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Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto A Commander And Chief History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was Commander and Chief of the Combined Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy from 1939 until his death in 1943. Known as one of the finest maritime commanders in World War II, he achieved great success despite operating in a comprised command environment created by a schism between the two main factions within the Japanese Navy. The command model developed by Pigeau and McCann describes command capability in three independent dimensions of competency, authority and responsibility (CAR model). [1] This paper will show the role and function of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto as the Combined Fleet Commander and assess his career and actions in regards to the dimensions of command capability. As well it will identify the root causes of the comprised command environment that Yamamoto operated in. The paper will prove that while Yamamoto excelled in the command dimensions of competence and responsibility, his command position was compromised in the dimension of authority.


Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was born Takano Isoroku on 4 April 1884 and was adopted by the Yamamoto clan in 1916 after the death of his parents. The son of an impoverished former Samurai, he attended missionary school taught by a white missionary where he was introduced to and influenced by English and the bible. In 1901, he placed second in the national entrance examinations for the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) and received an appointment to the Imperial Naval Academy. As a cadet he stood out from his often insular and xenophobic peers as he felt that, “… the Japanese had something to learn from the Westerners, and one way to learn was to study their beliefs.” [2] 

Commissioned in 1905 and wounded at the Battle of Tsushima, Yamamoto served in a variety of operational roles as a junior officer. In 1916 he graduated from the Japanese Naval Staff College with top honours where it was noted that he was destined to be an Admiral. In 1919, Yamamoto was posted to the United States as an assistant naval attaché and studied English and American industrial relations at Harvard University. It was here that he developed a healthy respect for American industrial capabilities and capacity came to believe that a war with the United States would be suicidal given the lack of industrial capacity and resources available to Japan. [3] This belief would stay with him for the remainder of his career and formed the basis for his resistance to the pro-war factions within the Japanese military and government.

Returning to the United States as naval attaché in 1925, he studied in detail the United States Navy’s (USN) operations and capabilities and closely followed the debate by General Billy Mitchell that aircraft could sink a battleship. [4] Later, as an instructor at the Japanese Naval Staff College he had begun to develop an interest in naval air power. He also filled several key posts, all dealing with naval aviation and believed that aircraft carriers were the key to success in naval operations.

In the 1920’s, following the Washington Naval Treaty, The Imperial Japanese Navy was split into two opposing factions, Fleet Faction and Treaty Faction. The Treaty Faction argued that Japan could not afford an arms race with the western powers, and hoped through diplomacy to restore the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and that the current Treaty limitations would serve Japan for the time being. The predominant Treaty Faction comprised the political left-wing within the Navy and was supported by the civilian government. In 1930, the even more restrictive London Naval Treaty exasperated the right wing expansionists Fleet Faction who demanded fleet parity with the United States and Great Britain and were not willing to compromise on the number of ships that the Japanese Navy could build. The Treaty Faction maintained that war with the west, primarily the United States as un-winnable and was willing to settle for a reduced fleet in the Pacific Ocean. Further, the Fleet Faction were proponents of battleships as Japan’s primary naval weapon, while the Treaty Faction believed in the future of the aircraft carrier and naval aviation. Because of the Emperor’s desire to keep Japan at peace and expansionist elements in check, the position of the Treaty Faction prevailed. As a conference delegate, “… Yamamoto spoke out in favour of the Treaty, and thus became well known as an advocate of peace, and a target of the right wing.” [5] Because of this considerable and lasting resentment from the Fleet Faction would be directed at Yamamoto.

Following the 1930 London Naval Treaty, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) which was dominated by a group of young right wing officers who believed that Japan had a divine right to rule, began to exert its influence in order to take control of the government. Yamamoto and other Treaty Faction officers decried this movement and actively sought to thwart the plans of both the IJA and the Fleet Faction.

In 1934 due to the direct influence of the Emperor, Admiral Yamamoto was made the chief delegate to the second London Naval Conference. Although he was given full decision making powers, he was directed by the government to achieve naval parity with the United States and Britain. Yamamoto opposed this view but, “…he was a servant of the nation, and as such was in no position to make any deal that diverged too far from the lines laid down in his instructions from the government.” [6] It was clear that Yamamoto would fight for what he believed in, but he served the Emperor and his country first and would always do as ordered. In the end, the Treaty talks failed and Yamamoto returned to Japan even more popular than before due to his stalwart performance at the conference.

