“Why,” so an essay with the intriguing working title “The Japs—A Habit of Mind” begins, “do so many Americans, after witnessing the devastation and the futility of war, continue to think of Japan and the Japanese in terms of war? Why have so many Japanese a similar mental attitude toward the United States? Is this mutually apprehensive habit of mind, to whatever understandable origins it may be due, justified today?”1

The essay was written for Asia magazine by Franklin D. Roosevelt, former assistant secretary of the navy, in 1923—eight years before the Japanese took over Manchuria, fourteen years before the invasion of China, and eighteen years before the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is a sad fact that Roosevelt’s question has lost none of its pertinence even now. For once again, it is said that the US and Japan are on a collision course—a collision not just of economic interests, but of values, cultures, in some cases even of racial sensibilities.

If the reaction of a famous Japanese novelist upon hearing the morning news on December 8, 1941, did not exactly answer the question, it at least illustrated the problem. The news, so Dazai Osamu noted in his diary,

entered my pitch-dark room like a shaft of light. The announcement was joyfully repeated twice. As I listened, I felt I had become a new man, as though a flower petal stirred in my breast, cooled by the sacred breath of a deity. After this morning Japan had become a new country too….

It is remarkable how hostile one can feel towards people whose eyes and hair are of a different color. I want to beat them to death. This feels quite different from fighting against China. The very idea of those insensitive American savages treading on our beautiful Japanese soil is unbearable… Oh, beautiful Japanese soldiers, please go ahead and smash them!

To Dazai, who was not some third-rate nationalist hack, but one of the great writers of modern Japan, Pearl Harbor came as a relief. The war in China, brutal and apparently endless, was an embarrassment; the waragainst the “Anglo-Saxon oppressors,” the “Anglo-American devils,” was a righteous explosion of pent-up feelings of inferiority and frustration, the revenge for countless slights and humiliations, imagined or real, personal or national, or, as was usual, a combination of both. The news of great victories, wrote the historian Hayashi Fusao, whose opinions were as candid as they were chauvinistic, “changed our feeling of tension into one of liberation, our sense of fear into one of superiority, joy and pride.”2

This sort of thing had its counterpart on the other side of the Pacific. It can be found in such American reactions to the attack on Pearl Harbor as the one, expressed by the commander of an air-field on the scene: “To think that this bunch of little yellow bastards could do this to us when we all knew that the United States was superior to Japan!”

This quotation is from Thurston Clarke’s Pearl Harbor Ghosts, an account of American attitudes toward Japanese aggression, then and now. The book’s central idea is that “there is no greater disgrace than to be defeated by an opponent you have previously denigrated.” He believes that Americans, blinded by racial and cultural prejudice, would not recognize the Japanese threat, but were obsessed instead by treacherous aliens in the US. “Blinded” is apt: folk opinion actually had it that slant-eyed people couldn’t shoot straight—just as many Japanese believed that large-nosed white men couldn’t see properly.

Clarke’s criticism of the American refusal to take Japan seriously would perhaps have been even more convincing had he bothered to spell Japanese names correctly. And his musings about current American attitudes toward Japanese economic expansion are rather woolly. Still, his main idea strikes me as a sound one. A wounded sense of superiority must account for the overblown rhetoric coming from, among others, Gerald A. Glaubitz, president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. When it was suggested that Japanese veterans should be invited to attend this year’s commemoration of the attack and offer their apologies, Glaubitz was outraged: “Would you expect the Jews to invite the Nazis to an event where they were talking about the Holocaust?” I don’t think even Dazai Osamu had a Holocaust in mind, when the petal fluttered in his breast on that fateful morning fifty years ago.

But then we are not dealing with history so much here, as with legend; the legend, on the one hand, of a desperate nation tossing its last card on the table in a heroic struggle for survival against Anglo-Saxon hegemony, and on the other, of the greatest nation on earth being ambushed by a treacherous foe. Clarke gives interesting examples of postwar American myth-making. It seems that even men who witnessed the attack have trouble distinguishing what they actually saw from movie versions of the same. It is also remarkable how many witnesses claim to have seen the faces of Japanese pilots as they swooped down to bomb and strafe, usually baring their teeth in devilish grins, “with the square goggles over the slant eyes,” sometimes even waving to the intended victims of their treachery. For one veteran, Richard I. Fiske, a marine bugler on the battleship West Virginia, the vision was so powerful that he dreamed of it for years. As he told The New York Times: “I can still see that smile.”


