First Son, Second Son

First Son

Ichiro, Kanekichi's older brother, was groomed for greatness. From the time he was born, he was showered with attention and love. No sacrifice was ever too small or effort too much in support of young Ichiro. He was the recipient of the best of tutors, attended the best of schools, and received constant training both academically and otherwise. Such attention was not limited to just his mother and father, but grand parents and cousins as well.

His knowledge was vast. His exposure to art, sport, religion, history, and business were broad and deep. He spoke quietly, elegantly, and formally. He was a well-disciplined boy. Perhaps what he lacked in talent was compensated with effort and training.

As the oldest son, there were intrinsic responsibilities and expectations of him. And, along with those responsibilities and expectations, were rights of birth as the first born son of Sutejiro. But more than just the first-born son, he was the first-born son of a multi-generational lineage of first-born sons. Like royalty, but less dramatic and at much smaller magnitude, wealth, power, and responsibility accumulate through the generations of first sons. And, for Ichiro, there was even great inheritance in that Sutejiro himself was the only son of his father. The family name only survived only through Sutejiro and Ichiro. Of course, this completely discounted Kanekichi but as second son, that small detail didn't really matter.

For the Yamamoto family, Ichiro was the product of a long line of greatness. It was the only line that mattered. It was not a family tree that mattered, only the line. But that long history is sparse, without many details. The Yamamoto line is traceable through 10 generations, over 400 years to Hei Mon Yamamoto. It is assumed he achieved greatness, hence the recipient of a name. Prior to him, maybe there isn't (known) greatness. Hei Mon Yamamoto was a known for his work as his ceramicist. Some of his work's influence can be found in Kanagawa, if one looks carefully enough. And, his grandson was known as for landscape architecture. He created gardens of enormous size and importance. It is said he built a stone path so that his daughter would not have to walk on lands unfamiliar. The path spanned from sea to sea, linking the entire country of Japan. His daughter and Japan in general walked a path united two parts of the country, so the story goes.

Since then, for many generations, the Yamamoto presumably was a family of samurais. Maybe at times, they were samurais and shoguns of much greatness. Other times, not so much. And, as true of Japan in general, by the 19th century, the role of the shogun had diminished greatly in power and wealth. However, in pride and tradition it lives on, as it passes from Sutejiro to Ichiro.

Ichiro, standing at the forefront of the multi-generational accumulation, was self aware of his position, role, and responsibility. He was fully appreciative and accepting of the birthrights and all that that accompanied. It was a given that he would ascend to this role and position. The certainty was both a blessing and curse. With Japan at a crossroad, could he -- should he -- aspire to more or aspire to something different? He did not. Accepting his fate was easy, so he did. All would be without much effort, so he realized.

He was a busy young man. His days were filled reading, studying, and learning. With his destiny established, he thought little out of this path that we was on. And, from that acceptance, grew complacency. Perhaps he didn't study so hard or care so much. His attention to detail was lacking and curiosity only slight. His tutors encouraged him otherwise. Though, he cared not so much.

His father, surprisingly, was a bit distance. He was supportive yet not demanding. However, this seemingly lack of concern was only barely perceptible -- and only perceptible within the family compound. He too acknowledged the fate of Ichiro. He would be fine -- even great. Birthright made it so. But the typical attention to and concern for his first son was less. Ichiro was blissfully unaware. Kanekichi, at a very early age, recognized this and wondered why.

Second Son

In general, being the second son is a difficult position. Most everything is directed to the first son. Perverting a line from the movie, "Glengarry Glen Ross," first son gets a Cadillac. Second son gets a set of steak knives. Second sons must choose, decide, and create their life as they live in a diminutive position.

Kanekichi was neither jealous nor concerned over his older brother's privilege. But, even at an early age, he realized one couldn’t control one's past. "Why waste feelings and effort over things one does not control?" he reasoned pragmatically? It explains who we are and why we are here, but it is up to ourselves to determine where one should go. One chooses one's own destiny. Our past does not determine one's self. The irony that this may be true for all but first-born sons. Are such cursed as well as blessed?

