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Battle of Saipan: beginning of the end

Seventy years ago, the Imperial Japanese Army lost a pivotal battle over the Pacific island of Saipan, a defeat that put Tokyo within range of high-altitude U.S. B-29 bombers that could evade Japan's inadequate air defenses. We examine the implications the battle had on the remainder of the war

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Eiichiro Osawa, 92, formerly an officer with the Kwantung Army, and my father-in-law, once told me that when he and his colleagues heard about Japan’s defeat at Saipan in mid-July 1944 they knew if was all over. When Prime Minister Hideki Tojo resigned soon after, he and colleagues quietly speculated that the war would end relatively soon. Instead it lasted another brutal 13 months, even though Japan’s political and military leaders knew the game was up. Osawa also told me that his colleagues quietly welcomed Tojo’s demise, a man who had been chief of staff of the Kwantung Army back in 1937-38. They held Tojo in low regard because he was a desk general who toadied his way to the top, a spit-polish martinet nicknamed “Razor” who was not respected as a soldier’s soldier, but knew how to kiss up and kick down.

Officers in the Kwantung Army knew that the fall of Saipan put Tokyo — and much of Japan — within range of high-altitude U.S. B-29 bombers that could evade Japan’s air defenses. It was the first breach of Japan’s inner defenses, one that would leave the archipelago vulnerable. Osawa says in private his colleagues expressed such misgivings, but the military ethos and the prevailing mood of hyper-patriotism ensured that everyone in public remained committed to fighting to the glorious end, willing to sacrifice their lives for the Emperor. There wasn’t much choice.

Throughout the war the Japanese government-controlled media exaggerated victories and gains while minimizing or censoring any setbacks. However, military officers had their own grapevine and were aware that the war was not going well. They knew better than anyone that shortages of everything hampered the war effort as Japan became bogged down in the China quagmire. Thus, even before the decision to attack the U.S. in 1941, Japan’s wartime economy was stretched to its limits. The escalation of hostilities against China and disastrous border clashes with Soviet troops were draining Japan’s scarce resources. As U.S. sanctions took effect, time was very much against Japan. Thus, Tojo took a desperate gamble at Pearl Harbor, enjoying success for the next six months or so. However, the tide of war then turned against Japan, the valor of its troops overwhelmed by America’s industrial output. Japan’s war machine was running on empty while escalating Allied submarine and air attacks against its convoys of supply ships prevented it from mobilizing and distributing the resources of its newly expanded empire.

The mounting losses could not be kept a secret. In early 1944, some 800,000 schoolchildren were evacuated from major urban areas to the countryside in the hope of protecting them from intensifying air raids and the coming whirlwind. Those who experienced this evacuation, including my mother-in law, Midori Osawa, 83, recall the hardships, hunger and separation from family caused by this dislocation, the initial sense of adventure quickly giving way to homesickness. For her generation, this was a defining experience, one of deprivation, disruption and insecurity. An elderly neighbor who evacuated told me he was scolded by his elementary school teacher for drawing a picture of an enemy plane dropping bombs on Tokyo, a reality that was apparently taboo.

Although Saipan fell on July 9, 1944, the nation officially learned of this momentous setback on July 18, along with the startling news of Tojo’s resignation. Elderly statesmen unceremoniously dumped the man who led Japan into a calamitous war. Two days later, Adolf Hitler was nearly assassinated in Operation Valkyrie. Tojo’s fall and Hitler’s brush with death sparked a redoubled Axis war effort by both nations as the gathering scent of defeat required ever more zealous and fanatical sacrifices.

The mounting losses became justification for more deaths in the bizarre logic of war where sacrifices must be honored with further sacrifices. Not to do so would dishonor those who already gave their lives, so feeding the funeral pyres. The firebombing of 66 of Japan’s cities that followed the loss of Saipan left some 5 million people homeless throughout Japan, killing perhaps 500,000 civilians and wounding another 400,000. This could have been averted. So, too, the brutal invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki if leaders boldly moved to cut losses and bring an end to a conflict they knew was all but lost. Instead, it took two more prime ministers and over a year of horrific losses before Emperor Hirohito, who is posthumously called Emperor Showa, finally intervened to end a war fought in his name.

“The chronic preference of leaders for wishful thinking, self-preservation, and face-saving that in 1941 culminated in the country’s most reckless decision had too familiar an echo in 1944 and 1945,” Eri Hotta argues in her superb “Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy.”

