Tokyo, Japan July 2, 1941

On this date in 1941, in an Im­perial Con­fer­ence of high-level Japa­nese offi­cials (Gozen Kaigi), Shōwa Emperor Hiro­hito sanctioned the mili­tary seizure of bases in the south of Vichy French Indo­china (present-day Viet­nam). It was in keeping with Japan’s so-far unsuc­cess­ful attempts to force the surrender of their Chinese enemy, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nation­alist govern­ment, by severing land links with its chief backers, the United States and Great Britain, that ran through the French colony. Only ten months earlier Japanese forces had gained access to three air­fields and per­mission to maintain a 6,000-man garrison in Northern French Indochina.

Authorized by the July 2 Imperial Conference, Japan moved its armed forces into Southern French Indo­china on July 25, 1941, and announced a protec­torate over the whole of the French colony (today’s Viet­nam, Laos, and Cam­bodia). Tokyo did this in defiance of a U.S. State Depart­ment warning the pre­vious Septem­ber against any attempt to change the status of French Indo­china after the mother country had succumbed to Japan’s Axis ally, Nazi Germany. In carrying out their ground and naval deploy­ments in Southern French Indo­china, the Japanese govern­ment and Japan’s Army and Naval General Staffs had decided that the nation would not be deterred by the possi­bility of becoming involved in a war with the U.S. and Great Britain. Emperor Hiro­hito, in giving cere­monial sanction to his mili­tary’s plan to occupy all of French Indo­china, accepted the possibility of the action sparking a war with West that he wished to avoid.

The next day, July 26, 1941, an angry Frank­lin D. Roose­velt issued an executive order to freeze all Japa­nese assets in the U.S., totaling $130 million dollars, in effect bringing all finan­cial and import and export trade trans­actions in which Japa­nese inter­ests were involved under U.S. govern­ment con­trol. Oil-rich Nether­lands East Indies (present-day Indo­nesia) followed the U.S. lead by freezing Japanese assets and oil exports. Great Britain, Australia, and New Zea­land like­wise froze Japa­nese assets, while Great Britain went further by announcing its intention to end bilateral commerce.

Early in September 1941 Japanese officials gave their diplo­mats until Octo­ber to reverse the policy of the West­ern powers. At an Im­perial Con­fer­ence on Novem­ber 5, 1941, Gen. Hideki Tōjō—war min­is­ter, home min­is­ter, and since Octo­ber 17 prime min­is­ter—said Japan must be pre­pared to go to war with the West, with the time for mili­tary action ten­ta­tively set for Decem­ber 1, less than a month away, if diplo­macy with the U.S. and Euro­pean colo­nial powers failed to im­prove rela­tions and reverse eco­nomic sanc­tions. Just before the Decem­ber 1 dead­line Kichisa­burō No­mura, Japan’s ambas­sador to Washing­ton, reported failing to over­come the Roose­velt adminis­tra­tion’s insis­tence on Japan’s with­drawing its armed forces from China and halting its aggres­sive South­east Asian incur­sions before the U.S. would resume trade with his country.

On December 1 another Imperial Conference offi­cially sanc­tioned war against the United States, Great Britain, and the Nether­lands. Con­tin­ued talks in Wash­ing­ton to heal the breach between the two nations were a smoke­screen for Vice-Adm. Chūi­chi Na­gu­mo’s Striking Force of six air­craft carriers as they made their way to the Hawai­ian Islands and took up posi­tions on Decem­ber 4, 1941, 250 miles north­west of their des­ig­nated tar­gets: the U.S. Pacific Fleet riding at anchor at Pearl Harbor and U.S. aircraft parked smartly at Hickman Field.

Noriko Kawamura’s Emperor Hirohito and the Pacific War provides a con­vincing reapprai­sal of Japan’s Hiro­hito few Westerners would recog­nize when­ever they are reminded of Pearl Harbor and the Pacific con­flict. This owes largely to Kawa­mura’s drawing on a huge number of primary and secondary Japanese-lan­guage sources—some of them only recently avail­able to scholars. Mining them Kawa­mura draws a portrait of an emperor person­ally against waging war with the West, all the while offi­cially sanc­tioning (as required by the Japa­nese [Meiji] consti­tu­tion) state decisions that led to the events of Decem­ber 7, 1941. Once Japan’s leaders launched their nation’s high-risk cam­paign to seize Western colo­nial interests, Hiro­hito assumed the mantle of supreme com­mander in chief (daigensui) of all Japa­nese armed forces, again as required under the consti­tu­tion. Kawa­mura por­trays Hiro­hito growing ever more skep­ti­cal of a favor­able mili­tary out­come as Japanese vic­tories over the enemy proved more elu­sive by the month. Terri­fied by the pro­spect of “Japan’s anni­hi­la­tion,” as Hiro­hito him­self put it, the emperor at last flexed his moral muscles in a set of imperial prerog­a­tives (sei­dans), inter­vening on the side of the “peace faction” to end the con­flict he never wanted.—Norm Haskett

Emperor Hirohito and His Wartime Prime Minister, Gen. Hideki Tōjō

Hirohito (middle) as head of the Imperial Conference, 1943Gen. Hideki Tōjō, 1940

Left: Wartime photograph of Emperor Hirohito, seated in middle, as pre­siding head of an Impe­rial Con­fer­ence (Gozen Kaigi). Convened by the Japa­nese govern­ment in the presence of the Emperor at his palace, Impe­rial Con­fer­ences were extra­consti­tutional con­fer­ences that focused on foreign affairs of grave national impor­tance. In the July 2, 1941, Impe­rial Con­fer­ence, Hiro­hito, despite his doubts and reser­va­tions, gave cere­monial sanction to the mili­tary’s plan to seize French Indo­china. (Although cere­monial, the emperor’s sanctions rendered deci­sions of Impe­rial Con­fer­ences sacred state deci­sions regard­less of Hiro­hito’s personal view on the matter.) At the all-important Impe­rial Con­fer­ence on Decem­ber 1, 1941, Hiro­hito sanctioned a war with the West he did not want, partly due to the enor­mous pres­sure the Japanese high com­mand exerted on him, and partly due to the failure of diplomatic negotiations with the U.S. in Washington.

Right: Tōjō in military uniform. On July 22, 1940, Tōjō was appointed Army Minis­ter. During most of the Pacific War, from Octo­ber 17, 1941 to July 22, 1944, he served as Prime Minis­ter of Japan. In that capa­city he was directly respon­si­ble for the attack on Pearl Harbor. Tōjō was forced to resign from office following the disclo­sure of Japan’s loss of Sai­pan in the Mariana Islands to U.S. Marines and soldiers. After the war Tōjō was arrested, sen­tenced to death for war crimes during the Tokyo Trials, and hanged on December 23, 1948.

History’s Verdict: Japanese Emperor Hirohito Documentary