An anecdote from history:
I’ve included the following quote from the book: The reluctant Admiral: Yamamoto and the Japanese Imperial Fleet by Hiroyuki Agawa. Although it’s rather long its well worth the read!
Relevant to our part of the story is the lead up to the Pacific War and the Dec 1941 attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour by the Japanese Imperial Navy. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Japan’s First Sea Lord, had become convinced of the coming transition from sea power to air power in the war he and only a very select few others then knew would inevitably come between Japan and the United States of America. He was a driving force in determining Japan’s readiness in preparing the navy for attack capacity from the air rather than a seaborne land attack on continental USA. A confirmed poker player, he was known and highly respected by his men as being open minded and receptive to new and creative ideas.
As he and his closest advisors prepared the special and at that point, still highly clandestine forces, to attack Pearl Harbour, it became obvious that they had problems in recruiting young men who would prove to be the most suitable and adroit for the deadly tasks ahead. Accident and casualty prone, the preparations so far were proving to be less than straight forward and frustrations were building as solutions were sought applied and time and again, seemed not to work. Yamamoto was known to be very distressed at the growing list of causalities. Something simply had to be done.
The following then is from‘The Reluctant Admiral’: pg 110
“Various studies were made of the causes of accidents; one of the thorniest problems of all was how to assess the suitability of potential air crews.
Flight trainees and flight reserve cadets were all sifted very carefully before acceptance, being subjected to tests of scholastic ability and physical checkups, followed by a fairly strict testing of their suitability for the tasks involved; even so, many of them proved to be inadequate after the first six months or so.
This would not have mattered so much if all that was involved in removing them from the flying course was the waste of money or the personal disgrace for those concerned. But in practise there were many cases where they caused accidents before they were removed. Precious lives were being lost, one or two at a time, and the destruction of expensive aircraft placed further strains on the limited budget available.
Experts had been brought in from the psychology department of Tokyo Imperial University to give vulnerability tests. The men selected on this basis were all right at first, but later often failed to live up to their early promise. Experimental psychology, it seemed, was of little help in detecting this ability to live up to expectations, and the major question facing aviation in general still remained that of how to find suitable material.
The head of the Education Division of the Aeronautics Department under Yamamato, at the time was Captain Onishi Takijiro (a devoted admirer of Yamamoto, he was to become known toward the end of the war as the “father” of the suicide squads and an increasingly fanatical advocate of fighting to the last man). One day a telephone call came from this Onishi to Kuwabara, second in command of the Kasumigaura Aviation Corps. The gist of what he had to say was as follows:
“My wife’s father, who is principal of the Juntendo Middle School has a rather unusual young man called Mizuno among his former pupils. Mizuno studied history at university, and his graduation thesis dealt with ancient methods of divination. Even as a child he was fascinated by palmistry and physiognomy. When he read in the papers that the navy had been losing a lot of planes recently, he said it was because the navy used the wrong methods in selecting its pilots. I thought he must be rather conceited, but when I actually met him the other day, he believed that the kind of man who would be good at piloting a plane invariably showed it somewhere in his hand or his face, and that it was a mistake to take people ‘by the gross.’ Personally, I don’t think the navy’s method of choosing its fliers can be called ‘taking them by the gross’, but I asked him anyway whether he himself could tell if they were suitable or not. ‘Oh yes,’ he replied, with all the confidence in the world.
“I’ll send him to Kasumigaura with a letter of introduction to you, so why don’t you hear what he has to say for the fun of it, and let him try reading people’s hands?”
Kawahara, who by now was ready to clutch at any straw, agreed to meet the young man, and on the appointed day Mizuno Yoshito presented himself at the corps bearing Onishi’s letter of introduction. It was lunchtime, and a stream of men in flying suits was arriving from the airfield. Kuwabara suggested therefore, that after lunch he should summon the instructors – about a hundred and twenty in all and have Mizuno apply his methods to them, classifying them into three grades according to their suitability or otherwise for flying. He promised also to have on hand a list of all the indicators with marks for each indicating his skill as revealed over a long period of time.
