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The Myth of Japan's Technological Superiority - PART 2.1: Prewar and Wartime History of Aeronautics


Left: Mineo Yamamoto, my late father
Center: The legendary Koken-ki
Right: Ki-78 velocity test machine

In the mid-1850s Commodore Matthew Perry's fleet of four "black ships" (i.e. steel-built ships) came along to arm-twist the Shogun and his samurai to coerce the feudal government into signing an unequal treaty. The humiliating event has left an incurable scar on the Japanese people because it was more than just about trade privileges unilaterally given to America. A more important implication was that it only took the "barbarians" from the West such a small fleet to shatter the myth of the bravery of samurai. Not a single live-shell had to be fired because some "gun salutes" already scared them to death.

The Meiji Emperor, who soon took over the government from the Shogunate, pursued the fukoku kyohei (wealthy country and strong army) policy, coupled with wakon yosai (Japanese spirit and Western learning) mindset. This mantra had been upheld for almost eight decades until the war defeat.

Although Emperor's aspiration to catch up with the West is quite understandable, his assumption couldn't have been sillier; he thought that by carefully opening up his domain to the West, he could skim military and other technologies from the Western civilization without giving up anything essential on his part. In doing so, he took utmost precaution so he could weed out every harmful element entailed in imported technologies. Centuries earlier his predecessors had habitually used the same opportunism with the Chinese, the Portuguese and the Dutch. The Japanese people thought or were taught to think they could cherrypick someone else's cultural output while keeping their Asiatic backwardness intact.

By August 1945 this tactic had ended up in a complete failure. Appallingly, though, these learning-disabled people once again fell into the same trap set up by Douglas MacArthur. The general is sometimes referred to as the Second Emperor, but actually he was the Second Perry as was evidenced by the incongruous security treaty Japan entered into with the U.S. after his retirement.

Mineo Yamamoto, my father, was born in 1903, the year that saw Wright brothers' Wright Flyer flying high for the first time. He was a descendant of ninja serving the Tokugawa Shogunate as an intelligence agent. Although his appearance differed a little from his compatriots, his ethnicity was 100 percent Japanese. However, his way of thinking was quite un-Japanese. He always refused to swallow anything that couldn't be explained logically, or verified scientifically. He also hated servility to authority, and would never go along with the crowd because he thought that would be the surest way to settling for mediocrity.

One episode has it that during his 15-year tenure as a senior researcher at the Aeronautical Research Institute (ARI) attached to the Tokyo Imperial University, he fired as many as 70 assistants as incompetent. This is something a normal Japanese wouldn't have thought about doing, or wouldn't think about doing even today, in this land of absolute job security. Small wonder that he was always feared and sometimes hated not only by his subordinates but also by his peers and bosses for his intransigence about the quality of work.

On the eve of WWII, the ARI was mandated to achieve world-class records in flight range, altitude and velocity.

In the first project devoted to achieving the world record in flight range, he played a pivotal role, working, in an unconventional approach, on the wings, the fuel tank and the covers of the retractable landing gears. In those days, there was no development methodology that we now call "concurrent engineering," let alone its enabler (i.e. interconnected computers.) As a result, brawls among project members were commonplace. Mineo was a versatile sportsman but not good at martial arts. Hence, he was always on the losing side. Nevertheless, he would never give in when it came to the design concept for what he was in charge of.

In May 1938, the long-range prototype plane named Koken-ki established the then world record of 11,651 km (7,240 miles.) The legendary Koken-ki became the only aircraft made in Japan to have been certified as a record holder by the FAI (Federation Aeronautique Internationale.)

After the altitude part of the project somehow failed, the head of the ARI thought Mineo was the right person to put in charge of the velocity part. He worked on that project virtually single-handed. He set the goal at 800-850 km per hour (497-528 mi/hr) because the German fighter plane Messerschmitt Me 209 V1 had already marked 755 km per hour (469 mi/hr) in 1939. In December 1943, his test machine codenamed Ki-78 could fly at the speed of 699.9 km per hour (435 mi/hr,) which fell short of reaching the ultimate goal. Yet this was when the alltime Japan record was established as far as propeller-driven airplanes are concerned.

By that time, Japan's Imperial Army had been quickly losing ground to the Allied Powers. Generals decided that they couldn't afford to let the velocity pursuit continue, and ordered the institute to write it off right away. The insane decision made the past ARI projects all go straight down the drain. Nobody thought about following up these projects by reducing production costs and improving fuel-efficiency, steerability and combat capability in order to make the two prototype machines actually deployable.

