"Smells Like Butter?" The Kaigun's Akiyama Saneyuki

I asked him who [was] the best [planner] in the Japanese Navy, and he replied: "among the very young ones Commander Akiyama."

Commander Frank Marble, U.S.N., April 1907

A few years ago a modern historian maintained that the Imperial Japanese Navy had suffered from a "dearth" of creativity in the period before 1919. The statement is quite surprising as earlier historians have taken note of one important individual, Akiyama Saneyuki. Fortunately, recent scholarship has been somewhat more generous, and later this year a new book will feature prominently the subject of this presentation. In that regard, I want to explain my title. "Kaigun" is, of course, the Japanese Navy. The archaic Japanese phrase, "bata kusai," carries a social implication. While it is most often translated, pejoratively, as "stinking of butter," I wanted to avoid a negative connotation. The phrase referred either to a Westerner, or as in this case, a Japanese citizen who seemingly had drawn too heavily upon western influences, and was, therefore, tainted. My aim here is to deal with an individual who benefited from such exposure to external influences but demonstrated remarkable creativity in the pursuit of Japanese interests.

In the last years Akiyama has drawn numerous tributes: for example, "the most influential staff officer in the history of the modern Japanese navy"; "a pivotal figure who exerted a dramatic and comprehensive impact on Japanese naval thinking"; "a brilliant naval strategist and tactician"; and, finally, "Modern Japanese naval thought began with the work of Akiyama Saneyuki." While these opinions emanated from western sources, Japanese descriptions of Akiyama have been equally deferential. Just who was this professional and what did he do to merit that legacy?

Quite simply, Akiyama helped the Imperial Japanese Navy ascend to international prestige. He became the prime architect of the Japanese victory at Tsushima in May 1905, and also helped develop a conceptual defensive framework for Japan's subsequent maritime posture. This framework remained in place until 1940, but is beyond the scope of this discussion. How Akiyama contributed to that process is a little known tale and offers an alternative to the usual western view of naval warfare and naval history. It also involves a rarity, tied to this issue of "smelling of butter." Akiyama was, I found, the only Japanese naval officer to have enjoyed extensive contact with American military and naval operations, under both wartime and peacetime conditions. He also benefited from his exposure to the processes of the U.S. Naval War College, then considered the leading international center for the study of naval warfare. Some might argue that western historians have ignored for too long Akiyama's role in naval warfare and naval history. I hope to shed some additional light on that subject.

Akiyama was a naval officer who neither commanded a battle fleet nor reached a superior position of authority in the Imperial Navy's hierarchy. But, as a student, observer, naval attaché, instructor, and staff officer Akiyama exercised a long-term influence upon both his seniors and subordinates. It is often difficult to argue that important things happened because of one person's actions, but in this case it is most verifiable that Akiyama Saneyuki wielded a disproportionate amount of influence upon the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Akiyama was born in 1868 and grew up during the period when the Meiji-era government sought to check the power and influence of the samurai, the warrior class in which Akiyama's father had served in a minor capacity. Burdened by financial woes, the teenage Akiyama left his home in southern Japan for Tokyo to live with his elder brother, then a junior officer of the Imperial Army. The younger Akiyama took advantage of the more cosmopolitan ambience of Tokyo. There he studied English, and grew accustomed to wearing western attire. In 1886 he entered the Japanese Naval Academy.

Akiyama's active duty career began in July 1890, graduating first in his naval academy class just weeks after the release of Alfred Thayer Mahan's classic study, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. It is quite possible that the new officer read the work, as part had been published in Japanese in July 1890. Akiyama rose through the ranks in a variety of routine shipboard assignments and duties that included deployments throughout the Pacific, Mediterranean, and European waters. Ordered to a small warship in 1894 Akiyama saw no combat action in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. Following the hostilities he served a tour at the Imperial Navy's Torpedo school and then sharpened his analytical skills in the navy's Intelligence Office. He then spent several months posing as a laborer and conducting missions in Manchuria and Korea.

Nothing set Akiyama apart from his peers until the Imperial Navy sought to become a first class naval power. Determined to make its officer corps more professional, the Japanese Navy began detailing selected officers abroad as resident observers. The Navy ordered Akiyama, then a lieutenant, to America. His task was to gain admission to the U.S. Naval War College during an expected two year tour.

As the Navy Ministry drafted Akiyama's orders, the United States and Japan became involved in a crisis related to the American effort to annex Hawaii. When diplomatic negotiations seemed fruitless both nations dispatched warships to the islands. The crisis, though settled without hostilities, seemingly precluded Akiyama's access to professional and educational opportunities in America. Unfettered by the controversy, Akiyama made his journey to America in August 1897.

