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.

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.

Nomura (from left), Hull, Kurusu, Washington, November 17, 1941 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 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