On the Brink

When Tojo saw Army Chief of Staff Sugiyama at 7:30 a.m. on November 1, the prime minister’s increasing doubts about war were evident. He tried to persuade Sugiyama to reconsider his prowar position and explained that three policy options needed to be discussed at the liaison meeting later that morning: to not go to war, to go to war and prepare quickly, or to continue with diplomatic negotiations without dismissing the possibility of war entirely. “I intend to take the third route,” Tojo said. He offered reassurances that Japan would not make any unnecessary diplomatic concessions to the United States.

The previous evening, Tojo had conferred with key members of his cabinet, including Shimada, Togo, Kaya, and Suzuki. Tojo now told Sugiyama that “the navy minister, the finance minister, and the director of the Cabinet Planning Board have all agreed to endorse the third scenario.” Tojo and Sugiyama both knew Togo preferred the first option but might accept the third. Tojo suggested that Sugiyama, too, should go along with the third option.

Shimada’s conditions were noted in the War Guidance Office log: “As was expected, the navy [minister] kept saying, ‘We need steel. We need aluminum. And we need nickel. And unless you give us them all, we cannot fight the war.’ ” The log was filled with jealous fury (the army and navy, rivals to the end), but there was no hint of awareness that advocating a reckless war might be the ultimate act of selfishness and a disservice to the nation.

It is hard to believe in hindsight, but Sugiyama’s greatest fear at this turning point in history was still that the navy would fight for a larger share of military resources without committing itself to war. “We have started directing two hundred thousand troops from Japan and from China [southward in preparation for battles in Southeast Asia],” he told Tojo, “giving priority to this mobilization over other necessary campaigns that need to be fought elsewhere. If we dispatch soldiers to the South Seas, only to call them back without waging a war, that would dampen their morale.” This was a strange justification indeed for war. He said that he would demand that (1) the idea of normalizing relations with the United States be abandoned, (2) the decision be made to go to war, (3) the start date for war be set for early December, (4) the strategy be finalized; and (5) a (duplicitous) diplomacy be conducted in a way that would help place the military in an advantageous position for war.

“I am not going to change the opinion of the high command,” Tojo responded. “However, I believe it would be difficult to convince His Imperial Majesty.” Ironically, the palace was hoping that Tojo would do exactly what he hoped the emperor would do: restrain the warmongers.

THE LIAISON CONFERENCE BEGAN at nine in the morning, soon after Tojo’s private meeting with Sugiyama. It would last seventeen hours and become one of the most notorious in Japan’s history.

The first topic to be introduced that day was the question of resource distribution among the navy, the army, and the Cabinet Planning Board should a war come to pass. It was proposed that for 1942, the navy would be given 1.1 million tons of ordinary steel; the army, 790,000 tons; and the Cabinet Planning Board, for domestic consumption, 2.6 million tons. Humiliated, Sugiyama asked Shimada: “If you get this much steel, will you for once make up your mind [for war]?” The navy minister merely nodded at Sugiyama. After several hours of discussion, the tacit agreement had been made, and the allocation plan was ratified.

Tojo now tried to bring things to a head: Would Japan go to war or not? In his formalistic way, he pursued the answer by examining the three alternative scenarios he’d outlined earlier to Sugiyama: no war, war, or diplomacy and war pursued in parallel. Kaya, in a scene of déjà vu, reopened his critical line of questioning. He asked the navy leaders impatiently: “If we went to war right now, would Japan still be able to continue fighting after a few years? Would the United States still be likely to attack Japan after three years if Japan didn’t go to war?”

“The chances of victory [for the immediate war option] are unclear,” Admiral Nagano replied. He was “fifty-fifty.”

On the possibility of a U.S. attack, Kaya said: “I don’t know if we could manage to win a naval war.”

Nagano responded that it would be much better for Japan to fight “now rather than waiting for three years … because the necessary foundation for continuing the war will have been under our control.” By the “necessary foundation,” he meant Southeast Asian resources.

