In the spring of 1945, Japanese imperial forces were running out of options. On the Chinese mainland, they still stood their ground. But elsewhere, in Southeast Asia and across the Pacific, the situation was dire. For almost three years, they had been fighting a rearguard action against Allied forces, to little avail. Now, war material was in short supply and recruits were growing scarce — and time was running out.

Even suicide missions could not stem the tide. Coordinated kamikaze air attacks, first unleashed in a systematic way against American aircraft carriers during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines in October 1944 had not slowed — let alone stopped — the American offensive. Then, the following April, the Japanese Imperial Navy dispatched the Yamato, the largest battleship ever built and the pride of its armada, on a one-way mission to Okinawa with just enough fuel to reach its destination, in a vain attempt to defend the island against the American invasion underway. That too failed: The ship had barely left Kyushu coastal waters when it was spotted by American submarines. Hundreds of planes soon swarmed the Yamato and pummelled it from the air. It sank within hours.

Written in stone: The Pacific War saw the Allies fighting against Japan and took place across Asia and the Pacific. | GETTY IMAGES
Written in stone: The Pacific War saw the Allies fighting against Japan and took place across Asia and the Pacific. | GETTY IMAGES

And yet, despite this unfolding military disaster, to say nothing of the almost daily fire-bombing of Japanese cities, the country’s leaders refused to yield: In “Eagle Against the Sun,” an authoritative military history of the war first published in 1985 but just reissued by The Folio Society, Ronald H. Spector writes that as late as June 8, in a meeting attended by the emperor, the Cabinet decided to “prosecute the war to the bitter end.” It took another two months of combat, two atomic bombs and a Soviet invasion of Manchuria, then under Japanese control, for Tokyo to finally surrender.

This catastrophe was not preordained. At various moments over the previous decades, the Japanese government made choices that precluded some outcomes and made others possible. Not all these decisions were momentous, but taken together they pushed Japan, the U.S. and the rest of Asia toward war. Why Japanese leaders picked a particular course of action at a particular time is essential to understand the origins of the war.

The 1930s were critical. At the beginning of the decade, the Great Depression was wreaking havoc with the world economy. Western democracies appeared intellectually bankrupt, bereft of new ideas. Trade barriers went up, societies turned inward. To some, autarky and fascism seemed to offer hope.

For Japan, though, economic self-sufficiency was not an option. The archipelago was poor in natural resources and so trade and foreign markets were essential to its prosperity. To survive, Japanese leaders believed they “needed an empire of adequate size,” writes S.C.M. Paine in “The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949,” a volume that puts the Pacific War in broad historical context. They did not have to look far: Manchuria, a large and fertile part of China, rich in minerals, spread immediately north of Korea, then a Japanese colony. It was also familiar ground. In 1905, at the end of its war with Russia, Tokyo had obtained Moscow’s Manchurian railway concessions as war reparations. After that, Japan aggressively pushed for the region’s industrial development. By 1929, when the stock market on Wall Street crashed, up to 70 percent of all Japanese foreign investment targeted Manchuria.

The Kwantung Army then dramatically raised the stakes. In September 1931, through cunning and guile, and without the approval of the government in Tokyo, it staged an incident that led to the take over of the entire region. In less than six months, it swallowed a territory larger than Spain, France and Germany combined, which, for all practical purposes, it then ran as its private fief until the end of the war.

Whatever economic benefits Japan derived from its new conquests, these came with serious diplomatic headaches. The League of Nations, for one, took umbrage. In March 1933, under severe criticism, Japan withdrew from the organization. For Paine, this signaled Tokyo’s “rejection of the global order and, in the stroke of a pen, transformed Japan into a diplomatically isolated nation.” It was also an important turning point that established a dangerous pattern: Each time Japan took another slice of Chinese land, as it did numerous times between 1931 and 1937, or antagonized Western powers, as it did when it signed the 1940 Tripartite Pact with Italy and Nazi Germany, its actions triggered a response, often in the form of economic sanctions. Gradually, one thread at a time, the fabric keeping Asia together was being unravelled.

What Japan needed most at this juncture was strong civilian leaders, individuals who could stand their ground against the most aggressive elements of Japanese society. This required an unusual dose of savvy and nous: Under the 1889 Meiji Constitution, the armed forces had enormous power. Both the Minister of the Army and that of the Navy, for instance, had to be on active duty. They could also bring down the cabinet and veto the formation of a new one. “The Chiefs of the Army and Navy General Staffs,” writes Spector, “were also independent of the government and directly responsible to the Emperor in matters vital to national defence.” In other words, the military, not the country’s elected officials, was the dominant force.

Instead of level-headed governance, Japan got the supine Fumimaro Konoe (1891-1945) and the truculent Yosuke Matsuoka (1880-1946). In “Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy,” an illuminating account of how Japanese decision-makers viewed the world then, Eri Hotta explains how both men utterly failed their country at a critical moment.

Men in power: In 'Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy,' Eri Hotta explains how political leaders Fumimaro Konoe (pictured) and Yosuke Matsuoka failed their country at a critical moment | KYODO
Men in power: In ‘Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy,’ Eri Hotta explains how political leaders Fumimaro Konoe (pictured) and Yosuke Matsuoka failed their country at a critical moment | KYODO

Konoe was prime minister twice, from 1937 to 1939, when Japan launched its full-scale war against China, and again from 1940 to 1941, in the months leading to Pearl Harbor. He was an ambitious aristocrat, popular with the public despite his aloofness and eccentricity. Alas, Konoe was also a milksop. He would sooner withdraw to his villa than confront opposition in the Cabinet. Worse, he went to great lengths to accommodate Japan’s extreme right in a misguided effort at consensus. “When political leadership was called for,” Hotta states, “(Konoe) was nowhere to be heard.”

Matsuoka, who served as Foreign Minister under Konoe, was his polar opposite: forceful, confident and brash. He believed he knew the U.S. well — he spent almost a decade there in his youth — but fundamentally misunderstood its psyche. He once infamously said that only when you punch an American in the face will he “start respecting you.” He thought that defiance and belligerence would ultimately cow Japan’s opponents, the U.S. first among them. Unsurprisingly, this approach did not bring the intended benefits. In a scathing judgment, Hotta writes that Matsuoka did “more damage to Japan’s international position than anyone with much less knowledge of the world ever could have.” No wonder things went downhill.

On the eve of Pearl Harbor, Japan had a fearsome military machine. Spector writes that its aircraft carrier forces, to name only one example, “were probably the finest naval weapon in the world.” The attack on Hawaii was bold and superbly planned, but it was far from a decisive blow. It was also the easy part: Thenceforth, Japan had to face the full might of the United States and its bottomless industrial capacity.

On two fronts, in the south and central Pacific, American forces gradually pushed back. It was a slow and bloody grind, made all the more difficult by Japanese forces who knew how to use the difficult terrain to their advantage, concealing fortified positions behind dense foliage and building command centers underground — on Iwo Jima, their headquarters were 20 meters deep. As if that was not enough, Spector reminds us, the Emperor’s soldiers were no pushovers but “stubborn, fanatical fighters who seldom retreated and never surrendered.”

It is a tragedy that most of them died in horrible circumstances while their hometowns burned. But it was the flawed judgment, bravado and chauvinism of their leaders that got them there in the first place. We owe it to them, and all those who lost their lives in the war, to understand how that happened.

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