Iguchi Takeo was the young son of a Japanese embassy functionary, living in Washington, DC, at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He went on to a distinguished career of his own in the Japanese Foreign Office, serving as ambassador to several countries and teaching at universities both in Japan and the US. As a serving diplomat, Iguchi had access to the Foreign Office files concerning the days prior to Pearl Harbor, and he writes a very interesting book on the topic, titled Demystifying Pearl Harbor. This essay is based on much that is in the book, plus many of my own speculations and opinions. It’s not really a review.
As is well-known, the Japanese embassy delivered their diplomatic note breaking off negotiations well after the attack had started. The traditional explanation was that the embassy did not get the last part of the message translated in time, due to lax administrative procedures. Iguchi is not a disinterested observer, nevertheless, his new evaluation makes a compelling argument that the delay occurred on the Tokyo end, and that it was deliberate.
The general impression one gets from popular US culture on the subject is that the Japanese got up one morning and decided to conquer Asia, and what better way than to attack Hawaii? What comes out in this book is a clash of cultures between the US and Japan, and of priorities between the Japanese military and the Japanese Foreign Office (JFO). The US was woefully wrong in its estimate of Japanese reactions to US actions, while the Japanese military was manipulative and duplicitous, and the JFO was spineless.
In the early part of the last century, Japan felt it was a modern, westernized country that had been left out of the scramble for colonies and influence, much the way Germany did before WWI. China was going through one of its periodic disintegrations, and Korea had always been within the Japanese sphere of influence. The Japanese, therefore, saw nothing wrong with annexing as much territory in both countries as it could, imitating the actions of the European powers in Africa a half century before. Of course, the western powers had interests of their own in China, and the Chiang Kai-Shek government had powerful friends in Washington. The result was increasing US pressure on Japan to completely withdraw its troops from China or face economic sanctions. This was a credible threat, because the US was by far Japan’s biggest trading partner, but the Japanese military had no intention of pulling out of China — think of it as the Japanese version of Manifest Destiny. UPDATE: Here’s a good summary. and here is a discussion of Japanese feelings at the time.
In June of 1940, Germany defeated France, and a few weeks later the Japanese government decided to take advantage of that fact by expanding into South East Asia, using military force, if necessary, and they moved troops into northern half of French Indochina. It was a straightforward decision to ally with the Axis powers, who they saw as the winning side. Keep in mind that at the time it wasn’t seen as the Crusade for Europe that it later became. Many in the US, including Charles Lindbergh, viewed it as just another European war over how to divide up the Old World. A year later, after fruitless talks on neutralizing Indochina, Japan occupied the southern half, and the US declared a complete trade embargo, including a cutoff of oil — the US being at that time the world’s biggest producer. If you remember the six month Arab Oil Embargo of 1973/74, and its impact on the US economy you get some idea of what Japan felt it was facing. Only the requirement wasn’t to do something the government already wanted to do (bring an end to the Middle East conflict), but to completely turn the government’s foreign policy 180 degrees. It was as if OPEC had required that the US pull out of NATO. Given the firm positions of both sides, it was likely that war was inevitable. Japan was left with a failing economy, heavy overseas military commitments, and a maximum of two years supply of oil. The choice they saw was to give up their hopes of being a modern state, in control of their own destiny, and become a client of the US, or to go to war and seize the resources they needed.
A month later, in September of 1941, the final decision was made to use military force. On the Japanese side, the driving force behind the expansion policy appears to have been the Army and their civilian supporters. They had been operating in China and Korea for a decade, and had their own agenda — to raise Japan to the level of a world power. Civilian officials who opposed them, up to and including Prime Ministers, were often assassinated. Unlike Germany, where Hitler came to power despite the military, and then co-opted it, in Japan, the Army subverted the government, and rode roughshod over the JFO.
On the American side, it’s likely that they didn’t see Japan as a possible world power, and didn’t understand how totally the Japanese military was committed to that goal. To the Americans, it would seem absurd that a country with as little economic depth as Japan could have any hope of defeating us. In addition, we had Chiang Kai-Shek contributing his enormous (and in many ways, pernicious) influence, holding out the idea of a US/China economic alliance, once he won. One wonders what would have happened if the US had just ignored the Japanese, and had not made them feel they had to obtain their oil and steel elsewhere. First of three posts. Post 2 Post 3