Now, it is possible that some people actually observed the pilots of low-flying aircraft, but the grins and the waves, not to mention the slant eyes, are just a bit too much. They smack of myth, rather like the stories of Palestinians dancing on rooftops as Scuds flew over Jerusalem, or of Hitler eating his carpet, or Japanese soldiers having the hearts and livers of executed POWs for lunch.

Much is made in America of the sneakiness of the Japanese attack. To be sure, declaring war after the first blow had been struck was not a gentlemanly thing to have done, but worse things happened in those days. We also tend to forget that when the Japanese used the same tactic in 1904 to destroy the Russian fleet in Port Arthur, their audacity was widely admired, even in America. Again Clarke is on the right track, I think, when he explains the sense of outrage in terms of American myth. He makes the interesting point that Westerns might have had an influence: “The Indians too were seen as treacherous and sneaky, having no regard for human life or the ‘rules’ of war. They too layin wait behind pink desert ridges, ready to ambush white men.” The problem with stressing the horrors of Pearl Harbor, rather than, say, the mass murders in China, is that it makes it easier for Japanese apologists to point at Hiroshima and claim it was many times worse.

Clarke is also right, I believe, to connect the continuing desire for conspiracy theories (Roosevelt invited the attack, Churchill knew all about it, etc.) to injured pride. Underneath the Roosevelt-provoked-Pearl-Harbor-to-get-into-the-war theory, he writes, was “a desperate need to explain what happened at Pearl Harbor without conceding victory to Japanese arms or defeat to American errors and overconfidence.”

There is, however, more to it than that. For the conspiracy theorists include men of very different stripes. There are, as Clarke says, people who begrudge the Japanese what was after all an extraordinary military feat. Just how extraordinary it was can be surmised from the reactions of men who had been warned, had read secret Japanese codes, saw the planes coming, and still couldn’t believe that such an operation was possible. “Ridiculous,” is what Lieutenant General Walter C. Short, commander of the Hawaiian Department, is supposed to have said after being informed that the Japanese had launched their attack. Then there are the isolationists who hated Roosevelt. And there are former intelligence agents, who can only explain the incompetence and pig-headed politicking of their superiors in terms of a conspiracy. Finally, there are perhaps the greatest conspiracy theorists of all, the Japanese themselves.

Not all Japanese of course. There are many who think the attack on Pearl Harbor was an act of folly, the epitome of militarist stupidity. The historian Ienaga Saburo, among others, has pointed out that just as the Americans underestimated the Japanese, the Japanese showed little respect for the Americans: How could those ice-cream-fed, jazz-loving, flabby democrats possibly have the guts to stand up to the iron will and fighting spirit of his imperial majesty’s forces? (One man who never fell for this line was Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, the planner and commander of the Pearl Harbor raid.) A literary critic, Matsumoto Kenichi, recently compared Japan in 1941 to Iraq in 1991. He wrote in a Tokyo newspaper that “Japan and Iraq went to war for virtually identical reasons”—expansionism in the guise of liberation. But being a good Japanese liberal, he added, somewhat incongruously, that Japanese government support for the multinational coalition against Saddam Hussein showed that Japanese conservatives had “learned little from Japan’s own descent into barbarism just fifty years ago.”

But still, many Japanese believe that Japan had no choice but to fight. The reasoning is more or less as follows: Japan had legitimate special interests in Korea and China, which were never recognized by the arrogant Western powers whose own domination of Asian empires continued to be beyond dispute. It was perfectly understandable that Japan should wish not only to secure its economic interests in East Asia, but also to protect itself from Western imperialism and Chinese and Soviet communism, with force if need be. Far from being an ignoble exercise, Japanese self-defense was at the same time an attempt to liberate Asia and instill much needed discipline in decadent old China.


