An Unwinnable, Inevitable War

On the morning of August 27, 1941, a group of graduate students at the Total War Research Institute gathered at the official residence of the prime minister of Japan. The atmosphere was subdued, even gloomy, a mood made even more so by the on-and-off late-summer rain. In a grand chandelier-lit hall, the researchers, whose average age was a mere thirty-three, came face-to-face with the cabinet. From nine o’clock in the morning until six in the evening, and then again the following day, they presented a lengthy report. After careful consideration of an array of ministerial data, and having simulated various diplomatic and strategic situations over the previous six weeks, the group concluded that should Japan go to war with the United States and its allies, Japan would necessarily lose. If such a war occurred, Japan might very well prevail in a few initial battles, but it would then be forced into a prolonged war that would see its resources dwindle and eventually run out.

The researchers making the predictions had had approximately ten years of professional experience before joining the Total War Research Institute. The institute was opened in April 1941 and was loosely modeled on Britain’s Imperial Defence College, where officers and leaders were trained in an intensive one-year program. It was meant to be an elite educational institution that would prepare Japan’s future leaders, both military and civilian, for greatness.

The high aspirations of its founders were never realized. Each ministry sent its top candidate, so the students were the crème de la crème of Japan’s midcareer civil servants. But despite the institute’s prime location in central Tokyo, the building itself was enough to make the hearts of the newly arriving students sink. It was a two-story shanty that looked especially incongruous surrounded by the imposing redbrick buildings of the government district. Many recruits felt they had been dragged down to a lowly student existence.

The researchers liked the institute’s first dean, Lieutenant General Iimura Jo. An amiable man and a formidable linguist fluent in French and Russian, he had lectured at an army academy in Turkey and had translated many strategic documents into Japanese. His magnetic personality attracted some interesting people to give special talks at the institute, including one by Ozaki Hotsumi, Sorge’s fellow spy. Still, most students were dissatisfied with the life that had been suddenly forced upon them. They had expected to do high-level research but were instead reduced to attending basic physical education and other unoriginal and often ill-prepared classes.

So a trip to Japan’s central region, starting on June 20, 1941, came as a much-needed breather. The group visited the navy’s flagship, the Nagato, at Ise Bay, where Yamamoto Isoroku was headquartered. Aboard the Nagato and another warship, the Hyuga, both equipped with the navy’s latest technologies, the researchers had special permission to observe maneuvers. Everything seemed to go beautifully. But the visitors were most impressed by the capacity of the ships to simulate torpedo attacks in total darkness with astonishing precision, guided by a lighting system embedded in the torpedo itself.

After the maneuvers, Yamamoto was eager to hear what the visitors thought of his fleet. He called on Higasa Hiroo, who’d come to the institute from the governor-general’s office in Korea. He responded with due deference: “I was impressed with your defense system against submarines, sir. The same goes for your bombing strategies. But I sensed a certain vulnerability to aerial attacks.”

Higasa was quite right. A lesser military man might have been irritated by the young civilian’s impertinence, but Yamamoto instead rewarded Higasa with a bottle of whiskey, by then a prized commodity in Japan. Yamamoto was pleased that Higasa had looked beyond the obvious and spoken frankly, something he felt Japan’s elites were generally incapable of. Yes, those impressive naval ships were not as unassailable as they appeared, and Yamamoto would have been the first to admit it.

The researchers remained with the fleet until it reached Shibushi Bay in southern Japan. (Adjacent to this bay was Kinko Bay, which is shaped remarkably like Pearl Harbor.) It was then that the radio informed them of Germany’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union. That, and the resultant decision to occupy southern Indochina, suddenly made the researchers’ work far more urgent.

Shortly after their return to Tokyo, the researchers were assigned a war game exercise. Each member was given a cabinet role to play in a hypothetical government of a hypothetical country (modeled on Japan). From their respective cabinet positions, they were to participate in a hypothetical war with a hypothetical enemy (the United States) and its allies. The exercise started on July 12; not so far away, Foreign Minister Matsuoka was attending his final liaison conference.

