The Return of Don Quixote

On an early spring evening in 1941, with a sharpness in the air on the Russian steppes, the Japanese foreign minister was ecstatic. Traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway, nestled in the splendor of the Red Arrow’s luxurious first-class car, one equipped with a salon and a private bathroom, Matsuoka Yosuke was basking in his greatest diplomatic achievement. He had just signed, on April 13, 1941, a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union. Courtesy of Joseph Stalin, there had been no shortage of vodka and caviar on this leg of his grand tour. Matsuoka’s face grew redder and redder as he drank glass after glass.

When the foreign minister embarked for Europe on March 12, he was criticized by other government leaders. The stated goal of the trip was to celebrate the signing of the Tripartite Pact, despite the fact that no diplomatic benefits had been reaped from it. Many colleagues complained that the insufferably vain and flamboyant foreign minister was acting to promote his own interests and not those of his country. It was neither necessary nor useful, they thought, for Matsuoka to make a long international tour when, traditionally, the job of a Japanese foreign minister had been to instruct diplomats stationed around the globe from his base in Tokyo.

Matsuoka visited Hitler in Berlin, where he received a sumptuous welcome. There was a stiff, regimented kind of beauty in the Teutonic reception that overwhelmed his retinue, which included members of the Foreign Ministry, military officers, and journalists. All railway stations in Berlin had been adorned with the swastika and Rising Sun flags. When Matsuoka’s train arrived, it was greeted with drumrolls and calls of “Heil Hitler! Heil Matsuoka!” Matsuoka had the train windows opened and answered the impeccably uniformed Hitler Youth, raising his right arm in the Nazi salute. The gesture seemed to come instinctively, as if he were a Kabuki actor trained from birth to perfect the most unnatural theatrical effects. Only the reddening of his cheeks betrayed his true excitement at the sight of this Nazi welcome. Later, he was received cordially in Rome by Mussolini and the pope, but the Italian reception was nothing like this.

Matsuoka believed that his pact with Stalin was the greatest souvenir he could bring home. It would augment the Tripartite Pact, making it a quadripartite entente (or a “Eurasian Continental Alliance,” in his words) pitted against the liberal Anglo-American alliance. He had envisaged this alliance for some time. “To shake hands with Germany is a temporary excuse to shake hands with the Soviet Union,” he explained to his secretary before their departure for Europe. “But that hand shaking with the Soviet Union is also nothing more than an excuse to shake hands with the United States.” He maintained that the sheer strength of this coming together of “have-not” powers would pressure the United States, an arrogant “have” power, into making conciliatory diplomatic gestures. Japan would then be able to live in a peaceful world—or the world according to Matsuoka—without having to fire even one bullet!

Matsuoka loved to shock, and he adored the limelight. If Konoe was the melancholic Hamlet, Matsuoka was Don Quixote, afflicted with a severe case of megalomania. Or, to use a Japanese theatrical metaphor once again, Matsuoka was a Kabuki actor, overstating his every move and line to thrill the audience, while Konoe was a Noh actor, moving very little and concealing his sentiments behind a silent, expressionless mask, leaving it to others to interpret him.

Physically, there was nothing remarkable about the bespectacled, mustached Matsuoka, a man of average height. Yet he was one of the most influential foreign ministers in the history of modern Japan. What set him apart was his extraordinary energy and belief in himself. Nothing pleased him more than to expound on his foreign policy philosophy for hours on end, ideally over some strong drink. He relished every opportunity to hold forth for anyone who was willing, or polite enough, to listen. He was one of the rare people bold enough to have what resembled a freewheeling discussion between equals with Hitler, a German interpreter noted.

Unlike many Japanese, Matsuoka did not try to hide his lack of modesty. In the summer of 1940, he lobbied tirelessly to become foreign minister in the second Konoe cabinet. Konoe was impressed, seeing in Matsuoka a self-made man with a genius for self-promotion that could be put to use for the benefit of Japan. Matsuoka was the kind of spokesman the prince felt the country desperately needed. Matsuoka’s large-scale reorganization of the Foreign Ministry shortly after his appointment was unheard of, though, and hardly made him a popular figure there. He didn’t care.

