Joseph E. Jannotta Jr. is the author of the new book Extraordinary Leaders: World War II Memoirs of an American Naval Officer and an Imperial Japanese Naval Officer. The American officer he writes about is his uncle, Vernon Jannotta. Joseph Jannotta is a veteran of the Korean War and a retired business executive. He lives in Santa Barbara, California.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
A: I’m a history buff starting in fourth grade with the study of Egyptian culture. The culmination was my major in history at Amherst College where in particular I looked at the English Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution in that order. This study gave me a sense of making comparative judgments especially pertaining to leadership.
As I was looking at my uncle’s background, I found his letters to be very thoughtful and one of a kind -- quite lucid, and illustrative of the battles in the Solomon Islands from his point of view.
I had a friend who was head of the Great Lakes Naval Base in Grayslake, Illinois. He and I became friendly after opening Chicago’s Midway Airport together as representatives of the U.S. Navy.
I happened to tell him about my uncle’s letters and asked him what thought of my finding an imperial Japanese Navy officer as a counterpoint. It happened that he had spent seven years in Japan and knew a vice admiral who might be of assistance.
I was soon going to Japan and spent a whole day with the vice admiral and his subordinate. He liked the idea of the book – and knew of Kawanishi’s diaries. He instructed me though that I first need to speak with Kawanishi’s family who owned the rights to the book.
I was so pleased to meet them – as I found them to be pretty wonderful people. I made four more visits to Japan as I continued my research. After five years, Kawanishi’s family gave me permission to use the writings in his diaries.
I was touched to find Kawanishi’s writings similar to those of my uncle as they both showed the importance of family. And I found the diaries to be an insightful look at Japanese culture through Kawanishi’s eyes.
Q: How did you research the book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?
A: I read the book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, by Ruth Benedict, which was informative in detail about all the precepts of the Japanese culture. One thing that surprised me was that a Japanese Navy officer was very human, caring deeply about his men –which show throughout his writings.
Q: You write, “The differences between the two men were part generational, part cultural.” How would you compare the experiences during wartime of your uncle and Kotaro Kawanishi?
A: The biggest difference was in the family culture. The Japanese family was imbued with a longstanding hierarchical set of rules. For example, a Japanese mother holding her son would push the son’s head down when the father passed in front of mother and child. Father is the head and the oldest son most important - as he inherits the father’s efforts – the oldest son ultimately becomes the head of the family.
The rules of behavior were learned within the family. And when the child entered the outside world, the child more easily understood the rules are more easily understood and adapted to.
This particular Japanese officer was much like my uncle – he had love and deep feelings for his soldiers who therefore in turn worshipped him. Both my uncle and Kawanishi were very honest – their men could sense their honesty.
The big surprise for me was that this man’s behavior was so much like that of my uncle and how their behavior developed in spite of the culture.
Q: How did you choose the book’s title, and what does it signify for you?
A: The book is about leadership as found in these two men who give us a clear picture of what kind of leaders they were. Both were exceptional – the book clearly shows such.
The title underlies their exemplary leadership skills and abilities.
In my business career, I had spent the first 40 years assessing and working with leaders. So I was well poised to work on this book and predisposed to the topic.
In working with leaders, I had discovered that a lot is learned from what was emphasized early on in a leader’s family.
Q: Are you working on another book?
A: Not specifically, but I’m very interested in the issue of leadership in 2016 as it plays out in the presidential election. I’m already writing about the underestimation by Americans of the importance of leadership. Not a book, but I think the topic terribly important. Ultimately, these writings might be a book.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: My look into the future is truncated. I’m not worried about myself, but rather worried about my grandchildren. The real question is one of survival.
I’m intrigued with the writings by David Halberstam – especially his book The Best and The Brightest and how we understand experience and wisdom.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb