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Pacific Campaign

The U.S.-Japanes Naval War 1941-1945



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About The Book

From the author of The Atlantic Campaign comes a historic account of the greatest naval conflict: the Pacific campaign of World War II.

Dan van der Vat's naval histories have been acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic as “definitive,” “extraordinary,” and “vivid and harrowing.” Now he turns to the greatest naval conflict in history: the Pacific campaign of World War II. Drawing on neglected archives of firsthand accounts from both sides, van der Vat interweaves eyewitness testimony with sharp, analytical narration to provide a penetrating reappraisal of the strategic and political background of both the Japanese and American forces, as well as a major reassessment of the role of intelligence on both sides. A comprehensive evaluation of all aspects of the war in the Pacific, The Pacific Campaign promises to be the standard work on the U.S.-Japanese war for years to come.


Chapter One


Japan's southward advance, even though it was in the opposite direction from all its previous expansion, derived directly from its military adventures, political scheming and economic ambitions on the Asian mainland. This is not to say that the move south was immutable fate, either for Japan or for its victims: the Japanese were and are as responsible for their own actions and choices as everyone else, regardless of foreign provocations and errors. Nevertheless, the short but brutish and nasty story of Japanese imperial expansion has features only too familiar to the students of past empires, whether the ancient Roman or the modern Russian. A power on the make begins to expand by "absorbing" its immediate neighbor (in Japan's case, Korea in 1910); to protect its acquisition, it conquers its neighbor's neighbor (Manchuria), sets up a buffer state (Manchukuo), creates another buffer (northern China), and uses that as a base to move against its next victim (China), and possibly its most deadly rival (the Soviet Union). We see imperialism imitating scientific principles such as Newton's first law of motion whereby movement continues unless halted (imperial inertia); the abhorrence of nature for a vacuum is parodied by imperialist opportunism, which drew Japan first into China, then down upon the Asiatic empires of the European powers involved in the war with Hitler's Germany.

It is not customary to refer, in the context of the Second World War, to "Tojo's Japan," or even Hirohito's; nor do we equate the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, formed in 1940 to absorb all Japanese political parties, with the National Socialist party, the only legal one in Hitler's Germany, even though the former was in some respects a conscious imitation of the latter. The truth is that the Japan which took on the world at war and lost was run by a military junta of no fixed composition -- a shifting, authoritarian oligarchy rather than a totalitarian dictatorship.

It came to the fore in Manchuria in 1928, when the "Kwantung Army," as the Japanese garrison was called, killed an intractable local warlord by causing an explosion on the Japanese-controlled South Manchurian Railway (SMR). The junta won the support of most Japanese admirals in 1930, after the perceived "humiliation" of Japan at the London Naval Conference, about which more later. Japan was easily humiliated: rejection of any of its demands was enough. Aggravated by Japan's severe suffering in the Slump, which helped to undermine moderate, civilian influence in government, the rising junta's Kwantung branch staged another explosion on the SMR at Mukden in September 1931 as an excuse for conquering the rest of Manchuria in a few months. This euphemistically named "Manchuria Incident" led to the establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo under the "Emperor" Pu-yi, scion of the deposed Manchu dynasty, which had ruled China until 1911. Encouraged by this cheap success and undeterred by international condemnation, which merely provoked Japan to flounce out of the tottering League of Nations in 1933, the junta ran off the rails altogether in 1937. At the Marco Polo Bridge outside Peking, the Japanese "China Garrison Force," in place since the international suppression of the xenophobic Boxer Rebellion of 1900, engineered a clash with a Chinese Army patrol. This was then used as an excuse to attack northern China -- all without consulting civilian or military superiors in Tokyo. The latter managed, however, to do what was expected of them: they sent reinforcements. The ensuing war, unwinnable for either side, spread across China; to the Japanese it always remained simply "the China Incident." It is not unreasonable to see in the manufactured clash of July 7, 1937, so similar to Hitler's ploy against Poland two years later, the true start of the Second World War, because these two participants fought each other continuously from then until 1945.

In its bid to become the USA of the western Pacific (a strictly economic ambition), Japan classed itself as a "have-not" nation with a legitimate grievance. What it really "had not," like Germany and Italy among the larger powers, was territorial acquisitions to exploit -- the only contemporary yardstick of greatness, even more important than a big navy. The rest of the world soon came to see Japan as an acquisitive aggressor, inordinately ambitious and completely ruthless. Japan came late -- indeed, last -- to old-style colonialism, but chose to learn nothing from its predecessors in this pursuit. Like them, it cared little for the feelings of the colonized; unlike them, it was never deterred by the views of the other powers, which it either ignored or used as grounds for more aggression while it built up its own empire. In this outlook it was very similar to Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II, and even more under Hitler: unable or unwilling to distinguish between its needs and its wants, Japan helped itself to what it fancied and was quite often genuinely perplexed by the hostile reaction. Like Germany, where almost everyone who could walk and talk hated the Treaty of Versailles, Japan had an almighty bone to pick with the rest of the world. Most Japanese people regarded anyone who questioned their country's ambition as hostile and did not try to understand any other party's point of view. Where the rest of the world went wrong was in foolishly underestimating the unique capacity for self-sacrifice with which ordinary Japanese supported their country's aim to be a first-rate power.

There was much less disagreement among the Japanese (or in Germany) on the end than on the means of achieving the fulfillment of their country's "just demands." Hitler came to power on the back of the German national sense of grievance, and was as conscious as the Japanese military of the lessons of 1918. Like the Japanese, he thought his country was overcrowded and needed more territory, a rationalization of imperial ambition throughout the ages. The Nazis, like the Italian fascists, were a mass movement that rose to power from the grass roots under a populist leader, whereas the Japanese junta manipulated a complaisant emperor to impose its will from the top. But each Axis regime drew the same conclusion from Germany's defeat in 1918: the next war would be long, and therefore autarky, economic self-sufficiency, was the key to national security, military success and world domination. That was the only way to avoid a repetition of the blockade by sea and land which defeated Germany in 1918.

So, while Hitler schemed to acquire Lebensraum and Mussolini concentrated on empire-building in northeastern Africa, the Japanese were busy inventing the "New Order in East Asia" (1938) and the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" (1940), both designed to subordinate the region to the perpetual benefit and glory of a self-sustaining, greater Japan. Tokyo had some success at first in presenting this as a crusade against Euro-American domination of Asia. It won over many indigenous nationalists in British, French and Dutch colonies -- at least until the Japanese Army arrived and lent new vigor to the old military customs of rape and pillage. The Germans made exactly the same error in the Soviet Union: each army behaved as the master race in arms; each used the stratagem of surprise attack without declaration of war, and then Blitzkrieg tactics, to get its way. But whereas Hitler dominated his generals and admirals the Japanese general staffs dominated Japan. The consequences for their victims were remarkably similar. There was, for example, not much to choose, except in such matters as climate and language, for the doubly unfortunate Dutch between life in the Netherlands under Nazi rule and in the East Indies under the Japanese.

Small wonder that Reich and Empire were to become allies regardless of reciprocal racial disdain. The first concrete sign of things to come was Japan's decision to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany in November 1936 (the Comintern -- Communist International -- was the Soviet mechanism for controlling foreign communist parties). A secret provision required each signatory not to help the Soviet Union if the other went to war against it; the published text was a vague commitment to oppose communism and all its works wherever they might be found. The future Axis partners had identified their overwhelming common interest: the Soviet Union, principal potential enemy of each.

For Japan this was just one of many fateful decisions that led to its disastrous war with the United States. The Slump became a time for taking tough measures at home -- and taking sides abroad. The Pacific Campaign cannot be properly understood unless it is seen in the context of Japan's prewar domestic and foreign policies and the links between the two, as summarized below.

Foreigners had (and have) great difficulty in understanding how Japan worked as a state and who was really in charge. The Japanese had gone so far as to imitate the West in having a symbolic head of state and an executive, a legislature, a judiciary, an army, and a navy all formally answerable to him. The fact that the Army and the Navy were, as centers of power in the state, at least equal to the civilian organs of government rather than subject to their authority was not outside Western experience. In making this ultimately disastrous arrangement in the constitutional changes of 1889, the Japanese were only copying the Prussians who dominated Europe as the world's strongest military power for more than half a century, until 1918, on just such a basis (the Japanese chose to copy the British in establishing a House of Lords and a battle fleet and imitated the French in such areas as law and education). The independence of the military dated from the creation, in 1878, of general staffs for Army and Navy directly under the emperor and outside the control of the Diet (parliament) or even the Cabinet. The paradox was that the emperor, unlike the Kaiser, did not feel free to intervene in government. He exercised his influence through his personal advisers or in private meetings with those, such as key ministers and chiefs of staff, who had the right of access to the throne. Thus his divine status was protected by noninvolvement in day-to-day policy with all its disputes, errors, and corruption; by the same token, those with real power could hide behind the façade of imperial rule whenever convenient, an excellent incentive for irresponsibility on all sides.

This gave very broad latitude indeed to leaders whose actions were rendered immune from challenge by the simple device of being declared as done "in the name of the emperor." A general could tell Hirohito, with the customary groveling and outward respect, what he was planning; the emperor had no power to stop him, so the general could then inform the Cabinet of what he was about to do, overriding any objections by laying claim to imperial sanction. From the turn of the century, the ministers responsible for the Army and the Navy had to be officers from the relevant service. After 1936 they had to be on the active list, to prevent the appointment of men from the retired list as a means of getting round the wishes of the serving generals and admirals. This gave the general staffs not only the decisive say (or veto) on individual appointments to these posts but also the power to prevent the formation of a new government, simply by refusing to supply serving officers to fill them. If they did not like a prime-ministerial nominee, they would decline to provide a general (as the Army did in 1940, for example) or an admiral as Army or Navy minister -- even if the would-be premier had found favor with palace advisers and been recommended by them to the emperor. The three key men in each service -- minister, chief of staff, and inspector-general of education and training -- were thus free to pick their own successors without consulting any outsider, whether emperor, prime minister or the rival service.

The two armed forces were not required to inform the Cabinet of their strength and dispositions, in peace or even in wartime. Thus the claims by such as ex-Prime Minister Tojo and ex-Foreign Minister Togo at the Tokyo war-crimes trial that they were not told in advance of the Pearl Harbor plan (or of the great American victory at Midway for weeks after the event) are not as ludicrous as they seemed when they were first made. With this kind of contemptuous conduct as the norm in the highest ranks, it is hardly surprising that the Japanese forces were more Prussian than the Prussians, not to say medieval, in their approach to discipline. Brutality was institutionalized to a degree probably unparalleled anywhere in the modern world. Boy officer-candidates were put in harsh premilitary academies and cadet schools with narrow curricula, hard physical routines and very little intellectual training (something the Germans did not neglect). Free discussion and intelligent questioning were forbidden on pain of severe punishment, ensuring that the Japanese military elite was unimaginative, rigid, undemocratic, inflexible and totally lacking in initiative. This goes a long way toward explaining the sheer, all-embracing inadequacy of the Japanese leadership, overwhelmingly military in background as it was, before and during the war.

Training was aimed at producing in all ranks total, unquestioning obedience to orders, including standing prohibitions against retreat, surrender, and being taken alive. If captured wounded or unconscious, the Japanese officer or enlisted man was expected to kill himself for shame when he was able to, even if he had managed to return to his own side. Such was the "Japanese spirit" inculcated at all levels, the mind-over-matter approach which persuaded hundreds of thousands to fight on beyond reason and throw their lives away. This, the unimportance of the individual in Japanese society at large and the psychic and physical explosion which took place when the constraint of total obedience was lifted from victorious troops licensed to rape and pillage after a victory, goes a long way toward explaining the peculiar horrors inflicted by the Japanese upon the troops, civilians and even the children of the enemy. Life was cheap in Japan; those in its services were as unlikely as anyone else to place greater value on an enemy than they did on themselves.

Japanese military leaders chose to believe that Germany's 1918 defeat was overwhelmingly caused by lack of raw materials. The idea that constitutional flaws such as overexaltation of the Kaiser or the assignment of undue weight to the opinions of the general staff might have contributed to driving Germany into an avoidable war did not occur to them. It was one of those errors Japanese officers were not intellectually trained to identify. Officers accepted no blame for their actions because they were obeying orders or executing the emperor's will (theoretically the same thing). There was nobody in a position to correct them, even if the emperor occasionally would not conceal his displeasure over military mistakes. But failure, if identified and made public, meant shame, and shame entailed ritual suicide in the samurai's Bushido code. Further, generals and admirals, exhausted in late middle age by a lifetime of repression and out of touch with the lower orders, fell under the influence of the younger, more vigorous middle-rankers. The captains, majors and colonels commanded the individual ships, battalions and squadrons or did all the work on the staff; they often came from rural backgrounds and were in touch with the peasants in uniform who constituted the majority of their men. These officers too were unable to act on their own, and drew courage from combining in various right-wing societies and clubs to impose their collective will on their flagging superiors. It was these middling commanders who increasingly saw the force at their immediate disposal as the instant solution to Japan's growing problems between the wars. Senior commanders, clinging to office to avoid sinking into obscurity on a poor pension, not only encouraged them but were also prepared to use them in furtherance of disputes with rivals among their own contemporaries.

Internal pressures had more to do with Japan's drift into the Second World War than external factors. Between the revolution of 1868, which formally restored rule by the Emperor, and 1930, the population of the Home Islands rose from thirty to sixty-five million; by the end of 1941 it was about seventy million. Small wonder that Japan became an importer of food for the first time at about the turn of the century and felt insecure as a result. It had never been dependent on the outside world before, yet became even more so when its new industries demanded fuel and raw materials from abroad. Japanese interest in expansion on the Asian mainland was based as much on a desire to ease its population problem by emigration as on colonialist emulation of the West.

By the time of the "incident" at Mukden in 1931, therefore, at least one million Japanese had migrated to Manchuria (ex-servicemen were preferred, on the ancient Roman colonial model). This substantial figure was, however, dwarfed by the huge migration from China proper into the region. According to Japanese sources, in the quarter-century from 1907 to 1931 the population very nearly doubled, from seventeen to thirty-three million. Even after allowing for incoming Japanese and natural increase, this represents a massive influx -- one of the great migrations of the century -- which contemporary Japanese officials naturally attributed to the orderly conditions and flourishing economy of the southern part of the region, under their control since 1905. In 1937, as Japan went to war with China, Tokyo planned to settle one million Japanese households -- five million people -- in Manchuria and northern China in the twenty years until 1957: some five hundred thousand actually emigrated in a couple of years; of these, half were farmers and one-fifth teenagers. Whether the Japanese (today 125 million) actually needed Lebensraum is debatable; but they certainly did their best ex post facto to justify their claim to it.

In Japan itself, the decade that followed the end of the First World War was relatively stable, especially when compared with the thirties, despite increasing diplomatic and economic difficulties. Nominally at least, and a strongly authoritarian social structure notwithstanding, the civilians were in charge under a two-party system: they even defeated the Navy in forcing acceptance of the Washington Treaties of 1922 and managed to impose cuts in military and naval budgets. There was not much to choose philosophically between the Minseito party, financed mainly by the Mitsubishi corporation, and the Seiyukai, backed by the Mitsui concern; both were middle-of-the-road and by and large took turns governing in the broad interests of their backers and the new urban middle class. The absence of a parliamentary tradition only served to encourage generalized corruption on a huge scale. This bred a general contempt for politicians, their big-business backers in the Zaibatsu (the cartel of the leading conglomerates) and the political process in a country only recently emerged from feudalism and still strongly agricultural. Indeed, the level of tension between the traditional Japanese way of life and the swift spread of many aspects of western civilization -- economic problems, jazz, modern clothes, rapid urbanization, women office workers, mass media, political ferment on left and (especially) right, trade-unionism, an incipient youth culture, class conflict, cocktail parties and even potatoes -- had no parallel in any other society. It was a powerful and dangerous social brew, and it soon went to people's heads -- especially when Japan was forced to import the effects of the "Wall Street Crash."

As Crown Prince, Hirohito caused one sensation after another in 1921 with his unprecedented overseas tour by battleship to various parts of the British Empire, Britain itself, France and Belgium (including the First World War battlefields), the Netherlands, Italy and the Vatican -- and the tastes he brought back with him. These included the great British breakfast of eggs and bacon, to which he remained loyal, except in wartime as a gesture to austerity, for the rest of his life. He also learned to like horse-racing, nightclubs and golf, all Japanese passions to the present day. When he came back, he was cheered to the echo by huge crowds which had been following his travels through the press, newsreels and radio: it was an all too brief suspension of the xenophobia and intolerance endemic in contemporary Japan. His taste for Western dress was made harder to satisfy by his divine status, which prevented tailors from measuring him except by the unreliable eyeball, applied fleetingly and at a suitably respectful distance. Hence the famous baggy clothes of so many early photographs. But his best attempts to dilute the stifling formality of palace life failed. He was wont to say in later years that his visit to England, especially his time in Oxford, gave him the happiest days of his life. He envied the informality (strictly relative) of the British House of Windsor, of which he was reminded when the Prince of Wales (later briefly King Edward VIII) returned his visit in 1922: they played a lot of golf together.

Hirohito was born on April 29, 1901, the eldest son of Crown Prince Yoshihito and Princess Sadako, and was, inevitably, brought up at the court of the Emperor Meiji. Considering the stuffiness associated with the imperial court, Meiji was a surprisingly convivial, uninhibitedly bibulous man: Hirohito is said to have been put off alcohol for life when he was made drunk by his father, and given an appalling hangover, before he was of school age. He was placed under the tutelage of General Nogi Maresuke, the intellectual war hero who defeated the Russians in 1905. Nogi saw to it that the always frail-looking Hirohito became a competent all-round sportsman as well as a conscientious student at the special school for the offspring of the Japanese peerage. The general was an ascetic and instilled the virtues of austerity into his pupil: displaying these qualities became the youth's way of rebelling against the licentious example set by his grandfather and even more so by his father. Meiji died of cancer in 1912, whereupon Yoshihito became the Emperor Taisho, Hirohito became Crown Prince -- and Nogi committed ritual suicide. The general thus kept the promise he made when he lost both his sons in the bloody struggle with the Russians for Port Arthur in 1905, a commitment deferred on Meiji's order. It was a terrible, pointless example for such a gifted man to give to lesser mortals; it was also a trauma for the reflective Hirohito.

The new chief tutor was the other superhero of the Russo-Japanese War, Admiral Togo Heihachiro, victor in the Battle of Tsushima. But as a teacher the admiral was as disappointing as the general had been inspiring. Because his science tutors were better than his arts teachers, and probably also because he had an inquiring mind, Hirohito took most interest in the natural sciences. He eventually became an amateur marine biologist of repute -- largely on the strength of discovering a hitherto unrecorded species of prawn at the age of seventeen. His strongest academic interest proved to be history, especially military; his heroes were Napoleon, Lincoln and Darwin, whose portraits were always to be seen on the walls of his study.

The year 1921 proved to be the most traumatic in the peacetime experience of the earnest Crown Prince. He became engaged to Princess Nagako -- his own choice -- after a convoluted dispute at court, ostensibly over the hereditary color-blindness in her family but actually between two powerful aristrocratic clans for domination of the imperial household. A leading extreme-nationalist group (Japan had hundreds) was used to mobilize public opinion in favor of Nagako. As soon as the row was settled, Hirohito was almost bundled out of the country on the foreign tour already mentioned, disconcerting his British hosts by starting a week early and staying longer then originally planned. Nonetheless, he always remembered the warmth of his welcome abroad at all levels, especially in Britain. He was nothing if not sentimental.

While he was still away, a right-wing extremist assassinated the prime minister, Hara Takashi, the first untitled occupant of the post, in protest against Japan's participation in the Washington Conference, negotiating the relative strengths of the world's leading navies. This was just one instance, and not the most dramatic, of the extraordinary fanaticism evoked by the stresses and strains of Japan's struggle to excel in a world dominated by the West and its values. Society's readiness to understand if not condone such extreme reaction was symbolized by the assassin's sentence of twelve years on a capital charge, as if his had been a sexual rather than a political crime passionel.

On the right, the most radical (a large and growing element) took the view that all "eight corners of the world" should be united under Japanese domination. To the left, liberal, socialist and communist groups also existed. But they were having an increasingly hard time making themselves heard, let alone exercising the basic freedoms taken for granted in democratic societies but increasingly hard to come by in an instinctively authoritarian Japan. Hirohito had glimpsed such social and political freedoms being enjoyed during his grand tour. Though there was not much he could do about politics when he got home, he did what he could to ease the social atmosphere by getting rid of as much palace protocol as he dared.