Once they were all assembled, Mizuno stared intently at each of the men in turn for five or six seconds, then assigned then an A, B or C. When Kawabara and his aide compared these grades with those recorded in the list, they found to their astonishment that grades and marks corresponded in eighty three percent of all cases. That afternoon, the trainees were assembled and subjected to the same scrutiny; the correspondence this time was eighty seven percent. Kuwabara and the others were astounded; this young man utterly unconnected with the world of aircraft, had in the space of five or six seconds delivered judgements that corresponded in more than eighty percent of all cases to conclusions that it had taken themselves months or even years to arrive at. They had hoped for some fun but had found themselves obliged to take it all seriously.
1800’s Wood Block Print of Japanese fortune teller reading the face of a famous Samurai.
Learning that Mizuno had not found a job yet and was free to come and go as he pleased, they got him to stay at Kasumigaura that night and talk with the officers. A certain lieutenant called Hanamoto was worrying at the time what to do about a marriage that was being arranged for him, so they got Mizuno to look at his hand. “I think you’re in two minds about the question of your marriage, aren’t you?” Mizuno said. “You should decide on the first one after all”. The “First one” was the girl whom Hanamoto himself fancied, as opposed to a match that was being pressed on him for reasons of family convenience.
Mizuno also declared belief that a war would break out within a year or so. Kuwahara objected that even should there be a war, it wouldn’t come as soon as that; but it was already the summer of 1936, just a year before the China Incident occurred. Later, when Mizuno’s prophecy had come true, Kuwahara asked him what had led him to make it in the first place. “Back in my childhood, when I first got interested in palmistry and physiognomy,” he said, “I noticed a lot of people walking around Tokyo with the mark of death on their faces. I thought it was odd, because I didn’t see the same thing when I was in Osaka. Then came the great Kanto earthquake, and I understood. In the same way I can’t help noticing a lot of women in the streets of Tokyo nowadays, whose faces show they will be widows in a year or two. So I’ve come to the conclusion that this time it won’t be a natural disaster, but that they’ll lose their husbands.”
It is a fact that at the beginning of the incident, the 101st Division, most of whose members hailed from Tokyo, suffered heavy losses in the fighting around Shanghai.
As soon as Mizuno had left, Kuwabara telephoned Onishi. “You know,” he said, “there’s more to him than meets the eye. I’d like to consider if there isn’t some way of using his methods in selecting crews, and I’d like him to go into it a bit more deeply himself too. I wonder if it’d be possible to take him on as, say, advisor to the Aeronautics Department, so that he could have free access to the navy’s air units?:
Onishi obviously had no objections, having been responsible himself for the first initiative, so Kuwabara submitted a report in the name of the Kasumigaura Aviation Corps command, in which he argued that, as proved in the cases of moxibustion and acupuncture, ancient and apparently unscientific methods were not necessarily to be scorned, and he cited the view of applied statisticians that anything that showed a practical correspondence of sixty percent or more was worth taking into account.
Onishi’s task now was to go around with the report, trying to persuade people to accept its recommendation. He took it to the Personnel and Naval Affairs bureaus of the Navy Ministry, and tried to convince them of the wisdom of taking on Mizuno as an advisor, but he was met everywhere with sceptical smiles. “Come, now – you don’t really think the navy…..” people would murmur. “I mean physiognomy….”
Kuwabara has ascribed his lack of success to the narrow “rationalism” of the people in the two naval bureaus concerned. To the Naval Affairs Bureau, it may have well seemed that the aviation people had finally taken leave of their senses. Ether way, when it was apparent that he was getting no where, Kuwabara asked Onishi whether he had spoken to Yamamoto about it. Onishi had not, so one day they went together to call on Yamamoto in the latter’s office. Begging him first not to laugh, they proceeded to explain about Mizuno in detail and requested Yamamoto’s help in getting him taken on as an advisor. Yamamoto grinned as he listened but when they had finished he said. “I see. I’ll talk to him myself, so send him along.”
