A High-Stakes Gamble: Jeff Kingston on Eri Hotta’s Japan 1941

By Jeff KingstonAugust 16, 2014

Japan 1941 by Eri Hotta

ERI HOTTA'S lucid analysis of Japan’s march to war against the United States in December 1941 resonates uncannily with Europe’s lemming-like leap to its own destruction in World War I, as described by Christopher Clark in The Sleepwalkers (2013). In this centennial of the Great War, there is renewed interest in how and why European leaders collectively deluded themselves that war could never happen — up until it did — stemming from their misplaced confidence that robust economic relations between Great Britain and Germany would prevent hostilities. Too much was at stake. Cooler heads, people seemed to believe, would prevail. This complacency, combined with a failure of leadership, helps explain the rapid descent into an unthinkable war, propelled by alliances that were intended to prevent just such an outcome. Much the same, Hotta writes, was true of Japan in 1941.

Very few Japanese leaders actually wanted war, but nobody was willing to intervene to prevent it from happening. They became prisoners of their own bellicose rhetoric, and planning for war generated an unstoppable momentum. Nobody, in the end, came up with a way to reverse course while saving face. This jibes with what Japanese political scientist Maruyama Masao concluded back in 1949: “Though wanting war, they tried to avoid it; though wanting to avoid it, they deliberately chose the path that led to it.” Hotta asserts persuasively that the Pacific War was a disaster “made in Japan” and eviscerates apologists’ arguments that it was a defensive war aimed at liberating Asia from the yoke of Western colonialism.

By the government’s own estimates, US industrial output was 74 times that of Japan’s and the nation imported 90 percent of its petroleum from the US — statistics that should have prevented a collective leap into oblivion. Certainly many of the leaders understood that Japan’s spiritual strength, yamato-damashii, could not compensate for its lack of natural resources and limited armory, but even the most vocally antiwar member of the cabinet, Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, reluctantly resigned himself to a war he and most top policymakers knew to be folly.

Hotta portrays Japan’s leaders as vacillating, gormless characters caught up in their own posturing and bombast, each waiting for someone else to stop the plunge into war. Personal pride and institutional interests prevented key players from publicly voicing the grave doubts they expressed privately. The macho culture of military leaders didn’t allow them to back down from a war they knew they were likely to lose. Top brass relied extensively on hotheaded subordinates who drew up war preparations and meddled extensively in diplomatic efforts, dooming them to failure. These radical younger officers employed assassination to purge the nation of “traitors” in the 1930s, and this helps explain why senior officers shied from taking actions to avert war with the US, afraid that they would be targeted, quite literally, as unpatriotic weaklings.

Japan’s top policymakers were divided about the wisdom of the war they were fighting in China and the allies (Nazi Germany) and enemies it had chosen, and uncertain about the best way to secure the national interest. In private, key military leaders, top diplomats and politicians, and even Emperor Hirohito voiced deep reservations about the wisdom of taking on the US, but the attack on Pearl Harbor went ahead with their collective support. Hotta points out that the complex structures of decision-making ensured that nobody felt responsible for starting the war or for what happened during the war, sowing the seeds of denial that still haunts Japan’s regional relations in the 21st century.


Pearl Harbor was the opening act of the Pacific chapter in Japan’s 15-year war, which had begun in Manchuria in 1931. Japan had instigated a series of “incidents” and atrocities, from Mukden to Marco Polo Bridge to Nanjing, in an ever-widening conflict in China, accompanied by disastrous border clashes with the Soviets in Changkufeng and Nomonhan, but until what Americans called the Day of Infamy on December 7, 1941 (December 8, Japan time), it had never formally declared war. On that day, suddenly, Japan was officially at war with the US, an obvious mismatch, especially given that the China quagmire was already stretching Japan’s capacity to wage war.

Since top leaders held very divergent views on what the best course for Japan was , it is remarkable that in the end, after a series of Imperial Conferences in the second half of 1941 — ritual rubber-stamping rites with the emperor — they reached a fragile consensus on attacking the US. The numerous exchanges, meetings, and liaison conferences reveal a stunning level of duplicity, intrigue, and myopia, the national interest routinely sacrificed to private and institutional agendas. Hotta argues that national character played a key role as leaders sought to avoid confrontation with each other. As a result, they did not voice their opposition or doubts when it counted.

