Archives of Mainichi Shimbun

Prince Konoe Fumimaro dressed as Adolf Hitler at a costume party in the spring of 1937, shortly before he was named Japan’s prime minister


In mid-February, as part of the plans for his official visit to Germany, Chinese President Xi Jinping asked to visit one of Berlin’s best-known sites: Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The request was declined when it became clear that Xi wanted to use the visit to draw a contrast between Germany’s repentance for Nazism and the alleged refusal of Japan to apologize for its war crimes in China. “The Germans are really uncomfortable with this kind of thing,” a diplomatic source said. “They don’t like China constantly comparing them with Japan and going on about the war.”

World War II parallels are back in fashion. Hillary Clinton, for example, recently compared Russia’s actions in Crimea with those of Hitler in the Sudetenland. But the use of pointed wartime analogies has really taken off in East Asia. One of the most striking geopolitical developments of the last few months was the sudden Chinese obsession with the seventieth anniversary of the communiqué that ended the Cairo Conference of 1943. This Allied conference marked the first, and only, occasion when a non-European leader—Chiang Kai-shek—was granted equal status with major Western leaders—Roosevelt and Churchill. But it was the declaration at the end of the conference that has drawn the attention of contemporary Chinese policymakers. “Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 1914,” it declared, and “all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and The Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China.”

These passages are now being used by China to add substance to its claim to the small, disputed, and uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that China calls the Diaoyu and Japan the Senkaku. There is a particular irony in China’s claim that a concession made to the Chinese Communist Party’s old enemy, Chiang Kai-shek, might now be used to boost a claim in the twenty-first century. But above all, the dispute shows that in Asia, the legacy of 1945 is unfinished business. The comprehensive settling of debts, geopolitical and emotional, that began in Europe and the US in that year never came to pass in Asia. China became an isolated Communist giant, Japan a close American cold war ally.

As a result, in contrast with France and Germany, two very different versions of history emerged about the war years in Asia. In China, the war was tied purely to the rise to power of the Communist Party. In Japan, the right wing promoted the idea that there had been something noble about the war, and that it had had the goal of liberating Asia from Western imperialism. The heated rhetoric of recent months suggests that interpreting the behavior of both China and Japan during the war years will become increasingly controversial. Meanwhile, the tensions between the two countries could destabilize the American-dominated postwar order in East Asia. We may be about to witness the most important moment of change in the relations among the powers in the region since the events that led to Pearl Harbor in 1941.


In this atmosphere, understanding the reasons for Japan’s decision to go to war in the Pacific has an urgency that goes beyond the purely historical. Fortunately, Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy, by the Japanese historian Eri Hotta, proves an outstanding guide to that devastating decision. In lucid prose, Hotta meticulously examines a wide range of primary documents in Japanese to answer the question: Why did Japan find itself on the brink of war in December 1941?

The answer begins long before the year of the book’s title. In the 1920s, Japan gave many signs of being integrated into international society. It had taken part, albeit in a limited way, in World War I and had been one of the victorious nations at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Its parliamentary democracy was young but appeared promising: in 1925, a new law greatly widened the male franchise. The country had become a part of the global trading system, and Japan’s external policy was defined by the liberal internationalism of Foreign Minister Shidehara Kijuro.

Yet interwar Japan was ambivalent about its status in the world, perceiving itself as an outsider in the Western-dominated global community, and aware that the bonds among different parts of its own society were fraying. The Western victors of 1919 had refused Japanese demands for a racial equality clause as part of the peace settlement, confirming the opinions of many of Tokyo’s policymakers that they would never be treated as the peers of their white allies. At home, labor unrest and an impoverished countryside showed that Japan’s society was unstable under the surface. After the devastating earthquake in Japan’s Kanto region in 1923, riots broke out against members of the local Korean population, who were falsely accused of arson and robbery. In 1927, one of the finest writers of the era, Akutagawa Ryunosuke (whose short story “In a Grove” became the basis of Kurosawa’s film Rashomon), took his own life. In his will, he declared that he was suffering from “a vague insecurity.”


Japan’s sense of insecurity was real but by no means vague, and expressed itself most vividly in the drive toward building an empire. In the early twentieth century, Japan was the only non-Western country to have its own colonies. In 1895, Japan won a war against China and was ceded Taiwan; it gained territorial and railway rights in Manchuria in 1905 at the end of its war with Russia; and in 1910, it fully annexed Korea. The depression devastated Japan’s economy after 1929, and its leaders became obsessed with the idea of expanding further onto the Asian mainland.