His wishes soon carried rather more weight among the nebulous groups of courtiers whose self-appointed role was to "protect" the throne (mainly from scandal, as they chose to define the term). On November 25, 1921, Hirohito, still not twenty-one years old, became regent when the eccentricities of his father merged into madness. The Crown Prince's taste for informality was allowed to run to one fairly rowdy palace party in December. After that it was back to the old ritual, with one major if superficial change: Western dress now effectively became compulsory except on the stuffiest ceremonial occasions. But it was Western attire of the most sober kind. Even so, for a few years, until Hirohito's marriage in 1924, the palace became the venue for an open-ended association of high-flying younger officers, bureaucrats, and other "junior leaders," who would gather at the Regent's behest to debate the issues of the day or listen to lectures from leaders in the academic, administrative, and military fields. This was a uniquely elitist club-cum-secret-society of the kind to which so many Japanese, with their strongly developed sense of "family," loved to belong.

But life in Japan was becoming no easier. At lunchtime on September 1, 1923, the worst earthquake in Japanese history, which is saying a great deal, laid waste the Tokyo-Yokohama region, causing huge fires and deaths in six figures. Millions were made homeless, and Hirohito's wedding was postponed. The superstitious saw this disaster as punishment for Japanese flirtation with Western decadence. They took out their feelings on left-wingers, with their foreign ideas, and on Korean immigrants, who did the most menial jobs; thousands were massacred. On his way to open the new Diet on December 27, Hirohito narrowly escaped being shot by another of Japan's plentiful supply of extremists. This one, who was executed, was officially said to be a left-wing revolutionary, but he had more obvious links with the court faction that had lost the battle over Hirohito's fiancee. Unwilling to face another postponement, and undeterred by his brush with the violence never far from the surface of his simmering nation, Hirohito married his princess thirty days later, on January 26, 1924.

The omens notwithstanding, it proved to be a happy marriage. Its first three years were also a period of unusual calm, despite the death of Taisho in December 1926. Thereupon Hirohito, now the 124th emperor, followed ancient custom by choosing "Showa" as the name by which he was to be officially remembered. The word means "enlightened peace": hindsight enables us to savor the irony in full. The underlying, authoritarian social trend, however, continued unabated. It was fostered by a frustrated military which felt its marginal role in the First World War had caused it to fall behind, both in the international league and in the estimation of the nation. From 1926 onward, education was militarized, even at the elementary level, a reversion to past strictness after an unconvincing dabble with well-diluted liberal ideas. Emperor worship, aimed at the institution as the source of all legitimacy rather than the person, was nurtured; small boys put on uniforms and drilled with wooden "rifles." Discipline among adults was fostered by the foundation in 1928 -- twenty years before George Orwell made the term famous -- of the "Thought Police," whose role was to stamp out Western ideas such as communism, socialism, liberalism, materialism and individual rights.

But if the authorities automatically assumed that the really dangerous ideas came from the left, the most dangerous people, as so often in history, were to be found at the other end of the political spectrum. The wild men in the Kwantung Army killed Marshal Chang Tso-lin, the Manchurian warlord who obstructed Japanese domination of the region, by blowing up his train on the Southern Manchurian Railway in June 1928. The civilian government of the Seiyukai party, led by retired General Tanaka Giichi as prime minister, had wanted to use Chang as a counterweight to Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese nationalists in the Kuomintang, in a divide-and-rule strategy for northern China. The fire-eating colonels and majors were not interested in such subtleties. Their stupidity was made manifest when Chang's son, the "Young Marshal," took over, had two Manchurian officers shot for collaborating with the Japanese and then declared for the Kuomintang. Few assassinations can have proved quite so counterproductive quite so quickly.

The middle-rankers were unfazed by such setbacks; as will soon become clear, their invariable remedy for the failure of violence was more violence. They were also unable to appreciate the prudence which led Tokyo to give diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union, their "enemy number one," five years before Washington did so. The Chang murder was ascribed to "bandits" and two officers were suspended for failing to guard the railroad adequately. The scapegoat for the cover-up, which held until after the war, was Premier Tanaka, who lost his nerve in the behind-the-scenes political row about high-level indiscipline in the Army. He resigned early in 1929, once the elaborate and protracted ceremonies attending the formal enthronement of Hirohito at the turn of the year were out of the way.

It was Minseito party's turn to form a government, and the task, a bed of nails as usual but also a poisoned chalice on this occasion, was awarded to Hamaguchi Osachi, a notably moderate civilian; his foreign minister, Baron Shidehara Kijuro, had a reputation for flexibility on China policy. Overseas observers of the increasing ferment in Japan were commensurately relieved, but the issue that was to determine the struggle between diluted democracy and mounting militarism for primacy in Japan was already looming: the strength of the Navy.

The Washington Conference of 1921-22 had, among other things, led to a naval treaty fixing the ratios of the American, British, and Japanese navies as 5:5:3 (and setting a tonnage limit on capital ships: one already commissioned first-rate Japanese battleship had to be scrapped as it was four thousand tons over). All this stuck in the craw of the ultranationalists. So did such serious grievances as the principle of "inferiority" imposed or accepted by treaty, the ban on Japanese migration to the Western hemisphere (South as well as North America) and Australasia (New Zealand as well as Australia), and the failure of Japan to extract a commitment to racial equality from the Western powers, whether at Versailles, the League of Nations or other international gatherings. The younger officers in the middle ranks and a surprisingly large proportion of the general public regarded all these setbacks as insults or outright humiliations. The Navy itself -- or, more precisely, the officer corps -- divided into "fleet" and "treaty" factions, a maritime reflection of the Army's extremist and purportedly moderate tendencies. The latter, confusingly, has also been labeled the "total-war faction," a most revealing clue to the true meaning of "moderation" in prewar Japanese history: in this context, moderation meant keeping out of war -- but only until Japan was totally ready to wage it! The senior bureaucrats in the civil service, the men who really ran the country, were similarly divided. It cannot be stated too often that agreement on the country's right to pre-eminence was not far short of universal in Japan. Factional differences on the issue were concerned only with the means of realizing this Oriental version of manifest destiny.

In the Navy the fleet faction had fought to the limit in 1921 for a ratio of 10:10:7 and against 5:5:3, claiming that this tiny margin made all the difference between subservience and superiority vis-à-vis the Americans, whom they already saw as the obvious potential enemy at sea: a prime example of the Japanese capacity to extract the maximum heat from a minimal divergence of opinion. Behind the ridiculous and irrelevant demand for "70 percent or bust" lay a determination to hang onto the colossal one-third of the national budget the Navy was consuming at the time (the Army's share took military expenditure up to 60 percent of the total). The Navy's enthusiasm for southward rather than northward expansion was intimately related to the fact that this course required Japan to be ready for war with America and Britain, which entailed a very large, modern fleet. The Army's preference for the opposite course was no less closely related to the consequent need to muster huge new armies, over and above those already in Korea, Manchuria and China, for war against the Soviet Union, in which the more costly, off-thirsty Navy would have a minor role. The naval argument revived in 1929, as contacts took place among the powers in preparation for the London Naval Conference of 1930, where the Japanese delegation was to include Rear Admiral Yamamoto. He already believed that 5:5:3 was perfectly adequate for Japan's purposes: it was not the tonnage but the types of ship, especially carriers, that mattered in his eyes -- quality rather than quantity -- even if he saw no harm in taking up a 10:10:7 position for negotiating purposes. But by this time the hawks had raised the ante: nothing less than parity would do. Indeed, any limitation on armament was (or could conveniently be represented as) an attack on the imperial prerogative to determine Japanese policy: divinity does not compromise or take orders from foreigners.

So, when the Japanese delegation got as near as made no difference to 10:10:7 for cruisers and other noncapital ships, Prime Minister Hamaguchi's reward for association with this solid diplomatic success was to be shot in the stomach on November 14, 1930. Perhaps his real offense had been to force a cut of 25 percent in the 1931 naval budget. At any rate, he took nine months to die from his excruciating wounds. Before he did so, he bravely whispered his argument for the reduced naval allocation on his last appearance before Parliament. Any samurai would have approved. But it was a pointless act of defiance: the Army, itself smarting from Hamaguchi's fiscal razor, still took the view that the Navy was getting far too much. His assassin, in the pay of radical officers who were never fully identified, was sentenced to death three years after his crime -- and pardoned three months later, another extraordinary example of the dangerous Japanese practice of turning a blind eye to politically motivated crime.

Wakatsuki Reiijiro of Minseito served as acting premier. His brief term was remarkable for two things: he survived it by many years, and he was in office over the period when the military hawks planned and provoked the "Manchuria Incident." When rumors of the Kwantung Army plot, aided and abetted by the Army of Korea, to extend Japanese control over the whole of Manchuria spread round Tokyo in the summer of 1931, Wakatsuki sent a major general to warn off the trio of colonels at the core of the conspiracy. They belonged to the "Cherry Blossom" secret society, the biggest and most important right-wing association among Army officers ranking from captain to full colonel. It had many friends and supporters wherever Japanese Army units were stationed. The general, himself a sympathizer who was on public record as favoring the outright annexation of Manchuria, made haste as slowly as possible and delivered the written warning on September 19 -- the day after the Japanese blew up a section of the South Manchurian Railway at Mukden. When a Chinese Army patrol went to investigate the blast, it was fired upon. So, at the same time, were other installations belonging to the Chinese nationalists and their local ally, the "Young Marshal" Chang. The Chinese Army was blamed.

It may be noted for the record that the Japanese Army code of the time decreed, in article 35: "A commander who opens hostilities with a foreign country without provocation shall be punished by death." Article 37 provided the same penalty for one who moved troops out of his defined area without permission. Thus the commanders of both the Kwantung and Korean armies should have been court-martialed and executed. They were not put on trial. Hirohito cautiously limited himself to expressing displeasure; the military command in Tokyo took no action; the government was no more energetic. By November, all Manchuria was under Japanese control, and preparations were well in hand to establish the puppet state of Manchukuo under the "Emperor" Henry Pu-yi, the last of the Manchus. The League of Nations Council urged a negotiated settlement by a margin of thirteen to one (Japan) and sent a commission of inquiry under the British Lord Lytton to investigate. When it uncompromisingly found against Tokyo in February 1933 the League as a whole accepted the Lytton Report by forty-two votes to one (Japan again), the Japanese delegation was led out of the chamber at Geneva by Matsuoka Yosuke, the future foreign minister, never to return. Japan formally withdrew from the League one month later.

Faced with this level of military intransigence, Wakatsuki saw no alternative but to resign over the Manchuria Incident in December 1931. The next prime minister was due to come from the Seiyukai, which put forward the frail party-leader, Inukai Tsuyoshi, aged seventy-five. Appointed by Hirohito at the beginning of 1932, he lasted barely four months before being fatally shot in the face by a naval officer, one of a group of mainly military extremists who burst into his official residence on May 15, 1932. His financial minister and a leading banker, both moderates, had fallen victim to the new wave of terrorism before him. This "May 15 Incident" was, sadly, far from unprecedented. When viewed alongside the Manchurian affair, it was also a turning point: it effectively marked the end of civilian government in prewar Japan. The military was now unquestionably in command of Japan's destiny.

