The Soldier’s Dilemmas

In October 1921, shortly after Hirohito had returned from his European tour, a quiet revolution in the Japanese army was set in motion. It started in the most unlikely of places, the scenic Black Forest spa town of Baden-Baden, where Nagata Tetsuzan, Obata Toshiro, and Okamura Yasuji, three members of the class of 1904 of the Imperial Japanese Army Academy, had gathered in secrecy. None of the officers—in their late thirties, on elite career tracks in the army, and in Europe on assignment—looked like fighting men. Their skinny physiques and owlish glasses suggested they preferred books to rigorous outdoor exercise, let alone combat. The men, known for their brilliant academic records and political skills in a huge military institution that was beginning to function like an impersonal bureaucratic organ, were dubbed “the three pillars of the army.” A day later, they were joined by another like-minded officer stationed in Germany: Tojo Hideki, from the class of 1905.

Away from suspicious eyes, they all took a secret oath concerning the internal reform of the Imperial Army. The four of them agreed to eliminate regional factionalism within the service, to carry out a radical reorganization of personnel and the military system, and to establish a method for general mobilization. A large-scale reform was attempted step by step over the following decade as the four officers progressed, fully according to their expectations, on their executive paths. In their different ways, they all advocated a stronger and more united army—and, consequently, a stronger Japan for it to lead.

The scars of the civil war and rapid modernization of the Meiji period lingered in many places, including the army. In 1921, the power structure of the Meiji Restoration seemed secure. One of the two founding fathers of the modern Japanese army, Prince Yamagata Aritomo, now in his eighties, remained active politically. So long as he was alive, it was believed, anyone outside the southern Choshu clique that he headed could not dream of advancing to the army’s exclusive executive corps. The dominance of Yamagata’s faction was, in fact, less and less true, as more outsiders came to be represented in the top echelons. But its sway still annoyed those officers meeting in Baden-Baden, all non-Choshu men.

Tojo’s father was a victim of that factionalism, coming as he did from one of the rebel northern domains that fought against the Choshu-Satsuma alliance in the 1860s. Even though the senior Tojo graduated first in his class at the Army War College, his career never flourished. Tojo was sensitive to his father’s professional disappointments and was determined to settle old scores with the establishment that had so mistreated the man he loved.

Prince Yamagata’s death in early 1922, only a few months after the Black Forest rendezvous, solved the problem of Choshu predominance. The army culture, though, became more rigid and unimaginative as a result. In the name of meritocracy, an increasing emphasis was placed on school records, which was to the benefit of the four officers who met at Baden-Baden, all of whom excelled in academics, especially Nagata Tetsuzan. Over time, it became clear that Nagata was destined to head the army in the not-too-distant future. Obata did not wholeheartedly welcome his fellow conspirator’s ascension. Though agreeing with Nagata on the necessity of army reform, he disagreed with him dramatically on what form that reform should take. Obata was one of the main backers of the Imperial Way faction, founded by the bombastic ultranationalist general Araki Sadao and his ally Masaki Jinzaburo. The group’s younger followers tended to be disgruntled ultranationalistic officers known for their advocacy of radicalized and terroristic methods. They saw an idealized Japan united under the divine power of the emperor, who would be assisted by the army in his practical duty of guiding the nation. They argued that the new Japan had to rise above all the political corruption and corporate influence. They blamed Japan’s plight since the 1920s on the exiting regime.

Nagata represented a rival reformist group, usually called the Control faction, though there was no official founding of this group, and it broadly included most of those who were against the Imperial Way agenda. Nagata, who did not like participating in any factional politics, conceived of Japan in the future as a highly efficient defensive nation-state centralized under the army, a nation reorganized as an efficient war machine equipped for total war. The Control faction was ruthlessly pragmatic, unsentimental, and Machiavellian. Nagata had sympathetic colleagues in other ministries who also wanted to “rebrand” Japan on the basis of efficiency. Many of those so-called New Bureaucrats, incidentally, would support Konoe’s New Order Movement when he returned as prime minister in 1940.

The Imperial Way faction, on the other hand, was prone to sentimentality, invoked pseudotraditionalist values, and portrayed the army as the guardian of Japan’s martial spirit. It saw Japanese society as too corrupt to be salvaged and believed that it needed to be built up from scratch. Both factions, though, agreed on militarizing Japan’s political life. Whichever faction won out, Japan was assured of having an army eager to meddle in politics, in defiance of the imperial precepts of 1882.

By the mid-1930s, Nagata, supported by two other Baden-Baden pledge makers, Okamura and Tojo, had come out on top, having survived numerous setbacks with sheer cunning and alliance-making skills. Appointed chief of the Army Ministry’s Military Affairs Bureau in early 1934, Nagata was perfectly placed to make some significant changes, including in personnel. His dreams suddenly died on the morning of August 12, 1935, when an intruder burst into his beautiful mahogany-paneled office in the Army Ministry and slashed him with a samurai sword. Nagata, unarmed, was cut once on the forehead, twice on the back, and again in the throat. He died on the floor of his office.

