Japan 1941

Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941

Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941  Wikipedia

In July 1941 Japanese prime minister Konoe Fumimaro convened a meeting to discuss the empire’s deteriorating relations with the United States. The crisis prompted even the normally quiet Home Minister, Hiranuma Kiichiro, to speak up. According to Eri Hotta, “He was a Japanese chauvinist and Asia-firster who thought Japan had a preordained mission to lead Asia in a better, more just world.” On the matter of Japan’s relation with the U.S., Hiranuma was very clear: “…the Empire has to avoid going to war with the United States at all costs. That is the most important thing. … To stop and refrain from war is the route that Japan should take.” (137-8)

Eri Hotta’s Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy (2013) shows in detail the workings of the Japanese government and the military establishment as the nation moved toward its confrontation with the United States. In retrospect, that confrontation can seem inevitable, the product of Japanese expansionist dreams or racial fantasies, aggravated by U.S. intransigence. But Hotta makes clear that Hiranuma’s was far from the only voice raised against the movement toward war. Emperor Hirohito repeatedly asked his ministers if diplomacy would not be pressed further to resolve issues with the United States. High officials in the government and the military who flatly opposed war were numerous and in positions to exercise influence in the outcome of Japan’s policies. Notable opponents of war included Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, who would take on the task of devising the navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

The slide toward war took place within the context of growing crisis for Japan. “The China incident” (Japan’s invasion of China) had begun in 1937, and was expected to move quickly, like the occupation of Manchuria in 1931. Prince Konoe had assured the Emperor that the China situation would be resolved in four months. Four years later, however, the war dragged on, and it had become clearer to many in government that “victory” was not possible. Ordinary Japanese already struggled to get by on rationed rice, with common vegetables hard to find. Conscription took every larger groups of young, and even not young, men to the front. Iron ornaments on public buildings were replaced with wood, so that the metal could be converted to ordnance. As Japanese struggled to stretch their resources to sustain the stalemate in China, even the rosily optimistic planners in the military compared the size of the American economy to the Japanese at 20 to 1 (other figures available to the government would have made the comparison closer to 74 to 1).

In August the graduate students of the Total War Research Institute shared the results of their war game of a potential Japanese / U.S. confrontation: “…the group concluded that should Japan go to war with the United States and its allies, Japan would necessarily lose. Japan might very well prevail in a few initial battles, but it would then be forced into a prolonged war that would see its resources dwindle and eventually run out.” (165)

Yet, even in spite of clear resistance to war from officials and officers across the political spectrum, a few mid-level and senior officials persisted. Their motives were mixed. For some, institutional pride and predominance trumped prudent policy-making. Both the chiefs of the army and navy general staffs supported war preparations, and continued to compete for resources for their branches of the military. Tojo Hideki, the Army Minister in Konoe’s government and later the prime minister who would take Japan into war with the United States, continued to shift between efforts to push forward war preparations and to restrain the inevitable rush toward war. Too many people reasoned not from evidence but from military pride or their belief in Japanese uniqueness or their personal reluctance to lose face. Almost no one believed the war was winnable in conventional terms, but too many nevertheless believed Japan had to make war.