Yet, rather than diminishing, the political violence in Japan increased as the impatience of the radicals knew no bounds. Nor did the territorial ambitions of the Kwantung Army and its many supporters in high places at home. They overreached themselves in the spring of 1932 by staging the first "Shanghai Incident" as an excuse to enter China's largest city and main center for both industry and foreign, especially Western, settlement. Their purpose was to put down an effective local boycott of Japanese goods organized by the Chinese nationalists. The League of Nations managed to negotiate a Japanese withdrawal, a "humiliation" that was the immediate provocation for the murder of Prime Minister Inukai. In January 1933 the Japanese helped themselves to the Chinese province of Jehol, adding it to Manchuria. Inner Mongolia and Hopei Province, inside the Great Wall of China, were next on the list; what the Kwantung Army really wanted was the mineral resources of Shansi, in northern China. A truce was arranged by international diplomatic intervention in May 1933 and a demilitarized zone temporarily established between Peking and the Great Wall. Even so, Japan's naked aggression and rampant ambition in China were not seriously challenged by the outside world, which was in the depths of the Depression, even when American and British nationals or other Westerners were insulted and assaulted by Japanese soldiers.

It was in 1933 that the first maps appeared in Japanese schoolbooks showing French Indochina, Siam (Thailand), Malaya and Singapore, the Philippines, and the Netherlands East Indies -- all the military objectives of 1941-42 -- under the Rising Sun flag, as the new American ambassador to Tokyo, Joseph C. Grew, soon reported with alarm to Washington. In December the Empress Nagako gave Hirohito a son and heir, Akihito (the present emperor), after nine years of marriage. Any hopes that this long-awaited event would calm the ultra-imperialists, who had constantly bemoaned the lack of a crown prince, were soon dashed.

Internationalism, never much in fashion in Japan, now went out of style elsewhere as individual nations tried to find one-country solutions to the threats posed by creeping economic paralysis. In Japan the silk industry, which had been the mainstay of exports, collapsed as American and other foreign customers ran out of money for such luxury. The result was acute misery and deprivation in the Japanese countryside, from which so many Army recruits, including officers, were drawn. In the cities the country's comparatively small new industrial base, not yet strong enough to stand up to competition from the major powers after the First World War, was also weakened, but the paternalism of the big employers in the Zaibatsu cartel eventually cushioned some of the worst sufferings of the workers. A large gap opened between the urban and rural economies and standards of living. But policies such as the American New Deal and the British Imperial or Commonwealth Preference only underscored the arguments of the moderate expansionist majority in Japan as well as the extremists (and the Nazis in Germany): autarky was the only guarantee of national security.

With the London Naval Agreement due for renewal in 1935 and the Washington Naval Treaty by 1936, the exploratory talks convened in London late in 1934 on extending naval disarmament assumed great importance. Yamamoto, now a vice-admiral, was at the head of the Japanese delegation for this preliminary round. His job was made no easier by Tokyo's self-contradictory desire to see Washington, the principal pact, lapse and yet to continue with naval arms limitation. Admired both at home (sacks of fan mail were forwarded to him in London) and in the West for his bluff-sailor approach with no trace of dissimulation, Yamamoto set out to obtain Anglo-American consent to parity for the Imperial Navy, triumphantly transcending the pitfalls of a relentless social round (and relieving the British First Sea Lord of £20 at bridge). The Western powers were naturally hostile but wanted Japan to be the party that broke off the talks. They got their wish at the turn of the year. Japan gave due and proper notice of intent to abrogate both London and Washington and was soon in a position to build some of the finest warships ever sent to sea. By 1939 the Japanese had the strongest naval presence in the Pacific, and two years later they constituted the most formidable challenge ever faced by the US Navy.

But the wildest of the wild men were still to be found in the Japanese Army, and they finally ran amok in Tokyo itself in 1936, on February 26 (the "2/26 Incident"). The trigger was the trial of a lieutenant colonel who had murdered a general on the staff of the Army Ministry in revenge for the dismissal of another general, the colonel's hero and a rabid nationalist like himself. Elements of the Imperial Guards and first divisions -- some twenty-four officers backed by twelve hundred men with heavy weapons -- tried to stage a military coup in support of the accused. They issued a manifesto demanding immediate expansion abroad and death for imperial advisers classified (by the rebels) as "disloyal." But for the bloodshed, the incompetence of the ringleaders would have made a good plot for the Marx Brothers. The conspirators thought they had killed the prime minister, Okada Keisuke, at his home, but he hid in a linen closet after his brother-in-law had been mistaken for him and gunned down. A moderate general and the Lord Privy Seal, a key palace official, were also murdered. The Grand Chamberlain, Suzuki Kantaro, another important servant of the emperor and a future prime minister, was left for dead but survived; the office of Japan's leading newspaper, the moderate Asahi Shimbun, was briefly occupied. Hirohito, faced with the most serious domestic threat to his throne in a reign that endured for two-thirds of a century, acted with a degree of resolution and ruthlessness not seen from him before or after. Loyal army units sealed off an area in the center of Tokyo of about one square mile. A new prime minister was appointed (Hirohito learned of Okada's survival only later), and when all was ready, on February 28, the emperor ordered the rebels to withdraw. On the 29th tanks and aircraft were called in to decide the issue, and the mutinous units surrendered. A purge of the officer corps followed; but, prevented at home from taking direct control of the state, the many extremist officers still in the Army looked abroad for the means to get control of imperial policy -- specifically to China.

A series of generals now succeeded one another as premier, as if through a revolving door, until Hirohito found himself a more durable incumbent -- Prince Konoye Fumimaro, a retired admiral, appointed in June 1937 and destined to hold office, with interruptions, for more than four years. Ten years older than the emperor, Konoye was a generally popular radical nationalist, on terms with Hirohito as close to informal as the monarch and prevailing custom ever permitted. Unfortunately he was also lazy, temperamental and chronically indecisive. The first week of the following month brought a long overdue, if also uneasy, alliance against Japan between warring nationalists and communists in China, a chance for those Japanese officials of the "reds-under-the-bed" persuasion to say, with as much satisfaction as fear, "I told you so." General Douglas MacArthur came to Tokyo at this juncture for his first meeting with Hirohito, over lunch at the palace, in company with President Quezon of the Philippines.

But even in Japan, Konoye's appointment, like the execution by firing squad of nineteen rebel ringleaders on July 17, was completely overshadowed by the latest and most fateful violent "incident" of them all, on the 7th. The clash between patrols carefully engineered by the Kwantung colonels at the Marco Polo Bridge outside Peking plunged Japan and China into war, and large reinforcements were soon on their way from the Home Islands. For more than eight years, an apparently endless conflict in the apparently infinite spaces of China was to be the principal drain on Japan's resources of manpower, arms and money. China came to play the same role in the Far Eastern war as Russia did in the war in Europe. China became the giant, indestructible shock-absorber which tied down the bulk of the enemy armies, while the United States and its allies built up their aerial and naval firepower for amphibious counterattack on the other front, with much investment in technology -- and much fewer casualties.

Japan's involvement, first in Manchuria and then in the rest of northern China, put it on a collision course with the Soviet Union, whose long, indeterminate Asiatic borders now touched territory controlled or claimed by the Japanese. The Russians, ever mindful of the Germans, were remarkably circumspect, virtually abandoning their internationally recognized sphere of influence in Manchuria. But they were not prepared to appease Japan to the extent of overlooking serious incursions. Not content with plunging their country into an unwinnable war with China, the hotheads on the Japanese Army staff were more than ready to provoke the Soviets at any time of day or night. Amid the chain of events that led Japan into conflict with the West in the Pacific, there occurred an all but forgotten war between the Japanese and Red armies in 1938-39. It is important because it made both sides resolve not to repeat the experience, a decision that had obvious implications for each in the coming war on its other front.

There were nearly three thousand exchanges of fire between Soviet and Japanese forces in the two decades after the Russian Revolution, and nearly two hundred armed skirmishes along the straggling Manchurian border. The worst of these thus far began in June 1937 over the ownership of some midstream islands in the Amur River (which have since been fought over by the Soviet Union and the Chinese People's Republic). Amid ill-concealed panic in both Tokyo and Moscow as rapid escalation threatened after the sinking of a Soviet gunboat, the Red Army pulled back into Siberia and the Kwantung Army reoccupied the islands. The affair was barely settled before the Japanese provoked their "China Incident" on July 7. The clashes between Russians and Japanese and their respective clients continued. Meanwhile, in August 1937, Moscow concluded a non-aggression pact with Chiang's nationalists.

As the Sino-Japanese war broadened and deepened, Moscow officially maintained a wary policy of nonintervention, because of the potential threat from Hitler on its western front. But the Red Army quietly built up its infantry, armor and airpower in the Far East. There were unconfirmed rumors in the West that Soviet fliers were aiding the Chinese, just as the American Colonel (later Major General) Claire L. Chennault's volunteers -- the "Flying Tigers" -- were already doing. But on July 30, 1938, there erupted a Russo-Japanese border incident of a much greater order of magnitude, at Chang-ku Feng. The name belongs to a mountain on the then disputed borders of Korea, Manchuria and the Soviet Union, close to the coast of the Sea of Japan. Remarkably inventive propaganda from both sides and a lack of impartial foreign observers forever obscured precisely what happened, but Soviet troops are known to have entrenched themselves on top of the mountain. It was left to the Japanese "Army of Korea" -- reduced to one thin but tough division by the China Incident -- to deal with the crisis; wisely, it chose at first not to exacerbate the situation, regarding the matter as one for Moscow and Tokyo to settle by diplomacy. The Kwantung Army, aggressive as ever, fumed. The frustration spread to the usual coterie of malcontent middle-rankers among the Korea Army officers, who decided to "reconnoiter in force" up the mountain and promptly got involved in a battle that ended in the displacement of the Russians. Several Soviet counterattacks failed, despite the Red Army's three-to-one numerical advantage and local superiority in air, armor, and artillery. Fighting went on for two weeks.

