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Book Review: Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy , by Eri Hotta

A Japanese historian examines why Japan went to war.


Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy

Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, 320 pages



When Japan attacked the United States in 1941, argues Eri Hotta, its leaders, in large part, understood they were entering a conflict they were bound to lose. Availing herself of rarely consulted material, Hotta poses essential questions overlooked by historians in the seventy years since: Why did these men - military men, civilian politicians, diplomats, the emperor - put their country and its citizens in harm's way? Why did they make a decision that was doomed from the start?

Introducing us to the doubters, bluffers, and schemers who led their nation into this conflagration, Hotta brilliantly shows us a Japan never before glimpsed - eager to avoid war but fraught with tensions with the West, blinded by traditional notions of pride and honor, nearly escaping disaster before it finally proved inevitable.




Eri Hotta, a Japanese historian, tackles a subject that much of her country, even today, has difficulty talking about - the events leading up to Japan's disastrous decision to go to war with the United States. It's more an indictment than an apologetic - you can sense Hotta's desire to be as even-handed as possible while acknowledging that Japan's actions were short-sighted, ill-advised, and driven by petty egos, intercultural blunders, miscommunication, arrogance, delusion, and multiple failures of will. Of course outside of Japan's far right nationalist circles, hardly anyone today tries to defend Japan's imperialism in the first half of the 20th century, let alone their conduct during World War II, but much of modern Japan prefers to look away from that entire time period. (Though Hotta does name a few other Japanese historians who have taken it on.)

This book is specifically about everything that led to Pearl Harbor, and so it begins in the early 20th century (with some references to the historical background of the Meiji Restoration that still informed the attitudes of many of Japan's leaders) and ends with the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the die was cast.

The most interesting question, of course, is always "Why would Japan do this?"

The easy answer is that Japan was being hemmed in - the United States and Britain were constraining Japan's ability to expand and extract resources from the rest of the Pacific, imposing economic sanctions over their invasion of China (which Japan called throughout "the China Incident," never acknowledging it as a war), and enforcing earlier treaties that limited the ratio of warships that Japan could build. Japan had imperial ambitions and wanted to be recognized as a great power herself. The Japanese had a keen sense of how the West saw them as inferiors, and had also spent centuries under the shadow of China. You could almost say that Japan went to war because they wanted to sit at the big kids table and the other kids wouldn't let them.

Of course there were other options. Both sides could have made concessions, and indeed, both sides were willing to. But Japan was in an inferior position and was never going to get everything they wanted. So how did they make the decision to go to war, a decision that every thinking person knew beforehand, not just with historical hindsight, would prove to be disastrous?

Japan could never have won the war. Despite the "Japan Banzai!" attitude that prevailed once war got underway, the delusional propaganda the Japanese government fed its people, the cold hard facts were indisputable - the United States' manpower and production capacity was many times that of Japan's even before the US shifted to wartime production. The Japanese strategy was to knock out the Pacific fleet in Hawaii, consolidate gains in the Pacific and Dutch East Indies, and then present the reeling, demoralized U.S. with a fait accompli and enter into negotiations. The idea was the U.S. would be too shocked and lacking in political will to engage in a prolonged war for Pacific possessions the American public didn't really care about. So the Japanese, after their surprise victories, would be able to say "Look, just let us keep what we have now and we can end this unpleasantness."

This was a severe miscalculation on many levels, but it was one that Japanese diplomatic and strategic blunders pushed them into.

Yosuke Matsuoka - the ambitious commoner



Yosuke Matsuoka

There is a lot of blame to go around, but a lot of the blame, according to Hotta, would seem to fall on the shoulders of Yosuke Matsuoka, an ambitious, self-aggrendizing career politician who, ironically, spent his childhood in the United States, graduated from the University of Oregon, and was a baptized Christian. When he returned to Japan, he rose through the bureaucracy to eventually become Japan's Foreign Minister.

Matsuoka seemed to have that talent many men do, especially ambitious and somewhat amoral men, to embrace contradictions without cognitive dissonance. He was a Christian in the U.S. but a Buddhist in Japan. He was for war and against it. He saw no contradiction in signing the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy and yet trying to convince the U.S. later that it didn't really mean anything and that Japan could still be friends with the U.S. even if the U.S. went to war with the Axis.

Most damningly, during the frantic last ditch efforts to negotiate peace with the U.S. even while they were preparing for war, Matsuoka sabotaged many of those efforts because he saw them as undercutting his own position.

Fumimaro Konoe - the weak prince



Prince Konoe

Prince Konoe, the Prime Minister who appointed Matsuoka, comes off looking quite weak, being unable to restrain the Foreign Minister whom he appointed. He also tries to negotiate peace with the U.S., but is stymied by Matsuoka, and by the feuding Army and Navy.

