Category Archives: Japan

Foreign Observers of Russo-Japanese War

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 70-71:

The intention of foreign nations to learn lessons from the wars of others was demonstrated by the role of the foreign military observer, a role which became institutionalised during the American Civil War 1861–5 and the Franco–Prussian War 1870–71. The alliances which followed-on from these wars and the perceived impact of technological revolution upon modern warfare were responsible for a quantum leap in interest in the monitoring of the events on both sides of the Russo-Japanese War, on land and at sea. There were as many as one hundred foreign military observers from sixteen countries in Manchuria and Korea.

Britain provided the largest proportion of observers for she recognised that, as the ranking power, she had the most to lose in not keeping abreast with the developments and potential of modern warfare. The Royal Navy’s last serious battle had been Trafalgar, 1805, and her army’s last conventional war had been the Crimean War, 1853–6. Colonial conflict, as in the Boer War, 1899–1902, provided Britain with no compelling evidence as to how the next continental war would be fought but what it did do was raise worrying questions concerning the performance of her army. The Imperial Japanese Army had scant regard for the British Army, whereas the Imperial Japanese Navy (and Russia) rated the Royal Navy highly. Even though Captain William Packenham became a personal friend of Admiral Togo, he never felt sufficiently confident to test this friendship by going ashore. Geographical factors provided Britain with further reason to be interested in how the Japanese managed the war. It was the naval strategist Corbett who remarked: ‘What the North Sea and the English Channel are to ourselves, the Sea of Japan and the Straits of Korea are for the island empire of the Far East.’

Russia had good reason to regard as spies the three military observers she accepted from Britain, among whom was Brigadier W. H-H. Waters. Russia was no more relaxed with the Admiralty’s appointee, Captain Eyres, later captured in Manchuria by the Japanese.

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No Submarine Attacks in Russo-Japanese War

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 63-64:

The Japanese believed that the Hatsuse and Yashima had been struck by Russian submarines. The signal was made, ‘Look out for submarines’, at which point the Shikishima began firing into the sea. Submarines were in the process of being acquired and constructed in both countries but were not used. At the time there was little information in the public domain on the use of submarines. They were introduced into a 1900 Greenwich wargame but an air of uncertainty and caution overshadowed their operation. A contemporary British authority described the submarine as an ‘underhand method of attack’ and recognised it as being detrimental to a nation dependent upon sea trade. A Dutch submarine that featured in a film of 18 July 1904 was purchased by the Japanese. They had been less overt in 1902 when an order was placed for five Holland-design submarines on the American Fore River Company. These thirteen-man, petrol-engined submarines were equipped with one 18-inch torpedo. The boats, built in great secrecy, were sent, dismantled, by rail to Seattle and thence by sea to Yokosuka. They arrived on 12 December 1904, but their assembly was delayed until March–May 1905; eventual commissioning of the first boat on 1 August 1905 was too late for it to take part in the Russo-Japanese War.

The Russians were further advanced than the Japanese in the development of submersibles. The Drzewicki class numbered fifty-two miniature boats, of which the more numerous Type-3 had a crew of four. Employed in the 1877–8 Russo-Turkish War, the boats were designed to fix mines against the hulls of enemy ships. At war’s end, as is the wont of governments, further development came to an end. The boats were used in the close defence of defended localities until 1886, when the majority were converted to buoys. An exception was the three-ton submersible Keta, a modified Drzewicki designed for coastal patrol and fitted with a petrol engine. During the Russo-Japanese War it was beached on the Amur estuary during an abortive attempt to sink a Japanese destroyer.

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Reactions to Japan’s Surprise Attack, 1904

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 49, 51:

Ships had barely reached full complement when the Japanese were seen again. At 8 a.m. a reconnaissance party of four light cruisers, the Third Division commanded by Rear Admiral Dewa, steamed some seven miles off the port without coming into range. Dewa saw the Russian fleet gathered under the protection of the forts. They had moved their positions but by only a few miles to the east. Dewa picked out the two battleships and cruiser aground. He sensed the Russians were in a state of shock and from his cruiser the Takasago recommended that the First and Second Divisions be brought up to consolidate the night’s work. Togo was concerned about the firepower of the forts, but hearing that the enemy appeared unprepared and disorganised he decided to take the risk. Just before midday the Russians saw the Japanese fleet. The lookouts in the forts sounded the alarm as they witnessed the Japanese bearing down on their own Boyarin making full speed towards the harbour and firing her stern guns to no effect. Chaos reigned in Port Arthur. Lighters had moved alongside the Retvizan and Tsarevitch to keep them afloat. Warships moved quickly to jettison inflammable material while enterprising coolies in sampans sifted through the jetsam for the more attractive souvenirs. Captains leapt about demanding to know why their ships were not ready, while all the time they could see the dark smudge on the horizon being blown towards them by the southerly wind in the clear blue sky. As the smudge grew larger, so did the frenzy of activity on the Russian warships. At 12.15 the flagship Mikasa, leading the First Division, opened fire with her 12-inch guns. Only the large calibre guns were used as the three divisions steamed in succession from west to east.