Upon his arrival in the New York area Akiyama contacted Alfred Thayer Mahan for professional advice and recommendations on how to participate in the programs of either the U.S. Naval Academy or the U.S. Naval War College. Mahan proved unable, or unwilling, to go that far and gave Akiyama limited assistance. Instead, Mahan provided Akiyama with a reading list related to strategy and tactics, and recommended the collection at the Navy Library in Washington. Dissatisfied, the ambitious Akiyama traveled to Washington DC in pursuit of other opportunities. He sought further help from the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt but managed only to obtain unclassified Naval War College course abstracts. In a letter to Roosevelt, Akiyama delivered an impassioned plea for the chance to secure a professional education at the U.S. Naval War College:

I had the luck of being ordered to come here for studying Naval Tactics, Strategy and International Law. [Our] Navy sent me to this country because we considered that your Naval War College is the best institution in my branches of study. I found that there may be some official difficulties getting permission to enter the War College, as there are many important and confidential lessons in the college. I trust that you would understand my purpose and situation from the foregoing, [so] I can come to no other conclusion than it would be best for me to inquire of you whether I may ask or not, for the privilege of attending such original lectures as are not confidential at the War College. Allow me to add a few lines as to my personal wishes. Since I came here, I am always afraid that, if I shall fail in the course of my study perhaps I [might] be recalled to Japan. This is another reason why I so eagerly wish to get the grant to the War College for not only official request but my own sake."

Roosevelt refused the request.

Akiyama's tour, however, coincided with the start of the Spanish-American War (1898) which provided him further opportunities for professional growth. In June 1898 Akiyama received permission to join the American military forces sailing from Florida to Cuba. Arriving off Santiago on 20 June, Akiyama and the other embarked foreign military observers remained at sea until the army completed its landings six days later. Once ashore Akiyama witnessed the U.S. Army's campaign to capture Santiago, and observed closely the American navy's operations.

More importantly, Akiyama was fortunate enough to secure a front row seat to the American destruction of Spain's naval forces in July 1898. The Spanish fleet had taken refuge in Santiago harbor and came under siege by American naval forces. From an accompanying vessel Akiyama observed carefully the American naval strategy and tactics to maintain the blockade and the methodical destruction of the Spanish fleet when it sortied.

Stimulated by these first hand experiences, Akiyama submitted a lengthy report to his superiors in Japan critically analyzing the U.S. Navy's successful Cuban operations as well as noting the problems encountered in the landing operations. In his own planning work later Akiyama would draw upon lessons from the American navy off Cuba. Akiyama cited specifically the close blockade instituted by the U.S. Navy as well as the layered deployment of the blockade forces. Akiyama's report served as the basis for future study on how Japan might best employ its naval forces in a limited war. He stressed that the lessons of the Caribbean conflict provided guidance for the Imperial Navy for future hostilities. He had in mind the Russian Navy in East Asia and in particular, any Russian fleet at Port Arthur. His report was so thorough that it became "the classic source of information" about the application of naval power and helped shape Japanese naval strategy after 1898.

Following the conclusion of hostilities in August 1898 Akiyama continued his quest for higher education in the United States. He served for a period as the Japanese naval attaché in Washington. Following the efforts of Japan's minister to the United States, in February 1899 Akiyama received permission to serve a six month tour aboard an American warship. Akiyama's duties as an assistant signals and staff officer provided him with practical experience in decoding and interpreting American naval tactical signals. He also observed, and participated in, fleet operations throughout the Caribbean and North Atlantic.

Akiyama's good luck continued when he finally received permission to visit the U.S. Naval War College. There, he heard a number of lectures analyzing the lessons from the Spanish war. One might contend strongly that such opportunities gave Akiyama a deeper appreciation of the American naval operations. The professional activities of that period gave him an insight into contemporary American naval practices, tendencies, and propensities. Specifically, Akiyama could make an informed forecast as to what strategic considerations might be contemplated by American planners in future hostilities. Although one tries always to avoid reductionism, in the case of Akiyama it is most important to note that many of the naval officers he met served at one time or another in war planning bodies of the U.S. Navy.

Following a successful American tour Akiyama returned to Japan in late 1900, and was assigned to duties at the Naval Ministry. Within a year and a half, the Naval Ministry promoted Akiyama to duties as the senior strategy instructor at the Imperial Japanese Naval Staff College. There, the effect of his observations during the Spanish-American War and his participation in evolutions with the U.S. Navy helped him to formulate a strategic and tactical doctrine for the Japanese Navy. With a substantive curriculum reform effort Akiyama contributed further to the professionalism of the Japanese officer corps when he introduced to the Staff College a German innovation, the applicatory system. The applicatory system used situation estimates and the formulation of orders to develop realistic contingency plans by creating a standardized naval doctrine. Here, I want to point out that Akiyama's reform predated by nearly a decade a similar effort at the U.S. Naval War College. Akiyama instituted, as well, advanced wargaming and tabletop map exercises, benefiting from his experiences at the U.S. Naval War College.