For this total war, the cabinet needed to develop policies covering all areas of military strategy, diplomacy, ideology, and economics. The guidelines presented to the researchers by their instructors noted that “the various plans need to correspond to the changes in both domestic and external situations anticipated in the coming two years.… Your policies need to be devised on a specific monthly basis or on a few-monthly basis.” The researchers were meant to simulate real-world developments as accurately as possible, consulting actual data brought in by various ministers from their home ministries. In the end, this war seemed to be more real than imaginary.

At the start of the war game, Japan was on the cusp of declaring war on the United States. The U.S. and British governments having placed embargos against it, Japan was now completely isolated economically. Therefore, it would have to go farther into Southeast Asia to procure resources by force.

The researchers were uneasy with the premise provided by their instructors. They felt that going into Southeast Asia—most likely the Dutch East Indies—made war with the West inevitable, without giving diplomacy a chance to prevent it. Most cabinet members projected that the country would probably be able to secure the Indonesian oil fields but that the enemy fleet stationed in the Philippines would soon launch an all-out attack on Japanese ships, making the transport of resources impossible and defeating the whole purpose of accessing Indonesian oil. As a result, Japan would be provoked into a larger-scale war with the United States, which the country could ill afford. Most ministers had determined even before the simulation started that such a war would be unwinnable and should not be waged.

AS THE RESEARCHERS PRESENTED their report on the simulation exercise to Konoe’s cabinet, Tojo, like the earnest student he once must have been, never stopped taking notes. When the report came to its unequivocal conclusion that the war was unwinnable, Tojo grew noticeably pale, as though his worst fears had been confirmed. And yet the report’s conclusion should not have surprised him. His own ministry’s War Economy Research Office, in conjunction with reports sent by the Army General Staff’s intelligence agent stationed in New York, had recently declared that Japan’s industrial power was a twentieth of the United States’. One only had to look at the buildings of central Tokyo to appreciate how dire Japan’s material condition was. Since April, all the cast-iron ornamental fences and gates of the Meiji era had been dismantled. Among the last to come down, on June 23, were the gates of the Tokyo prefectural office. The former symbols of public authority had become nineteen hundred pounds of scrap metal to be used for armaments.

The redbrick buildings were still there, of course, but their newly installed wooden enclosures were unnerving. The Total War Research Institute’s shanty didn’t seem so shabby in this new version of Tokyo. It was hard to recall that only a few years earlier, the same city had successfully lobbied to host the 1940 Olympics.

At the end of the two-day presentation, Tojo would not succumb to the gloom. He commended the team’s excellent efforts but noted that the research had one fatal flaw. “This is, after all, a desktop exercise,” he said. “Actual wars do not go as you fellows imagine. We did not go to war with Russia thinking that we would win, but we did win.” At pains to gloss over the harsh realities that had just been presented to him, he added, “Your work doesn’t include elements of unpredictability, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s an empty theory.” He concluded his remarks by saying firmly that the researchers were to keep their opinions to themselves.

Was Tojo hoping for the sudden discovery of oil fields in Japan so that his country could forget that the United States had until recently been providing more than 90 percent of its petroleum? Was he counting on groundbreaking progress in the development of synthetic oil? Was he anticipating a series of natural disasters to work in the empire’s favor, like the typhoons that had prevented the Mongols from invading Japan in the thirteenth century? Or was he banking on high levels of morale and resilience among the troops, which must be considered in any war, as well as faith in one’s ability to fight on? The instructor Horiba Kazuo, an army man, had told his researchers, “The Yamato spirit is what the United States is lacking, and that is the greatest resource of our country.” He was referring to a supposedly inborn trait that made the Japanese a unique, resilient, disciplined, and hardworking people. Such a metaphysical claim of uniqueness is almost obligatory in nationalistic mythologies.