The Tsar was stunned by the news of the attack. He could not believe that Japan could initiate a warlike act without a formal declaration of war. Both he and the Emperor of Japan declared war on 10 February 1904. The rest of the world was by no means anti-Japan. The Japanese were masters of the psychological approach and secrecy. The Times summed up Britain’s attitude to her ally by dismissing the pre-emptive attack as being quite normal for wars in modern times. The Americans were not so quick to embrace the Japanese sense of realism, yet they reluctantly fell in line behind a sympathetic President Roosevelt who had become the centre for Japanese fawning and attention. The next few days were set aside for reflection and assessment. Togo was disappointed by the apparent lack of success of his torpedo attack. His real success, however, needs to be viewed in terms wider than that of pure shipping. In this action at Port Arthur, he had settled an old score and laid claim to his fleet’s recognition as being on a par with the best in Europe. He had won command of the sea and at the same time almost completely demoralised his enemy.

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Marine Returns Samurai Sword, 1967

From The Fighting Bunch, by Chris DeRose (St. Martin’s, 2020), Kindle pp. 291-292:

Bill [White] allowed the samurai sword he had sent home from Tarawa to be displayed at Tennessee Wesleyan. A group of Japanese businessmen had come to town to look at buying Mayfield’s Dairy. They visited the college and read the inscription on the blade. Word spread back in Japan that the sword had turned up in Athens, Tennessee. The Japanese government made a formal request for its return. Collectors offered Bill White serious money. He wasn’t interested. But he made it known that he would return it to the family of the man he’d taken it from.

In 1967, Pakaore Hashitami [sic; see below] arrived in the United States and traveled to the Tellico Lodge in the mountains of East Tennessee to meet the man who had killed his father. He admired the polished sharkskin scabbard and gold-tipped handle of his father’s sword. Before he could accept, he asked Bill to tell him how his father died. He had to know that he had lost his life honorably. Bill told him the story of Swede and the concrete blockhouse on Tarawa. Hashitami bowed to Bill, drew the sword from the scabbard, and held it over his head. Bill realized a second too late that he had given this man room to take a swing at him. Bill took a big step closer. But Hashitami had no intentions of revenge. He thanked Bill for restoring honor to his family. The sword had been with them for four hundred years. Of course, Bill said. The war was over.

There have been many such stories of U.S. Marines returning samurai swords captured on islands in the Pacific, ever since the WWII generation or their children began contemplating their own legacies. But the Japanese name cited above is utterly improbable, and the only place it appears in Google searches is a clip in this book (on page 292 and in the index). The family name is more likely Hashitani (橋谷 ‘bridge-valley’), and the given name Pakaore is impossible in Japanese. If you search for it online, you’ll find links to a few people in India and to images and recipes for pakora. Any name starting with P in Japanese is likely to be of foreign origin, like Pekin, Perusha, Porando, Porutogaru, or even Ponto-cho (< Portuguese ponte ‘bridge’). If St. Martin’s reprints this book, I urge the author to confirm and correct the name of the samurai descendant who took home his family’s sword.

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Russian vs. Habsburg Military Tactics, 1914

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 37-38:

The Habsburg army displayed almost superhuman courage in this early fighting, but it was outnumbered and, crucially, heavily outgunned. Russian divisions fielded sixty guns to the Habsburg divisions’ forty-eight. Their artillerymen were more skilled, too. The Tsarist force had absorbed many lessons from humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japanese in the war of 1904–1905, among them the importance of combined arms operations. Its field regulations stressed the dominance of firepower in combat, and its artillery was expected to work closely with forward infantry to support any advance. By contrast, as Romer frankly confessed, cooperation between the Habsburg artillery and infantry was weak. The gunners chose their own targets, often with only vague knowledge of enemy positions. Much ammunition was wasted. The obvious superiority of the Russian gunners, who seemed everywhere capable of putting down accurate and heavy bombardments, was debilitating. As one staff officer of the 11th Division, fighting on the Third Army’s right, observed, the enemy’s shellfire “instantly caused a feeling of defenselessness, which grew from one battle to the next.”