Drawing upon his increased professionalism, the Japanese Navy used Akiyama to update the battle fleet's operating doctrine in anticipation of war with Russia. As the continued Russian occupation of Manchuria, a result of the Boxer Rebellion, increased the threat of conflict, the Japanese government began preparing for war. In any case, the Japanese initiated diplomatic negotiations to end the impasse between the two states. Should the talks prove fruitless, however, the Japanese government aimed to resolve the situation by force. The Russians recognized that threat and deployed eight battleships to East Asia, while keeping six in reserve in European waters. The fleet deployment challenged the Japanese directly, for the Imperial Navy would never possess more than six battleships in its inventory.

Commanding a superb professional knowledge and expertise at an unprecedented age, he was then thirty-four, Akiyama trained officers who were his peers. Previously, the usual differences in the ages of the instructors and students had precluded a close connection. Akiyama's intelligence and personality, however, contributed to a more demanding and intense relationship. Appropriately, Akiyama prepared fleet officers for conflict. This resulted in an inculcated system taken back out to the fleet and shore commands where most staff officers worked from the same pages, pages written by Akiyama. Most certainly, Akiyama's training abroad proved beneficial as Staff College officers developed Japan's strategy and tactics for war with Russia.

Akiyama's task as the leading strategist entailed two challenges. First, the Japanese Navy had to neutralize the major Russian naval base at Port Arthur. As long as that facility remained available to Russian naval forces, either those already in East Asia or any reinforcements dispatched from European waters, Japan's freedom of action remained tenuous. Secondly, Akiyama feared a Russian sortie from Port Arthur. A successful Russian sortie would threaten not only the Japanese landings upon the Korean and Manchurian coasts but the sea lanes of communication between Japan and the continent.

In that regard, Japanese planners recognized they lacked the naval resources their future enemy could project into an Asian war. Therefore, the planners based their naval strategy upon a defensive strategy and the preservation of assets until conditions were appropriate for a decisive fleet engagement. The Japanese Navy would have to defeat, in detail, any Russian naval forces capable of interfering with the Japanese Army's amphibious operations in Korea and Manchuria. The training conducted at the Naval Staff College under Akiyama's tutelage led naval planners to conclude that the decisive battle should occur once the Japanese Navy had neutralized any enemy forces at Port Arthur, and the Baltic Fleet, dispatched 18,000 miles to the Far East, arrived exhausted in Asian waters.

It was such planning work that highlighted Akiyama's value as an elite. Described as simultaneously eccentric and brilliant, Akiyama's strategic planning and battle fleet exercises brought him to the attention of senior officers in Tokyo, in particular, Admiral Yamamoto Gombei, Navy Minister, and Admiral Togo Heihachiro, prospective Commander-in-Chief of the Rengo Kantai, or the Combined Fleet. Recognized for his immeasurable talents the Navy Ministry ordered Akiyama to sea in October 1903 as a fleet Special Staff Officer under Togo. Akiyama soon became the Combined Fleet's Senior Staff Officer and Togo directed him to prepare the battle plans for the Russian Far Eastern Fleet at Port Arthur as well as the expected eastward bound Baltic Fleet.

Akiyama drew both upon his western experiences and strategic planning at the Naval Staff College to carry out Togo's orders. Akiyama supplemented his own experiences with lessons drawn from traditional Asian texts, such as the works of China's Sun Tzu and Wu Tzu, and Japan's Takeda Shingen. Akiyama devised a phased plan for the blockade of Port Arthur which contributed greatly to the defeat of the Russian Pacific fleet in August 1904. The capitulation of Port Arthur's remaining army and naval forces in January 1905 left only Vladivostok as a safe haven in Asian waters for the incoming Baltic Fleet. In February 1905 Togo began to brace for a showdown and directed Akiyama to make final preparations for the Baltic Fleet's arrival.

Akiyama's reputation began in 1905 when he developed what became known later as the "interception and attrition" ambush operation for the destruction of the Baltic fleet at Tsushima Straits. Akiyama's seven-stage plan included a number of layers to annihilate the Russian forces. Akiyama envisioned an offensive use of torpedo boats in both day and night attacks, cruiser attacks at dusk and a battleship coup de grâce at dawn of the second day. The last stage called for mine fields at the entrance to Vladivostok where the Japanese Navy expected to drive the remnants of the Russian fleet.