The killer, Aizawa Saburo, was a lieutenant colonel in his forties who was enraged by some of Nagata’s personnel decisions affecting top figures in the Imperial Way faction, including its leader, Araki. Nagata was fifty-one years old and in the prime of his career. Ironically, he was in a meeting to discuss how best to control the disorderly behavior of radicalized officers when his killer forced his way in. In the course of his trial, Aizawa received much popular support and sympathy. Though he was found guilty and executed, some were as shocked by the level of support he received as they were by the murder.

The violence continued, climaxing with the aforementioned coup attempt of February 26, 1936, instigated by young Imperial Way–inspired officers (they claimed to be a separate group) who held especially ultranationalist values. After mobilizing almost fifteen hundred soldiers in snow-blanketed Tokyo, they killed several key government figures, including the finance minister and the lord keeper of the privy seal. Many of the soldiers who took part in this failed putsch were not overly politicized; they simply had to obey orders. It was the rebel officers, not the soldiers, who believed that revolutionary violence provided a way to change the status quo. But the officers could easily tap into the grievances of lower-ranking soldiers, many of whom were hapless victims of the endemic poverty that began to affect the Japanese countryside long before the worldwide economic depression. Stories of young women and children being sold off to seedy middlemen who shipped them off to city brothels were heard too often.

The rebel officers who plotted the coup claimed not to be out for political control themselves, justifying their acts as a legitimate means to save the emperor from the corrupt influences of democracy and capitalism. In fact, the main plotters wanted Imperial Prince Chichibu, the eldest of Hirohito’s younger brothers, to be their new leader. The prince was an army man who enjoyed immense popularity within the service.

Hirohito exhibited more resolve than usual, immediately denouncing the coup. He was both horrified and enraged by the cowardly nocturnal attacks; unarmed men in their seventies and eighties had been murdered in their pajamas. Oddly, the emperor’s uncommon public display of condemnation was soon matched by another outpouring of popular sympathy for the killers. Like Nagata’s murderer, the coup plotters were praised for their supposedly pure and selfless motives in wishing to save the emperor and the empire from taking a wrong course. The execution of the key plotters made martyrs out of them. The Imperial Way philosophy remained popular, though no major terrorist takeovers would be attempted by the army after this incident.

This meant that, despite all the blood spilled, there was no clear-cut winner in the factional battle and that the army leadership would have to live with a built-in bomb—the latent fear of an upheaval from below—that might detonate at any moment. As Nagata’s successor as the leader of the Control faction, Tojo faced the recurrent problem of having to tame the violent impetuosity of younger officers. His position was further complicated by the fact that he was a forever faithful servant of the emperor and would not have categorically rejected the cult of emperor worship exercised by the Imperial Way faction simply because it was the creed of his rivals. He had been raised in a military family and educated to be a soldier since boyhood, a product of the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors taken to the extreme. He liked to say, “A soldier serves the emperor twenty-four hours a day. Even eating is part of his duty, so that one can better serve him.” In Tojo’s words, “His Majesty is not human. He is God.”

Tojo was a man proud of having high principles. He was a hard worker who knew how to persevere. As a boy, he did not care much for schoolwork, but after being beaten up by a group of older boys, he set out to defeat them in test scores and did exactly that. He was an egalitarian of sorts who despised nepotism and preferred to eat the same meals that lower-ranking officers were given. His fastidiousness was almost neurotic. A compulsive notetaker who would jot things down on three different kinds of note cards, he meticulously itemized and organized those notes in chronological order every day of his life, without any secretarial assistance.

Though neither evil nor corrupt, Tojo was petty and thin-skinned. He was hypersensitive to criticism and was known to penalize those who dared to cross him. Every slight was remembered, and retribution often followed. At home, he was a disciplinarian to his sons. With his daughters, he was a typically doting and indulgent father. He did not smoke. There were no stories of womanizing. He drank only rarely. He certainly wasn’t known for his personal charm, but he was a very able bureaucrat. Discipline and devotion to the emperor defined his life, and he demanded the same of others.

In July 1940, Tojo became army minister in Prince Konoe’s second cabinet, the post the brilliant Nagata would have filled better. From that exalted place, the ever-loyal servant of the emperor issued an educational document to his soldiers. On January 8, 1941, almost sixty years after the Meiji emperor issued the Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors, Tojo introduced “Instructions for the Battlefield,” elaborating on ideal soldierly conduct. The code was meant to instill and inspire the kind of self-control he himself constantly strived for. It included the notorious passage “Do not suffer the shame of being captured alive.” This order glorifying death would be taken as a command to commit suicide in the face of impending capture and would come to have a devastating impact. It was printed in a booklet form, and was distributed to every soldier despite the country’s serious paper shortage. And ordinary citizens could purchase the phonograph recording of Tojo’s recitation of it.