“If the chances of victory in the third year of war were still to be high,” said Kaya, “I say it would be all right to go to war. But according to Nagano, that point remains unclear. Moreover, I doubt the likelihood of the United States launching war on us. I just don’t think it would be wise to go to war now.”

Contrary to Tojo’s remark to Sugiyama earlier that morning, Kaya categorically did not want to go to war. Togo agreed: “I don’t think that the U.S. fleets would come to our shores. It is unnecessary to go to war now.”

“There is a saying: ‘Do not simply wait for enemy attacks,’ ” said Nagano. “The future is unclear. One cannot feel too safe. In three years’ time, the defense in the south will be harder to overcome and enemy fleets will have expanded.”

Nagano’s invocation of a passage from The Art of War by Sunzi (Sun Tzu) was a self-serving misreading of the text. Sunzi’s dictum preaches an all-around general preparedness, even for the unlikely case of being attacked. (It does not advocate provoking a very risky war that would not otherwise have come one’s way either, and even warns against going to war out of a sense of humiliation and irritation, urging one to try to subjugate the enemy without fighting and to attain political goals by nonviolent means. Above all, it stipulates the need to fully understand the enemy’s power before finally launching a war.) Kaya replied: “Well then, when would you say we start that war in order to win it?” Either ignoring or failing to perceive the irony of Kaya’s question, Nagano said firmly: “Now! No more opportunities for war will arrive later.”

Tojo thought he had secured Suzuki’s support for continuing diplomacy, but he was wrong. Suzuki betrayed no diffidence about the war he later said he was privately against and depressed by. Suzuki now said that war was desirable after all: “Kaya is worried about securing enough war matériel and seems to think that we would be disadvantaged in the years 1941 and 1942. But there is no need to worry. By 1943, things will look better if we go to war.” The high command had told him so. Coming from a man who had recently said that Japan had no “defensive system” and “no long-term plans for material sustenance of the state,” Suzuki’s advocacy was indeed surprising and irresponsible.

Kaya and Togo did not hide their disgust at the thought of diplomacy becoming a tool of deception for the sake of secret war preparations. The navy’s vice chief of staff, Ito Seiichi, disagreed: “From the navy’s perspective, I would say you may carry on diplomacy until November 20.” His army counterpart, Tsukada, thought that was too generous a deadline for the government. “From the army’s perspective, you may [engage in diplomacy] until November 13, but we cannot agree to a day beyond that date!”

“Diplomacy by nature requires many days and nights for its goals to be fulfilled,” interjected Togo. “As foreign minister, I cannot conduct diplomacy without any likelihood of success. I need to be assured that I would be given the time and conditions required to make it a success. War, needless to say, must be avoided.” Togo asked how much time he would have to engage in real diplomacy, which gave rise to the following exchange between him and the army’s vice chief of staff.

TSUKADA: We insist that diplomacy not interfere with strategies. We would not want the fickle conditions of diplomacy to dictate and affect our strategic plans, and therefore we demand that November 13 be the final deadline for diplomacy.

TOGO: November 13. That is awful! The navy is saying November 20.

TSUKADA: Preparing for strategic operations implies “strategic conduct.” … November 13 is the final day before all the preparation would start being seen as “strategic conduct.”

Tsukada argued that mobilizing the military in anticipation of war, even without actually declaring war, was bound to invite clashes with enemy forces. Therefore, he insisted, war preparations in and of themselves were tantamount to “strategic conduct,” or going to war. This was an overstretched argument, even for a military man, and prompted Nagano to remark: “Small clashes only mean local conflicts. They are not the same as wars.” Tojo and Togo made clear their view that diplomacy had to be conducted honorably, with full hope for its success. Tsukada bitterly accepted the point, though he made sure that the diplomatic deadline would be honored, too: “It is all right to seek diplomatic solutions until November 13, but anything beyond that date would be an infringement on the authority of the supreme command.”

As the day darkened into night, the atmosphere became even more suffocating. Long silences were punctuated by the faint songs of the crickets outside and by the bickering that erupted every now and then. Unable to agree on a timetable for diplomacy, the leaders took a twenty-minute break, during which the Army General Staff called in the chief of its Operations Division, Tanaka Shin’ichi, to strategize for the rest of the conference. The Navy General Staff did the same, summoning Fukudome Shigeru, the naval operations chief. It was agreed, finally, that the high command would set November 30 as the final deadline for diplomacy.

