Japan’s North-South Problem

On June 23, 1941, the day after Germany attacked the Soviet Union, an intelligence order drafted in Moscow was sent to Richard Sorge, a German journalist based in Tokyo: “Report on the Japanese government’s position toward the German war against the Soviet Union.” Sorge, a tall, ruggedly attractive man in his midforties, was a Soviet agent operating in Japan. Born in Baku in 1895 to a Russian mother, he had been brought up mostly in Berlin and was an early enlistee for Germany in World War I, but his disillusionment with that war—which left him with a limp—had pushed him into the arms of communism. A few days after receiving this intelligence order, Sorge was instructed by the Soviet government to “report on [Japanese] army mobilization towards our borders.” It must have struck Sorge as ironic that Moscow was now so anxious for his reports. A series of specific warnings he sent earlier about the impending German attack on the Soviet Union had been dismissed by Stalin as untrustworthy.

Sorge arrived in Japan in the fall of 1933. His mission, as he once summed it up, was to

observe Japan’s Soviet policy closely … and to find out if Japan was planning to attack the Soviet Union. This was the most important assignment given to me and to my group.… It would not be an overstatement to say that it was the entire purpose of my stay in Japan.

Sorge seemed to be enjoying his life in Japan. He lived in an unpretentious two-story house filled with history books and souvenirs from his travels, and he was often seen riding a motorcycle in a leather jacket. An easy man to get on with, he soon became a popular figure in Tokyo’s community of German expatriates. He was able to win the confidence of important Germans, including Eugen Ott, the embassy attaché who would become Germany’s ambassador to Japan in 1938. That probably explains Sorge’s accurate foreknowledge, down to the day of the attack, of Operation Barbarossa.

Ott was so taken with Sorge that he allowed the journalist to install himself in an office in the German embassy, where Sorge edited a daily bulletin (and had an affair with Mrs. Ott). Sorge efficiently recruited members for what would be known as the Sorge spy ring, which consisted of at least thirteen men and three women, though very few of them had direct, consistent contact with Sorge. Among those in the ring were Max Clausen, a Prussian radio communications engineer educated in Moscow; Branko de Vukelic, a Serbian Jew raised in Croatia writing for French and Yugoslav journals; Miyagi Yotoku, a Japanese painter from Okinawa trained from a young age in California; and Ozaki Hotsumi, an adviser of Prince Konoe’s and a journalist of some renown with notable Chinese expertise.

Ozaki was a pudgy-faced man with kindly eyes who disarmed all who met him. He was by far the most important figure in the Sorge spy ring. Born in 1901 and raised mostly in colonial Taiwan, where his father was assigned as a newspaper correspondent, he returned to Tokyo to obtain his higher education. He eventually became a reporter for the Asahi. From 1928 to 1932, he was based in Shanghai.

Ozaki’s time in Taiwan and China was central to his ideological formation. He recalled that his close contact with the Chinese residents of Taiwan, and his having witnessed the “ruler-ruled” power dynamic of colonial imperialism in “everyday life and in very specific forms,” were the only “extraordinary” experiences in his otherwise ordinary childhood. He was upset to see that even his usually mild-tempered father could act like any other arrogant colonial master, fighting off a rickshaw driver who demanded more money. He said that Shanghai had strengthened his already strong feeling for nationalist movements in general and the national liberation of China in particular. To him, communism provided Asian nations a road to liberation from Western and Japanese imperialism, as well as a way for Japan and China to cohabit and work toward the same goal.

Through the introduction of Agnes Smedley, an American writer and reporter known for her activism in the Indian independence movement (and another of Sorge’s lovers), the young journalist Ozaki met Sorge in Shanghai in early 1930. Sorge was on a mission for Moscow to investigate China’s state of affairs and its communism and asked Ozaki to educate him on the nature of Japanese activities there. Sorge described their relationship as “impeccable both personally and professionally” and Ozaki’s departure for Tokyo in 1932 as “a terrible loss” to the execution of his mission. “Those people [Smedley and Sorge] were both loyal to their ideologies and profound in their principles, as well as being devoted to and talented in their work,” said Ozaki. “If they were in any small way motivated by self-interest, or acted as if they were trying to use us, I at least would have refused and parted company.”

