Japanese Aviation History (to 1945)
There are already several sites “out there” that are dedicated to mining the rich vein that is Japanese aviation history up to 1945. More information on the selected content of this section will be released nearer the time.
As a taster, what better than the place in Japan where it all started more than a century ago.
Yoyogi Park: Takeoff Point for Japanese Powered Flight
(All photographs on this website are copyright J-HangarSpace
unless otherwise stated.)
Now situated adjacent to the young fashionistas’ paradise of Harajuku, Yoyogi Park in downtown Tokyo was once the wide open spaces of an Imperial Japanese Army training ground known as Yoyogi Plain. In former times the site of well-appointed residences for those in charge of defending nearby Edo Castle, the area was turned over to military training use in 1909.
In April 1910, the Army dispatched Capt. Kumazo Hino (1878–1946) to Germany and Capt. Yoshitoshi Tokugawa (1884–1963) to France. Although both had backgrounds in engineering, they had been entrusted with the daunting task of leaving Japan and mastering the still comparatively new-fangled art of flying. More than six years had passed since the Wright Brothers were believed to have recorded the world’s first flight of a heavier-than-air machine in the United States.
To these two men would fall the chance to emulate the feat on a lesser scale and allow Japan to take its place among the small number of mainly European countries at the forefront of aviation. At the time of their departure for foreign shores, Hino was close to celebrating his 32nd birthday, while Tokugawa was only 25.
It was from then still sparsely wooded Yoyogi Plain, between December 13 and 19, 1910, that the pair of newly qualified, recently returned pilots publicly demonstrated two of the three state-of-the-art aircraft that they had been given capital sanction to acquire while overseas: Hino a Grade Libelle (Dragonfly) monoplane, Tokugawa a Henri Farman biplane. (Tokugawa had also purchased a Blériot.)
“That’s Not in My Japanese Aviation History Book”
The presence of reporters from 12 newspaper companies vying to be first with the story also marked the beginnings in earnest of aviation journalism in Japan. A newspaper eyewitness account from Dr. Aikitsu Tanakadate of the Provisional Military Balloon Study Group—to which Hino belonged—stated that it was at 3:50 p.m. on December 14, 1910, that Hino’s Grade had left the ground. His aircraft caught by a gust of wind during taxying trials, Hino inadvertently become the first to take to the air in a heavier-than-air machine in Japan, albeit only for a distance of 30 metres (100 feet) and at one metre (three feet) above the ground. A surprised Hino’s plans to continue were thwarted when the engine inexplicably cut out as he attempted to quickly add power. Only one of the nine journalists present at the time filed a report citing this as the “first flight,” but this was subsequently retracted in the form of an erratum. Knowing the aircraft’s capabilities, it was not surprising that Hino and the rest of the Provisional Military Balloon Study Group felt that the hop had not constituted a flight. For their part, the newspaper companies did not want their readers to gain a false impression of what constituted fully controlled flight. This being risky new journalistic territory, too, the newspaper concerned was not prepared to back the story of its lone journalist against the majority.
Hino took off under more controlled conditions the following day and attained an “altitude” of 10 metres (30 feet). On this occasion, an untimely strong gust of wind intervened as Hino was coming into land after an unspecified distance; he was fortunate to sustain only a head injury.
Intriguingly, despite the foregoing, a sign at the Yoyogi site itself, aviation history books and other sources bestow the honour of having made the first flight in Japan to Tokugawa on December 19. He was reportedly airborne for a by comparison noteworthy three minutes—the flight duration tends to differ depending on the source—at an altitude of 70 metres (230 feet) and covered three kilometres (1.9 miles). Presumably it was the sustained time aloft and, most importantly, the photographs of Tokugawa’s aircraft in flight that garnered him all the plaudits. Some sources claim that Hino’s hop was classed as “unofficial” because only a few Army personnel were present, no members of the public. In contrast, a large crowd was present on December 19 despite the cold weather to join in a festival atmosphere and enjoy food and alcohol served by stand vendors.
