Who Was Responsible? From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor, edited by James E. Auer, The Yomiuri Shimbun, 2006, 410 pp., 4,000 yen (cloth)

Yomiuri journalists worked for 14 months investigating: “Who was responsible for starting the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War, why they did so and why the nation kept fighting until many of its cities had been almost completely reduced to ashes.”

The resulting book is a devastating critique of Japan’s leadership between 1931 and 1945. “Japan misread the prevailing international situation in 1941 when it went to war against the United States.” Japan failed to formulate realistically its war aims or an exit strategy.

“For (Hideki) Tojo and others, the establishment of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere through war with the United States and Britain was Japan’s last resort to make China surrender.”

A comparison in 1940 between the national strength of Japan and the U.S. in 1940 reveals the extent of Japan’s gamble in attacking America. The misreading of intelligence, assessments based on wishful thinking, combined with coverups of failures, made defeat inevitable.

The Japanese Army and Navy were frequently in discord. Intrigues and deliberate disobedience by relatively junior officers of orders from Tokyo led to the escalation of the war in China and to appalling mistakes in other theaters resulting in vast numbers of military and civilian casualties. The Guadalcanal campaign in 1942, in which 20,000 Japanese troops died (15,000 as a result of starvation), was “a tragedy born of a war without strategy.”

After the war ended, Tojo told former Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu: “The fundamental reason [for Japan’s defeat] was the lack of control. The Prime Minister . . . did not have the authority to control the reins of its military forces.”

Tojo is held “most responsible.” Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe was guilty for allowing “the Japanese military to act on its own.” Other politicians as well as senior and middle-ranking officers, some of whom did not face trial before the Tokyo International Military Tribunal, and Japanese diplomats, who consistently overestimated Germany’s chances of victory, were also culpable. Members of the Diet are criticized for doing nothing to hold the government responsible for its failures.

More than 3.1 million Japanese, including 800,000 civilians, died in the “Showa war.” Although Japan initially won some astounding victories, there was never any chance that Japan could be victorious. By 1944 at the latest it was clear that Japan had lost, but Japan’s military were fanatical, blind and obstinate.

Even after the devastating fire-bomb raids on Tokyo in March 1945 and the loss of Okinawa, they wanted to fight to the death on the mainland. The attempt to get the Soviet Union to act as an intermediary was a mistake as was Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki’s comment implying that Japan would ignore the Potsdam declaration. The atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, delivered the coup de gra^ce and provided an excuse for surrender.

The Yomiuri concludes that the Showa Emperor’s behavior was within the framework for a constitutional head of state. He did from time to time express misgivings, and was not always fully informed of what was happening in the field. Could he, and should he, have been more explicit in his criticisms?

This book deserves to be widely read. It does not, however, tell the whole story. The appalling Japanese treatment of the population of Singapore, the building of the Burma-Siam railway with the forced labor of allied prisoners of war, and the horrific Bataan death march are not mentioned. The wanton sacrifice of Japanese youth in the kamikaze attacks is rightly criticized, but these attacks, combined with the fanatical behavior of Japanese soldiers in the field and the exaggerated rhetoric of Japanese military leaders, are what aroused allied fears that an invasion of Honshu would lead to a blood bath. These were factors leading to the decision to use atomic bombs, which the Yomiuri understandably criticizes.

The lacuna in this book is its failure to analyze how the Japanese military came to misbehave as they did. This lies in the growth of Japanese nationalism and imperialism. The Meiji Era government decided that to unify the country the position of the Emperor should be strengthened. This led to the cult of the Emperor and of state Shinto. A chapter should have been devoted to the philosophical and psychological background for Japanese actions and behavior in the Showa war.

The book brings out the importance of accurate intelligence and unbiased reporting, objective interpretation and analysis of intelligence, a willingness to recognize the facts on the ground, and a readiness to acknowledge failure. War aims need to be properly thought through and an exit strategy worked out in advance.

All of these considerations are relevant to the current conflict in Iraq.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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