In a government where leaders were rarely willing to take individual responsibility for a policy outcome, and in a decision-making process that was prone to reduce decisions to the lowest common denominator, there was something to be said for Matsuoka’s strong personality. It meant that he could get things done quickly. But his excessive nervous energy often put those around him off balance, as Konoe would soon realize. Matsuoka was so hyperactive that some thought he was addicted to cocaine, a substance to which he was rumored to have been introduced as a student in the United States. Unlike Konoe, who had led a sheltered life and had been handed everything, including the premiership, Matsuoka had to fight every step of the way to get where he was. He was born in 1880—eleven years before Konoe—in the prefecture of Yamaguchi, at the southwestern tip of the main Japanese island, into a once-wealthy family of wholesale maritime merchants. Because of debts arising from his father’s speculative investments and his elder brothers’ fast living, the family fortune had declined precipitously. That was why the thirteen-year-old Matsuoka set sail for the West Coast of the United States, where a relative had started a business.

Over the course of his New World adventures, Matsuoka lived with American families in Portland, Oregon, and Oakland, California. An ambitious boy, now known as Frank, he continued his studies while taking on various odd jobs—as a busboy, a farmhand, a janitor, a railroad worker, and even a substitute pastor presiding over weddings. The United States was to Matsuoka a haven from family destitution and a land of opportunities, no matter the hardships. He grew to love it, though he was deeply affected by the racial and social prejudices that were a blatant and undeniable part of his everyday existence. It was also in the United States that he first encountered Christianity, becoming a Methodist (he converted to Catholicism a few hours before his death). He obtained a law degree from the University of Oregon, graduating second in his class, all the while teaching himself Japanese law. He was not a mere bookworm. His Oregon classmates were impressed by his poker skills, which no doubt aided him in his diplomatic career.

Because of his mother’s ill health, Matsuoka returned to Japan in 1902, at the age of twenty-two, having spent nine formative years in the United States. Despite his aggressive posture with the United States as foreign minister, he regarded the country as his second home. In his fifties, he would revisit the place of his adolescence and young adulthood to erect a marker and plant a tree at the grave of “my American mother,” Isabelle Dunbar Beveridge, a devout Christian who had guided him in the Methodist faith.

In 1904, the young Matsuoka passed the Foreign Ministry exam at the top of his class (only seven passed out of an already select group of 130) and began his career as a diplomat. By choosing this professional path, he narrowly escaped being enlisted as a soldier in the Russo-Japanese War. He spent many years in China and had a short stint in Russia, where he was seduced, he later liked to boast, by beautiful women. In reality, he seemed to prefer alcohol to womanizing.

Since Matsuoka had a knack for making memorable speeches, a definite asset in multilateral conferences, he was dispatched as a Japanese spokesman to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. It was there that he first met Konoe and got a whiff of what it was like at the top of the world. He yearned to be more than a bureaucrat. That was why in 1921, at the age of forty-one, he quit the Foreign Ministry. He was recruited for the board of the South Manchurian Railway, a semiprivate Japanese company with numerous subsidiary enterprises dealing with the development of northeastern China. His career flourished, and he became the vice president of the company in 1927. Three years later, he ran successfully for the Diet’s lower house, the House of Representatives, as a member of the conservative political party Friends of Constitutional Government.

The Manchurian Incident of September 1931, when young Japanese officers laid the groundwork for the annexation of Northeast China, was of tremendous importance to Matsuoka’s fledgling political career. Though he had not advocated the military occupation of Manchuria per se, he welcomed the takeover. He had been urging Japan to adopt a strong China policy on the basis of regional security, fearing a possible advance from the Soviet north. As a “Manchurian specialist,” one who insisted that Manchuria was “Japan’s lifeline,” he saw his public career take off.

A LITTLE OVER a year after the Manchurian Incident, on February 24, 1933, in an auditorium of Switzerland’s elegant Palais Wilson, a former luxury hotel on the western side of Lake Geneva, Matsuoka was the center of attention. The grand room was lit by five Bohemian glass chandeliers hanging from the arabesque ceilings painted in gold leaf. The delegates from some forty League of Nations member countries listened in silence as Matsuoka solemnly began to read aloud a prepared statement. It announced that Japan, one of the Big Five framers of the Covenant of the League of Nations, intended to withdraw from the league. This was a decisive first step that put Japan on the road to international isolation.

The league had just voted 42–1, Japan’s the lone negative vote, to adopt the Lytton Commission’s report. The document, submitted to the league in September 1932, was compiled by an independent commission, led by Lord Lytton of Britain, dispatched to the Far East to take stock of what had happened in Manchuria. It recommended that Japan should withdraw its troops and restore the country to Chinese sovereignty. Matsuoka, acting in close and often strained consultation with Tokyo, refused to accept the verdict.