Japanese civilian politics also started to fall apart as the military began to make its own policy. In 1931, two officers of the locally garrisoned Japanese Kwantung Army in the south of China set off an explosion on a railway line near the city of Shenyang (then Mukden) in Manchuria, the northeastern region of China. Within days, they prepared the way for the Japanese conquest of the entire region. Protests from a commission sent by the League of Nations had no effect other than causing Japan to quit the League.

By the mid-1930s, much of northern China was essentially under Japanese influence. Then, on July 7, 1937, a small-scale clash between local Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge in Wanping, a small village outside Beijing, escalated. The Japanese prime minister, Prince Konoe, used the clash to make further territorial demands on China. Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Nationalist government, decided that the moment had come to confront Japan rather than appease it, and full-scale war broke out between the two sides.

Within eighteen months, China and Japan were locked in a stalemate. The Japanese quickly overran eastern China, the most prosperous and advanced part of the country. But they were unable to subdue guerrilla activity in the countryside or eliminate the Communists based in the north. Nor did Chiang’s government show any inclination to surrender: by moving to the southwestern city of Chongqing, his Chinese Nationalists dug in for a long war against Japan, desperately hoping to attract allies to their cause, but gaining little response over the long years until 1940. Yet between them the Nationalist and Communist forces had more than half a million troops in China. The United States, increasingly concerned that all Asia might fall into Japan’s hands, began to assist China and impose sanctions on Japan. At that point, desperate to resolve their worsening situation, Japan embarked on the path to the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and four years of war with the United States and its allies.

Hotta makes it unambiguously clear that the blame for the war lies entirely at Japan’s door. The feeling of inevitability in Tokyo was a product of the Japanese policymakers’ own blinkered perspectives. One of the most alarming revelations in her book is the weak-mindedness of the doves and skeptics, who refused to confront the growing belligerence of most of their colleagues.

In 1939, Admiral Yonai Mitsumasa expressed strong skepticism that the Japanese navy could ever stand up against the Anglo-American navies. Yet in November 1941, when the final decisions for war with the US were being taken, he did not reassert this view. At a luncheon to discuss the ultimatum from the United States demanding that Japan withdraw from French Indochina—which it had invaded in September 1940—Yonai merely said cryptically: “I think we mustn’t become utterly poor in our quest to avoid becoming gradually poor.” The comment implied strongly that he was opposed to the war, but as Hotta points out, Yonai neither did nor said anything active to try to turn the tide.

Even the emperor, in whose name all military decisions had to be made, seemed unable to express the doubts that may have been in his mind. As Hotta writes, if he was pushed to do so, the emperor was capable of asking sharp questions. When General Sugiyama, chief of the Army General Staff, declared that a campaign in the Pacific would take a mere three months, Hirohito replied:

When the China Incident broke out, you were our army minister. I remember you telling me then that the conflict would be over in about a month. But after four long years, it hasn’t ended!

Sugiyama protested that China had a large hinterland, but the emperor retorted that the Pacific Ocean was even bigger: “On what basis are you now telling me three months?” Yet shortly afterward, when given the chance at an imperial conference to put a halt to the growing enthusiasm for war, the emperor merely read out a poem: “In all four seas all are brothers and sisters./Then why, oh why, these rough winds and waves?”


The poem had been written by the Meiji emperor, Hirohito’s grandfather. Yet the implied pacifist message (if such it was) was in stark contrast to what Hirohito actually did: he approved the proposal to prepare for war. As Hotta shows, such strange, contradictory emotions seemed to grip Japan’s decision-makers during these months. Even those who thought that the hawks were leading Japan toward profound danger refused openly to voice their opposition. These choices become even more unfathomable when considered alongside one of the most striking elements of Hotta’s account: the overwhelming conviction of Japan’s leaders that they would lose the war. General Tojo, the chief of the armed forces, described the final decision in November 1941 to go to war as “jumping from the Kiyomizu temple”—in other words, a plunge into the unknown which might well lead to disaster.

