Winding Back the Clock

From October 23 to 30, Tojo convoked one liaison conference after another to reconsider the September 6 resolution. Essential concerns ignored in preceding conferences, including the feasibility of total war and its possible impact on Japan’s economy, were on the agenda. Unlike before, the finance minister, Kaya, and the general director of the Cabinet Planning Board, Suzuki, attended those conferences; economic consequences of a possible war were finally to be addressed in an open forum. The most boisterous voices calling for war preparations—the chiefs and vice chiefs of staff—were still very much in evidence.

In these more ambitious liaison meetings of late October, there were assessments of the wars in Europe and China, the U.S.-Japan diplomatic negotiations, and the wisdom of Japan’s remaining a German ally. At the first such meeting during Tojo’s leadership, on October 23, Foreign Minister Togo challenged the assumption of eventual German victory. He did not mince his words:

Britain has gained some time and room because of the German war with the Soviet Union. Next year, the prospect [of German victory over Britain] will be fifty-fifty. The year after that, I believe the odds favor a victory for Britain. Germany will want a peace settlement sooner rather than later. But Japan should not formulate its policy counting on such a peace.

In fact, Togo deemed it highly unlikely that Germany would be able to extract a peaceful settlement from Britain. The Navy General Staff believed the Germans would probably have a difficult time fighting Britain on land but said that Germany might defeat Britain in the air and at sea. An army representative (exactly who is not recorded) added: “[A German invasion of Britain] would be difficult but not impossible.” Such a truism hardly contributed to a meaningful discussion. It was this kind of thinking that could allow such unhelpful statements as “Japan’s winning a war against the United States would be difficult but not impossible.”

Nagano, who had commented earlier that it was “no longer a time for discussion,” reiterated his view:

We’ve passed the [original early] October deadline already. Why don’t you simply finish this kind of study meeting? Every hour, we are expending four hundred tons of petroleum. The situation is urgent. You must decide quickly whether or not we are going to war.

His counterpart, Army Chief of Staff Sugiyama, agreed. “We have already been dragged along for a month. We cannot bear to spend another four or five days studying this subject. Do it quickly!”

Tojo’s position, as we’ve seen, was far more nuanced and complicated now. He was torn between his roles as army minister (which meant he was still on active military duty), prime minister, and home minister. “I do understand the strong argument made by the high command for a swift decision,” Tojo said in an effort to conciliate the chiefs of staff. “But this government includes some new ministers, such as the navy, finance, and foreign ministers, [and for their sake] we must thoroughly explore [the issues at stake] so that we can fully own up to the responsibility [for our ultimate decision].”

Kaya stood his ground in the face of the combined general staffs’ insistence that war preparations should simply go ahead because time and resources were running out. At fifty-two, Kaya was relatively young for a key minister, though his deportment made him seem older. In fact, he shared certain physical resemblances with Togo, who had a square face, a full head of swept-back hair, and a thick mustache. Togo, though, was slim and elegant; Kaya was round, and suffered from facial tics.

Kaya was not a man to be taken lightly. As a Finance Ministry bureaucrat, he had developed expertise in the National Budget Bureau and had attended a couple of international arms reduction conferences in the 1920s as the ministry’s delegate. The son of a nationalistic father and a hawkish mother, he had nevertheless been a staunch believer in international treaties and liberal internationalism in his early days. In 1929, in London during the preliminary round of the London Naval Conference scheduled for the following year, he quarreled with Yamamoto Isoroku, who was representing the navy and had yet to be converted to the credo of arms reduction. During the 1930s, however, his and Yamamoto’s political beliefs were reversed to a certain extent. An ambitious man, Kaya, as finance minister in Konoe’s first cabinet, helped turn the Japanese economy into a wartime one after the China War broke out; he also supported Konoe’s New Order Movement for increased centralization. Yamamoto, meanwhile, became more and more accepting of the general trend toward liberal internationalism and criticized Konoe’s perilous flirtation with totalitarian philosophy.

