Tokyo, Japan June 30, 1941

On September 19, 1931, soldiers of the Kwantung Army (even­tually the largest, most pres­ti­gious branch of the Impe­rial Japa­nese Army) invaded Man­chu­ria in North­east China from their Chi­nese base at Port Arthur (known as Ryojun in Japa­nese; present-day Dalian or Lüshun Port) and estab­lished a pup­pet state they called Man­chu­kuo. This event was a mas­sive act of insub­ordi­nation against the express orders of Japa­nese polit­ical and mili­tary leaders in Tokyo. Suddenly thrown into dis­array, the same leaders were power­less to stop the erup­tion of locally based Japa­nese aggres­sion in North­eastern China. None­the­less, Tokyo dis­patched rein­force­ments to Man­chu­kuo from Japan and Japa­nese-held Korea and ini­tiated large-scale “anti-bandit oper­a­tions” to quell a growing resis­tance movement in the empire’s newest possession.

For the rest of the 1930s Japanese mili­tary and civil­ian offi­cials were of two minds: expand their imperial holdings west and north from their Man­chu­kuo base by attacking Inner Mon­go­lia (1933–1936 skir­mishes), the Soviet Union (Siberia), or the Soviets’ proxy state, Outer Mon­go­lia (present-day Mon­go­lia) (1938–1939, deci­sive Soviet vic­tories). Either that or expand south by attacking equally tempting West­ern colo­nial holdings in British Malaya and Singa­pore, the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indo­nesia), and the American Philippines (see map below).

In July 1940 the Japanese government formally decided on a twin policy at least to the south of Man­chu­kuo: first, win the existing war (since 1937) on China’s main­land by inter­dicting the life­lines that brought West­ern arms, muni­tions, and related mate­riel to their Chin­ese enemy; and, secondly, gain access to the desired raw mate­rials from Malaya and the East Indies, if neces­sary by starting a new war in South­east Asia. Toward the end of Septem­ber 1940, Japan took the first step in imple­menting this plan and moved troops into the north­ern part of French Indo­china (present-day Viet­nam) by agree­ment with the German vassal state of Vichy France.

On this date, June 30, 1941, Japanese officials shelved any plans for expan­sion north­ward or west­ward from their Man­chu­kuo base. Two days later, July 2, 1941, a Liai­son Con­fer­ence (Renraku Kaigi), con­sisting of Emperor Hiro­hito (presiding), the Japa­nese prime minis­ter and senior cabinet offi­cials, minis­ters of the Army and Navy, and Army and Navy chiefs of staff, formally con­firmed the deci­sion to expand south­ward. The deci­sion of the Liai­son Con­fer­ence was for­mally dis­closed and approved at the July 2, 1941, Imperial Con­fer­ence (Gozen Kaigi) over which (again) the Emperor presided. This was the moment when war between Japan and the Western powers became inevitable.

That controversy still surrounds the pre­war and war­time role of Japa­nese Emperor Hirohito should surprise no one. Hiro­hito took the auspi­cious reign-title “Showa” (“illus­trious peace”) in 1926. One popu­lar narra­tive portrays Hiro­hito as “reigning without ruling,” a sacred but cere­monial head of state under the Japa­nese 1889 consti­tution who was trapped in a pre­carious and ambig­uous posi­tion and who was maneu­vered (often against his per­sonal senti­ments and incli­na­tions) by an elite set of Japa­nese mili­tarists and ultra­nationalists to sanction decisions they’d already made. The most recent propo­nent of this narra­tive is Noriko Kawa­mura, whose revi­sionist his­tory titled Emperor Hiro­hito and the Pacific War draws on a huge number of primary and secondary Japa­nese-lan­guage sources—many of them only recently avail­able to scholars; her book is very per­sua­sive indeed. An opposing narra­tive asserts that Hiro­hito was a true war leader—he was after all the Gener­al­is­simo (com­man­der in chief) of the Imperial Japa­nese Armed Forces—and there­fore should have been charged with war crimes in a post­war mili­tary tribu­nal just as were Japa­nese Prime Minis­ter/War Minis­ter Gen. Hideki Tōjō and other senior offi­cials who served the emperor. Herbert P. Bix, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, con­signs the first inter­pre­tation to the scrap­heap. Bix asserts that Hiro­hito must bear the strongest share of poli­tical, legal, and moral respon­si­bility for the crimi­nal con­duct of Japa­nese armed forces in the Asia Pacific Theater in the 1930s and ’40s, and he cer­tainly bears direct respon­si­bility for sanctioning the bombing of Chi­nese cities and Japan’s use of poison gas on Chi­nese soldiers and civil­ians. For many readers, Bix con­vincingly demon­strates that Hiro­hito was a repeat vio­lator of inter­national peace, starting in 1931 with Japan’s illegal seizure of Man­churia in North­eastern China, contin­uing for more than a dozen years for millions of victims swept up in an awful China-South­east Asia tsunami, and ending only in August 1945 when Hiro­hito & Co. could find no way out of the catas­trophe they had created. As seen by many in Bix’s camp, Hirohito was the missing defendant in the Tokyo Trials of 1946–1948.—Norm Haskett

Japanese and Western Holdings in the Asia Pacific Region, September 1939

Map of imperial holdings in Asia Pacific, September 1939

Above: A map of imperial possessions in the Asia Paci­fic region as of Septe­mber 1939. The start of the Second Sino-Japa­nese War (1937–1945) was the inau­gu­ral event in World War II and argu­ably the dead­liest, cost­liest global con­flict ever. The total num­ber of Chinese mili­tary and non­mili­tary dead was upwards of 20 mil­lion, with maybe 15 mil­lion wounded. Addi­tion­ally, Japa­nese “kill all, loot all, burn all” opera­tions created 95 mil­lion Chi­nese refu­gees. Chi­nese forces claim to have killed at most 1.77 mil­lion Japa­nese sol­diers during the eight-year war. The Paci­fic islands encircled in red lines (the Northern Marianas, Caro­lines, Marshall Islands, and Palau groups) are former Ger­man posses­sions under Japa­nese adminis­tra­tion following World War I. They would play a major role in facili­tating Jap­anese vic­tories over the Allies in the early years of the Pacific War.

“Manchukuo: The Newborn Empire,” Japanese Propaganda Film, Circa 1937

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