Both sides suffered disproportionately heavy casualties -- more than one in five. Their military weaknesses, in the region and in general, were laid bare for those in a position to see. The Russians were seriously incompetent in several branches, the Japanese strategically exposed by long and vulnerable supply lines. Hirohito took the extraordinary step of rebuking his war minister, General Itagaki, who had also been deeply involved in provoking the Manchurian and Chinese "incidents," and the Army high command. Japanese anxiety, because of the war in China, to settle the matter without further ado was revealed to Moscow by Richard Sorge, the anti-Nazi German journalist who was the most effective Soviet spy of the period (he later warned -- vainly -- of the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union). The Russians therefore played hard to get diplomatically and were rewarded with a Japanese military withdrawal, transforming Moscow's tactical discomfiture into a political victory (which did not save the Soviet commander from execution in Stalin's still continuing, paranoid military purge).

The outcome of the Battle of Chang-ku Feng, grossly underreported in the outside world, was read in various ways, according to taste, by the other powers. But it was eclipsed altogether only nine months later and seven hundred miles to the northeast. Lieutenant General Ueda Kenkichi, Kwantung Army commander, had worked himself into a lather over the perceived disgrace of the Korea Army at Chang-ku Feng. On May 11, 1939, after a series of border clashes which had been going on all year, he disobeyed standing orders from Tokyo to avoid major incidents: he let a cavalry regiment cross into the Soviet puppet state of Outer Mongolia at Nomonhan, in "hot pursuit" of insurgent Mongolian horsemen who had fired on a Manchukuo Army detachment. Some one thousand Japanese infantry followed. Mongolian tanks and guns massacred the intruders in a carefully prepared trap.

Recognizing the serious potential consequences of an escalation, the Japanese, even the Kwantung Army, stayed their hand. To rub in the humiliation, the Russians, guided once again by Sorge's priceless inside information, warned that an attack on Mongolia would be treated as an invasion of the Soviet Union itself. Sorge was accurately reporting that the Japanese were determined not to be provoked; the Red Army therefore crossed the frontier from Mongolia into Manchukuo on June 18. The Japanese colonels and majors who contributed so much to the ruination of their country got the upper hand in the Kwantung Army command in the ensuing, heated debate on what to do next, forcing through a plan for revenge. A reinforced infantry division with air, armored, and artillery support assembled against a numerically inferior Soviet-Mongolian force and reopened hostilities with a pre-emptive air strike against the Red Army's air strength -- once again without waiting for sanction from Tokyo. A heavy clash on the ground at the beginning of July, however, led to an uncharacteristic Japanese withdrawal after a couple of days. The Kwantung Army's tanks proved to be seriously outclassed. The Japanese also lost a furious exchange of artillery barrages a few days later. As Tokyo struggled with mixed success to hold back its wild men -- especially from aerial bombardment, which was rightly regarded as the ultimate provocation of the Russians -- the latter built up their forces in Mongolia to five infantry divisions and five tank brigades under General Georgi Zhukov, the future marshal and hero of the Soviet Union. Outnumbered nearly five to one, the Japanese were routed and fled back into Manchuria. The Russians showed good discipline by halting and digging in on what they claimed was the true border.

The Japanese, with willful stupidity, took this as proof that the Russians had lost their stomach for a fight -- otherwise they would surely have followed the ancient military injunction to make the most of victory by pursuing the beaten enemy. They scraped together five divisions for a counteroffensive, which the Kwantung Army at least saw as round one of an all-out war against the Soviet Union, to start in mid-September 1939. But diplomatic events supervened: the Russians and the Germans signed a nonaggression pact on August 23, 1939. This supreme piece of political cynicism by two totalitarian regimes with diametrically opposed long-term interests shook the world in general and Tokyo in particular. Japan was totally isolated in the midst of a war with Russia which could hardly be regarded as small and might easily become vast now that the enemy had no potential second front to worry about. Therefore, despite the seventeen thousand Japanese and Manchurian casualties (over 30 percent) sustained in more than three months of fighting, Imperial General Headquarters (Army) decided on September 2, the day after Hitler attacked Poland, to cut its losses and order a general withdrawal. In the meantime, the Japanese government of Baron Hiranuma Kiichiro fell victim to the Nazi-Soviet Pact and resigned on August 29, taking the pathologically aggressive War Minister Itagaki with it. The new Cabinet under ex-General Abe Noboyuki set out to end the Soviet war at once by negotiation, leading to a cease-fire on September 16. In the talks that ensued until formal settlement in July 1940, the anxious Japanese conceded in all directions and a border commission was set up to forestall future clashes. Frontier incidents inevitably continued, but none was allowed to escalate into a major conflict again.

The consequences of the Nomonhan campaign were momentous in the extreme. The Japanese Army lost its bloodthirsty enthusiasm for the "northern option" in imperial strategy. The Soviet Union was now an immediate threat for which serious provision (arbitrarily fixed at sixteen divisions on permanent standby in Manchuria) must be made, over and above the draining commitment to China proper and the extra needs of a southward strategy. The Nomonhan "dress rehearsal" deterred both Japan and the Soviet Union from a war on two fronts and therefore made a major contribution to Hitler's fate, sealed when he attacked an undistracted Russia. When he did, Zhukov was free to rush west and save Moscow at the turn of 1941-42. As long as the China Incident continued, war with the Soviet Union was something Japan had to avoid at all costs. It was only when Stalin lost faith in his pact with Hitler, early in 1941, that Moscow and Tokyo suddenly signed the Russo-Japanese Neutrality Pact on April 13, 1941 -- Tokyo's revenge for the tawdry deal between Hitler and Stalin in 1939. Ironically, Japan signed because it regarded a war between Germany and Russia as highly unlikely. Had it thought otherwise and been in a position to attack the Soviet Union at the height of the German inroad from the west, the world war and subsequent history might have gone very differently indeed. Even so, the pact held until the last week of the war.

The Nomonhan disaster, actually a blessing in disguise for Japan, broke the Kwantung Army both as a fighting force and (rather too late) as a disruptive factor in Japanese military planning and international relations. Finally, and most significantly for our narrative, the Japanese Army henceforward took a rather more positive and sympathetic view of the Navy's preference for the southern (and therefore largely seaborne) strategy: only if the Russians were thoroughly beaten by the Germans would the northern option regain its appeal for the Japanese Army General Staff.

The general yearning among military leaders for a Japan as self-sufficient as it had been during the centuries before the West forced it to take cognizance of the outside world was really a rationalization of their desire to have their cake and eat it, an option humanity tends to go for whenever it seems to be within reach. They wanted autarky, a closed economy. Having won access to Korea -- seen as a Chinese dagger pointed at Japan from only a hundred miles away -- by defeating China in 1895, and having annexed the peninsula outright in 1910 (subsequently industrializing it at breakneck speed), the Japanese established themselves in neighboring southern Manchuria. Once drawn into that power vacuum, left by a weak and divided post-Manchu China, they were duly caught up in the classic cycle of imperial inertia already described. Their holdings in what had been or what legally still was Chinese territory expanded until they collided physically with Russia's to the north and west, and diplomatically with the interests of a weakened West in China as a whole. Continued expansion, therefore, now entailed an armed confrontation to the south and east.

The underlying aim was an economic zone within which Japan could support itself without recourse to outside, meeting all its needs in oil and other minerals, rice and other foods, steel and other industries. But in order to stabilize this new yen-zone -- which meant not only fighting the inefficient Chinese, who nevertheless stubbornly refused to concede, but also guarding against Russian intervention -- Japan had to import more and more from the United States and other territories in or controlled by the West. The fight for autarky was making Japan even less self-sufficient than it had been when it started. The deeper it sank into the Chinese mire, the more raw materials, oil and food it needed from America and Western possessions in Asia. Thinking officers who recognized this strategic Catch-22 often found it frustrating to the point of exploding with rage. Even Hirohito was moved to complain more than once, not about the war in China as such but rather about the generals' repeated failure to deliver the victory so confidently promised. Yet, the harder they tried to win it, the further it seemed to recede into the future.

One possible Western response in such circumstances -- to find a suitable form of words, cut one's losses and withdraw from an unwinnable struggle -- was not available to the Japanese, who would have lost face throughout Asia and the world. "Losing face" is of itself no more than an oriental synonym for injured pride, and fear of it is not confined to the Far East. The difference is that it could prompt suicide in Japan, where public shame far outweighs private guilt as a social inhibitor. A "withdrawal to prepared positions," meaning a forced retreat to somewhere that looks defensible, was an option not available to the Japanese soldier, any more than surrender or captivity. The result for the Japanese in China was to follow the example of the despairing gambler who doubles his stake every time he loses. They were still trying to "bring an early end to the China Incident" well into 1945 -- and even then, formidable fighters that they were, they nearly succeeded.

The autarkists found natural allies in the senior levels of the bureaucracy, who were subject to a familiar inertia of their own: administrative difficulties, of which Japan had more than its fair share, could best be dealt with by increasing the power of the administrators in the civil service. If force did not work abroad, try more force; if regimentation did not work at home, try more regimentation. If Japan was to be self-sufficient, such resources as it had, especially the people, should be properly mobilized to the best effect -- as if, indeed, they were soldiers. This lay behind the bureaucrats' call for "reform," which was their harmonious counterpoint to the military demand for autarky. The Japanese fully understood that in a total war everything and everybody had to be thrown into the struggle and there was no such place as "behind the lines."

Japan's military leadership, however, had nothing more to offer than an unthinking, unchallengeable discipline of the barrack square, whence it had come, with which to motivate the emperor's subjects: civilians too were only there to obey orders. The result was that the phenomenal capacity for individual self-sacrifice, readily made, among ordinary Japanese citizens was never forged into an instrument representing the will of the nation, a fact for which, in retrospect, Japan's enemies had every reason to be thankful. One of the greatest ironies of the Second World War is that the democracies proved much better than the totalitarian countries, including their own ally Russia, at total mobilization; the secret of their success was that they had elective legislatures to debate and vote on such measures, and that in general they treated the public as adults. Britain, the most exposed of the undefeated Allies, went furthest, introducing limitations on the liberty it was fighting for that would have been unthinkable in peacetime.

Both purported solutions to Japan's self-imposed problem -- autarky and reform -- gained much ground in the Depression. In a country with little experience and less faith in Western-style democratic institutions -- and here the parallel with the Weimar Republic, which gave way to Nazism in Germany, is almost total -- the general population found it easy to blame parliament, politicians and the civilian establishment in general for what was really a worldwide malaise. Meanwhile "one-country" solutions were increasingly favored round the world, from America with its New Deal and Britain with its abandonment of the gold standard (slashing the prices of its exports), to Russia with its new five-year plans and Germany with its regimented labor-force and its dream of Lebensraum. Even in the democracies there was widespread support for authoritarian solutions. With its twin aims of autarky and reform, the ruling elite in Japan was thus marching to the same tune as the governments of the other leading powers; nor was it lagging behind in the broad drift toward totalitarianism -- on the contrary.