These aims were, however, thwarted by Anglo-Saxon discrimination at naval conferences and other international gatherings. Not only did the Western powers refuse to endorse the Japanese demand for racial equality at Versailles and the League of Nations, but the US openly supported Chinese resistance against Japan. As a result Japanese troops got bogged down in what is usually termed “the Chinese quagmire.” Then, when the Americans decided to withhold vital raw materials and supplies from Japan, the Japanese had to secure them from Southeast Asia. When this, too, was resisted by the “ADB” (American, Dutch, British) powers, and when the Americans insisted on complete Japanese withdrawal from China, Japan, which had never wished for anything but peace, was forced to go to war for its national survival. Most likely, Roosevelt deliberately trapped the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor, but even if he did not, it’s quite clear that the Pacific War was the final showdown, which the US had wanted at least since the beginning of the century, and perhaps from as long ago as 1853, when Commodore Perry’s naval ships first arrived to force open the Japanese door.

It is not an entirely spurious theory, even though it contrives to shift responsibility for almost everything that happened in this century onto others, particularly America. It istrue that the Western powers did not treat Japan as an equal. It is also true that after the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, the Americans began to worry that Japan would get uppity. George Kennan, not a noted Japanophile, observed that American policy in the Far East was marked more by self-righteousness than realism, that too little attention was paid to genuine Japanese interests, that the price of American frustration with Japanese policies in China was the entrenchment of military extremists in Tokyo, and that American immigration policies inflamed Japanese passions unnecessarily:

I cannot say that Pearl Harbor might have been avoided had we been over a long period of time more circumspect in our attitudes toward the Japanese, more considerate of the requirements of their position, more ready to discuss their problems with them on their own terms…. I can only say that there was a possibility that the course of events might have been altered by an American policy based consistently, over a long period of time, on a recognition of power realities in the Orient as a factor worthy of our serious respect.3

This is an eloquent argument for Realpolitik. One might find fault with it of course. I doubt that a liberal government in Tokyo would have had a better chance had the US recognized power realities created by Japanese cowboys in northern China, but at least Kennan avoids the jargon of racial competition and Kulturkampf, and he admits that the Japanese were not always given their due. It was all very well for Washington to insist in 1921 on Chinese independence and territorial integrity, when the Western powers had left the Chinese little independence and territorial integrity to defend. This was just the kind of hypocrisy that the Japanese—and who could blame them?—managed to exploit. Yet to say that Japanese interests should have been taken more seriously is not to say that America forced Japan into going to war. Robert Smith Thompson is saying exactly that, however, in his overwritten, overlong, sloppily edited book (as with Clarke, the correct spelling of Japanese names was too much bother for him, and, again, as with Clarke, the book could have done with a sharp pair of scissors).

Although Thompson doesn’t claim, as some Japanese revisionists do, that the Nanking Massacre of 1937 was a fiction of Chinese propaganda, he follows the Japanese revisionist line quite closely in most matters. In fact, here and there, he even appears to see the events in East Asia from the perspective of Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere propaganda. Chinese resistance is frequently called “terrorism,” and the resisters are either “terrorists” or “bandits.” There were, to be sure, many ruffians in China, including quite a few in Chiang Kai-shek’s ranks, but at the same time, millions were defending their country against an army of conquistadors.

Thompson’s line, briefly, is that Washington made life impossible for the Japanese by fighting a kind of low-intensity war with Japan for years. Economic squeeze was applied, supply routes to Chiang’s army were kept open, and those Chinese terrorists propped up. Years before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan was being slowly strangled by Western military bastions which grew stronger by the day. And Japan felt threatened by American readiness to firebomb its cities from the air. This is curious, since the first American attack on Tokyo, the famous Doolittle raid, only took place in 1942 and hardly did any damage at all. However, not only did Japan have to contend with US belligerence, but according to Thompson the Tokyo government’s grip on power was fragile, “the government was having to use every known device—uniformity of dress, spy scares, mountains of words in the newspapers about Japan’s ‘just cause’—to stifle domestic dissent. The government could not go backward from the China war; to do so would show weakness and invite revolution.”