The ease with which Tojo was eased out of power suggests Japan was not a fascist, authoritarian state in the mold of Nazi Germany. Throughout the war Tojo was vilified in the U.S. media as the Japanese Fuhrer, the diabolical despot who unleashed a sanguinary rampage in the Pacific. He was the face of the Japanese juggernaut and often caricatured unflatteringly, Collier’s magazine referring to him in February 1944 as the “walking venom sac.” As far as Japanese people were concerned, he was ubiquitous in the media and also their supreme leader, carrying out the will of Hirohito — their divine leader.

Tojo was not oblivious to Japan’s precarious situation, but in January 1944 told the Diet that in this war of attrition the people’s spirits would soar as difficulties increased. The difficulties soon did dramatically, with the mid-February 1944 loss of Japan’s strategic base on the island of Truk in the Caroline Islands to a U.S. carrier-launched air armada. According to Robert Butow’s “Tojo and the Coming of the War,” this attack left the Imperial Navy without a single plane in the southeastern Pacific.

Tojo insisted victory was still possible if everyone got up earlier and worked harder, and encouraged this by shuttering 10,000 places of amusement. Under the circumstances it’s amazing he lasted as long as he did. Behind the scenes, however, there was growing dissatisfaction and pressure against Tojo owing to accumulating setbacks in the Pacific and mounting air raids on the homeland.

The fall of Saipan meant the U.S. could further intensify air attacks and, at the same time, the campaign in Burma was disintegrating.

Following the debacle on Saipan, Tojo consulted with the lord privy seal, Koichi Kido, Hirohito’s closest adviser, on July 13, 1944, about what to do. As he tried to reorganize his Cabinet, however, senior statesmen gathered on July 17 and essentially demanded Tojo’s resignation. Thus, those who put him in power issued a vote of no confidence and on July 18, 1944, two years and nine months after he was named prime minister, Tojo was ousted. Seventy years ago, this seemed the best course of action, but the departure of the “20th-century shogun” did not advance the prospects of peace.

Out of power, Tojo dropped off the radar and abruptly disappeared overnight; perhaps only former U.S. President George W. Bush is the only world leader who has so completely absconded since. It really is remarkable that the man who held the political and military reigns of power was so easily pushed into obscurity, as ignominious an exit as one could imagine. Critics drew attention to the fact that his two sons were given exemptions from military service and that when he was chief of the military police in Manchuria, he blackmailed or sidelined rivals. Butow notes he was also accused of misusing army funds for personal use and buying influence in high places. Reportedly, after his resignation, anonymous callers to his home kept asking his wife why he hadn’t yet committed suicide to atone.

Subsequently in February 1945, Hirohito asked for his views as Japan’s war effort was faltering and bombers devastated its cities. Tojo remained jauntily optimistic and supported continuation of the war. He lamented, however, that if people kept grousing about the air raids, Japan’s mission would be imperiled. Strong morale and unity, he argued, were essential to overcome the enemy. His delusional assessment contrasted with former Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe, who told the Emperor that the war was lost and that the longer it lasted, the greater the risk of a communist revolution that would threaten the Imperial household.

Until the end, Tojo seemed oblivious that his choices had pushed Japan to the brink of annihilation. “Pride,” the 1998 hagiographic film about Tojo that depicts him as a tragic hero, one of the great victims of the war, overlooks his tragic errors of judgment.

The first foreign correspondents who met Tojo after Japan’s surrender at his home in Tamagawa, before his arrest, were offered Hope cigarettes. The next day, Sept. 11, 1945, as military police prepared to arrest him, he shot himself in the chest with a Colt .32 caliber, but missed his heart and survived to face prosecution at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. There, he willingly deflected responsibility from Hirohito and was hanged Dec. 23, 1948, at Sugamo Prison along with six other Class-A war criminals.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • ollie5133

    There are many things I didn’t know in this article. But it doesn’t even spell Hitler’s first name right, so I don’t know how much of it to believe. And in the last sentence it should be “hanged” not “hung”.

  • disqus_78r6IPfptX

    Right. The past tense of “hang” is “hung” if it’s an inanimate object, like a picture. “I hung the picture on the wall yesterday.” But for people the past tense of “hang” is “hanged,” like “Two death row inmates were hanged this morning at the Tokyo Detention House.” Jeff Kingston works at a university? Maybe the article was ghost written – by a high school junior.