Item: jc1274

Japanese tanto dagger. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto Pearl Harbor Presentation Tanto, circa 1942-1943



    shirasaya: 36.8 cm

    Nagasa: 24.1 cm

    Weight: .56 lb

    The mei translates to The Fate of the EMPIRE depends on this Battle” The tang signed Endo Mitsuoki and with Isoroku Yamamoto calligraphy

    A rare and historically important object, this tanto is directly associated with one of the greatest military minds of the 20th century, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the history of which is directly inscribed on the tanto. In its original wooden storage scabbard, the blade retains its original polish. This dagger is one of twenty commissioned for presentation to Admiral Yamamoto’s most trusted officers following the Pearl Harbor attack from Endo Mitsuoki, a friend of Yamamoto from childhood. Two other nearly identical tantos are in the Yamamoto Memorial Museum and the Museum of the Japanese Navy in Tokyo, both made by Endo Mitsuoki. Ten other tantos were also commissioned and made by Ikkansai Shigemasa, another smith that Yamamoto knew from childhood.

    This dagger was given to John Brannon, a remarkable lawyer and one of those appointed by General Douglas MacArthur to represent Japanese defendants during the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, more commonly known as the Tokyo War Crimes trials, the equivalent of the Trials for the Pacific theater. In a letter dated February 26, 1947, Brannon remarked “I am an American first and a lawyer second.” John Brannon arrived in Tokyo on May 17th, 1946, about five years after the attack on Pearl Harbor as an attorney from Kansas City, Missouri, hired by MacArthur to defend Class A Japanese War Criminal, Osami Nagano, Chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy General Staff. Osami Nagano essentially handed over the planning of Pearl Harbor to Admiral Yamamoto who was not a proponent of the raid but dutifully accepted his orders and led the Japanese Navy into Pearl Harbor. Brannon firmly believed in what he practiced, “…that I gave my all for the preservation of international justice. Honestly, I think we have performed a service to the whole world in proving how ridiculous it is to attempt to convict a group of men on purely political charges.” (Brannon Papers, November 14, 1947) As a thanks to Brannon’s services for the highly ranked Nagano and other Japanese defendants, and for the reduction in some of their sentences, Reiko Yamamoto, the widow of Admiral Yamamoto, gifted Brannon two of the daggers commissioned to give as gifts to Yamamoto’s most trusted friends and officers who participated in the Pearl Harbor attack (Caldwell 1988; Fuller and Gregory 1997).

    Two of those daggers known to have been given by Yamamato are in Japanese museum institutions and were made by Endo Mitsuoki; others were made by Ikkansai Shigemasa. The Ikkansai Shigemasa daggers have a wavy white-space: pre-wrap;hamon, while those made by Mitsuoki and now known to have been presented during Yamamoto's lifetime, all have a straight suguha hamon. Both of the makers inscribed on the tang the personal calligraphy of Admiral Yamamoto, which can be seen on one side of the tang of this dagger, while the mei on the blade is the infamous Japanese translation of the Z signal or “The Fate of the EMPIRE depends on this Battle.” Another group of tantos by Mitsuoki were identical and had the date of the Pearl Harbor attack also inscribed along the same side of the tang as the Yamamoto caligraphy.

    The Z signal, or ZED sign, is the sign raised by Vice Admiral Nelson at the commencement of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, which indicated that “England expects that every man will do his duty.” Although there was much confusion surrounding the wording of the signal in the aftermath of the battle, the significance of the victory and Nelson’s death during the battle led to the phrase becoming embedded in the English psyche. In Japan, this phrase has special significance due to its connection with, and symbolizing, the Japanese victory at the Battle of Tsushima Straits, where on May 27, 1905, Admiral Tōgō raised a Z flag on his flagship, the Mikasa and the Japanese fleet defeated the Imperial Russa. By prearrangement, this flag flown alone meant “The fate of the Empire rests on the outcome of this battle. Let each man do his utmost.” The Battle of Tsushima was one of the most important naval battles of history, and this signal, along with Nelson’s signal England expects that every man will do his duty at the Battle of Trafalgar, is one of the two most famous naval flag signals. The Z flag was raised on Vice-Admiral Nagumo’s flagship Akagi before the aircraft were flown off for the attack on Pearl Harbor (called Operation Z in its planning stages), explicitly referencing Tōgō's historic victory. This dagger is one of the only known in private hands by Endo Mitsuoki and with direct provenance to the Yamamatofamily through John Brannon and, by extension, the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor.


    Reiko Yamamoto (Wife of Isoroku Yamamoto) gifted two Yamamoto tantos, according to R.B.Caldwell through John Brannon, both were by Endo Mitsuoki and were commissioned by Yamamoto or his widow to make ten of each the money given to him by the Emperor for the success of Pearl Harbor. The widow Yamamoto then gifted them to John Brannon (U.S. appointed war crimes lawyers during the Tokyo Tribunals). See a letter dated January 23, 1947, Tokyo. In he describes being given one of the tantos ordered by Yamamoto’s widow after his death. From John Brannon to his brother, now in the archives of Georgetown Law School, Washington D.C.

    Purchased by R.B. Caldwell from John Brannon, 1988

    Michael Quigley


    Caldwell, R.B. (1988) The Zed Tanto. Japanese Sword Society of the United States Newsletter. Vol. 21. No. 4

    Fuller, R., Gregory, R. (1997) Japanese Military and Civil Swords and Dirks. Howell Press: London

    Nihon Token Hozon Kai (NTHK) papers from 1993