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

Sunday, March 29 2009 @ 07:09 AM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto


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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