Tell a little about yourself and your background
I am a Japanese national, and was born in Yokosuka, Japan. Following my entry into first grade, my father's work took the family to Montreal, Canada where I learned to speak English. He was one of the early postwar Japanese delegates to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an agency of the United Nations based in Montreal, that sets international regulations for civil air navigation worldwide. We stayed in Canada for seven years, then returned to Japan as I entered junior high school. Later, we moved to New York City where my father worked at U.N. headquarters for many years. I finished my education in the United States, majoring in history in college. After graduating law school and working as a lawyer for a few years, I changed careers to investment banking and joined a firm that was just opening an office in Tokyo. There, I met and married a Filipina who was working at the Philippine Embassy there. Our two children were both born in Japan. I was subsequently transferred to San Francisco, then to London, England where I was in charge of Japanese and Asian business for Europe. We lived in England for eleven years. I left the investment banking world and returned to San Francisco in 2000, and have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since then. I remain active in the financial field, but also pursue my passion for military aviation history which I have had since childhood.
Speak about your family connections and interest in military aviation
I have strong family ties to the old Imperial Japanese Navy. During the war, my father was a young engineering Lieutenant assigned to the Naval Air Technical Arsenal (Koku Gijutsu Sho; abbrev. Kugisho) at Oppama, part of the large Yokosuka Naval Base complex. He thus came in contact, not only with well known Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) operational aircraft of all types, but also with many of the prototypes being developed near war's end by the IJN, such as the A7M Reppu, the intended successor for the A6M Reisen, and the four-engined G8N Renzan. My maternal grandfather finished the war as a Navy captain, but he actually spent the war years in Europe as Japanese naval attaché in Rome and Berlin. I am also the grand nephew of an IJN vice admiral who commanded an air flotilla at Rabaul for much of the Guadalcanal campaign. On my wife's side, my father-in-law was in medical school at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Quezon City when the Japanese invaded. He later joined the guerillas in northern Luzon and served as a medic, and eventually also in the artillery. His postwar career was as a doctor.
I have been interested in airplanes for as long as I can remember. My father never pushed me in that direction overtly, but perhaps I absorbed it through some kind of osmosis, since there were always things having to do with aviation around me as I grew up. Like many, I started building plastic models, but was soon taken by a desire to learn more about these planes, their technical development and history. My interest really blossomed when my father bought me the first volume of William Green's pocket series on WWII fighters when I was about 11 or 12. I was hooked. I was quite conscious of my Japanese background and wanted to know about Japanese aircraft and their role in WWII, but in North America in the 1960s there was practically nothing to be found on that subject. After moving back to Japan, however, I discovered a wealth of material that never made it into English. My interest in aviation history extends to all nationalities and time periods up to the early jet age. But in terms of my own research and writing, I have focused on the Japanese as the best way for me to make a genuine contribution to the field, given my bilingual language abilities.
While growing up in Canada, I was also influenced by meeting my father's work colleagues in ICAO. One of the American delegates had been a B-17 pilot with the Fifteenth AF in Italy. A British delegate had flown Wellingtons in North Africa, been shot down and captured and ended up in Stalag Luft III. He had been one of the real life participants in the Great Escape. The German delegate had been a navigator on a Ju-88 that force landed in Scotland. He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in Canada. The Canadian delegate had flown a Halifax from bases in England. The French delegate had been a fighter pilot in a MS 406 during the Battle of France, while the Spanish delegate had flown for Franco during the Spanish Civil War, and so on. These men of many different nationalities were all from the generation that had fought in WWII. But strong bonds of friendship arose among them as fellow aviation professionals that transcended their national affiliations. That made a strong impression on me. Real life is infinitely deeper, richer and more nuanced than the Hollywood version.
Tell about your aviation artwork and many publications
Regarding the cover art of Fifth Air Force Story.. In World War II, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.... There is an artistic streak that runs in my father's side of the family. His father (my paternal grandfather) was a professor of classical Japanese painting. My father painted Western style oils, but as a hobby, not professionally. I was told I also had artistic talent as a kid, but as I grew older and began to focus more on historical research and writing, I just dabbled in art occasionally. RAF Flying Review and Profile Publications, with their nice half tone profile illustrations, were an early influence. During high school, I used to draw my own airplane profiles just for fun. Kenn Rust became one of my early aviation historian heroes, especially when his seminal work on the U.S. Ninth Air Force in WWII came out. I knew he lived in the Los Angeles area, which was on the other side of the country from where I was in New York City, but I made up my mind to go meet him.
On my first paid vacation after I started work, I did. I spent a pleasant afternoon with him, talking 'airplanes'. At that meeting he told me about the series of soft cover books he was planning on the U.S. Army Air Forces, and asked me if I would help him with the cover for the one on the Fifth Air Force. That was of interest to me because of its major connection to the Pacific Theater (at that time, so much of the literature on U.S. aviation in WWII was focused almost entirely on the Eighth Air Force in Europe). He liked what I did for him, I guess, so I also did the covers for his Tenth and Fourteenth AF books. But, after that, my professional work just got too busy, so that was the end of my budding career as an aviation artist.
