Prince Konoe Fumimaro, a lanky, mustached aesthete who once translated Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” and was now the prime minister of Japan, was in a melancholy mood. He was rarely seen smiling in official photographs and was often lost in thought, but in the spring of 1941 there were powerful reasons that he should be especially heavyhearted.
Since the previous fall, Japan’s relations with the United States had entered a new, much tenser phase. The arrival of Japanese occupation forces in northern French Indochina on September 23, 1940, alarmed the Roosevelt administration. From the Japanese perspective, the occupation was partly a measure taken in response to the U.S. “moral embargo” on the export of all aircraft to Japan since mid-1938 and to the termination by the United States in January 1940 of the thirty-year-old Treaty of Commerce and Navigation, which resulted in stricter control of the exportation of American industrial materials. The designation of Pearl Harbor as the base for the U.S. Pacific Fleet in May 1940 also added to Japanese alarm. The United States was reacting to what it felt were provocative actions by Japan, beginning with its war in China.
Additionally, the growing Nazi preponderance in Europe was giving Japanese expansionism in Asia more fuel. After Paris fell to Germany in June 1940, the timing seemed propitious for the Japanese to gain access to strategic materials they now lacked because of U.S. policy. By occupying northern French Indochina, Japan also hoped to ensure the closing of one of the main routes for the British and Americans to transport aid to Chiang Kai-shek, and thereby end the China War.
The policy backfired. Although the occupation was ostensibly carried out in accordance with a defense treaty with the French colonial government (in both French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies, the European colonialists remained in power despite the Nazi invasion of their home countries), Japan’s action was deemed a clear manifestation of its ambition to take over greater parts of Southeast Asia. That was why the United States responded with retaliatory economic measures. It immediately boosted its support for Chiang, with the Export-Import Bank extending $50 million in financial assistance to his regime. It also placed an embargo on all scrap metal shipments to Japan, which would greatly hamper its metal production.
The day after that U.S. response, on September 27, 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact in Berlin, forming a military alliance with Germany and Italy. Germany had dispatched a special envoy to Tokyo to negotiate directly with Konoe’s government, completely bypassing the discontented Japanese ambassador in Berlin, who was vehemently opposed to the alliance. Germany was keen to get closer to Japan because it was becoming increasingly anxious about its declining prospect of conquering Britain. The Luftwaffe’s defeat in the Battle of Britain, fought from July to October 1940, undermined Nazi plans to invade the British Isles. By allying with Japan and Italy, Germany hoped to deter the United States and minimize the chance of U.S. participation in a European war. The Japanese, in a similar way, saw the fascist alliance as a way of balancing power. Foreign Minister Matsuoka Yosuke embraced a speedy signing of the alliance, believing that this would drastically improve Japan’s negotiating position with the United States.
In a Japanese propaganda postcard promoting the triple alliance, captioned “The Three Are Good Friends,” jubilant children from Germany, Japan, and Italy wave their national flags. Across the top of the card is a row of small photographs of Hitler, Konoe, and Mussolini, with Prince Konoe, in the middle, managing to look elegant and foolish at the same time. The white boa ornament on his hat, presumably an official Western-style court uniform from the previous century, was doubtless unfortunate. With his weak chin and dreamy eyes, he could not help looking a bit weedy and unreal.
This postcard had actually been created a few years earlier to commemorate the Anti-Comintern Pact, which was reached between Germany and Japan in late 1936 and was joined by Italy a year later. Though it is tempting to think that the new Axis alliance of 1940 was a natural outgrowth of this older liaison, that was simply not the case. The Anti-Comintern Pact was not meant to be a fascist alliance only; the Japanese Foreign Ministry had failed to convince other powers, including Poland and Britain, to join, while Oshima Hiroshi, ambassador to Germany from 1938 to 1939 and again in late 1940 and at the time an army attaché at the Japanese embassy in Berlin, had skillfully obtained Nazi participation in the agreement. (Oshima, educated from an early age in German, was extremely intimate with the Nazis.) Afterward, whenever a proposal for an Axis military alliance came up in the top circles in Tokyo, the Navy Ministry, worried about risking war with the United States and Britain, firmly rejected it. Besides, Tokyo was greatly alarmed by the news of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the nonaggression treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union signed on August 23, 1939 (at the height of Japanese-Soviet battles over the border between Mongolia and Manchuria), with a secret protocol for dividing Poland and giving the Soviet Union predominance in the Baltic region. This shook the basic foundation of Japan’s earlier anti-Soviet, anti-Communist agreement with Germany. Prime Minister Hiranuma Kiichiro, who had succeeded Konoe after the latter’s first term running the government, was flabbergasted; he resigned, saying, “The European state of affairs is too complicated and bizarre.”
With the German military successes in Europe since the spring of 1940, the call for solidifying Japan’s ties with Germany resurfaced. Still believing that a fascist alliance would be a mistake, Navy Minister Yoshida Zengo, in the autumn of 1940, opposed the signing of an Axis pact with such vehemence that a heart condition (but some also speculate a failed suicide attempt) landed him in the hospital, forcing him to resign right before the German negotiators arrived in Tokyo. Without Yoshida, and with more and more admirers of Germany in their midst (owing in no small part to the initial blitzkrieg successes), the navy agreed to support the pact, as long as it was explicit that Japan would not automatically be required to participate in a German war with the United States. (For falling in line with the government and army preferences, the navy was promised a bigger budget.) A new era of Japanese diplomacy had begun.
In early 1941, rumors of war began to circulate within Tokyo’s diplomatic community. The deteriorating relations with Japan prompted the United States to start bringing back home family members of the U.S. embassy personnel stationed in Japan. An American school in Tokyo was forced to announce its closure in February, just as a major publisher released a book predicting and analyzing a hypothetical Japanese-American war (won by Japan, naturally), which sold fifty-three thousand copies in one month.
Japan’s relations with Britain, too, had been strained of late. Traditionally, the British attitude toward Japan had been one of pragmatism and conciliation. In July 1939, the two countries had reached the Arita-Craigie Agreement, signed by Foreign Minister Arita Hachiro and British ambassador Sir Robert Craigie: Britain had agreed to neither actively resist nor legally recognize Japanese conduct in China. One year after that agreement, in July 1940, Britain conceded to Japan’s request to close the Burma Road, a vital supply route for the transportation of materials to Chiang Kai-shek. But Japan’s occupation of northern Indochina finally prompted Britain to abandon its appeasement policy. In December 1940, Britain agreed to lend £10 million to the Guomindang and to reopen the Burma Road. And in the north, one shouldn’t forget, lurked the Soviet Union, with its threat of Bolshevism. Japan started 1941 facing more enemies than it was ever prepared to handle.
For the Japanese people, 1941 was a year of less and less food and fuel. The struggling epicurean Kafu, who had developed an overwhelmingly carnivorous appetite during his long stays in the United States and France, was always ready to pay a good price for a good meal. But even he had tremendous problems. “Compared to half a year ago,” he complained that spring, “the quality of meat and vegetables has declined drastically.” This was only the beginning. Within a few months, he would write: “I have not seen any vegetables or fruit for the past few days. Tofu isn’t sold, either. People are feeling distressed.” Even a gourmet grocer in the fashionable Ginza district, famous for its pampered fruits (the shiniest apples wrapped in delicate washi paper, fragrant melons sold in individual wooden boxes, and the like), did not have anything to sell, except for a few measly peaches. As for the meat that Kafu so craved: “No beef to be seen anywhere.” And for cooking and heating, citizens had to make do with charcoal, since petroleum and coal were reserved for military use. Public buses ran on charcoal, and those resources were beginning to get scarce.
Like vehicles running on ersatz fuel, Japan’s diplomacy was stalling, too. In a letter addressed “Dear Frank” to President Roosevelt, dated December 14, 1940, Joseph Grew, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, despaired:
No doubt you have seen some of my telegrams which have tried to paint the picture as clearly as has been possible at this post where we have to fumble and grope for accurate information, simply because among the Japanese themselves the right hand often doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. Their so-called “New Structure” [Konoe’s centralization program, more commonly known as the New Order Movement, which had recently ended Japan’s party politics] is in an awful mess and the bickering and controversy that go on within the Government itself are past belief. Every new totalitarian step is clothed in some righteous-sounding slogan. This, indeed, is not the Japan that we have known and loved.
In Grew’s analysis, the United States had to “call a halt to the Japanese program.” The only questions were when and how?
Meanwhile, U.S. involvement in the European war was becoming more and more likely. Planners from Britain and the United States gathered in Washington, D.C., from January 29 to March 29, 1941 (the so-called American-British Conversations, or ABC), to discuss future joint strategies, while the signing of the Lend-Lease Act in March put a decisive end to the pretense of U.S. noninterventionism. The latter arrangement enabled the United States to supply war matériel to the Allies and act as the “arsenal of democracy,” despite the Neutrality Acts and the staunch isolationist opposition President Roosevelt faced.