Whatever his political views, Kaya was not about to approve of a war that did not make any sense to him numbers-wise. “Could you explain to me in a way that I can understand?” was the first of Kaya’s insistent queries in those late-October conferences.

My questions are, What would happen to the material situation if we go to war? What would happen if we do not go to war and carry on just as we are carrying on right now? What should we do if diplomatic negotiations with the United States fail? Et cetera, et cetera. These are the issues we need to concentrate on now. I believe the question of the budget is not our biggest concern. Matters regarding the budget could be settled once the relationship between demand and supply of materials becomes clearer [depending on which course Japan takes and the amount of resources that are available].

Kaya’s questions were straightforward enough. But they were most difficult to answer for those who built their prowar argument on a series of convenient assumptions that included Germany’s continued predominance in Europe as well as Japan’s ability to secure and transport sufficient materials from Southeast Asia once the war in the Pacific began. What if these assumptions did not stand?

Other than marking the first day of Tojo’s efforts to revisit the question of going to war, October 23 was a symbolic day for Japan at the crossroads. The North Pacific Fur Seal Convention, an important endeavor in liberal internationalism of an earlier era, came to an end that day at Japan’s initiative. The treaty, signed by the United States, Britain, Japan, and Russia in 1911, limited the harvest of furred sea mammals. Caring about the fate of seals was asking too much of a nation-state that could not even ensure the safety of its own citizens. Gone were the days when Japan aspired to be a model citizen of the world.

AT THE LIAISON MEETINGS of October 24 and 25, the Navy General Staff continued to maintain that the initial battles in a war with the United States could be won but that victory would ultimately depend on the international situation and the psychological strength of the Japanese nation. There appeared to be a general awareness that the enemy could not be conquered by military force alone; that would somehow have to happen through diplomacy. Ironies and contradictions abounded: A war was to be declared because diplomacy could not deliver a satisfactory outcome for Japan at present, and yet once the war began, diplomacy would have to be quickly reintroduced to end it because Japan did not have sufficient resources for a drawn-out conflict. And this diplomatic settlement would hopefully be initiated by a United States shaken and intimidated enough by early Japanese victories to sue for peace.

But what if the United States refused to succumb, as Yamamoto had already warned Nagano was more likely? What if Japan’s military offensive made the United States more resolute, like Britain against Hitler? No reasonable attempt to debate or answer these uncomfortable questions is to be found in the record of these conferences.

The prowar argument, no matter how it was presented, required self-delusion and false accounting to make Japan seem prepared for a drawn-out war. Inconvenient numbers were brushed aside. The lack of critical debate over Japan’s projected shipping losses is a telling example. Needless to say, any loss of ships affects a warring country’s immediate fighting and convoying abilities, especially in a predominantly naval war. But the estimation of wartime losses allowed for creative distortion. In preparing new data to be presented at the late-October liaison meetings, the chief of the Army Ministry’s Resource Office, Nakahara Shigetoshi, was astonished when he first saw the navy estimates predicting enormous losses. With numbers like that, he felt, Japan couldn’t start, let alone fight, a war. The next day, the navy came back with new estimates. These numbers satisfied the two chiefs of staff and served as the basis of the high command’s argument for war throughout Tojo’s reexamination. The projected annual losses for the first three years of war averaged 700,000 tons. Three years in, Japan could fully compensate for the losses, it was said. (As it turned out, Japan’s shipping losses would surpass its shipbuilding capacity by 4 million tons after the first three years of the war.)

The chiefs of staff did not question the reliability of the numbers that had emerged literally overnight. Instead, Nagano used them to the navy’s advantage, ignoring the bigger question of what good a strong navy was if Japan lost the war. Nagano declared:

For the navy to be able to keep fighting a long war, the replenishment of naval power is very important, and so is the acquisition of strategic resources. In order to sustain our positions in the critical area in the south, the navy would require, at all times, a thousand bomber planes, a thousand fighter planes, and another thousand planes for the defense of those areas.