This seems very odd. Either the Chinese war was popular and the “just cause” message was unnecessary, or it wasn’t and a retreat would have been applauded. Either way, I have never come across much evidence of a revolutionary situation in Japan in the 1930s, except maybe among military extremists, whose quarrel was not so much with the general direction of Japanese policies as with the speed and zealousness of their execution.

After years of anti-Japanese provocation, then, “the American players were all in place,” the bases in Singapore, Hawaii, and the Philippines loaded, and: “On March 30, 1941 [Roosevelt] returned tothe White House. He was rested. And he was ready.” This apparent readiness to wait for Japan to do its worst, so that America could come in and crush both the Japs and the Nazis, is contradicted by the facts. The Philippines was far from ready and the defense of Singapore had already been given up as a hopeless case by the British in the summer of 1939. Indeed, Thompson himself quotes a memorandum from Admiral Stark and General Marshall to Roosevelt in November 1941, which shows the Americans were still playing for time a month before Pearl Harbor was attacked:

At the present time…the United States Fleet in the Pacific is inferior to the Japanese Fleet and cannot undertake an unlimited strategic offensive in the Western Pacific…. [But] the US Army air forces will have reached…projected strength by February or March, 1942. The potency of this threat will have then increased to a point where it might well be a deciding factor in deterring Japan in operations in the areas south and west of the Pacific.

Hardly an ideal situation in which to throw away half the American fleet by inviting the Japanese to come and smash it. Thompson doesn’t categorically state that Roosevelt knew of the attack in advance. That, he writes, was “possibly” the case. His main point is that America “provoked” Germany “into its declaration of war and Japan into its Pearl Harbor attack.”

Certainly, by the end of 1941 Japan was left with little choice but to forget about the New Order in Asia or go to war with the USA. We also know that Winston Churchill desperately wanted the Americans to come into the war and that Roosevelt was working toward that end. The famous note from Cordell Hull, the US secretary of state, to the Japanese government in 1941, was really an ultimatum: get out of China or prepare for war. Churchill never disguised his relief when the Japanese obligingly attacked. Quite rightly, he knew then that the war against Germany would be won. But there is no evidence that Roosevelt wanted it to happen quite so soon, and to lose so much of his navy in the bargain.

James Rusbridger and Eric Nave, in Betrayal at Pearl Harbor, have tried to shift the conspiracy theory from Roosevelt to Churchill. They use their considerable expertise in the history of military intelligence and code breaking (Nave was himself an important code breaker during the Pacific war), to prove that Churchill must have had information on the impending attack, which he deliberately withheld from Roosevelt. The case rests on the premise that the British had access to codes which the Americans might not have broken yet, and that Churchill was given intelligence which Roosevelt never saw, because of office politics in Washington. The book is interesting for cryptography and code breaking enthusiasts, but the main thesis is not proved. It is hard to prove, since, as the authors rightly complain, Her Majesty’s government is absurdly tight about historical documents in its keep. But we cannot be sure that Churchill saw what he was supposed to have seen, and even if he did, it would not be conclusive. The question, in intelligence matters, is not what raw data you see, but how you choose to interpret them. And, besides, as Dan van der Vat writes in his new book on the Pacific War:

The risk involved for Churchill in finding out, not telling, and later being discovered to have known—a very real risk, considering how closely Anglo-American intelligence staffs worked together and the short shelf-life of American can official secrets—would surely have been too high even for such a scheming gambler.4

At any rate, Thompson’s message is less that Japan was a benign, hapless victim of Western conspiracies—although for polemical purposes one is sometimes given that impression—than that America had no business getting involved in these foreign quarrels in the first place. To judge from his sneering asides about Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and falling dominoes, Thompson is an isolationist.

Would isolation have been a wiser course? Was Japan needlessly provoked? I doubt it. Japan’s dilemma in 1941 was the result of having tried to conquer China. If the Chinese quagmire had sucked them in too deeply, the Japanese could only blame themselves for having entered it. It is possible, I suppose, to argue that power realities should have been accepted and that New Orders in Asia and Europe, dictated by the Axis powers, posed no directthreat to a US in splendid isolation. But aside from the dubious morality of leaving Chinese and Europeans to their fates, I don’t think American isolation would have been so splendid.