Washington’s increasing support for the Allies in turn helped to intensify U.S.-Japan relations. Even as the Japanese government was feeling its way into colonial Southeast Asia, while acquiring disreputable friends in Europe and making enemies of the United States and its allies, Konoe had no desire for Japan to go to war with the West. Japan under his leadership was still struggling to extricate itself from the China War—euphemistically referred to in Japanese as the “China Incident” partly because it was never officially declared a war, but also because it was not meant to last for years. The country was in no position to start another. This feeling was shared by many in the highest positions of military and civilian power. After all, they recognized that the United States, the provider of 93 percent of Japan’s petroleum in 1940, had far greater war-making powers than Japan could ever hope to muster in the foreseeable future.
In January 1941, Konoe dispatched a seasoned diplomat, Yoshizawa Kenkichi, to recommence negotiations with Dutch authorities in Batavia (Jakarta) so that Japan could secure an alternative source of petroleum without resorting to force. In February, another veteran, Admiral Nomura Kichisaburo, arrived as ambassador in Washington. A big teddy-bear-like man of sixty-two with a disarming smile, Nomura had to be talked out of his semiretirement for this momentous task. He was known as an Anglo-American sympathizer—as was the case with most navy men of his generation who came of age in the heyday of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902–23)—and an opponent of war. He was deemed the best candidate for the job since he and Roosevelt were old acquaintances.
All the leaders knew that the root causes of Prince Konoe’s problems, however, lay not in the Dutch East Indies or the United States but in China. From the Guomindang’s powerbase of Chongqing, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek had been putting up a dogged fight against Japan since the fall of his former capital, Nanjing, in late 1937. To avoid international sanctions on war matériel, neither side officially called it a war, but it was, in fact, a savage conflict, one that confirmed the reputation as a rogue state that Japan had earned after its invasion of Manchuria in 1931. When Konoe became prime minister for the second time in July 1940, he hoped to end the conflict, especially since he had frittered away the opportunity to do so during his first tenure.
Konoe’s initial premiership began on a buoyant note in 1937. He was not popularly elected. (Japanese premiers were traditionally appointed by the emperor on the recommendation of powerful oligarchs who had founded modern Japan and acted as kingmakers. Later, they were nominated by a group of senior statesmen assisting Prince Saionji, the last surviving oligarch, to be approved by the emperor. Saionji, in this instance, had nominated Konoe.) Yet it seemed as though the entire nation wanted the forty-five-year-old prince to be its leader. His pedigree and relative youth burnished his public image in a country that had adopted emperor worship as a matter of national policy since the second half of the nineteenth century. He held one of the noblest titles, with a lineage going back to the powerful Fujiwara family, which originated in the seventh century and whose members once ruled Japan as imperial regents and provided their daughters as brides to the imperial house.
Konoe was not your ordinary politician. Though he was said to have a common touch (he was once heard humming a cheesy popular love song, “I Pine for You,” while taking a stroll in the country), he was accustomed to a coddled life. At the time of his first appointment, his extreme pickiness in food was discussed with great curiosity. The prince was known to decline even the freshest and most carefully prepared sashimi at lavish political dinners. (People assumed he regarded raw fish as too primitive for his refined taste.) A geisha attending to him would put the sliced fish into a bowl of boiling water, fondue-style, and spoon-feed—or, rather, chopstick-feed—it to the prince.
A newspaper profile, published on the eve of his becoming prime minister, reported in half jest that Konoe ate his favorite fruit, strawberries, in a similar fashion. (In reality, the prince merely had them washed in sterilized water.) He confessed to his foibles in a magazine interview and explained that he did not eat raw food because of his delicate stomach. But rather than make him seem too soft to lead a country, such quirks somehow added to his aristocratic mystique and political charisma. Konoe could do no wrong in the eyes of the awestruck public.
Konoe’s popularity might have been based on surface impressions, but the public expectation that his appointment heralded change was genuine. On June 4, 1937, Konoe was literally cheered into Japan’s top political office by a nation that had been suffering from economic depression, natural disasters, agricultural failures, and a threat of army rebellion in the name of radical reform. Konoe’s choice of cabinet members immediately disappointed some astute observers, however. One columnist said his selection did not live up to the fanfare for change, as Konoe opted to retain the army, navy, and law ministers from the previous cabinet. “One should be greatly alarmed,” the columnist declared, “that we are reminded of the accommodationism [of the preceding governments].” Despite the sweeping victory of major political parties the previous spring, which prompted the last government’s fall, Konoe refused to include major party politicians in his own cabinet. The only two ministers with any party affiliations belonged to a new party with proarmy, totalitarian sympathies. There was no hint that Konoe wanted to resuscitate Japan’s ailing parliamentary system, which enjoyed its heyday in the second half of the 1920s. The nation was too enthralled by Konoe to see the latent danger of his apparent distaste for multiparty politics.
After just one month in office, Konoe was prompted by the outbreak of Japan’s war with China to further toughen his political stance. On the night of July 7, 1937, a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese forces transpired, though its exact origin is still highly contested. What is commonly told is that a small group of Japanese soldiers were engaging in exercises on the banks of the Yongding River, firing blank cartridges. (The Japanese forces were stationed there under the 1901 international treaty signed after a multinational expedition—which included the United States and European powers—quelled the antiforeign Boxer Rebellion.) To their consternation, the Japanese heard their fake shots being answered by live rounds, presumably by Chinese forces. Adding to their alarm was the roll call immediately afterward that revealed one of their soldiers to be missing. The Japanese request to search the nearby town that was normally out of bounds was rejected by Chinese guards, and an altercation followed, causing both sides to mobilize. That the stray soldier came back in one piece, after having gone off supposedly to relieve himself, made no difference. The small fight between local Chinese and Japanese forces quickly spiraled into serious hostilities. Because the night’s event took place near the Marco Polo Bridge, just outside Beijing, whose beauty was memorialized by the thirteenth-century Venetian merchant traveler, it came to be known in the West as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident.
Initially, Konoe was too engaged with his domestic agenda to be distracted by a small clash abroad. He was especially preoccupied with obtaining pardons for the ultranationalist officers who had been court-martialed the previous year for an almost successful military coup d’état. His efforts showed not only the extent to which he would go to support the extreme right but his fundamental obliviousness, despite his international travels, to the world beyond his own. Now the events in China demanded his attention.
Ishiwara Kanji, the charismatic mastermind of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931, argued that a military engagement with China should be avoided while a greater enemy, the Soviet Union, threatened from the north. However, some officers in Tokyo and in China believed that Japan was missing a God-sent opportunity to deal Chiang Kai-shek a decisive blow, especially now that the Soviets were caught up in the domestic chaos of a Stalinist purge and would not likely intervene if Japan attempted to expand its reach in China. In the end, the opinion that Japan was nowhere near prepared for a full-blown war in China prevailed, and a truce with China was reached on the night of July 11. Hostilities seemed to be contained to the level of a local conflict, as had been a number of other similar skirmishes in the previous year.
On the same day the local truce was being signed, Konoe nonetheless forced through a plan to send more troops to northern China, ostensibly to protect Japanese residents in conflict zones, making a great show of his eagerness to placate and impress hard-liners in the military, who were dissatisfied with the conciliatory policy of war avoidance that the truce represented. The reinforcements could readily be perceived as war mobilization, as Konoe signaled to China that despite the cease-fire, Japan was not backing out of the country and entertained expansionist aims.
Konoe took it upon himself to garner support for his China policy by launching a charm offensive in Tokyo. On the evening of July 11, he summoned members of the parliament, the financial world, and the media to his official residence. He announced the troop reinforcement and asked for help in mobilizing Japan behind this patriotic enterprise in the name of national emergency. The following day’s newspapers depicted the additional dispatch of troops to northern China as “intended to facilitate due repentance” from the Chinese, and the news of the truce was either pushed aside or summarily ignored.
Trying to appear tough in the eyes of others—including Chiang Kai-shek, his colleagues in the government, the military, and the general public—Konoe had taken the lead in rallying the nation around the flag, acutely conscious that his popularity was his greatest weapon. He did not want, and likely did not anticipate, a prolonged war with China. He thought that mere posturing and strong language would suffice to strengthen Japan. He often broadcast his speeches on NHK (he had become president of the network the year before and would retain that position until his suicide in December 1945). But Konoe was, in the words of a shrewd contemporaneous observer, “the man who ordered the nation to cross the Rubicon when the first shots were fired.”
The truce had become a dead letter by July 20, with Chiang taking his time to give it his official approval. As the war spread and intensified—Japan bombed Nanjing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and other major Chinese cities—Konoe blamed it on others, especially the army’s bellicose elements, who were, conveniently, nameless and faceless. In the summer of 1937, he told Lieutenant Colonel Ikeda Sumihisa, a staff officer who had just been sent back from China because of his opposition to the fledgling war, that the conflict was “the making of young army officers.” Ikeda responded:
Prince, I am afraid it’s not the army, but you, the prime minister, who made this war.… Look at what the newspapers are saying, despite your government’s earlier profession of a nonescalation policy. It would be surprising if we didn’t have a war [after all you have said and done to encourage and empower those war-hungry officers].
