An Asian specialist examines the reasons behind the riskiest military venture in Japan’s history.
Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor and begin a war it had virtually no chance of winning? In this focused, informed and persuasive book, Hotta (Pan-Asianism and Japan’s War, 1931-45, 2007) explains the cultural forces at work and the political, economic, diplomatic and military issues that occupied the government in the years, and especially the months, preceding December 7, 1941. Without in any way excusing or justifying the officials who made the momentous decision to begin an entirely “preventable and unwinnable” war, she sympathetically tells the story of leaders maneuvered into a strategic box, albeit one largely of their own making, from which war appeared the only escape. Among Hotta’s many sensitive portraits: the young Emperor Hirohito; Prime Minister Tojo (not the bloodthirsty dictator of American propaganda) and the fatally indecisive Prince Konoe who preceded him; Adm. Yamamoto, architect of the Pearl Harbor attack; Matsuoka, the longtime foreign minister; and Nomura, ambassador to the United States. Lending depth to her narrative, the author includes sketches of lesser figures like the novelist Kafu, author of an incisive diary about public events, and the brilliant and eccentric Kuroshima, Yamamoto’s premier strategist. Already weary from a long war with China, with rice rationed and the public kept largely clueless about the government’s machinations, the nation’s leaders paused. Nevertheless, with the cultural imperative of consensus masking intraservice rivalries and deep divisions among the military and political classes, with the racism and imperialism of Western powers painfully rankling, with the desire for national greatness fueling a reckless expansionism, Japan gambled on a war where success depended almost entirely on forces outside its control. The impressively credentialed Hotta effortlessly returns us to the moment just before the dice were so disastrously rolled.
From a perspective little known to Americans, a masterful account of how and why World War II began.