Sutejiro recognized and supported this privilege granted Ichiro, as tradition dictated. And he treated his sons differently. However, even though his relationships with his sons were distinctly different, they were seemingly somehow equal. Kanekichi would never get what Ichiro received; however, he was afforded a life with nearly no encumbrances.

While Ichiro’s life was structured and scheduled with few deviations, Kanekichi's life was much different. He attended school daily -- but his education was an amount dwarfed in comparison to his older brother. Instead, he spent much more time with his father. Sometimes, it was regular and scheduled such as fishing every Tuesday. Other times, it was just "tagging" along.

Or seemingly tagging along. As Sutejiro went about his business and leisure, Kanekichi was usually there at his side. He was largely invisible, never obtrusive, and always listening. Perhaps Sutejiro was deliberate in ensuring that Kanekichi was within earshot. Or perhaps Kanekichi was just keenly interested in what his father's business and always availed himself to hear and see. Probably a little, or much, of both.

Many trips were back to the Mikasa, where Sutejiro met with Admiral Togo. Occasionally, the mysterious Toyama would accompany them or meet them there. Sometimes the meetings were casual -- they ate, drank, and played cards. Other times, the meetings were long and serious. Sometimes, seemingly large amounts of mysterious money would change hands at the dining table. On rarer occasions, Takano (the officer giving the young Yamamoto the Mikasa's Naval flag), would join them. However, Takano's presence was always a bit awkward. He was a young officer. The power differential between him and Admiral Togo was great. Yet, there existed an unspoken personal bond among all four men, regardless of the age or rank disparity. Many times, Togo would leave, to alleviate the tension among the men. Still, the formality of discussion continued. Further, the deeply serious discussions never included Takano.

Many meetings were at the Yamamoto compound. Sometimes with Toyama (probably always with his security attache'). Sometimes with Togo. Sometimes with Takano. Or some combination of the four. Sometimes there were grand discussions. Other times it was drinking and gambling. There was a surprising unpredictability of the dynamic. To the untrained eye, it would seem the formal serious meetings were among men that were not the same attending the informal friendly gatherings. Like a fly on the wall, Kanekichi was always within earshot, trying to piece it all together.

Special Trip to Tokyo: July 21, 1910

Kanekichi woke up before sunrise on June 21, 1910. He was taking a trip to Tokyo with his father by train. While they traveled often to Tokyo, this was one of a few "special trips" they took a few times a year. Their travel would appear to be no different than any other trip, by design. However, this trip was different, secretive, and seemingly important. It was a few hour journey. Kanekichi slept most of the way. On arriving in Tokyo, a car met them at the station. No one spoke of where they were going. The journey was circuitous. Many twist and turns through the city were made. They walked some distance and transferred vehicles 3 times. Finally, they arrived at their destination: The Imperial Palace.

Kanekichi and his father did not enter through the main entrance. Rather, and unmarked back gate to the compound took to a side entrance, also unmarked. Once entering the palace, an escort guiding them through many corridors, up a few flights, and some seemingly secret passageways. Eventually, they entered a small but lavishly decorated room. There, to Kanekichi's surprise, Toyama and Togo awaited standing behind two of three chairs one side of a large, ornate table. At the other side, a much larger, throne like chair remained empty. There seemed to be much protocol and circumstance in this meeting. Kanekichi and his father walked towards the empty chair. Just a few steps were taken once inside the room, Kanekichi was escorted away to an exit, while Sutejiro was led to the empty chair. Just as he exited, Kanekichi glimpsed back into the room as the door was closing -- for less than a second he spied a man entering the room and sitting in the large chair -- he was certain as well as surprised -- it was Emperor Meiji.

