NEW YORK — A reader of my Jan. 30 column (“Another side to Japanese-Korean history”) wrote to comment and, in the course of subsequent correspondence, wondered about an “alternative reality” or a “what if” in Japan’s history before World War II. He had in mind, in particular, “Secretary (Cordell) Hull’s ultimatum of Nov. 26, 1941.”

The so-called Hull Note — the “Outline of Proposed Basis for Agreement between the United States and Japan” — demanded, among the 10 “fundamental principles” for keeping peace between the two countries, that “The Government of Japan will withdraw all military, naval, air and police forces from China and from Indochina.”

My reader’s wonderment made me read — this time from cover to cover — Kazuo Osugi’s 1996 book examining which step at what stage during the 15-year war between Japan and China might have prevented the war’s prolongation. What struck me in the new reading was one of Osugi’s heroes, Tanzan Ishibashi (1884-1973).

I had long regarded Ishibashi as just one of those gray politicians who became prime minister after the war but left no special imprint. In truth, he was a man of substance. A prominent journalist before the war, he had opposed Japan’s military and territorial expansion, not just as the situation grew worse in the 1930s, but long before then.

So, in September 1912, shortly after the Taisho Era began, Ishibashi penned an article condemning the “mob-like” movement led by the mayor of Tokyo to build a shrine for the Meiji Emperor. He did so because those who were pushing it obviously found the meaning of the Meiji Era in its “militarism” and “imperialism” (the English words are his) that enabled Japan to acquire “Taiwan, (the southern half of) Sakhalin, and Korea.” But, as a result, “the Japanese people are panting and struggling under the burden of military expenditures.”

Rather, the meaning of the era lies, Ishibashi argued, in “the great principle of government based on public debate, government of popular discussion, that is, democracy” that the Emperor laid down in the Five Pledges promulgated at the start of his era. So, instead of expending “energy on building a shrine made of wood and stone,” Japan should consider setting up a “Meiji Prize,” comparable to the Nobel Prize, to promote the idea.

In November 1914, Ishibashi wrote an editorial for the Toyo Keizai Shimpo (The Oriental Economist) to express “adamant opposition” to turning Qingdao into Japan’s territory. As World War I started in Europe, Japan declared war against Germany on the pretext of its alliance with Great Britain, attacked Germany’s leased territory on the Shandong Peninsula, which had its most important naval base in East Asia, and, after several thousand lost lives, took it. Ishibashi’s opposition was based on his “unchanging and unchangeable argument that Japan should never expand its territory on the Asian Continent and should abandon Manchuria on the earliest occasion.”

Following the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905, Japan had acquired certain rights in small parts of Manchuria, but there had already emerged among the Japanese the contention that the whole region was Japan’s.

What happened in Japan as soon as the European war broke out is a reminder of the perennial nature of political expediency in starting a war and the gullibility of the people. Germany was one country Japan had admired and imitated since the mid-19th century when it opened itself to world commerce and diplomacy. Japan’s military, in fact, was patterned after Germany’s. Nevertheless, the idea of Germany as Japan’s “long-standing enemy” was suddenly thrust forward, the nation was urged to “unify itself” behind it, and the people gladly went along.

Ishibashi, comparing Japan’s takeover of Qingdao to a petty burglary carried out while the powerful owner is away, predicted that “this policy of naked territorial invasion” and “the lightheaded call for national unity” would become “a matter for Japan to regret for the next 100 years.” They indeed did.

In 1921, when the U.S. called for an international conference to limit armament, Ishibashi, lamenting that Japan had not proposed it, urged the Japanese government to go to Washington prepared to “give up Korea, Taiwan, and Sakhalin,” and, “of course, to stop meddling with China and Siberia.” Japan’s blatant actions in China were fanning anti-Japanese protests, and Japan by then had 70,000 soldiers in Siberia. The conference was partly meant to put a brake on Japan’s conduct in the Pacific and the Far East.

It was in one of his editorials on this conference that Ishibashi questioned the basic premise of Japan’s maintaining large military forces. “In the end,” he summed up, “it has to be either (1) to invade another country or (2) to prevent invasion from another.” But “politicians, men in uniform, and journalists all say in unison that our military is not intended to invade another country.” If so, Ishibashi wrote, “there should be no need for us to maintain the military.” If, on the other hand, it is to defend itself, who would invade Japan? “No one would touch anything like the Japanese mainland even if it were offered free of charge.”

Ishibashi went on in this vein, to no avail of course. With the catastrophic war he had foreseen over, Ishibashi couldn’t help reflecting how it “would never have happened if 37 years ago the Japanese people had had the kind of spirit that would create the Meiji Prize instead of making the Meiji Shrine.”

That “if” may be too precious, but we can still wonder: What if Japan three decades later had accepted the Hull Note? Osugi takes up this very question in the afterword to his book by citing the writer Masayasu Hosaka’s “depressing thought.” Had that happened, Hosaka wrote, Japan today would be “an overbearing country, a nuisance to the world . . . loitering the Pacific without any national objective, militarily clinging to its rights and interests” in the region.

But Osugi imagines a different outcome. Describing what has happened to Franco’s Spain, he thinks that various developments over time would have enabled Japan to “achieve a democratic revolution, peacefully, voluntarily.”

Perhaps. If history is largely what comes out of a string of “coincidental events and temporary policies driven by the tides of the times,” as Ishibashi characterized what shaped the Meiji Era, a different step at a fateful juncture just might have made a crucial point of departure.

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