a total break from the past, however, as the Imperial Army in general and the faction Yamashita had been associated with in particular had always focused on the Soviets as the real threat Japan faced while the Imperial Navy tended to favor a focus on southeast Asia which would have meant war with Britain and America.

After good service fighting insurgents in northern China as commander of the Fourth Division, General Yamashita was given command of the 25th Army in November of 1941, part of the Southern Expeditionary Army Group in what was then French Indochina (Vietnam). After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of war between Japan, the United States and Great Britain, General Yamashita launched the invasion of British-held Malaya on December 8, 1941. This would prove to be the high point of his military career and he performed his assigned duties brilliantly, defying the odds and astonishing military experts around the world. Thanks to careful study beforehand and the assistance of Malaysians opposed to British colonial rule, General Yamashita had far more information on his enemy than they had on his forces. Undermanned to begin with, the British forces suffered a setback at the start when Japanese air forces (operating out of French bases in Saigon) managed to destroy most British warplanes on the ground, giving them almost uncontested control of the skies over the battlefield. With initial attacks coming overland from Thailand and from amphibious landings by the sea, the British were pressed on multiple fronts and had to fall back. However, most expected that the rough terrain and dense jungles of the Malaysian peninsula would force the Japanese advance to be painfully slow and that the British would have plenty of time to counter them.

However, General Yamashita surprised everyone with the speed of his advance, making use of light tanks (British forces in the region had none) and most famously bicycles which allowed his men to move quickly through narrow jungle paths. When necessary the Japanese could also be picked up on the coast and moved by sea around impenetrable areas of the jungle. Troops brought in from India were soon defeated by the more experienced Japanese and as the British retreated, moving European residents to safety, many Malaysians felt themselves abandoned and began to turn against the British. On January 11, 1942 the Imperial Japanese Army marched unopposed into the capitol of Kuala Lumpur. This was blitzkrieg Asian style and observers were astonished by the speed and strength of General Yamashita’s advance. The 11th Indian Division offered stout resistance at Kampar, holding up the Japanese advance for a few days, but with control of the coastal seas, General Yamashita was able to outflank them with an amphibious landing and resume his advance southward. British imperial forces (mostly Indian troops) fell back to the Slim River where General Yamashita launched a daring nighttime attack that utterly devastated two Indian brigades and which prompted the top British commander, General Arthur Percival to replace the Indian Division with Australian troops.

At Johor, the British forces made their ‘last stand’ as it were on the Malaysian peninsula and the defending Australian troops made a ferocious and determined defense which held up the Japanese advance and inflicted heavy casualties. Again, General Yamashita moved to outflank the strong point and, unfortunately for the British, the west coast was defended by an Indian brigade that was inexperienced and poorly trained. The Japanese forces easily defeated them and the supporting Australian units also suffered heavy casualties before being cut off and forced to withdraw. However, their determination had bought time for the bulk of the British colonial forces to retreat. However, there was no real safe place for them to retreat to as General Percival had not allowed the construction of any defensive fortifications on the grounds that these would be bad for morale! Such an attitude, not uncommon amongst American forces at the beginning of the war either, can only be attributed to a (probably racist) over-confidence and underestimation of the military prowess of the Japanese. By January 31, 1942 the last of the British forces had left the Malaysian peninsula and blown up the causeway connecting Johor and Singapore. General Yamashita had conquered Malaysia and done it with greater speed and ease than anyone had thought possible.

Singapore was the great British bastion of the region, known as the “Gibraltar of the Far East” it had long been deemed an impregnable fortress by military experts. Yet, the British had never expected an Asian power to attack from the mainland and the fortifications of Singapore were built to withstand an attack from the sea by rival colonial powers from Europe. Still, they were fighting a defensive battle from a fortified base against an enemy they had outnumbered to a considerable extent. Nonetheless, General Yamashita knew he had the momentum of his offensive behind him. Already he was being called the “Tiger of Malaya” for his rapid advance and he kept up the pressure, doing all in his power to give the British the impression of having an irrepressible force. To an extent, the battle came down to nerve and General Yamashita successfully gambled that the British were already beaten in their minds. When the British requested a truce to discuss terms, General Yamashita executed a perfect bluff, giving the impression that Singapore was already at his mercy and that the garrison could be crushed swiftly and easily. The ferocity of his repetitive attacks, combined with his confident attitude made it all work perfectly. General Arthur Percival believed he was totally outmatched and surrendered Singapore and his entire garrison to General Yamashita on February 15, 1942. The most formidable British military base in Asia had fallen to a Japanese force of only about 30,000 that, by that time, were practically out of ammunition. In the whole campaign over 100,000 British and Commonwealth troops had been captured and the fall of Singapore marked the largest mass surrender of British troops in history.

General Yamashita became an instant hero in Japan and British morale suffered with Prime Minister Churchill calling the loss of Singapore the worst disaster in British military history. However, Yamashita still had enemies in high places and his success worked against him. Not long after his greatest triumph, General Hideki Tojo had Yamashita reassigned to a relatively unimportant command in the Empire of Manchukuo. He did not return to front-line duty until 1944 when, after Tojo and his government had fallen due to the worsening war situation, he was assigned to the Japanese forces defending The Philippines. Unfortunately for the general, he had little time to organize things as American forces began landing only ten days after his arrival. The fighting was brutal and ugly but General Yamashita performed with his old brilliance. Against impossible odds he maintained a slow, fighting withdrawal that inflicted heavy losses on the Allies. He was still holding out, his army reduced to around 50,000 men, when the Emperor announced the unconditional surrender of Japan. Upon learning of this, General Yamashita surrendered his army to Allied forces led by U.S. General Wainwright and British General Percival, the same man who had surrendered Singapore to him.