Throughout the simulation exercise, the most vocal and consistent opposition to the war came from Lieutenant Commander Shimura of the Navy Ministry. He had graduated at the top of his class at the Naval War College, writing his dissertation on total war. He once said to his instructor: “Very well, sir, let the Japanese have their Yamato spirit. But Americans have their Yankee spirit, too. It’s wrong to see it only on one side and ignore the other.”

The Yamato spirit certainly had its limitations. By mid-August, Tokyo’s sewage system had become a serious problem; the fuel shortage was the direct cause of this catastrophe. It was estimated that on average 315,000 gallons of human waste were created daily by the city’s more than one million households. Flush toilets were still rare, and most of the waste had to be carried out to rural communities for composting. In ordinary times, this was done with motor vehicles. Now that fuel was an issue, the more than three hundred night-soil men had to improvise with bicycle-drawn carts and boats, though it was becoming abundantly clear that demand for this service far outpaced supply. The city’s public welfare division was inundated with complaints, but frustrated with bureaucratic inertia, disgruntled citizens started appealing to the mayor’s wife directly. On August 16, an article entitled “What to Do with Excrement?” appeared in the newspaper Kokumin Shimbun, explaining that the city government had convened an emergency meeting to deal with the malodorous situation. No definitive solution was found.

Besides, the wife of the mayor was not the best person for hapless citizens to approach, as Mayor Okubo Tomejiro was a powerful thug with concerns other than solving Tokyo’s sewage problem. He was a former Home Ministry bureaucrat who once served as the divisional chief of the notorious Special Higher Police, leading the ministry’s aggressive, large-scale persecution of communists—or simply suspected communists—in the 1920s. Kafu noted that Okubo was rumored to have blackmailed the major literary journal Chuo Koron, claiming he could deflect a possible defamatory lawsuit against it and extorting 5,000 yen from the publisher (for comparison, a public primary school superintendent in suburban Tokyo made 145 yen a month).

ON SEPTEMBER 3, Ambassador Nomura received an official U.S. communication regarding Konoe’s request for a summit. The president, now echoing Hull, said he could not agree to a meeting without having negotiated and secured a prior understanding on the matters to be settled, though he was still favorable to a conference. That this was a deliberate tactic to delay any constructive efforts to reach peace (as some have inferred from Roosevelt’s comment to Churchill in Placentia Bay that he could “baby” Japan for another three months) is uncertain. But Konoe took heart when Roosevelt said, “I am very desirous of collaborating with you in efforts to make these principles effective in practice.”

Though the countries they led were fundamentally different, Konoe and Roosevelt themselves shared a fair number of personality traits. Both were averse to personal confrontation and surrounded themselves with advisers who held diverging and often outright contradictory opinions. In Konoe’s case, they ranged from Marxists to ultranationalists; in Roosevelt’s case, they ranged from interventionists to Europhobes. The two highborn leaders were equally guarded about their innermost thoughts, even in cabinet meetings, and were difficult to pin down for that reason. But at the same time, their most basic worldviews (Konoe’s one of revisionist Japanese chauvinism, and Roosevelt’s a Wilsonian liberal internationalism) remained surprisingly consistent.

What made Roosevelt a far superior statesman, however, was that even in the face of conflicting advice, and even while incorporating seemingly contradictory ideas in his policies (from which he had to backtrack from time to time), he held on to his excellent instinct and judgment about what was politically practicable and cautiously but determinedly pursued it. Konoe had a very delicate situation to deal with domestically, but so did Roosevelt, who had to persuade Congress, consider public opinion, and navigate bureaucratic constraints. Konoe woefully lacked Roosevelt’s staying power and sense of priority, and since his lofty social status ensured that he could, he was too willing to blame his failure on others. The New York Times correspondent Otto Tolischus accurately grasped the root cause of Konoe’s lack of persistence, as well as his strange magnetism, in his August 3, 1941, profile of the Japanese premier. “As head of the second noblest family in the land,” he wrote, “[Konoe] is above personal ambitions and the Premiership is rather a step down than an elevation for him.” And despite his chronic habit of disappointing his supporters, he would continue to be supported because he gave off an aura of someone who had to be protected, advised, and sympathized with—Japan’s second emperor.