Nagano didn’t get into the question of Japan’s practical ability to replenish its losses, including the loss of well-trained pilots, who were almost impossible to replace quickly. The navy had been compelled to concentrate on training a small number of elite pilots. The United States, on the other hand, had the resources and capacity to train many pilots to passable fighting standards and to produce hundreds of thousands of planes. The relative advantage for the United States would be only too clear the longer the war lasted. These realities did not seem to trouble Nagano, at least on the surface.

Kaya wasn’t so cavalier. In the meeting of October 27, he tried to direct the leaders’ attention to these fundamental issues. When Suzuki was invited to share his views, he immediately admitted to Japan’s dire material situation:

Japan has not established a defensive system, has no long-term plans for material sustenance of the state, and has dealt with the distribution of materials on a year-by-year basis.… That is the truth of our material situation. For 1942, we project the material supply to be 90 percent of what it was for this year.… That would mean depleting all the present stocks.

Suzuki said that Japan would have a hard time sustaining a conflict materially but stopped short of voicing definitive objection to the war. He could have made better use of the figures at hand to make a powerful case against it. In 1940, the Cabinet Planning Board had compared the industrial outputs of Japan and the United States. According to its research, the United States produced more than five hundred times as much petroleum, twelve times as much pig iron, nine times as much steel ingot and copper, and seven times as much aluminum as Japan. Including other areas of production, such as coal, mercury, zinc, and lead, the average industrial output of the United States was thought to be more than seventy-four times (whereas the army had estimated more optimistically twenty times) that of Japan. These overwhelming figures were at the time available even to a junior researcher working for a steel manufacturer. Presumably, Suzuki had more detailed, up-to-date figures than these, which alone would have forced most leaders to confront the hard realities. Yet Suzuki did not present them. Later, when he was ninety-three, Suzuki tried to explain why: “I was depressed.… It was as though they had already decided to go to war. My task was basically to provide numbers to fit that decision. But in my mind, I didn’t want [Japan] to go to war.”

Suzuki was initially seen as a key figure in Tojo’s attempt to reexamine the September 6 decision, having been asked personally by Konoe to remain in his post after the prince’s departure. But Suzuki quickly concluded that he was too powerless to effect a policy shift and chose to side with what he regarded as mainstream opinion. As an army partisan (he was a recently retired lieutenant general) and a deft political operator, he was also annoyed that he was expected, implicitly, to save the navy’s neck by suggesting that the war could not be fought successfully. In the same postwar interview, Suzuki said as much: “The navy should have been the one to decide [against war] in the end, because it was the navy who had to fight it. But the navy refused to say clearly it could not!”

So Suzuki simply skated over Kaya’s questions, explaining how Japan could go about securing goods for domestic demands.

[For civilian consumption], if we were to set aside three million tons of shipping at all times, it would be possible to sustain the present level of national strength. However, in order to sustain the use of three million tons, we would have to build four hundred thousand tons of ships in 1942 and six hundred thousand tons in 1943. Navy Minister Shimada has commented [in the previous liaison meeting] that only half that number would be realistic.… In that case, it would be difficult to sustain the present level.

These numbers, too, reflected wishful thinking. No one could guarantee that the sea routes used for transporting both military and civilian goods would be safe from obstacles. The Navy General Staff had not put forward any specific plans to establish a secure convoying system to minimize expected shipping losses.

So despite the pertinence of Kaya’s questions, and Tojo’s original intentions, little progress was made. The Army General Staff record of October 27 summarized the state of affairs: “(1) It seems the prime minister has not changed his mind [for war]; (2) the navy minister continues to be vague, but mostly talks in a negative way [about war]; (3) the navy on the whole has the tendency to advertise its need for more resource allocation; (4) the foreign minister is straightforward and to the point [against war], and he seems very confident.” (Togo’s remarks on that particular day were not kept, but the log was accurate. Togo would provide the most formidable voice of opposition in the final set of meetings.)