Increasing regimentation of the population through modern media and communications was common to the democracies and the dictatorships alike. In Japan, where the economy was reeling in the Slump, strict exchange controls and government expenditure cuts were imposed in the early thirties. In 1935 the Cabinet Deliberative Council was set up to bring political and business leaders together; its bureaucratic instrument was the Cabinet Investigative Bureau, which coordinated the work of senior and middling ministry officials. Out of this apparatus in 1937, after the China Incident, grew the Cabinet Planning Board or CPB (and ultimately out of that the Ministry for International Trade and Industry -- MITI -- which has done so much to make the postwar Japanese economy the world's most powerful). A Welfare Ministry was established at the same time to improve the health of the people; the Army, worried by the poor quality of recruits as more men were needed in China, was deeply involved from the first. On the consciously adopted model of the Tennessee Valley Authority, electric power was nationalized in 1938; on the Nazi model, an agricultural relief program was introduced. The CPB took an interest in all major aspects of the nation's life, including not only business, finance and industry but also communications and culture. Industry was to make Japan self-sufficient in liquid fuels by manufacturing synthetic petroleum products, as a result of which a huge investment in unperfected technology produced barely one sixth of the planned output. Even the Germans, who led the world in this field and helped the Japanese, got nowhere near being able to dispense with the real thing.

Nonetheless, all these measures looked like a convincing first set of steps toward the long-term goal of autarky -- if only Japan could have five years of peace to complete its program. But, thanks to the impatience of the extremists in the Army (the autarkists, as ever, representing the moderate tendency), the China Incident put that, and with it self-sufficiency in the yen-zone of Japan-Korea-Manchukuo, beyond reach. Autarky was the prerequisite for future expansion; now expansion was the prerequisite for autarky. The oil of the Indies, the rice in Indochina, the rubber and tin of Malaya had to be added immediately to Japan's resources if it was to solve the China problem without continued dependence on an increasingly irritated America. Those officers who feared the Soviet Union most of all advocated coming to terms with Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists and persuaded their colleagues to drop the idea of a second puppet state alongside Manchukuo in northern China. But a negotiated settlement of the China Incident came to nothing, because of Japanese arrogance and Chiang's determination to use anti-Japanese sentiment to unite his country.

In Chicago in October 1937, soon after the Kwantung Army had badly injured the British ambassador to China and damaged Nanking, Chiang's capital at the time, by bombing, Roosevelt made his renowned "quarantine" speech, advocating the isolation of "lawlessness" to prevent an epidemic. It was a message meant for Tokyo above all, but it was not accompanied by threats or any practical suggestion as to how to force patients suffering from congenital aggressiveness into a straitjacket. The US administration was deeply divided, White House versus State Department, over whether to begin tough measures against Japan. From his increasingly difficult outpost in Tokyo, Ambassador Grew suggested mediation, but Washington feared being drawn into an appeasement policy on the Anglo-French model. The nations that had signed the Nine-Power Treaty guaranteeing the rights of China met in Brussels at the end of 1937 and adjourned without agreement -- forever, as it turned out. On December 13, 1937, the American gunboat USS Panay was sunk by Japanese Navy warplanes as she escorted three Standard Oil tankers on the Yangtse River. On the insistence of Admiral Yamamoto, now C-in-C of the Combined Fleet, who was not involved in the incident, Japan apologized and paid compensation: but that was only one more "humiliation" abroad for the fire-eaters to add to all the rest. Meanwhile, on the same day, the Japanese Army tried a new method of putting a quick end to the China Incident by unleashing its victorious troops on the surrendered soldiers and civilian population of Nanking. Nobody knows how many people died in the ensuing orgy of mass murder, rape and looting, but the total ran well into six figures, in one of the worst single atrocities of a bloodstained century. General Matsui Iwane, the Japanese C-in-C in China, was executed for it by the Allies after the war, even though the massacre had flouted his express orders. The only step taken by Tokyo was quietly to reassign eighty staff officers to duties elsewhere. It was in China too that Army Unit 731, ostensibly an engineer outfit concerned with water purification, conducted unspeakable experiments in chemical and biological warfare on civilians and prisoners of war, equal in horror if not in scope to anything undertaken by the Nazis at Auschwitz and elsewhere.

But the growing list of Japanese war crimes prompted nothing more from Roosevelt at this stage -- early 1938 -- than a call for a "moral embargo" of Japan by US exporters, especially of arms and the means to manufacture and use them. The moral embargo was clarified as a policy in July 1938, following the Japanese bombardment of Canton. When Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State, sent a long letter in protest against Japan's conduct in China in October, Prime Minister Konoye replied in November with his declaration of a "New Order in East Asia," under which Japan would entrench its domination of Manchuria and China regardless of anyone else's "rights" in China. The president knew that the American public, despite this loud and contemptuous slamming of the "Open Door," would not abide sanctions, for opinion polls were already in common use. US neutrality legislation prevented him from acting against Japan on its own: any formal embargo would also have to be applied to China, which desperately needed US aid, as well as Japan, which did not (though it needed imports from America more than ever).

Even so, the moral embargo was a turning point in the unfolding tragedy of mutual incomprehension that was already pointing to war. It was the first concrete expression of American displeasure with Japan, and it soon proved palpably if patchily effective. Some major US companies refused to sell to the Japanese, despite the 1911 Treaty of Commerce and Navigation between the US and Japan, which was another legal obstacle to mandatory sanctions. The Americans gave the requisite six months' notification of termination of this accord at the end of July 1939. Japan had already made a mockery of it by closing the Open Door, but Washington quite rightly took the view that it should adhere to the "no-reprisals" clause. Frustrated American officials were reduced to hoping that a Japan indifferent to international law would fall victim to the laws of economics: surely Tokyo had bitten off much more than it could possibly chew in Manchuria, let alone China? It had, but chose to ignore the fact, an attitude to which there was no effective diplomatic or even logical response. Japan was simply immune to argument, persuasion, moral appeals, sanctions, all measures short of war, and ultimately war itself: only superior force would bring it to change its ways; only destruction, over and above complete military defeat, could put an end to its territorial ambition.

Yet, just as Britain could unilaterally have stopped Mussolini's expansion in Africa by closing the Suez Canal to him, and just as France could have stopped Hitler by overturning his reoccupation of the Rhineland, so the United States could have forced the Japanese war machine to grind to a halt with a handful of selected sanctions in the late thirties. Japan at this time depended on America for half its copper, two-thirds of its machine tools, three-quarters of the scrap metal from which it made new steel for arms, four-fifths of its fuel oil, and over nine-tenths of its high-grade petroleum products (including machine oil, gasoline and aviation fuel); and the Japanese were using up their stocks at an alarming rate in China. Japanese fears, premature though they turned out to be, that Washington would make full use of its economic leverage to save its diplomatic position in China, caused Tokyo to cast its eye on the conveniently located resources of Dutch and British territory in the Far East long before the European owners became embroiled with Germany. A clear warning of what could lie in store was given in July 1940, when the President of the United States, under the new National Defense Act, banned exports of aviation fuel and some other special petroleum products just after huge Japanese orders had been placed for these items to meet needs in China.

With typical opportunism, the Japanese Army swung fully round to the southern strategy in June 1940, when Hitler's European Blitzkrieg had triumphed, Holland and France had fallen and the defeat of Britain seemed imminent. The junta innocuously titled its new program an "Outline for Dealing with the Changes in the World Situation." The aim was autarky; meanwhile there was to be an alliance with Germany, maximum austerity at home, and the establishment of a Japanese lien, by diplomacy or by force, on French and Dutch possessions in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Force having failed to settle the China Incident, the Army now seriously proposed dividing Japan's already stretched resources by risking the opening of a huge and complex new front. But at least the generals had the wit to limit their designs to French, Dutch and (only if unavoidable) British possessions, leaving out all American territories such as the Philippines. They were clearly gambling that a German defeat of Britain would force America to concentrate on its Atlantic front. The Navy, understanding more about the inherent strategic advantages of large islands, did not think a British collapse likely. The admirals therefore disagreed with the generals. The residual Dutch and minimal British maritime presence in the Far East was not enough to justify the Navy's voracious budgetary plans, past, present or future. Conveniently, their staff war-games late in 1940 were supervised by Yamamoto himself, and showed that an attack on French and Dutch possessions in the Far East would bring first the British and then the Americans into the ensuing war. The Navy argued that the Netherlands, Britain and the United States were inseparable, that leaving the Philippines untouched would expose the flank of a Japanese southward advance -- and therefore that, instead of the risk of ignoring the US, the much bigger risk of attacking its interests should be taken from the first! The student of Japanese strategic thinking at this period cannot fail to be struck time and again by the numbing, mountainous stupidity of the generals and admirals and those who supported them. It was on such a grand scale that the human mind is hard put to encompass the magnitude of the error. Seen in this light, the last-minute addition of Pearl Harbor to the finalized plan at the insistence of Yamamoto, the serious gambler, looks like a minor embellishment of an elaborate program for national suicide. The phenomenal success of postwar Japan -- as dependent as ever, in an unstable world, on imports for oil and nearly all its raw materials -- makes the logic of the time look even more bizarre.

Yet the Navy came to terms with the Army on a program that required, first, a move into northern Indochina (rapidly completed in September 1940) to cut off Chiang and to be well placed for a move farther south, thus keeping all options open; second, diplomatic pressure on the Dutch to supply more oil, rubber and tin (which failed: Japan had to accept the half or thereabouts which the Dutch and US oil companies in the Indies offered, and to pay for it in cash); and third, the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, signed on September 27, 1940.

In the Army the extremists were now completely in charge: the more calculating "total-war" faction was not extinct, but it was deeply depressed to the point of impotence. Autarky had been seriously deferred by the war in China; to get the resources to win that enervating conflict, the Army now proposed to move southward, which would lead to immediate suspension, before the targeted territories could be acquired, of deliveries of the vital materials needed for their conquest. This would therefore have to be completed, and secured against counterattack, with such stockpiles as Japan had managed to accumulate. Autarky would thereupon vanish over the horizon; the original Catch-22 of the China adventure was now to be squared. The only answer the extremists could produce was supplied by their friends in the bureaucracy -- even more austerity at home, in the form of a maximum diversion from civilian to military use of such items as fuel, steel and shipping, and of course money. Such was the background to the speech by Admiral Konoye, just back as prime minister after a short absence, in August 1940, announcing a "New Economic Order" and national self-reliance for Japan. On the day before Japan threw in its lot with the Axis, the United States announced an embargo on all exports of scrap iron and steel except to the Western hemisphere and Britain, on the grounds of its own national security. There was no need to explain that Japan was the true target, thus to be punished for its precipitate advance into northern Indochina.