In fact, the reverse of Thompson’s view is more persuasive: it was the failure of the US, and Britain, to check the military adventures of Germany and Japan earlier that led to the all-or-nothing war. Unfortunately, however, the Western powers, specifically American, British, and Dutch, had a particular problem in Asia: Japan’s “special interests” could not be convincingly curbed, as long as Western special interests were to remain unchallenged. This is why Japanese policies met mostly with appeasement, why their propagandists could claim they were fighting a war of Asian liberation, and why revisionists can continue to repeat that line today.


Why did Japan get itself into such a stew in the first place? Was there some deep cultural flaw which would account for the extremism of its military forces? Was Pearl Harbor the result of suicidal samurai ethics? In short, were the Japanese mad? There was indeed, as a result of incessant militarist and emperor-worshiping propaganda, a kind of madness in the land. It took several years of living in the US to cure a gentle student like Murata Kiyoaki of his conviction that his highest duty was to die at the front. Murata’s description, in An Enemy Among Friends, of his student years in California and Chicago is interesting, since it contradicts the conventional view of America, rather popular in Japan these days, as an utterly racist society, where the only good Japs were thought to be dead Japs, or at least Japs behind detention camp bars. Far from meeting with prejudice, he writes, “I spent seven delightful and fruitful years in America, including the war years.” But then he admits he might have been oblivious to racial slights, since he himself never doubted his own racial superiority. It clearly was a rum time for all.

Propaganda madness is no proof, however, that the Pearl Harbor attack was either mad, or rooted in a perverted samurai spirit. Its architect, Admiral Yamamoto, was, as I have indicated already, under no illusion about the potential might of the US. He knew that Japan could not win a protracted war. But faced with the fact that the army would not pull out of China, that the navy was passive, that the civilians in government were powerless, that the emperor did nothing but compose melancholy poems, and that war was therefore inevitable, he thought that only a quick and smashing Japanese victory might prompt Washington to negotiate on Japanese terms. He was wrong, but he was not crazy. Nor was the tactic used in the Pearl Harbor raid—even that!—originally Japanese.

William H. Honan, in his intriguing if perhaps too reverential book, Visions of Infamy, shows how the British naval journalist Hector C. Bywater imagined in 1921, and in even greater detail in 1925, just what the Japanese might do in a future war with America. There had been a demand for such books since the turn of the century. Many coming-war-with-Japan books stressed American decline and vulnerability, which shows that “declinism” is not a new phenomenon. This taste was shared by Japanese readers, who lapped up such works as The Future Japan–US War, by Fukunaga Kyosuke. Of the American books, Homer Lea’s (The Valor of Ignorance, etc.) were at the vulgar end of the market, while Bywater aimed at the more sophisticated reader.

In his two famous books, Sea Power in the Pacific and The Great Pacific War, Bywater described with amazing accuracy what would come to pass: a swift Japanese raid on the US navy, followed by many island-hopping battles in the Pacific, and ending with a narrow American victory. Honan, like many journalists, puts great faith in the influence of fellow hacks on public affairs, and might have overstated Bywater’s impact on the tactics of the imperial Japanese navy, but his books were given much attention in Japan, notably by Yamamoto himself. There were several Japanese editions. One Japanese author even wrote a book-length critique, the main point of which was that Japan, not the US, would be the victor.

Honan’s conclusion that Bywater’s story should dispel the image of the Pearl Harbor attack as characteristic of Japanese treachery and deceit is just, even if his remark that it was “in reality as English as plum pudding and as American as apple pie,” is stretching the point alittle far.

But desperate tactics aside, one still has to wonder why the governments of a civilized nation allowed its army to run amok and start a war. The answer concerns not only the question Roosevelt posed in 1923, but also the current debate on US–Japan relations. After all, we are once again living at a time in which books prophesying wars with Japan mean big business, in the US as well as in Japan.

