“Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy” by Eri Hotta (Alfred A. Knopf, 310 pages, $27.95)
“In all four seas all are brothers and sisters,
Then why, oh why, these rough winds and waves?”
(Poem recited three months before Pearl Harbor to Japan’s imperial council by Emperor Hirohito expressing his desire to avoid war.)
The Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor didn’t have to happen. There were Japanese leaders opposed to war. There were diplomatic maneuvers that could have forestalled, if not stopped, the planned attack. But the Japanese leadership had neither the will nor the courage to prevent it, contends Eri Hotta, author of “Japan 1941.”
As a result, we continue to remember the catastrophic events of that date when more than 350 Japanese fighters, bombers and torpedo planes attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet killing and wounding nearly 3,600 Americans and destroying or damaging 21 ships and approximately 350 aircraft.
While Pearl Harbor is a story of devastation and the determination by the United States to win the war, Hotta looks across the Pacific to actions by the Japanese government and conditions in that county that laid the groundwork for the infamous attack. Her comprehensive examination of Japan’s leadership provides behind-the-scene details of personalities and political maneuverings. She reveals how a “momentum for war” pushed even peace-seeking leaders to acquiesce despite a general feeling among those in leadership committed to war with the United States that it was probably unwinnable.
The basic outline of why Japan decided it had to attack is well-known. Japan was bogged down in a campaign to defeat the forces of Chiang Kai-shek in China while the U.S. government contributed financial and military aid to his forces. Japan feared the encroachment of Western influence, even domination, in the region as reason to act. Embargoes on oil and other raw materials by the United States, Great Britain and the Netherlands on Japan aggravated an already tense situation. And an underlying belief that Western nations had racist attitudes toward Japan added to that nation’s sense of suspicion and distrust.
Hotta writes not as an apologist for the Japanese government’s ultimate decision but to offer much-needed insight to how and why it was made. “If anything, it is a great historical puzzle begging to be solved,” she says.
Among the puzzle pieces was the unwillingness among the Japanese leadership to be openly critical of one other. “For most military leaders, any hint of weakness was to be avoided, so speaking decisively and publicly against war was unthinkable, even if they had serious doubts.” Economic embargoes by the West, a nationwide austerity program, and fears of a Soviet attack from the north and the ongoing China War to the south only intensified the need by those in power to take some decisive action to embolden the nation.
Hotta, who was born and educated in Japan, provides historical context to conditions in Japan including a helpful list of selected events in Japanese history prior to April, 1941. She traces the international realignment following World War I, a key turning point for Japan, when Western powers sought to create a new world order. Though Japan had fought with the Allies during World War I, the predatory nature of Western colonialism in the region convinced Japan that “power was the very basic requirement for survival.”
While Japan’s power seemed to reside in the emperor, in reality his power was neither absolute nor decisive. With the rise of militarism, a government of political and collaborative military leaders shaped the final decisions. And that’s where voices urging caution or rejecting war were almost non-existent even though some at times were carefully and often belatedly offered.
“Couldn’t we let diplomacy pursue its course a bit longer?” asked Tojo Hideki, who became prime minister shortly before the outbreak of war, though he ultimately supported the decision. Diplomatic efforts, however, were often only a ruse used by those in power to maintain the momentum for war.
When the attack was launched, some immediately saw disaster. “What on earth!” exclaimed Prince Konoe Fumimaro when told of the attack. He had resigned as prime minister two months earlier. “I really feel a miserable defeat coming. This [favorable situation for Japan] will only last two or three months.”
So who was responsible for Japan’s decision to go to war? After Japan’s defeat, Hotta says, “everyone in the leadership took part in this utterly futile game of passing the buck.” Still, to argue that the war was unnecessary “was too difficult for any Japanese to accept, having lost so much and so many in the war.” And that allowed many to avoid other kinds of responsibilities, she writes, “such as coming to terms with its [Japan’s] war crimes and remembering the war after it was over.”
Shortly before Pearl Harbor, Nagai Kafu, a writer who opposed the government, watched people’s indifference to the talk of war and wrote that the primary pursuit of the population was “to pass one day at a time without encountering too much trouble.” It’s an attitude, Hotta submits, that still allows the subject of 1941 to be ignored by the Japanese today.
As Hotta’s book reveals in re-examining all that led up to that dreadful day, leaders who refuse to rethink options other than war and people who fail to speak up when an unwise decision for aggression seems imminent can get caught up in the momentum for war.
And the result for any nation moving toward war and unwilling to put on the brakes and reconsider can be catastrophic.