GLOCOM Platform
debates Media Reviews Tech Reviews Special Topics Books and Journals
Summary Page
Search with Google
Home > Books & Journals > Book Review Last Updated: 18:12 03/15/2007
Book Review #66: March 15, 2007

"Who Was Responsible? From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor" Edited by James E. Auer

Reviewed by Sir Hugh Cortazzi

Title: Who Was Responsible? From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor
Authors: Edited by James E. Auer
Publisher: The Yomiuri Shimbun
Date/Time: 2006
Pages: 410 pages
ISBN: 4-643-06012-3 C0021


Tsuneo Watanabe, the editor-in-chief of the Yomiuri Shimbun, which has a circulation of over ten million, the largest of any Japanese newspaper, established in 2005 a committee of Japanese journalists. The committee was to produce a careful historical analysis with the aim of telling the Japanese people, a majority of whom were born after the war: "Who was responsible for starting the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War, why they did so and why the nation kept fighting until many of its cities had been almost completely reduced to ashes." The committee worked for fourteen months studying a wide range of documents and sources. This book in English and two volumes in Japanese contain the findings of this committee.

While this book inevitably cannot tell the whole story it is a devastating critique of Japan's leadership in the Showa War which the Yomiuri calls the period 1931-45. It does not pull any punches. It states boldly that "Japan misread the prevailing international situation in 1941 when it went to war against the United States." Japan failed to formulate realistically its war aims or an exit strategy. "For Tojo and others the establishment of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere through war with the United States and Britain was Japan's last resort to make China surrender." The Japanese army's refusal to withdraw from China scuppered any hope in 1941 that War could be avoided. A comparison in 1940 between the national strength of Japan and the USA in 1940 (page 115) reveals the extent of Japan's gamble in attacking America. The misreading of intelligence, assessments based on wishful thinking, combined with cover-ups of failures made defeat inevitable. Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo was for instance only informed of the defeat at the battle of Midway "more than a month later (page 149)."

The report makes clear that the army and the navy were frequently in discord. The cliques in both services exacerbated the situation. After the war ended Tojo told (page 150) former foreign minister Mamoru Shigemitsu: "The fundamental reason [for Japan's defeat] was the lack of control. The Prime Minister-id not have the authority to control the reins of its military forces."

Intrigues and deliberate disobedience by relatively junior officers of orders from Tokyo led to the escalation of the war in China and to appalling mistakes in other theatres which resulted in vast numbers of military and civilian casualties. The Guadalcanal campaign in 1942 in which 20,000 Japanese troops died (15,000 as a result of starvation) was "a tragedy born in a war without strategy."

Japan's political leaders are shown to have been criminally culpable. Hideki Tojo is held by the Yomiuri as "most responsible." The second most guilty man was Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe who allowed "the Japanese military to act on its own." But others, including middle-ranking officers, some of who did not face trial before the Tokyo International Military Tribunal, are also condemned by the Yomiuri. These include other politicians as well as military and naval figures. Prime Ministers Hirota and Koiso as well as Kido, the Lord Privy Seal, are sharply criticized. Foreign minister Matsuoka and Lt General Oshima, Japanese ambassador to Nazi Germany, who consistently overestimated Germany's chances of victory, are condemned not least for pushing the disastrous tripartite pact with Germany and Italy. The members of the Diet are rightly censured for their failure to do anything effective to hold the government responsible for its failures. The list is long and convincing.

Tojo's cabinet was described (page 204) by Prince Takamatsu, the Emperor's younger brother, as "a regime of terror which will stop at nothing." He is said to have asked Morisada Hosokawa: "Is there no one who will assassinate him?" The plots which were made to oust Tojo from office are an appalling indictment of the machinery of government in war-time Japan.