Japan did not have dominant leaders in the style of Hitler and Mussolini. (After the war Tojo even lamented, “If only I had been Hitler!,” meaning that he wished he had had the personal power of the German dictator.) Yet Hotta persuasively sketches the very distinct personalities shaping the decisions that drove Japan toward war. Much of the strategy for the confrontation with the US was conceived by Matsuoka Yosuke, the mercurial foreign minister. One of his most prominent moments of histrionic diplomacy came in 1932, when he was assigned to provide Japan’s response to the Lytton Report to the League of Nations. The report required Japan to withdraw from “Manchukuo,” the client state created following its invasion of the Chinese region of Manchuria in 1931. Instead of withdrawing from Manchuria, Japan withdrew from the League, and in a speech in Geneva, Matsuoka declared that “Japan is about to be placed on a cross like Christ, and just as he was later redeemed…Japan will be redeemed.”


Heinrich Hoffmann/Ullstein Bild/Granger Collection

Japanese Foreign Minister Matsuoka ­Yosuke and Benito Mussolini at the ­Palazzo Venezia, Rome, 1941

Yet however eccentric his analogies, Matsuoka was also responsible for much of Japan’s diplomacy leading to Pearl Harbor. In April 1941 he negotiated the Soviet-Japanese neutrality pact that freed Japan to devote resources to expansion elsewhere in Asia. Matsuoka was also an enthusiastic supporter of the Tripartite Pact, the alliance with Germany and Italy that locked Japan into alliance with the fascist powers. Hotta discusses in detail the ambivalent character of Prince Konoe, the weak-minded prime minister who half-feared and half-desired war with the United States, sending out unreadable signals about his intentions as a result. “Konoe felt none of [his] words or deeds affected his credibility,” Hotta writes; she dismisses him crisply: “He was a prince after all. He was also deluded.”

Surprisingly, a significant number of the Japanese policymakers of the era had spent time abroad. Matsuoka had studied in Oregon; Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku had attended Harvard. Yet exposure to the outside world did not create a greater cosmopolitanism in decision-making. They failed to understand how Japan’s aggressive expansion in Asia was perceived by the rest of the world, and this failure was combined with a growing conviction that war with the Americans was inevitable. Attempts to woo Chiang Kai-shek into collaboration had not succeeded, and there was little credibility to the government the Japanese had set up with the Chinese collaborator Wang Jingwei, who had once been the political heir of the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen.

If China would not surrender, then none of the other plans favored by sections of the Japanese military could succeed, whether an attack on the Soviet Union or a further advance into Southeast Asia, for the Chinese War and occupation tied down Japanese troops. In the end, Japan was doomed because its elite shared too many of the same assumptions about Japan’s “destiny” to dominate East Asia. It was also doomed, in Hotta’s astute observation, by its system of collective leadership structures, which “helped every leader feel that he held no individual responsibility.”


The Japanese believed that their empire-building was no different from uses of power by Britain and France to dominate large portions of the globe. They were convinced that the rising force of nationalism in China was a foreign-backed plot (possibly linked to Moscow) designed to prevent the fulfillment of China’s true destiny—a pan-Asian alliance, with Japan clearly in the dominant position. Historians will welcome Hotta’s nuanced research showing the hypocrisy in Japan’s position. Moreover, as has been suggested, the book’s publication coincides with one of the most disturbing escalations of tension between China and Japan since the 1930s, making it important for analysts of the Asian states today.

Abe Shinzo, the Japanese prime minister, has made it very clear that he rejects the conventionally accepted views of World War II, whether in Japan or in the West. Abe is the grandson of Kishi Nobusuke, Japan’s minister of munitions during the war, who was accused of being a Class A war criminal and later became prime minister of Japan (1957–1960). By contrast, Hosokawa Morihiro, prime minister in 1993–1994, is the grandson of Prince Konoe Fumimaro, the prime minister who took Japan to war with China in 1937, but Hosokawa’s most lasting foreign policy decision was to make a powerful and frank apology on Japan’s behalf for the “tremendous anguish and loss of life in China, Korea and Southeast Asian nations in order to protect its own interests.”

Abe has taken a more favorable view of the war, in which his grandfather played a significant part. He has spoken of his desire for Japan to become a “normal” country, although that “normality” would derive in large part from a change in Japan’s postwar “peace constitution” and the ending of the outsourcing of Japan’s ultimate defence to the United States. In April last year, Abe stated in the Diet that “the definition of aggression has yet to be established in academia or in the international community,” and added that he did not fully support Japan’s 1995 apology for its war crimes.