Konoe’s self-servingly short memory and his tendency to carry out contradictory policies as a way of political mediation, purely for the sake of dodging potential conflicts at home, continued. Tellingly, in January 1938, in the wake of the fall of the Guomindang’s capital of Nanjing and the ensuing mass killing, looting, and rape, Konoe, falsely confident that the end of the war was in sight, gave one of the most patronizing and jingoistic statements of his political career. Konoe charged that the Guomindang’s acts of aggression have not ceased despite its defeat, “subjecting its people to great misery.” Having run out of patience, Japan was not going to “deal with” Chiang Kai-shek. Six days later, Konoe followed up this arrogant statement with a radio speech. In dramatic contrast to its forceful contents, however, the voice reading it was high-pitched and unnervingly feminine. He reiterated that Japan was not to blame and the Guomindang was disrupting East Asia’s peace.
Japanese atrocities and bombings in various parts of China after August 1937 were not only inhumane but also self-destructive. They did not prompt China to sue for peace—on the contrary, they hardened Chinese determination—and at the same time crystallized the already hostile world opinion against Japan. The German bombing of Guernica that spring, and the international recrimination that followed, were still fresh in Western memory. The China War was becoming a quagmire. Successive Japanese victories had allowed Japan to occupy certain “dots” (cities) and “lines” (railways and transportation routes). But the farther the Guomindang forces retreated, the more difficult it became for the Japanese to acquire and maintain those dots and lines. Human resources were limited, as was familiarity with the terrain. Chiang Kai-shek’s temporary ally, the Chinese Communists, fighting from their strongholds in the north, would allow the Japanese to occupy towns and villages by quickly disappearing from their sight, only to reemerge after the Japanese had left. (The Guomindang would have preferred for them to stand up and fight. The Communists’ wartime preservation of strength would later contribute to their victory over the Guomindang.)
Konoe did not know how to end the conflict. The result was a disastrously inconsistent policy toward China. While approving the dispatch of ever more troops to the continent, increasing the military budget without any prodding from the armed services, and endorsing laws that would allow for a more concentrated war mobilization at home, Konoe pursued direct contact with Chiang, despite his tough talk, to negotiate an end to hostilities. But whenever there was a possibility for peace, the prince gave in to hard-line military expectations, took too long to decide how to respond, or simply exercised bad judgment. For example, in early December 1937, when Chiang—through the German ambassador in China—showed willingness to negotiate with Japan, the fall of Nanjing was imminent, and Konoe rejected the Chinese overture.
Foreign affairs, clearly, were never Konoe’s strong suit. He was exceptionally good, though, at making those around him feel they were being listened to with flattering attention. His distinct brand of lip service enabled him to deal effectively with those of various political persuasions and to navigate his career deftly through the most tumultuous years of Japanese politics, perhaps in much the same way that his forefathers had perpetuated the family’s intrigue-driven courtly existence over many centuries. But this had obvious drawbacks. “I have neither obvious enemies nor allies,” he once remarked. “Even if one had five enemies, one could manage to engage in politics with five true allies. But ten allies [of the kind I have] could very well become ten enemies at any given time.”
The prince’s sense of isolation might have been the result of his complicated upbringing. He was the only child from his father’s first marriage, his mother dying just a week after she gave birth. His father soon remarried. The bride was his deceased wife’s younger sister, with whom he fathered several children, making Fumimaro’s siblings something more than half siblings. The family patriarch died at forty-one, leaving the Konoes as perhaps the noblest but hardly the wealthiest of the old families. Twelve-year-old Fumimaro inherited the family seat, as well as the enormous debts incurred through his father’s political activities. The young prince felt abandoned and was prone to melancholy. It was Marquis Saionji Kinmochi (he was made a prince later), a descendant of the same ancient Fujiwara family as the Konoes, who discreetly ensured that the family did not suffer from any financial embarrassment.
Konoe was at the university when he first met Saionji, and he did not warm to him immediately. Much influenced by Marxist philosophy at the time, the young prince was offended by Saionji’s insistence on addressing him as “my lord.” In fact, the two had a lot in common. On a surface level, they had slender physiques on which expensive clothes, be they Western suits or Japanese kimonos, hung well. More important, both had a combination of brains and ambition that was uncommon in men of their social background. They became close as Konoe was drawn to a political career after graduation. Saionji was thrilled to have such a bright protégé.
Saionji, a practical man, opposed the deification of the emperor but felt the emperor was important in unifying modern Japan. In his view, the unnecessarily elaborate court rituals were created either by old aristocrats who had nothing better to do or by new ones with poor taste (during the modernization of Japan in the late nineteenth century). But while dismissing the excessive importance attached to the class system, Saionji knew very well the benefit of having an aristocratic title in rank-conscious Japan. The key was to have the title work to one’s advantage. He judged Konoe, forty years his junior, intelligent enough to play in this precarious game.
Saionji, unfortunately, did not play imparting his values to his younger disciple. Born in 1849, Saionji was a classic liberal, a product of nineteenth-century Europe who came of age as a student in Paris under the Commune and was a friend of his fellow lodger Georges Clemenceau, who would become a celebrated statesman. Saionji’s political consciousness had been awakened in his teens when the imperial court in Kyoto suddenly found itself in the midst of a political transformation that culminated in the Meiji Restoration of 1868. His life would subsequently be about surviving radical political changes without compromising his principles.
Konoe, who had never lived outside Japan and had been raised in an overprotective environment, had quite a different take on life. An avid student of political philosophy, his intellectual interests included Marxism and fascism (liberalism never seems to have attracted him). Konoe was convinced that Japan should seek greatness in the wider world, obsessed as he was with the notion that Japan should not appear weak in the political competition of nation-states. Himself the embodiment of privilege, he wanted Japan to occupy a similar position on the international stage. His first trip abroad confirmed his rigid view. In 1919, as a twenty-seven-year-old political novice, he accompanied Saionji to the Paris Peace Conference, where post–World War I settlements were discussed. He had begged Saionji to take him along, sensing that the event would be of great historical importance.
Konoe found the timing convenient for personal reasons, too. The prince was dismayed that his geisha mistress from his student years, Kiku, whom he had brought from Kyoto to Tokyo some years earlier, had become pregnant with their child. He had originally sought her companionship as a break from his fast-growing family. Producing offspring bearing the Konoe name was his wife’s job, and she did it very well. He knew that the baby would take his place in Kiku’s affections, and there would be no point in keeping her as a mistress. She was sent home. And with money he had collected by auctioning off some of the family treasures, he set off for Paris.
Konoe’s emotional investment in the peace conference was considerable. On the eve of the armistice, he had written an article entitled “I Call to Reject the Anglo-American Peace,” which was published in a nationalistic magazine. Though not entirely opposed to Woodrow Wilson’s idea of establishing an intergovernmental organization, he was deeply suspicious of the moralizing and ambitious claims attached to the League of Nations. He asserted that the new postwar order, as conceived by Britain and the United States, had nothing to do with the promotion of democracy or peace claimed by those powers. Rather, he saw it as a reflection of the Anglo-American desire to continue exercising economic imperialism to their advantage, enhancing their international standings. That the two aims—preservation of the status quo and peaceful coexistence—could be mutually reinforcing certainly would have been a more sophisticated reading.
Konoe believed that those of his countrymen who favored the liberal internationalist proposal did so simply because they were sentimental and too easily impressed by its flowery language of justice and humanity. He told his Japanese readers to wake up to the hard realities of international inequality and injustice, citing racial prejudice against yellow-skinned people in the United States, Australia, and Canada. He said that those countries
welcome white immigrants but persecute yellow ones, including, of course, us Japanese. This fact is nothing new and remains a persistent source of our anger and frustration. By judging us by the color of our skin, white people prevent us from obtaining employment and renting houses or land. We are sometimes even refused one night’s rest in a hotel, unless we have a white guarantor. This is a deplorable problem from a humanitarian point of view.
Konoe intended this polemical article for domestic readers only, but it reached the outside world. The piece was translated into English and criticized in the Shanghai-based Millard’s Review of the Far East, winning Konoe some notoriety as a radical. Saionji, who regarded the article as thoughtless, provocative, undiplomatic, and inappropriate for someone about to attend the Paris Peace Conference with the official delegation, voiced his displeasure. But Sun Yat-sen, the leader of modern Chinese nationalism and a Pan-Asianist, invited Konoe to dine with him in Shanghai, where they agreed on the importance of Asian nationalism.
In Paris, Konoe witnessed the most significant intergovernmental conclave ever to take place. From some distance, he observed Clemenceau and Wilson. The range he noted in skin color among the participants astonished him. Because there were only so many official places given to each delegation, which did not include Konoe, he arranged for a journalist’s pass to listen in on a major session one day. Saionji scolded him afterward for not acting with enough dignity. Saionji also reproached him for plucking a flower in a public park: “You don’t have the proper manners of a member of a great nation,” he said. Saionji was even more aghast when he overheard Konoe taking part in lighthearted banter about how to talk one’s way out of trouble with customs officers.
