Yellow Peril

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan…”

- President Franklin D. Roosevelt on December 8, 1941.


On December 7, 1941, Japan, through its Imperial Navy, launched a sneak attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. Nineteen ships were damaged, 4 battle ships were sunk (the USS Arizona never was recovered), 188 aircraft were destroyed, and 2,471 Americans were killed. The United States, whether it wanted to be or not, was now at war, with Japan.

Two months later, Executive Order 9066 was issued –Americans of Japanese decent (approximately 120,000 people) were evacuated from the West Coast of the United States into Interment Camps inland from the Pacific Ocean. "Yellow Peril” was the fear. The Japs were not just coming – they were all ready here. America feared the traitors within.

History since then tells us “evacuated” was really “arrested” and “Internment” was “Imprisonment (without trial)”. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan set the record straight – this was a shameful action and time in American history. Apologies were officially stated and financial reparations made.

Truth, like history, has a murky past. Is there another story here? Is this chapter in American history whitewashed in political activism and political correctness? Admittedly, the infringement of civil liberties is abhorrent. However, was the fear legitimate? After all, no Japanese (American) was ever convicted of war crimes or espionage, so the story goes. And, we proudly recognize the actions of the 442 Infantry Regiment – the nearly all-Japanese unit in Europe that became the most decorated unit in World War II – anecdotal evidence to “prove” the injustice dealt to Japanese Americans.

Kanekichi Yamamoto -- the Yellow Al Capone

There is an alternative story. And that story has a name and face – Kanekichi Yamamoto. His life is “The Godfather,” “Chinatown,” and “Titanic” rolled into a single story, in the backdrop of pre-World War II. This is the story of how one man’s illicit organized crime empire was levered into wide scale espionage, terrorism, political influence, and military adventurism. This man brought Japan into World War II. This story is yet untold. Until today.

There are probably only three people who can reconstruct and tell this story  -- my brother Jim, my cousin Jack, and myself -- all grandsons of Yamamoto. Unless one of us tells this story, it will be lost. It is a personal story and a story of historical significance.  I document it so it is not lost in our family history. I document it for all Japanese Americans interested in our history. I document it because it is a story of epic proportions. Perhaps it is Hollywood, blockbuster worthy.

Kanekichi Yamamoto was born in Japan in 1901, the second son of Sutejiro Yamamoto.  By birthright, his older brother, Ichiro, inherited all rights, responsibilities, and material accumulation from many generations of the Yamamoto family, per tradition.  To Kanekichi, as "second son" – nothing.  This did not bother Kanekichi. "Why waste feelings  and effort over things one does not control?" he reasoned pragmatically. His life was his own – unbounded by the past or family obligation. He would control his destiny. But what would that be?

At the turn of the 20th Century, Japan was emergent -- transforming itself from poor agrarian country to an industrial, economic and political power. In 1905, Japan won a surprising victory over Russia, forcing Russia out of Manchuria and setting the stage for greater military and political expansion. Japan, not just his family, provided the backdrop for Yamamoto's ascent to potential greatness. He was a proud, loyal, but pragmatic nationalist. Japan had set it sights -- China, Asian, the World. Yamamoto was obligated to his country and emperor. He was the Rising Son in the Rising Sun. This was his destiny.

While early 20th century Japan was modernizing quickly, a proud history of the Samurai and Shogun remained. While operationally neutered and reduced to roles of administration, the Shogunate continued to play a role in the hearts, mind, and practice of this class. Practical, real, and official power was largely gone.  The Shogunate lived in the faded glory of the past. However, it's traditions and culture in many regards remained true to this way of life, enveloping Yamamoto, whose own family is of the samurai class. The manifestation of such was simultaneously anachronistic and synergistic within the New Japan.

Yamamoto saw his world larger than just Japan. He intuitively knew Japan's destiny lived outside of Japan and Asia -- in a land called America. Consequently, Yamamoto immigrated to the United States in 1918 by stowawaying on a ship from Yokohama to the Seattle. He came to make his mark --- even though he knew not what that might be. Upon arrival, he immediately ventured to the Toyo Club, a gambling house in Seattle's Chinatown, at the instructions of a mysterious family friend in Japan– Mitsuru Toyama. There, he met Takoichi Yamada, head of the Toyo Club. It was his introduction to a life of organized crime.

Years pass. Yamamoto, through a handful of fortuitous circumstances, some planned (some not), has achieved to the highest ranks of the Toyo club.  The physical Toyo club was merely a façade for a much larger, sprawling organization than gambling. Yamamoto controlled interests as far north as Alaska and as far south as Baja California. It was the usual stuff – drugs, gambling, prostitution, small business shake downs, union influence. The Toyo club was powerful in scope and geography. Canneries and fishing were legitimate business operations. But, they also provided cover for many illegal activities -- laundering money, eliminating difficult people, and, especially important, bringing Japanese secret military attaché in and out the United States. Yamamoto was closely tied with the Japanese Imperial Navy and he facilitated espionage efforts by importing spies into the United States through fishing boats he controlled. Spies gathered important information on the American water, power, and military infrastructure. Explosives and weaponry, in preparation for an attack on the United States, were covertly brought onto the North American continent. This was probably well known by the US government but largely out of site to the general population.

Last, ill-gotten gains from this empire were used to secretly support a wave of Japanese Nationalism by way of funding political campaigns and influencing elections in Japan. Yamamoto’s money was the key to winning elections by appropriate candidates. The mysterious friend Toyama was the choke point of the money flow and influence – he was the Shadow Shogun of the infamous Black Dragon Society in Japan.   Candidates supported by Toyama win elections and Imperial Japan invaded Manchuria and beyond. Once entering Manchuria and signing an alliance with Germany, Japan had proverbially "crossed the Rubicon." America saw the threat of Japan and the shifting balance of world power.  Japan knew its conflict with the United States was unavoidable and it acted preemptively by launching a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The United States was now required respond and officially dragged into World War II.

And the rest is history.


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