Only two days before Tojo’s announcement, President Roosevelt gave a memorable State of the Union address that came to be known as his “Four Freedoms” speech and was pictorially immortalized in Norman Rockwell’s work of the same name in The Saturday Evening Post. It advanced freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear for people all over the world. Presaging the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Roosevelt’s speech clarified the core value of his administration: that a state exists to ensure the safety of its citizens, not to endanger and sacrifice it. Moreover, the president suggested individual freedoms had to be safeguarded from threats, even beyond the borders of the United States.

But in Japan, that sort of individualistic—and thus “selfish”—thinking was wholly discouraged as unpatriotic by 1941. This was true even in an all-boys preparatory school in Morioka, Tojo’s ancestral domain, that was known in the past for its highly creative and liberal culture and had produced some formidable literary talents. According to one successful applicant, then twelve, the school’s oral entrance exam that took place over three days in March 1941 consisted of questions such as “When was the Imperial Rescript on Education issued?” “The Rescript says, ‘Our subjects ever united in loyalty and filial piety.’ What does that mean?” “Can you think of some other slogans just like it?” These types of questions showed the limit of creative thinking allowed under the circumstances.

As the examiners’ questions became more and more specific, the fear of economic encirclement and a possible war with the West was very much in the background: “How many years since the start of the China Incident?” “What is the name of the shrine where we honor our heroic war dead?” “Which countries are obstructing Japan’s effort to build a ‘New East Asian Order’?” “Name two European countries that are Japan’s good friends.” “What resource does Japan want to buy from the Dutch East Indies?”

Another section of the exam was meant to shed light on the moral character of the candidate: “Why must we be frugal now?” “What efforts are you making in everyday life to be frugal?” “How does it save energy if we use a lampshade?” “Do you know the exact figure of Japan’s national savings target?”

This boy passed the exam, but he would soon be disappointed to find out that the school’s uniform, a mark of achievement and distinction for the boys who wore it, was to be abolished in favor of a nationwide dress code of bland khakis, reminiscent of army uniforms, making all students look like little soldiers. By his second year, the prep school’s once-rigorous curriculum had changed drastically, as more and more teachers were drafted to serve as soldiers. Instead of classroom learning, the students were expected to cultivate fields and participate in military drills, in anticipation of the day when they, too, would have to serve the emperor as soldiers.

THE IMPERIAL JAPANESE ARMY had always been a self-confident institution because of its role as the main engine behind the Meiji Restoration. The Imperial Navy, without which Japan’s war with the United States and its allies in 1941 could not have even been contemplated, developed more slowly. When the Naval Academy was founded in 1876, Japan had no battleships. In 1888, six years after the army founded an elite war college, the navy founded its own for the education of its future executive officers. The navy college’s student body was smaller, but that imbalance moved toward parity after Japan formed an alliance in 1902 with Britain, from whom the navy acquired battleships and shipbuilding and strategic knowledge.

On May 28, 1905, the Battle of Tsushima, one of the most decisive battles of the Russo-Japanese War, was won by Japan at sea. It sealed Japan’s ultimate victory over czarist Russia, which was fighting Japan over its sphere of influence in Northeast China and Korea. Tsushima was the Imperial Navy’s long-awaited moment in the sun. Unusual movement of Russia’s Baltic Fleet had been deftly spotted by a twenty-five-year-old diplomat stationed in the Japanese consulate in Shanghai. Matsuoka Yosuke’s timely warning cost the Russians numerous vessels, including eight battleships, as well as the lives of more than five thousand men, leading them to sue for peace.

Through the mediation of President Theodore Roosevelt, a treaty was signed on September 5, 1905, at Kittery, Maine, near Portsmouth. Roosevelt would win the Nobel Peace Prize for his good deed. Japan needed the treaty because it had been incurring huge war debts and could not have afforded the war for much longer. At home, there was considerable rage directed at the terms of the treaty, especially Japan’s relinquishing of its right to demand indemnities from Russia. Ignorant of how financially and militarily overstretched their government was, many took to the streets to demonstrate against their leaders’ diplomacy. The later popular embrace of Foreign Minister Matsuoka as a refreshingly dependable, hard-nosed negotiator makes sense in the context of such a historical disappointment. Japan’s unrealistic expectations that the United States would act as a sympathetic mediator of the China War, the resolution of which would become the sticking point in the U.S.-Japan negotiations of 1941, also likely had origins in this U.S. presidential mediation.

Popular discontent over the terms of the Portsmouth peace treaty notwithstanding, the news of Japan’s victory had a confidence-boosting impact on many. Fuchida Mitsuo, a bomber pilot who would lead the Imperial Navy’s aerial forces to Pearl Harbor—his plane sent out the famous coded signal of “Tora! Tora! Tora!” at the time of the surprise attack—was barely three years old in 1905. He was but one of a whole generation of youngsters who were enthralled by the sweet victory and aspired to a career in a navy uniform as a result. The victory over Russia had a profound legacy that went well beyond the creation of future Japanese soldiers. It was touted as the first major modern war won by a colored people over a white one. Japan’s victory discredited the prevalent myth of the inborn racial supremacy of Westerners and in so doing helped encourage anticolonial aspirations in colonized parts of the world. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was much affected as a boy. “Japanese victories stirred up my enthusiasm and I waited eagerly for the papers for fresh news daily,” he recalled. “I invested in a large number of books on Japan and tried to read some of them.… Nationalistic ideas filled my mind. I mused of Indian freedom and Asiatic freedom from the thralldom of Europe.”

Japan’s victory spoke of the strength of material and cultural advancements. The Imperial Navy fed its men plenty of nutritious barley, which prevented the spread of beriberi, a disease caused by vitamin B deficiency that afflicted many Russian sailors. (Barley was often credited as one of the reasons the navy outperformed the army, which fed its soldiers overly processed white rice.) By the time of the Russo-Japanese War, Japan had achieved a staggering literacy rate of 75 percent, higher than anywhere in the West, which greatly aided in the training of its soldiers. The Japanese armed forces could employ manuals to teach the handling of complicated weapons. More than half of the Russian soldiers, on the other hand, were believed to be illiterate. Around seventy thousand Russian POWs in Japan were treated with dignity and were housed in relative comfort. The Japanese stuck to the spirit of the Hague Convention of 1899, ensuring the humane treatment of their prisoners. This impressed the international community.

Now the modernization and enlargement of the Imperial Navy began in full force. So did the rivalry between the two armed services, which vied for more money and more glory. The army, fearing a Russian retribution after 1905, saw its most dangerous threat lying to the north of Japan. The navy was increasingly alarmed by the United States, which seemed keen on expanding its sphere of influence in the Pacific Ocean, especially after it had gained control of Guam and the Philippines as a result of the 1898 Spanish-American War. Whatever their differences, the Russo-Japanese War made the emperor’s army and navy equal competitors.

JAPANS NAVAL VICTORY CAME at a tremendous price for a twenty-one-year-old cadet ensign aboard the Nisshin. Assigned to frontline duty at the bow of the Japanese cruiser in the Battle of Tsushima, he was hit by a shell fragment that set his lower body on fire. It also scooped a hole as big as a newborn’s head from his right thigh and cost him the index and middle fingers of his left hand. He recuperated at a naval hospital in Nagasaki for the next 160 days. When infection set in, the doctor suggested amputating his left arm. “I entered the navy with the great ambition of becoming a naval soldier and going to war,” the sailor said. “Either I die from this festering wound—because I refuse to have my arm amputated—or I recover from it and continue being a soldier. I have a one-in-two chance, and I shall bet my life on it!” He won the bet. He recovered without losing his arm. This was not the last great gamble in the life of Yamamoto Isoroku, who would one day mastermind Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

Throughout his life, Yamamoto regarded his war wounds as a badge of honor. He was also very conscious of the handicap they imposed on him. He tried hard not to lag behind, not to let others feel he required special assistance. When he first started playing catch with his young son, he kept dropping the ball from his three-fingered hand. But with his quiet tenacity, he was soon able to catch the ball from any angle with that hand. He remained fit and could climb onto a battleship with lithe, rhythmic steps. Up to a point, Yamamoto, whom many regard as one of the greatest strategists in the history of the Imperial Navy, followed a typical elite career path, one similar to Tojo Hideki’s. Both were born in 1884. They received their higher education in the colleges open only to a handful of military academy graduates with stellar school records. Both came from former samurai families from the northern “rebel” provinces, which resisted the Meiji Restoration. By the accident of birth, they inherited the grievances of lost honor and the need to prove themselves worthy members of the new Japanese state.

As a reward for their hard work, both were given prestigious postings abroad—Yamamoto in the United States and Tojo in Germany. Their direct encounters with the West led them to endorse radical modernization of the military services. From the 1920s on, Yamamoto became especially aware of the importance of aerial power for the navy. Though he himself was never trained as a pilot, he played a vital role in the development of the naval aerial division; the experience helped him shape the backbone of his later Pacific strategies.

Their personalities could not have been more different, though. Unlike Tojo, Yamamoto had an open, fun-loving temperament. Even into his fifties, he looked like a curious and inquisitive boy for whom the world was still full of new discoveries. Yamamoto did not wear glasses or have any facial hair. His youthful looks were further emphasized by his brilliant eyes and full lips. The only conspicuous marks of his increasing age were the deepening lines in his forehead and his closely cropped graying hair. He exuded a charisma and confidence that many found attractive. He was only five feet three, but his well-proportioned physique and self-assured manner belied his short stature. Again unlike the straight-and-narrow Tojo, Yamamoto loved to gamble. He was known to spend his leisure time playing poker and bridge, even aboard a battleship on duty. (Foreign Minister Matsuoka also had a reputation for his poker-playing skills.) He joked that in his retirement he would like to live in Monaco and play roulette; he was said to have won so much on the one occasion he visited Monte Carlo that he was barred from the casino. Yamamoto was a gifted bluffer, used to deftly concealing his greatest weaknesses. As with any good gambler, he had enough daring to take risks when the moment arrived. He thought that gambling was almost a mark of manhood: “Man is not a man if he does not gamble,” he reportedly remarked.