Kanekichi was escorted to yet another room. Before he could fully contemplate the meeting in the room just left, he encountered another boy, about his age. Equally surprising as the men in the other room, was this boy -- Prince Michi, the grandson of Meiji. Aware of whom he was, Kanekichi, remained silent, respectful and in awe. Michi, on the other hand, was surprisingly colloquial and informal. No one else was in the room, sans a guard/escort that waited at the door. They said nothing to each other. Before he could compose something to say, men re-entered the room and Kanekichi was escorted away.

Sutejiro and Kanekichi returned home a few hours later. Words were not spoken. They reversed their morning trip -- car to the train station, a 2 hour trip to Yokosuka, and a walk back to the compound. The arrived at home, only to be met by Toyama and Togo. The three men debriefed. Kanekichi listened in, from afar. He could only discern a little -- "annexation of Korea," "increased Navy and Army power," "political instability with the Prime Minister." Was this just "small talk" of politics among old friends? When one is nine years old, it is hard to tell. However, when one of those friends is the head of the Imperial fleet and you had just visited the Imperial Palace, it was clear that there was more at work.


Every spring in Japan, cherry blossoms bloom suddenly. While not literally simultaneously occurring because of geographical distance from the northern most point Hokkaido to the southern tip of Kyushu, it seems as all of Japan is abloom. The flowers burst on the scene seemingly overnight, in full color and size, with a sweet fragrance covering the entire land. And, as fast as they arrive, they leave. They wilt, die, and fall from the trees, in what seems to be the blink of an eye. Historically, the cherry blossoms represented birth, life, death, and rejuvenation. Life is impermanent and fleeting. My father once told me the cherry blossom is the life of the perfect samurai – the quick rise to prominence and glory quickly followed by honorable death, perhaps through harikiri. In more recent times, it was the symbol attached to the rise of Japan; Allegiance to the Sun Goddess and the Emperor manifested as Nationalism, Militarization, and Power. Later, Kamikaze pilots would paint cherry blossoms on the side of their planes or take branches of the tree with them before taking their last fateful mission. The cherry blossoms symbolized the intensity and ephemerality of life. The government encouraged people to believe that the souls of downed warriors would be reincarnated into new blossoms.

On the appearance of the cherry blossoms in 1911, Kanekichi wandered out from the family compound to a park near by. The warming sun melted the last frost from the ground, young birds chirped, and a slow breeze brought fresh air into his lungs. Hope springs eternal in the spring. To him, it was relief from a long winter and time to escape the confines of the compound walls. And, he also contemplated the heavy handed symbolism of Hanami, the duration of the short life of the blooming cherry blossoms. With him, he brought a new toy; a kite that he had built over the winter. He was ready for a fly it for the first time – its maiden voyage. When the wind gusted through the trees, he ran into it, slowly reeling out line so that his kite would catch the breeze. After running 100 yards with 100 feet of line out, the kite failed to catch wind and flutters uncontrollably as he slows his speed. The kite goes into a tail spin and crashed into the ground. As he turned to retrieve it, he saw a man approaching the fallen kite, standing above it as Kanekichi arrived. The man picked it up to examine it more closely, and remarked to Kanekichi, “The balance is off – the top is too heavy. And the tail is not large enough.” Kanekichi looked intently at the kite. He was unsure if the assessment was correct. His skeptical look was apparent.

“Did you make this yourself?” the man asked.

“Yes,” replied Kanekichi.

“When I was a boy, I was an expert kite maker,” the man continued. “You must shave some weight from the top to move the center of gravity. Come home with me, and I can help you improve your kite.”

Kanekichi was weary. He had heard of young boys being picked up in parks by bad men, only to be abused after being tricked into leaving with them. So, he hesitated.

“Do you not remember me, young Yamamoto?” The man asked. Yamamoto looks up to the man and stares at his face. “I am your father’s friend, Mitsuru – Mitsuru Toyama” Kanekichi’s eyes lit up – he did recognize the man, once he was triggered by Mitsuru’s reminder. Even though he now knew who he is, he still did not know who he is – why does he talk to his father, what do they talk about and what were they planning? Kanekichi agreed to return to Toyama’s house, and they departed in Toyama’s rickshaw, Kanekichi’s first ride in such a vehicle.

