invincible japan -- 8/22/14

Today's selection -- from Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix. By 1941, Japan was fully engaged in a war against China, was moving to invade French Indochina, and had signed a tripartite agreement with Germany and Italy. The Japanese did not believe that any of these actions would provoke a strong response from the U.S. However, America responded with sanctions that effectively eliminated all oil and gasoline exports to the heavily industrial Japan, and Japan imported virtually all its oil and gasoline. Mostly from the U.S. itself. This meant that Japan was instantly faced with a dramatic choice, either capitulate to U.S. concerns -- or attack. Japanese war plans were audacious enough to encompass offensives against not only China, Indochina, and the U.S., but Russia as well. And Japanese army planners envisioned a "quickly won war" against the United States because of their more advanced preparations:

"[On] July 26, Roosevelt ... signed an executive order freezing Japanese assets in the United States, thereby bringing 'all financial and import and export transactions in which Japanese interests are involved under the control of the Government.' American officials in the State and Treasury Departments, as well as the Office of Production Management (charged with preventing raw material shortages and coordinating America's own defense production) immediately proceeded to interpret the freeze order in such a way as to impose, by August 1, a total embargo on oil and gasoline exports to Japan.

"The American economic sanctions threw near panic into the [Japanese Prime Minister] Konoe government and had the effect of further dividing opinion within the navy as well as between the navy and the army. Shocked, like everyone else, by this rapid escalation of Anglo-American economic pressure, [Emperor] Hirohito looked on as his navy and army leaders struggled to reach a consensus on how to respond to the crisis. He had been informed that Naval Chief of Staff Admiral Nagano had suggested war with the United States at the liaison conference of July 21, five days before the United States froze Japanese assets and followed with the oil embargo. If war with the United States began immediately, Nagano had declared prior to the oil embargo, Japan would 'have a chance of achieving victory' because of the difference in their war preparations. As time passed, however, that 'probability' would decrease and the situation would thereafter 'become disadvantageous to the Empire.' Moreover, he added, 'if we occupy the Philippines, it will be easier for our navy to carry on the war. We can [then] manage the defense of the South Pacific fairly well.'

"Hirohito, knowing the navy's preparations were by no means sufficiently advanced to fight the United States, which was the main reason opinion within the navy was so divided, was irritated by Nagano's words at the liaison conference. Neither had he been pleased with the admiral's recent formal reports to him. He summoned the naval chief of staff on July 30 -- the same day that he blocked war with the Soviet Union -- and expressed his dissatisfaction. According to the Sugiyama memo, Hirohito bluntly told him, 'Prince Fushimi said that he would avoid war with Britain and the United States. Have you changed that?' Nagano replied, 'I have not changed the principle but if we are going to fight, then the sooner we do so the better because our supplies are gradually dwindling anyway.' According to the diary of Vice Navy Minister Sawamoto Yorio, the emperor also asked Nagano, 'Do you have any plans for fighting a protracted war?' When Nagano replied that there was no way to be sure of victory in a long war, and also expressed his belief that the Tripartite Pact was harming the adjustment of relations with the United States, Hirohito, unwilling to blame himself for this state of affairs, merely listened. ...

"In the spring of 1941 Konoe had hoped to negotiate a friendlier U.S. attitude toward Japan, ... [but] no Roosevelt-Konoe meeting ever took place. ...

"Japan's leaders could either capitulate to the pressure of the anti-Axis coalition led by the United States and Britain -- or continue the course they had set. As the shock of the American sanctions spread, disagreements emerged within the court group and among the senior statesmen (jiishin) over how to respond to the crisis. The 'mainstream' of the Court group, centered on the emperor and Kido, tended to place their trust in the hard-line senior leaders of the army and navy, and to take a more positive attitude toward war with the United States and Britain. Konoe, Okada, and those around them constituted an 'antimainstream' group. They had turned away from their prior infatuation with Nazi Germany, they were supportive of the armys Imperial Way faction, they did not accept the premise that further delay in the southern advance would mean certain defeat, and they wanted to continue the talks with the United States as long as possible. These differences within the court group were fermenting in September but would not emerge clearly until after Konoe stepped down in mid-October.

"Meanwhile the rapidly rising tension in relations with Washington following the oil embargo had clarified the choices facing Japan's leaders. The Takagi Sokichi papers offer a glimpse how the Konoe government, the navy, and the palace framed the risks of war during early autumn 1941. They could capitulate under economic pressure, which would give them a breather, or they could take some other course to end, neutralize, or escape the pressure. War, if they chose to wage it, had to supply the resources needed to make the empire invincible."


Herbert P. Bix


Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan


Harper Perennial


Copyright 2000 by Herbert P. Bix


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