The Madness of March for Japan

The last days of March have some special significance to Japan, for it was in March from 1854 to 1945, things seemed to go a little…mad.  And it all started, ironically, with a treaty.

On 21 March 1854, Matthew C. Perry secured the signature of the Tokugawa shogun of Japan on what was called the Treaty of Kanagawa, ensuring enduring peace, friendship and diplomatic ties.  While contemporary audiences may not think a great deal of that, it was shocking to Japan.  Traditionally, Japan was a closed-off, secluded place, with a single paved road, a few wheeled carts, no seagoing ships to speak of, and a dominant, militaristic social group–the samurai–that made 19th century Prussian militarists seem like pacifists.  For centuries they had imprisoned or simply murdered shipwrecked sailors, and for two hundred years they had but one trading outlet on Kagoshima Island in Nagasaki harbor.

But then came Perry, and Perry came because the Americans, sharing Pacific Rim status after their purchase of California from Mexico (at gunpoint, but purchased nonetheless), were concerned about their whaling and trading fleet.  More than one shipwrecked Yankee had been hanged or crucified in Japan.  Further, the growing Russian presence in the Pacific was of some mild concern, as were the Russian trading posts in Alaska, along the Canadian Pacific coast, and the growing British bases in Hong Kong and Hawaii–then the Sandwich Islands.  The growing United States needed some assurances that American trade with China–America’s oldest trading partner–was safe from predation.

But societies are closed for a reason, and the reasons Japan was closed from 1635 up to the mid-19th century are somewhat complex, but they usually begin and end with the Japanese concepts of cultural and racial purity, and of the supremacy of Japanese exceptionalism.  These concepts were enforced at the point of the sword by the samurai, who had dominated Japanese society since anyone could remember.

In practice, Japanese society was stratified into three layers.  The nobility, notably the Emperor and his family, but also other petty nobles (daimyos) who had little function other than to provide brides (and the occasional groom) to the royal family, sat at the top.  Directly beneath them were the samurai, who had since time immemorial been providing a totem/warlord/top gang leader called a shogun, who enforced what little civil law there was but mostly just kept the peace.  In 1604, the Tokugawa clan took over the shogunate after a disastrous invasion of the Asian mainland that ended in 1600.  Beneath the samurai there was everyone else.  Social mobility was practically unheard of.

The shoguns may have ruled the country, but they were not the only ones who had, or craved, power.  Since the provincial warlords had a great deal of power themselves, rivals to the Tokugawas were numerous, and dangerous.  Japan’s polity was never inclusive: the bottom 90% existed to support the top 10%.  Peasant revolts–primarily over food– averaged two a year, and were always put down in oceans of blood.  When Ieyoshi signed the Kanagawa treaty, he was signing the death knell for Japan’s way of life.  Almost instantly rival clans claimed that the Tokugawa shogun, whose duty it was to keep the long-nosed barbarians away from the emperor  and the islands of Japan, had betrayed his duty.

Within two years, Japan was in civil war along the length and breadth of the archipelago.  There were two factions: the one that favored Western contacts and expanded trade–generally aligned with the Tokugawas–and those who did not.  Ironically, it was the samurai that did not favor expansion of trade who modernized first, adapting western firearms and artillery.  By 1867 the Meiji Emperor proclaimed the end of the samurai tradition…which in fact only meant the end of Japan’s social structure.  While Japan modernized its industry and economy, its society was left to itself.  The result was, eventually, a polity that regarded China as a resource-rich wilderness infested with vermin–the Chinese–that would have to be subjugated so that the 70 Million (as the Japanese began to refer to themselves) could take what they needed.  On 27 March 1938, one of the most ferocious battles of that subjugation began at Taierzhuang (or Shandong), on the eastern bank of the Grand Canal of China.  When the battle ended on 7 April, there were some 44,000 casualties, a ruined city, and a defeated Japanese host.