As is well known, the naval battle of the Tsushima Straits crushed Russian naval power in the Far East for decades. The battle's prime architect, Akiyama, however, fretted about the battle's outcome. Afflicted by poor weather and even poorer reconnaissance, the Japanese Navy failed to halt the Baltic Fleet's advance toward Tsushima. As the result of this miscue, the Combined Fleet moved too late to intercept the enemy fleet south of straits. The early stages of Akiyama's plan went unexecuted. That failure, however, proved inconsequential.

The battle began in the early afternoon of the 27th of May, 1905 and continued throughout the night to the next day as the enemy fleet attempted to force its way north to Vladivostok and supposed safety. Continuous attrition attacks took their toll upon the Russian fleet. Completely annihilated by the afternoon of the second day, the senior Russian naval commander surrendered to one Japanese naval officer, Akiyama, dispatched by Admiral Togo to oversee personally the capitulation. Akiyama's multi-stage plan, while imperfect, helped the Japanese Navy achieve victory in the naval battle of the age, one that particularly focused upon annihilation of the enemy.

Compared at times to Admiral Horatio Nelson's decisive victory at Trafalgar in 1805, the Japanese case offered an obvious difference. Akiyama's plan sought consciously to attrit the opposing fleet well before the decisive fleet engagement. Like the famed "Nelson touch," however, Akiyama's influence had been evident throughout the conflict. One of his superiors stated later that during the war Akiyama drafted nearly every fleet order, a specific recognition of the officer's pivotal role.

While the battle itself did not bring an immediate cessation of hostilities it supplemented army victories in Manchuria and contributed to Russia's decision to negotiate terms. The Japanese Navy's wartime triumphs at certainly influenced the Russian decision to seek peace. The end of hostilities came with the Treaty of Portsmouth (September 1905), on terms unfavorable to Russia, and most advantageous to Japan. In recognition of his contributions, the Japanese government had designated Akiyama as the senior naval representative at any peace negotiations but his mother's death led to his replacement. Though the Japanese government chose not to make public Akiyama's planning role, the Japanese Navy had the junior officer provide the Japanese Diet an oral presentation on the navy's war time activities. Questioned about the junior rank of the naval representative, Admiral Togo noted that Akiyama was the best person for the job. Knowledge of Akiyama's important role was not, however, restricted to the Japanese Navy, for American naval officers knew almost immediately of Akiyama's contribution to Japan's victory. While the history is, of course, much more involved and detailed, it remains beyond the scope of my discussion.

Akiyama remained an active participant in the navy's planning and affairs between 1907 and 1916, filling a variety of staff and command positions. He captained three cruisers, secured two more tours at the Naval Staff College, and produced a volume on naval strategy. Akiyama, however, saw no combat action during the First World War. Suffering simultaneously from ill-health and a back- lash tied to his unsanctioned political activities, Akiyama curtailed his endeavors, and retired in late 1917. His unexpected death early in 1918 removed a voice of experience and reason as well as a moderate temperament.

That void went unfilled and after 1918 less well informed naval officers began slowly to exert their influence. While Akiyama has, for the most part, received limited treatment in the west, he continues to draw great respect among numerous Japanese naval historians. His status as a naval hero and planner remind many that at one time Japan's navy dominated the western Pacific and posed a significant threat to the naval assets of hostile powers. While some historians might argue that Akiyama's successors maintained the high standards he set down a counter-argument comes from former Imperial Navy officers. In tribute to Akiyama's legacy, those officers articulated their longing for someone of Akiyama's caliber during the Pacific War. Unfortunately, no one of his caliber emerged after 1918.

Such an assertion is supported by existing testimonials. After his death, hometown admirers erected a statue in his memory. Akiyama's superiors documented his contributions by providing inscriptions for two plaques on the statue. Fleet Admiral Togo declared-"His strategic wisdom welled forth like water from a spring." Admiral Sakamoto Toshiatsu, was quite more explicit in his praise of Akiyama-

You suddenly found yourself a member of the staff of Commander-in-Chief Togo, and students whom you had instructed at the staff college became staff officers of the various divisions of the fleet. It was quite natural that at the Battle of the Yellow Sea and the Battle of Tsushima you carried out in actuality the map exercises and war games you had conducted in your classroom. It was not without reason that under Commander-in-Chief Togo you manipulated the subordinate fleets like the fingers of your hands.

One would hope to have such stellar words read at one's interment.

Hence, one can understand the question mark in my title. Though, Akiyama Saneyuki had "smelled of butter," and had drawn heavily upon western influences, in the finest tradition of the samurai, he never ignored his lord's (Japan), best interests.

Source: Carlos Rivera PHD.