Saturday, March 22, 2014

What We're Reading; New History, WWII

Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy,
by Eri Hotta

In 1941, the leadership of Japan made the decision to fight a war against the United States that they knew they had little prospect of winning, one that they knew might destroy the Japanese state and lay waste to their homeland. Eri Hotta’s book is an attempt to explain how such a choice could have been made. It is an unsettling story of political and diplomatic history. We take some comfort in the idea that such momentous decisions of war and peace are the result of miscalculations and misunderstandings, or faulty reasoning, but we are reluctant to believe that they can be the result of the chosen abandonment of objective reasoning itself. In 1941, the leaders of Japan talked themselves into believing that they were victims of circumstance, and chose to take what they knew was a desperate chance, believing that choice to be one required by their notions of honor and heroism.

The young Emperor Hirohito,
nominally the Supreme Commander of
Japan’s military forces, was in fact skeptical of the
arguments of his military commanders for war, but
he hesitated to overrule their decision.
This story is told not from the American perspective but rather from the point of view of the Japanese leadership. The unusual--and valuable--difference of Japan 1941 from other histories of the period is that Hotta gives us an analysis of events that is informed by her own intimate understanding of Japanese imperial ambitions and culture. Those unreasoned and semi-spiritual impulses (and, one is tempted to add, a pathetically atavistic sense of male honor and bravado) receive her sharpest criticism and deepest scorn, because they were selfishly advanced at the cost of the peace and prosperity of the entire nation. Giving novel and due consideration to these cultural values, Hotta has written a book that offers a sophisticated analysis of Japan’s self-destructive path during this period. She shows us how these cultural norms played out in a flawed system of national governance, and how they informed a series of foreign policy adventures and missteps that quickly narrowed Japan’s diplomatic options. Chief among these mis-cues were the pursuit of the prolonged and draining war with China, and the Japanese occupation of French Indochina. Because of these imbroglios, along with poor international diplomacy (the signing of the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy), Japanese leadership proved unable to maneuver effectively in the box into which it had lead the nation--where, as Hotta writes, at the highest levels of decision making “Inertia, self-preservation, institutional material gain, and irrational conviction were all at work.”

Indeed, the autocratic and hybrid nature of Japan’s political structure and the culture of its governmental bureaucracy produced weaknesses that it is difficult for those of us familiar with a democratic and republican system of government to fully understand. The place of the military in its relationship to both the emperor and the civilian government was never well defined. The military dominated major decision-making in international affairs, and the bitter rivalry between the army and navy were a driving force in domestic politics and intrigue. Too often the civilian government (when it came to major decisions) was simply dragged along by the fait accompli of military actions in the field.
Hotta’s sharpest criticism is reserved for Japanese Prime Minister Prince Konoe Fumimaro.
When war broke out between China and Japan in 1937 ,he was notably ineffective in
asserting civilian control over the adventurism and escalation of the conflict by military
commanders. His conduct of foreign policy just before the outbreak of war with the
United States was inept and disastrous for Japan.

The role of the emperor was ambiguous. He was a symbolic embodiment of the state as well as its spiritual leader, but also had the power to appoint the country’s prime minister. He was the military leader of the state, but was not expected to countermand decisions of his military leaders--and yet the sanction he was routinely asked to give for momentous decisions served to give cover to other leaders and unify the disputing parties in concerted action.

Japan’s government created a system in which civilian authority was weak and constrained. Leaders were chosen for reasons other than their political acumen or their suitability for the tasks they had to perform. Hotta is especially critical of the performance of Prince Konoe Fumimaro, who was prime minister in these critical years leading up to war, and of his foreign minister through much of the period, the volatile Matsuoka Yosuke, who pursued a course of pro-Axis diplomacy and negotiated the Tripartite Pact with the Axis powers mistakenly believing that it would give Japan diplomatic advantage in its negotiations with the United States. Of particular interest, and most demonstrative of Japan’s institutional and cultural problems at the highest levels of leadership, were the so-called “liaison” conferences, at which the emperor, military, and civilian cabinet ministers convened to arrive at a consensus on policy and action. The Japanese Navy, most crucially, was not confident in making a decision to go to war. Hotta writes of the Navy Chief of Staff:
“Nagano was the master of speaking out of both sides of his mouth, all of Japan’s leaders did it to a certain extent, switching effortlessly between public and private personas without feeling dishonest. Moreover, such a habit of double-talking ---encapsulated by the phrase honne to tatemae, or “true voice and façade”---had a tendency to be regarded as a virtue used to stave off embarrassing social situations……The liaison conferences were becoming a tragic farce of keeping up appearances for appearances’ sake. In the face of such misplaced priorities, the fate of the Japanese nation was secondary.”
In the company of coequals, no one had the courage to show any caution, reserve or doubts, and the consensual structure of Japanese decision-making allowed everyone to pass the buck.

Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku was intimately familiar
with the United States. He was at Harvard from
1919 to 1921 and was posted to the Japanese embassy
 in Washington as a naval attaché from 1926 to 1928.
Ironically, the mastermind of Pearl Harbor warned
that “a war with so little chance of success should be
fought,” but he was a gambler at heart.
Those in the Japanese leadership who knew the true prospects for any chance of success in a war with the United States placed their hope in a strategy that represented a reckless gamble against long odds. Japan itself did not have the natural resources----or access to the natural resources of other countries--needed to wage a successful conflict. Perhaps most notable was that 90 percent of Japanese oil was imported from the United States. And while military commanders estimated that the United States had 20 times the industrial war-making capacity of Japan, other figures suggested that the true exponent was probably closer to 70 times. Once the decision to go to war had been made, the Japanese strategy was to deliver a crippling blow to the U.S. war-making power in the Pacific, a move that would buy time for Japan to quickly seize specific territories and resources and consolidate their defenses of those areas. As the United States retrenched, Japan would then seek a negotiated settlement of the conflict that would still leave Japan with significant strategic and territorial gains.

The assumption was that U.S. resolve was weak, and that a show of Japanese force would lead the United States to an accommodation of Japanese imperial demands along lines that Japan had been unable to negotiate with the United States in the months leading up to the conflict. It was a serious misjudgment. (The history of the pre-war negotiations between the United States and Japan is one of the most interesting sections of Japan 1941. It challenges popular conceptions of what occurred at the time, and Hotta skillfully illuminates the dysfunctional relationship between the Japanese embassy in America and the Japanese government).

The U.S.S. Arizona burning at Pearl Harbor. While the Japanese attack was presented to the public
as a great victory in Japan, and felt as a devastating blow in the United States, the author argues
that it was less a resounding triumph for Japan than what has been commonly supposed.
The Japanese attack failed to destroy important fuel supplies or the ship repair facilities
in the harbor, allowing the United States to recover its naval strength quickly.

Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy is an impressively researched, well argued, and ultimately unsettling book. It is a study of how irrational decisions of the greatest consequence and cost get made at the highest levels of leadership. Certainly the autocratic nature of Japan’s political system exacerbated a circumstance in which antiquated and deeply internalized cultural notions of courage and honor proved fatal in managing the international affairs of a suddenly modern state. Hotta wants us to understand, however, that this is not a story of tragedy or heroism, but one of failed leadership, where immoderate ambition, vainglory, and self-interest triumphed at the expense of the entire nation in a compromised system of governance that was ill-suited to temper those faults. This is a profoundly moral and cautionary narrative, one in which we come to understand how structures of government and political behavior must be suited to the nature of the contemporary problems they will confront in the modern world. It is a story that illuminates the character of effective leadership and makes clear the importance of individual responsibility and of public accountability.


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