Admiral Yamamoto led the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II. However, Yamamoto was an interesting character who clashed with other, more bellicose, factions in Japan. Here, Kevin K. O’Neill tells us about his life.


Seventy-three years ago, on a day that has lived in infamy, America was attacked by Imperial Japan at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in a devastating surprise attack. One of the masterminds of this attack was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of Japan’s combined fleet. Portrayed in the American press as the chief perpetrator of this nefarious gambit, Yamamoto was successfully demonized in the American mind by newspapers and magazines. Such slander is a tool of war as old as the business but with the passage of time a more realistic summation of Yamamoto’s character is in order.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.


Born Isoroku Takano in 1884, to a Nagaoka samurai clan, Isoroku was adopted into the Yamamoto clan in 1916 to keep the clan name alive, a common practice of samurai clans with no male heirs. By that time Yamamoto had already graduated form the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in 1904, served as a line officer during the Battle of Tsushima Straits in 1905, returned to the Naval Staff College in 1914, and been promoted to Lieutenant Commander in 1915. Yamamoto went on to study at Harvard for two years with several subsequent American postings allowing him to tour America and become fluent in the English language. It was during this time in America that Yamamoto gleaned his understanding of American production and logistic capability. Showing foresight, Yamamoto shifted his specialty from gunnery to naval aviation.

In the 1930s the Army and Navy of Imperial Japan were at odds with each other over national doctrine. This animosity was fanned by politics turbulent enough to, after an assassination attempt in 1930, give the Japanese eleven Prime Ministers in as many years before the Army Officer, Hideki Tojo, became Prime Minister in 1941. The Army’s nationalistic outlook, a mix of ‘bushido’ and European fascism termed ‘Showa Nationalism’ by historians, was fueled by many things. Two of these were lingering resentment over the treatment by the ‘Black Ships’ of Commodore Perry’s gunboat diplomacy, and the indignation over the Japanese ‘racial equality’ proposal being rejected by the League of Nations at the Paris Peace Conference after World War I. One of the main bones of contention between the bellicose Army and the more pragmatic Navy was whether or not to join the German-Italian Axis powers in what was to become the Tripartite Act.

Admiral Yamamoto, previously against aspects of the Japanese aggressions in China, was also against the Tripartite Act, recognizing that it would almost certainly lead to open conflict with the United States. Well aware of the age old military tenet that it is easier to start a war than to end one, Yamamoto, against public opinion and to the ire of the Army, sounded the alarm over America’s production abilities saying that the Japanese Navy could “run wild in the Pacific for 6 months… after that, I have no expectation of success.” This realistic viewpoint, considered weak and unpatriotic by the Army and an increasing number of the Navy power players, led to Yamamoto being removed from his position in the Navy Ministry to sea duty as the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, where he was held in high esteem.



After Tojo was appointed Prime Minister, Yamamoto, knowing war was imminent, went into patriotic obedience with the mindset of giving America a heavy blow, drawing battle lines, and suing for peace. The first of these blows came at Pearl Harbor, but while the rest of Japan was celebrating the ‘decisive’ victory Yamamoto was in deep melancholy over the fact that not a single American aircraft carrier was touched and that, due to bureaucratic lag, the declaration of war was delivered late to the Americans, making Pearl Harbor a sneak attack that would harden American resolve. Yamamoto tried again to hit the Americans hard then sue for peace with the plan of securing Midway Island and swatting American aircraft carriers.

Midway was a sure Japanese victory on paper, but there were problems such as the lack of security making the plan an open secret discussed publicly in teahouses. One Japanese pilot received a letter from a foot soldier relative fighting in China wishing him good luck at Midway. Other tricks of fate, including the submarines sent to detect American aircraft carriers being placed incorrectly due to a typographical error, thwarted the Japanese fleet. American intelligence work and gambits, the heroism of the torpedo squadrons, and shipboard fire fighting capabilities helped tip the balance. The Imperial Japanese Navy never recovered from their losses at the Battle of Midway.

As the Japanese were pushed back further and further during the battle for the Solomon Islands and ensuing loss of Guadalcanal, their morale suffered. Yamamoto, against strong vocal protests by his staff, insisted on going on morale boosting visits to forward areas. With the Japanese secret codes broken, the US Navy knew the details of these visits. President Roosevelt ordered the Navy to “Get Yamamoto”. On April 18, 1943, Yamamoto was shot down during an aerial ambush. Killed outright by .50 machine gun fire the 59 year old Yamamoto was found thrown clear of the crash site in his seat, still upright, with head bent as if in deep thought, his katana still clutched in his white gloved hand. Boosting the morale of the Americans and demotivating the Japanese, Roosevelt’s decision to go after Yamamoto is hard to question when viewed from the mindset of the times.

Sadly for the Japanese people Yamamoto never got his chance to keep the, or sue for, peace with the Americans. Roughly 90% of Japanese casualties occurred after his death as the Japanese fought tooth and nail against the advancing allies. One can only wonder what might have happened in the mid-twentieth century had the forces of bellicose nationalism listened to Isoroku Yamamoto, a true warrior who knew the price of aggression.


Now, click here to read our article on how World War II stereotypes of Japan linger on to this day.

Reference: The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire by John Toland.