On the day they flew into the history books in December 1903, the Wright Brothers’ fourth launch—from a piece of rail fixed into the ground—had covered a distance of 260 metres (852 feet), and remained airborne for 59 seconds. In a similar vein to the Tokugawa-Hino situation, the German emigré to the United States Gustave Whitehead (1874–1927) is said to have beaten the Wright Brothers into the air by more than two years, without recourse to a launching rail, on August 14, 1901. This achievement was recognized by Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft and in certain U.S. circles, though the former has subsequently sought to distance itself from that particular decision. If the claims about of him are true, Whitehead had like Hino neglected to have a well-positioned camera in the right place at the right time to record the event for undeniable proof, publicity and posterity.
The Japan Aeronautic Association (JAA) has gone some way to setting the record straight and now credits Hino with being the first to have flown in a powered aircraft in Japan.
Meanwhile, back in Yoyogi Park . . . Nestled in a quiet corner in the southwest part of the park lies a memorial that comprises a sign, a large monument and plinth-mounted busts of the two intrepid aviators. Although the monument has the stark appearance of a mausoleum and the two busts look more like grave markers, the site serves to recall the momentous, epoch-making official and unofficial events of that week in December 1910, so you can feel free to walk around.
Land adjacent to the Yoyogi Plain training ground was selected as the site for a shrine dedicated to the Meiji emperor, construction of which began in 1915 when around 100,000 trees from all over Japan were planted to create a forest. Extensively used for military manouevres, the adjoining grassland training ground was gradually turned into an unsightly dustbowl in the heat of summer, a quagmire in the rainy season.
The austere, Teutonic-looking, slab-stone monument, featuring a centrepiece of a metal bird diving with outspread wings, was erected in 1940 by the newspaper company, The Asahi Shimbun, and the Greater Japan Aeronautical Society. Designed by Kenji Imai (1895–1987), the work was engraved by Katsuma Motoji (1905–1944).
Hidden away on the back of the monument is a plaque (pictured above), the text of which reads as follows:
This monument has been built to commemorate the 2,600th anniversary [of the mythical founding of the Japanese imperial line]. That was the reason why, in December 1910, Yoyogi was the spot where the first aircraft in Japan attempted to make historic flights amid the people’s shouts of elation. This was also why Yoyogi was subsequently the takeoff and landing spot for almost all aircraft [coming to Tokyo] from within Japan or from overseas up until the final years of the Taisho era [1912–1926]. More specifically, Yoyogi temporarily served as a takeoff and landing site for The Asahi Shimbun Company’s east-west airmail flights and in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake [of 1923]. It was from Yoyogi Plain, too, that the first flights to Europe were accomplished.
These and other events are the reason why this site is regarded as the place where aviation began in Japan. People [generally] have no deep feelings when looking back at the path of progress over these past 30 years.
Many things happen in today’s Japan and it is hectic autumn. The Asahi Shimbun Company naturally hopes, however, that many officers with ambitions in aviation will come to glance down at this spot and gaze up at the sky, and that the monument will further inspire feelings of patriotism.
|(J-HangarSpace extends heartfelt thanks to Seiko and Katsumi Matsuda for their invaluable assistance in deciphering the old-style Japanese of that era.)|
At the time, Japan was only a year away from initiating the Pacific War, the four years of which the monument amazingly survived. There were plans to make a park on the site as part of postwar reconstruction, but the area was requisitioned for the U.S. Army’s Washington Heights barracks and housing area. Completed in September 1947, construction worked around the monument, which ended up being located behind the Teen Club.
Surviving the next wave of bulldozers, which moved in to demolish buildings to make way for the athletes’ village ahead of the 1964 Olympic Games, the monument was still in situ when the area did finally open as a park in October 1967. Subsequently, the JAA registered the former Yoyogi Plain as an important aviation heritage site.