But Japan’s March Madness continued.  in the very early morning of 27 March 1943, two Japanese heavy cruisers, two light cruisers  and four destroyers commanded by Boshiro Hosogaya met a US Navy heavy cruiser , a light cruiser and four destroyers under Charles McMorris near the Komandorski Islands in the north Pacific.  After four confused hours the Japanese retired, not understanding how much damage they had done.  What might have been a Japanese victory turned into a strategic disaster, as it ended the surface resupply efforts for the Japanese garrisons in the Aleutians, leaving it to submarines and condemning many to starvation.  It was also one of the last daylight naval actions conducted without air power: in fact, it was Hosogaya’s fear of American air attacks that compelled him to pull out.

Two years later, as Iwo Jima was declared secure on 26 March 1945, the garrison on Okinawa grimly watched the huge Allied fleet gathering and bombarding offshore, and wondered when the madness would end.  On 1 April, the Americans landed on Okinawa, and the last stages of Japan’s Madness in March began.

Iwo Jima: Strategic Convenience and Shape of Things To Come

The 19 February 1945 American invasion of Iwo Jima in the Bonin islands  was one of those peculiar events that means different things to different people.  The Bonin archipelago (also called the Ogasawara islands) is a volcanic desert: Iwo Jima, the largest of the islands, had no natural water sources and no place that could be used as a harbor.  The only reason anyone ever went there before the 1940s was because it was empty.  An American whaling outpost was established there in the 1830s after Spain and Britain had laid claim to it over the centuries, and Japan was the last to claim ownership in 1862.  No permanent residents were ever “permanent,” but transient fisher folk.

By early 1945, it was clear that the Americans were headed for the home islands of Japan.  Japan had fortified the place and built air fields, they realized that they could not hold the Bonins.  The Japanese 31st Army,  therefore, would be sacrificed in place.  The scanty air units were withdrawn in the face of fifty-odd American aircraft carriers.

At the time, the reasoning given for the invasion was to provide a fighter escort base for the B-29s attacking Japan out of the Marianas islands, and as an emergency landing field for crippled bombers.  About halfway between Japan and Saipan, the northernmost of the Marianas, this claim passes basic geographic muster,  But since the place was useless as a base for either the Army ground forces or the Navy, did the Air Force really need a base with no natural water?

Even the “fighter escorts for the bombers” claim was dubious.  Army fighters had the range to reach some of the big Honshu Island of Japan from the Bonins, but lacked the navigational equipment necessary for long flights over water.  Further, the Air Forces were changing tactics since their European-style high level daylight bombing wasn’t working in the Pacific.

After some 25,000 casualties (nearly 7,000 dead) in the six weeks fighting for Iwo Jima (Chichi Jima, a smaller rock with fewer flat spaces, its own water and a small harbor to the north, fell almost bloodlessly in less than a week) it raises a question: how many Marine lives does it take to save Army Air Force lives?  Of the 2,600 bombers that landed there, less than half “needed” the emergency fields, according to one estimate.  In this view, then, some 13,000 Army air crewman were saved.  The Japanese lost over 18,000 over the sulfurous wastelands.  “Worth the cost” has a whole new meaning with such numbers.   Furthermore, there is a school of thought that suggests that the three Marine divisions used in the Bonins were used up to be kept away from Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines, or his plan for Formosa.  Idle, those 50,000 men and supporting fleets were a tempting tool.  Deployed, they were beyond MacArthur’s reach.

Ultimately, however, like Peleliu, the Japanese needed the Bonins more than the Americans did, and that was the point. The Americans were taking strategic targets from the Japanese because they could, and each one hurt.  But too, like Okinawa would in a few months, it demonstrated to the Marines what the Army had found out on Saipan: the Japanese would fight to the death; military, civilian, man, woman, child–it mattered not.  What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan At War, 1941-45 is a study of the Japanese mindset, available at fine bookstores everywhere.

The Founding of Japan and the Meiji Constitution

On 11 February in the year 660 BCE, it is said that the emperor Jimmu founded the empire of Japan.  Jimmu is said to have been descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu through her grandson Ninigi, and from the storm god Susanoo.  All of this is founded on myth, but far more reliable sources indicate that the Meiji emperor Mutsuhito’s constitution for the restored Japanese state/empire/arsenal was adopted on this date in 1889.