This was a pattern throughout 1940 and 1941 - Japan's government was divided into multiple factions, with the Imperial Army and Navy acting as independent, sometimes opposing, sides, each wanting to dictate the direction of the coming war according to their own needs and capabilities. The civilians in the government might side with the Army or Navy or neither, while civilian and military leaders alike had to be mindful of their rebellious underlings. Japan at this point had something of a tradition of firebrand young officers leading mutinies and assassinations of senior officers whom they thought were not sufficiently zealous or supporting of the military. Military officers and senior government officials alike had been killed, and much of what happened in China was, at least on the surface, commanders on the ground letting their troops get out of control (or actually directing them to do so), contrary to the orders of their superiors back in Japan. Even though everyone was in theory a servant of the Emperor, whose own powers were theoretically limited by the Japanese Constitution (which gave him nominal but little actual legal authority), no one was really "in charge" of everything.

In this environment, what happened was a tragic farce of high ranking officials saying one thing in public meetings while expressing the opposite opinion in private. No one wanted a war with the U.S. - every study, exercise, and analysis they conducted showed that Japan couldn't possibly win. And yet they began sidling and stumbling towards the point of no return, all the different parties eying one another and hoping someone else would step up and say "Wait a minute, we shouldn't do this!"

There was even more of this in the last-minute negotiations in Washington, which involved, among other things, an optimistic peace proposal presented to the Japanese Prime Minister as a solid offer from the U.S. when in fact it was really just a list of propositions resulting from informal negotiations by a pair of unofficial diplomats operating through back channels. Both sides were operating under misapprehensions as to what the other side was actually offering and on whose authority the offer was made. This sort of thing happened a lot, and did much to convince the U.S. that Japan acted duplicitously, and convince Japan that the West couldn't be trusted.

"Climb Mount Niitaka"



Even as the Pearl Harbor strike force was sailing for Hawaii, negotiations were still underway. Admiral Yamamoto was prepared to turn back even until the last minute, if he received orders from Tokyo to call it off. But he didn't, and so came the famous order "Climb Mount Niitaka" - attack.

This led to one of the many additional small tragedies of the war, because back in Washington, the Japanese ambassadors were ordered to deliver Japan's declaration of war just before the attack. Due to technical difficulties in decrypting their orders from Tokyo, they delivered the message late, thus the infamous "sneak attack." (As a practical matter, it wouldn't have made a difference if they had delivered the declaration before the actual attack, since the U.S. would still have had only a few hours notice.) This was a personal tragedy for the Japanese ambassadors, who had been sincerely trying to negotiate peace in the belief that this was what their government wanted, unaware that the decision to go to war had already been made. The Japanese ambassador's final meeting with Secretary of State Cordell Hull was thus an acrimonious one.

Emperor Hirohito - what did he know, what could he have done?



Emperor Hirohito

Hotta isn't able to resolve the lingering historical question of Emperor Hirohito's role in the war, but her position seems to be more sympathetic, while not absolving Hirohito completely. According to her, the Emperor also seemed to embrace contradictions - he wanted peace, but was willing to lead Japan in war. He was involved in many high-level meetings at which his role was expected to be merely ceremonial, and yet he sometimes broke tradition and interrogated or scolded his generals and admirals and cabinet ministers. He was probably unaware of Japanese atrocities, but he was certainly aware of, and approved, Japanese aggression. Many officials after the war were complicit in hiding the extent of Hirohito's knowledge and involvement in actual war planning, but it is hard to see Hirohito as a complete innocent here.

More interesting than "How much did he know, and how involved was he?" is the real question — "Could he have stopped it?" Were there points at which Emperor Hirohito could have prevented war by calling a halt to their plans? His authority was apparently a bit fuzzy legally - technically he did not have the Constitutional authority to dictate government policy or forbid the military to do anything. And yet, he was the Emperor, and no final decision could be executed without his approval.

There have been suggestions in the post-war years that the Emperor himself feared assassination if he tried to oppose the military. But arguments for Hirohito's innocence may equally be historical revisionism - both the Japanese and MacArthur were eager to prop up the Emperor and downplay his culpability in order to smooth the post-war occupation of Japan. So we will probably never know if Hirohito could have stopped the war, let alone whether he actually wanted to.

Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy does a good job of explaining the ins and outs of negotiations, diplomatic situations, and rationales from both the Japanese and American sides. I am not sure it presents a lot that's new (I've learned much of what Hotta presents here from other books about World War II), but with its focus on the prelude to the war and the personalities involved, it examines an interesting facet that most histories summarize much more briefly, since people are more interested in what happened once the fighting began. Hotta doesn't really interject her own viewpoint very often, other than acknowledging that Japan's leaders bore responsibility for their decisions, and that they were frequently guilty of wishful thinking and ignoring what they didn't want to hear.






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