Yamashita Tomoyuki (1888-1946)

Photograph of Yamashita Tomoyuki

Robert Hunt Library. Via Wikipedia Commons.

Yamashita Tomoyuki (Yamashita Tomoyoki) was born the son of a rural physician. He joined the Japanese Army in 1906 and fought against the Germans in Shantung, China in 1914. He graduated from the Staff College in 1916 and became an expert on Germany, serving as military attaché in Switzerland and Germany from 1919-1922. During this time he became close friends with Tojo Hideki, who was also visiting Switzerland, though the friendship later cooled when Tojo came to see Yamashita as a rival. Yamashita is alleged to have initially supported the Young Officers' Revolt of 1936, and although he later turned against the young ultranationalists, he was sent to Korea within a week of the attempted coup in order to get him out of Tokyo. He served as chief of staff of North China Area Army in 1937-1939 and commander of 4 Division before being sent as an aviation observer to Germany and Italy.

As head of the Army's Aeronautical Department, Yamashita was dispatched with a delegation to Germany in the spring of 1940 to study Blitzkrieg tactics and the technology and production methods that supported it. During this trip, he was introduced to both Hitler and Mussolini. Yamashita produced a report on his return that recommended, among other things, that the Army and Navy be unified under a single command modeled on the Oberkommando der Wermacht and then ally with Germany against Russia. Tojo, who had no interest in a unified command, used Yamashita's report as an excuse to post him to Manchuria to set up a new army headquarters (Kwantung Defense Army) in preparation for operations against the Russians. In fact, by this time, the decision had already been made to maintain neutrality with Russia.

An extremely capable officer, Yamashita was a lieutenant general in command of 25 Army at the start of the Pacific War. He led a stunningly successful campaign in Malaya that culminated in his bluffing the British into surrendering Singapore to an inferior force whose logistics were on the verge of collapse. When Percival attempted to negotiate more favorable surrender terms, Yamashita replied, "All I want to know from you is yes or no."

Yamashita got on poorly with his principle commanders during the Malaya campaign, accusing both Matsui of 5 Division and Nishimura of Imperial Guards Division of disobeying orders to attack at once. In the culture of the Imperial Army, this was tantamount to an accusation of cowardice. Yamashita got along particularly poorly with Nishimura, distrusting both him and his chief of staff.

Tojo was jealous of Yamashita's success and got him transferred to command of 1 Area Army at Botenko in Manchuria in July 1942, before Yamashita could even read his victory speech to the Emperor. 1 Area Army was an important command, but it was also a long way from Tokyo. He languished here for most of the war, although he was promoted to full general in 1943. However, Yamashita was recalled to lead the defense of the Philippines in August 1944 and served here the remainder of the war (Hastings 2007):

The battle we are going to fight will be decisive for Japan's fate. Each of us bears a heavy responsibility for our part in it. We cannot win this war unless we work closely and harmoniously together. We must do our utmost, setting aside futile recriminations about the past. I intend to fight a ground battle, regardless of what the navy and air force do. I must ask for your absolute loyalty, for only thus can we achieve victory.

A large number of atrocities took place during both the Malaya and Philippines campaigns. However, it appears that most of the Malayan atrocities were the work of junior staff officers, particularly the notorious Tsuji Masanobu, It was for the Philippine atrocities, particularly in Manila, that Yamashita was tried, convicted, and hanged in 1946.  Yamashita claimed at his trial that communications were poor and the situation confused, and that the defense of Manila and the atrocities committed within the city were instigated by the Special Naval Landing Forces. Yamashita testified that these were not under his direct control and acted against his intentions. Some credibility was lent to this testimony by radio messages from Yamashita to Yokoyama chastising him for failing to get Iwabuchi out of the city.  No testimony was given that Yamashita ordered any of the atrocities. The prosecution argued instead that it was impossible for Yamashita to have not known what was taking place. Contrary to Yamashita's testimony, it was clear that his headquarters received constant reports from Manila on the progress of the battle. It could not have helped Yamashita's defense that defense testimony regarding provision of food to internees was obviously perjured.

There were procedural irregularities in the trial, including the use of a military commission of officers, drawn from MacArthur's headquarters, who were not lawyers. Rules of evidence that were summarized by one observer as "anything goes" (Scott 20187). Nevertheless, in a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene, largely on technical grounds.  Yamashita was held criminally liable for failure to prevent the atrocities, establishing the precedent for what in international law is now known as the Yamashita Standard. Yamashita bitterly complained that he had been convicted, not of atrocities, but of embarrassing the British.

A more modern assessment of Yamashita's criminality is mixed. He forbade arson, looting, and rape by his soldiers in Malaya, but in vain (Burleigh 2011):

I want my troops to behave with dignity; but most of them do not seem to have the ability to do so. This is very important now that Japan is taking her place in the world. These men must be educated up to their new role in foreign countries.

Yamashita even had the officer responsible for the Alexandra Hospital massacre executed, along with three soldiers guilty of rape in Penang. But all of this seems nullified by his authorization of what became the Sook Ching, in which at least 5000 and possibly as many as 50,000 Chinese civilians in Singapore were murdered. It seems reasonable to suggest that Yamashita should justly have been hanged by the British rather than the Americans.

Yamashita was a former member of the Imperial Way, a political faction within the Army noted for its ultra-nationalism, contempt for democracy and capitalism, and devotion to the Emperor. Fuller says he was "Ambitious, ruthless, highly strung and believed in Samurai traditions." He believed Tojo wanted to assassinate him, which was not entirely rational. He snored badly and often appeared to be asleep while being briefed.

Service record


Second lieutenant     
Graduates from military academy, standing 5th in his class

Graduates from War College, graduating 6th in his class
Military attaché, Switzerland and Germany
Instructor, War College

Attache, Austria

Attache, Hungary

General Staff

Commander, 3 Regiment

Chief, Army Affairs Section, Military Affairs Bureau, Ministry of War

General Staff

Chief, Military Research Section, Military Research Bureau, Ministry of War
Major general
Commander, 40 Brigade, Korea

Commander, China Garrison Mixed Brigade
Lieutenant general      Chief of staff, North China Area Army

Commander, 4 Division, Manchuria

Inspector-general of Army Aviation

Head, Military Mission to Germany and Italy

Supreme War Council

Commander, Kwantung Defense Army

Commander, 25 Army
Commander, 1 Area Army, Manchuria

Commander, 14 Area Army, Philippines

Condemned to death as war criminal



Burleigh (2011)

Devlin (1979)

Dupuy et al. (1992)

Fuller (1992) (accessed 2008-4-2)

Hastings (2007)

Hayashi and Cox (1959)

Hoyt (1993)

Nakagawa (1993)

Pettibone (2007)

Scott (2018)

Thompson (2005)

Toland (1971)

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