At Toyama’s house, the two of them worked together to modify the kite. They shaved wood from the upper cross support and moved it back slightly. Actually, they assembled a movable clasp so that a cross support could be adjusted in real time in the next test flight. As they work, Toyama engaged Kanekichi in a seemingly casual conversation of serious content. He spoke of the new Japan, the third tenet of the State Shintoism (Kanekichi does not know what that was), and the future that laid ahead. “We must bring the benefits of our divine emperor’s will to the rest of the world so that all can enjoy our superior way of life.” It was interesting conversation for a young boy. But, not much more was said. Toyama noted the time, and told Kanekichi that perhaps his family was waiting for him. “Would you like to finish tomorrow?” It was ambiguous whether he meant working on the kite or talking more. Regardless, Kanekichi agreed to return the next day.

Kanekichi did return. And, he continued to do so over the next few days. They worked on the kite every day; small adjustments were made, and followed by flights to test their changes. After a week’s time, many tweaks, and several tests, they took the kite out for its first and final voyage – a flight of several hundred feet in the high winds. On its only flight, it was aesthetically beautiful as it was aeronautically capable. Indeed, Toyama knew much about kite building. After their kite flying experiment, their conversations continued. “Every man must devote all of his energies to help the fatherland. He must not do so to seek rewards for himself. Reward will come to all when we build a more perfect world.” His words were mesmerizing and captivating. He continued to return long past the successful voyage of his kite. Sometimes he visited alone, sometimes, curiously, there were other children, where they also learned lessons and wisdom that Toyama imparted. The messages are high minded, philosophical, and with a religious leaning. Allegiance to the Sun Goddess, divinity of the emperor, and duty to country were common themes.

Toyama’s message became increasingly specific. “We must first control the enemies near us. China is decadent and weak and will be trouble if we do not conquer. Russia is defeated and strengthening but not our friend. We must not fear the West but they will impede what is good for mankind. And, we must battle ourselves because there are forces within that do not align with our mission of the betterment for all.”

Toyama did not reveal much of himself – only his messages. Were these ideas his own? What motivated him? Did they represent someone else? Was he a government agent? A religious leader? Rumors abound among the children that gathering at Toyama’s house. Was he the leader of Genoysha or the Black Ocean Society? Was he of samurai descent? Did he have any real power? The rumors, while not clear at the time, were indeed true. Then again, what Genoysha or the Black Ocean Society were then, and even to this day, still entirely clear in general. That said, the meetings with Toyama became less of lessons and more of indoctrinations.

Yamamoto, for what he understood, agreed with much of Toyama’s teaching. However, the fervor and certainty of the righteousness of his position, namely fiat by divine right as descendants of the Sun Goddess and total allegiance to the emperor, were ponderable. The intensity of lessons grew over the few weeks, pressure for devotion increased, and demand for allegiance became nearly unequivocal. All came to a head one day, when pressure to take an oath was administered. The group, in unison repeated:

I swear by the sun goddess, by our divine emperor who is the high priest of the Grand Shrine of Ise, by my ancestors, by Mount Fujiyama the sacred, by all the rivers and seas, by all the storms and floods, that here and now dedicate myself to the service of the emperor and my country, without seeking personal reward except the merit I shall lay upon myself in heaven. And I solemnly swear that I will never divulge to any living man except those who are in direcy authority over me, whom I will obey though they may order me to kill myself, anything that the society may teach or show me or anything which I shall learn or discover in any place where I may be sent or find myself. If I break this oath or may my ancestors disown me and may I pass eternity in hell.

When the recitation of oath was completed, all bowed to Toyama. The ceremony ended without fanfare or acknowledgement. But noticeably missing was Yamamoto; he had left through a side door before the ceremony had begun. It was unclear that Toyama had noticed.