The December 20, 2010, issue of the Asahi Shimbun reported that a centenary event had been held the day before in front of the monument. Around 70 people were in attendance, including Hidetsune Tokugawa and Torahiko Hino—the aviators’ eldest sons, aged 88 and 99, respectively—as well as dignitaries from Hino’s home town of Hitoyoshi in Kumamoto Prefecture and from Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, which administers Yoyogi Park.
Tucked away next to the monument is a marker bearing the name Beginning of Japanese Aviation Site Preservation Society. The circle of four stones is said to mark the takeoff point of
Tokugawa’s Farman that day.
The sign (pictured above) is situated inside a hedged semicircle of grass in front of the monument. In need of rewriting in light of the foregoing account, the sign’s main inscription (dated December 1974) reads as follows:
|Site of First Flight in Japan|
On December 19, 1910, on the site of what was then Yoyogi Parade Ground, Army Captain Yoshitoshi Tokugawa succeeded in flying a Henri Farman biplane for four minutes, covering a distance of 3 kilometres and reaching a height of 70 metres.
He was followed by Army Captain Kumazo Hino successfully flying for one minute, covering a distance of 1 kilometre and reaching a height of 45 metres. These were the first flights in Japanese aviation history.
Monument Commemorating the Start of
Erected by Asahi Shimbun
Design: Kenji Imai
|Engraving: Katsuma Motoji|
Erected by the
| Erected by the
Aviation 50 Association
J-HangarSpace would very much like to unearth a detailed account of events at Yoyogi Park, assuming one exists. It would certainly be interesting to know more about the two men involved and their attitude toward one other. Some idea can possibly be gleaned from an interview conducted with eldest son Hidetsune Tokugawa for that same Asahi Shimbun report. In it he said that his father had initially considered himself an “amateur” when it came to aircraft. He had been able to successfully make the “first flight” because of the presence of Hino, who was like an elder brother to him.
Off to the left of the main monument are commemorative busts of the two pilots that were added in 1966. The sign states that each was erected by an aviation-related organization: the Koku Dojinkai (literally Aviation Club) in Tokugawa’s case, the Koku Gojuukai (Aviation 50 Association) in Hino’s. Additional plaques were mounted on each in 2005.
Monument to Kumazo Hino
(Left column) Words by Masuichi Midoro; (right column) Statue of Kumazo Hino
(The journalist and writer Masuichi Midoro [1886–1973] served as the first president of All Nippon Airways Co., Ltd. from 1957–61 and was president of The Asahi Shimbun Company from 1964–67.)
Right side, when viewed from front, the lines of a song:
Dedicated his limited mortal life
To endless successive generations of the homeland
The Old Man Was a Product of Kumamoto
Indefatigable and easy going, selected for being well-versed in English, French and German as well as for excelling in mathematics, [Kumazo Hino] learned to fly in Germany. On December 19, 1910, he overcame engine problems at this spot and set indomitable spirit as an example for the youth of subsequent generations, an indomitable spirit that coaxed his Grade aircraft to fly for one minute and cover a distance of one kilometre.
April 23, 1966
(Like Hino, politician Raizou Matsuno [1917–2006] hailed from Kumamoto)
The lower plaque on the back of Hino’s statue bears his self-penned lyrics to the Aircraft Song:
Written June 17, 1911
Lyrics by Kumazo Hino, music by Teiichi Okano [1878–1941]
The encouraging sound of a propeller-driven aircraft
Builds and increases in volume
And at precisely the moment the bow hand is raised and unleashed
To defend the homeland
The battlefield that renders meritorious deeds
Becomes evident in the faraway expanse of sky
Becomes evident in the faraway expanse of sky
April 17, 2005
Beginning of Japanese Aviation Site Preservation Society, Aviation Monument Dedication Approval Club
Using an old method of naming years, gives the date the statue was erected as April 23, 1966.