Konoe felt that he had to concede to hard-line elements at home; it was an implicit barter he’d made with the military. The military would continue to plan for a war, backing it up with all its tough talk, while allowing the prime minister to meet with Roosevelt abroad. Konoe believed he could halt the march toward war once and for all at this summit. The militant bakuryo officers actually concurred with him, expecting that once in direct conference with Roosevelt, Konoe would reach some kind of a sweeping understanding with Washington to avert hostilities. An August 29 journal entry by an officer in the War Guidance Office of the Army General Staff expressed this conflicted feeling very well:

Our military attaché in the United States tells us that the U.S. president received Prime Minister Konoe’s message in high spirits. It looks as if the summit meeting in Hawaii [sic] is really going to happen. Once it does, we believe that the talks will not break down.… That means our first step to [psychologically] surrendering to the United States.… It will be many steps backward for our empire, but still, we don’t want a long, drawn-out war, either.

Even those who made a living preparing for war knew that bluff alone would not carry Japan to victory. “What idiots they are in Washington!” said Sato Kenryo, a section chief in the Army Ministry’s Military Affairs Bureau. “If they agreed to meet with Konoe without any conditions, everything would go their way.”

A senior staff officer in Sato’s section, Ishii Akiho, was confidentially appointed as a delegate to accompany Konoe to Juneau, even before a presidential invitation was secured. Ishii believed the likely sequence of events would be as follows: Konoe meets Roosevelt; Konoe conveys the Japanese conditions, preapproved by the military; Roosevelt refuses to accept such conditions; Konoe telegraphs the U.S. reply; the army gets furious; the emperor steps in to reprimand the army for its intransigence; and a peace—which was sure to include Japan’s troop withdrawal from China and Indochina—is reached between the two countries.

In late August and early September, war preparations continued alongside summit meeting preparations. The inherent contradiction of this situation seems to have struck no one in Tokyo. Instead, the parallel paths were seen as all-around preparedness.

In a liaison conference on September 3—the day Roosevelt told Nomura a summit could not yet be arranged—the Japanese leaders agreed on a joint military plan, in the making since late August, that further elaborated on the plan, called “Outline of National Policies in View of the Changing Situation,” of the July 2 imperial conference. This revised plan, “Essentials for Carrying Out the Empire’s Policies,” stated that while recommending the policy of continuing negotiations with the United States, Japan would go to war should the talks not bear fruit before an early-October deadline.

The prowar advocates, represented in the conference primarily by the general staffs, argued that war needed to be started within the year, before the enemy could build up its strength, before the monsoon season in the south, and while the severe winter weather kept the country safe from Soviet attacks in the north. “The empire is getting skinnier in every category of material resources,” the navy’s chief of staff, Nagano, said. It was better to go to war while the empire could still put up a decent fight—hence the need for a tight deadline for diplomacy.

The approved resolution was, on paper, a strong push for war. But a more sophisticated reading would be that it was a cloak of bravado for the militarists. They fully expected to make concessions involving troop withdrawal. By proposing and passing a step-by-step war plan against the United States, the high command leaders were saving face, remaining aggressive in the eventuality of huge diplomatic concessions.

Not all military leaders were comfortable with this new proposal, especially its specific deadline. The discussion involving the wording of the plan revealed that uneasiness. Navy Minister Oikawa did not want a strict definition of diplomatic failure; he wanted that to be debated later. Army Chief of Staff Sugiyama gave his word that no military movements, including the deployment of troops to Thailand, would take place while Konoe and Roosevelt were meeting. He also said he could not keep the army from shipping materials to French Indochina. This alarmed Tojo. “But that would reveal our intent [to prepare for war],” he protested. “Well, that cannot be helped,” answered Sugiyama. Whatever was being said, most believed that a diplomatic solution was just around the corner. At the same liaison conference, that came up for discussion as well.