Dawn of a New Era 

June 30, 1912
It was 10 AM. Kanekichi examined the gun in his hands – a Smith&Wesson .38 Special revolver. His father had given him months ago. It was in bad shape, but mostly just dirty. He was carefully cleaning it and restoring to his previous glory. As he disassembled and reassembled it, he looked carefully at the handle. In his restoration effort, he uncovered some markings that stirred his curiosity. The butt of the gun was engraved with “Tanaka.” He wondered what that meant.

Once assembled, he loaded 5 rounds into the revolver. Carefully, he aimed the gun at his targets, a row of five tin cans about 30 meters away. Blam! The first can falls. Then, with a precise rhythm of one pull per second – Click, Blam! Tink! – each of the following 4 cans fell in order. Kanekichi stood up, straightened his clothing, and calmly walked “down range,” where down range was the edge of the backside of the compound. He carefully picked up the first can, examined the hit, and placed it upright against the compound wall. Methodically, he repeated this for each of the other four cans and walked back to his shooting position. With little deviation, he repeated this process. He was in deep thought or perhaps without thought. He acts with precision and discipline but without emotion, were tuning his skill as a “marksman.” This was not child’s play, for sure, even though he was a child. He seemed to have a natural talent for shooting, and he was perfecting a skill; a skill that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would come in handy in the future.

It was now 11am. Toyama and Togo, as frequently occurring, were at the Yamamoto house. But today, it was quite unexpected. The usual measured and calculating demeanor typical of these meetings was replaced by a hurried, less controlled, and less structured interaction.

Emperor Meiji was dead. The three men contemplated. Kanekichi listened in. The emperor son Yoshihito would ascent to the throne. Transitions of power always come with uncertainty. However, this was of particular concern for Japan, these men discussed. The Meiji restoration was a sweeping, transformative change for Japan. The work not yet "done." But more importantly, they knew, even though most of the world did not, Yoshihito was not fit. He suffered from many ailments including cerebral meningitis, lead poisoning, and related neurological disorders. His ability to carry on and lead would be difficult if not impossible; further would he be in the way?

Michi, Yoshihito’s eldest son simultaneously became heir apparent to the throne. He was know named Hirohito and formally commissioned in both the army and navy as a second lieutenant and ensign, respectively. He was was also decorated with the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Chrysanthemum.

"We'll have to wait and see how this all plays out," the three men agreed. Japan was on the move. While Divine Rule was crucially important, it was part of our bigger plans for Japan. Succession to Hirohito will be key.

Kanekichi, now sees his earlier meetings with Michi, now Hirohito, in new light.

Young Adulthood

As a child, he was quiet and observant. Carefully observing all things around him, assimilating information like a sponge, soaking up all that was to be seen and heard. The inputs were wide and varied. At his father's side, he never discounted any person he met, whether it be a chance meeting on the street or a mysterious stranger such as Toyama. With every encounter, he made a mental note to piece together a story that was emerging in front of him -- a story he was destined to be part of.

By the time he was thirteen, Kanekichi was spry and fit. He was 5'6" in height and muscular; he had ripped abs, guns for biceps and trunks for legs. He had a presence that was large, commanding, and silent. It was easy to underestimate him at first meeting -- but never on the second. It seems as though Kanekichi had by passed adolescence. From a child that followed his father like a shadow, he now had the presence of an adult, completely sidestepping any awkward years as a teenager.

Kanekichi was an accomplished Sumo wrestler. Given his physical stature, this caught many off guard. Like all things in his life, he was a calculating and disciplined wrestler. He practiced daily at the Beya (Sumo studio) near the Yokosuka naval base. There, he fought others that were all most always larger than him. Using surprise, skill and discipline, and patience, he was quite successful. For him, it was a mental practice as well as physical. When your opponent underestimated him, he was particularly sly at using his opponent’s strength and weight against themselves to find victory.