In 1934 the Fleet Faction gained control of the Navy and proceeded to purge the Japanese naval hierarchy of Treaty Faction officers. Yamamoto was not removed as “… in spite of his views, the Fleet Faction respected Yamamoto for his technical abilities and knowledge and knew they needed him. He had obliged so far by ignoring politics, having stated his views on war and peace.” [7] However, Admiral Yamamoto was a problem for the new navy as he was admired and respected by the Emperor. [8] He,

“… had come home famous, but he was ignored by the Navy Minister and the fleet faction. The authorities seemed to want him to get so disgusted with inaction that he would resign. They very nearly succeeded; he considered this course seriously, but friends counseled against it.” [9] 

The Fleet Faction did not exert enough influence in the government to have Yamamoto removed from the Navy, but they did marginalize him by placing him in an obscure position.

Admiral Yamamoto was extremely concerned at the course that his country was taking as it was edging inexorably towards war with the United States and others. In 1937 the IJA started a short-lived rebellion and continued in their push to gain full control of the government and the country and forward their war plans. What followed was a number of short lived governments where the Emperor attempted to keep the IJA in check by using moderate Prime Ministers with Admiral Yonai as the Naval Minister and Admiral Yamamoto as the Naval Vice Minister. While a very reluctant vice minister, Yamamoto’s loyalty to the country and the Emperor were paramount and he worked diligently to counter the IJA with the IJN as he “… saw clearly that if the situation progressed unchecked it would lead to war and eventual ruin.” [10] Eventually, the Emperor’s efforts to safeguard a moderate government failed and the IJA gained control of its function. Even with the continued move to the right, “Both Yamamoto and Yonai refused to compromise with the trend of the time, remaining critical toward the army and the right wing, and extremely critical of the hawkish faction within the navy itself.” [11] 

In 1944, The IJA wanted to sign the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy but Yonai and Yamamoto refused to agree as it would draw Japan closer to war with the United States. Right wing radicals were openly threatening to assassinate Yamamoto and once the IJA was firmly in control of the government, both Yonai and Yamamoto were dismissed. As his last act as the Naval Minister, and in an effort to save his friends life, Admiral Yonai had Yamamoto sent to sea as the Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet. While he was reluctant to give up the fight, Yamamoto was grateful to go back to sea as he could do little more to avoid the steady movement towards war. Yamamoto, “… had made that fleet’s naval air force into the most powerful in the world. Now he would be forced to prepare that navy for a war that he opposed.” [12] 

As the Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet, Admiral Yamamoto was no longer actively involved in politics but there were many young Fleet Faction officers within the Combined Fleet that were not pleased with their new Commander in Chief. Many had the feeling that he was too fond of the west and did not have the stomach for a fight. [13] Undaunted by any opposition to his command, Yamamoto trained the fleet intensely so that it would be prepared for the inevitability of war.

While he did not want a war, he understood that the only way to win was a quick attack that would destroy the USN. Yamamoto first proposed the concept of a quick and decisive blow against the Americans at Pearl Harbor to the Navy Minister on 7 Jan 1941. Initially, the Naval General Staff (NGS) rejected the plan due to its unorthodox tactics and the risks involved. The NGS were primarily Fleet Faction officers and they operated under a set of assumptions of how America would react in the case of war. The NGS assumed that;

“(1) Japan would attack the Philippines, (2) the USN would sally forth in support of the Philippines, (3) the IJN would fight a war of attrition near the Marianas, and (4) there would be a battle of the two fleets and the USN would lose.” [14] 

These assumptions had been prevalent for years and were the common element in the various war plans drawn up during the annual Japanese war games by the NGS and the Navy Staff College. The standard result of this long accepted practice meant that the Navy,

“…ended up as a smug little society which insisted that all ideas on strategy should conform to this orthodoxy and in which anyone who tried to embark on a new and different course was promptly branded a heretic ignorant of tactics.” [15] 