Yamamoto ultimately saw life as a series of simple choices that eventually came down to the choice between life and death. He was always ready to die so that he could live more fully. He wanted his junior soldiers to be similarly prepared for death. Profoundly affected by the great injuries he had incurred as a young man, he felt that soldiers, especially those who fought on the front line, should have as few personal attachments to this world as possible, which was why he liked to advise young officers to marry late in life. (He himself married at thirty-four and had his first son at forty.) Not that Yamamoto treated death casually. In the black leather-bound pocket agenda he always carried with him, he listed the names and family records of all those who died under his command. Whenever he happened by the neighborhood of a fallen sailor, he would drop in on the family, praying in front of its ancestral altar, sometimes even breaking down uncontrollably.

Yamamoto appreciated the United States. He was at Harvard from 1919 to 1921 and was posted to the Japanese embassy in Washington as a naval attaché from 1926 to 1928. He recognized in the American people an abundant energy similar to his own. In his correspondence home, he reported on everyday American life, and the photographs he took as he traveled the country captured its people and landscapes with a moving intimacy. Whenever young Japanese asked him how to improve their English, he said they should read Carl Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. He very much identified with Lincoln as a fellow self-made man and underdog (Yamamoto’s family was very poor, having fallen from grace after the Meiji Restoration) and admired his industry, high aspirations, and imagination. He would presumably have admired FDR as well, another strong-willed man who had overcome his physical disability.

Yamamoto’s stimulating American years coincided with the heyday of interwar liberal internationalism. The question of how to cohabit peacefully with other powers loomed large in the minds of many thinking men and women. Numerous international and intergovernmental movements arose, such as President Wilson’s cherished League of Nations. How does one square the soldierly duty of making war, or at least preparing one’s country for war, with the ideal of a world without war? This serious dilemma had to be confronted by men in uniform, and Yamamoto was often a navy representative at international conferences to reduce arms. For a while, Japan seemed to be well on its way to becoming one of the leaders in the search for a more peace-loving world.

AT THE LONDON NAVAL CONFERENCE, held from January 21 to April 22, 1930, which Yamamoto attended as a naval adviser, the Japanese commitment to internationalism was severely tested and prevailed. At that point, Japan was led by Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi of the Constitutional Democratic Party, a hugely popular liberal whose dignified demeanor and mane-like hair had earned him the nickname of the Lion Premier. He vowed to maintain Japan’s reputation as a respectable and cooperative member of the international community when many countries, mired in the Great Depression, had turned inward. Hamaguchi was determined to ratify the London Naval Treaty, which outlined the rules concerning naval engagement and limited the number of vessels to be maintained by major naval powers. Elaborating on the agreements reached at the Washington Conference, those gathered in London proposed that the ratio of battleship tonnage among the United States, Britain, and Japan be adjusted from 5:5:3 to approximately 10:10:7.

Given its increased quota, the Japanese Navy Ministry favored ratifying the new treaty. But aware of Premier Hamaguchi’s strong leadership and fearing that he might undermine the authority of the armed services, the Naval General Staff—the military men rather than appointed government officials—launched an all-out campaign against it. With the backing of the right wing, of the opposition party Friends of Constitutional Government, and, in the final stages, of conservatives within the Privy Council—an advisory group to the emperor—the Naval General Staff quibbled that the proposed number was 0.4 percent short of their original target. (Yamamoto supported the general staff’s argument at this point, as he was yet to be converted to the creed of arms reduction.) Knowing that the supreme commander of the armed forces—Emperor Hirohito—backed his policy, Hamaguchi stood his ground: “It doesn’t matter if the Privy Council opposes us. I intend to request an imperial sanction [against the council] and will take no steps toward reaching a compromise.” On September 19, the Privy Council gave in. On October 27, the formal ratification was announced on the radio by the premiers of Britain and Japan and the president of the United States simultaneously. It was an unprecedented and hugely successful publicity coup that displayed the spirit of international cooperation and goodwill, which remained even in hard times.

The triumph of Japan’s parliamentary politics under Hamaguchi came at great cost, however. The Friends of Constitutional Government, in league with the hard-liners, picked up the Naval General Staff’s argument and accused Hamaguchi of violating the independence of the supreme command (which was, of course, originally meant to keep soldiers out of politics). The most damaging of such attacks came from Friends parliamentarian Hatoyama Ichiro, who helped found Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party after the war and would serve as prime minister from 1954 to 1956. Hatoyama in the spring of 1930 claimed that arms control did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Navy Ministry. He insisted that a distinct political power be given to the general staffs of the armed services in such matters. Rather than restraining the military and strengthening the basis of party politics, Hatoyama, to win political advantage, was helping to undermine parliamentary politics.