Brethren of Second Sons

Officer Takano, Sutejiro’s friend, took interest in Kanekichi. At first glance, it appeared to be an interest in Kanekichi's sumo discipline. Though obviously busy in the Imperial Navy, Takano often stopped by to see Kanekichi fight and practice. Many enlisted men practiced at the beya, so it was inappropriate for Takano himself to partake. Further, he watched in silence with little acknowledgement as Kanekichi fought and defeated many opponents, albeit often times it was just practice.

In 1914, Takano left to study at the Japan Naval War College. He returned in 1916 at a Lieutenant Commander. His stature, prominence, and authority were on the rise. Yet, he continued to find time to spend with Sutejiro and Kanekichi. Shortly, after his return, Takano and Yamamoto were taking a short walk outside of the Navy base. It was unclear if it was serendipity or deliberate action, many answers to his questions were revealed.

They walked perhaps 2 miles and stopped to rest and observe their surrounds. They were above the Yokosuka Naval base, with a panoramic view of the Japan coastline and the Pacific Ocean. In the foreground, the ships of the Navy anchored in the harbor. It was quiet and deceptively peaceful. A large flotilla rested still, with the vast Pacific in the background. Kanekichi drew the gun that his father had given him. It was always his companion. He carefully aimed at a small animal in the distance and fires. He hits it and it drops dead. Kanekichi made a mental note: the S&W .38 kills easily. New care and discretion were required. Takano noted his sharp shooting skills as he spied the handle, and said with a strong statement of approval and acknowledgement, "Tanaka."

A short pause. Kanekichi anticipated Takano saying something about his sharp shooting. Instead, he talked about the handle markings. The handle has a rich history. It had "settled" many disputes. Each scratch and every scuff on the handle probably told a different story, said Takano. And, now, perhaps new stories will be told.

"Tanaka, like Takano, has a long history of samurai tradition," Takano says. "And Tanaka and Takano are forever linked, in battle, in peace, in history. In history today, and in history tomorrow. It is up to you and I to make our own history, with or without name."

"Soon it will be known, young Yamamoto, I am being adopted into the Yamamoto family in Nagaoka, Niigata. I will change my name to Yamamoto," Takano revealed.

Of course, Kanekichi immediately considered, "Yamamoto, as in my family?" Kanekichi begins to speak, rather question, but before he could get the words out, Tanaka says,

"No, Yamamoto from Nagaoka, not Toyama. Tanaka and Takano are of our past. We have different heritage. Now, we are of different new heritage."

Kanekichi pondered this for a minute, in silence. But he asked nothing.

The two men turned around and started walking back to the Yokosuka base in silence. It's still a two-mile journey. Plenty of time for Kanekichi to piece together what he had just heard. Takano, now Yamamoto, must be a second son -- or at least not first son -- of the Takano family. He was "marrying in" or being adopted by the Yamamoto family.

Kanekichi's then realizes; his own father, was first a Tanaka before becoming a Yamamoto.

Sutejiro, like Kanekichi was the second son of his father (or at least not a first son). His “real” family lineage was of a family named Tanaka. Presumably, Jimpanchino Yamamoto (my grandfather’s “grandfather,” had no son to carry the Yamamoto name forward, so Sutejiro “married in” to the Yamamoto family by marrying Jimpanchino’s daughter Yoshi and took the Yamamoto name, thus abandoning the Tanaka name.

The family histories of Takano and Tanaka are somehow intertwined, through a proud tradition of the samurai. Where do Togo and Toyama fit into all of this, Kanekichi pondered. But now, as different Yamamoto's, Kanekichi and Isoroku have newly “adopted” heritages and histories.

For both, a new future waited.

The past has been a confusing guide to the present. Was the Tanaka and Takano history now gone? Yes, but in name only. It’s a blurring of histories that have shaped both of these young men. Regardless of the past, Kanekichi realized, it was up to them to shape their own future in the New Japan, with new names and different heritage.

Kanekichi reached for his gun and grasps the handle. He runs his fingers over the Tanaka engraving. It was a reminder of the past, as he contemplates the unknown future ahead.

The sun was now setting behind the two, as they get back to the base.

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