Military history



Following successful wars against China (1894–95) and Russia (1904–05), Japan had annexed Korea and exerted de facto hegemony over Manchuria, and her participation in the First World War on the Allied side brought her a string of Pacific islands that had once been part of the German Empire. The Japanese judged that Western racism had caused them to receive less than their due from the treaties following these wars and that a double standard was applied to their imperialism. In the China of the late 1920s a nationalist reaction against warlordism, led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, threatened Japan's privileged trading status with its huge neighbour, which, combined with the effects of the Great Depression led the Japanese Army to provoke the 'Manchurian Incident' in September 1931.

The ensuing, undeclared war led to Japan's condemnation by, and withdrawal from, the League of Nations in 1933. Japanese politics became dominated by assassinations carried out by nationalist societies and the field armies increasingly ignored not only the civilian government but also their own High Command. The 'Manchurian Incident' became a formal war in July 1937 and led to an undeclared border war with the Soviet Union, which ended with the crushing defeat of the Japanese at Khalkhyn Gol on the eve of the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939. Faced with an expensive stalemate in China, Japan was also hit by a series of economic sanctions imposed by the USA, joined by the British and the Dutch government in exile whose hopes for victory in Europe now depended entirely on US support. The government of Prince Fumimaro Konoye was unable to negotiate a compromise acceptable to the Japanese military and in October 1941 General Hideki Tojo was appointed Prime Minister, principally to restore respect for hierarchy in the armed forces. In November an ultimatum delivered by US Secretary of State Cordell Hull demanded withdrawal from China on pain of the total embargo of the oil (from the Dutch East Indies) and steel without which the Japanese war economy would collapse.


Japanese diplomat

We have an excellent book in Tokyo, by one who happened to be one of my very good friends, called Government by Assassination – assassination followed one after the other since the outbreak of the Manchurian Incident in the autumn of 1931. This had the effect of intimidating the government leaders and they lost gradually the courage to speak up in the face of a military operation. A rather mysterious devotion was growing between the Army and the 'Young Turks' who were growing as an influence in the Army at home and together they tried to reform or reconstruct Japanese society. Most people were not told the truth of the situation because the large papers and periodicals, most of them, followed the lead of the reactionaries and military elements, and to the effect they did, public opinion ceased to function.


Japanese–English journalist

There was always a sort of censorship, from cradle to grave you might say, because there were certain things you couldn't say. This intensified, starting about the time of the Manchurian Incident. The bans of censorship as applied to the radio and the press came in those days from the Home Ministry. As often as several times a week editors would receive notices of what could and could not be mentioned, such as any references to the Imperial household. But they came to assume more and more of a military nature as the Japanese war on the continent progressed.


Japanese Army General Staff

Politically, Japan wanted to join with China to check the attempt of the European powers to divide up China, and to prevent the advance of the Soviet Union into Manchuria and North Korea. But the Nationalist government of China thought it better to get the support of the United States and Britain than to join with Japan and so continued an anti-Japanese policy. Japan wanted to secure Manchuria and Korea and for this they had to use force.


English teacher in Japan

The Japanese Army had been in disrepute from about 1922 when Japan was in Siberia with the British and the Americans after World War One, but the Japanese were the last to go and there were various scandals connected with Army corruption. And it remained in disrepute for several years, I should say until about the beginning of the 1930s, and then they came back through the so-called Patriotic Societies, many of them no more than gangsters who would commit any misdeed in the name of patriotism. There were several assassinations of Prime Ministers and leaders in those days just because they had liberal views or because they favoured better relations with the United States, Britain or other democratically minded nations.


Nationalist politician

We, the Japanese people, were told that the situation with the United States had reached such a stage that they wanted Japan to get out of not only China, but also Taiwan. They wanted Japan to withdraw completely from all parts of Asia and we were told that only if we do so, if we were to withdraw from all these various places, then the United States would lift its economic blockade of Japan for the first time. Of course we wanted the economic blockade lifted but the hardest part of this condition was the demand that we get out of Manchuria. After all, Manchuria had been the prize that we had gained after two wars, the Sino-Japanese and the Russo-Japanese, in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers had been sacrificed. We, the Japanese people, felt that if Japan were forced to withdraw from Manchuria it would immediately fall prey to the Russians. And so it was felt that unless Manchuria was defended by Japan it would be completely dominated by Russia and that all the past precious lives that were sacrificed to make Manchuria safe would have been a complete waste.