For Konoe, a new member of the House of Peers—one of the houses of Japan’s bicameral parliament, the Diet—the trip served as a great introduction to the bigger world. He was able to gain, or so he believed, a more global perspective on how diplomacy was conducted. When he left the delegation to tour Europe on his own, he was enthralled most notably by the loveliness of English gardens. He then visited the United States. But his first great adventure abroad in the end did not alter his fundamental conviction that the post–World War I settlements were a Carthaginian peace, imposed on the vanquished to keep the status quo in place. Even though the Japanese were on the winning side, he felt they were losers, too. To him, the Japanese attempt to include racial equality and religious freedom clauses in the League of Nations’ covenant failed because of white prejudice.
Shortly after his return to Japan, Konoe published a booklet recording his impressions of his Western travels. He pondered how Japan could go about achieving higher international status without having to beg for it. Commenting on the rising anti-Japanese sentiments in the United States due to immigration, Konoe wrote:
That the white people—and the Anglo-Saxon race in particular—generally abhor colored people is an apparent fact, so blatantly observable in the U.S. treatment of its black people. I for one felt a sort of racial oppression more in London than in Paris, and that sense was heightened even further upon my arrival in New York.
It is truly ironic that two decades later Japan, under a man who had always despised Anglo-American racism, would ally itself with the most fanatically racist of all European regimes, Nazi Germany.
The young Konoe went on to discuss, admiringly, the success of Chinese public relations in the United States and to deplore Japan’s relative failure to promote its national cause. He explained how Chinese students studying in the United States were far more effective than their Japanese counterparts in enlightening their American peers about their country and, more important, in eliciting their sympathy for it. Oddly, he did not see China as a fellow Asian power in Japan’s worthy struggle against discriminatory treatment by the Anglo-Americans. Rather, China, in Konoe’s mind, was a threatening rival vying for Western respect and recognition as a top Asian country. Fearing that China might outdo Japan, he called for Japan to adopt a more self-assertive diplomatic approach. In the end, he was far more of a Japanese chauvinist than an Asian nationalist. And like with many chauvinists, his claim to national greatness went hand in hand with a great measure of insecurity and fear of rejection.
Accordingly, Konoe, who was grooming his eldest son, Fumitaka, for a career in politics, sent him to Lawrenceville, an exclusive American prep school, and then to Princeton, so that someday he could become an effective proponent of Japanese interests among American elites. Prince Konoe liked to tell his more right-wing friends, who wondered why on earth he had sent his son to America, that it was easier to nurture a true Japanese spirit abroad, that universities at home tended to take the Japanese spirit out of their students. On the other hand, he said, living abroad made it easier for people to love their country. The more convincing reason for Konoe’s sending his son to America was that most of his closest aides and friends, from a similar aristocratic background, were products of top Anglo-American educational institutions. They all had the social and linguistic facility to be citizens of the greater and privileged world. Konoe, owing to his father’s untimely death, did not benefit from such a formative experience, and most likely he had a certain inferiority complex as a result. Konoe’s professed anti-Anglo-American views should be seen in this light. Needless to say, he was conflicted about China, too. He admired its ancient civilization but felt threatened by its rising nationalism.
Konoe’s pet claim of Japan having suffered from predatory Western imperialism and racism was by no means original in the context of his time. But he managed to profess his feelings without appearing overtly reactionary or dangerous (at least most of the time), so observers at home and abroad too often failed to see his true colors. Because of his seemingly close connection to Prince Saionji, Konoe was sometimes even mislabeled a liberal.
Toward the end of Saionji’s life, he would be increasingly disappointed and alarmed by his onetime protégé’s provocative pronouncements on foreign policy. Konoe’s appearance as Hitler in a Nazi uniform at the costume banquet on the eve of his daughter’s wedding in the spring of 1937 did not help their often strained relationship. A charitable interpretation would be that this was no more than an aristocratic diversion. But news of the event infuriated Saionji, and Konoe became more cautious about professing his admiration for Nazism. Still, Konoe’s subsequent policies would more often than not suggest an attraction to at least some aspects of fascist ideology, particularly the idea of a “New European Order,” celebrated by Mussolini and Hitler. The idea that superior nations were destined to lead others in the revival of a larger civilization meshed well with his Japan-centric view of Asia. That was why in late 1938 he announced his intention to build a “New East Asian Order,” a vain attempt to reverse the damage done by his earlier policy and to give some ideological coherence to Japan’s war aims in China.
But the harm could not be undone so easily. Konoe’s declaration in January 1938 that he would not “deal with” Chiang Kai-shek had alienated the Guomindang leader and would obstruct all future Japanese attempts at a diplomatic settlement. As Saionji remarked to his grandson in private, Japan had to make Chiang Kai-shek
into a legitimate negotiating partner.… The Chinese negotiator for the settlement of the Sino-Japanese War [of 1894–95], Li Hongzhang, also had a terrible reputation in Japan. But then there was only him to be dealt with in China. So one makes do with what one has. There is nothing else to do other than to identify who is at the top and negotiate with that person.
Konoe’s impatience with Chiang put him temperamentally in line with those who believed they could quickly defeat China. In the meantime, the prolongation of the China War under Konoe’s leadership had increasingly constricting effects on Japanese life. In order to ensure that home-front mobilization would be carried out efficiently, the government in the fall of 1937 established the Cabinet Planning Board for resource allocation. This paved the way for the passage of the National Mobilization Law, which took effect in April 1938. Invoking a state of national emergency, the law represented an attempt to regulate all aspects of professional, economic, and social endeavors by giving the state ultimate control over them. It put in motion the conversion of Japan’s semiwar economy into a war economy, drastically reducing the flow of raw materials into the market and preparing the nation, eventually, for total war.
The National Mobilization Law defeated its purposes when enforced on a microlevel, however. The diarist Kafu noted that a hefty fine was imposed on a well-meaning pastry shop owner who had paid his employees a bonus. “Why should anyone be punished for giving too much? What a strange world we live in!” Kafu lamented. It was a sure sign that every little move was being watched by the state and one could readily be punished for the wrong reasons.
Because of the China War, the fundamental power structure at the center was also changing quickly, which would prove critical later. In November 1937, Konoe instituted a system of joint conferences between the government and the military. They were called liaison meetings, or liaison conferences, and were meant to help leaders overcome the civil-military divide and unify policy at a time of heightened international crises. These gatherings became more frequent during Konoe’s second premiership and took place in the prime minister’s official residence until July 1941 and at the Imperial Palace after Konoe became prime minister for the third time. Regularly in attendance were the prime minister, the foreign minister, the army minister, the navy minister, and the chiefs of the Army and Navy General Staffs, all of whom were deemed to have an equal say. Contrary to the original intention, however, the conferences would become a theater for advancing strategic agendas, rather than for debate. As four of the six key attendees of the conferences were affiliated with the military (even though the duties of army and navy ministers were technically within the civilian cabinet), their preferences tended to dominate. This would prove a major structural flaw in prewar Japanese decision making.
Under Konoe’s leadership, an ambitious program to create another Guomindang regime sympathetic to Japan headed by Wang Jingwei, a direct disciple of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang’s biggest rival, was set in motion. Wang, unlike the hard and pragmatic Chiang, was a naïve and romantic idealist. He had escaped from the new Guomindang capital, Chongqing, in December 1938, but his government was not formed in Nanjing until the spring of 1940, after numerous setbacks, including an assassination attempt that he barely escaped. Wang’s acts were driven by patriotism as well as personal ambition. Japan, for its part, needed a more pliable negotiating partner. In late November 1940, two months after Japan’s signing of the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, Konoe’s second government would recognize Wang as the new leader of China. Konoe might have felt morally obligated to recognize the regime whose birth he had connived in. But the timing could not have been worse. By then the Wang government had lost all its credibility in China. (And besides, Japan never conceded the entire control of China to Wang, having maintained a handful of occupational, colonial, and client regimes, including Manchukuo, Taiwan, northern China, and Inner Mongolia, thus undermining Wang’s domestic prestige.) Once again, Konoe had demonstrated his ineptitude in foreign affairs.
The official line was always that the Japanese forces continued to make great progress in China. In reality, Japan was acting much like the delusional protagonist of the classic black comedy Eternal March Forward (Kagirinaki Zenshin), a film based on Ozu Yasujiro’s story and released shortly after the outbreak of the conflict in 1937. Fifty-two-year-old Tokumaru is laid off from a company for which he has worked most of his life. Right before his dismissal, he had started building a house beyond his means, counting on a promotion. Now depression pushes him to the edge of reason. He is no longer able to distinguish wishful thinking from reality. Convincing himself that he has been promoted, he begins to show up at work behaving like an important man, much to the embarrassment of his family and former colleagues. Tokumaru “eternally marches forward” in his unhinged state.