Konoe was supposed to introduce his own proposal, drafted and polished by his friends at the Fujiya Hotel, at the end of August. It emphasized the overall Japanese willingness to agree to a troop withdrawal from China in the hope of conciliating the United States. But Konoe never unveiled it. The Foreign Ministry had prepared its own proposal, and Konoe yielded to it. Saionji, one of the main engines behind Konoe’s proposal, demanded an explanation afterward. “Tomita [the chief cabinet secretary] should have coordinated with them [the Foreign Ministry] beforehand,” Konoe mumbled, and disappeared into his office without further explanation. Konoe felt that the Foreign Ministry’s plan contained enough concessions for Roosevelt to be enticed to the negotiating table, so why make a fuss?

Konoe had, yet again, let down his strongest supporters, revealing that peace in the Pacific hinged on a man who could not even stand up for his own proposal in a liaison meeting he himself convoked! Meanwhile, war preparations continued.

The Foreign Ministry’s proposal was sent by telegram to Nomura in Washington the next day. It proposed the peaceful settlement of tensions in the South Pacific, the promotion of nondiscriminatory commercial agreements, Japanese cooperation with the United States in its attempt to gain access to regional resources, and the unfreezing of Japanese assets. It also stated that Japan was prepared to withdraw promptly from China once Sino-Japanese agreements were reached—the greatest difference in nuance from Konoe’s proposal, which committed Japan to a withdrawal from China as a matter of general principle. The Foreign Ministry’s proposal would reach the Roosevelt administration on September 6.

While diplomacy stumbled, Tokyo’s mobilization kept to its timetable with mechanical precision. On September 5, late in the afternoon, Konoe visited Hirohito at the palace to explain the “Essentials for Carrying Out the Empire’s Policies,” which had been agreed to on September 3 and stipulated that diplomatic efforts would cease in early October. An imperial conference had already been scheduled for the following day to obtain the emperor’s blessing. Hirohito was flabbergasted by what he was told. The “Essentials” looked like a war mobilization plan, which is exactly what it was. Hirohito quickly understood that it could be reduced to the following three points, in order of importance:

1. The empire would not refrain from war with the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands and would prepare for war.

2. While those preparations moved forward, the empire would try its utmost in diplomatic efforts with the United States and Britain, guided by an attached document (see below).

3. If diplomatic efforts did not succeed by early October, the empire would launch a war at the end of October with the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands.

The separate attachment mentioned in the second point contained Japan’s diplomatic demands, as well as the limits of its concessions, independent of the presummit agreement. They included noninterference by the United States in Japan’s war settlement with China and a request to reclose the Burma Road, vital to relaying Western material aid to Chiang Kai-shek; in turn, Japan promised it would not use French Indochina as a base for further military advancement in the south. As long as the Soviet Union kept its neutrality, Japan would not use force against it. To reverse the argument, Japan would not withdraw from French Indochina or abandon the Tripartite Pact. The less diplomatic clout Japan possessed, the greater its stubbornness appeared to be. Still, it was assumed Konoe would be free to yield a great deal more to Roosevelt to avoid war.

Hirohito was disturbed all the same. He rightly sensed and complained that these guidelines put more emphasis on war. He asked Konoe to reverse the items so that diplomacy would become Japan’s overwhelming priority. “That would be impossible,” Konoe responded, presumably believing that he had to concede that much to enable his meeting with Roosevelt. Konoe was defying the doubtful emperor, just as he had when he endorsed signing the Tripartite Pact. Hirohito, always cautious of excessive political intervention, did not challenge Konoe enough then. This time, he responded more firmly. He said he had no idea until that moment that Japan’s military preparations had advanced so far. Why, he asked, had he been kept in the dark? Konoe did not reply directly but suggested that Hirohito should summon the two chiefs of staff, strategic professionals, to better explain the exact situation. He acted as if politics had no place in this monumental resolution approved by his own government.

