Very Short Reviews: Eri Hotta’s _Japan 1941_

Hotta Japan 1941

Eri Hotta, Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy (New York: Vintage Books, 2013)

  1. The main question Hotta seeks to answer is why Japan decided to attack Pearl Harbor when most of its leaders did not want war with the United States and believed they could wage such a conflict with only a slim hope of success.
  2. The short answer is that the Japanese leadership’s own decisions brought it to the point where it felt it had no choice but to go to war: “It was as if Tokyo had gotten stuck in the thin end of a funnel” and war seemed to provide “the quickest and surest way of breaking free of that constricting situation.”
  3. Hotta takes into account the great historical forces that made Japan an aggressive power—the role of Western imperialism in stimulating Japan’s own expansionism, the fraught and ambivalent Sino-Japanese relationship, the drift of various Japanese governments that allowed army officers “on the spot” to seize the initiative in China, the unwillingness of Japanese civil society (especially the press) to check the ambitions of the military, and so on—but she is mainly interested in the activities of Japan’s leaders in 1940 and particularly 1941.
  4. One particular problem was the way in which Japanese leaders brought out the worst in each other; for example, Prince Konoe (prime minister from July 1940 to October 1941) provided unassertive leadership that gave free rein to people like the ambitious Matsuoka Yosuke (foreign minister from July 1940 to July 1941) and the inflexible Tojo Hideki (army minister from January 1939 to October 1941) to pursue their own goals.
  5. The Japanese occupation of southern Indochina (July 1941) was the great turning point in the relationship with the United States as it focused American concerns on Japan like never before (concerns inspired by Japan’s adhesion to the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, by Japan’s endless war in China, and by fears about what Japan might next do in southeast Asia), led to important sanctions being imposed on the Japanese, and provided the impetus for the fevered diplomacy that eventually led to war between the two states.
  6. Many of Japan’s leaders engaged in wishful and confused thinking; to name one just one example, the Cabinet believed it needed to go to war with the United States to achieve what diplomacy could not, but it also felt that once the war had started, it would need diplomacy to bring the conflict to a swift end before the United States could crush Japan in a protracted war.
  7. In this context, the bakuryo, the junior officers responsible for strategic planning, played an enormous role—since the civilian leadership did not provide much diplomatic or geo-political guidance, war plans shaped by the bakuryo became the default policy of Japan.
  8. The army and particularly the navy were divided over the wisdom of a conflict with the United States, but neither armed service wanted to sound defeatist and take responsibility for having been the “weak” link that stopped a potential war with the Americans.
  9. In this particular context, the Japanese cultural practice of switching from private to public personas, known as hone to tatemae—“true voice and façade”— led to a great deal of confusion and double-talk as the Japanese Cabinet tried to reach a decision about what to do with the United States.
  10. Although this book is not quite as groundbreaking as the blurb on the back cover would have you believe, Hotta makes a very convincing case that the war was not at all inevitable and that it flowed largely from incompetent Japanese leaders who had become desperate because an endless war in China was impoverishing Japan and threatening to close off its diplomatic options, who failed to communicate well with another, who were committed to saving face, who misinterpreted the international situation, who proved incapable of making a realistic assessment of their nation’s capabilities, who could not understand how the Americans perceived their actions, who pitched their terms far too high when negotiating with the United States, and who imposed a completely unnecessary time limit on negotiations with the Americans.

Hugh Dubrulle

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