JAPAN’S CHINA PROBLEM, which would complicate Tokyo’s political choices in 1941, had roots far beyond Prince Konoe. Over the course of its national existence, Japan had imported (often through Korea) and synthesized many aspects of Chinese civilization, including its writing system, Confucian thought, and Buddhism. Japan historically looked up to China with awe, albeit with a certain detachment that came easily to a geographically isolated island society. But by the 1840s, in the face of the Western imperialist threat, the once-glorious Middle Kingdom seemed thoroughly helpless and decadent, opium addicted and suddenly decrepit, no longer a model for Japan.
After two and a half centuries of relative tranquillity under the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan was forced to shake itself out of a self-imposed isolation that had limited the country’s contact with the outside world. China’s weakness in the mid-nineteenth century meant that it could no longer be a buffer—Japan had to face the Western powers on its own. Equally worrying was that, immediately to the north of Japan and China, czarist Russia appeared eager to extend its already overextended empire.
Completely new to the great-power game, Japan had to learn its rules quickly. That it was able to do so owed a great deal to a group of remarkably talented young visionaries who gave birth to modern Japan. By the early twentieth century, Japan, amazingly for an Asian power, had attained a certain standing in the elite club of Western imperialists, though it never felt entirely at home in such company. Theodore Roosevelt’s reported comment, meant as a compliment, that the Japanese were an “honorary white race” explains why. Japan was often overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy and suspicion and by the conflicting senses of being superior and a loner.
Japan’s touchiness was sometimes simply a paranoid response. But at other times, the country had good reason to feel slighted and even excluded. The diplomatic efforts in the first few decades of Japan’s new Meiji regime, formed in 1868, concentrated on the reversal of the unequal treaties Japan had been forced to sign with Western powers, including the United States (expiring only in 1911). Those treaties, imposed by gunboat diplomacy, deprived Japan of its commercial and legal sovereignty, prompting the opening of various ports to foreign trade, fixed low tariffs, and the extraterritoriality of foreign residents.
Even victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, fought over Korea, was tainted by Western intervention. The Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the war, accorded Japan the island of Formosa (now Taiwan) and the Liaodong Peninsula. With its strategically located seaports of Dalian and Port Arthur serving as the gateway to Manchuria and Northeast China, the peninsula had become the target of a power scramble for concessionary rights among the powers, particularly Russia and Japan because of their proximity. Once the settlement in favor of Japan became public, however, Russia, France, and Germany, with Britain and the United States turning a blind eye, successfully pressured Japan to return the peninsula in the so-called Triple Intervention. Such were the hard realities of international politics. Three years later, Russia would acquire leasehold rights in the coveted peninsula.
Japan was undeterred. It carried on in its determined quest for a more respectable status, greater territorial expansion, and a stronger army. In 1904–5, it fought Russia and won—an imperialist fantasy come true—and was much applauded abroad, especially in Britain and the United States. Japan now possessed protectorate rights in Korea, which it would annex in 1910. It also acquired the former Russian railway and mining rights in southern Manchuria. Japan claimed or reclaimed some territories in the Russian empire, such as the leasehold over the old sore spot of Liaodong and southern Sakhalin, an island north of Japan where Japan’s indigenous Ainu population had long settled. There still lingered the big question of what to do about China.
In the aftermath of their country’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, reform-minded Chinese, impressed by Japan’s quick ascent, flocked to Japan, often as students of Western science and political thought. The Japanese had acquired those tools to protect their independence, and many Chinese, including the first Guomindong leader, Sun Yat-sen, admired them for it, as they considered Japan a successful model of modernization. Some Japanese in turn embraced Sun and his colleagues’ cause. One of them, the movie studio tycoon Umeya Shokichi, drew on his fortune to help finance Sun’s nationalist movement, as did others who believed that a stronger China would enhance the future of Asia as a whole.
Konoe’s father, Prince Konoe Atsumaro, advocated a strong Sino-Japanese alliance. In his capacity as a member of the House of Peers, he helped found in 1898 a cultural organization called the Same Character Society, whose members believed that the two countries were bound to help one another because Chinese and Japanese, racial kin, shared the same writing system. Its most notable project was the founding of an academy in Shanghai whose graduates became Japan’s top China specialists in politics, diplomacy, journalism, and economics.
Despite such attempts to strengthen Sino-Japanese relations on various civic levels, Japan, as a state, consistently pursued a hard-nosed, classically imperialist approach in dealing with China. The Qing dynasty’s collapse in 1912 prompted an ultimate competition among domestic Chinese, as well as between outside powers, to gain further control of the vast country and its seemingly limitless resources; Japan acquired various concessionary rights through bargaining and coercion, as well as threats of force.
In 1915, Japan revealed its more ambitious designs regarding China. Wanting to take advantage of a severe internal crisis in the newly established Republic of China and the war in Europe, Japan presented the so-called Twenty-One Demands to President Yuan Shikai, the one who would soon try to crown himself emperor, Napoleon-style. Japan demanded, among other things, German concessions in Shandong, where Japan had just defeated Germany; the extension into the twenty-first century of Japanese leasehold on the South Manchurian Railway zone, which had been acquired from Russia and was scheduled to expire in 1923; and the placement of Japanese advisers in the Chinese government. The Chinese resisted, and the last demand, which would have turned China virtually into Japan’s puppet regime, was dropped. In the end, the episode proved a public relations disaster, with Japan managing only to consolidate more or less the rights it had already possessed while decisively antagonizing the United States, now the self-appointed watchdog of the Open Door policy in China. To some Japanese, this smacked of a self-serving U.S. rejection of its own Monroe Doctrine, enabling American intervention in Japan’s backyard and preventing Japan from claiming regional leadership in Asia.
Japan’s demands had of course also upset China, where nationalism was further galvanized when Japan won its claim to Shandong Province at the Paris Peace Conference, a reward for having joined the right side of the war against Germany. This sparked powerful and broad-based Chinese nationalism, culminating in the anti-Japanese, anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement of 1919. Japan’s interests in China grew more exposed and vulnerable as a result. (Japan would eventually agree to return Shandong to Chinese control through U.S. mediation, at the Washington Naval Conference in 1922, a humiliating concession in the eyes of Japanese nationalists.) Still, these were by and large diplomatic episodes.
The Manchurian Incident, staged by Colonel Ishiwara Kanji, changed everything. On September 18, 1931, some soldiers of the Kwantung Army stationed in the Japanese-leased railway zone to protect Japan’s interests in southern Manchuria exploded a small bomb on the railway and claimed that anti-Japanese Chinese elements were responsible. Using the incident as a pretext to launch a full-scale assault on local Chinese troops, Japanese troops occupied the entire northeastern area over the next five months.
Ishiwara was a magnetic and eccentric officer who had formulated an apocalyptic war theory some years before. His pivotal role in the Manchurian takeover would make him a key figure in Japan’s military buildup for war in China (though he personally opposed the China War) and eventually in the Pacific. He had long regarded a titanic clash between East and West—most likely between Japan and the United States but also possibly the Soviet Union—as a matter of historical inevitability. This type of rhetoric, glorifying Japan’s heroic destiny, would influence many a middle-ranking strategist in the army and the navy.
On the eve of the Manchurian Incident, Ishiwara believed that Chiang Kai-shek’s brand of assertive Chinese nationalism, supported by many industrialists, and the increasing Western recognition of Chiang’s power had become major problems for Japan. In 1925, Chiang attained leadership of the Guomindang, following Sun Yat-sen’s death. Shortly afterward, he launched a Northern Expedition, with the help of the Communists, in order to bring the parts of China torn by warlord factionalism under his control. During the expedition he fell out with the Communists, massacring them in April 1927 in Shanghai, which caused a temporary rift between “right” and “left” factions of the Guomindang, the latter led by Wang Jingwei. Despite a series of setbacks, however, the Northern Expedition continued through 1928, when Guomindang troops clashed for the first time with Japanese forces—dispatched to protect Japanese nationals. By 1931, Chiang had succeeded in establishing himself as the nominal leader of a unified China, although he would repeatedly be challenged by his warlord allies as well as by the Communists. From the Japanese perspective, one thing was sure, that Chiang was increasingly leaning toward cooperation with Western powers (primarily the United States), while distancing himself from Japan and adopting strong anti-Japanese rhetoric.
