The key was lost and the safe remained locked for 22 years after the 1989 death of its owner, former Lt. Gen. Teiichi Suzuki of the Imperial Japanese Army, who had been the last surviving Class-A war criminal of World War II.
Suzuki, who died at the age of 100 in Shibayama, Chiba Prefecture, was among key Cabinet members when Japan started the Pacific War with the Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Two years ago, Suzuki’s relatives had NHK open the safe. Inside were diaries, notebooks and other documents, including a 16-page typed manuscript that the general had read out in front of Emperor Hirohito and national leaders at an Imperial Conference on Nov. 5, 1941, to detail Japan’s logistical strengths.
Suzuki, who headed the Planning Board, a government body in charge of allocating resources for the army, navy and civilians, concluded that Japan, which was already at war in China, would be able to still wage war against the United States, Britain and the Netherlands.
This conclusion may have helped seal the fate of Japan as well as that of millions of victims of the Pacific War.
Some key numbers described in the manuscript were apparently padded. Using those cooked-up figures, Suzuki was able to convince undecided leaders that Japan could secure the logistical supplies needed to wage war against the U.S., said Atsushi Moriyama, associate professor at the University of Shizuoka, noting this argument helped persuade Japan to embark on a hopeless fight.
“This is the first time (Suzuki) revealed his official view (on Japan’s wartime logistical capacity). So this was very critical,” said Moriyama, a noted expert on modern Japanese political history.
Experts have known the contents of the document Suzuki read out, but it wasn’t until NHK broke open the safe that the actual paper he used during the Imperial Conference was discovered.
The safe also contained nine essays Suzuki wrote in the closing days of World War II that to date have been examined only by a few experts. The Japan Times is the first media outlet to report on those essays.
In one of them, Suzuki explained how awestruck he was by his first one-on-one conversation with Emperor Hirohito to detail a national resource mobilization plan for fiscal 1941 on July 5, 1941.
The Emperor asked Suzuki if the 1941 resource plan would still work if a war between Japan and the United States broke out, according to the essay.
“If such a war actually takes place, it would mean big trouble, though,” the Emperor was quoted as saying in the essay.
In the essay, Suzuki wrote that he responded by saying the plan is based on an expanded wartime scenario. The Emperor said, “Then that would be fine.”
Moriyama noted, however, that no contemporary materials, including diaries of the Emperor’s aides, make mention of Suzuki’s meeting with the monarch on that date.
If the meeting actually took place on that date, it is a new discovery.But Suzuki’s memory could have been off, as he wrote the essay more than three years after the meeting supposedly occurred, Moriyama said.
Suzuki kept his essays and the 16-page document together in his safe, apparently aware of the historic meaning of the incidents he was involved in as a Cabinet member during the war.
In the postwar military tribunal, Suzuki was sentenced to life in prison, but was freed in 1956.
The cover of the 16-page document bore “Top-Secret” in red, and many red lines were drawn along key words and phrases, which Suzuki probably emphasized during his presentation in front of the Emperor and other attendants, including Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo.
The manipulated figures in Suzuki’s document were those of projected wartime losses of transport ships to carry oil and other strategic materials from areas in Southeast Asia that Japan planned to occupy if it went to war with the U.S.
Before July 1941, Japan depended on the U.S. for 70 percent of its oil imports. But on Aug. 1 of that year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt cut Japan off after Imperial forces advanced into southern French Indochina ostensibly at the request of France’s puppet Vichy government that the Nazis established. By then, Japan had joined Hitler’s tripartite Axis alliance.
Japan had more than 7 million tons of oil stockpiled as of July 1941, but with daily consumption of 10,000 tons, the nation would be left with no oil by the end of December 1942.
With no alternative sources, Japan was facing the tough choice of whether to launch a desperate war against the Allied Powers in a bid to occupy oil-rich Southeast Asia or pull its troops out of China as demanded by the U.S.
A critical question for leaders at the Imperial Conference was whether Japan would be able to ship vast amounts of oil from occupied Southeast Asia, particularly the Dutch East Indies, to sustain a war against the U.S.
