The Japanese general who inspired the legal principle of command responsibility.
Tomoyuki Yamashita (1885-1946) was one of the most brilliant Japanese generals of World War II. During the First World War he fought against Imperial German forces in their Chinese colonial territories. Between the world wars he was occupied with reforming the Japanese Army, but getting involved in Army faction politics pitted him against fellow officer and later Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō.
In February 1926 a group of Japanese officers unsuccessfully tried to topple the government. Once the coup was defeated, Yamashita pleaded for leniency toward the rebels, which earned him the Emperor’s disfavor and he was sidelined and sent to Korea. While there, he became interested in Zen Buddhism and acquired a more mellow personality along with the new-found discipline.
Yamashita’s big chance came with World War II. On December 8, 1941, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he led the Japanese invasion of the British-controlled Malayan Peninsula. His army of 30,000 was outnumbered by the defenders 1 to 3. Yamashita knew that attrition would spell doom for the invasion and conducted a lightning-fast advance, capturing Malaya in less than 2 months. He compensated for his smaller force by making good use of air force and light and medium tanks. The British had considered the terrain unsuitable for armor and didn’t have many vehicles in the area. He achieved additional mobility by having his infantry troops confiscate bicycles from locals, allowing for faster movement and being able to carry heavier loads even on rough terrain.
The crowning moment of the invasion was the capture of the island city of Singapore in a week’s fight in February 1942. It’s sometimes claimed that Singapore’s heavy defensive guns were only designed to repel a naval attack and couldn’t turn around to target ground assault from inland. This is not actually true, but the guns were hindered by being mainly supplied with armor piercing ammunition against ships and not having enough high explosive shells.
Thanks to his speed, aggression, willingness to bluff and British mistakes in anticipating his moves, Yamashita’s force of 30,000 minus casualties captured 80,000 British, Indian and Australian defenders in the city and another 50,000 during the advance down the peninsula. The loss of the port city, also called the “Gibraltar of the East,” was the greatest mass surrender, and, in Churchill’s words, the “worst disaster” in British military history.
Half a year after his victory, Yamashita was sidelined again and sent to Japanese-occupied China. This might have been the deed of his old rival Tōjō, the Prime Minister by that time, who used Yamashita’s gaffe of publicly, and incorrectly, calling conquered Singaporeans Japanese citizens as an excuse.
Yamashita was put back into action again in September 1944, by when Tōjō was no longer Prime Minister, but the tide of war had turned. He was charged with defending the Philippines. When his position in the capital city of Manila became untenable, he withdrew his troops from there and declared the place an open city to protect the inhabitants. Almost immediately, Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi reoccupied the city with his own troops, turning it into a deadly battlefield when American forces arrived. Collateral damage and atrocities by Iwabuchi’s troops claimed the lives of over 100,000 civilians.
Yamashita continued to delay U.S. troops until several weeks after the atomic bombs were dropped on Tokyo. He eventually surrendered on September 2, 1945 to U.S. General Jonathan Wainwright and British General Arthur Percival, the defender of Singapore who had surrendered to him with 80,000 of his men three and a half years earlier.
Yamashita was put on trial for war crimes committed by his troops. He argued that in the chaos of battle and with the resulting breakdown of communications, he didn’t know about the atrocities and had no control over the perpetrating troops, many of whom were, in fact, not even his but Iwabuchi’s. Based on previous war crimes perpetrated by troops under his command in Malaya, this was quite likely true. Back in 1942 he had forbidden looting, rape, arson and executed soldiers if they were caught violating his rules.
Nevertheless, Yamashita was found guilty, sentenced to death and executed. The trial was criticized at the time by several voices, including two U.S. Supreme Court Justices. The presiding judges are said to have run the trial unprofessionally, admitting hearsay evidence and refusing to admit evidence that would have supported Yamashita’s defense. It has also been suggested that Yamashita was sentenced to death as a scapegoat for the Manila Massacre that he wasn’t really responsible for as revenge for the humiliation he inflicted on the British in Singapore. Whatever the truth may be, the case established the Yamashita standard, today referred to as command responsibility, which makes leaders legally responsible for the actions of their subordinates.