Personally, Matsuoka was opposed to Japan’s withdrawal from the league and doubted the integrity of Tokyo’s last-minute decision, one based on its unwillingness to face the public humiliation of the league’s final decision. As long as it remained in the league, the leaders in Tokyo argued, Japan would most likely be the victim of punitive economic sanctions (as would be the case with Italy over its invasion of Ethiopia). Such sanctions, they felt, would be hard to stomach. In the end, the government dodged the possibility of sanctions by leaving the intergovernmental arbitration forum altogether. For a country that had been preoccupied with international opinion throughout its modern existence, this was a drastic and shortsighted stopgap measure indeed.

The best Matsuoka could do was to minimize the damage of leaving the league by thoroughly explaining Japan’s situation. On the podium, Matsuoka abandoned his prepared text, and his voice rose to a shout: “Read your history! We recovered Manchuria from Russia. We made it what it is today.… Japan has been and will always be the mainstay of peace, order, and progress in the Far East.” He opposed international control of Manchuria: “Would the American people agree to such control of the Panama Canal Zone? Would the British permit it over Egypt?” After finishing the speech, he waved his arm at his delegation, and they all walked out.

This was without a doubt the most dramatic meeting in the league’s history. Reporting from Geneva, the United Press correspondent described “the delegation, led by the dapper Yosuke Matsuoka” as looking “grim and determined.” When the delegation departed, he wrote, “the crowded galleries broke into mingled hisses and applause.”

Although the Lytton Report condemned the Japanese military action, it tried to recognize Japan’s existing interests in and past contributions to the development of the region. After all, many of the leading powers, despite paying lip service to the importance of sovereignty, self-determination, equality, peace, and international understanding for all nations of the world, still enjoyed substantial colonial possessions. To single out Japan would have compromised their own empires. So the assembly was genuinely taken by surprise when Matsuoka’s delegation left the hall in such a dramatic manner.

Matsuoka had been chosen to lead the Japanese delegation to the league’s special session in part because of his knowledge of Manchuria. He was to convince the international assembly of the legitimacy of Manchukuo—a creation of the Japanese field army, as we’ve seen—with claims of Asiatic racial harmony, hypermodern urban planning, and vast agricultural frontiers the size of France and Germany combined and to turn international opinion in Japan’s favor. Soon after Matsuoka arrived in Geneva on December 8, 1932, he made a memorably eccentric speech off the cuff, as he always preferred to do. “Currently, no one sees the significance of it,” he said in defending Manchukuo, “[but] the world will eventually recognize that Japan was right.” He continued in his typical dramatic fashion: “Japan is about to be put on a cross like Christ, and just as he was later redeemed in European societies, Japan will be redeemed.” The address lasted for nearly ninety minutes. Matsuoka was then given a standing ovation by the audience, which was more likely applauding the conclusion of his long-winded speech than its content.

Ironically, Japan had been an exemplary member of the League of Nations since the organization’s formation in 1920, sending its ablest bureaucrats and contributing substantial financial resources, largely because it judged that multilateralism and international cooperation were fast becoming the accepted norms of twentieth-century diplomacy. To its dismay and despite its best efforts, Japan quickly earned the nickname Silent Partner, as its representatives were often conspicuously reticent. Amused by the loquacious ambassador plenipotentiary, many in Geneva flattered Matsuoka, saying that Japan had finally moved on from a silent motion picture to a talkie.

The final vote on the Lytton Report came as a great disappointment to Matsuoka, his intensive public relations work of the previous two months having proved utterly ineffective. He and his team had worked day and night, installing themselves in the Hotel Metropole on Lake Geneva and engaging in all sorts of lobbying activities, including screening a propagandistic documentary film on Manchukuo. Matsuoka’s assistant at the time reminisced that even though his boss was stubborn and craved attention like a willful child, he was, by and large, kind to his junior staff throughout the stressful deliberations. The same assistant also revealed that Matsuoka rehearsed his “improvised” speeches for hours in his hotel room.

On that fateful day when Matsuoka announced Japan’s intention to withdraw from the league, he remarked to those who’d gathered:

The Japanese government now finds itself compelled to conclude that Japan and other members of the League entertain different views on the manner to achieve peace in the Far East, and the Japanese government feels it has now reached the limit of its endeavors to cooperate with the League with regard to Sino-Japanese differences. The Japanese government will, however, make the utmost efforts for the establishment of peace in the Far East and the maintenance and strengthening of cordial relations with other powers.