What happened next was a disgraceful display of injustice by the victorious Allied nations. Rather than wait for a full, formal trial, General Yamashita was accused of war crimes and brought before an American military tribunal in Manila. A full re-telling of the complete travesty of justice that was the “trial” of General Yamashita would be extensive but, in brief, he was being held responsible for atrocities carried out without his orders and, indeed, without even his knowledge. Even a number of American personnel were outraged by the treatment of General Yamashita and warned their countrymen to consider the possibility that someday that same measure of justice might be employed against their own generals. Their championing of his case, though futile, was enough to impress General Yamashita who, despite having every justification for feeling nothing but hatred toward the United States, came away impressed with the integrity of those who defended him so vigorously even if unsuccessfully. As expected, he was swiftly condemned and ordered to face execution, yet even at the end, General Yamashita had nothing but kind words for the Americans who had argued his case saying, “I don’t blame my executioner. I’ll pray the gods bless them.”

Just to be clear, not only was General Yamashita not guilty of wrongdoing, he had displayed his honorable and upright attitude as a soldier on many occasions. For example, after the fall of Singapore, a small group of Japanese soldiers massacred most of the staff and patients at Alexandra Hospital. When he learned of this, General Yamashita had the officer in charge executed and he personally apologized to the survivors for what had happened. In the aftermath he had several Japanese soldiers executed for looting and unlawful killings. The larger atrocities for which he was blamed occurred in the Philippines but the truth is that Yamashita had not known of these events, he certainly had not ordered them and he was not even in a position to have stopped them had he known as he was not the senior officer present. It was Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi who had taken command and decided to make a fight in Manila, an operation General Yamashita had opposed as futile and wasteful. However, Admiral Iwabuchi was not available for punishment as he had killed himself with a hand grenade just before Manila fell to the American forces. General Yamashita was made to become a scapegoat and it also helped that he had been responsible for one of the worst defeats the Allies had suffered in World War II.

General Tomoyuki Yamashita was hanged on February 23, 1946 at Laguna Prison Camp, 30 miles south of Manila. His lawyers appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court which upheld the decision (not surprisingly as few would even think of sparing so prominent a Japanese general in the aftermath of World War II) but the two justices who dissented from the decision, for the first time, spoke of international human rights and called the entire trial “a miscarriage of justice, an exercise in vengeance, and a denial of human rights”. Nonetheless, the precedent set by the trial of General Yamashita remains in effect to this day. It is only fortunate for the Allies, particularly the Americans, that they have never yet suffered a defeat which placed any of their commanders in the position of being held responsible for the crimes of others even if they had no knowledge of them whatsoever. What should be perfectly clear is that General Yamashita was not a war criminal. He was an honorable man, one of the most successful commanders the Imperial Japanese Army has ever had and a commander who won a campaign and a battle that must stand as one of the most astounding in military history.


  1. Thank you for accounts of heroic people like this. As an American, I am ashamed (but not surprised) of how his life was ended, but as a human being it lifts my heart and inspires me to hear about great lives.

    1. It is shameful what happened to General Yamashita but Americans can take pride in the fact that there were also those who defended him and were as outraged as any at his ultimate, unjust fate. I am sure, in that time and under those circumstances, it took a great deal of courage for those American officers to stand up for what was right even though it would make them extremely unpopular. Thanks for reading.

  2. Thank you so much. I Jefferson M. Macalindong I m Filipino but now I m here in Tokyo Japan. I hope this is the right place to share my story. our house are one Japanese house in World war ll my grand parent tell to my aunt and my mom. My grand parents there try there best to help them what they need. And give the real love and share to them no matter what happen our family try to help you the best we can. Now I want to share to all Japanese people and the family or relatives who the person wrote one important messages. This is my email address, My cell phone is +818066173063. If you want to see the images I willing to share with you guys and the family and all relatives the person who write this message our door in Philippines. He said God is a Monarchist our house the Monarchist statue our stairs still there. I hope somebody read this message and help me and explain to me what exactly means. god bless everyone

  3. please help me and my family to share the important message of one officials of Japanese soldiers in World war ll. I know this is one very important message he want to know there relative and there family. and to all Japanese people.

  4. In reading about this General who, I feel, is left out of history I remember at command and staff meetings he would doze off and appear out of it. Suddenly when the staff was discussing the defense of the Philippines against our people-he suddenly sat upright and asked:"what do you propose to do about the Catholic Question"-The Japanese could not expect the Catholic population help them in anyway. He thought "faith" has a place in War Strategy. In Viet Nam we never thought the Buddist would rebel against "our" President Diem. I think we paid dearly because we didn't realize blood is thicher than water. It is time we help this General find his place in history as a noble man. War is the same as the ancient Greeks found it.

  5. I live in Malaysia, a country that formally known as malaya as u mention above,...
    We have been ruled by both British and Japanese army, but the Japanse Imperial Army were real evils beyond comparison,..
    This gen Yamashita and all his soldiers were sytematically collaborated in executing people brutally,.. Some of my old folks who undergo the Ww2 still live in trauma until the very end of thier lives,..


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