DURING THIS BREAK, the chief of the Foreign Ministry’s American Affairs Bureau, Yamamoto Kumaichi, there to assist Togo, bumped into Nagano in the hallway. Nagano patted his back. “Well, my dear Yamamoto,” he asked, “would the Foreign Ministry take it upon itself to settle this mess through diplomacy? If so, the navy would be glad to entrust everything to the Foreign Ministry. What do you think?” Yamamoto, surprised, could only repeat Togo’s view that the existing conditions were not good enough to produce a successful diplomatic outcome.

Nagano’s abrupt proposition revealed that he was the greatest vacillator of them all, despite his hawkish façade. At the past few conferences, he had hinted at his preference for giving diplomacy a chance. He was finding it harder and harder to conceal his diffidence. Worse, Nagano was fundamentally unsure of the offensive plan that he had recently approved. During the previous months, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku had been trying to perfect his offensive plan, helped mostly by two pilots, Rear Admiral Onishi Takijiro and Lieutenant Commander Genda Minoru. He also relied on Kuroshima Kameto, an eccentric officer in his late forties whose powerful push for the naval offensive plan overwhelmed even Nagano.

Born into an impoverished stonemason’s family in Hiroshima in 1893, Kuroshima lost his father young and was raised by his uncle and aunt from the age of three. He was a loner who rarely revealed his emotions. After putting himself through night school, he was admitted first to the Naval Academy and then to the elite Naval War College. This must have been a dream come true for a socially disadvantaged orphan with minimal formal schooling whose formative years coincided with the rise of the navy after the Russo-Japanese War. He came to be recognized for his unusual proposals in strategic studies discussions.

It was presumably in response to a request from his old classmate Yamamoto that Shimada, then the commander of the Second Fleet, recommended Kuroshima for a critical planning post. In October 1939, though lacking seniority, he was appointed as Yamamoto’s staff officer. Kuroshima was an odd choice by any ordinary standard. A tall, willowy man with a gaunt face and a bald head, he had an ascetic aura that prompted his colleagues to call him Gandhi. But his habits would have made Mahatma shudder in horror. He bathed only rarely and smoked cigarettes incessantly, dropping ashes everywhere he went. In order to concentrate, he would lock himself up in a dark, incense-filled room, naked, for days on end. When inspiration finally arrived, he would jot down his plans like a man possessed.

Such eccentricities should have seriously hampered his career. But they did not appear to disturb Yamamoto in the least. In fact, the man’s strangeness seemed to encourage Yamamoto to think that this was no ordinary strategist. He observed that Kuroshima was the only officer who would dare disagree with him, the only one who would suggest to him things Yamamoto himself would never have come up with on his own. He conceded that there were many other excellent staff officers, but he was disappointed when they gave him identical answers to a question. In the planning of his special Pacific operation, he grew tired of hearing words of caution and arguments that what he proposed was technically and logistically impossible. Kuroshima, on the other hand, was determined to help Yamamoto make the impossible come true.

Kuroshima, aided by Onishi and Genda on the technical details, perfected what became Yamamoto’s final plan for Hawaii. The operation was unconventional—a gamble—and as such entailed great risks. The most apparent obstacle, as mentioned earlier, was the feasibility of aerial torpedo attacks in Pearl Harbor’s shallow waters, which averaged just shy of forty feet. But by the autumn of 1941, improvements had been made on the torpedoes themselves, so that the depth they would have to sink before they could sail was drastically reduced, making it less likely they would get stuck in the seabed. Pilots had been superbly trained to fly at an extremely low altitude, which would prevent the torpedoes from plunging too deeply. The training that had begun in September in southern Japan—in and around Kinko Bay in Kagoshima, chosen because it resembled Pearl Harbor—had become more intense in October. But none of the pilots, except for their two leaders, knew the real purpose of their hard work.