Matsuoka’s defiant exit from the international conclave made him one of the country’s most recognizable faces. Major Japanese newspapers, erring on the side of excessive jingoism to boost circulation, took the lead in portraying him as a man who stood up to the arrogant Western bullies and their pathetic client states. The enthusiastic reaction at home flabbergasted Matsuoka, but he was soon relishing the role of returning hero. He was now a full-fledged populist and a popular politician. Determined to capitalize on his newly acquired fame, in December 1933 he resigned from the House of Representatives and quit the Friends of Constitutional Government. For about a year afterward, he traveled across Japan on a lecture tour, giving 184 speeches to a total of seventy thousand people, promoting his so-called League for the Elimination of Political Parties. During the tour, he started putting up a huge Rising Sun flag behind the podium, which would become a customary practice to show one’s patriotic allegiance.

In a December 1933 speech to a packed house at Japan Youth Center in Tokyo, he talked of the evils of both capitalism and communism and announced the death of Japan’s parliamentary system: “I don’t think that party politics is the only way to achieve a constitutional government.… Party politics is just one way of doing it.”

By this time, his political credo had tilted toward fascism. But like Konoe’s, his fascination with fascism was qualified and superficial. Matsuoka was certainly impressed with the rise of Nazi Germany, though obviously he could not embrace the racialist backbone of German National Socialism, which placed Asians in a subordinate position. That Matsuoka could not foresee the Nazi genocide is not to his credit. But he had, in fact, shown himself to be critical of Nazi policy. As the president of the South Manchurian Railway, where he worked again from August 1935 to February 1939, he was asked a favor by Major General Higuchi Kiichiro, stationed in Harbin. Higuchi had experienced and witnessed discrimination while on assignment in Poland and Germany, which led him to take an interest in Zionism and the plight of European Jews. After Japan’s signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany in 1936, Higuchi said publicly that Jews should be given a homeland before being driven out of Europe. In March 1938, when Higuchi heard that a group of Jews escaping Germany was being kept out of Manchukuo, he turned to Matsuoka for help. Matsuoka had his company’s trains safely carry the refugees to Shanghai, where they escaped persecution.

So Matsuoka’s craving to be a strong and charismatic leader who could captivate and mobilize a nation like a fascist dictator in part explains his fascination with the Axis powers, though the primary reason for his alliance making, in his mind, remained first and foremost to gain relative power advantage in diplomatic negotiations with the United States. The superficiality of his grasp of Axis ambitions also explains why he utterly failed to appreciate the profound Anglo-American aversion both to the Nazis and to Japan’s alliance with them.

“DIPLOMACY IS POWER, my dear young man. The Axis diplomacy is a lever used to gain power. Nobody has to tell me that. I know as much,” an inebriated Matsuoka said as the Red Arrow roared through Russia on April 13, 1941. He was simply repeating to Saionji Kinkazu, a Foreign Ministry adviser in his thirties, what he’d said earlier on the trip. Matsuoka lectured Saionji in a state of drunken bliss: “The Tripartite Pact is not about an alliance made to wage war. It is made to keep peace!”

Matsuoka insisted that he was guided by power. He worshiped Metternich, the Austrian statesman celebrated for his skills in creating a sustainable balance of power between states and for successfully concluding the Napoleonic Wars at the Congress of Vienna. But times had changed. Fascism, liberalism, communism, and all their varieties competed with one another. Saionji believed Matsuoka was dangerously wrong to make light of the vast ideological differences among regimes.

Saionji, who received his higher education entirely in Britain, had always been close with his liberal grandfather Prince Saionji Kinmochi. He did not believe President Roosevelt or Secretary of State Hull could be intimidated into making a deal with Japan because Japan had signed a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union. In drinking sessions, Saionji told Matsuoka that Japan should not get too close to the Axis powers. Knowing that Konoe now regretted the Tripartite Pact, he wished that somehow Matsuoka, too, could see it as a diplomatic liability. “You must really support Prince Konoe,” Saionji would tell Matsuoka, who would reply, “Yes, yes, I am supporting the prince. I even said that I would serve him as a secretary once he formed the cabinet.… But, Kinkazu-san, diplomacy requires expertise. And I know better what to do next.”