To many in Japan, the Western support Chiang garnered in a relatively short time represented a betrayal, a turning back from the tacit and time-honored imperialist method of keeping China divided so that foreign powers could benefit from its weakness. By the end of the 1920s, Japan was equally obsessed with the rise of Bolshevism, as the Soviet Union launched its Five-Year Plans to strengthen its economy while building up its Far Eastern military presence immediately to Japan’s north. All these factors compelled Ishiwara and his followers to go far beyond the call of duty and invade Manchuria. Their reckless initiative came as a surprise to most leaders in Tokyo, though the plotters may well have had supporters in the higher ranks of the Army General Staff. At the beginning of the Manchurian campaign, Prime Minister Wakatsuki Reijiro and Foreign Minister Shidehara Kijuro, among others, wanted to contain hostilities. Japanese public opinion, however, fueled by the jingoistic media, keenly supported Ishiwara’s adventures. The public was fed reports commending the courage of the field army, swelling national pride. Major newspapers competed with one another, issuing extras with exclusive photos of Japan’s every strategic move, profiting greatly from their suddenly booming circulation. Correspondents were sent to war zones to report under such dramatic headlines as “Our Army Heroically Marches from Changchun to Jilin” and “Our Imperial Army Charges into Qiqihar, Its Great Spirit Piercing Through the Sky!”
The papers at this time made a conscious political choice that would haunt them in the coming decade: self-censorship. Despite their knowledge, passed on to them in private by some army officers, that the supposedly Chinese-orchestrated bombing was a sham, all the major newspapers chose to withhold this information. They never divulged to the reading public the false pretext of a Chinese plot, and they fully backed the Kwantung Army’s claim, successively featuring bogus reports that professed to reveal “the truth of the [Manchurian] incident.” These reports were illustrated with photographs of the damaged rail beds and the corpse of a Chinese soldier allegedly responsible for the act. (He was actually killed and placed near the railway by the Japanese.)
Cornered by what seemed like unequivocal public endorsement, forged in no small part by such newspaper coverage, Wakatsuki’s government, on September 24, grudgingly approved the military operations. A pattern had been set: a hopelessly passive government accepting military aggression that it had neither initiated nor endorsed. Wakatsuki, unable to rein in the military, resigned in December and was succeeded by the leader of the opposition party, Inukai Tsuyoshi.
By February 1932, the three Manchurian provinces of Liaoning, Heilongjiang, and Jilin were all under the control of the Japanese army. That garrison forces could occupy portions of China without formal approval sent a dangerous signal. Young and frustrated soldiers, willing to blame those in power for various social and economic difficulties facing Japan, had been wanting to force radical change for some time. Now inaction in Tokyo and the absence of clear instructions from the top invited further violent actions. The ancient samurai would have called this a retainer supplanting his lord. In modern military terms, it was simple insubordination. Yet no army leader was willing to put his foot down.
Japan’s actions in Manchuria marked a major step toward political isolation, even though very few Japanese recognized it as such. The Kwantung Army’s establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo—comprising the captured provinces—was proclaimed on March 1, 1932. International condemnation followed. On May 15, a group of young naval officers and army cadets burst into the prime minister’s official residence and shot Inukai; he died that evening. The killers were alarmed that Inukai was becoming soft on China, possibly yielding Japanese control of Manchukuo. Japan had been an exemplary member of the League of Nations throughout most of its existence, but the country renounced its membership in March 1933 on account of Manchukuo.
Sino-Japanese relations did not break down entirely, however, because of the confluence of pragmatic interests on both sides. Through the mid-1930s Tokyo oscillated between a more cautious, even friendly, China policy and a hardline approach backed by military pressure. Chiang, preoccupied by the problem of consolidating his control over the rest of China, and especially by fighting the Communists who had established independent “Soviet Republics” in the hinterland of southern and central China, seemed willing to overlook the sticky question of Manchukuo for the time being. He certainly did his best to avoid major clashes with Japan in the north. Recognizing a window of opportunity, the Kwantung Army expanded Japan’s sphere of influence first toward Rehe (Jehol) Province, west of Manchuria, which became part of Manchukuo in 1933, and then toward the nearby areas of Hebei and Chahar (Inner Mongolia). In a series of Sino-Japanese agreements reached in 1933 and 1935, the Guomindang accepted humiliating terms that included partial demilitarization of North China, the withdrawal of the Guomindang organizations from Manchukuo’s vicinity, and the establishment of autonomous, pro-Japanese governments in East Hebei and Chahar.
At home, as Japanese society struggled to recover from the economic slump caused by, among other things, the worldwide depression, fear and unrest were growing. In this dismal atmosphere, on February 26, 1936, a nearly successful coup was launched in Tokyo by young army officers. The officers assassinated several key government figures before surrendering. Prince Saionji, the principal target of the assassins, escaped. Prime Minister Hirota Koki’s cabinet was formed on March 9, but only after Prince Konoe had declined to assume the post, claiming poor health. (He may well have not wanted to purge elements sympathetic to the rebel officers, as he himself wished to remain on good terms with them. His later attempt to pardon the indicted officers only corroborates this view.)
Hirota’s government now adopted a tougher foreign policy as a way to divert domestic discontent. It called for a military buildup in preparation for a possible war with China, the Soviet Union, and the Western powers, all the while making plans for advancing into Southeast Asia. The Japanese policy shift was immediately felt in China, which explains the volatile atmosphere at the Marco Polo Bridge. The number of Japanese troops had tripled in 1936, to almost six thousand, without prior consultation with the Chinese.
China’s domestic situation had substantially changed by then. Japanese expansionism and Chiang’s ambition of leading a strong, unified China could only cohabit for so long. Because of his earlier concessions to Japan, Chiang had become increasingly vulnerable to Communist propaganda, which painted him as a traitor to the nation who gave into Japanese imperialist pressure and who was willing to sacrifice fellow Chinese. The decisive turning point happened in December 1936, when Chiang was kidnapped by the Young Marshal, Zhang Xueliang, the son of Zhang Zuolin, a Manchurian warlord assassinated by the Japanese in 1928; Zhang wanted Chiang to join a united front against Japan together with the Communists. To preserve his legitimacy as China’s national leader, Chiang decided he could no longer afford to look conciliatory toward Japan. This meant that he and the Japanese army stopped sharing the same priority of defeating the Communists, be they Chinese or Soviet. This development, in turn, persuaded the Japanese military hardliners to push for a more aggressive policy, especially in the north, to sustain and maximize its existing interests.
KONOE, who had just taken office at the time of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, managed to escalate it, as we have seen, even though he would disclaim any such intention. He formulated and encouraged policies that more often than not compromised one another, never quite seeing any of them to their completion, and the cumulative effect was disastrous.
More and more men, including those in their late thirties, were removed from the workforce and dispatched to war zones. The compulsory Conscription Ordinance of 1873 had been replaced by an even more extensive and universal Military Service Law in 1927, which would continue until 1945. Under the new system, a draftee for the army was expected to serve two years on active duty and remain on reservist duty for approximately fifteen years. In the case of the navy, the active service was three years and the reservist duty lasted nine. In order to mass-produce soldiers as the China War escalated, the military came to adopt looser health and physical fitness requirements (for example, the minimum height was lowered from five feet one to four feet eleven). Desperate to avoid serving, many men faked physical disabilities and illnesses. Some drank a supersize bottle of soy sauce before a physical in the hope of inducing temporary liver or heart failure. Others lost a massive amount of weight through the use of laxatives. The march toward mobilization continued anyway. The number of men qualified for military service climbed from approximately 20 percent in 1935 to 23 percent in 1937 and to 47 percent in 1939.
One soldier, Ushiotsu Kichijiro—let us call him Soldier U, as he could have been any of tens of thousands of others—was drafted in August 1937 to serve in the army right after the outbreak of the China War. Until his unit landed near the mouth of the Yangtze River, this shop owner from Kyoto had never heard a gunshot. Nor had he smelled anything as indescribably malodorous as the decomposing body of a Chinese soldier he stumbled over, which emitted a powerful stench of death and was being attacked by thousands of ravenous flies. The flies made such a loud, almost booming sound that he could not believe they were mere insects. At the ripe old age of thirty-one, Soldier U felt utterly unprepared for his new incarnation.
On patrol duty in one of the cities that the Japanese had just overtaken, Soldier U was checking houses to see if anybody was still inside when he was approached by a pretty young girl of about twelve. To his astonishment, she voluntarily led him to her bed. He was aghast and saddened by the girl’s desperate gesture, fully conceding that some others would have easily taken advantage of the situation. (The eventual Japanese decision to institute the system of “comfort women,” virtual sex slaves who were often forcibly recruited from the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere, was prompted by the overwhelming need to keep the urges of its soldiers under some kind of control.)
On another occasion, Soldier U witnessed a young Chinese woman who had just given birth stumble out of her house to escape a shoot-out. She was killed by stray bullets as she held her newborn, whose umbilical cord was still attached. Just as haunting, Soldier U helplessly looked on as Japanese soldiers threw Chinese captives into a creek and gunned them down as they struggled for their lives, their blood turning the water scarlet.
At the end of October 1937, when Soldier U heard the rumor that Tokyo’s talks with the Guomindang were stalled, he was dismayed and fearful that what was supposed to have been a quick and easy war might last for some time. On his perilous way to Nanjing, Chiang Kai-shek’s capital, he was delighted but surprised to cross paths with his older brother, who had been drafted after Soldier U’s departure. He could not believe that a thirty-six-year-old was expected to serve, confirmation that things were not going so splendidly for Japan.