When the Hawaii plan was presented for approval in Tokyo, the Naval General Staff was dead set against it. The plan was predicated on deploying a huge proportion of Japan’s naval resources, including six aircraft carriers (out of ten, though more were under construction). Japan’s Southeast Asian operation would be compromised by diverting the much-needed help from the air, and the navy would risk losing its command of the sea and skies altogether. The war games carried out in September at the Naval War College only confirmed the general staff’s belief that the plan was too risky.

Yamamoto would not budge. Kuroshima traveled to Tokyo to lobby passionately for the plan. He eventually resorted to threats, saying that Yamamoto and all his supporters were prepared to quit if the Hawaii plan was not adopted. Desperate not to lose Yamamoto, Nagano reluctantly approved the plan on October 20, just as the Tojo cabinet was being formed. Such was Nagano’s total reliance on Yamamoto’s ability to command this one-of-a-kind operation. He had no other strategists to turn to, even though he remained unconvinced of the feasibility of Yamamoto’s daring plan. This helps explain Nagano’s sudden plea for the Foreign Ministry’s help, in spite of all his loud calls for war in the liaison meetings. In contrast, Navy Minister Shimada, who’d joined the Tojo cabinet wanting to stop the war, had now completely made up his mind for war.

COULDNT THE DEADLINE be extended to December 1? Couldn’t we let diplomacy pursue its course a bit longer?” Tojo asked the military officers as the meeting reconvened after the break. Tsukada was mortified. “Absolutely not. Anything more than the last day of November is out of the question. Out of the question!” The navy minister pathetically asked Tsukada: “When you say November 30, what time exactly do you mean? Surely, you would give us until the twenty-fourth hour?” Tsukada answered Shimada coldly: “Yes, until twelve midnight would be all right.” War was feeling more and more unstoppable.

The discussion now moved to the terms of diplomatic negotiations with the United States. Togo knew that Plan A would be insufficient from the U.S. perspective. So, on the morning of November 1, he had the Foreign Ministry submit Plan B in the hope of creating more room for diplomatic maneuver. He devised it with the help of a veteran diplomat, Shidehara Kijuro, and a former ambassador to Britain, Yoshida Shigeru, both desperate to avoid war. The alternative plan was brought to the discussion table at 10:00 p.m., thirteen hours after the opening of the day’s conference. It stipulated that both Japan and the United States would refrain from advancing militarily into the South Pacific, would cooperate with one another to secure access to needed materials from the Dutch East Indies, and would revert their commercial relations to the conditions before the U.S. freezing of Japanese assets, and that the United States would promise a supply of petroleum to Japan.

The greatest concession requested of the military was buried in a separate note. It clarified that Japan was prepared to relocate its southern Indochinese troops immediately to the northern half of the peninsula. Japan would also pledge to withdraw entirely from Indochina when peace in either the Pacific in general or China in particular was established. And, if necessary, the present plan would include further explorations of the principle of global nondiscrimination in trade and of the Tripartite Pact. Plan B was Togo’s attempt to eliminate the ever-sticky question of how to exclude the China War from the negotiation, at least for the time being, and to restore diplomatic relations to where they had been before July, when the Roosevelt administration felt that it could do business with Tokyo for the sake of concentrating U.S. strategic efforts on the Atlantic and keeping things in check in the Pacific.

Unsurprisingly, the hard-liners Tsukada and Sugiyama vehemently objected to an immediate, unconditional withdrawal of Japanese troops from southern French Indochina. This gave rise to another heated argument between Tsukada and Togo. “On the whole, I believe the way we have handled the negotiations so far has been misguided,” Togo began. “We should narrow down our conditions and settle the ‘South Problem’ in order to handle the China situation on our own terms.” He knew that Japan’s troop withdrawal from Indochina might be a stopgap measure, but he saw it as one of the only concrete actions Japan could take within the little time given him.