As the train traveled on, Matsuoka felt increasingly sure that Japan’s premiership was easily within his reach. Alcohol surely had something to do with it. But he was equally intoxicated by his memory of Stalin’s recent largesse. A few hours earlier, just as Matsuoka’s train was about to depart the station, Stalin emerged out of a deep Moscow fog with Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov in tow. The Soviet leader had come to see Matsuoka off personally—a rare gesture, since Stalin was almost never seen in public, even with foreign dignitaries. “You see, I am an Asian,” Stalin said. “I am from Georgia! We are brothers, so we must work together!”

Stalin had not taken his customary time to agree to the pact with Matsuoka. Just as the Japanese delegation had returned to Moscow from Berlin, Germany had attacked Yugoslavia, increasing Stalin’s anxiety and perhaps leading him to overvalue Japan’s involvement with the Nazis. To Stalin, the neutrality pact was a great bargain, one that ensured the safety of the Soviet eastern front without requiring any transfer of territory to Japan. Because Matsuoka had suggested the neutrality pact after visiting Berlin, Stalin believed that the Soviet Union was also safe from German attacks on its western front, at least for the time being. Stalin betrayed his anxiousness in his own understated way. When Japanese and Soviet delegates took turns signing diplomatic documents in Molotov’s large spartan office in the Kremlin that day, Stalin, dressed in his signature charcoal-gray stand-collar suit unadorned by medals or other insignia, paced slowly, a cigarette in his hand. He then walked over to the buffet table that had been set up along one wall and started to inspect and rearrange glasses and cutlery as if he were the head butler of a stately mansion. Everything went smoothly afterward.

By the time Stalin and Matsuoka parted with a tight embrace at the station, they were equally cheerful and drunk. Long after the alcohol wore off, Matsuoka still felt the heady glow of invincibility. The growing tension between him and Konoe appeared to ease somewhat as a result of the good news Matsuoka was bringing home. “Matsuoka is an able man!” Konoe said upon hearing the news from Moscow.

The Japanese nation, accepting as usual the general tone set by uncritical radio and newspaper coverage, was thrilled to hear the news. The Asahi on April 23 praised Matsuoka for “breathing new life into the Tripartite Pact,” suggesting that he had secured peace for Japan when it was on the verge of war with the West. Neither the United States nor Britain would dare provoke Japan now that the Soviet Union had made it clear it was not an Allied pawn. At the height of Matsuoka’s popularity, his photographic portraits outsold those of most popular movie stars, even of Li Xianglan, a Manchukuo propaganda film star. (She was actually a Chinese-born Japanese called Yamaguchi Yoshiko and was secretly dating Matsuoka’s eldest son.)

Matsuoka triumphantly returned to Japan on April 22, four days after Ambassador Nomura telegraphed the summary of the Draft Understanding to Tokyo. Though this news from Washington was a surprise, Matsuoka was initially pleased, as he wrongly surmised that he had been responsible for the sudden U.S. overture to begin diplomatic negotiations, that his balance-of-power approach with the Soviet Union had borne instantaneous fruit.

During his time in Moscow, Matsuoka had met with U.S. ambassador Laurence Steinhardt three times to see if Roosevelt could be persuaded to talk to him in light of “the new situation.” According to a journalist who accompanied Matsuoka on the grand tour, he had a plan for winning the president’s attention: Matsuoka would request a meeting with Chiang Kai-shek, and Chiang would agree. After their successful meeting, they would fly to Washington to meet Roosevelt. Roosevelt, Chiang, and Matsuoka would agree to the neutralization of the areas to the north of the Great Wall of China, to Japan’s withdrawal of troops from China, and to Manchukuo’s recognition as an independent state. Then China-Japan and U.S.-Japan nonaggression treaties would be signed. When he first heard about the Draft Understanding from Konoe on the phone, while waiting in Dalian for a plane home, Matsuoka said to his secretary in high spirits: “Next we’ll fly to America!” Such was the extent of Matsuoka’s megalomania. When Matsuoka learned about the true origins of the Draft Understanding, he felt he was being upstaged. He had not authorized any of those involved on the Japanese side—or Ambassador Nomura, for that matter—to carry on critical diplomacy, and he was furious that the Draft Understanding proposed a meeting between Konoe and Roosevelt, not Matsuoka and Roosevelt, in Hawaii. He saw the news as threatening his authority, and it certainly shifted the limelight.