Navy Minister Shimada had joined the Tojo cabinet on the condition that it would do its best to avoid war. He was expected to express far more opposition to war than his predecessor, Oikawa, had. But his private conference with Admiral of the Fleet Imperial Prince Fushimi on October 27 seems to have shaken his resolve. “Unless we decide quickly, we’ll lose an opportunity,” the sixty-six-year-old veteran of the Russo-Japanese War told Shimada. Fushimi, like other shortsighted war planners, believed that the navy should fight while it could still afford to and that a diplomatic resolution after a quick blitzkrieg attack on the United States would be feasible. Fushimi remained too popular, too influential, and too powerful a figure—an imperial figure—in the navy to be ignored even after he retired as its chief of staff in the spring of 1941. (Presumably, the biggest obstacle to replacing Nagano as chief of staff despite Hirohito’s earlier recommendation was that he was safely protected under Fushimi’s wing.)

The War Guidance Office of the Army General Staff noted in its journal entry that day:

Conference proceedings show no signs of progress.… As we speak, precious strategic opportunities are being lost, which, as members of the high command, we regret very much. It is first and foremost necessary, at this point, to make up our minds. Then and only then can we calibrate our national capabilities and direct the nation to prepare for war. Nonetheless, the present situation is one of protracted debate and dithering over the question of “Can we or can we not?” without making up our minds. This does not achieve anything.

The resolve to “not flinch from war” made in July at the first imperial conference of that year had come to be regarded, beyond logic, as an inviolable priority in Japan’s foreign policy agenda. The second imperial resolution of September added to the importance of such resolve by giving it a time-sensitive dimension. The momentum had built and it was proving hard to counteract.

THE CONFERENCE ON OCTOBER 28 addressed the idea of delaying a conflict with the United States until March 1942. The Foreign Ministry as well as the general staffs felt it was advantageous for Japan to wait and see how the fortunes of war changed in Europe. It was suggested that the United States was preoccupied with the war in Europe and that Japan’s strategic and diplomatic opportunities would improve as more time was allowed to pass. The implicit basis for this suggestion was that the United States would likely go to war with Hitler soon and that Japan would benefit from knowing who the winner of that war would be, rather than blindly assuming Germany’s continued preponderance in Europe.

Despite their open admission of such advantages, however, the strategic sticking point for the warmongers on the general staffs remained the same: that the longer Japan waited, the worse Japan’s material situation would become. Nothing could deter them. They declared at the meeting, having agreed among themselves beforehand, that “the start of war has to be November. By October 31, we must decide to go to war. We emphasize that the depletion of resources [while we wait] is fatal to the navy.” Tojo could not hold the line and apologized to the two chiefs of staff for taking too much time with his reexamination. The delaying option was shelved after only one session.

The meetings of October 29 and 30 were reserved for further assessing the material feasibility of war and, at long last, the prospect of diplomacy with the United States. On the material front, Kaya had earlier requested that he needed to know, “in actual numbers, what the relationship between supply and demand of matériel would be in the event of war and of not going to war.” Suzuki was again invited to make his case on behalf of the Cabinet Planning Board. He estimated that the country would be left with 2.55 million tons of petroleum at the end of the first year of war, 150,000 tons at the end of the second year, and 70,000 tons at the end of the third year. Japan would barely be keeping up its subsistence level. Suzuki’s latest interpretation, however, was that fighting the war would be difficult yet possible.

Once again, Kaya’s attempt to make rational sense out of the war plan was dodged and sabotaged by the parties concerned. Inertia, self-preservation, institutional material gain, and irrational conviction were all at work. Then it was Togo’s turn to question the wisdom of war.

If Kaya could not make others see the tenuousness of the prowar argument from a material standpoint, perhaps Togo could do so from a diplomatic one. The two perspectives were, of course, closely related. First, Togo made clear his position that diplomacy should prevail and that even if Japan were to make greater concessions than it would like (including withdrawing its troops from Indochina and China), the peace gained would be well worth the sacrifice.