I had some sympathy with the idealism of the young officers, partly because of the depression, which was pretty bad, and the young officers in the Army and also in the Navy were reacting to a hostile policy adopted by the democratic powers of America and Britain.


Intelligence Officer, Japanese Army

We have this belly-band, which is the girls stand on the corner in the streets of, say, Tokyo and ask each passer-by woman to make a stitch and she must collect a thousand stitches. This is given to a soldier – I got one – and you wrap it round your belly. It's supposed to keep your stomach warm so that you don't catch cold or this or that, but also to ward off bullets. I used to think – I don't know whether I should say this – but I felt it was very unfair, especially when I got the order to go overseas, that the Japanese girls were giving me these thousand stitches. I'm going to the and I have not experienced a woman – why cannot they give me their body for me to enjoy and let me live, however short my life is, to enjoy the fullness of it. Because sleeping with me is not going to kill the girl, you know, maybe she likes it, I don't know. But I am going to the and all I get is a thousand stitches, which is a charm and it's very nice of her to give it to me, but after all it's just a piece of cloth with a thousand stitches.


Private Secretary to pre-war Prime Minister Konoye

There were so many causes in Japan those days – party politics very important and great division between the rich and the poor. In general public life was very hard and most young military officers came from low-class agricultural families, and agriculture was very, very hard position in those days.


The military came back to power because of the plight of the farmer classes, who did have a difficult time in the early Thirties, and you must remember that the military obtained its recruits mainly from the agricultural class, which before the war represented possibly seventy-five per cent of the Japanese working class.


It was very bad, there were farmers' riots and many small and medium enterprises, and some big enterprises went bankrupt. Prime Minister Osachi Hamaguchi and others were assassinated too. The cause of all this was the economic situation. In mainland China there was an anti-Japanese movement; in the United States there was discrimination against Japanese immigrants; Japan was being opposed all over the world. And because of that Japan found itself in a very difficult economic situation.


Japanese–American teenager

As a child I remember going to school and having to fight my way home and having to argue and to justify my Americanism, my loyalty, to my classmates and my friends. My brothers and sisters all had trouble going to school and coming home from school, to the point where we pretty much felt we were no longer wanted in society and therefore we sort of kept to ourselves.


I remember my former wife, it must have been about 1938, coming from the hairdresser where she had her hair waved and being stopped by a policeman who told her this was a sign of Western decadence; even Western music, except classical music, which was mostly German, Beethoven and that sort of thing, was frowned upon and gradually all any kind of pleasure introduced from the West the military did their best to prohibit and rub it out altogether.


Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal

1930 was around the time Japan began to enter what might be called a convulsive period. The Army did not have such a strong power in 1930, but the growing influence of the ultra-nationalists and the 15th May young officers' insurrection and other incidents that occurred around this time placed Japan step by step under the influence of the Army*6 The thing that helped the Army most was the fact that in selecting the War Minister it was necessary to have the agreement of the Chief of Staff and the Army Inspector General, and that the War Minister must be an active officer. This system gave the Army a chance to manipulate the Cabinet as it pleased.


Chief Cabinet Secretary

The constitution at the time, prerogative of the Emperor to use the Army and Navy, it belonged to Emperor himself, so the government could not control them. The Manchuria Army abused this Emperor's prerogative.


When I left Japan in early 1940 to join the Royal Navy there was rationing, prices were high, students of high school and the universities were doing military training practically every day. You had Army officers attached to every school to supervise such training. And so it was a nation preparing for war. By that time you must remember they'd already been in an undeclared war with China since the time of the so-called Manchurian Incident in 1931 and practically every day if you went near any railway station you'd see a crowd of people dressed in black – mothers, fathers, grandfathers, receiving the white boxes of ashes of their sons, which had been returned from the battle front in China.