On the night of Matsuoka’s return to Tokyo, a liaison conference of the cabinet and the general staffs was held to coordinate a Japanese response to Washington. In attendance were the key cabinet ministers, the army and navy chiefs of staff, and Vice Foreign Minister Ohashi, who had first received the news of the Draft Understanding. Matsuoka was determined to sabotage the discussion. This was supposed to be his moment. He opened the conference by boasting of his accomplishments on his European trip. When the discussion moved to the “U.S.” proposal, Matsuoka barked at the attendees that Nomura had no idea what he was doing and that it was important to remain loyal and truthful to Germany as an ally. For that reason, he insisted that the content of the Draft Understanding had to be reported to the Germans. He was convinced that the proposal “was a product of 70 percent malicious intent and only 30 percent goodwill.” He delayed a decision on what action to take and, citing exhaustion and ill health, left the room.

Following Matsuoka’s exit, Ohashi said Matsuoka had made it clear to him, on his way back from the airport, that he was not going to reply to the United States anytime soon. But most of those in the room, including the military men, were in favor of engaging with the United States as soon as possible. In a typical display of disengagement and indecision, Konoe, who said he had a high fever, retreated to his villa.

Impatient for instructions, the Japanese negotiators in Washington telephoned Matsuoka on April 29, to no effect. Nomura was upset and disappointed; he had believed Matsuoka would jump at the opportunity to start negotiations, especially since the Draft Understanding conformed to Matsuoka’s core diplomatic aim of settling matters through talk. Nomura kept apologizing for the delay during his frequent visits to the secretary of state’s apartment at the Carlton Hotel, asking Hull not to “become impatient,” as “there was politics in the situation back in Japan.”

ROOSEVELT AND HULL HAD NOT ACCEPTED the Catholic priests’ claim that the majority of Japan’s leaders wished to avoid war. Washington simply regarded the document as a way of initiating official communication with the country. The fact that the document had no direct association with the White House and had been initiated by diplomatic amateurs on both sides eluded most in Tokyo, however.

The foremost member of such aspiring peacemakers on the Japanese side, Ikawa Tadao, was a forty-seven-year-old banker. Ikawa had gone to school with Konoe and had helped to establish a brain trust for the prince some years earlier. Once married to an American woman, he served as treasurer for the Japanese consulate in New York for most of the 1920s and had many contacts in the United States. He had arranged for the two American priests to gain access to the Japanese leaders during their visit to Tokyo the previous winter. Over the course of their stay, he decided he, too, would like to have a role in the peacemaking project.

Suave and good-looking, Ikawa seemed at such ease with the world that he gave off an almost frivolous, supercilious air, which many, including Matsuoka, distrusted. But he possessed an equal amount of energy and ambition. Upon receiving the news from the priests that Roosevelt had agreed to engage in finding a diplomatic solution, Ikawa went to New York in a purely private capacity, ostensibly to settle matters with his American ex-wife. He arrived on February 27, 1941.

Because he lacked official institutional affiliation with the Foreign Ministry, he was treated frostily by the staff of the Japanese embassy in Washington. Still, he managed to win the trust of the most senior appointee there. Newly stationed and also something of an outsider, Ambassador Nomura was at first skeptical of Ikawa. Though he had been told by Matsuoka to steer clear of him, Nomura took Ikawa more seriously after the banker set up a surreptitious meeting on March 8 at the secretary of state’s apartment to introduce the ambassador to Hull. With the arrival of Colonel Iwakuro Hideo, a forty-two-year-old elite staff officer with detailed knowledge of the China-Japan conflict, the American-Japanese “informal conversations”—as the talks would be called by the Americans—soon began.

The proposal originally drafted by the priests was heavily revised by Iwakuro in consultation with Nomura, the embassy’s military attachés, and a treaty specialist. The Japanese team gathered in a basement room of the embassy, long after other staff members had gone home, to prepare a lengthy document whose important points can be paraphrased as follows:

1. The United States and Japan would recognize that they were powerful neighboring countries in the Pacific and, through mutual effort, would strive to achieve peace in the region and a friendly understanding.

2. Japan would affirm that the aim of the Tripartite Pact was to prevent the expansion of the European war. Japan’s military obligation would be called for only if Germany were to be aggressively attacked by a third party not yet part of the war. The United States would determine its response to the European war solely on the basis of protecting its own welfare and security.

3. The U.S. president would advise Chiang Kai-shek’s government to make peace with Japan if the president approved of, and the Japanese government agreed to, the following conditions: (a) China’s independence, (b) withdrawal of Japanese troops based on Sino-Japanese treaties, (c) nonannexation of Chinese territory, (d) no indemnities, (e) China’s resumption of the Open Door policy, (f) the merger of the Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese-backed Wang Jingwei governments, (g) Japanese self-restraint on massive immigration to China, and (h) recognition of Manchukuo.