Almost everyone in the room reacted harshly to this suggestion. Such conciliatory behavior would make Japan a third-rate country and an easy target for Western bullies, critics claimed. Togo openly and daringly pushed for a troop withdrawal from China. “Our economy would survive even if we withdrew,” he insisted. “The sooner it is done, the better.” His attitude stirred up such strong resistance from the Army General Staff that Tojo proposed a tortured compromise: Japan might agree to retreat from large parts of China on the condition that it would take its time to do so in certain parts, “allowing something close to ‘forever.’ ”

This sparked a surreal argument over the acceptable time frame for completing a withdrawal from China; suggestions ranged from twenty-five to ninety-nine years. After a haggling match between the parties, they eventually and broadly settled on twenty-five years for the withdrawal of troops from northern China, Inner Mongolia, and the island of Hainan, should the United States demand a specific time frame; other troops stationed in China would be withdrawn within two years of securing an agreement with China. The withdrawal from French Indochina would take place after “the establishment of peace” and “the resolution of Japan’s war with China.” For Togo, it was better than nothing.

On October 30, it was also decided that the Tripartite Pact would continue as it was. Concerning the terms proposed by the United States, most leaders opted not to accept Hull’s Four Principles as official preconditions for further negotiations, though they recognized that whatever Tokyo had already told Washington in favor of them could not be undone. Deeds should count more than words, they appeared to believe. They stressed that a shift in attitude toward free trade could not possibly occur overnight, as though discarding one style of dress for another, more fashionable one. The predominance of this kind of argument proved that Japanese leaders in 1941 were, on the whole, ineffective international negotiators. They failed to see that in diplomatic negotiations words often counted more than deeds—or at least that words were expected to come before deeds.

Togo still insisted that the government needed to signal that the Four Principles could be accepted in principle, without attaching any preconditions, to impress on the United States the seriousness of Japan’s desire to avoid armed conflict. Tojo again offered a compromise between the general staffs and Togo, suggesting that Japan propose that free trade principles be applied to the rest of the world before the United States could demand their exclusive application by Japan in China. At the same time, any claims of Japan’s special regional interests were to be dropped.

The general diplomatic outline, or Plan A, was thus drawn. It included timed troop withdrawal, free trade in China if first applied to the rest of the world, and the maintenance of the Tripartite alliance while avoiding a categorical acceptance of Hull’s Four Principles. Togo’s tenaciousness made it clear that military concessions were possible, and that the previous cabinet had been conceding too easily to the high command. Still, Togo was nervous because he knew too well that good diplomacy could not be pursued in parallel with urgent war preparations. He was also surprised that the navy had not come to his aid during his fight against the hard-liners:

I had expected that the army would take a hard line. But I was expecting the navy to have a more moderate attitude, and my various efforts were made on the assumption that the navy people would be on my side. However, at the liaison conference, I was astonished to see that they were quite adamant about the issue of troop withdrawal, among other things.

Togo was not getting help from the navy in large part because Navy Minister Shimada, following his meeting with Prince Fushimi, had made up his mind to support war preparations. Shimada confided in Vice Navy Minister Sawamoto: “I would not be able to forgive myself if we lost an opportunity for war because of my single opposition as the navy minister.” Togo did not know of Shimada’s change of heart. He tried to win over the Navy Ministry through his network of powerful, more liberal-minded navy veterans, including a former prime minister and a navy minister, to no avail.

Ironically, only Nagano appeared somewhat sympathetic to Togo’s attempt to resuscitate Japan’s diplomacy. When the discussion had stalled at one point on the Army General Staff’s intransigence over the principle of nondiscrimination in trade in China, Nagano abruptly asked: “Why not do it? Why not just agree to nondiscriminatory commercial policies? Why not show them how magnanimous we are?” He may well have wanted to make sure diplomacy was given a proper chance so that there would still be a way to avoid war without the navy—or him—being seen as shrinking from it. His words and actions two days later would support such a reading.

At the end of the October 30 meeting, the two key antiwar ministers of Tojo’s cabinet, Kaya and Togo, were exhausted. The leaders had been meeting almost every day for a week. Tojo, in his meticulous bureaucratic manner, had covered all the topics he said he was going to at the first meeting. But it would be a gross exaggeration to say that all available alternatives had been carefully reconsidered and honestly debated.

The fate of the country was to be decided on November 1.

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