Suzuki’s paper concluded that Japan would be able to maintain enough transport ships in a conflict against the U.S. But according to the paper, the loss of ships was estimated at 800,000 tons to 1 million tons a year, and annual ship production capacity was estimated to be 600,000 tons a year.
Given those figures, Japan would eventually lose all its transport ships, but Suzuki concluded otherwise, without providing an explanation.
“(Suzuki) didn’t make sense,” Moriyama said.
None of the national leaders at the Imperial Conference, however, pointed out the apparent contradiction and simply accepted Suzuki’s conclusion, taking a significant step toward war against the U.S. during the gathering.
According to Moriyama, Suzuki apparently adopted an earlier optimistic simulation provided by the navy that assumed that as the war continued, fewer transport ships would be sunk. The simulation was based on outdated World War I ship-loss data and didn’t assume any damage from enemy aircraft.
“Whether Japan would be able to continue the war depended on how much (shipping) we would lose,” Gen. Kenryo Sato, the army’s military affairs chief in the 1940s, wrote in a memoir published in 1976.
“In reality, the estimated amount turned out to be far off the mark. This was the biggest cause of our defeat” in the Pacific War, Sato wrote.
Suzuki was well aware of the huge gap between the industrial strength of the U.S. and that of Japan, and was among a few members who initially openly argued against a war with the United States.
In 1941, the gross national product of the U.S. was 12 times greater than that of Japan and the U.S. produced 12 times more crude steel and five times more aircraft and ships than Japan.
But after being pressured by a senior army officer, Suzuki made an about-face on Oct. 30, 1941, and started siding with those national leaders who advocated war, Moriyama said.
“Suzuki’s about-face was a big factor” in pushing participants in the Imperial Conference to opt for war, he said.
If Suzuki had maintained his earlier stance against the war, the Tojo Cabinet may not have started the war against the U.S., Moriyama said.
Under the 1889 Meiji Constitution, no national leader — even the prime minister — had the power to sack other members of the Cabinet. If one minister kept resisting the prime minister, the Cabinet would have no choice but to resign en masse.
Also under the Meiji Constitution, the Emperor appointed Cabinet ministers, based on recommendations from the prime minister. But the Emperor was not supposed to officially intervene in Cabinet decisions, although Emperor Hirohito’s attitude sometimes affected key political figures during the war.
This meant all key decisions would have to appear to be unanimous agreements by the Cabinet.
According to studies by experts, many top leaders — including those from the army and navy, were, like Suzuki, reluctant to wage war with the U.S., as they were well aware of how strong it was compared with Japan.
But key government officials, including top brass in the army and navy, both feared losing face and had sectional interests to protect, thus they never expressed their “honne” (true feelings) during top decision-making meetings, Moriyama said.
Top naval leaders could not openly argue against war because the navy had earlier kept winning huge budgets by emphasizing it had to prepare to take on America. Army leaders meanwhile refused to withdraw their troops from occupied China as demanded by Washington as a precondition for the U.S. lifting its oil embargo and improving relations with Japan.
Pressure from the army and navy, which put their interests above those of the nation, eventually pushed indecisive national leaders to gamble on war with the Allies. And Suzuki’s paper helped provide a reason for those leaders to launch the Pacific War.
Moriyama is well-known for his studies on this “indecisive” political process and the sectionalism that eventually led Japan to doom in the Pacific War. Many Japanese who read his book on this theme say the organizations they belong to have very similar problems with indecisive, irresponsible leaders, Moriyama said.
“Many of my readers interpreted (the book) as that of contemporary history. A book like this should be read as a story of the past, but it’s not,” he said. “That means (Japanese) society has serious problems. That’s scary.”
Japan paid dearly for waging war with the Allies.
Most of Japan’s major cities — including Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka — were flattened by massive U.S. bombing raids. In the March 10, 1945, Great Tokyo Air Raid alone, more than 100,000 citizens were killed overnight.
In total, more than 3.1 million Japanese, including 800,000 civilians, were killed during the war, which ultimately cost tens of millions of lives.