General Tomoyuki Yamashita was the commander of the Japanese 25th Army that attacked Malaya in December 1941. In February 1942, Yamashita took the surrender of the British and Commonwealth forces commanded by Lieutenant-General Percival at Singapore. His success in this campaign earned Yamashita the nickname “Tiger of Malaya”.
Yamashita was born on November 8th 1885 on the island of Shikoku. His father, a local doctor, did not believe that Yamashita had the academic ability to succeed in a profession like law. He therefore enrolled his son in a military school, the Kainan Middle School. Aged 15, Yamashita joined the military academy at Hiroshima. Here he gained a reputation as a hard worker and he was transferred to the Central Military Academy in Tokyo in 1905. After several attempts, in 1913 Yamashita passed the required exams to get him into the General Staff College. Here he held the rank of captain and graduated in 1916, sixth in his class.
Between 1919 and 1921, Yamashita served as a military attaché in Berlin and Berne, Switzerland. During this time he met a fellow officer, Hideki Tojo. When he was not working Yamashita spent his time studying. In 1921 he returned to Japan and worked within the General Staff of the Imperial Japanese Army. In 1930 Yamashita was given the command of the 3rd Imperial Infantry Regiment and held the rank of colonel.
Yamashita became a member of the Koda-ha group (Emperor Group), which attempted a coup d’état that failed. Yamashita was not directly involved in this attempted coup, which had been carried out by younger officers of the 1st Regiment, but he found that his name, as a result of his membership of Koda-ha, had been removed from the army’s promotion list. This, to Yamashita, indicated that he could never achieve the high command that he wanted. His removal to a command in Seoul in Korea seemed to confirm this. Koda-ha had a rival group that had greatly benefited from the failed coup. Known as the ‘Control Faction’, one of its leading members was Hideki Tojo who now viewed Yamashita as a serious rival to be kept as far away from Tokyo as was possible.
Between 1938 and 1940, Yamashita was assigned to northern China where he commanded the 4th Division of the Japanese Army.
While he had fallen into disfavour with the likes of Tojo and Emperor Hirohito, there were those who did recognise his military ability and pushed for his promotion. In this they were successful. On November 6th, 1941, Yamashita was given the command of the 25th Army. He had a month to prepare both himself and his army for the attack on Malaya, planned for December 8th.
The attack on British and Commonwealth forces in Malaya and Singapore was so successful that Yamashita earned the nickname ‘Tiger of Malaya’. His total tally of POW’s in the campaign, 130,000 men, was the largest in British and Commonwealth military history.
What happened in Singapore was used in evidence against Yamashita when he was put on trial for war crimes in 1945.
Yamashita’s success in Malaya greatly elevated his status in Tokyo. To dilute this as much as possible, it is thought that Tojo was behind his July 1942 appointment as commander of the Japanese 1st Army in Manchuria. This appointment kept him out of the Pacific War for over two years.
In October 1944, when it was clear to some that America’s huge military power was overcoming Japan’s, Yamashita was appointed head of the 14th Area Army that was set to defend the Philippines. Though he had over 250,000 soldiers at his disposal, supplying these men was all but impossible such was America’s supremacy at sea - her submarine and aerial forces mercilessly hunted down Japanese supply ships with huge success.
Yamashita was forced out of Manila by the advancing Americans and re-established his headquarters in mountains of northern Luzon.
Between February and March 1945 Japanese soldiers in and around Manila killed over 100,000 Filipino civilians. What was called ‘The Manila Massacre’ was also held against Yamashita at his trial.
Yamashita finally surrendered his troops, reduced to less than 50,000, on September 2nd.
Yamashita was arrested and formally charged with war crimes on September 25th. Specifically, he was charged with failing to control the men in Singapore who carried well-documented atrocities, such as the crimes committed at the Alexandra Hospital. The same accusation was made with regard to the ‘Manila Massacre’ – that he as commanding officer was responsible for the actions of his men.
Yamashita’s defence attorney argued that communications in the Philippines were so poor that Yamashita could not have known what was going on while he was in Luzon and the mass killings were in Manila. Colonel Harry Clarke, Snr, also argued that Yamashita had recognised that illegalities had gone on in Singapore by ordering the execution of the officers in charge of the soldiers who had committed murder at the Alexandra Hospital.
However, on December 7th 1945, Yamashita was found guilty of war crimes under a precedent that was to become known as the ‘Yamashita Standard’ – that he as commanding officer had to take full responsibility for the actions of the men under his command. Given the environment in which the trial was held – knowledge of the treatment of POW’s held by the Japanese, knowledge of the treatment of civilians under Japanese rule, the fact that the trial was held in the Philippines where the ‘Manila Massacre’ was carried out etc. – the result probably was never in doubt.
The legitimacy of the trial was called into question as hearsay evidence was allowed. Appeals to both the Philippines Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court failed. It is said that Douglas MacArthur hoped for a swift trial with a guilty verdict, as the process would set a precedent for other war trials that were about to start.
On February 23rd 1946 Yamashita was hanged. His final words were:
“I believe I have done my duty to the best of my ability throughout the whole war. Now at the time of my death and before God I have nothing to be ashamed of. Please remember me to the American officers who defended me.”