The Habsburg army’s tactical doctrine exacerbated the problem. In peacetime, Conrad had enjoyed a reputation as a tactical genius, although his ideas about how to balance fire and movement, the most important military debate of the period, had barely developed since 1890, when he had first put them in print. Conrad, like most commanders of the day, was a firm advocate of the offensive, but he stood out for his uncompromising belief in the ability of sheer willpower to conquer the fire-swept battlefield. In Conrad’s conception, artillery was not needed to clear a way forward. His 1911 regulations asserted that physically tough, determined, and aggressive infantry could alone “decide the battle.” Within the professional officer corps, his subordinates thoroughly imbibed this mentality. Manic admonitions to act “ruthlessly” or “with utmost energy” were virtually obligatory in any order. At the outset, heavy casualties were not seen so much as a problem as proof of troops’ “outstanding feats of arms.”

This toxic combination of inadequate fire support and a tactical doctrine encouraging impetuous rushes directly at the enemy brought horrendous loss of life when it was tested on the battlefield in the autumn of 1914. Officers suffered catastrophic casualties, for they led from the front, pulling their peasant soldiers forward through their own exemplary courage. The professionals, in particular, were determined to display no fear; as critics scathingly observed, they behaved as though accurate, long-range rifles were never invented and refused to use cover. Russian snipers, ordered to take down anyone wearing officers’ distinctive yellow gaiters, reaped a grim harvest. The same mentality fostered a disdain for lifesaving digging. Regiments were quickly obliterated. On the first day of battle, August 26, units of the III “Iron” Corps, operating farther south from where Romer was fighting, lost between a quarter and a third of their men. Infantry Regiment 47, a mainly Austrian German unit, had 48 officers and 1,287 other ranks killed, wounded, or missing that day. Infantry Regiment 87, filled mostly with Slovenes, suffered 350 killed and 1,050 wounded in clumsy and fruitless attacks.

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They Shot Horses, Didn’t They?

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 200-202:

One of the more unpleasant jobs I had to undertake at Ubon was to condemn and destroy the Japanese army horses. They had already marched over 1,500 miles from China and were in a terrible condition, both from starvation and ill-treatment. I had Tom Phillips to help me, who had been a racehorse trainer in Norfolk before the war, and out of 1,200 horses we inspected, we condemned 700 to be shot; they were dying at the rate of about ten a day from starvation and had only their droppings to eat. Some of the saddle sores were so big and deep that I could put my fist in them; I had never in my life seen such ill-treated horses.

Tom Phillips and I shot a great many, and I was often sick afterwards. The first day a deputation of Thais formed up and asked me not to kill the horses because it was against their Buddhist principles. I replied that it was a duty I very much regretted. I noticed plenty of Thais around afterwards removing their horses’ tails, before they were buried in huge pits dug by Japanese working parties.

Word reached me after the first day that the Japanese were saying that I had shot the horses for motives of revenge, because we had won the war. I therefore had them all paraded and through Sergeant Thomas told them that I was not shooting the horses because we had won the war, but to put them out of their misery after the ill-treatment to which they had been subjected.

I did not understand the Japanese mentality, for when leading their horses up to be shot, many of the men were in tears, and after they were shot they would take off their caps and bow at the graves, and even put flowers on them. A signal came from Bangkok suggesting that I was killing these animals unnecessarily, and that a veterinary officer would be coming to Ubon to inspect those that remained. A few days later a very fine-looking Indian colonel arrived and the Japanese paraded the remaining 500 that we had not shot for his inspection. He promptly condemned a further 400 to death.

Tom Phillips had left when I still had to shoot these 400 horses, and so I gave some of the Japanese vets back their pistols and told them to help me. After I discovered that they were taking up to three shots per horse, and found that some of the horses were being buried still alive, I stopped them and had to deal with the rest myself. Out of the 700 horses that I shot personally with an American .30 carbine with a folding butt which I used like a pistol, I had to give only one horse a second bullet. This was a horse that I shot in the correct place — at the centre of the X drawn from the ears to the eyes — but it trotted off apparently uninjured. When it was caught and brought back again, it was found to have a neat bullet hole in exactly the right place. It did not appear to be either frightened or in pain, or upset in any way. I fired the next shot downwards into its skull from above its ears and it dropped dead — I can only think it had a freak skull. I was very thankful when this distressing job was over.