The eldest son of a samurai family in Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto Prefecture, Hino must have impressed during his Army career for him to be selected for training in Germany, where he became the first Japanese pilot. Having accompanied the Grade monoplane on a cargo ship and taken part in the events at Yoyogi Plain, he unsuccessfully attempted to build a Japanese version, drawing on the knowledge he had gained from flying the Grade and from visiting the factory where the aircraft had been built.
Hino died during the postwar famine on January 15, 1946, and was laid to rest in his home town of Hitoyoshi. At a ceremony held on February 11, 2012, to mark the town’s 70th anniversary, Hino’s eldest son Torahiko was again present to receive an honorary citizenship certificate on his father’s behalf.
Monument to Yoshitoshi Tokugawa
(Left column) Words by Ikutaro Inoue
(Ikutaro Inoue [1872–1965] was a long-serving career soldier who attained the rank of general.)
(Centre column) Statue of Yoshitoshi Tokugawa
(Right column) Father of Japanese Aviation
Back text (top)
Sincere and dignified, this man, who dedicated himself to production in aviation, piloted a Henri Farman aircraft at this Yoyogi Plain on December 19, 1910, thereby conducting the first flight in Japan and setting records for:
Flight duration Four minutes
Flight distance Three kilometres
Flight altitude 70 metres
and making history as the first Japanese to fly through Japan’s skies.
Back text (bottom)
Beginning of Japanese Aviation Site Preservation Society
Aviation Monument Dedication Approval Club
The right and left sides of Tokugawa’s statue are blank.
Born into an elite family with a name synonymous with military service, Yoshitoshi Tokugawa was the son of a count. During his time in France, he attended the Henri Farman Flying School in Etampes (June to July 1910) and was awarded French pilot’s licence No. 289 from L’Aéro-Club de France on November 8 that year.
After his starring role in events at Yoyogi, Tokugawa’s military career saw him serving as an operational unit commander and in the highest echelons of Army aviation as well as at flight training establishments, such as the Tokorozawa and Akeno aviation schools.
Tokugawa’s final resting place is at the Catholic church close to the Tama Cemetery in Fuchu, Tokyo.
Although a map currently in Yoyogi Park (see photo below) attempts to label the site as the cradle of Japanese aviation, this is itself something of a misnomer. The site of the first permanent airfield, Tokorozawa in Saitama Prefecture—where Tokugawa piloted the inaugural flight—has a far stronger claim to that moniker. That story thread will be picked up in the upcoming feature on the Tokorozawa Aviation Museum.
The plate on the front of Tokugawa’s statue labels him as the father of Japanese aviation, which his subsequent career achievements help to justify. Had it been solely on the basis of the events of that week in December 1910, Japanese aviation would likely have faced a paternity suit.
Certain details mentioned in this account were taken from They Flew Regardless: Pictorial Mementos of Aviation in Japan, 1909–1940, one of the titles recommended on the Bookstall carousel at the foot of this website’s homepage. The book contains three photos taken at the Yoyogi Plain training ground event. Again intriguingly, that showing the aftermath of Hino’s December 15 mishap appears to indicate that civilian onlookers were present.
Other details on those heady days in December 1910 were taken from the December 2010 issue of the Japan Aviation Journalists’ Association magazine, Puten News.
For information about Kumazo Hino, J-HangarSpace referred to one of a German-language series on the history of Berlin-Johannisthal airfield, where Hino learned to fly: Kumazo Hino (1878–1946): Ein japanischer Flieger in Berlin-Johannisthal (Alexander Kauther and Paul Wirtz, GRIN Verlag, Munich, April 2012 edition)
Information on the history of the memorial site was culled from the February 2008 issue of Token, the journal of The Associated General Contractors of Tokyo.
For anyone interested, the claims concerning Gustave Whitehead mentioned in passing here are covered at some length at http://www.gustave-whitehead.com/ and in the book Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight by Susan Brinchman (Apex Educational Media, 2015) somewhat scathingly reviewed in The Aviation Historian Issue 14, January 2016.