Dec. 8 (Japan time) is the 72nd anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the infamous attack launched by Imperial Japanese forces against the United States that continues to reverberate in the popular imagination.
Certainly, the 2,402 deaths made this raid unforgettable. So too the sunken and savaged U.S. Navy vessels that lay smoldering after the attack. But the reason President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared it a Day of Infamy was the nature of the attack.
Japan gave no public warning, had not cut diplomatic ties or declared war by the time it opened hostilities with its Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. The strike was planned to be a surprise, and indeed that was a crucial element in its fleeting success.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in London and Chiang Kai-shek, the Republic of China’s leader then based in Chungking (present-day Chongqing), reportedly celebrated because it meant that the U.S. would join the fight.
Pearl Harbor has become a form of shorthand in the American lexicon — meaning devious, untrustworthy, dastardly or cowardly as the case may be.
It must have come as a surprise to many Japanese when U.S. media commentators invoked Pearl Harbor almost reflexively in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Half a century on and the U.S. had not forgotten and in some ways the perfidy was also not forgiven, even if most people there don’t dwell on Pearl Harbor and do think highly of Japan. It lurks in the corner, a dark and unwelcome presence that lingers.
The conflation of the two strikes, one by a state and the other by a terrorist group, seemed odd if not unfair to many of my Japanese acquaintances. Perhaps, however, it wasn’t too wide of the mark, because in both cases many Americans believed that the strikes had come out of the blue and were unprovoked outrages.
Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima/Nagasaki serve as bookends to the Pacific War, the former justifying the latter in the minds of some Americans — including President Harry Truman, who authorized the atomic bombings.
The incineration of so many civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, and the firebombing of 66 other Japanese cities — including Tokyo, where some 100,000 perished on one windy night in March 1945 — doesn’t seem to stir much reproach among Japanese against the U.S. (nor much contrition among Americans). But as U.S. historian John Dower argues, it has helped cultivate a victim’s consciousness among many Japanese that blurs a sense of responsibility for the horrors inflicted by the Imperial armed forces throughout the region.
Dower has also written about the racist nature of the war, especially in his 1986 work “War Without Mercy,” and about the impact of the U.S.-led Allied Occupation on postwar Japan in his Pulitzer prize-winning book, “Embracing Defeat” (1999). Herbert Bix also wrote a Pulitzer prize-winning book titled “Hirohito” (2000), in which he asserted that the wartime Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as the Showa Emperor) played a decisive and supportive role in Japan’s war planning and operations.
However, Eri Hotta’s superb new book, “Japan 1941,” perhaps helps us to better fathom the mindset of Japanese leaders at the time. In her view, Emperor Showa opposed war and kept urging political and military leaders to pursue diplomacy, but in the end reluctantly acquiesced.
She also tells how the Emperor actually confronted his military leaders and gave them a private dressing-down for their hubris — though at the key Imperial Conference that greenlighted the Pearl Harbor attack, he recited a poem rather than intervening to stop the madness.
However, like all Japan’s top leaders, the Emperor knew that attacking America was folly because Japan’s industrial capacity was a 20th that of the U.S. — on whom it depended for 90 percent of its petroleum.
Hence Hotta shows that the leadership was far from united behind the decision to attack the U.S., but she is no apologist and doesn’t try to rationalize the Pearl Harbor strike.
Paradoxically, Japan’s wavering leaders chose to start a war they didn’t really want to fight. The military became a prisoner of its own bravado and bellicose rhetoric; planning for war generated an unstoppable momentum and nobody came up with a face-saving last-minute solution.
Hideki Tojo, who was premier when Pearl Harbor was attacked, knew the chances of success were remote, but decided to go for it anyway. Hotta explains why the leaders came to take such a big chance by going to war, attributing the fateful decision to a gambler’s high — and a feverish hope that the steep odds would somehow be overcome.
Viewed that way, it wasn’t collective insanity, but rather an irresponsible unwillingness of Japan’s decision-makers to publicly disavow the plan despite persistent and widely shared private doubts. Hotta conjures a pathetic portrait of vacillating leaders sleepwalking to disaster.
That generation of Japanese leaders resented the Western-dominated international status quo that failed to accommodate what they regarded as their nation’s legitimate aspirations.
Racism had long nettled the Japanese and convinced them their country would remain a second-rate power as long as it stayed within that system. Thus 80 years ago, in 1933, Japan walked out of the League of Nations because other members voted to condemn its aggression in Manchuria. This proved a fateful step toward Pearl Harbor.
Yosuke Matsuoka, who was foreign minister at the time, fumed about Western hypocrisy and later advocated Japan allying with Germany and Italy in the Axis. He imagined that would intimidate the U.S. into sitting out the war, but he misread the situation completely, as the main impact of the trinational alliance was to tarnish Japan with Nazi actions while linking the European and Asian theaters — thereby increasing America’s interest in the outcome. But he was not the only bonehead.
In Hotta’s “Japan 1941,” we also meet the feckless Prince Fumimaro Konoe, scion of a noble family, first as the prime minister as Japan’s war with China escalated disastrously in 1937 — and then again as he oversaw preparations for war against the U.S. in the summer of 1941. He seemed oblivious to his own decisive role in this turn of events, as if he was a kibitzer rather than the leader who nudged Japan across the Rubicon.
Then there is Isoroku Yamamoto, the top navy admiral who planned the Pearl Harbor assault even though he knew that U.S. industrial might would prevail.
Tojo also had grave misgivings, but he was unwilling to contemplate exiting China to avert war with America because doing so would dishonor the sacrifices of all the Japanese soldiers who had died
So the war was widened to Southeast Asia to gain the resources needed to defeat China — all this in the name of helping Asians, millions of whom joined the ranks of dead Japanese soldiers; all pawns in Imperial Japan’s aggression waged under the banner of Pan-Asian liberation.
Jeff Kingston is the Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.