Most readers think “representative democracy” when they read the word “constitution,” but this is not always the case, and certainly it wasn’t for Japan.  The Meiji Constitution was a document that, by intent, ensured the tyranny of the hereditary samurai class by placing veto power for any policy in their hands, and their hands alone.  All the samurai had to do was withdraw their war minister (appointed from the ranks of the Army, samurai all), or later the navy minister (ditto) to force the imperial cabinet (selected from the Diet) to reform the government.  This they would do, repeatedly, when the governments–especially under the reign of Yoshihito, the weak Taisho emperor that followed the Meiji in 1912–did not support another of their unsanctioned outrages such as grabbing German territory in the Pacific at the outset of WWI, invading Manchuria, then China proper, in 1914, 1932 and 1937, respectively.  The process would be repeated during the reign of the Showa emperor Hirohito right up until 1941, when the appointment of General Tojo Hideki as prime minister obviated the need.

Most of the early 20th century was punctuated by assassinations, violent uprisings (food riots were common in japan, averaging two a year for the better part of a thousand years) and attempted coups d’état in Japan that everyone caught in the middle would support any measure that looked like it pointed to stability.  To the samurai, of course, this meant them running things.  And they “ran things” right up to August of 1945, when their emperor had had enough.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan at War 1941-45 examines the political reality of the samurai against a backdrop of a world that moved beyond the need for them.  Available from fine booksellers everywhere.

Beginnings: Crop Duster a Winner; Japan Attacks Russia and Britain; Bloody Mary is Beheaded; Elizabeth II Becomes Queen

As the badge on today’s post says, Crop Duster: A Novel of WII is an Honorable Mention in the 2014 Writers Digest Self-Published E-Book Awards for Mainstream Fiction.  This is a long-winded way of saying that Crop Duster is regarded at one of the five best of over a hundred submitted books in this category.  It’s also a Notable Book in Shelf Unbound’s Self-Published E-Book Awards for 2014 for Page-Turners. Find out what the judges see is so great about Crop Duster today.  Available in paperback and E-book at fine booksellers everywhere.


On the night of 8 February 1904, Japan attacked the Russian naval base at Port Arthur with torpedoes from four destroyers.  A Russian protected cruiser (Pallada) keeled over and sank, and two battleships (Retvizan and Tsarevich ) were damaged.  An indecisive daylight action the next morning damaged vessels on both sides, but the Japanese had the advantage of being able to sail out of range of the Russian shore batteries, while the Russians were trapped in port by the strong Japanese fleet.

As the opening battle of what would come to be called the Russo-Japanese War, Port Arthur was a template for Japanese conflict initiation for the next fifty years: strong attacks with little warning followed by relentless pressing of the advantages of surprise.  While the Japanese attacks in 1904, 1914, 1932, 1937 and 1941 were expected in a general sense, their location often was not.  The 8 February 1942 invasion of Singapore after two months of attacks all around the Pacific Rim was forewarned, but the British had never expected an attack from landward along the Malay Peninsula.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look At Japan at War, 1941-1945 probes the Japanese mindset reaching back to before the Tokugawas. Available in hardback, paperback and PDF.


Two distantly related events, ironically, are marked in early February.  Mary,Queen of Scots was beheaded on 8 February 1587, an unfortunate victim of a dynastic feud begun in prehistory, for all intents and purposes.  The Stuart throne of Scotland dated from the 14th century (or 12th, for purists) in a country that had the poor luck of being weaker than most of her neighbors but stronger than her closest kin.  Britain had the sense to try to “civilize” the traditionally tribal Scots off and on for centuries, while Scotland allied with France and was used as a cudgel against Ireland in between periods of independence.  Mary’s poor timing that she would reign while Elizabeth I sat in Windsor, but was lucky enough that Elizabeth would be childless, so that her son would inherit the throne of England.

Nearly four centuries later, Elizabeth II,oldest daughter of George VI would be proclaimed queen on 6 February 1952.  She would be the first British monarch for over a century who was not also empress of India. She is at this writing the longest reigning British monarch in history.