The degeneration of party politics accelerated after this episode. Later in 1930, as the controversy lingered, Prime Minister Hamaguchi was gravely wounded by an ultranationalist gunman who was dissatisfied with the treaty’s ratification. Taking advantage of the situation, Hatoyama demanded that the wounded premier attend the upcoming parliamentary sessions to defend his views. The session turned out to be one of the most hostile in Japanese history and marked the lowest point in the country’s parliamentary politics to date. Friends members, in a continuing effort to topple the party’s rival, disrupted the sessions and physically assaulted the acting prime minister when Hamaguchi did not attend. Determined to pass the cabinet’s social reform bills, Hamaguchi did attend the sessions in March 1931, against medical advice. The bills affected labor unions and farm tenancy, lowered taxes and created more equitable redistribution (made possible by the savings resulting from a decreased military budget), lowered the male voting age from twenty-five to twenty, and enfranchised women in local elections.

In a pair of felt slippers made to look like regular shoes—the pain of wearing leather shoes was far too great—the once sturdy but now tragically emaciated Hamaguchi stumbled toward the podium to answer questions in a barely audible voice. The opposition shouted “Speak louder” and “Get lost and die.” After attending ten such sessions, the prime minister resigned in April, four months before his death. Japan’s far-reaching reform efforts died, too.

During the 1930s, social restiveness and uncertainties grew in Japan, as if filling the void left by a failed democratic experiment. More assassination plots ended the lives of liberal and moderate opponents of blind militarism. The targets even included military men, such as the army’s own Nagata Tetsuzan, as we have seen, in the summer of 1935. The fear of such violent outbursts was widespread. When the Kwantung Army occupied northeastern China in September 1931, its commanders, too, claimed that their unauthorized actions had selfless and sacrosanct motives. Like the parliamentarian Hatoyama, they cited the inviolable independence of the supreme command to fend off any criticism of their behavior.

As noted previously, Hamaguchi’s successor as prime minister, Wakatsuki Reijiro, proved inadequate in this emergency. “Had the government resigned within a few days of the crisis … had the government issued a statement of protest and treated the matter with the same spirit,” said the Japanese consul general in Mukden at the time of the Manchurian Incident, “all—including the dignity of the government, Japan’s international position, its economy, and its party politics—could have been salvaged.” Instead, the government dithered for almost three months “even though they knew very well that the situation [in Manchuria] was deteriorating minute by minute.”

By 1936, Nagano Osami was navy minister (the highest political post in the Navy Ministry); Yamamoto was his vice minister. Nagano was a balding man with an intimidating glare; he could have passed for a gangster boss. He had preceded Yamamoto in the much-envied elite course of studies and appointments, including a stint at Harvard and participation in various international conferences. He graduated second in his class from the Naval Academy, which almost assured him of a bright career. But he was not an engaging leader, lacking Yamamoto’s charisma and magnetism. Known as the Dozing Admiral, he napped in his office a great deal. Journalists said behind his back that he needed his daytime rest because he couldn’t possibly keep up with his fourth wife (the three others had died), who was thirty years younger than him.

Admiral Yonai Mitsumasa, navy minister from April 1937 to August 1939, was a more appealing superior for Yamamoto. When Yonai became prime minister in early 1940, Time magazine described his physical appearance:

His nickname—The White Elephant—[is] one of awe.… It refer[s] to his size; his exceptionally fair and aristocratic complexion, accented in its whiteness by his hair, black and shiny as a phonograph record; and his appearance of strength and wisdom.

This view was far more complimentary than that of the Japanese army, which called him the Goldfish Minister—pleasant to look at but essentially ill suited for a big government role.

The army underestimated Yonai’s political abilities. He served in three different cabinets as navy minister. He made his share of political misjudgments, especially when he initially supported Prince Konoe in his hard-line policy against Chiang Kai-shek. But he became a consistent and staunch opponent of Japan’s fascist alliance when the general mood in the government was becoming overwhelmingly pro-Germany. In a key ministerial conference held in August 1939, the finance minister asked Yonai what would happen if Japan, as a consequence of allying with the fascist powers, had to fight a war against the united front of Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Such a war was bound to be a heavily naval one, and therefore Yonai’s answer was of pivotal importance. He said there was absolutely no likelihood of victory because the Japanese navy was not built to fight a war against the combined Anglo-American powers. Yonai kept Japan from the unseemly alliance, at least for the time being, prompting Hirohito to tell him, “Thanks to the navy, our nation was saved.” Yonai was fully aware that his defiance would put his life in danger. His courage and straight talk would be conspicuously absent in the Japanese leadership in 1941.

