Visiting Yasukuni With Adm. Yamamoto’s ‘Ichiban’

As he stands before Sanshuden Hall at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where Japan’s war dead are honored, you’d never guess the man in the crisp gray suit and stylish gray shoes is 98 years old. He begins with head slightly bowed, then smartly comes to attention in the way only a lifelong military man can do, then slowly bows twice, solemnly claps hands twice, then bows once more and pauses in silence.

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A portrait of Kyosumi Tanigawa upon his graduation from the Japan naval academy in 1938

“Half my classmates (at the Japan naval academy) died in the war,” Kyosumi Tanigawa says moments later, explaining why he visits here regularly.

Tanigawa-san is MidWeek‘s one degree of separation from Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, who reluctantly planned the attack on Pearl Harbor 73 years ago.

Before our visit to Yasukuni, thanks to a friend of a friend, I had the pleasure of sharing lunch with Tanigawa-san at Royal Park Hotel in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district. His mind is sharp, and he continues to practice judo and kendo, and shoots 90 on the golf course, walking every hole. He walks briskly and like a sailor, sturdy on a rolling deck, as if leaning slightly into a head wind.

He was born in Saga, Kyushu Prefecture, Feb. 18, 1916, and graduated from the naval academy at Etajima in 1938. He wanted to join the navy because “I liked the sea very much.”

Second Ensign Tanigawa was first assigned to the heavy cruiser Mikuma. Fortunately, he’d been transferred to another vessel before the Mikuma was bombed by U.S. planes and sank during the Battle of Midway in June 1942, 650 men going down with her.

The boat to which he was transferred was the battleship Mutso, and it was part of the battle division led by Adm. Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Imperial Navy Combined Fleet. On Dec. 7 (Dec. 8 in Japan), 1941, Tanigawa-san was aboard the Mutsu, standing battle ready off the Bonin Islands east of Okinawa.

Yamamoto, he says, was a man of high intellect and few words, and he was happy to serve under him. In fact, he says, he was the admiral’s “ichiban,” a term that can mean staff or ace. It is the latter that describes his role under his mentor. He was Yamamoto’s “special student.” He was used especially as a courier for nautical charts, and one can imagine the lessons he learned by observing the commander in the admiral’s cabin.

That said, Tanigawa-san says, in the light of history Yamamoto was “a human being, not a god,” as some in Japan have tried to paint him post-war.

On March 1, 1942, Tanigawa-san was serving as the No. 2 aboard the destroyer Ikazuchi under Capt. Sunsaku Kudo when they rescued 422 British sailors after their ship, the destroyer Encounter, was sunk in the Java Sea. The narrative Americans (and other nations) know about Japanese actions during the Pacific war usually is far more cruel — think Bataan Death March. But this was one of two rescues of enemy combatants the Ikazuchi performed, totaling more than 600 lives saved.

When I ask Tanigawa-san why his ship performed these mercy rescues, he visibly straightens.

“I am a navy man,” he says firmly. This is as much, I suspect, an expression of pride in his service and respect for fellow sailors as it is to say he was not an army man — the Japanese army having committed atrocities throughout Asia and the Pacific.

The story of the Encounter was first revealed in the 1996 biography My Lucky Life by one of the rescued Brits, Sir Samuel Falle, who would go on to become ambassador to Sweden. It came as a big surprise in Japan. Capt. Kudo, it’s said, did not even tell his wife of these incidents before he died in 1979.

Tanigawa-san later served with distinction during the war, rising to commander, and would retire as vice admiral of the peacetime Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces.

Yasukuni Shrine — established by Emperor Meiji in 1869 after the Boshin War — has become a lightning rod for Chinese and Korean anger, especially when visited by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. A hundred or so war criminals, they say, are among the more than 1 million soldiers, sailors and airmen whose names are honored there. Yasukuni also includes statues honoring the horses, carrier pigeons and dogs that died in service to the country during wars. Another statue honors widows of servicemen with children. The sprawling grounds also include Chinreisha, Spirit-Pacifying Shrine, where 300 pure-white doves live — it is said only one in 10,000 doves is pure white.

Many in Japan dispute the term “war criminals,” and one could make the case that it is the victors who can so label the defeated. If America had not prevailed in most of its wars, other nations might argue

National Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl and Arlington National Cemetery — as well as our executive branch — include war criminals. They of course do not. Even Gen. Curtis LeMay, who led the nightly U.S. firebombing campaign of Japanese cities that Aug. 1, 1945, included Nagaoka, Adm. Yamamoto’s beloved hometown, commented at the time, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.”

America was not invaded and occupied for decades, as were Korea and China by Japan before and during World War II, and I empathize with my Korean and Chinese friends. But one has to wonder how much modern protests about Yasukuni are to stir up native nationalism.

Bottom line, we lost 2,388 men at Pearl Harbor (plus at least another 32 civilians killed by friendly fire) and another 111,606 in the Pacific theater, yet today the U.S. and Japan, once the worst of enemies, are the closest of allies. So there is hope, I hope, as the warm ties between sister cities Honolulu and Nagaoka show today, as well as the cordial meetings over the years of Pearl Harbor survivors and Japanese attackers, that rapprochement and peace are possible between Japan and its neighbors.

In any event, on this day I am honored to walk the grounds of Yasukuni with Tanigawa-san as he visits with his classmates.

By the way, I had to ask the secret of his longevity.

“No stress and no deep thoughts,” he says. “Don’t worry.”

He is well traveled, having visited 85 countries, at least 35 since retirement. He likes America and has been to Hawaii “many times, I cannot remember how many.” He was never a drinker of beer or sake, but adds with a chuckle, “A little tobacco, OK.” He eats a diet heavy on fruits, salads and meats, and remains an avid reader.

dchapman@midweek.com