Bleeding Kansas Becomes a State and Guadalcanal is Saved–Again

After half the slave-holding states had left the Union, Kansas was admitted to the Union 29 January 1861.  After a years-long struggle over the slavery issue, the vote was anticlimactic…and practically inevitable.  Texas would be the last slave-holding state admitted to the Union 29 December 1845.

The expansion of the slave-bound political economy of the pre-1865 American South was the biggest issue of the period between the Mexican War and the firing on Fort Sumter.  It was less the plight of the slaves that most Northern politicians was concerned with as much as the reliance on their cheap labor that might have affected the rapid industrial expansion.  It wasn’t equal civil rights on the minds of most abolitionists as much as it was the idea of one sort of people holding another sort in bondage.  In Kansas, where raids of one faction were paid back by raids of another over the course of several months in 1859, John Brown and his biblical murder philosophy held sway with the Younger brothers and some very young James boys in pillage, raid and murder.  In the end, the faction that could control the Federal troops would win.

But the irony of Kansas and its admission as a “free” state was that, perhaps unintentionally, it would be the first state to organize African-Americans into state and then Federal units: the 1st Kansas Infantry (Colored) was formed in August 1862, predating the 54th Massachusetts by nine months, and saw their first combat that October, nearly a year before the 54th Massachusetts saw combat.


In contrast to Kansas, Japanese and American forces dueled off Rennell Island on the night of 29-30 January 1943, the last of a dozen naval battles fought around the island of Guadalcanal.  Although the Americans believed the Japanese were reinforcing their already exhausted troops on Guadalcanal, the fact was they were withdrawing them.  The Japanese, for once in a position to anticipate American actions, attacked an American escort group and crippled the Northampton class heavy cruiser USS Chicago (CA-29).  Much of the rest of the battle centered around keeping the vessel afloat, but after six torpedo hits she finally sank on 30 January.  Destroyer USS De Haven (DD-469) was also lost, the first Fletcher class destroyer to be lost in WWII.

The Japanese are said to have “won” the Rennell Island fight, but they only won it insofar as they were able to evacuate the pitiful remnant of their troops on Guadalcanal.  Unlike the British “victory” of Dunkirk, most of the Japanese were in such band shape that they never saw service again.  Combined with a similar experience at Kiska, it was the last time the Japanese performed a large-scale evacuation of an island that had been invaded.  From late 1943 on, Japanese garrisons were not to expect to be withdrawn in the face of enemy opposition.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan At War 1941-1945 by John D. Beatty and Lee A Rochwerger is an examination of Japanese strategic thinking, available in hardback, paper and PDF from fine booksellers everywhere.

Green Hell, 1943

In late January 1943, the Americans and Australians declared the Papua peninsula (the far eastern end) of the island of New Guinea “secure.”  For over a year they had been struggling to eject the Japanese from a battlefield like no other in the world.

The Japanese, who had arrived on the lush yet desolate island at the end of 1941, had thought to conquer the island in a week. Port Moresby, the largest city, was still holding out six months later, and the Japanese had simply run out of rations, healthy men, and working heavy equipment.  When the first Americans arrived, the Wisconsin National Guardsmen were fresh out of training camp and thrown into the impenetrable jungle.  Though Douglas MacArthur, the controversial commander and mastermind of the New Guinea campaign, has been credited with its successful clearing, it nonetheless took nearly three years.

William Manchester, in his magisterial biography of MacArthur, called New Guinea “green hell,” and by most accounts it certainly was.  It rained in most parts more than tree hundred inches a year; the growth rate of some of the more notorious vines and branching trees was measured at more than a foot a week.  All metals were rusty, always; electrical equipment often had to have blowers to keep from shorting out during operation. Ammunition notoriously misfired, especially artillery.  Motor vehicles were too large for most of Papua’s roads.  The soldier’s war in New Guinea was an odd mix of 20th century hardware with 19th century reliability and 18th century tactics pressed into the demands of a 20th century global strategy.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan at War by John D Beatty and Lee Rochwerger examines New Guinea in a context of examining Japanese planning, operations and execution amid material shortages and over-extended supply lines.  Called one of the best books of its kind, it’s available at fine booksellers everywhere.