Due to this practice, the Japanese war plans between the wars had only envisioned one enemy, the United States. Yamamoto, however, realized that future conflict would now involve war with the United States, Great Britain, The Netherlands and Australia, and that new strategic and operational thinking was required. Yamamoto was well aware of the strong opposition to his views by the NGS, the Fleet Faction and by certain officers within the fleet under his command, but remained convinced that his plan to attack Pearl Harbor was critical to victory. [16] 

The IJA and Navy command believed that the role of Admiral Yamamoto and the IJN was to move and protect the IJA as they conquered Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, not to strike the American fleet in Pearl Harbor. As a result they strongly opposed Yamamoto’s plan, believing that the pacifists in the west would not oppose them. [17] Yamamoto, on the other hand, was very much aware of the might of the US and knew that the only way to get USN out of a war was to quickly destroy their strike capability. As such he persisted and continued to press the NGS to get them to see his perspective.

By midsummer of 1941, Yamamoto’s plans had not been accepted by the naval high command. One of the plans chief opponents was Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, a Fleet Faction admiral who had been given command of the Combined Fleet of aircraft carriers in April 1941 by the NGS. Yamamoto’s next step involved a concession by the NGS and he succeeded in getting them to agree to look at his plan during the annual naval map maneuvers in September 1941. When the map exercises were played out, the outcomes were not favourable to the plan at all. But, finally in October 1941, Yamamoto demanded that his plan be accepted or he would resign as the Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet. Because Admiral Yamamoto was widely respected for his abilities the Navy accepted his plan. [18] 

Even though the plan to attack Pearl Harbor was approved by the NGS; “the Combined Fleet Command remained obstinate, the NGS cautious, and the leaders of the task force detailed to go to Hawaii negative in their attitude to the plan.” [19] As a counter to Yamamoto the NGS ensured that Nagumo was appointed as the commander of the strike force. Yamamoto was extremely unhappy with that decision but did not try to get him removed as he, “…said such an action would demoralize the attack force and he would stick with Nagumo, who, however, would have to be carefully instructed as to his responsibilities.” [20] 

The principal problem for Yamamoto was that as the commander of the main strike force, Nagumo, was clearly not loyal to him. There were numerous men that worked for him that did not respect his views, but in this single appointment to such a crucial position of responsibility, the Navy completely undermined the authority of Admiral Yamamoto. [21] Yamamoto could request or suggest certain personnel be assigned to the fleet, but approval power rested with the Naval Personnel Bureau of the NGS, and it was heavily populated by Fleet Faction officers. As a result, he was saddled with some officers that he could not fully trust to do as ordered, a critical problem when you are to embark on a plan as unorthodox as the attack on Pearl Harbor was.

While the initial attack on Pearl Harbor was a success, history would show that the errors made by Nagumo and his unwillingness at Pearl Harbor to follow his orders and carry out the follow on attack to destroy the American naval facilities and the oil stored at the harbour were crucial. Had Nagumo done as he had been ordered, the destruction of the remaining US facilities would have crippled the American war efforts for years instead of months. Ultimately this failure to deny the harbour facilities and oil to the USN allowed them to continue to use Pearl Harbor as an operating base from 1941 onwards. Had Yamamoto succeeded with his original plan, the USN would have had to operate from the US west coast which would have changed the nature of the war. Admiral Nagumo’s loyalty lay with the Fleet Faction and not with Admiral Yamamoto. Had Yamamoto been given a commander who he trusted, and who respected him, he would not have been operating in a compromised command environment and the war may have turned out quite differently.