The Hawaiian Islands in the mid-Pacific, roughly halfway between the West Coast of North America and East Asia, had been taken over as a territory by the United States in 1898. They offered the ideal advance base for US naval operations in the Far East -- specifically against Spain in the Philippines shortly afterward. Pearl Harbor, on the southern coast of the main island of Oahu, rapidly became an important facility for the expanding US Navy. It was therefore an obvious target for the Japanese Navy as the Empire nurtured its expansionist ambitions, fully aware that the only power capable of challenging it was the American fleet in the Pacific. All this was so self-evident that the British journalist Hector Bywater published his ideas about a naval attack on the base as early as 1925. Two years later a mere lieutenant commander in the Imperial Japanese navy -- Kusaka Ryunosuke, a staff college instructor in aviation -- drew up a plan for an air attack. The possibility was no less obvious to the United States Navy by 1932 at the latest: Captain Ernest J. King, USN, then commander of the aircraft carrier Lexington, launched a "successful" mock air attack on Pearl during maneuvers. Its importance as a base (and by the same token as a potential target) increased exponentially when the administration decided to make Pearl rather than the West Coast the principal base of the US Fleet in May 1940. The motive was political, to deter the Japanese from opportunistic ventures in the Pacific. The Netherlands had just been overrun by the Germans, presenting the oil-obsessed Japanese with a very strong temptation to make a move against the Dutch East Indies, whose home government had fled to England. The ensuing fall of France also drew acquisitive Japanese eyes to French Indochina, as we have seen.

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which achieved total surprise despite a series of alerts from Washington, including a war warning on November 27, will forever be associated with the name of Yamamoto. It was he who conceived the operational plan in the latter part of 1940 and sent a nine-page memorandum on it to the Navy Ministry on January 7, 1941. He then used his unique personal prestige to force its adoption by Imperial General Headquarters as the final embellishment, Operation Z, of the overall strategy for southward conquest. The rationale was simple: given that Japan required the resources of the Indies and was resolved to seize them, it needed a defensive perimeter large enough to protect them and the Home Islands of the Empire from attack by sea or air, including naval airpower. This perimeter would be much more secure, and Japan would gain a priceless margin of time, if the only force strong enough to disrupt the Empire's grand design -- the United States Navy -- could be crippled at the outset. After that the American will to fight a difficult campaign for the recovery of European colonies in Asia, taken over by a strong and entrenched opponent who held the initiative, would be so weak that Japan would be able to exact a profitable peace. The hawks were only encouraged in this belief when the House of Representatives voted on August 13, 1941, by a margin of one -- 203 to 202 -- to renew the military draft.

The Pearl Harbor operation, like the Imperial Navy itself in its formative years, drew heavily on British ideas, and not just those of Mr. Bywater, which were well known to Yamamoto. There was the classic example of Nelson, who destroyed the Danish Fleet in port in 1801 and thus gave the English language the verb "to Copenhagen" for a naval pre-emptive strike. Rather more recently, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, British commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, had launched a devastating torpedo-bomber attack -- the first in history -- from the carrier HMS Illustrious against the main base of the Italian Navy at Taranto on November 11, 1940. Royal Navy pilots eliminated three out of four enemy battleships and tilted the balance of naval power in the ocean in Britain's favor. There was thus, as so often, nothing new under the Rising Sun. But there was one fundamental difference: the British were already at war on each occasion; Japanese diplomats in Washington were still negotiating with the United States at the time of the attack on Hawaii.

Yamamoto Isoroku, the man who issued the order to go ahead with it, was the sixth son of a former samurai. Born in 1884 at Nagaoka, Yamamoto entered the Naval Academy and graduated in 1904, just in time for the war with Russia. He was badly wounded at the decisive Battle of Tsushima, won by the Japanese Navy's big guns in 1905. He went to the United States as a junior naval attaché just after the First World War and then visited Europe. He was already forty years old when he presciently switched his professional specialism from gunnery to aviation in 1924; nobody was to play a greater role in educating the Japanese Navy in the importance of the new seaborne airpower. He became senior naval attaché in Washington in 1926-28 with the rank of captain, then commanded a cruiser and next the carrier HIJMS Akagi before distinguishing himself as a delegate to the London naval disarmament conference of 1930, an event that made him a public figure in Japan. As a rear admiral, Yamamoto served as head of the technical division of the Navy's Aeronautics Department and then commander of the First Carrier Division (on the Akagi again). Promoted to vice-admiral, he became chief of the entire Aeronautics Department, and then deputy Navy minister in 1936. Paradoxically, his strong opposition to war, which exposed him to death threats from extremists, led to his appointment as commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet, the main body of the Japanese Navy, on August 30, 1939. His moderate friends in high places thought he would be safer if protected by the forty thousand sailors then manning the fleet. He was promoted to full admiral in 1940 at the age of fifty-six.

He was short and slight, even by the diminutive Japanese standards of the time: five feet three inches tall with a noticeable stoop and weighing barely 130 pounds. The index and middle fingers of one hand were missing, shot off at Tsushima; as his biographer, Hiroyuki Agawa, reveals, he was therefore known to the geisha girls whose company he liked so much as "80 sen" -- the price of a geisha manicure then being 100 sen (1 yen). His spotless uniform concealed many other scars from the battle, but he prided himself on his fitness: even when past fifty he demonstrated it by doing head- or bandstands on minimum provocation or none at all. His neatness extended to the calligraphy for which he was also well known (even the toughest Japanese officers were wont to cultivate gentler talents such as brushwork and poetry, in keeping with the samurai tradition; Yamamoto's poems are, however, described as plodding). But his taste for order did not extend to his private life. Married in 1918 and the father of two sons and two daughters, Yamamoto was never close to his wife, Reizo, preferring the geisha Kawai Chiyoko, whose professional name was Umeryu. This relationship endured from 1934 until his death; when it was revealed by her in 1954, it caused a sensation in Japan. There were occasionally other women too, giving the lie to the forbidding public face.

He was quite capable of enjoying himself, but he was essentially a loner inclined to melancholy. Presented by the slavish Japanese press on his elevation to supreme command as the strong, silent type, Yamamoto was in fact outspoken to the point of rudeness and no respecter of persons. He liked to drink Scotch whisky and smoke expensive cigars in late-night sessions with colleagues or journalists, or at parties in the geisha houses. Those who knew him in relaxed mood, when the stony mask of the Japanese officer could be set aside, found his character most attractive. His greatest off-duty passion was gambling, on everything from shogi (Japanese chess) to Chinese mah-jongg and Western billiards, roulette, poker and bridge.

In his years in Tokyo from 1935 until his final appointment, Yamamoto was frozen out by the militant tendency in Navy, Army and government. The hard-liners did not have the moral courage to sack him as deputy Navy minister but did all they could to prevent him from converting his personal prestige into political power as a force for moderation. He found it acutely depressing to have little or nothing to do. Both the enmity and the prestige derived from his high-profile performances as a delegate to disarmament conferences, assiduously reported by his journalist friends. He was thought by the militants to be too accommodating to foreign opinion because he was that rare contemporary manifestation, a Japanese leader who understood the art of compromise and appreciated the need for it. But, like most influential Japanese, he also thought his country should have a place at the top table of world powers -- even if he opposed force as a means to that end and regarded war with the United States in particular as suicidal. Not until he had reluctantly concluded that such a war was inevitable did he argue that Japan should make the strongest possible pre-emptive strike against the United States: the only strong enemy should be knocked out at the beginning. If, as Japanese strategists insisted, Holland, Britain and America were strategically inseparable because an attack on the Far Eastern interests of one inevitably entailed war against all three, Yamamoto's gamble was not even a calculated risk but a move that the rules of the game required him to make.

In September 1940 he told Prime Minister Konoye: "If we are ordered to [go to war with America] then I can guarantee to put up a tough fight for the first six months but I have absolutely no confidence about what would happen if it went on for two or three years....I hope you will make every effort to avoid war with America." And as late as October 1941 he told a friend: "I find my present position extremely strange -- forced to make up my mind and unswervingly follow a course [war with America] which is exactly the opposite of my personal views." These observations, made in private and never intended for external consumption, clearly represent the true feelings and opinions of Admiral Yamamoto on war with the United States. The intercepted signal of early July 1941 mentioned at the beginning of this book, which convinced the US administration that Japan would go to war in the Pacific in a matter of weeks if not days, was meant to be just as private, a fact which did nothing to deter the US eavesdroppers from overreacting -- on the contrary! The text on which the American deduction was based seemed clear enough -- clearer by far than the elaborately oblique and bland documents and statements supplied on purpose by the emperor's representatives to foreign governments. Leaving aside the content and its implications, the message, by definition not intended for foreign eyes, might well have seemed positively refreshing to the Americans precisely because of its candid duplicity and cynical opportunism. It said in part:

In order to guarantee the security and preservation of the nation, the Imperial Government will carry on with all necessary diplomatic negotiations concerning the southern regions [relative to Japan]....In case diplomatic negotiations break down, preparations for a war with England and America will also be carried forward. First of all, the plans which have been made with regard to French Indochina...will be followed through in order to consolidate our position in the southern lands....We shall not be deterred by the possibility of becoming embroiled in a war with England and America....All plans will be executed so as to place no serious obstacles in the way of our basic military preparations for a war with England and America....We shall turn our attention at once to putting the nation on a war footing and shall take special steps to strengthen national defense.

The text summarized a resolution passed on July 2 at an "imperial conference," a meeting of military and government leaders in the presence of Emperor Hirohito. It began by setting out the need to force an end to the inconclusive war of expansion in China so foolishly provoked by Japan four years earlier. This was one of two reasons for moving south from the bases in northern Indochina acquired from a helpless Vichy France in September 1940: such a stroke would serve to isolate the stubbornly struggling Chinese nationalist regime of Chiang Kaishek. The other reason, also unmentioned in the message but so familiar as to be taken for granted by all its recipients, was to gain forward bases from which to be able to attack British and Dutch possessions in Malaya, Borneo and the East Indies, with their abundant oil and other strategic raw materials. The whole world knew that this was now the central aim of Japanese diplomatic, economic, and military policy. The Japanese, ever opportunistic, would stay out of the war with the Soviet Union begun by their Axis partner Germany just ten days earlier, the dispatch went on to say -- unless a chance presented itself to eliminate the Russian threat from the north to Japan's interests on the Asian mainland.

