Tomoyuki Yamashita

The Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita (1885-1946) distinguished himself as the "Tiger of Malaya" during World War II. After the war he surrendered in the Philippines, where he was tried for war crimes and executed by the Allies.

Tomoyuki Yamashita was born on Nov. 8, 1885, in Shikoku, son of a medical doctor, who started the child in a military career. At the military academy he was a year junior to his lifetime rival, Hideki Tojo, and graduated at the head of his class. By 1932, when only 47, he became section chief of military affairs in the War Ministry and was earmarked as an eventual war minister or even premier. He was one of the generals admired by a fanatical group of radical young officers, called the Imperial Way faction, who carried out an abortive coup d'etat on Feb. 26, 1936. Although Yamashita, then a major general, refused to go along with the plot, he came under such a cloud of suspicion that he almost retired but instead took an assignment in Korea. This actually put him in an advantageous position when the China incident of July 1937 broke out, and he distinguished himself in action so well that he was promoted to lieutenant general and placed in charge of North Korea.

Meanwhile, Gen. Tojo, whose control faction had benefited from the Imperial Way faction's demise, again began to fear Yamashita's revived popularity and finally got him transferred to an isolated Manchurian outpost in 1941. But when Japan entered the war against the Allies, Yamashita was placed in charge of the 25th Army and dramatically took Singapore by a surprise attack through Malaya. The British commander, Lt. Gen. Percival, surrendered to him in February 1942, and Yamashita was made a full general.

Jealous of Yamashita's fame, Tojo quickly transferred him to the quiet Manchurian border until October 1944, when Yamashita took full command of all the Imperial forces in the Philippines, as the Allies relentlessly moved in. On Sept. 2, 1945, he surrendered his sword at Bagio to the representatives of the Allied forces, among whom was Gen. Percival. By direction of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Yamashita was almost immediately put on trial as the one responsible for the last-minute wild massacres by Japanese troops in Manila, establishing a principle of responsibility the implications of which frightened a number of American officers. Yamashita was hanged on Feb. 23, 1946.

Gen. Yamashita is remembered in Japan as a military leader whose personal career was victimized by that very factionalism in the military that had so much to do with dragging Japan into the euphoria of war and the humiliation and suffering of defeat. His honorary pen name was Hobun.


Further Reading on Tomoyuki Yamashita

An intimate picture of Yamashita, based on an account by his chief of staff and on notes by American Army psychiatrists, is in the book by his defense lawyer, Adolf F. Reel, The Case of General Yamashita (1949), although most of the book is concerned with the trial and its implications. Another biography, focusing on the Malayan campaign but also relating his life, is in Arthur Swinson, Four Samurai (1968), one of whom is Yamashita; it contains the most up-to-date bibliography. A more detailed account of the Malayan campaign is by the pro-Tojo former colonel Masanobu Tsuji, Singapore: The Japanese Version, edited by H. V. Howe and translated by Margaret E. Lake (1960).

Additional Biography Sources

Hoyt, Edwin Palmer, Three military leaders: Heihachiro Togo, Isoroku Yamamoto, Tomoyuki Yamashita, Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International, 1993.