Speak about some of the books you have authored
Another of my early historian heroes was Robert Mikesh. I knew of him because he used to contribute articles for the Japanese aviation magazine Koku Fan. He was already the curator of aircraft at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C. I contacted him and we became close colleagues. Shortly after we met each other, NASM launched their project to restore the J1N1 Gekko (Irving) night fighter, and we decided to collaborate on Moonlight Interceptor about the restoration and the history of the plane to be published by Smithsonian Institution Press. I was in the process of moving to Tokyo with my firm at the time, and this worked out well, as I was able to do research in Japan and feed Bob in D.C. with good Japanese source material. One of the people I interviewed for that book was Katsuji Nakamura, the J1N1's chief designer. He had previously been chief designer on Nakajima's B5N torpedo bomber project.
Over the years, I have gotten to know, and have become good friends with many aviation researchers, historians and authors. Many of us, collectively, form a casual association of like-minded folks in the field called the Pacific Air War History Associates (PAWHA). We all pursue our own projects, but we also help each other with information and often collaborate on research. You, Justin Taylan, are among them, as you know. I am very grateful for the early help you provided me when I was writing Aichi 99 Kanbaku 'Val' Units 1937-42 for Osprey.
Please explain the many misconceptions about the Japanese during the Pacific War
Far more than with French, German or Italian, it would seem that Japanese continues to pose a formidable cultural and linguisitic barrier for many English speakers. Perhaps this has led to a mistaken belief that the body of surviving Japanese records of the war are few and unreliable. That is simply not true. It is a fact that substantial numbers of records were lost during the course of the war or purposely destroyed at war's end. But the quantities of primary documents that have survived and have been preserved in archives accessible to the public are vast. An examination of what has survived shows that what records were kept were quite detailed and meticulous. It is a simple fact that organized armed forces of any nationality cannot conduct a modern war without good record keeping. The sum total of surviving records, together with recorded eye-witness testimony by veterans, records captured and translated by Allied intelligence, as well as radio traffic intercepted by the Allies, presents a surprisingly extensive, if not entirely complete, picture of Japan's war. These day-to-day working records, meant for 'internal use', must be distinguished from communiqués issued to the general public, which were often laced with dramatic claims designed to boost public morale.
What are your thoughts on air combat and victory claims?
On the subject of air-to-air combat, one needs to recognize that there was a great deal of exaggeration in claims for enemy aircraft destroyed by airmen of both sides. This was not intentional in the vast majority of cases, but rather the product of duplication of claims or hasty over-assessment of damage inflicted in the heat of battle. For some English speakers who do not have access to Japanese sources, there may be a tendency to take Allied side claims automatically at face value, and then cast doubt on the accuracy or completeness of Japanese records when they do not find confirmation of these claimed numbers in records of Japanese losses.
Tell about some of the veterans you have interviewed
Among World War II veterans I have interviewed, the most famous on the Japanese side would be Saburo Sakai. On the American side, perhaps that would be Gregory 'Pappy' Boyington. There is nothing like hearing the direct testimony of "those who were there". That is 'living history' at its best, and provides color for what would otherwise be a dry narrative. That said, however, we must remember that human memory is a fallible thing. Veterans do not always have perfect recall, nor can they be expected to know of matters beyond their own direct experience. It is the job of the historian to marshall all available sources of information and put a veteran's testimony within proper context and check the accuracy of their statements. There are still some WWII air veterans around who remain sound in body and mind, but they are all in their 90s now, of course, and will not remain with us much longer. If anyone with an interest in this field know of such members of 'the greatest generation' I would urge them to record their memories for posterity before it is too late.
What is the future of World War II aviation and this history?
Beyond the fast dwindling fraternity of living veterans, however, there still remain a vast treasure trove of old letters, diaries and other such memorabilia in the hands of veterans' families and next of kin, not to mention taped interviews with veterans made when they were still alive, and substantial amounts of official documents that continue to languish unorganized in various archives. It falls to the fraternity of historians and serious researchers to do whatever they can to preserve this history, to organize it in some coherent manner, and to do their best to get it out there to the general enthusiast public. The Second World War was such a momentous event in world history that the recognition of its importance as a part of the human experience will only grow with time. What is needed now is in-depth research into the less familiar aspects of that conflict, as well as a thorough reevaluation of some seemingly well-known aspects, based on newly discovered facts. At the popular, commercial level, there is a surfeit of material that merely rehashes well-worn topics in a superficial manner. We need to break away from that. There remains much fertile ground to till. WWII will keep historians busy for a long time.
Thank you for the interview Mr. Tagaya!
List of publications by Osamu Tagaya
Books, publications and documentary appearances by Osamu Tagaya and co-authors.