Instead, the ARI researchers were told to concentrate on suicide machines. Among other flying objects meant for suicide attacks, the Imperial Army placed its high hopes on a machine codenamed Ouka, or cherry blossom. Ouka, nicknamed Baka, or idiot, on the part of the Allied Powers, was developed in 1944 by some of Mineo's colleagues. It could fly a level flight at the speed of 648 km per hour (403 mi/hr) but its flight range was a mere 37 km (23 miles.) However, this did not constitute any problem because Ouka was actually a manned, air-to-ship guided missile to be carried to the vicinity of the target by another plane. Moreover, its sortie was always a one-way trip.

Mineo was frustrated by the defeatist way of thinking on the part of the military government. But even before that, my father had been at odds with the ARI management which had succumbed to the pressure from the Imperial Army so easily. (There was no air force in wartime Japan.)

Back in April 1942, sixteen B-25 bombers led by Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle raided Japan's major cities for the first time. This was only a prelude to the daily incineration of Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and many other cities by B-29 Superfortress bombers, which started in late 1944. Japan's casualties were minimal. Nevertheless, the Doolittle Raid dramatically turned the tide for the Allied Powers. At that time, Mineo contributed an article to a popular monthly in which he warned that the war would be unwinnable if the Imperial Army didn't wake up to the reality that gaining command of the skies was key to winning a warfare of the 20th century. This magazine was interdicted immediately, but the author of the article was not arrested. He knew that the military headquarters could not afford to put him in jail.

The B-29 bomber could fly a range of 5,200 km (3,231 miles) at a maximum altitude of 10,200 km (6,338 miles) and the cruising velocity of 350 km per hour (218 mi/hr.) Everyday we heard anti-aircraft artilleries fired at the large formations of the bombers but not a single shell could reach the stratospheric altitude. Amid the overwhelming roar from the bombers, Japan's artilleries sounded as weak as tuberculous patients in a coughing fit.

My father looked simply enchanted by the sight. He loved anything that could fly high, fast or long, be it a German fighter, a U.S. bomber or just an eagle. He was frantically taking pictures of the American bombers, but his problem was that they were almost invisible to the naked eye. He had to settle for dozens of pictures of streams of white contrails.

General Douglas MacArthur imposed a total ban on the development and manufacturing of aircraft as soon as he was enthroned as the Second Emperor. Mineo had to convert to automobile engineering but he once again played a pivotal role there in building the foundation of Japan's car industry. As early as the 1960s, he was studying the feasibility of hydrogen-powered vehicles, but nobody has ever thought about capitalizing on his green ideas because all the material he left behind has been lost by now. I'll explain why in the next piece.


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The Myth of Japan's Technological Superiority - PART 2.1: Prewar and Wartime History of Aeronautics
Authored by: samwidge on Saturday, July 16 2011 @ 10:03 AM JST

The differences between our peoples are fascinating.

In the US, we never admit defeat or retreat in anything. We are always just, "advancing in a different direction." Essentially, we expect the same of you. We sometimes expect incorrectly.

In the case of our Civil War, we claim that both sides won. Each made its points. We see the science and law derived from that war as immensely beneficial to the whole world. The pain and loss of life surely would have happened even in peaceful circumstances because Earth cannot tolerate greater populations when only supported by given technology in a given age. This is the slowly receding limitation of science as science advances.

If we concede anything about Vietnam, it is that we did it wrong and that that nation's present commercial success and (relatively) peaceful circumstances are the result of our having been there. We figure that it is pretty much what we wanted anyway. We buy many things from Vietnam including food.

There will always be conflict between nations. We don't understand Japan's, "do-as-we-are-told" ethic but we certainly appreciate it. We think that this has contributed to your success and to our downfall.

There was a time when we spoke of Japan's defeat. We no longer do this. Japan is clearly a winning nation. We would like to claim that we win in the same way (though you are keenly aware that we are about to suffer badly.)

Your father's attitude about defeat is pivotal. His demands for winning are also demands for survival.

You have been kind in noting my own success in leading the NASA "Create the Future" competition. I tell you truthfully that I am a winner. But thus far, I am not the overall winner. There are six other categories. There is a chance that I may not surmount all. To admit this would be a kind of defeat we Americans refuse to concede.

The fact that America exclusively pays for the existence of NASA but that the "Create the Future" competition has participants and potential winners are from all over the world is another way of viewing our attitudes about our many defeats. On the one hand, the people of Uruguay and India ought to pay their own way. On the other hand, we don't dare let them succeed without us.

I am glad to see you well. In times of adversity, Yamamoto Yuichi always refuses defeat.

