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Art Editor’s Note: With the recent anniversary of the end of World War II and the advent of another Pearl Harbor, I thought it would be timely to examine how things came about. The actual story of how Japan became involved in the war is more complex and twisted than many might imagine. Paul Mori looks at Eri Hotta’s Japan 1941 and uncovers some fascinating background details to what we all refer to as history.

—Alan Lau,
IE Arts Editor


December 7, 1941 may be “a day that will live in infamy,” but Japan’s 1941 was much more than Pearl Harbor. Eri Hotta’s book, Japan 1941, brings to light a previously untold story of Japan’s uncertain path to war, and brings us to question practically everything we thought and shakes the very foundation of accepted history.

Japan 1941 tells how an emerging world power, which had had misgivings about starting a war, actually initiated one. And it turned out to be the devastating war that many had foreseen and dreaded.
It seems reasonable to believe that war between Japan and the United States was all but inevitable. After all, Japan was firmly allied with Nazi Germany and Italy. In late 1941, General Tojo was appointed Prime Minister by the Emperor Hirohito, signaling not only a totalitarian state, but also a military-centered one. In Tojo’s speeches, it was not difficult to hear echoes of Adolf Hitler. Furthermore, Japan was stubbornly entrenched in Manchuria and in Southeast Asia. Japan’s proposals of peace were soon seen as disingenuous, as they were largely discredited after Pearl Harbor. Lastly, Japan’s leaders were seemingly set upon war and had little understanding of American resolve and industrial capability.

The problem is that almost none of this is true.

Drawing upon a wealth of Japanese sources, including a diary of a political insider who kept it for posterity, Eri Hotta paints a picture of events that are far more nuanced and complex than is generally understood.

As large a failure the war was, the short-comings of prewar leadership was even greater. The governing structure was highly factionalized and dysfunctional, and the furthest thing from a totalitarian regime. Decisions were slow in coming, squabbles common, and the artificial deadlines for diplomatic solution were rigidly and foolishly adhered to. The war that came was not merely because of some military aspirations, but because the government leadership always required consensus, was simply inept and irresponsible, and acted timidly.

Japanese leadership had distrusted Hitler and with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, many had even greater doubts. Even though many thought it wise to take steps to end the alliance, none took steps to do so.

Government failures could be found everywhere, even at the highest levels. Even though the Emperor could state opinions, he lacked veto power. In the hour when he should have clearly voiced his opposition to war, the Emperor expressed his reservations veiled in a poem. When it became clear that Prime Minister Konoe lacked political will, the Emperor replaced him and appointed General Tojo to avoid war, and not to start one.

In the clear light of Japan’s understanding of America’s potential in production and Japan’s own analyses of probable military losses, leadership chose a path that depended upon outrageous gambles and outright fantasy for success. They risked everything that the war would be short, but they had also bet before on unrealistic diplomatic peace overtures that depended on direct meetings with Roosevelt within an unworkable timetable.

There are lessons here for today. By 1941, the folly of the invasion of China was clear. It had expected to have been a short campaign of a matter of months, but dragged on for years. Many wanted out, but no satisfying exit plan could be found. Leaving China would have expressed that Japanese soldiers’ deaths were in vain and would have created a sense of Japan’s weakness on the world’s stage—opening the possibility of a Soviet invasion. Yet, leadership’s reluctance to abandon the campaign is understandable, especially considering opinions regarding America’s recent wars. Being bled of resources, the Japanese Army dreaded a second war with the United States.

Born in Japan, and educated there and in the United States, Hotta has the necessary and rare scholarly, cultural, and language skills to give a unique perspective from both the Japanese and American sides of the critical months prior to Pearl Harbor. Whereas Japan’s leadership closed the door to peace in 1941, Eri Hotta’s Japan 1941 opens wide a door to a new understanding of what happened behind closed doors, and in so doing, warns all of the foibles and dangers of emerging nations acting impulsively.

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