JAPAN, 1941 by Eri Hotta

(December 7, 1941, Japanese attack Pearl Harbor)

The last half of 19th century was a period when European nationalism flourished and began to spread its influence eastward.  The lessons of nationalism were absorbed in Asia, and Japan became an excellent pupil of western industrialization and expansion.  Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan slowly remade itself by emulating the west.  Unlike China, Japan had no difficulty in assimilating western institutions in order to develop into what they perceived to be a great power.  By the 1890s Japan was able to defeat China in the Sino-Japanese War, and in the following decade she surprised Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, the first time a non-white power defeated a Caucasian power.  Japan continued its program of making Asia safe for Asians and projecting themselves as a power on par with the west.  During World War I it asserted its rights to expansion with its Twenty-One Demands to gain suzerainty over parts of China, and in 1931 it invaded Manchuria and set up the “puppet state” of Manchukuo. Japan continued its attempts to dominate China in 1937 by precipitating an attack that justified an invasion.  From 1937-1941 Japan fought to defeat the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek, but despite repeated military victories it was unable to gain total control as Chiang’s army retreated into the interior.  The war in China used tremendous resources and brought Japan into conflict with the United States.  At a time when the long drawn out war in China was reaching a stalemate, why would Japan contemplate a war against the United States?  In her new book, JAPAN, 1941, Eri Hotta seeks to answer that question.

Hotta’s work is a marvelous work of historical synthesis that seeks to explain how the Japanese government reached the decision to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  Many are familiar with the works of Gordon Prange, Robert Stinnet, Walter Lord, Herbert Feis, and Roberta Wohlstetter.  The story has been told by many; whether from the American diplomatic viewpoint, the intelligence breakthroughs, the military story, and conspiracy theories concerning Franklin D. Roosevelt.  However, no one has attempted to mine the Japanese sources extensively and try and understand how the Japanese bureaucracy and government officials reached decisions that would ultimately result in the destruction of their country by 1945.  This is the task that Hotta takes on and with excellent command of the primary materials and the internal working of the Japanese government from 1931 onward reaches the conclusion that Japanese “leaders, after numerous official conferences, made a conscious and collaborative decision to go to war with the West.  Having talked themselves into believing that they were victims of circumstances rather than aggressors, they discarded less heroic but more rational options and hesitantly yet defiantly propelled the country on a war course.” (15)  Hotta’s conclusion is presented in a thoughtful narrative, and supported by a well reasoned thesis.

Hotta’s approach is an interesting one.  Though she devotes most of her time to discussing the bureaucratic machinations of Japanese diplomatic and military politics by integrating the major figures involved, ranging from Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro; Tojo Hideki, who served as army minister in Konoe’s cabinet and later Prime Minister; Matsuoka Yosuke, Konoe’s Foreign Minister; Kido Koichi, Emperor Hirohito’s closest advisor; Shimada Shigetaro, navy minister; Yamamoto Isoroku, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor; and Emperor Hirohito among many government and military officials.  The author also discusses the role of Japanese citizens outside of government service.  For example, the integration of the thoughts of the novelist Nagai Kofu, who represented, in part the anti-militarist sentiment in segments of Japanese society, providing insights into the private thoughts of Japanese citizens who were afraid to make their feelings known publicly.  The work of Richard Sorge, a German journalist based in Tokyo, who was also a Russian spy and was good friends with the German ambassador to Japan is also fascinating.  In addition, the mini-biography of Soldier U, who in 1941 in his late thirties was recalled to military service and sent to China, and later to Indo China has a story that could be a separate book in of itself.  These individuals and others present a well rounded picture of all aspects of Japanese society, as their government was privately was planning on expanding their war for control of Asia.

What separates Hotta’s work from others is that aside from presenting the Japanese viewpoint, she also includes intimate details of the rifts that existed on personal and diplomatic levels between the major players in the Japanese government, i.e.; Prime Minister Konoe and Foreign Minister Matsuoka.  The reader is given a snapshot into the decision making process as Hotta relies heavily on liaison meetings of the Japanese government throughout the book.  These meetings included the most important senior officials, both civilian and military.  She singles out the most influential figures and allows the reader to understand the reasoning behind the decision-making process of each person as debate evolved throughout 1941 as to whether war was the only option, or should diplomatic avenues have been explored further. The positions of men like Konoe, Tojo, Nagano and the bakuryo  officers, (mid-level bureaucrats who prepared most of the positions taken) are analyzed and one can witness how difficult it was to achieve any consensus on policy in this environment.  However, once a consensus was reached, no matter how convoluted the decision making process and delusionary some of the ideas of policy makers were it was almost impossible to alter or change the course toward war.  Hotta proves without a shadow of a doubt that the Japanese leadership suffered from self-delusion as they constantly came up with arguments to buttress themselves against the sound reasoning that a war against the United States was futile.  In large part, Japanese pride and belief in their own superiority led them to take such a huge national gamble.

Hotta makes many astute observations as she points out the Japanese goal of creating a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity sphere under Tokyo’s leadership was very similar to how the United States approached the Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere.  For Japanese policy makers what was the difference between theirs and the American approach to expansion.  Further, Hotta spends a great deal of time discussing Japanese perceptions of their own inferiority visa vie the west.  They saw it through the lens of racial discrimination that clouded their judgment when making decisions.  As Alfred Adler pointed out in his studies of the inferiority complex; that people (and nations?) who perceive themselves to be inferior; to overcome that self-perception must strive to be superior.  A case in point is the reaction to a note from American Secretary of State Cordell Hull on November 27, 1941.  It was seen by Japanese leaders as a provocation and a disgrace as they felt they were being bullied and humiliated.  The note itself was taken as an ultimatum, which it was not.

(Japanese Emperor Hirohito)

Hotta is able to review the history of Japanese modernization and expansion that led to World War II very nicely, but she does it  in such a way that she able to dissect the all too human characteristics of Japanese leaders that were torn by doubt in the months preceding Pearl Harbor, but could not overcome their own need to save face, and finally pushed Japan into a war because of their own incompetence and lack of political will.  The reader should gain a great deal from reading Hotta’s narrative which is enhanced by her integration of the words of the characters she employs.  JAPAN, 1941, as of now is the best work dealing with the Japanese viewpoint and decision making process leading to war with the United States, and should remain so for a long time to come.

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