When I left for war I had to clip my nails and hair and write a last will and testament because from that moment our lives were in the Emperor's hands. In other words my family will put that in the urn in case my body is not recovered. Our training is to die for the Emperor, beat the enemy and die for the Emperor so that death was nothing to be afraid of and in any attack we never even thought of dying. We only thought of this when perhaps we had a rearguard action and you are being shot from behind, that to die when shot in the back would be a shame,


Japan wanted to pursue peace if possible, and that is why the government undertook the difficult negotiations with the United States. But on one hand the temper of the nation grew each day more militaristic, on the other because of the growing frictions with the democratic powers, which made it practically impossible to continue the negotiations.


Just before the war broke out Prime Minister Konoye tried very, very hard to settle affairs in China, but it didn't seem the military were very interested in ending the war: they wanted to go south, they were preaching the 'Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere' – the whole of Asia under the umbrella of Japan.


We knew it was impossible to stop Prince Konoye from going by ordinary means but we knew that in order for him to go to the United States he would have to take the train from Tokyo to Yokosuka, and then he would take a warship from Yokosuka to the United States. We knew of his route on the other side of the bay from Yokosuka beforehand so our plan was to blow up a bridge half-way between Tokyo and Kamagawa. Our plan was to blow up the train together with the bridge with the help of Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, later Chief of Staff to General Tomoyuki Yamashita in the lightning conquest of Malaya of the Japanese Army.


The Soviet Union had always been thought a threat to Japanese security and the Army was itching for a showdown with the Soviet Union, if and when the latter suffered defeat in the European theatre, and the Army wanted to take the advantage of the Russian weakness. But in order to move north the climatic conditions come into play. After October the military operations against the north became rather more difficult, technically speaking. The Navy, on the other hand, wanted to advance further south because the resources our country lacked were largely in South Seas. And so Japan was pointing apart between the Army ambition and Naval design. But when the time for an attack against the north passed, the Army naturally joined the Navy.


In 1941 there was still no proposal that Japan should advance southwards because Japan's hypothetical enemy was still Russia. I think the southward idea came somewhat later.


Historian and post-war Director of the Imperial War Museum

The Japanese war was really a separate war to that against Hitler. The struggle between Hitler and the Western Alliance gave the Japanese the opportunity to secure what they believed was their right – an overseas empire which was based upon the view that they must have natural resources, as Japan is not a self-supporting country rather like Britain, and they sought an empire which would give them access to oil, rubber and all the commodities which great industrial nations need. And the Germany/ Britain/America struggle gave the Japanese the opportunity; it was the Japanese who projected the Americans into the war against Germany. But the opportunity was created for Japan by Hitler.


They were building up to the Rome – Tokyo – Berlin Axis and so quite naturally they did their best to sell their people on the merits of Hitler and Mussolini as opposed to the America of Roosevelt and the Britain of Chamberlain, two decadent, weak nations.*7


Even before Pearl Harbor, during the time of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Italy, you were asked to refer in certain ways to the Axis Powers. I noticed that the Japanese press was quite willing to cooperate with this, to be unfree, to convert themselves into printing shops for what came down to them from the High Command.


Naval Attaché at Japanese Embassy in Washington

The Army took Prussia, later Germany, as its teacher and the Navy learnt from Great Britain and the United States. So there was naturally a great gap of thinking between the Army and the Navy. This was the biggest cause of the clash of interests. As a result of this the Navy wanted to maintain friendship as much as possible with Great Britain and the United States, while on the other hand the Army wanted to maintain friendship with Germany. This, then, was the biggest difference between the two.


British Foreign Secretary 1935–38

Cadogan and I had been working with the Foreign Office for two years trying to improve our relations with the United States, particularly in respect to the Far East, and we had made some progress.**1 Rather remarkably when we opened the new dock at Singapore the United States offered to send two cruisers to attend the ceremony, which was quite an unusual gesture for those days, and then later Roosevelt offered to send a senior naval officer across to London to discuss how we would coordinate our naval policies in the Far East.