Soldier U had not yet seen the worst. As his unit made its way through the already fallen capital of Nanjing, the familiar odor of corpses overwhelmed him. Bodies were piled up at the Yijiang Gate, which served as the only escape route for the panicked Chinese soldiers and Nanjing citizens fleeing the Japanese advance on December 12, 1937. His unit had to slowly navigate the mountains of dead bodies, some of which had been completely flattened, like sheets of paper, by stampedes. He said his Buddhist prayers as he struggled on.
The sudden expansion of Japan’s armed forces with people like Soldier U meant that the China War provided a major opportunity for speedy promotion for professional soldiers. They were expected to oversee those often unwilling and unfit recruits. This added to the professionals’ perceived importance and ensured the further militarization of Japanese society, one manifestation of which was the emergence of patriotic women’s associations. They petitioned volunteers to contribute to “thousand-stitch belts”—sashes with decorative embroidery sewn by a thousand different women in order to make them, purportedly, bulletproof—which were sent to the Chinese battlefields as a show of support. The belts became ideal homes for bedbugs (pejoratively called Nanjing bugs) to the dismay of many a wretched wearer.
The China War cost Japan the chance to recover the international respectability it had lost with its incursion into Manchuria. In July 1936, exactly one year before the outbreak of the war, Tokyo had won its bid to host the Olympic Games in 1940. The Japanese had lobbied tirelessly for the honor. It was to be one of the most important national projects for modern Japan, the first non-Western country to host the games. Construction of stadiums began swiftly. By 1938, though, international pressure on Japan to give up the games had been mounting. Some countries, including the United States, hinted at a boycott.
With no end to the China War in sight, the military, worried about its resource requirements, suggested that only lumber and stone be used for projects related to the games. Major newspapers that had been the biggest cheerleaders for the Tokyo Olympics became conspicuously silent on the issue. In late June 1938, Konoe’s cabinet placed quotas on the use of industrial materials meant for projects other than war. This effectively put an end to Japan’s Olympic dream. Tokyo would have to wait another two dozen years for its moment of Olympic glory.
Ironically, the hardening of international opinion against Japan took place just as the country was experiencing a surge in self-confidence apart from its military might. At the 1937 Paris Exposition, the thirty-six-year-old architect Sakakura Junzo, a disciple of Le Corbusier, won the top prize for his Japanese Pavilion. In August, Tokyo proudly hosted the World Federation of Education Associations’ seventh biennial conference, the first to be held in Asia, which was attended by three thousand participants from forty-eight countries. And then there was the flight of the Kamikaze. When the two-seater left Tokyo on April 6, 1937, nobody in Europe seemed to have taken any notice of the great challenge that its twenty-four-year-old pilot, Iinuma Masaaki, and thirty-six-year-old flight engineer, Tsukagoshi Kenji, had undertaken. Japan was a completely unknown quantity in the glamorous but highly dangerous world of record-setting long-distance air races dominated by European and North American pilots. The Japanese flight was ostensibly planned to celebrate the coronation of King George VI, to be held on May 12, and to make goodwill visits to various European capitals. It was, in fact, a great publicity stunt for the Asahi, which followed in the footsteps of European newspapers by employing its own pilots to promote itself (and to gather news, of course).
The Kamikaze vogue became much more than a corporate advertisement as the whole nation became engrossed in the exploits of the two fliers. The aircraft, a test plane manufactured by Mitsubishi in Nagoya for military reconnaissance, was touted as “purely” Japanese-made, adding to the patriotic fervor. (Actually, the metals to construct it had come from somewhere else, as did the gasoline to fly it. And Tsukagoshi was half English.) The name of the plane was chosen from approximately five hundred thousand entries from Asahi readers. The naming ceremony on April 1 was presided over by Imperial Prince Higashikuni Naruhiko, the emperor’s uncle by marriage, making the flight’s success all the more a matter of national pride.
The Western media, indifferent at first, became enthralled. By the time the plane left Karachi and entered Mediterranean airspace on April 8, Europe began to hold its breath. On April 9, the plane appeared in the sky over the southern London neighborhood of Croydon. The aircraft circled around a few times, as if to please the cheering crowd of four thousand, including three hundred Japanese filled with joy and pride. The plane made an impeccable landing at half past three. The two aviators had established a long-distance world record, flying between Tokyo and London in fifty-one hours, nineteen minutes, and twenty-three seconds, with an average speed of 185.9 miles (299.2 kilometers) per hour. The Times of London reported: “As the airmen struggled to the ground from Divine Wind, they were greeted with cheers and cries of ‘Banzai’ (‘live forever’), were decked with garlands of flowers and were submitted to an ordeal of handshaking and congratulation.” The two continued to receive an enthusiastic welcome, winning great accolades, including the Legion of Honor accorded by the French government. In Brussels, on April 16, they were presented with flowers by Suwa Nejiko, a former child prodigy about to launch her career as a concert violinist in Europe, along with the family of the Japanese ambassador to Belgium, Kurusu Saburo.
Not unlike the Kamikaze aviators, the violinist Suwa had known something of the weight of enormous national expectations. Her success on the international stage had been a great source of Japanese pride for most of her young life. Still, she was like any other awestruck seventeen-year-old when she met the pilots. “How dreamy they are, both of them! Mr. Iinuma particularly is so very handsome … and I could just stare and admire him as much as I liked! Such a happy day it’s been!” she recorded in her diary. This brief encounter in a Brussels airport presented a snapshot of the youthful beauty and exuberance that would soon elude Japan, like an ever-fleeting mirage. It was an image of Japan that could have been.
To celebrate the success of the Kamikaze flight, the proud sponsor published a message to the British nation in the pages of The Times on April 10, 1937. The flight, it said, would foster “an atmosphere of peace and cordiality in the midst of the storms and thunder which rage over international relations today and threaten the world peace of tomorrow.” If only that had been true. Alas, Konoe’s leadership did not live up to the feats of the Kamikaze.
Konoe felt his failures acutely. By the spring of 1938, he began to let his aides know that he was ready to resign. It took him until January 1939. Always believing himself to be on the right side, without quite knowing which side it was, and torn between conflicting interests, beliefs, and obligations, Konoe abandoned his country when it was caught in the China quagmire. People were still being told that Japan was leaping from victory to victory (from “dot” to “dot”) in China, so the prince’s exit was a source of bewilderment to many Japanese. Doubts about the success of the China War crept in.
None of the three short-lived cabinets before Konoe’s comeback in July 1940 resolved the war in China. At the same time, Germany’s military successes since September 1939 muddled Japan’s strategic thinking. With the Netherlands and a large part of France now under Nazi occupation, and with the British having retreated from Dunkirk, their East Indian, Indochinese, and Malayan colonial possessions seemed ripe for the plucking. This tempted some strategists to conclude that Japan would probably be able to gather enough resources from Southeast Asia to settle the conflict with China to its advantage. In their minds, if Germany prevailed, the Western-backed Chiang Kai-shek regime would have to sue for peace. It therefore seemed imperative for Japan to secure the friendship of Germany.
On July 22, 1940, Konoe became prime minister for the second time when his predecessor, Admiral Yonai Mitsumasa, would not align Japan with the Nazis. The increasingly frail Prince Saionji declined to endorse Konoe’s appointment. Their relationship had become irreparable, and would remain that way until Saionji’s death in November of that year.
Encouraged by the strength of Germany—a fellow “have-not” country in Konoe’s mind—he began his second premiership, as we have seen, hoping to end the war with China and carry out large-scale political reform. He envisioned a strong centralized political institution that would supersede parliamentary politics, and he counted on his supporters on both the right and left to launch his New Order Movement. How he thought he would avoid ideological conflict is anyone’s guess. Originally, Konoe’s adviser Ozaki Hotsumi, who was a secret communist, called for the creation of completely new local associations and assemblies to anchor the government. But bureaucrats succeeded in preserving the existing structure of the government, thus avoiding their own power bases being demolished. Konoe’s personnel choices reflected his tendency to try to please everyone, and he failed to stick to a specific political agenda. The country was stuck with a heavily compromised political entity called the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, some of whose programs followed fascist ideas of controlling every aspect of human endeavor, including reproduction.
One of the dubious projects that the new association embraced was the “redefining of IRAA-type beauty.” Shortly after its formation, the association convoked a conference of physicians, dancers, artists, and ethnologists to consider the subject. It concluded that the ideal beauty was a sturdy, big-boned woman with wide hips. Unlike the willowy types preferred in the past, these wide-hipped beauties were thought more likely to bear many strong children, and so they were to be celebrated.
The establishment of mandatory neighborhood associations in the fall of 1940 would transform everyday life in Japan for years to come. Groups of about a dozen households were formed by the Home Ministry as the smallest and most basic building blocks of national mobilization. These associations were expected to fulfill many patriotic duties, such as organizing firefighting units (with a view to defending the nation under aerial attack), participating in patriotic rallies, and, increasingly, distributing rationed goods.
