Stories of the Pearl Harbor surprise air raid on Dec. 7, 1941, have been told by many historians, but startling evidence has been unearthed revealing a hidden and misrepresented part of Japanese diplomacy as well as skillful manipulation by the military oligarchy that culminated in the attacks in Hawaii and the Kota Bharu beachhead in then Malaya.
The evidence is of a delayed cable transmission of the Japanese government’s final memorandum to the U.S. government that fateful day, found in the U.S. Public Documents Record Office, and the publication in September of Emperor Hirohito’s audience records of November and December 1941.
During and after the Pacific War, the Japanese military kept secret most of its manipulations in order to glorify its military success as any country does and the Far Eastern Military Tribunal (FEMT), though far from a fair trial, let Japan’s wartime leaders evade revelations of the military’s conduct that might endanger their life. Subordinate officers did their best to protect their leaders and their honor.
Recent discovery of the defense policy guideline for the trial prepared by Imperial Japanese Army, Navy and Foreign Ministry defense lawyers concerning Japan’s final memorandum to the United States and its delayed delivery sadly demonstrates that the army and navy not only forced the Foreign Ministry not to reveal its originally prepared ultimatum, which fulfilled conditions required under international law but was eventually replaced by a false ultimatum or a final memorandum to mislead the U.S. government, but also made deceptive allegations to shift all of the blame to its Washington embassy for the delayed delivery of the memorandum to the U.S. side to hide the secret maneuvers leading to the successful surprise attacks.
Such a defense tactic may have been inevitable to save the leaders put to trial but should not be tolerated because the false testimony at the FEMT continued to be accepted by the Japanese people long after and helped bury the naked facts about Japan’s Pearl Harbor diplomacy, resulting in misleading our public opinion. The distorted perception resulting from falsification of the events must be discarded to reconstruct a true picture of this tragic phase of our history in order to contribute to the better understanding of world history and to reinforce the importance of international norms to promote world peace.
It is shrouded in mystery whether Emperor Showa, as he is now known, instructed the army and navy leaders to deliver an authentic ultimatum prior to the simultaneous attacks at Pearl Harbor and Kota Bharu, and whether our military leaders ignored such an instruction. I found in 1997 that the Foreign Ministry’s original draft of an authentic ultimatum to declare war had been rewritten at the demand of the military to delete any suggestions of starting a war, and the nature of the document was changed from an ultimatum to that of a notice to simply terminate the ongoing negotiations with the U.S. This kind of change should have required approval by the Emperor.
Another mystery surrounds the delayed delivery of the final memorandum to the U.S. State Department, which occurred due to the delayed cable transmission of crucial parts of the memo from Tokyo to the Japanese Embassy in Washington. The cause of the delayed transmission of the last part and the corrigenda of the cabled memo, which confused the embassy’s handling at the last moment, has never been fully investigated to this day.
Circumstantial evidence gathered during and after the FEMT strongly suggests foul play performed by Japanese Army counterintelligence, which resulted in thwarting the timely transmission of our final memo to Washington. In the archives of the War History Department of the National Institute for Defense Studies there is evidence that two middle-level army officers in key positions consulted to seize U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s peace appeal to the Emperor, which arrived at the Tokyo Telegraph Office on the eve of the Pearl Harbor attack, so that the military’s timetable for the surprise attacks against the American and British forces would not be disturbed. It seems fairly certain that a closed circle of influential army officers audaciously abused their power to undermine the highest-level decisions made by the government and military leaders to respect lawful diplomatic practices to enter into war — an act that kept the Emperor and these leaders completely in the dark.
Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo defended the Emperor during interrogation by the U.S. prosecutors at the FEMT by saying that he repeatedly received the Emperor’s instruction to submit a prior notice to declare war against the U.S. and British governments. But no documentary proof of such an instruction was found before or after the FEMT to substantiate Tojo’s testimony on this issue. Also, the latest publication of the records of remarks made by the Emperor during government and military leaders’ briefings and deliberations on starting the Pacific War does not show any remarks by the Emperor regarding the final memorandum and the timing of its delivery.
Also, no clue can be found in the above Imperial records to prove the authenticity of a story disseminated by some naval circles which appealed to the public after the war that Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto made an appeal to the Emperor at his audience on Dec. 3, 1941, for prior submission of our final note to inform the U.S. of Japan’s entry into the war when his Pacific fleet was heading for Pearl Harbor. It has to be acknowledged that Yamamoto was given no time in an audience lasting barely 15 minutes to make his pledge for victory and to receive farewell blessings by the Emperor to dwell on a diplomatic issue that was none of his business. The published daily records are supposed to include all official remarks by the Emperor as head of state and supreme commander of the military.
On the contrary, the Emperor reluctantly sanctioned the military’s request for our forces approaching Pearl Harbor and Kota Bharu to engage in war if they were attacked by the American or British forces before an official declaration of war. The published Imperial records and testimony by close confidants at the Imperial Palace do not substantiate Tojo’s allegations at the FEMT and our naval people’s assertions after the war of Yamamoto’s request for the prior notice. I am inclined to believe that the remarks by these people were meant to protect the position and honor of the Emperor and our army and navy against the criticism for our surprise attacks that were necessary to achieve an initial victory — a move found in the history of some wars.
On this historical issue, the Japanese public should demand government accountability for a more accurate explanation. Japanese historians should have conducted much more in-depth research at a much earlier period.
Takeo Iguchi, a former deputy legal adviser at the Foreign Ministry and ambassador to New Zealand, is the author of “Demystifying Pearl Harbor: A New Perspective from Japan.”
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