Japan, it seemed to Washington, had at last resolved its longstanding strategic dilemma between a move north against Russia and a move south against Western positions in the Far East. The Americans could put two and two together like anyone else. Unfortunately on this occasion they came up with an answer considerably greater than four. They had been seriously misled by their own cleverness in cracking Japanese codes and ciphers. How they achieved that will be described in chapter 2; it is enough to observe here that the intercepted dispatch concealed far more than it revealed about the state of mind of Japan's deeply divided leadership. The text seen by the Americans was precisely translated and completely correct -- as far as it went. But it did not go anywhere near as far as Washington thought. For the few American policymakers in the know, it was effectively the point of no return, beyond which war with Japan was inevitable. But for Japan a war with the United States became inevitable only as the result of the Americans' acceptance at its face value of a message written for a different audience altogether. Washington thus ignored the long-running, strategic northsouth dispute in Japan, of which it was fully aware, and which it might have known, on reflection, could not have been resolved overnight or by a single meeting. And Tokyo never got the slightest inkling that the Americans had read what in any case was only a summary.

The Foreign Ministry's smooth résumé of the conference naturally gave no hint of the abiding divisions between advocates of the northern and southern strategies, within and between the Army and the Navy, and between the armed services and the government, over peace and war. It was merely reporting the latest round in an intractable debate which both sides assumed would go on for a long time yet. There was no need to record all the well-worn arguments, even more familiar to Japanese diplomats than to the Americans who themselves had heard them times out of number from orthodox as well as clandestine sources. Indeed, Washington itself might well have come round to a more relaxed assessment of the text in due course -- but for the Japanese ultimatum in the middle of the month to Vichy France. This demanded the right to station troops and aircraft in southern Indochina, to which the Pétain regime acceded on July 21. The consent for bases in the north had been won by diplomacy in 1940 (although Japan knew it could not be denied, because it held all the cards while France, newly defeated by Tokyo's Nazi allies, had none).

For Japan, therefore, the ultimatum in July 1941 was a watershed, akin to Hitler's occupation of what remained of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, just a few months after winning the Sudetenland by negotiation at Munich. It too represents the transition from acquisition of foreign soil by diplomacy, however aggressive, to seizure by force or the threat of force. For the United States it was confirmation that the intercepted message had indeed revealed a Japanese decision on an imminent advance southward. The Americans, still deeply isolationist, did not want war any more than Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement-minded Britain had wanted it in the spring of 1939; but, like the British after the German takeover of the rump of Czechoslovakia, the Americans now resolved that aggression had gone far enough. Washington's equivalent of the fateful British guarantee to Poland was its decision, announced on July 25, to ban exports to Japan of highoctane gasoline (suitable for aircraft), to limit all other petroleum exports to normal levels -- and to freeze Japanese assets in the United States.

The latter measure, originally intended to deny funds to the Japanese spies assumed to be everywhere and to retaliate for tight Japanese exchange controls, had devastating implications. The freeze effectively prevented Tokyo from buying any oil at all, or other raw materials needed to sustain the war in China, for which it was still overwhelmingly dependent on the United States. This was a far more serious sanction than the limited steps -- notably a ban on exports of new steel and reusable scrap -- which had followed upon Japan's initial advance into Indochina ten months earlier. For Tokyo it was the realization of its most persistent nightmare: America was about to bleed Japan to death by forcing it to rely on its precious oil reserve. The oil embargo, supported by the British and the Dutch with their huge oilfields in Borneo and the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia), was the casus belli both feared and desired by the all-powerful Japanese military. We shall look more closely at the thinking of the generals and admirals below. Japanese troops began to occupy southern Indochina bases on July 23, and forty thousand reinforcements began to land there only five days later. The events of the next four months drove Japan and the United States into a war that both had intermittently seen coming for more than twenty years.

At this time General George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the United States Army, publicly announced that Washington intended to reinforce its ground and air garrisons in the Philippines, hitherto privately regarded by Washington as indefensible in a war against Japan. General Douglas MacArthur was recalled from the United States Army's retired list to command in the great archipelago, which had been under the American flag since the war with Spain of 1898. Boeing B-17 "Flying Fortresses" -- the latest high-level strategic American bombers -- started to arrive at Clark Field in the Philippines at the end of July, immediately after delivery to the US Army Air Force. Some seventy-five thousand troops were earmarked for transfer from the United States, the Philippine Army was incorporated into the US Army, and eventually MacArthur was meant to have two hundred thousand men under his command. The underlying strategy, to which MacArthur had won over a skeptical Marshall, was to defend Luzon Island for long enough to enable the American main fleet to fight its way across the Pacific and use the Philippines as its forward base for operations against Japan. Admiral Thomas H. Hart, USN, commander-in-chief of the Asiatic Fleet, redeployed his meager forces from China to the Philippines area, with Manila Bay as his principal base. On August 7, the Senate extended the period of service for draftees in the armed forces by six months, to eighteen.

At this point an alarmed Japanese government proposed a summit conference between Prime Minister Konoye and Roosevelt. Secretary of State Cordell Hull finally got around to rejecting the proposal on October 2. Although diplomatic contacts were to continue even beyond the last moment of peace, the failure of the summit proposal seemed to both sides at the time to indicate that all efforts to achieve an accommodation would be in vain. At this stage the US government was playing for time, at the urgent request of Marshall and his opposite number, Admiral Harold R. Stark, chief of naval operations, so that Army and Navy could complete their preparations for war by the spring of 1942 if all went well. But their own government's miscalculation of Japan's mood in July ensured that they did not get their wish. In Japan, by contrast, the generals and admirals contemplated the embargo and their steadily dwindling oil stocks and pressed for war as soon as possible. This recourse had become a case of "when" rather than "whether" on September 6, 1941. On that day an imperial conference of military and government leaders with the emperor agreed on a statement that bore the innocuous title "The Essentials for Carrying out the Empire's Policies." It had been adopted by a "liaison conference" (the same cast of characters without the emperor or palace officials, the mechanism for coordinating military and government policies) on the previous day.

Protocol at imperial conferences was stiff to the point of immobility. The emperor wore a long black morning coat with striped trousers, and all present were required to do likewise unless entitled to wear uniform. Hirohito sat on a plain throne on a dais, looking down the length of a pair of long tables covered in silk cloth that reached to the floor. The inner sides of the tables were unoccupied, while the outer sides were each lined with a row of officials sitting to attention. The emperor left the chore of questioning ministers to the president of his Privy Council, Hara Yosimichi. There was no debate; participants took it in turn to deliver prepared statements and answer Hara's questions in staccato fashion, as if on parade. The document from the liaison conference was, as usual, adopted without amendment. Its main effect was to harden into policy, complete with deadlines for a decision on peace or war and for actually going to war, the tentative program formulated on July 2, described above. The "humiliation" of a surrender to pressure was not an option for the Japanese junta, as United States officials should have known. Washington had therefore made the gross psychological error of leaving its antagonist no means of preserving his pride except by going to war. American sanctions, intended to prevent the war that the July 2 message foreshadowed, only served to make it inevitable. The key sections of the September 6 resolution were as follows:

In view of the current critical situation, especially the offensive attitudes that such countries as the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands are taking toward Japan...we will carry out our policy toward the follows.

1) Our Empire, for the purposes of self-defense and self-preservation, will complete preparations for war, with the last ten days of October as a tentative deadline, resolved to go to war with the United States, Great Britain and the Netherlands if necessary.

2) Our Empire will concurrently take all possible diplomatic measures toward the United States and Great Britain and thereby seek to gain our objectives....

3) In the event that there is no prospect of our demands being met by the first ten days of October through the diplomatic negotiations...we will immediately decide to commence hostilities against the United States, Britain and the Netherlands....

And so, with a few unimportant delays and adjustments, it was to turn out. There was only one surprise at this portentous meeting, where Japan's chiefs of staff and most senior ministers formally decided, in the divine presence of their emperor, to go to war with the West -- unless diplomatic means succeeded after all, against the perceived odds. The sensation was provided by the emperor himself, and only after the adoption of the policy statement: Hirohito spoke. His unprecedented intervention, not to be repeated until all was lost in August 1945, took the form of quoting an ode composed by his grandfather the Emperor Meiji, which translates approximately as follows:

All men are brothers, like the seas throughout the world;

So why do winds and waves clash so fiercely everywhere?

All present were deeply moved by the piping voice, which they otherwise heard only during the private audiences with the emperor to which their exalted offices entitled them. A few manly tears were shed -- but the policy as dictated by the military was not modified by so much as a comma. Yet the two chiefs of staff, General Sugiyama of the Army and Admiral Nagano of the Navy, rightly took this recitation ex cathedra as a rebuke and disingenuously promised, contrary to the general drift of the policy statement, that the emphasis would be put on diplomacy rather than preparation for war.

When the deadline came, the Cabinet split over the war issue, Konoye resigned, and General Tojo Hideki, the Army minister, succeeded him on October 17. Thereafter air forces (military and naval) and eleven Army divisions were assembled for a remarkably complicated multiple thrust southward across a six-thousand-mile front; so was almost every ship in the formidable Japanese Combined Fleet, commanded by Admiral Yamamoto. The war plan for the southern option had existed, subject to various adjustments, for years; the one major change to it, added on Yamamoto's insistence, was officially less than a year old. To execute it, Vice-Admiral Nagumo Chuichi's mighty Mobile Force, six aircraft carriers with powerful escort, sailed into the bleak North Pacific in the utmost secrecy on November 26, 1941, under strict orders to maintain wireless silence. It was Japan's turn to make a historic mistake, and this was to be a much greater one than the American error, which did not cause but did precipitate the execution of Japan's long-standing program of conquest.

Copyright © 1991 by Dan van der Vat

About The Author

Dan van der Vat is the author of The Atlantic Campaign, The Ship That Changed the World, Gentlemen of War, and The Grand Scuttle. He lives in London, England.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (December 1, 1992)
  • Length: 432 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780671792176

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The Philadelphia Inquirer Fast-paced, meticulously reserarched...has all the elements of a spy thriller.

The New York Times Book Review Belongs on the bookshelf of every American who contemplates the meaning of the greatest sea war in history.

Stephen E. Ambrose author of Eisenhower A vivid account of the greatest naval battles ever fought and a thoughtful analysis of why war came...marked by fresh insights and new material.

The Chicago Tribune An unsparing indictment of Japan's culpability in bringing about the Second World War....It blows away the rubbish....Van Der Vat writes with clarity and understanding.

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