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Thailand’s Ambiguous Status in WW2

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 153-154:

My briefing gave me the first indication of the extraordinary political set-up in Thailand. Technically, my briefing officer told me, Thailand was at war with the Allies, against whom she declared war when she was occupied by the Japanese. ‘Didn’t she fight against the Japanese when they invaded Thailand?’ I asked. ‘And why did she have to declare war on us?’ She only offered ‘token resistance’ against the Japanese, I was told, and declared war on us ‘under strong Japanese pressure’. She was, however, a most unwilling ally of the Japanese. ‘How do you know that?’ I said. One had only to look, he replied, at the size of the underground movement. It included not only a number of high-level politicians, service chiefs and government officials, but was led by the Regent himself. He went on: ‘You’ll hear a great deal of the Regent from now on. His real name and title is Luang Pradit Pridi Panomyong but he is known to all of us as “Ruth”, which is his codename.’

At the end of April 1944 the first British officer from Force 136 to visit Siam was Brigadier Jacques, codenamed ‘Hector’. He and Chin had been landed off the coast of Siam by Catalina flying boat and had then transferred to a fishing boat that took them to Bangkok. Hector had been a prominent lawyer in Bangkok before the war and had many friends and contacts there; he also spoke the language fluently. In Bangkok they had meetings with Ruth and some of Ruth’s friends, then returned the way they had come.

After Hector had reported to Mountbatten he returned to Bangkok by the same means, taking with him a radio and radio operator. He came out once more, when I met him, then stayed until the end of the war. As a soldier he insisted on wearing uniform, which caused Ruth a security problem. However, Ruth found him a safe house either in his own palace or the University of Moral and Political Science, where he was in daily communication with Force 136 HQ. As he was in close contact with Ruth, who had frequent meetings with the Japanese, he was able to pass on much vital information which would be on Mountbatten’s desk in Kandy within twenty-four hours. Hector remained the senior BLO [British Liaison Officer] throughout his time in Thailand.

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African Slaves Save Macao, 1622

From African Samurai, by Geoffrey Girard and Thomas Lockley (Hanover Square, 2019), Kindle pp. 310-311:

Chinese pirate crews in the South China Seas, an area which no state power adequately controlled and where it was often in minor rulers’ interests to turn a blind eye for their own financial benefit, often employed Africans who had escaped from slavery or gone it alone. An example, though shortly after Yasuke’s time in the 1620s, was the Chinese pirate, smuggler and merchant, Zheng Zhilong.

Zheng had a large African bodyguard corps, more than three hundred men at its peak. The bodyguards were recruited from various places, but most entered his service via Macao, the Portuguese enclave in southern China, and many were escaped slaves. They could also have been men freed in reward for their part in the successful defense of Macao against the Dutch in 1622.

In this battle, an attempt by the Dutch to wrest control of the inter-Asian trade from the Portuguese, Macao found itself virtually defenseless as the Dutch attacked when most of the Portuguese merchant militia were away on trading missions in China. In a desperate bid to defend the outpost, all African slaves—a large group who did most of the manual labor in the colony—were granted their freedom, and as much alcohol as they could drink, in exchange for fighting in the city’s defense. These drunken, newly freed men and women were wildly successful in destroying the Dutch, and their mercenary Japanese and Thai troops, despite being heavily outnumbered. The Africans charged the Dutch musket fire fearlessly and gave no quarter; and as it was the feast of John the Baptist, allegedly celebrated by removing heretic Protestant heads from their bodies. The former slaves, having been released from their bondage, would have been searching for better employment (and quickly), and pirates such as Zheng Zhilong could provide this.

Zheng had lived much of his life in Japan, where he was safe from Chinese government authority and could take advantage of Japanese and European trade and smuggling opportunities. At the height of his power, his fleet was estimated at up to a thousand ships and controlled almost all interactions in the South China Sea.

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An African Mercenary Arrives in Japan, 1579

From African Samurai, by Geoffrey Girard and Thomas Lockley (Hanover Square, 2019), Kindle pp. 19-20:

Yasuke was in his early twenties, no more than twenty-three.

He’d been a soldier for half his life, visited a dozen sultanates, kingdoms and empires. A young warrior who knew himself and more of the world than most ever do.

He was a very tall man, six-two or more—a giant for his time, comparable to meeting a seven-footer by today’s standards. He was also muscular by the standards of any day, thanks to relentless military drill and a childhood, and lineage, built on a diet of abundant meat and dairy.

Arriving in Japan, Yasuke’s eclectic attire revealed his familiarity with a much wider world. He was primarily dressed, quite smartly, in Portuguese clothing—baggy pantaloons to stop mosquito bites, a cotton shirt with a wide flat collar, a stylish doublet of dark velvet. But he carried a tall spear from India, its blade crafted into an unusual wavy shape with two “blood grooves” cut into the steel to make the blade lighter while still sturdy. He also carried a short curved Arab dagger at his side; both weapons shone like mirrors with constant attention from Yasuke’s whetstone. His dark head was wrapped in a stark white turban-like cloth to protect it from the sun.