4. Both the United States and Japan would refrain from placing aerial and naval power on duty in the Pacific for intimidation purposes.

5. The governments would resume the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Commerce and Navigation.

6. Japan would not resort to force and would rely only on peaceful means for its advantage in the Southwest Pacific (including Southeast Asia). In return, the United States would help Japan secure resources, including oil, rubber, tin, and nickel.

7. For the political stabilization of the Pacific, neither the United States nor Japan would accept European advancement into the Pacific region, both would guarantee the independence of the Philippines, and the United States would guarantee that Japanese immigrants were treated like all others, without discrimination.

On April 16, Hull asked Nomura whether Japan would be willing to start negotiations on the basis of this Japanese-revised document, one that “contained numerous proposals with which my Government could readily agree.” Hull also said that the document would “require modification, expansion, or entire elimination” of some sections, in addition to “some new and separate suggestions.” Nomura’s telegram reporting on his meeting with Hull failed to make clear that the Draft Understanding was not an official U.S. government proposal. This was, according to a later admission by Iwakuro, a deliberate choice in wording made by an aide to Nomura; Minister-Counselor Wakasugi Kaname thought it more effective to emphasize the U.S. eagerness and to deemphasize the Japanese hand in the document. Nomura’s telegram to Tokyo was nonetheless clear on the U.S. government’s wish to revise it further. It is possible that Vice Foreign Minister Ohashi, in his initial excitement over receiving Nomura’s telegram, failed to stress this U.S. qualification, so the leaders in Tokyo may therefore have been left with the impression that Washington was suggesting a proposal far more accommodating of Japanese demands than the Americans were probably ever inclined to be.

Matsuoka, to his credit, realized that his colleagues in the government had celebrated too soon. He discarded the distorted version of the Draft Understanding in Nomura’s dispatch and demanded to consult the original English text. In early May, he complained to a Foreign Ministry official in private that “the Draft Understanding that came from America is appalling” because

clearly, that’s not a U.S. document. That thing has been written by Japanese. Everyone, including Prince Konoe, seems to think that the hardest part is over, that we just need to give the United States a positive reply. What fools! … I guarantee you, once we start negotiating, all sorts of problems are bound to emerge.… With the China Incident still going on, we cannot negotiate [with Washington] properly.… And if the negotiation fails, that will have given the military an excuse to start a war. I know I am right.

Matsuoka was right that things weren’t as rosy as they’d first looked. But rather than seeing the proposal for what it was—a chance to signal Japan’s readiness to talk—he overreacted partially out of personal pettiness and spite. At a liaison conference of key government ministers and military leaders on May 3, having finally emerged from his self-imposed seclusion (though in the middle of his absence he felt well enough to criticize Konoe in a public speech), Matsuoka presented what came to be called the May 12 Plan. (It would be delivered by Nomura to Hull on that date.) It could have been called the Matsuoka Plan. It claimed to be an elaboration of the Draft Understanding, but the content differed greatly. One of the more conspicuous changes involved the future of the European war:

The Governments of the United States and Japan make it their common aim to bring about the [sic] world peace; they shall therefore jointly endeavor not only to prevent further extension of the European War but also speedily to restore peace in Europe.

Matsuoka’s aspiration—propelled by his unquenchable thirst for “greatness”—to broker peace in Europe may have been well meant, but he completely misread the situation: The Roosevelt administration wasn’t in any way inclined to negotiate with the Nazi regime. Besides, how could a country that was unable to end its own war with China be of help to others? Japan’s new proposal eliminated all the conditions for peace talks in China, presumably because Matsuoka did not want to be bound by specific terms. He insisted that if Chiang Kai-shek would not agree to make peace with Japan, the United States should abandon its support for his regime. Japan wanted to be left alone and to be helped at the same time. Matsuoka offered to guarantee the independence of the Philippines on the condition that the islands would “maintain a status of permanent neutrality” and that “Japanese immigration to the United States shall receive amicable consideration—on a basis of equality with other nationals and freedom from discrimination.” The Draft Understanding had pledged that “Japanese activities in the Southwestern Pacific area shall be carried on by peaceful means, without resorting to arms.” This language was struck from the new proposal because it was deemed “inappropriate and unnecessarily critical” and because “the peaceful policy of the Japanese Government has been made clear on many occasions in various statements made both by the Premier and the Foreign Minister.” This deletion meant that Japan would not give up military options in Southeast Asia. The Roosevelt administration was alarmed by that.

