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Pearl Harbor: setting history straight

by Stephen Mansfield

It is extraordinary the lengths to which some people will go to reorganize history to suit their own ends. There are still voices, for example, claiming that Emperor Hirohito knew nothing about Pearl Harbor, the aerial attack that launched Japan’s holy war.

DEMYSTIFYING PEARL HARBOR: A New Perspective From Japan, by Iguchi Takeo. I-House Press, 2010, 343 pp., ¥3,000 (hardcover) Reviewed by Stephen Mansfield

As historian John Dower has noted, the emperor “was well briefed on the Pearl Harbor strategy, right down to the reason for choosing Sunday (‘a day of rest’) for the surprise attack . . . signing the declaration of war with full knowledge of the military’s intentions.”

In writer Takeo Iguchi, we have that rarest of things in Japan: an empirical historian bent on setting the record straight. Rather than blindly defending his country’s actions, the author attempts to defend the truth. He is singularly well suited to do this, as a grainy photograph at the beginning of this book testifies. Dated Dec. 29, 1941, the image shows two small children walking toward a bus in the wake of their father, then counselor at the Japanese Embassy in Washington. The taller boy is Takeo Iguchi.

Part of being supremely qualified to write on the subject from multiple perspectives is the astonishing fact of the author being an eyewitness, albeit a young one, to the very history he is analyzing. Iguchi is blessed with excellent recall. Aside from the primary theme of responsibility, the author gives a moving account of the circumstances of U.S.-based Japanese officials and their families at the time of the attack, a community stranded between the insanity of Tokyo’s military ambitions and the bitterness of a recently violated American public toward Japanese nationals on their soil.

The author examines his confused emotions with admirable candor: the heartbreak of leaving friends and school in America, the fear at seeing the jeering, hateful faces of ordinary Americans outside the embassy gates, the new doctrine of Japan’s invincibility. As Iguchi and his family sail back to Japan, the political landscape is already changing. When they dock at Singapore, they find the island renamed Shonan and the city now under direct Japanese control.

The book analyzes in painstaking detail the circumstances surrounding Japan’s delayed notification to the United States of what in Japan is often wrongly referred to as an ultimatum — a note that pointedly and culpably arrived after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Iguchi dismisses the theory that this was an oversight on the part of bungling officials and diplomats at the Japanese Embassy in Washington. He pursues the more damning hypothesis that Foreign Ministry telegrams were tampered with, and that a conspiracy to cover up the facts and protect those responsible took place either during or after the war-crime tribunals.

The note delivered to U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull on Dec. 7, 1941, we discover, was not a declaration of war, but a notification of the termination of negotiations. It seems that individuals within the military, and feasibly the Foreign Ministry, conspired to delay this and other telegrams to Washington before the attack in order to allay suspicions of an impending attack.

Although you will have to read the text to discover precisely who were involved, the author, in piecing together complex timelines and the motives of higher commands, does not shrink from naming names.

An indignant writer, fired up by a sense of injustice, Iguchi writes with a “passionate partiality,” to appropriate an expression from Susan Sontag.

Handling the mass of documentation and legalese with a deftness that would defeat many a lesser scholar, Iguchi writes with authority on the historical background of Western involvement in the Asia-Pacific region. He points out, for example, that “Chronologically, the extension of American activities in Asia and the Pacific region paralleled Japan’s efforts at colonial acquisition in the Far East,” a fact that raises questions about the ethical foundations of the West’s obstructionist policies toward Japanese colonial expansion.

In his otherwise learned account of the events leading to anti-Japanese resistance in China in the prewar period, the Rape of Nanjing, referred to in the book as the Nanjing Incident, barely merits a footnote, though the atrocity must surely have played an almighty part in the hardening of resolve and anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese. Iguchi readily acknowledges Japan’s culpability in both China and the subsequent wider arena of the Pacific War, but the dilution of such a key event adds credibility to the view that Japan’s ultimate defeat was brought about more by a failure of strategy and rationality than by a descent into inhumanity.

Despite the Asia liberation rhetoric issuing from Tokyo before and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Iguchi rightly concludes that Japan’s real war aims were a “hasty effort to secure a self-sufficient autarchy over its supply of strategic resources and to consolidate the rule of its empire in Asia.”

One of the extraordinary facts about Japan’s imperial hegemony is that, though vast, it was “one of the most short-lived military empires in world history.”

This important work of reconsideration is likely to alter the debate on the war and change the criteria for historical interpretation both in and outside of Japan. This will not be the last book on Pearl Harbor, but in going further than any comparable analysis of the subject, it provides a degree of both exhumation and closure.

Stephen Mansfield is the author of “Tokyo: A Cultural and Literary History.”