Nagano and Sugiyama were called immediately. At the end of July, Nagano had visited the palace with a war plan, though he said at the time, as we’ve seen, that he was uncertain Japan could win. Hirohito had been upset by that and consulted Navy Minister Oikawa about replacing Nagano. Nothing came of it. Now, only five weeks later, Nagano was back again with an advanced plan.

Displaying the incisiveness he was capable of when utterly compelled—which did not happen often—Hirohito asked devastating questions of the military leaders as Konoe listened. He told them that war and diplomacy could not be pursued in parallel and that diplomacy had to come first. He asked how long they estimated their planned war in the south would last.

SUGIYAMA: Sir, we intend to complete [our mission] in the South Seas in three months.

HIROHITO: When the China Incident broke out, you were our army minister. I remember you telling me then that the conflict would be over in about a month. But after four long years, it hasn’t ended!

SUGIYAMA: China has a huge hinterland. That was why we couldn’t carry out our plans as we had originally envisioned.

HIROHITO: If you say that China has a huge hinterland, the Pacific Ocean is even bigger. On what basis are you now telling me three months?

Sugiyama, deeply embarrassed, was at a loss for words and concealed his blushing by bowing his head.

Unable to stand the pathetic sight of his colleague, Nagano intervened to help. Despite the service rivalries, the two chiefs of staff got on well because Nagano was clearly in charge. “I speak broadly on behalf of the high command,” Nagano began.

If we were to compare today’s U.S.-Japanese relations to a sick patient, the patient is in dire need of an operation. If we don’t operate, and instead leave him be, the patient will gradually be weaker and weaker. Not that there isn’t any hope of recovery. But we must decide while there still is a chance [for the success of the operation]. The high command desires diplomatic negotiations to reach a successful conclusion. But in case of its failure, I am afraid that we must pluck up enough courage and operate.

Trying to adjust to the idea of such a war, Hirohito had a hard time squaring Nagano’s projected chance of success with his earlier admission that he had no confidence in victory. He asked Nagano the same question he had put to him not so long ago: “Will we win? Can you say we will definitely win?” To this, Nagano replied, “I cannot say ‘definitely’ because it depends not on just manpower but on divine power, too.” He insisted that war was not the high command’s preference, but that it felt compelled to prepare Japan for war in the face of the present crisis. “If there is even a remote chance of [war] working out, we must do it,” he said.

This led to Hirohito’s final question: “Then I’ll ask you again: Is it correct for me to understand that the high command intends to put more emphasis on diplomacy as of today?” The two chiefs responded affirmatively.

The forty-year-old emperor intuited the feebleness of the prowar argument, the utter irresponsibility of the two much-older men in uniform who were justifying it, and the potentially devastating impact of his imperial approval. Hirohito discerned the plan’s recklessness because he was basically an outsider to Tokyo’s strange decision-making process. His natural instinct to avoid war as the peace-loving patriarch of Japan’s family-state conflicted with his responsibility as the supreme commander of the armed forces, whose role was to ensure Japan’s survival through military preparedness; on this occasion, the latter ultimately prevailed, leading him to acquiesce to the war plan.

Konoe, who had remained silent throughout the emperor’s interview, was now belatedly waking up to the enormity of the decisions being made. He felt a growing sense of panic when he returned to the palace the next morning for the imperial conference. Konoe now wished that Hirohito would try to tilt the opinion of the conference toward peace, and he asked Kido, the emperor’s closest adviser, for his help.

The imperial conference began promptly at 10:00 a.m. As before, the prime minister, the foreign minister, the home minister, the finance minister, and the army and navy ministers were joined by the chiefs of staff, the vice chiefs of staff, the chiefs of the Military Affairs Bureau and the Naval Affairs Bureau, the chief cabinet secretary, and the director of the Cabinet Planning Board. Asking questions on behalf of the emperor, again, was Hara Yoshimichi, president of the Privy Council.