Despite the fight some naval leaders put up against the Tripartite Pact, it would be wrong to assume that the navy, as an institution, was more cautious and rational than the army about Japan’s drawing close to the fascist powers. Yonai and his strongest allies, Yamamoto and Inoue Shigeyoshi, the chief of military affairs, were increasingly in the minority. Yonai’s right-hand man and a self-proclaimed radical liberal, Inoue grasped the shallowness and danger of the Nazi ideology very quickly. Having read Mein Kampfin German, Inoue was aware of its disparaging references to his country, which were omitted in the Japanese translation. But Yonai and his allies had to counter not only the army but also the navy’s own Nazi admirers, who were multiplying as a result of Hitler’s blitzkrieg successes and pushing for the Axis alliance.

Rear Admiral Oka Takazumi, who would head the Navy Ministry’s Naval Affairs Bureau and appoint its fiercest prowar advocate, Ishikawa Shingo, its sectional chief in the fall of 1940, thought that the Axis alliance was a good idea, arguing that Japan could end the China War by intimidating Britain. By allying with Germany and Italy, he claimed, Japan would be able to corner Britain into brokering peace between Japan and China. Yonai, Yamamoto, and Inoue dismissed such a wishful suggestion. They felt that an Axis alliance would surely lead to a war not only with Britain but also with the United States. “The historically isolationist United States would not try to counter the powerful German-Italian-Japanese alliance by siding with Britain, whose moon is already waning,” insisted Oka.

The resultant debate with the pro-Axis camp was so intense that Yonai grew fearful for his younger associate’s life. In August 1939, on Yonai’s strong recommendation, Yamamoto, who insisted on staying in the Navy Ministry, was appointed commander in chief of the Combined Fleet. Ironically, Yonai’s protectiveness in giving Yamamoto a military appointment eliminated the opportunity for Yamamoto to oppose the government’s dubious policy choices. Moreover, he would later feel compelled to devise his plan for the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Inoue was also transferred to duties away from Tokyo’s politics. Beginning in January 1940, Yonai would continue his fight against the Axis alliance as prime minister, an appointment on which Hirohito was said to be especially keen. But Yonai was quickly dragged down. Inspired by the Nazi successes in Europe, Konoe and other advocates of pro-Axis policy, many of them army men, would in June 1940 launch a campaign to undermine Yonai. Army Minister Hata Shunroku resigned from the cabinet, and the army refused to nominate his replacement. The lack of army cooperation meant that the cabinet had to be dissolved. That was how, in July, Konoe came back to rule as premier for the second time, along with his bombastic foreign minister, Matsuoka.

For a while, Navy Minister Yoshida continued in Yonai’s footsteps, opposing the Axis alliance. But he was soon taken ill. He was replaced by Oikawa Koshiro in September 1940. Oikawa was an agreeable-looking man, with closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a copious mustache, though his big, beady eyes made him appear rather lost and unconfident. While he sympathized with the pro-Anglo-American view of the Yonai-Yamamoto school, Oikawa was known for his silence, which would often prove detrimental during political discussions of a most critical nature. He was from northern Japan, where reticence was a prized trait—a result, outsiders often joked, of its extremely cold weather freezing one’s mouth shut. Oikawa exhibited the local tendency to such an extent that people wondered if he had any opinions of his own. Compounding this inclination to silence was his belief that politics was not the business of a navy man, an institutional view shared by many in the service. Personally, he hated confrontation and avoided arguments at all costs. Yonai’s defiant rejection of the Axis alliance since 1939 was an act unimaginable to Oikawa. It was no surprise, then, that Oikawa did not resist the Tripartite Pact in the fall of 1940. He was not about to alienate Konoe and Matsuoka, let alone those in the navy newly converted to the pact and the army at large.

In April 1941, the navy had to recommend a successor to Imperial Prince Fushimi Hiroyasu, who was retiring as chief of the Navy General Staff, to be appointed by Hirohito. For those in the navy who did not want Japan to clash with the West, this was a chance to reclaim their voice. Fushimi was a German-trained veteran of the Russo-Japanese War who for some time had exercised tremendous authority in naval affairs. An old-fashioned sailor, he believed that the strength and prestige of a nation was directly proportionate to the number of fighting ships it possessed (hence the Naval General Staff’s opposition in 1930 to Hamaguchi’s signing of the London Naval Treaty). This meant that Fushimi and his cohorts—often called the Squadron Group because of their traditionalist views—were in outright disagreement with Yonai, Yamamoto, and Inoue, who argued for conciliation with other powers (while at the same time working to develop newer technologies, such as airpower).