The Myth of Japan's Technological Superiority - PART 2.1: Prewar and Wartime History of Aeronautics
Authored by: Y.Yamamoto on Saturday, July 16 2011 @ 06:04 PM JST


Welcome back to this NC-17 site. Actually, I am not well. Who can keep in shape when forced to wage an unwinnable war against Parkinson's, its complications, and the City Hall amid this monsoonal heat (95 degrees F) and steam (85%)?

Since the anniversary of my father's death is August 8, I always think of him at this time of the year. It is true that he always wanted to excel, but I suspect it's next to impossible for Americans to imagine how a man with the winner's attitude could survive the defeatist surroundings. To that end, he had to stretch something or someone beyond its elastic limit. He picked me to serve this purpose.

More specifically, he was confident that the only way to refuse to offer his eldest son as a sacrifice to the bastard in the palace was to alchemize the mediocre kid into a topnotch scientist like himself. You can't imagine what it was like to be subjected to what I would later call "education like a double-edged sword" for almost 20 years.

Throughout my childhood, and even in early adulthood, I repeatedly failed. Yet, I'm glad that thanks to all this, now I can view things with unclouded eyes like no one else but Buddha.

Congrats for your nomination in the NASA contest.

Yu Yamamoto
The Myth of Japan's Technological Superiority - PART 2.1: Prewar and Wartime History of Aeronautics
Authored by: samwidge on Wednesday, May 09 2012 @ 09:00 AM JST
Mr. Yamamoto,

It is charming to see this one-year-old article come to the top of Tokyo Free Press again. I believe it is your most important contribution. I do not know anyone with your courage in expression.

In the states, we can only dimly perceive what you and your people passed through. You do better at this than any other writer I have ever found.

In America we still cannot imagine any person or nation that is not somehow a winner in every sense. It is becoming more likely that at the end of the current presidential election cycle, Barack Obama will not win. We will be incapable of saying that he lost but always that he did not win. Alternatively, we will say that his opponent won.

There certainly must be many who are upset by your clear description of efforts and attitudes. Nonetheless, we need to know!

You are an elegant winner.
The Myth of Japan's Technological Superiority - PART 2.1: Prewar and Wartime History of Aeronautics
Authored by: Y.Yamamoto on Wednesday, May 09 2012 @ 12:11 PM JST


I was flattered that you called me a winner because that's what I've always wanted to be. Admittedly, though, it still looks likely I end my life as an underdog.

I once again featured the 3-year-old article in part because the next week 74 years ago saw the legendary airplane establish the world record in flight range. But there was another reason: I wanted to remind myself that no matter how I look to be an underdog, I should not succumb to these guys in Japan and the U.S. who have humiliated me like I'm one.

Here's one hypothetical question I want to ask you in this connection because I know you always want to be called a scientist.

What if President Obama asked you to design a more efficient UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle)? And what if "President" Romney asked you to develop the state-of-the-art drone on behalf of the CIA or Defense Department?

I think that you, like myself, are a firm believer in technology. There's no such thing as a technology that is harmful to humanity in itself. Empty-headed ideologues keep saying technologies for nuclear energy and Internet surveillance are inherently bad things. But we don't oversimplify or politicize things like this, do we? It all depends on how we design and apply these leading-edge technologies to actual use.

As you may agree, those who are simply opposed to this way of thinking are, in effect, advocating we should go back to the stone age.

Yu Yamamoto
The Myth of Japan's Technological Superiority - PART 2.1: Prewar and Wartime History of Aeronautics
Authored by: samwidge on Wednesday, May 09 2012 @ 02:25 PM JST
Mr. Yamamoto,

As a matter of fact, I have long since proposed the idea of my discus-shaped aircraft to NASA as an autonomous aircraft that is nearly silent. The agency did not bother to reply.

The device flies but poorly. More research is required.

I am a Romney and Paul fan. I am disappointed with President Obama but, above all, I am an American patriot. If asked by any, I would expect to give some kind of cooperation to a sitting president... with careful scrutiny first. A presidential request really is unlikely. If the Docra(TM) is successful, I am afraid that I will have to offer the invention to the highest bidder. I won't rush to advise government or to offer another chance.

In the end, it probably does not matter. Both our major political parties are edging toward a concept of submission to some concept of a world government. Maybe that is inevitable -- I hear both sides. Our land is being given away. The profit of our entrepreneurs are being taxed to the benefit of non-citizens.

You are right; Technology is the thing to focus upon. Rather than anticipate doom, I will focus on something to make me smile.