As if to reenact Hirohito’s exchange, Hara asked the two chiefs of staff whether strategy or diplomacy had priority in Japan’s foreign policy. Neither replied, setting off an awkward silence. Hirohito, sitting in front of a ceremonious gold screen at the head of the table, was expected to remain silent, but now, to everyone’s astonishment, he spoke up. “President Hara’s question just now was truly appropriate. It is regrettable that both chiefs of the general staff are unable to answer it.” He then took a piece of paper from the breast pocket of his khaki army uniform. On it was a poem written by his late grandfather, the great Meiji. Because of his less-than-satisfactory interview with the two chiefs of staff, and also because of Konoe’s request that morning for some kind of imperial intervention, he had brought it with him. The emperor recited:

               In all four seas all are brothers and sisters.

               Then why, oh why, these rough winds and waves?

This pacifist lament, distilled into thirty-one Japanese syllables, was penned at the onset of the Russo-Japanese War. By reading it aloud, Hirohito was expressing his fundamental uneasiness with the new proposal and his desire for Japan to avoid war—or at least that was what he intended his indirect communication to convey to his audience. But the recital of the poem merely created a bizarre and self-pitying atmosphere of passive resistance. The emperor became a metaphor for Japan, a nation that was pressured into taking an undesirable action because of some uncontrollable external forces, despite its peaceful preferences. The peace poem did not free Hirohito from his customary imperial obligation; he approved the proposal all the same.

One cannot help wondering what would have happened had Hirohito been more explicit in his opposition to war or simply refused to approve the plan. Rather than read a poem open to many interpretations, why could he not have instead said that war was not an option? It is likely that the ever-cautious Kido, who communicated Konoe’s wish for imperial intervention that morning, advised Hirohito to refrain from expressing any definitive political judgment, worried that the emperor would be held responsible for whatever happened to Japan next. That neither Kido nor Hirohito believed in excessive imperial political mediation was certainly one reason for Hirohito’s muted objection. Another was the emperor’s personality—he was too meek to oppose the general momentum for war preparations, especially since there was no historical precedent for an imperial veto. (Though it was not clearly sanctioned by the Meiji Constitution, it was deemed theoretically possible—most critically by Hirohito himself.) Carefully navigating between his divine role and his earthly one, the emperor chose to merely recite a poem.

That evening, after the early-October diplomatic deadline had received imperial sanction, Konoe invited Ambassador Grew to a surreptitious dinner at the home of a friend. Konoe was accompanied by Breakfast Club member Ushiba Tomohiko, who was fluent in English. Also present was the Osaka-born Eugene Dooman from the U.S. embassy. Konoe’s geisha mistress attended to them.

The secrecy was necessary because on August 15 the seasoned politician Hiranuma Kiichiro, a minister in Konoe’s second and current cabinets, was attacked in his home by an ultranationalist would-be assassin. Despite being shot six times, including once in the head, Hiranuma miraculously survived and would fully recover. He had been targeted because he was drawing too close to Grew in the hope of avoiding war with the United States. That gave Konoe pause.

Over the course of three hours, Konoe tried to impress on Grew how much he longed to see Roosevelt. Afterward, Grew wrote a lengthy report to the president, summarizing the meeting and relaying Konoe’s wish that “his statements be transmitted personally to the President in the belief that they might amplify and clarify the approach through diplomatic channels which he had made in Washington through Admiral Nomura.” It was theoretically still possible for Konoe to reach sweeping diplomatic settlements with Washington, but time was running out, and the prowar faction had just surmounted a big obstacle by winning the emperor’s assent.

Or, more accurately, the military, though divided and unsure about the feasibility of a hastily envisioned war, was becoming a prisoner of its own bellicose rhetoric. Now that a specific deadline had been set, the rush to war had acquired an internally driven dynamic.

The recommendation of the hypothetical cabinet at the Total War Research Institute, in contrast, was based on a detached analysis of relative capabilities. True, the researchers did not know exactly how much petroleum Japan still possessed, but in all other respects they could materially assess that Japan did not have the means to win a war with the United States. Konoe and his ministers could not plead ignorance of their findings. In the late summer of 1941, the war that was declared unwinnable by a hypothetical government was, in only ten days, made almost inevitable by the real one.

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