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The Myth of Japan's Technological Superiority - PART 2.2: Prewar and Wartime History of Aeronautics


My father Mineo Yamamoto
Left: Caricatured by political cartoonist Hidezo Kondo
Right: On the eve of WWII in Berlin

It is true that there are a small number of people who are interested in what my father left behind. Ironically though, most of them are non-Japanese. Worse, to a handful of Japanese who know Mineo Yamamoto, he is just a name their fetishes bear. It looks as though a human being by that name has never existed.

In 2004 he was posthumously inducted into the Japan Automotive Hall of Fame, but during his lifetime, he was not rewarded in the right way for what he could achieve, let alone what he couldn't. Sometimes, he received a well-deserved acknowledgment, but recognitions, more often than not, came from a wrong person and for a wrong reason.

In 1973, Emperor Hirohito, demigod-turned the symbol of national unity, decorated him for his prewar and wartime accomplishments in aeronautics and postwar contribution to lay the foundation of Japan's car industry. Throughout his lifetime, though, my father could not conceal his contempt for the Emperor. But unfortunately for him, by that time Alzheimer's had started affecting his brain so seriously that he couldn't refuse to accept the decoration. My mother dragged him to the Imperial Palace.

As his eldest son, I was adversely affected by a fallout from his disdain for the Emperor. When I was 6 or 7 years old, he already started giving me an enormous pressure to make me get into the fast track to a top-notch scientist. I would later call his excessively demanding and coercive education method a double-edged sword. Totally defenseless, I finally collapsed after a futile attempt, for most of my formative years, to regain my own self. It took a long feud between us until I came to realize his aberrant obsession with the idea of making a first-rate scientist out of an ordinary kid was not so abnormal as it looked. He certainly knew that would have been the only way to avoid sacrificing his offspring for Hirohito if the Manhattan Project had delayed for ten years or so, or Japan had become nuclearized before the U.S.

Up until the war defeat, the emperor was so cold-hearted as to let his 3 million subjects die just to protect him and his kin against the barbarians from the West. When his shogun and samurai finally succumbed to the Allied Powers, he transformed himself into something that would wince at a single drop of Japanese blood shed to defend whatever his subjects want to defend. In 1945, I was a 9-year-old kid but I think I was also a victim of this bastard.

Last year fell on the 70th anniversary of the legendary plane that set the world record for flight range. But no other newspaper than The Japan Times commemorated the anniversary.

I very much appreciated the Japan Times article written by staff writer Akemi Nakamura. But she wasn't quite accurate on one point; she subtly misquoted me as telling her: "[Mineo Yamamoto Cyber Museum I launched in 2007] is one of the things I'm doing to tell people about the aircraft. It's our task to preserve the intellectual legacy that my father and his colleagues left." To me, preserving hardware, or software, is the smallest part of man's endeavor to hand down the intellectual legacy, which is often intangible, from a generation to the next.

In the same article Ms. Nakamura quoted Shigezo Oyanagi, director at Misawa Aviation and Science Museum, as saying, "The plane's technology was not particularly outstanding." The question the director couldn't have answered is, "Then, what was particularly outstanding of Koken-ki?" Oyanagi boasts that he built Japan's only full-scale "replica" of Koken-ki several years ago. But this is nothing but a mock because you can't actually fly it. Ms. Nakamura should not have expected any discerning remark from a fetishist such as Oyanagi. Kazuyoshi Suzuki, a senior curator at Japan's largest National Museum of Nature and Science, once scornfully told me that the full-scale "replica" is nothing but a pricey toy Oyanagi built at the expense of the taxpayers of Aomori Prefecture, where his museum is located. Suzuki was (uncharacteristically) right.

Suzuki's museum is run by a quasi-governmental entity. His projects must be funded much more affluently than Oyanagi's. So can I expect him to outdo the fetishist in the Aomori museum in one way or the other? That's what my late mother must have assumed some ten years ago when she generously permitted Suzuki to take away all the materials (drawings, reports, 35mm films, etc.) my father had left behind. But when I visited him in 2007, I found out that was not the case at all. It's not only that none of these materials were exhibited there, but also he effectively admitted that because of the "budget and manpower constraint" chronically facing him, most of these materials were thrown into the storage in the basement and left there unattended.

Last year I met the president of a publishing company (names withheld) who is well-versed in Japan's history of aviation. His company has published some Koken-ki-related books. He whispered to me that in a sense Suzuki had been telling me the truth. According to the president, more than 100 curators are working for the national museum, but Suzuki is the only guy working on aviation. Besides, his area of responsibilities includes IT, robotics, dinosaurs and many other areas. I asked the president: "What the heck, then, are all other guys working on?" His answer: "Please keep this strictly to yourself. Other people are working solely for the Emperor and his kin." .

Every Japanese knows that the successive Emperors and their kin have had scholastic pastimes of "studying" insects such as grasshoppers and butterflies, flowers and grasses such as rice plants and alpine flora, fish such as catfish and carp, etc., etc. Their "scholastic pursuits" can be anything as long as they are harmless, useless and irrelevant. The Crown Prince has deviated a little from this imperial tradition. His graduation thesis at Oxford was titled "A Study of Navigation and Traffic on the Upper Thames in the 18th Century." As Ben Hills, author of Princess Masako - Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne, pointed out, the Prince submitted his thesis several years after the graduation, because back home, he had to rely on Japanese professors for actually writing the pointless thesis on his behalf. All this really symbolizes the pathological trait of the Japanese.

Under the circumstances, it always heartens me to know some Westerners show a keen interest in learning about my father. Above all I have always been encouraged by John H. (Jack) Wiegman. Although Jack is the editor of the newsletter of the Montana Chapter of Experimental Aircraft Association, he is not one of those fetishists who can never appreciate man's integrity and innovativeness embodied in his brainchild such as Koken-ki. I do know that American museums, such as Smithsonian-affiliated National Air Museum founded by Mr. Paul E. Garber, have repaired or replicated Japan's warplanes. But this brings us little consolation because these aircraft are exhibited there just as trophies from WWII.

It turns out that my own children, grandchildren, siblings and their kids are no exception to the Japanese indifference to human-ware. They say they are proud of Mineo Yamamoto. But the best thing I can expect from them is just to fetishize the tangible part of his accomplishments, as is true with their compatriots. This is not the way man's intellectual legacy is handed down from generation to generation. That is why I have recently closed down the private part of our family websites. "Family Reunion Site" and "Memorial Service Site" are no longer there. When I launched these sites two years ago, I was still expecting that at least my father's offspring, regardless of their occupations, would show a certain willingness to internalize the essence of what he has left for posterity. I was wrong.

Mineo Yamamoto carried through his way of doing things which was utterly incompatible with his compatriots'. I don't know, neither do I want to know, what if he had been yet another conformist. In fact, he was born, and fathered me, in a wrong country.

Throughout its modern history, this nation has had to start over from scratch every time its misplaced aspiration was wrecked, because its rulers and their subjects have single-mindedly nurtured a homogeneous society where "the nail that sticks out" is mercilessly hammered down. In this futile climate, it's out of the question to try to explore scarce, but genuinely homegrown cultural values and dig them out. Only by capitalizing on these legacies, would our nation be able to avoid repeating same mistakes over and over.

Japan's modern history of aeronautics is just one of those tragedies inherent in the unviable nation.

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