Tsukada objected: “A troop withdrawal from southern Indochina won’t happen … [because] if we withdrew, the United States would have its way. Then it could interfere with us anytime it wanted.” He didn’t think commercial relations between the two countries would be restored because “the United States would not stop supporting Chiang Kai-shek. Petroleum, especially, would not flow into Japan [even after the Indochinese withdrawal].” He asserted that “half a year later, a war opportunity will have already passed us by.”

In the end, a kind of compromise was suggested: the insertion of a fourth condition into Plan B. It maintained that the U.S. government would not interfere in the peacemaking efforts between Japan and China. Togo hoped that if the United States rejected this Japanese demand, he would be able to drop it at a later date. But reintroducing the China issue and presenting it together with the “South Problem” kept Tojo from simplifying his diplomacy, defeating the main objective of having a more manageable alternative plan.

Even with this concession, Tsukada remained furious over the suggestion of an Indochinese withdrawal. He demanded that Plan B be scrapped completely, shouting at Togo to just “make do with Plan A.” But Togo was equally adamant and was not about to be bullied. The escalating tension caused Tojo to halt the meeting again for ten minutes.

During this break, the army participants tried to come to terms with Plan B, with what most regarded as the shocking concession of transferring occupation forces from southern to northern Indochina. But it was speculated that the China factors would likely sabotage the success of Plan B anyway. What was more worrying, from the general staff’s perspective, was having to spend an extra few days deliberating Plan B while compromising Japan’s fleeting opportunity for a decisive attack. In the end, even Tsukada was persuaded to accept Plan B, if only because he believed it made it more likely that diplomacy would fail.

Ultimately, the longest liaison conference in history ended with only a tentative agreement. The proposed date for starting military action was to be the beginning of December, and strategies were to be prepared accordingly. If a diplomatic settlement could be reached with the United States by the zero hour of December 1, military action would cease, no matter what. Togo now had Plan A and Plan B at his disposal, but not much time left for diplomacy. Kaya and Togo remained fundamentally unconvinced by the prowar argument and were mystified as to why other attendees did not feel the same.

The conference ended at 1:30 in the morning on November 2.

TOGO DID NOT have to approve the tentative conference resolution. He or Finance Minister Kaya or any other minister could have vetoed the resolution, preventing its passage requiring unanimity. Under the Meiji Constitution, a minister was directly answerable to the emperor, which meant that a prime minister could not simply fire a minister. (In reality, when prodded by a prime minister, a minister would usually resign, but this was not the case, as we’ve seen, with Konoe and Matsuoka and, to an extent, with Konoe and Tojo.) A defiant action to veto the resolution and then to refuse to resign could have possibly led to the demise of the cabinet. Another means to sabotage the resolution was for a minister to simply resign on his own. This wouldn’t cause a collapse of the resolution, but it could greatly discredit it. Pursuing either one of these two options in early November 1941 meant overtly attacking the government and the high command, because of the sheer damage it could inflict on time-sensitive war preparations already under way. After the final conference, Togo contemplated resigning. That appeared to be the simplest and most effective way for him to continue his valiant resistance, and this possibility was clearly worrying the hard-liners in the army. By resigning his post, Togo would have rejected Tojo’s “reexamination” attempt while stalling the war planning.

Togo now sought advice from Hirota Koki, a former prime minister who had served as foreign minister in four different cabinets. A famously cautious man, Hirota advised against Togo’s resignation, warning that the post might be filled by a prowar candidate. This was, of course, possible. It would be better if Togo kept working for peace with the United States, Hirota insisted. Togo decided to stay on after all. This also meant that the concessions he had won from the military would not go to waste.

At noon on November 2, Togo told Tojo he would act on the previous night’s decisions. Kaya had accepted the tentative decisions, too. Tojo promised his full support for the momentous diplomatic undertaking at hand. He said he would help find ways to make more compromises when and if the United States showed any interest in either Plan A or Plan B. He reassured Togo that no matter how far the military preparations had proceeded, they would be stopped immediately in the event of a diplomatic breakthrough. Togo said that if Japan could not reach a diplomatic settlement to avoid war, he would resign. Both Togo and Kaya were beginning to accept the unthinkable.