They decided to summon Mizuno then and there by phone, while Yamamoto on his side telephoned to various sections of the Personnel and Naval Affairs bureaus and the Aeronautics Department, getting about twenty different people to assemble in his office. When Mizuno arrived, the first thing Yamamoto did was ask him how he would describe palmistry and physiognomy. As he had already explained to Kuwabara at Kasumigaura Aviation Corps, Mizuno said they were a kind of applied statistics. Popular folk beliefs, such as the Japanese belief that people with long rabbit like ears were careful and gentle by nature, or that a square chin meant such and such, were in fact based on empirical statistical observations.
Such beliefs might not be right in every case but neither were the odds fifty-fifty. Intuition, too, gave an added accuracy to individual observations.
Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku
“Well, then,” said Yamamoto, nodding, “there are twenty people here. Can you tell me, which of them are flying officers?”
Mizuno scrutinised each of naval officers’ face in turn. Eventually he pointed to one of them and said, “You’re one, aren’t you?” Then another: “And you, too.” The two men were Hoshi Kazai and Miwa Yoshitake, both of them among the finest fighter pilots the navy had at the time. Hoshi and Miwa smiled sheepishly while the others glanced at each in surprise.
“Is that all?” Yamamoto pressed?
“That’s all.” Mizuno replied.
At this point another of those present, a lieutenant commander from the Naval General Staff called Taguchi, spoke up: “I’m a pilot too.” Mizuna took his hand and gave it a close inspection. “You may be a pilot,” he said, “but not a very good one” The others glanced at each other again then burst out laughing. Taguchi, a graduate of Navy Staff College, was a seaplane pilot. He had an excellent brain but as a flier his reactions were too slow. He would occasionally damage a seaplane in landing, and had been recently shifted to the Naval General Staff with a warning that he would smash himself up if he was not careful.
Several other demonstrations of Mizuno’s uncanny ability followed. One man, a commander called Kida Tatsushiko, had his hand examined. “You’ve taken somebody else’s name, haven’t you?” asked Mizuno. Kida was reluctant to reply, but when pressed he admitted with rueful admiration that he was, in fact, an adopted son.
Finally Yamamoto felt it was time to call it a day, and the assembly decided without further ado to take on Mizuno. Shortly after this, he was officially appointed advisor to the Aeronautics Department. As such he was present at all examinations for trainees and reserve cadets at the Kasumigaura Aviation Corps, and was to scrutinise their hands and faces.
The navy made use of Mizuno’s methods in combination with the conventional written and physical examinations; thus the most promising candidate of all was one who got good marks in these two examinations and also an OK from Mizuno. It was not entirely true therefore, to claim – as some did during the war - that the Naval Air Corps was ruled by superstition.
Mizuno himself became increasingly busy thereafter. During the war, he brought in two assistants, and was so occupied visiting first one air unit then another that in the end they were showing him palm prints made with mimeographing ink. In all, he is said to have pronounced on the qualifications of over 280,000 men.
By 1941, in the presence of Kuwahara Torao, who trusted Mizuno entirely by now, he predicted that the war would start that year.
“And how will it go then?” Kuwahara asked?
“OK at first,” answered Mizuno. “But after that I can’t say.”
“I don’t like the look on the faces of the Naval General Staff people I see walking about the corridors with their papers. I’m worried about their future.”
Four Years later, in July 1945, Kuwahara – by then a vice admiral attached to the Military Procurement Ministry – asked Mizuno how he thought the war would go from then on.
“It will be over before the end of next month.” Startled Kuwabara asked him why he thought so. “I made a tour of the suicide squad recently, and I noticed that there are very few young officers and NCOs in the squads who have the mark of death on their faces. I take it as a sign that war’s going to end.”
Japan of course surrendered finally on 15th August 1945; although the formal signing of the documents didn’t occur until September 2nd.