The Pigeau/McCann Model

The Pigeau/McCann model describes the command capability in three independent dimensions; competency, authority and responsibility, known as the CAR model. It views a compromised command environment as when a commander is operating in an environment in which an imbalance exists in one of the independent dimensions. [22] 

In the dimension of competency there is no doubt that Admiral Yamamoto had the skills to command the Combined Fleet. Even though he was widely disliked by the Fleet Faction for his views on the war, he was highly respected for his competence and devotion to his country. Yamamoto felt that as the Commander in Chief of Japan’s fleet, his duty was to protect his homeland and be ready for war. [23] He relentlessly trained the fleet and as a commander he knew that, “Battles are won by a commander who swiftly makes up his mind and backs his own judgment. For each move, once made, is irrevocable.” [24] Even the most ardent Fleet Faction admiral would not be able to deny that Admiral Yamamoto was superbly competent, “Few men can make such decisions with certainty. Certainly no other Japanese admiral could. They require special courage and self-confidence – which Yamamoto had.” [25] 

In the dimension of responsibility Yamamoto displayed the necessary intrinsic and extrinsic capability as a commander. As the Commander in Chief, Admiral Yamamoto fully accepted the responsibility of his position as he had throughout his career. Earlier in his career as the captain of an aircraft carrier, an accident lost virtually the entire complement of the aircraft and pilots during a training mission. Despite the fact that he had not ordered the mission, “…Yamamoto refused to shift the responsibility. He was the captain of the ship, and anything that happened on the ship was his responsibility, and so he took the blame for an accident that was not his fault.” [26] As the chief delegate to the second London Naval Conference, it was well known that he opposed the view of the Fleet Faction but he had a job to do for his country. Upon his arrival in London for the second conference, he called a press conference and, in English, announced “Japan can no longer submit to the ratio system. There is no possibility of compromise by my government on that point.” [27] Also, he accepted responsibility for loss at the Battle of Midway. The concept for the battle belonged to Yamamoto; however it was entirely planned by his Chief of Staff. The planning for the battle, while adequate, did not fully account for American actions or all contingencies. Gaps in planning, combined with the tactical failures by Nagumo, led to the disastrous loss for the Japanese. Although he would have been justified in allocating the failure on the actions of his subordinates, Yamamoto accepted full responsibility for what occurred. [28] 

It is in the authority dimension that the issue of a compromised command environment begins to surface for Yamamoto. “Without sufficient authority, a commander is compromised in his mission. Even worse, the individual in the position is placed under tremendous psychological pressure.” [29] Yamamoto was given the legal authority by the NGS and IJN as Commander in Chief of the Fleet and therefore the explicit power to act, but was not given the personnel and resources necessary to complete the mission. When Admirals Yonai and Yamamoto were the Naval Minister and Vice-Minister, they had not succeeded in fully rooting out the Fleet Faction officers in the staff as they were just too well entrenched. Yamamoto was therefore unable to exert sufficient influence to change key personnel selected for the Pearl Harbor attack. As a result his personal authority was not recognized by certain of the officers under his command in the Combined Fleet. Even though he was able to command his officers, it was very difficult for Yamamoto to motivate all of his personnel to the degree required to effectively complete the mission.


Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto rose from an obscure beginning to become the Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy. His rise to such a high position of command was a testament to his abilities. His death was viewed as a national tragedy and he was given a state funeral, only the second for a commoner in Japanese history. Although revered in Japan as a national hero, the historical evidence shows that his command environment was sullied and actively thwarted by the Fleet Faction officers.

In the CAR model of command by Pigeau and McCann, a compromised command environment is one in which a commander is operating in an environment where one of the independent dimensions has been violated. In the case of Admiral Yamamoto, it has been shown that he had the required competency and responsibility to be the Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet, but had insufficient support in the authority dimension.

Despite being a Treaty Faction officer in a navy dominated by Fleet Faction officer, he received and kept the highest command position available. Regardless of being panned by the fleet officers for his political and personal feelings, he was widely respected by the government, military and country for his competency. The responsibility dimension was also not an issue for Admiral Yamamoto. He demonstrated on numerous occasions when he was in command that he accepted full responsibility for both his and the actions of his subordinates.

The compromised command environment for Admiral Yamamoto occurred in the authority dimension. Despite his brilliance as a commander, he could never overcome those in the naval staff that viewed him as a Treaty Faction officer and as a result never fully trusted him. The impact of this was that as the Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet, he was sent officers that did not believe in him and did not completely respect or trust him. As a consequence of this, at a critical juncture of the war for Japan, the attack on Pearl Harbor, one of those officers did not fully carry out his orders. The failure of this officer allowed the United States to recover quickly from the Japanese attack and commence their offensive against Japan earlier.

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