In Hong Kong in 1940 when I went there in the Royal Navy there were certain people like myself who knew full well the potentialities of the Japanese as fighting men. There were others, however, who were completely with their heads in the sand, completely ignorant, who even expressed the opinion that the Japanese hadn't a hope of taking Hong Kong, or hadn't a hope of fighting a European power let alone achieving a victory over them. I remember on one occasion, I think it must have been about the beginning of 1939, when a British national newspaper ran a story in which the opinion was expressed that the Japanese could never be good fliers because they had no sense of balance through being carried on the backs of their mothers as children. And people used to argue with me or other people who had been in Japan and quite frankly it became rather ridiculous. If any one of us just pointed out the power of the Japanese fighting ships or what they were doing in the air, the aircraft they were designing, we were either laughed at or looked upon as being traitors.


In the Navy, to cope with the combined strength of British and American navies without being an act of suicide, any intelligent naval officer would have chosen to limit hostilities to either one of them, not take on two great navies at the same time. I know that some of the officers thought that it would be possible to separate the two but it proved that this was impossible, that they are one and the same. Particularly we in the Foreign Office thought that hostility with Britain would automatically involve America and vice versa. The Navy simply had to accept this judgement that to fight only with America or only with Britain was impossible, so it had to take on the two powerful navies, like it or not.


Germany informed Japan that it was going to invade the Soviet Union about twenty days before they took action. There were two views in the Japanese General Headquarters, one said that Japan should take considered action with Germany, the other said that Japan should wait and see. This view was that Germany's war against the Soviet Union might not go as well as Germany thought; moreover it was thought that there was no definite cause for going to war against the Soviet Union. The decision of the General Headquarters was to wait for a while and see how the situation would develop.


The Japanese similar to German people, especially military people, believed that Germany Army will destroy Russia within a very short period.


Sorge I knew not very well, but those who knew him did not suspect that he was a spy, a master spy.*8 He infiltrated the inner circle of Prince Konoye, the Prime Minister. Prince Konoye had with him intelligent people like Ozaki Hotsumi, and Ozaki was frequented and consulted by Konoye on the count of our policy of China. That Sorge was employed by the Russians was not known to us but he had many tentacles and penetrated into the secrets of our government. Also because of his connection to the German Ambassador, he had full access to the German archives and he also had his own sources of information. Sorge was sent abroad to find out the intention of the Japanese High Command as regard the Soviet Union: are they attack Soviet Union or not? And Sorge concentrated on finding out this question, which was vital to the security of the Soviet Union, and shortly before the German attack, when Sorge was arrested, he confided to the Military Police that about a month beforehand he had come to a definite conclusion that Japan was not moving against the Soviet Union. The fact that the Soviet Union had easy access to our government and High Command naturally militated against our interests.


Japanese spy at Hawaii

I went to Hawaii in 1940, 7th March I think it was, and I worked ten months in Hawaii until the bombing attack over Honolulu and Hawaii. Sometimes I went to a geisha house early in the morning, at dawn, so I get up early and I saw the moving of the fleet go through the narrow strait. I go round by taxi or by bus around the Pearl Harbor Road and took the names of the ships. There are many names but there are sisters, you know sister ships, so it is very difficult to find out the name of one.


Army Cabinet Minister

Ever since the First World War, or rather ever since the Russo-Japanese War, the United States had followed a policy of checking Japan's expansion. Therefore in the negotiations of 1940–41 the United States was not prepared to listen to what Japan said – the American idea was to check Japan completely before listening to what Japan had to say. It was because of this mounting pressure that Japan decided to go into Indochina, and it was very clear that if Japan did make the advance the economic embargo against Japan would be tightened further, therefore Japan was prepared for it.*9


Japan, at that time, was not able to purchase anything abroad because of the economic blockade and so the Navy gave specific orders to me to set up a secret mission to obtain as much material for the Navy Air Arm as possible. This Kodama Mission was not known to the public, it was a completely secret organisation. But for three and a half years we purchased material abroad and in secret, and we got everything for the Navy Air Arm from China, from Singapore and Thailand. We collected all this material, and I can say the truth is that it was thanks to our efforts that for three and a half years of war the Navy Air Arm was able to continue in existence.


It was the Army that was most surprised. This was because the Army did not know the United States. For example this is shown by the fact that the Army did not think that even though they went into Indochina it would call for such a strong retaliation from the United States as an embargo on the exports of oil to Japan.


As to the action in choosing General Tojo, I myself asked Konoye and he said that nobody except Tojo would offer enough to control the Army, which 'was running our morgue'. This was heard by many other people. Also Tojo was deeply devoted to the Empire and if His Majesty made Tojo Prime Minister, Tojo would faithfully abide by his wish.


It was in 1941 that I became a Cabinet Minister. Japan was in very poor economic straits as a result of the incident with China. Japan's economy was already on a war footing but the planning of the war economy was not going so well.


British Liberal MP and Wartime Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Economic Warfare

We were responsible for keeping track of all neutral shipping because we had to exercise contraband control. We might bring neutral ships into Gibraltar or the West Indies in order to search them for any goods that might be reaching the enemy. On some day, I don't remember the exact date, in October 1941 when Japan was still neutral, I was summoned to the blockade committee which met each day. Our shipping experts presented a very interesting report: they said apart from one whaler lost in the Antarctic every Japanese ship in their mercantile marine is heading for home as quickly as it possibly can. There were no outbound Japanese merchant ships, they said, we therefore reckon that by the 1st of December every single ship in the Japanese mercantile marine will be back in home waters. Well, you couldn't have had a clearer intimation than that. We reported to our own government and to the American government because although the United States were technically neutral we had an American observer on the committee, so they must have been fully informed as to our conclusions.


Of course Japan tried to reach a diplomatic solution but Secretary of State Cordell Hull's attitude was very firm. That made negotiations very difficult and finally when the Hull Note was delivered, Japan was place in a position where she had no alternative but to fight.


It was not only Tojo but the entire nation which became determined to fight when Japan was presented with the Hull Note.


When General Tojo was called upon to organise the new Cabinet before the outbreak of war, the Emperor conveyed his wish to the effect that the time limit attached to the negotiations with America, previously adopted by the liaison conference of government and High Command, should be disregarded. The Emperor tried to shape a fresh course in conducting our negotiations with America, but, unfortunately, events then overtook us. Even General Tojo tried at one time, at least during the first fortnight, to make the divisions but that was physically impossible because the situation was that American and British troops and fleet were at a strategic point in the South Seas and there was the mass circulation of the papers and periodicals inflaming the war question. This made it very difficult for General Tojo and the horse ran away from the stable.


The Emperor was very strict idea that he must obey the constitution, so if the Cabinet decide by the Cabinet Meeting then best way for the Emperor not to deny them, always say yes.


Tojo had no intention to go into war in the first place – it was the momentum of the situation that caused him to go to war. He understood well that Japan's economy lacked the strength to conduct a long-term war against the United States.


The General Headquarters knew that Japan's oil supply, combining those of the Army and the Navy, was sufficient for only half a year or a year of fighting. So the plan was to get oil from Sumatra and continue the defensive war.


Tojo was an honest man, he was deeply devoted to the Emperor, but he was, I do not think, suitable to be Prime Minister. He was very studious; he was rather famous as a Commander of Military Police in Manchuria. As Prime Minister he would assemble details after details: he always carried the famous black notebook; into it he entered surprising amount of details, not only of military affairs but also diplomatic matters. For instance, Privy Council met and Foreign Minister was there to present diplomatic case for approval. Tojo would incessantly intervene asking the Foreign Minister for a minute or two, during which time he would explain the why and how of a situation.


The Emperor did not think the raid would be conducted before a declaration of war. We told him that Pearl Harbor would be raided but that it would only be as soon as possible after war had been declared.


Some people say that Pearl Harbor was a sneak attack. It was a surprise attack but it was meant to be not quiet, because I was in charge of the American desk and took personal charge of the negotiations with America, and together with the Foreign Minister Mr Togo tried very hard to notify the breakdown of the negotiations before the active attack took place.*10


On the eve of Pearl Harbor, Japan had already been at war for many years, rather hopelessly bogged down in China for years, and things were getting scarce and the military were everywhere. All you could read about was the war, so the declaration of war against the rest of the world was just a development rather than a sudden plunging into war.


When the war began, Japan's Army and Navy were at the height of their power, Japan could not step back when it was presented with the Hull Note, which was tantamount to an ultimatum. The Emperor was unable to prevent a war by himself. When the decision to stop fighting was made Japan was already completely defeated, Japan had nothing left. I think it was all a matter of how the world situation stood at each stage.

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