Hotta argues that war could have been prevented, and she dismisses apologists’ arguments that the US cornered Japan into conflict. Tokyo’s decision to occupy southern French Indochina in July 1941 was a red flag for Washington and prompted it to impose economic sanctions that made time Japan’s enemy. Pro-war advocates argued that the longer it dithered on going to war with the US, the weaker it would be as resources dwindled. But as Hotta amply documents, well before Japan decided to move into French Indochina many leaders voiced concerns that such a move would provoke the US because it signaled Tokyo’s intention to invade all of Southeast Asia. (Indeed, the US knew this because they were already reading Japan’s coded cables.) Tokyo went ahead, despite the fact that they were negotiating with the US over whether to declare the entire colony neutral. As such, Tokyo showed itself to be an untrustworthy negotiating partner, saying one thing and doing the opposite, widening the chasm between Tokyo and Washington and reducing the scope for diplomacy.

In the summer of 1941, with US sanctions taking a toll, Japan’s leaders felt that the range of options was shrinking. Hardliners argued that capitulation to US demands to withdraw from China and Indochina would dishonor the sacrifices already made. If the choice was shame or war, they favored the latter. Such a grim and misguided calculus pushes nations to double down when they should be cutting losses.

Hotta reminds us that race was also a major factor. Japan’s leaders resented what they saw as accumulated humiliations and a failure to accommodate Japan’s legitimate aspirations. Racism had long nettled the Japanese, and they were convinced that Japan would remain a second-rate power as long as the Western-dominated status quo continued. In 1933 Japan walked out of the League of Nations because other members voted to condemn its 1931 aggression in Manchuria. This, too, proved a fateful step toward Pearl Harbor.

Yosuke Matsuoka, foreign minister at the time, fumed about Western hypocrisy and later advocated Japan allying with Germany and Italy in the Axis. He imagined that this would intimidate the US into sitting the war out, but he misread the situation completely. The main impact was to tar Japan with Nazi actions while linking the European and Asian theaters, thus increasing the US interest in both. Hotta describes Matsuoka as an “insufferably vain” and ineffective diplomat, given to “brinksmanship and bluff without knowing when or where to stop.” Matsuoka’s boss, the feckless prime minister, Prince Fumimaro Konoe, found him a tiresome liability and successfully schemed to oust him, which pleased Secretary of State Cordell Hull. But Matsuoka was only one of many boneheaded leaders nudging Japan toward calamity, vacillating leaders sleepwalking to disaster.

Perhaps the most to blame was Konoe, scion of a noble family, who disastrously escalated Japan’s war with China in 1937 and oversaw preparations for war against the US in the summer of 1941. Oblivious to his own decisive role, he seemed to see himself as an onlooker rather than the leader whose indecision and erratic moves were dragging Japan across the Rubicon. Other, equally irresolute leaders waited for someone else to halt the march to war, a collective abnegation of responsibility that spelled disaster. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto planned the Pearl Harbor assault even though he knew that it was a reckless mistake. Hideki Tojo, who became prime minister in October of 1941, also had grave misgivings, but hoped it would miraculously work out. Perhaps he was counting on another divine wind (kamikaze) like the one that warded off Mongol invaders in the 13th century?

Emperor Hirohito showed some mettle when he questioned his top military leaders in private about their war plan, reminding them that they had been equally optimistic about a quick positive result in China four years earlier. In the face of Hirohito’s skepticism they acknowledged that victory was not certain. Many hoped that the emperor would intervene and call a stop to the madness, thereby giving the military a face-saving exit, but his advisors were concerned that this might provoke a coup and undermine the Imperial Household. The next day at the Imperial Conference, Hirohito merely recited a poem that subtly, and apparently ineffectively, conveyed his misgivings. Instead Hirohito tasked the pro-war General Tojo to seek a peace he didn’t believe in.

Hotta concludes that Japan was responsible for the outbreak of war and dismisses claims that the Hull Note issued in late November 1941 (by US Secretary of State Cordell Hull) incited it. In the run-up to war, as Hotta notes, Washington’s conciliatory concessions were ignored and opportunities to strike a deal were mishandled. In November 1941, Japan’s leaders gave bellicose speeches that reinforced US perceptions that last-minute peace talks were a duplicitous charade. It probably didn’t help matters that Prime Minister Tojo studied Nazi film clips to hone his speechmaking skills. And, by setting unrealistically tight deadlines for diplomacy, with war the default position, Japan’s leaders backed themselves into a calamity.

Paradoxically, under the banner of pan-Asian liberation, a war of subjugation was widened to the Pacific and Southeast Asia at the end of 1941. Rather than helping Asians, Japan added millions of dead soldiers and civilians to the pyres, pawns in Japan’s imperial aggression. Hotta masterfully explains wartime psychology, how and why Japan chose to unleash this whirlwind, and what drove its leaders to abandon caution and compromise to risk it all on a dubious gamble.


Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan

LARB Contributor

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian studies at Temple University in Japan.


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