The Yomiuri emphasises that more than 3.1 million Japanese died in the Showa war. Of these some 800,000 were civilians. Although Japan initially won some astounding victories there was never any chance that Japan could be victorious in a full scale war with the United States. By 1944 at the latest it should have been clear to Japanese leaders that Japan had lost and should sue for peace, but Japan's military were fanatical, blind and obstinate. They would not admit defeat. Even after the devastating fire-bomb raids on Tokyo in March 1945 and the occupation of Okinawa following an internecine struggle involving huge casualties on both sides they preferred to fight to the death on the mainland. Prime Minister Admiral Kantaro Suzuki, who was old and deaf, wanted to find a way out, but Foreign Minister Togo wrongly thought that the Soviet Union could be used as an intermediary. Suzuki unwisely responded to the Potsdam declaration that Japan's position was one of mokusatsu which was interpreted as meaning that Japan would ignore it. The atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 were the American response and delivered the coup de grace. Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai, one time Japanese Prime Minister, is recorded as having said (page 201) that "the atomic bombings and Soviet entry into the war are, in a sense, a godsend because we don't have to say that we'll stop the war due to the domestic situation."

The Yomiuri, however, for understandable reasons criticises the Americans for the use of the atomic bombs and for the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets. It also condemns Soviet behaviour in violating the non-aggression pact and for the mistreatment of Japanese prisoners after the war.

The role of the Showa Emperor has not been ignored. The Yomiuri concludes that his behaviour was within the framework for a constitutional head of state. He did from time to time express misgivings often in elliptical language such as quoting a poem by his grandfather the Emperor Meiji and it is clear that he was not always properly and fully informed of what was happening in the field. He did finally intervene, when the cabinet asked for his decision, and he confirmed that the Potsdam declaration should be accepted. Could he and should he have been more explicit in his criticisms? Would attempts have been made to replace him by his brother Prince Chichibu if he had done so? These are some of the questions which remain unanswered.

This book deserves to be widely read and the Yomiuri are to be congratulated on producing this study in the face of the attempts of Japanese revisionist historians to declare that the war was a defensive one. It does not, however, tell the whole story. While a brief account of General Mutaguchi's campaign at Imphal is given the war against British possessions in East Asia is hardly covered at all. The appalling treatment of the population of Singapore by General Yamashita is not mentioned. Nor is there any mention of the building of the Burma-Siam railway and the mistreatment of allied prisoners of war there and elsewhere in South East Asia. Even the horrific Bataan death march is ignored. While these events may not be considered to justify the atom bombs they do explain why Japan was so widely hated in allied countries in 1945.

The book does not exempt Japanese leaders for their wanton sacrifice of Japanese youth in the kamikaze attacks, but these together with the fanatical behaviour of some Japanese soldiers in the field and the absurd rhetoric of Japanese military leaders were important factors in persuading allied leaders that extreme measures had to be taken if mass casualties were to be avoided in an attack on the Japanese mainland.

The debate about whether the atomic bombs should or should not have been used will continue for generations. More attention should perhaps be paid to the question of whether the allied adherence to "unconditional surrender" was wise and sensible in the wars against Germany and Japan. If the allies had indicated that they were willing to negotiate, could the war have been ended earlier?

The main lacuna in this book is that it fails to analyse how it came about that the Japanese military took independent action and were allowed to get away with insubordination if not treason. Reference is made to the ordinance first instituted in 1900 whereby the Ministers of the Army and the Navy had to be senior serving officers thus giving the army and the navy a veto on the formation of Japanese cabinets. But this is a symptom not the cause of the problem which lies in the growth of Japanese nationalism and imperialism. The Meiji government decided that to unify the country the position of the Emperor should be strengthened. Unfortunately this led to the development of the cult of the Emperor and of state Shinto. Concepts of "national polity" were elaborated and extreme nationalist and right wing organizations were allowed to develop. If these facets had been covered in any depth it would have meant discussing the whole of modern Japanese history, but a chapter could surely have been devoted to the philosophical and psychological background to Japanese actions and behaviour in the Showa war.

The book points out some of the lessons to be learnt. Some of these are relevant to the current conflict in Iraq. These are the importance of accurate intelligence and unbiased reporting, objective interpretation and analysis of intelligence, a willingness to recognize the facts of what is happening on the ground, and a readiness to acknowledge failure. War aims need to be fully thought through and an exit strategy worked out in advance.

Although this is a minor point, the bibliography is misleading. It states that "There are only a small number of English language academic books about Japan's war history covering the first half of the 20th century up until World War II." I am not an expert in this field but there are many books in English known to me which should have been listed.

(This review was produced in collaboration with the Japan Society (UK).)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications