Tokyo, Japan September 6, 1941

On this date in 1941, in an Imperial Con­fer­ence in Tokyo, Japanese mili­tary and poli­tical leaders embarked on a col­lision course with the West. It was decided that Japan would begin war pre­para­tions against the U.S., Great Britain, and the Nether­lands (all coun­tries with terri­torial claims in South­east Asia; see map below) while simul­ta­ne­ously con­tinuing its diplo­matic efforts in Western capitals—to unleash hostil­ities should diplo­macy fail to lift oner­ous sanc­tions imposed by the West the previous July and August in retali­a­tion for Japan’s sei­zure of French Indo­china (present-day Viet­nam, Cam­bodia, and Laos). The U.S., for example, froze all Japanese assets in the coun­try, closed the Panama Canal to Japanese shipping, and for­bade all export trade with Japan. (Japan quickly lost access to 93 per­cent of its oil imports.) Nether­lands (Dutch) East Indies (present-day Indo­nesia) followed the U.S. lead with asset and oil export freezes. Great Britain, Aus­tralia, and New Zea­land like­wise froze Japanese assets, while Great Britain went further by announcing its intention to end bilateral commerce.

A resolution the day before, that is, on Septem­ber 5, 1941, by Japan’s Supreme War Council favoring war with the West only awaited Shōwa Emperor Hiro­hito’s cere­monial sanc­tion (rati­fi­ca­tion) at the Imperial Con­fer­ence before it became state policy. At both assem­blies, those of Septem­ber 5 and 6, Hiro­hito expressed his desire to give diplo­matic nego­ti­a­tions priority over a mili­tary solu­tion. How­ever, the pre-made decision by the Army and Naval General Staffs at the Supreme War Council on Septem­ber 5 easily passed muster the next day at the Imperial Con­fer­ence, which was not a real delib­er­a­tive body. An October 10 deadline was set to begin war preparations.

Between the September 6 Imperial Con­fer­ence, the Octo­ber 10 dead­line, and the appoint­ment of hard­line pro-war War Minister Army Gen. Hideki Tōjō to the post of prime minister on Octo­ber 17, 1941, the supreme com­mand worked over­time to press the emperor to embrace its view on the inev­i­ta­bility of war with the West despite his wish for peace. An Octo­ber 20 report released for the Army General Staff to use in pressing their hawkish views on Hiro­hito depicted how a war with the West was win­na­ble even if it dragged on for several years. More memos followed and more meetings between Hiro­hito and his mili­tary and civil­ian advisers occurred. By Novem­ber 20, when the Roose­velt admin­is­tra­tion rejected Prime Minister Tōjō’s final pro­posal for peace in the Asia Pacific area and countered with its own peace pro­posal (totally unaccept­able to Japan’s pro-war leaders) on Novem­ber 26, Hiro­hito had already wavered from his paci­fist leanings to the point where he was in agree­ment with the hawks. In a Decem­ber 1 Imperial Con­ference Hiro­hito formalized Japan’s decision to attack Western interests beginning on Decem­ber 7 and 8, 1941. Japan would call this war against Western interests the Greater East Asia War (Dai Tō-A Sensō), a name that was used in public for the first time on Decem­ber 12, 1941. The term embraced both the on­going war with China and the newly declared war against the West.

Noriko Kawamura’s Emperor Hirohito and the Pacific War provides a realistic 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 has drawn what I believe is a fair, nuanced por­trait of Hiro­hito who, in the first years his reign, con­fronted a pas­sion­ate nucleus of mostly junior- and middle-level army officers hell-bent on advancing the mili­tary’s position against com­peting Japanese power centers. Over time the “over­reach” of these extremists extended way beyond dominating every level of domes­tic affairs to laying violent claim to much of the Asian con­tinent and the Pacific islands for their “new order.” Kawa­mura cites case after case where Hiro­hito was con­stitu­tionally bound to ratify the con­sen­sus reached by his mili­tary and civil­ian advisers to con­front Western powers that had colo­nial claims in South­east Asia, even though the emperor was personally against going to war with the West. She por­trays Hiro­hito growing ever more skep­ti­cal of a favor­able mili­tary out­come as Japanese vic­tories over the enemy proved more elu­sive month after 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), taking on the fire-breathers in the war faction to end the con­flict. To his dying days in January 1989 the Hiro­hito of Kawa­mura’s account privately agonized over his not nipping in the bud the cala­mity that his pro-war mili­tary and their ultra­nationalist and finan­cial (zaibatsu) supporters were poised to inflict both on his loyal sub­jects and on tens of millions more who would suffer, be injured or maimed, or lose their lives in the Pacific War.—Norm Haskett

U.S.-Japanese Relations on the Eve of the Pacific War

Asia Pacific, 1939

Above: Political map of Japanese, European, and U.S. pos­ses­sions in the Asia Pacific region on the eve of hostilities. Japanese control on mainland China (rose colored) was tenuous.

War with U.S. inevitable per Japan: Nomura (from left), Hull, Kurusu, Washington, November 17, 1941War with U.S. inevitable per Japan: Japanese negotiators Nomura and Kurusu at White House, November 27, 1941

Left: Japanese Ambassador Adm. Kichisaburō Nomura and Special En­voy Saburō Kurusu with U.S. Secre­tary of State Cordell Hull (middle), Novem­ber 17, 1941. The two diplo­mats presented Japan’s final peace pro­posal for the Asia Pacific region to the Roose­velt admin­is­tra­tion on Novem­ber 20. (Nomura had presented an earlier peace pro­posal on Novem­ber 6, but the U.S. rejected it on Novem­ber 14). Recog­nizing the chance of suc­cess was slim, Emperor Hiro­hito none­the­less pinned his hopes on this last final push to break the diplo­matic stale­mate in Washing­ton. Japan demanded that the U.S. give it a free hand in China; discon­tinue aiding Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nation­alists; recog­nize Japan’s puppet govern­ment in North­east China, Man­chu­kuo; recog­nize the Greater East Asia Co-Pros­perity Sphere, Japan’s self-sufficient econo­mic-mili­tary sphere in occu­pied Asian terri­tories; and undo trade embargoes and financial freezes directed against the country.

Right: Nomura and Kurusu (tipping hat) after speaking with Secre­tary of State Cor­dell Hull and Presi­dent Roose­velt at the White House, Novem­ber 27, 1941. The Roose­velt admin­is­tra­tion’s final peace pro­posal (“Hull Note”) delivered on Novem­ber 26 laid out the following counter condi­tions, among others: Japan and the U.S. will endeavor to con­clude a multi­lateral non­aggres­sion pact among states with a claim to terri­tories in the Asia Pacific region, Japan must respect China’s terri­torial and poli­tical integ­rity (meaning the Nationalist govern­ment of Chiang Kai-shek), respect free and open markets in China, and with­draw all mili­tary, naval, and police forces from China and Indo­china before the U.S. would unfreeze Japanese finan­cial assets and resume trade with Japan. A dis­ap­pointed Hiro­hito con­strued the “Hull Note” as shutting down diplomatic negotiations between the two governments.

Contemporary Newsreels Document Japan’s Application of a “Free Hand” in China