Matsuoka surprised even the Japanese military with his uncompromising posture. He wanted everyone to know he would negotiate only from a position of power—or, rather, a semblance of power. He was acting on his conviction that defiance and assertiveness were the most valued currencies in dealing with the United States.

In their desire to see a tougher Japan, Matsuoka and Konoe were remarkably alike, despite their great differences in personality. When he had just returned from the United States, the twenty-two-year-old Matsuoka reportedly told his old schoolteacher that “the important thing to remember is never be underestimated by the Americans.” He then went on to describe a hypothetical scenario in which a Japanese and an American came across one another on a narrow path:

The American would not thank you if you bowed to him and politely gave way. He would actually look down on you, thinking that you were a total pushover. If you give him a punch in the face, that’s when he will start respecting you, seeing you as his equal. Japanese diplomats should take note of this [American character] from now on.

The “Matsuoka Plan” only solidified Hull’s utter dislike of the Japanese foreign minister. (Hull and Nomura had been forming a curious bond over this of late. When Hull complained to Nomura on May 11, the day before he received Matsuoka’s new plan, of the difficulty in trusting the foreign minister’s “acts and utterances,” Hull noted that “not only did [the ambassador] not take issue with anything I said, but I felt that he was really in harmony with the statements I made about Matsuoka.”) Upon receiving the document from Nomura and discovering the deletion of the “without resorting to arms” passage, Hull murmured to himself, “So this means that there is no guarantee that they won’t go south,” a reference to Japan’s forays into Southeast Asia to strategically strengthen itself.

Washington had suggested at the outset that the unofficial Draft Understanding should be the starting point for a new thrust of U.S.-Japanese dialogue. But Matsuoka insisted that Japan could not start talks unless certain demands were accepted by the United States first. By being difficult, he believed, Japan was earning Washington’s respect. In reality, Japan was squandering an opportunity for a practicable settlement.

At this point, Washington was still prepared to make some substantial accommodations for Japan. For instance, Hull had said he could negotiate with Japan only if it accepted his Four Principles: (1) respect for the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of each and all nations, (2) support of the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries, (3) support of the principle of equality, including equality of commercial opportunity, and (4) continuation of the status quo in the Pacific, though the status quo might be changed by peaceful means. But in a personal exchange with Nomura, Hull said the fourth principle “would not … affect ‘Manchukuo,’ but was intended to apply to the future from the time of the adoption of a general settlement.” Matsuoka’s response had set an irreversible premise for the Japanese negotiators, as well as for the military. By insisting on Japan’s right to use force in the south, he unnecessarily made an issue out of something that the military itself had been willing to forgo. The army in particular wanted to arrest further adventures after it had fought, from May to September 1939, a series of disastrous border battles with the Soviet Union at Nomonhan near Manchukuo. Matsuoka, a civilian who had avoided military service, was coaxing the military to adopt a tougher attitude.

Konoe said he had gone to the airport to personally welcome Matsuoka home after the European trip and so that they could discuss the background of the Draft Understanding. He didn’t want the hypersensitive Matsuoka to be offended by having been left out of this new development. But according to Konoe, Matsuoka would not ride back with him, insisting that the foreign minister’s first duty was to make a formal ceremonial bow to the Imperial Palace. Taken aback by Matsuoka’s frostiness, Konoe gave up on sharing a ride. Because of this, Konoe later said, the rift between them deepened.

In spite of his growing dissatisfaction with Matsuoka, Konoe let him take charge of his government’s diplomacy, even at the risk of alienating Washington. Konoe simply refused to confront his foreign minister. Matsuoka kept telling other leaders that he knew so much more than they did about the big and hostile world beyond Japanese shores. No one could refute him. As one army officer on the general staff later recalled, “Matsuoka’s customary method was to bring in his proposal directly to a liaison meeting and force it through no matter what. The way he managed it was actually quite admirable.” In a political culture where surprises were wholly unwelcome and prior consultations remained the norm, Matsuoka was one of a kind. The Japanese expression “digging around a tree’s root before transplanting it” did not apply to his methods.

Konoe, on the contrary, preferred behind-the-scenes deal making and was slowly starting to lay the groundwork for the ouster of his foreign minister. Matsuoka was no ordinary foe, and the prince felt his fall had to be carefully orchestrated in the time-honored tradition of political intrigue, at which the prince innately excelled. But for that to happen, Konoe needed some time, a lot more time than Japan could really afford.

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