The furor surrounding Abe’s comments (and those of his deputy Taro Aso, who suggested in August 2013 that Japan might draw inspiration for the revision of the constitution by learning from the Nazi regime’s changes to the Weimar Constitution) has given China a great opportunity to portray Japan as being in the grip of right-wingers who deny the reality of their country’s war crimes. In late February this year, members of the foreign press were taken around various sites in Nanjing that commemorate the massacre of civilians by Japanese soldiers that took place there over six weeks in December 1937 to January 1938. Visiting journalists were told by officials that the purpose of the visit was to stress the enormity of Japanese war crimes, and to condemn Japan for refusing to apologize. When it was pointed out that several Japanese prime ministers had indeed apologized, repeatedly, for their actions, the reply came that there was still a powerful right wing in Japan that refused to share in the apology.

This was the time that Xi Jinping’s representatives made the request for him to visit the Holocaust memorial in Berlin; and even though the request was turned down, it provided yet another opportunity for China to rehearse its grievances against Japan. (It was doubly unfortunate for Japan that the request came in the same week as a mysterious spate of defacements of copies of Anne Frank’s diaries in various libraries around the country.) Most recently, state media have reported that Chinese lawmakers will create two new days of public commemoration: September 3 as Victory Day and December 13 as a memorial day for the Nanjing Massacre. In an ever faster-moving dynamic, the day after this announcement, Japan’s cabinet secretary announced that Tokyo might revisit a landmark decision: the acknowledgment in 1993 that the Japanese military had allowed the use of “comfort women” (prostitutes forced into compliance by the military).

The view of World War II history is not monolithic in either Japan or China. Academic studies in both countries show subtleties that are lacking in the public narrative. Despite Chinese claims of widespread denial of wartime atrocities by Japan, it was the Japanese left (and not only the left) that has been most active in forcing Japan to face up to its past. In the 1970s, the journalist Honda Katsuichi published interviews with survivors of the Rape of Nanking in the daily Asahi shimbun long before the topic was broached in China or the West. The historian Ienaga Saburô spent decades in the Japanese courts, suing the Ministry of Education for removing condemnatory comments on Japan’s war record from the textbooks he had written for them.

In China too, there have been changes in public history that would have seemed impossible just twenty years ago. Most notable is the recasting of Chiang Kai-shek from an anti-Communist reactionary to a patriot who had an important part in opposing the Japanese. The villa at Huangshan, outside Chongqing (Chungking), from where he could observe the Japanese air raids that reduced much of the wartime Chinese capital to rubble, is now preserved as a memorial to Chiang’s efforts to maintain the wartime capital in the face of unrelenting attack. In the academy, work that gives an objective and even positive assessment of the role of Nationalist (Kuomintang) troops has become entirely mainstream.

Yet both societies are moving away from a shared understanding of the Asia-Pacific War and its significance. As Hotta puts it, “Despite the efforts of some individual citizens, academics, and journalists to have a more honest debate, it is difficult to deny that Japan’s official impulse has been to look away from what is undesirable and unpleasant in its history.”

Recent events bring to mind one of the most powerful themes that emerges from Hotta’s book: that perceptions can easily become reality. Europe, broadly speaking, now shares an understanding of the years of World War II, in which Nazi domination was overcome by the forces of liberal democracy and the USSR. No mainstream politician or thinker seeks to rehabilitate the Nazi regime.

In contrast, Hotta’s book makes it clear that there are two versions of the Asia-Pacific War in China and Japan that hardly meet at all. China makes claims, many of them extravagant, about the emergence of a new Japanese imperialist cast of mind and uses Japan’s behavior to argue for a greater Chinese role in the region. (In an Op-Ed early this year the Chinese ambassador to London memorably compared the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo—where more than a thousand Japanese war criminals are enshrined—to the Horcrux, a nexus of evil in the Harry Potter novels.)

Japan’s ruling elite, by continuing to raise doubts about the sincerity of the country’s apologies for its past, gives China fuel for flamboyant gestures such as the revival of the 1943 Cairo Communique. It also puts doubts in the minds of many of Japan’s friends about whether the country has truly outgrown the need for the US-Japan security alliance, which constrains the country as well as protecting it. Hotta concludes that after 1945, Japan’s actual “past, with its improbable story of how the war came to pass, became another country.” It is a country that policymakers in Tokyo, Beijing, and Washington should seek to understand, not least through this humane and fair-minded book, but whose revival should at all costs be avoided.