This was not, clearly from his garb alone, Yasuke’s first arrival somewhere new, someplace utterly foreign. He was, rather, an experienced and well-traveled man in an ever-shrinking world.

He’d been on the move since he was a boy. From the swamps and plains of his birthplace on the banks of the Nile, to the mountains and deserts of northeast Africa, the fertile coasts of the Arabs, dusty Sind and the green of Gujarat. He’d likely fought alongside, and against, Hindus, Muslims, Africans, Turks, Persians and Europeans, and escaped death as a teenage soldier countless times before being employed by Valignano in Goa. The abducted child soldier was now simply the soldier. Well trained in weapons, strategy and security. Even, thanks to time spent beside leaders from several cultures, conversant in diplomacy. His experience and skills were of a caliber sought across the whole world, highly in demand among the rich and powerful.

This unexplored Japão (as the Portuguese called it) was merely the next place he was to be for some time as he put those same skills to work and did the job of protecting an employer and staying alive. The tide, he understood, must be taken when it comes.

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Navajo Code Talkers in Action

From Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, by Chester Nez (Dutton Caliber, 2011), Kindle Loc. ~1870:

Our messages relayed calls for ammunition, food, and medical equipment back to the supply ships waiting offshore. Messages transmitted the locations of enemy troops to U.S. artillerymen. Messages told of something unexpected that had happened in battle. Messages reported on our own troop movements. Messages forwarded casualty numbers, the Navajo code keeping the Japanese from learning of American losses in each foray. Throughout the days of battle to come, we sent those numbers back to our commanders on the ships each night.

After being in operation for just forty-eight hours, our secret language was becoming indispensable.

The hilly terrain on Guadalcanal posed real problems for the men operating mortars and artillery. Muzzle-loaded mortars were low-velocity, short-range weapons with a high trajectory, particularly well suited to uneven terrain. A mortar could drop into an enemy trench that artillery fire flew right over. Shells fired by field artillery reached a higher velocity and followed a flatter trajectory. Howitzers were similar to mortars in function, but larger.

The men firing all of these weapons dealt with a serious issue. Artillery, howitzers, and mortars targeted an enemy who was frequently nose to nose with the American soldiers at the front. Marksmen had to clear the hills and the heads of our own troops, causing them no injury, while drawing an accurate bead on the enemy. This became especially ticklish when we were “walking fire in.” That meant that our weapons were shooting behind the enemy and drawing them closer to the American troops at the front line. As they drew closer, we continued to fire behind them, moving both our fire and the Japanese troops closer and closer to our own troops. There was no room for error in a maneuver like that. The old Shackle communications system took so long to encode and decode, and it was so frequently inaccurate, that using it for the transmission of on-the-fly target coordinates was a perilous proposition. Frequently, in the midst of battle, instead of using the Shackle code, the Marines had transmitted in English. They knew the transmissions were probably being monitored by the Japanese, so they salted the messages liberally with profanity, hoping to confuse the enemy.

We code talkers changed all that.

Roy and I traveled close to the mortars. And the mortars, due to their short range, placed us well within the enemy’s line of fire. Not as close as the riflemen, who were always out front leading the attack, but still close.

Sweat streamed down my back. I transmitted coordinates detailing the locations of Japanese and American troops. I knew men’s lives depended upon the accuracy of each word. I wiped my brow with a sleeve, but never stopped talking. Out of the corner of one eye, I saw a flash of fire. Sand and shrapnel kicked up into the heavy gray sky. I kept talking.

Just then, a spotter, sent out to locate a pocket of Japanese soldiers and artillery, returned. Someone handed a slip of paper to me, bearing the exact Japanese location. The same paper also reported the location of forward U.S. troops.

I squinted, rubbed my eyes, read the paper again. Any error could cause the death of my fellow fighting men. I’d sent hundreds of messages. Messages swam in my brain, jamming and tumbling over one another. I shook my head to clear it.

I translated the data into Navajo code and spoke into the microphone that fit neatly into my fist like a baseball. I glanced in the direction my transmission would travel. Roy and I crouched so close to the American artillery and mortars that I could almost have shouted the information.

I spoke clearly, carefully. I pictured the code talker who received my message translating it back into English for the gunnery men. I imagined those men planning a trajectory, one that would fire over the heads of the Americans and hit the Japanese.

If a soldier was shot right beside us, we had been warned not to stop and help. Our transmissions could not be interrupted.

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