Representatives from neighborhood associations took turns waiting in long lines to buy rationed materials. They would then divide the purchases carefully according to the number of people in each household. Whenever a notice from the distribution center came (the frequency was random), those on duty were expected to “stop everything, leaving our half-cooked rice or precious hot water for washing made from the precious rationed fuel, and run to the distribution center,” complained a doctor’s wife in her diary. The vigilant and jealous eyes of one’s neighbors made the task of equitable distribution a nightmare. Wilted lettuce leaves were taken with great offense even when they were the only kind available.
The possibility of being informed on by one’s neighbors meant the associations were anything but neighborly in many cases. The system of mutual surveillance was too often based on mutual suspicion and fear. It was understood that the Special Higher Police, notorious for the brutal persecution of ideological crimes, had informers in every association. The force was founded in 1911 and gained power during the 1920s, when its primary enemies were Marxists, Communists, pacifists, and anarchists, who were all regarded as threats to the preservation of Japan’s imperial polity. In the state of national emergency caused by the China War, the Special Higher Police hugely expanded its target, prompting the very nature of social relations to change at the most fundamental level.
Those social changes notwithstanding, Konoe’s foreign policy in his second government turned out to be rather like in his first: indecisive and impulsive. He usually took too much time when swiftness was called for and acted impulsively when caution was essential, and he had an alarming penchant for catering to the loudest voices around. In an attempt to counter increasing restrictions on imported industrial materials from the United States, his 1940 cabinet approved a proposal for the Japanese military to secure a firmer base in Southeast Asia. It was predicated on an army guideline that had been drawn up before Konoe’s comeback. The Japanese occupation of northern Indochina that began on September 23, which initiated the U.S.-Japanese tit for tat, was a direct consequence of this policy shift.
Japan’s signing of the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy on September 27 only added to the existing tensions. Konoe believed, along with his new foreign minister, that Japan’s fascist alliance would deter the United States and lead to more advantageous diplomatic negotiations for Japan. The former ambassador to the United States, Viscount Ishii Kikujiro, and other members of the emperor’s council were skeptical about Konoe’s alliance making. In a meeting the day before the pact was signed, Ishii, in front of the emperor and other advisers, expressed his grave concern. He referred to Bismarck’s remark that “alliances in international relations require a donkey and a rider, and that Germany should always strive to be a rider.” Italy too could not be trusted because it was after all a “country that begot Machiavelli.” But Ishii could not dissuade Konoe, who had earlier that day declared to the imperial advisers: “It is necessary to act defiantly with the United States so that it would not underestimate Japan.… But if the worst-case scenario happens, my government is resolved to deal with it.”
Konoe followed up on his swaggering posture more publicly in a press conference on October 4: “I believe it is better for the United States if it tries to understand Japan’s intention and actively participate in the building of the world’s new order. If the United States deliberately misunderstands the true intentions of Japan, Germany, and Italy … and continues its provocative acts, there won’t be any other options left to us but to go to war.” His bluffing never worked. The following six months saw no diplomatic breakthroughs. Konoe faced his “worst-case scenario”: a head-on collision with the United States.
The prince’s melancholy mood in the spring of 1941 was therefore understandable. His government was confronted by increasing U.S. economic pressures and the dim prospect of winning the China War, or even of “exiting China honorably,” as Richard Nixon might have said in Konoe’s place. Konoe regretted his decision to ally Japan with the fascist powers but could still see a glimmer of hope. While military hotheads and ultranationalists urged war with the United States, leaders around Konoe recognized the utter impracticability of such a war.
The unspoken problem for many military leaders was keeping up appearances—that is, eliminating the war option without losing soldierly credibility. They were hesitant to concede to Chiang Kai-shek, or the United States, partly because their own restless officers had to be appeased. The Imperial Navy and Army were always vying with each other for more glory and more money, and neither could afford to appear weaker than the other. (Securing a bigger budget, remember, was one of the major reasons that the navy finally agreed to the signing of the Tripartite Pact.)
The military was not the only institution being pulled by different forces within it. The Foreign Ministry was divided primarily into pro-German and pro-Anglo-American factions. In the summer of 1940, Konoe’s foreign minister had relieved many of the pro-Anglo-American diplomats from prominent posts and appointed Shiratori Toshio, the pro-Axis former Italian ambassador, as a special adviser to the Foreign Ministry. This had decisively undermined the ministry’s liberal factions, with grave implications for the near future.
The vague constitutional position of the emperor also complicated matters. Although Hirohito had retreated more and more into a symbolic role as the godly patriarch of the family-state, he remained the supreme commander of Japan’s armed forces. In these troubling times, Hirohito became even more sanctified in the eyes of the Japanese (those in power made sure of it). On November 10, 1940, almost fifty thousand people gathered in front of the Imperial Palace for the commemoration ceremony, presided over by Prime Minister Konoe, of the putative twenty-six-hundred-year existence of the Japanese imperial house. The ceremony was broadcast over the radio, and similar events were held throughout Japan; the people, who had been told for some time to give up any vacation plans, were encouraged to make pilgrimages to famous Shinto shrines. Many gladly acted on this recommendation, if only to break free of the drudgery of everyday life. Lavish entertainment was categorically discouraged, another signal of hard times.
The imperial anniversary succeeded in further elevating the status of the emperor, but at the same time, by stressing the role of the imperial household as a venerable, quasi-religious institution, it reduced the heavenly sovereign’s worldly authority. This meant that Konoe could not expect much overt help from the emperor in steering Japan out of harm’s way. As the highest of highborn Japanese who could stand on an equal social footing with the emperor, Konoe should have been able to candidly discuss political matters with Hirohito. But Marquis Kido Koichi, lord keeper of the privy seal since June 1940, made direct communications with the palace difficult. Konoe’s government required an inordinate amount of patience and skill to lead. That is why the prince felt so anxious and often succumbed to the temptation to slip out of his office and into the arms of his favorite geisha mistress. Good news finally arrived from the United States in the early morning of April 18, 1941. Ambassador Nomura, in Washington, D.C., since the middle of February, had sent a telegram to the Foreign Ministry summarizing the so-called Draft Understanding between the United States and Japan. The hazy plan included a proposed U.S.-Japanese agreement on the recognition of Manchukuo, the merger of Chiang Kai-shek’s and Wang Jingwei’s governments to conclude the China War, and the normalization of trade relations. At the very least, the proposal could bring the estranged parties to the negotiating table.
The U.S. overture was enough to make Vice Foreign Minister Ohashi Chuichi rejoice. Apparently flustered upon reading the telegram, he reportedly cried out, “If this plan were to come true, the fate of the world will be changed for the better!” Hirohito welcomed the news, too. According to Kido’s journal entry for April 21, the emperor remarked to the privy seal: “It was quite unexpected that the U.S. president came to us so willing to talk things over. I suppose one can say that all this happened as a result of Japan’s making an alliance with Germany and Italy. In the end, it’s all about being patient and persistent, wouldn’t you say?” He spoke as if peace were at hand. At the liaison conference of key decision makers later that evening, the military leaders, including Army Minister Tojo, were for the most part delighted. The possibility of a U.S.-Japan rapprochement was especially welcome, as it came soon after the joint decision by the army and navy to tone down the previous year’s ambitious plan to expand south. Resources in the Dutch East Indies had to be gained “in principle, only through diplomatic means,” the joint decision said, and Japan should refrain from a military advance into Singapore and other parts of Southeast Asia.
Contrary to Hirohito’s speculation that Roosevelt was “so willing to talk things over,” the Draft Understanding was, in fact, the work of several amateur diplomats on both sides of the Pacific who wished to avoid war between the two countries. Bishop James Edward Walsh and Father James M. Drought, two American Catholic priests who belonged to Maryknoll, a foreign mission society based in upstate New York, launched the initiative when they arrived in Japan on November 25, 1940. During their monthlong stay, armed with letters of introduction from some powerful Wall Street figures, they requested interviews with Japan’s key political, business, and military players, including Matsuoka Yosuke, Konoe’s foreign minister. In these meetings, the priests expounded on the importance of improving U.S.-Japan relations. When asked about the exact nature of their relationship to the U.S. government, they gave enigmatic responses and discouraged further inquiries.
Upon their return to America, the priests contacted President Roo-sevelt’s postmaster general, Frank C. Walker. A devout Catholic, Walker arranged their January 1941 visit to the White House, where they reported to Roosevelt that the Japanese leaders they had met desired better relations with the United States. The president continued seeking contacts with the Japanese through Walker and the priests, who eventually came up with the Draft Understanding, which would be revised by their Japanese friends (about whom we will hear more later).
At the April 18 liaison meeting, most Japanese leaders expressed a wish to respond to the U.S. overture immediately. Vice Foreign Minister Ohashi, however, felt that the dispatch of an affirmative reply had to wait until his superior, Foreign Minister Matsuoka, returned from Europe in four days. Ohashi’s view prevailed. Little did they know that they were waiting for the arrival of a great storm.