To the dismay of those who, wishing for a rapprochement with the United States, lobbied for Yonai’s appointment, Oikawa, perfectly placed to recommend a name to the emperor, chose the Dozing Admiral to succeed Fushimi. This was done in accordance with the wishes of the exiting prince, whose experience in combat coupled with his imperial pedigree had made him too venerable a figure to be defied, at least in Oikawa’s mind. When Yamamoto heard the news of his former boss Nagano’s appointment, he lamented, “The man who believes himself to be a strategic genius—when he is far from it—is now the chief of staff.… It is as if the war has already begun!”

Yamamoto’s damning assessment of Nagano could also be read as a declaration of his partial resignation to a war that he publicly opposed, and would continue to oppose, but also wished to plan. To be sure, the cool, critical side of Yamamoto believed that it was impossible for Japan to win such a war. But if it had to be fought, he could not see anyone but himself in charge of it. He could try to prepare for it as best he could, and his best efforts would, in turn, maximize the strategic feasibility of a bold operation nobody else could have conceived—a gambler’s plan with the slimmest chance for victory. Yamamoto understood that if Japan were to stand any chance of success, it had to gain the upper hand at the very beginning so that the United States just might be enticed to the negotiating table.

When Grew wrote to Hull on January 27, 1941, amid “the rumors of war” in Tokyo, he noted that his embassy colleague had heard “from many quarters, including a Japanese one” that “a surprise mass attack on Pearl Harbor was planned by the Japanese military forces.” According to Grew, “the plan seemed fantastic,” and it actually was. But Yamamoto was determined to make the fantasy come true. From late 1940 on, in the wake of the signing of the Tripartite Pact, he became immersed in the planning of Japan’s Pacific strategies. No ordinary strategy would suffice, and for his extraordinary plan he would need extraordinary support.

IN EARLY FEBRUARY 1941, Lieutenant Commander Genda Minoru, a staff officer of the First Aerial Division, was aboard a Japanese aircraft carrier anchored near Shibushi Bay, in the prefecture of Kagoshima, at the southeastern tip of the southern island of Kyushu. Genda, an agile thirty-six-year-old, was the navy’s star pilot. In the past, he had led a team of acrobatic pilots across the country for pageants, promoting the popularity of naval aviation. On this particular winter day, he disembarked from the Kaga at Kanoya, a major naval installation in southern Japan, after being summoned by Rear Admiral Onishi Takijiro, the chief of staff of the Eleventh Aerial Division. As the two men sat on a sofa in Onishi’s office, the senior officer casually produced a letter from his breast pocket. “Why don’t you take a look at this,” Onishi urged him. Genda glanced at the back of the envelope and noted with surprise the signature of Yamamoto Isoroku, in the skillful calligraphy for which the commander was well known. Yamamoto’s letter, as Genda recalled, said:

Depending on the changes in the international situation, we might be driven to fight a war with the United States. If Japan and the United States were to go to war, we would have to resort to a radical tactic.… We would have to try, with all the might of our First and Second Aerial Divisions, to deal a blow to the U.S. Fleet in Hawaii, so that for a while, the United States would be kept from advancing to the western Pacific [where Japan would be facing other enemies, namely the Dutch and the British]. Our target would be a group of U.S. battleships.… This will not be easy to carry out. But I am determined to give everything to the completion of this plan, supervising the aerial divisions myself. I would like you to research the feasibility of such a plan in detail.

Since the founding of a U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1908, the Japanese navy had felt threatened by a possible U.S. attack. The designation of Pearl Harbor in May 1940 as the main base for the U.S. Pacific Fleet reinforced that feeling. The existing consensus was that a U.S.-Japan war would be a lopsided battle in favor of the United States and that the Japanese navy’s strategic planning had to be a purely defensive one. The best the Japanese could hope to do was to ward off a U.S. naval advance with air strikes and submarines launched from the Japanese coast. Yamamoto, clearly, felt differently.

Upon finishing Yamamoto’s letter, Genda, at a loss for words, merely said, “What an idea!” As he looked up in astonishment, Onishi asked, “Well now … I want you to find out if it could be done or not.” Genda was flabbergasted, but he was also very intrigued.

The most apparent obstacle to the plan was the feasibility of torpedo attacks on enemy ships. Japan’s state-of-the-art aerial torpedo required around ninety-eight feet (thirty meters) to sink and sail before it could adjust to the negotiated depth. Given Pearl Harbor’s shallow water, averaging twelve meters (thirty-nine feet) deep, it was obvious the torpedoes would pierce the seabed, rendering them harmless. Then there was the difficulty of getting aircraft carriers to the target area without them being spotted. This operation was not going to be easy. In early April, two months after Genda was presented with Yamamoto’s letter, Onishi submitted a plan of attack. It fell far short of Yamamoto’s expectations. The plan eliminated the use of aerial torpedo attacks, replacing them with dive-bombing and level bombings—the kind carried out from a plane flying horizontally, which required complex calculations to negotiate the target range and so were often inaccurate. Yamamoto responded that if the existing torpedoes did not work, they had to be made to work by improving them and the pilots. He insisted that it was feasible.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!