Maruyama Masao, the distinguished political scientist, though the root of Japan’s problem in the 1930s was what he called “the system of irresponsibility.” He contrasted the Japanese political and bureaucratic elite of that time with the thugs who ran Nazi Germany. The thugs, he writes, may have been thugs, but at least they took responsibility for their actions. They were even proud of their crimes. The Japanese elites, in contrast, consisted of gentlemen, who hid behind “unexpected events,” behind decisions made outside their bureaucratic competence, behind unaccountable generals, and, perhaps most important of all, behind the emperor, who, as “constitutional monarch,” disclaimed all responsibility himself.5

It is a plausible analysis, which is, however, not so much rooted in the ancient Japanese past or some inscrutable Japanese mentality, as in a clear constitutional problem. According to the Meiji constitution, which lasted until 1945, the emperor was not only a constitutional monarch, but also the divine patriarch of the nation. 6 But just as the emperor was above politics, so were, according to a rescript promulgated in 1882, his soldiers and sailors. Their loyalty was to him, not to the governments of the day. The rescript was meant to keep the military out of politics. In effect, it encouraged them to ignore civilian politics altogether and do anything they could justify to themselves as being in the divine imperial cause. Bureaucrats were also beyond democratic control and so, after years of propaganda denigrating politics and politicians as corrupt, greedy, unprincipled, and un-Japanese, a military-bureaucratic alliance could push the country in a direction which was to end in catastrophe.

The point is often made that the Japanese after the war showed less repentance for what they had done than the Germans. But was this really so surprising when the man in whose name their deeds were done was not just left untouched, but was received as “the first gentleman of Japan” by General MacArthur? Not only that, but some of the very same bureaucrats who were responsible for what happened during the 1930s and 1940s came back into power, with American blessing, after the war. It is surprising, in these circumstances, that anyone in Japan should feel guilty at all. It would be even more surprising if, of all the things to feel guilty about, the attack on Pearl Harbor came very high on the list.

In the end everything was blamed on the army. So it seemed both just and wise, when the war was over, for the Americans to write a new Japanese constitution which took away Japan’s right to wage war, or even to maintain an army. Instead, Japan was told to put all its national energy into rebuilding the economy. Then, as a response to the cold war, the Japanese government was encouraged to undermine the “peace constitution” by starting a kind of unofficial, shadow military called the Self-Defense Forces. Once again, for the best of reasons, Japanese soldiers and sailors exist outside the mainstream of civilian politics, since constitutionally they are not supposed to exist at all.7 In effect, Japanese security policy is dictated by the US, resulting in rabid nationalism on the right and stubborn pacifism on the left.

Faint signals of this are beginning to be picked up in the US, but as with all decoded intelligence, much depends on interpretation. Ignoring the severe limits on Japanese sovereignty, some observers describe Japan as an “amoral” state, an irresponsible nation, without direction or purpose, or, conversely, as a sneaky state bent on conquering the world through unfair trade. The phrase “economic Pearl Harbor” pops up in political speeches. To the prime minister of France, Japan is our “enemy.” Japan—here I quote from a recent CIA-funded report—“often appears to be in direct conflict with widely and deeply held Western moral imperatives.”8 Every Japanese action, the same report states, is inspired by oppressive ideas derived from Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism. The common message in these polemics is that Japan is a special case, not to be trusted, because of the war, its sneaky attacks, itsunfairness in trade, and its peculiar culture with its alien morality.

Stung by the perception that Japan is being ganged up on by Western bullies, and humiliated by a virtually complete military dependency on the US, right-wing Japanese politicians seek to inspire their audiences with messages that Japan should now say No to America. The most vociferous proponent of this idea, the writer and politician Ishihara Shintaro, has written that the Pacific War was a battle of cultures, that the American victors wanted to rob Japan of its identity, but that finally the East (Japan) will prevail in the struggle with the West (America).9

This kind of rhetoric on both sides of the Pacific is not only inflammatory, but it muddles the debate on actual economic and political problems. Neither half-baked Spenglerism nor ill-informed lessons in Japanese folklore are of much help in discussing the rights and wrongs of industrial and trade policies or collective security arrangements. It is remarkable how similar the jargon of Kulturkampf is on both sides; the CIA-funded report on Japan actually repeats many of the clichés used by Japanese nationalists to prove the uniqueness of their nation. One result of seeing Japan as a special case, culturally, economically, politically, is the growing sense of isolation in Japan. And that, some seventy years ago, was the beginning of the Japanese road to infamy.

This Issue

December 19, 1991