At five o’clock that afternoon, Nagano and Sugiyama presented the emperor with a detailed war plan, which was not revealed at the liaison conferences for confidentiality reasons. This imperial interview was meant merely to prep Hirohito for yet another imperial conference, scheduled for November 5. The operational details included Yamamoto’s plan for Hawaii, with the date of the attack definitively set for December 8 (December 7 local time). The weather that Sunday was predicted to be ideal, with the moon casting favorable light into the morning hours, aiding Japan’s predawn attack.

Hirohito, visibly sad, reiterated his preference for a diplomatic resolution. He also questioned the chiefs of staff on some technical issues, conceding that “perhaps it is unavoidable that we continue preparations for military operations.” He expressed concern over the weather predicted for the Southeast Asian campaigns, to be undertaken in conjunction with the Pearl Harbor attack (“You have told me that monsoons would impede the landing of our troops.… Would you be able to land?” “How’s the weather in Malaya?”). Though Hirohito continued to entertain hopes for diplomacy, he, too, seemed to be adjusting to the idea of imminent war. One could rationalize that by going to war, Japan would be preserving its control over its future. Wasn’t taking action, taking the initiative, better than sitting still?

On November 4, the Supreme War Council met. The emperor was present, as were his military advisers, including Prince Higashikuni. No one objected to the new liaison conference resolution stipulating that diplomacy and military preparations would be pursued in parallel. If a diplomatic settlement could not be reached with the United States by the zero hour of December 1, it would mean war. Tojo, addressing the attendees, spoke as though he had a split personality. Despite his recent pledge to Togo to support his diplomatic efforts, Tojo was now intimating that the war was a certainty, and a good thing at that. This was his tatemae, the face he put on for this formal occasion attended by military heavyweights and the emperor. He was acting the part of a heroic soldier rather than a conflicted political leader. “If we just stand by with our arms folded,” he said, “and allow our country to revert to the ‘little Japan’ that we once were, we would be tainting its brilliant twenty-six-hundred-year history.”

On November 5, the elegant First Eastern Hall of the Meiji Palace became the venue for yet more political theater when the third imperial conference of the year was convened. In the presence of the emperor, Togo was called to explain the prospect of Japan’s diplomacy. His role was to fully and categorically support the latest resolution that was now being authorized by the emperor. Rather than pushing an antiwar agenda, Togo couched his speech in the anticolonialist claim that Japan was embarking on a grand mission to save Asia. He pledged his commitment to the survival of not only Japan but also the whole of Asia, thereby ideologically justifying his support for the war he had so vehemently opposed in the liaison conferences. Togo, the most courageous and rational of the top leaders, was now beginning to sound like all the others who claimed not to want war while helping to make it inevitable. The failure since April to produce an understanding with the United States was blamed on the other side. Japan was a persecuted country, Togo insisted.

President Roosevelt is taking advantage of America’s strong economic position. As if it had already entered the war, it is helping Britain and is resorting to a harshly oppressive economic policy against Japan. Since mid-April this year, we have been engaging in unofficial negotiations concerning the general normalization of U.S.-Japan relations. The imperial government has been honest and just in its attitude in those negotiations from the very beginning, desiring the stability of East Asia and world peace.

On he went about how Japan had patiently tried to reach an understanding, but its efforts, including the new proposal submitted in late September, had been in vain. “If things go as they are going now,” he said, “I regret that the negotiations do not have any prospect of a quick resolution.” Even if this speech might not have faithfully reflected Togo’s innermost voice (honne), these official pronouncements showed that Togo was abandoning the courage of his convictions—though, to be sure, he had done more than anybody in the top decision-making circles to resist war.

All the leaders asserted their right to decide Japan’s fate by initiating a war, while paradoxically insinuating that they had no ultimate control over the fate of the country they led. Above all, they were eager to absolve themselves of the responsibility for whatever consequences might follow from their tortured decision, sensing that they would truly be devastating. The imperial conference, a ceremonial pseudo-religious rite meant to depoliticize huge political decisions, ensured that no one party or individual would be forced to shoulder the enormous burden of Japan’s grave future.

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