The outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941 was not inevitable. The war could in fact have been averted. One of the primary factors that stood in the way of averting the war, however, was the passive power struggle that unfolded within Japan’s bureaucracy — namely, the prime minister’s office, the navy, the army and the Imperial Household Department.

The term “passive power struggle” describes the politics of government ministries in Kasumigaseki who sought to evade responsibility for any matter that did not serve to confer political advantage or expand the authority of each ministry — or that could prove troublesome for themselves.

Bureaucrats avoid conspicuous involvement in such affairs. They do not volunteer to take them on, nor do they seek to intercede in them even when necessary.

Particularly during a national crisis, the very act of decision-making poses a significant risk to self-preservation of each organization. At such times, Japan’s bureaucracy manifests an organizational culture of indecision. This may transform a “gradual” national crisis into an “utter” crisis.

These were the suspicions that I harbored as I was reporting on the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.

Despite the core meltdowns at nuclear reactors there, the Japanese government did not use its System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) in the effort to evacuate local residents. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, which has jurisdiction over the SPEEDI system, was averse to using the system for fear of creating panic among the residents.

At the very height of the crisis, the ministry sought to hand over its responsibility for the operation of SPEEDI, and for the review of the system’s findings, to the Nuclear Safety Commission.

When a matter of national importance arises in Japan, central bureaucratic institutions of this country place top priority on their self-preservation. Both the lives of Japanese citizens and the national interest are secondary to this overriding concern.

My suspicions regarding Japan’s organizational culture were only strengthened upon reading “Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)” by Eri Hotta.

Hotta is a historian who has studied international relations at Princeton and Oxford. Focusing on several critical junctures in the year 1941, which she narrates in vivid detail, Hotta seeks to explain the circumstances that propelled Japan toward Pearl Harbor. One such juncture came on a cloudless Sunday — Oct. 12, 1941.

Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe had convened a conference at Tekigaiso, his private residence located in Ogikubo, a suburb of Tokyo.

In attendance were the prime minister, the army minister, the navy minister, the foreign minister and the general director of the Cabinet Planning Board.

At an Imperial conference on Sept. 6, the Konoe Cabinet had decided that “if diplomatic negotiations do not bear fruit by early October and there is no likelihood of our demands getting through, we would make up our minds to go to war with the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands.”

Meanwhile, the deadline was fast approaching for a decision between continued Japan-U.S. diplomatic negotiation and going to war.

Konoe had placed his hopes on the navy minister, Adm. Koshiro Oikawa. If Japan went to war with the United States, the conflict would become a naval battle for hegemony in the Pacific. However, Oikawa and most other top naval leaders were hesitant, as the disparity between the two countries in terms of material resources such as oil, iron and steel placed Japan at a hopeless disadvantage.

And yet, at the Tekigaiso conference, Oikawa stated that the decision to start or avert a war should be “entrusted to the prime minister.”

Oikawa opposed the idea of going to war with the United States; nevertheless, he never declared that “the Japanese Navy could not fight.”

In fact, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kenji Tomita had paid a secret visit to Oikawa at the navy minister’s official residence at half past midnight the day before. The purpose of Tomita’s visit was to ask Oikawa to express the navy’s opposition to the war at the conference, rather than leave the decision to the prime minister.

Oikawa, however, rejected Tomita’s request, saying that the decision to go to war was essentially a “political” matter. He argued that it was not for the military to say whether Japan should go to war and that the decision could only be made by Prime Minister Konoe himself.

Prior to a Cabinet meeting on Oct. 14, Konoe had discussed the problem of Japanese troops stationed in China with Army Minister Hideki Tojo, but Tojo would not budge on the matter.

When Konoe returned to his private residence later that day, he found Teiichi Suzuki, director of the Cabinet Planning Board, waiting for him with a message from Tojo as follows: “Though it seems that the navy does not want war, I do not understand why the navy minister did not say that clearly to me. If the navy doesn’t want war, we must think of some other way.

“It is highly regrettable that the navy minister relegated the decision for or against war to the prime minister. If the navy is unable to decide for itself, the Sept. 6 resolution at the imperial conference would have to be reversed.”

Konoe found the ball back in his own court by Oikawa’s remark at the Tekigaiso meeting that the decision to go to war should be “entrusted to the prime minister.”

And now, Tojo was recommending the resignation of the entire Cabinet. The Konoe Cabinet was thus driven to resign en masse, and the final window of opportunity to avoid the war closed.

After the war, Oikawa recalled what his intentions were in leaving the war decision in the hands of the prime minister at Tekigaiso: “It was far too late for the navy — which had boasted of its invincible armada — to admit that it could not fight against the United States and to push for concessions.

“The navy would have ended up the sole target of censure for its cowardice. It would have completely lost its standing, both internally and externally.”

No one within the navy was willing to admit that the navy cannot fight. The navy placed concern for its own “standing” before national interests. Hotta charges that everyone in Japan’s political leadership “took part in this utterly futile game of passing the buck.”

In The New York Review of Books, Oxford historian Rana Mitter makes special note of Hotta’s astute analysis on “collective leadership structures” such as the Imperial General Headquarters and Government Liaison Conference, or the Imperial conferences, that “helped every leader feel that he held no individual responsibility.”

Mitter also says that one of the most alarming revelations in Hotta’s book is “the weak-mindedness of the doves and skeptics, who refused to confront the growing belligerence of most of their colleagues.”

There were “doves” who opposed going to war within the navy, the army and the Imperial Household Department. Among them was Adm. Mitsumasa Yonai, who appealed to the Emperor, saying “I think that we must not become utterly poor in our quest to avoid becoming gradually poor.”

And yet, in the end, even these people proved unable to extricate themselves from the “passive power struggle” waged in defense of their own organizations.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of The Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of the author’s column on the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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