In light of such mutual admiration, it is no surprise that Ozaki agreed to cooperate—on the condition that he would not receive any monetary compensation—when he was approached by Sorge in Japan in 1934. The two men had much in common. Their analytical skills, scholarly inclinations (Sorge had a doctorate in political science), and passionate and gregarious natures enabled them to become both successful journalists and skillful espionage agents.

In Japan, Sorge used his membership in the Nazi Party to conceal his allegiance to communism. Occasionally, he would stumble. On September 4, 1939, the day after Britain and France declared war on Germany, his cover was almost blown. Sorge was emerging from the office of the German news agency DNB when he bumped into Robert Guillain, head of the Tokyo bureau of the French news agency Havas. When Guillain caught sight of the “Nazi” reporter, the Frenchman started to curse at him: “My grandfather fought the Germans when France lost in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. My father, too, fought the Germans in 1914. That was because Germany attacked us. You don’t seem to be satisfied with those two wars with France. All right, we will fight you for the third time. And this time around, we will crush you. We will crush Hitler and we will bomb you all to death. You just watch. Germany will be in ruins.” Sorge responded to the tirade of his much-younger colleague with a courteous invitation to lunch. As they ate, Sorge told him, “I despise this war as much as you do.… I, too, have gone and fought in the Great War. I believed that peace would come to this world. When Hitler emerged, I thought that he would bring order to Germany and peace to Europe.” He even acknowledged, “I know that I have been mistaken,” adding, after a moment’s hesitation, “I am a pacifist, you see?”

Sorge could not have functioned without Ozaki. He lacked the necessary language skills to operate effectively in Japanese society; his spoken Japanese remained rudimentary at best. (He did not speak adequate Russian, either, and mostly used English and German for his communications with Moscow.) Ozaki was in high demand as a political analyst and as a commentator on current affairs, especially Sino-Japanese relations. It was on this subject that he now reported for the Asahi and carried out research at the South Manchurian Railway’s think tank. With the escalation of Japan’s China War, he became a celebrated public intellectual, and people from various professions, including those in the military and the police, were eager to hear his opinions. He was also an active member of the Showa Research Association, a brain trust that helped Prince Konoe form his policies. This alone would have provided Ozaki with significant sources of information. But far more important was his participation in the so-called Breakfast Club.

This exclusive club met twice a month at eight o’clock in the morning to exchange information and debate current political issues. Its membership inspired awe. Though Konoe was not a regular fixture at meetings, members prided themselves on forming the prince’s innermost circle. Most were from Japan’s privileged class, in their thirties and early forties, inclined toward liberalism and internationalism (far more than Konoe was), and recipients of an elite Anglo-American education. Members included Konoe’s secretary, Ushiba Tomohiko; Saionji Kinkazu, a grandson of Prince Saionji (and Matsuoka’s Red Arrow companion); the chief cabinet secretary, Kazami Akira; the international journalist Matsumoto Shigeharu; Inukai Takeru, a novelist and the third son of former prime minister Inukai Tsuyoshi; and Matsukata Saburo, son of Matsukata Masayoshi, a Meiji oligarch.

Probably because of their impeccable pedigrees, the club members did not feel the need to hold back their opinions in front of Konoe, and that was presumably why he valued them. Ozaki was included in this group because of his Chinese expertise and his close friendship with Saionji. The two had met aboard a ship bound for a conference in the United States in 1936. Saionji had no idea of Ozaki’s true radicalism. In fact, Ozaki did not even confide it to his wife, to whom he was otherwise completely devoted.

After their return from the United States, the two men spent time together virtually every day. It seemed natural that they would discuss politics when they met. Both were all too aware that Japan’s politics were going off course and that the China War should be ended immediately. Ozaki later said that he had associated with those whom he ended up using as information sources “with utmost sincerity, out of mutual concern for the nation’s present crisis.”

AFTER OPERATION BARBAROSSA, the Communist spies needed to learn if Japan intended to attack the Soviet Union. As we have seen, Matsuoka believed that Japan should, and he encouraged the Germans to think that his country’s participation in their war was imminent, which added to Soviet anxiety. Now that he was relying on Ambassador Oshima’s highly biased reports from Berlin, there was no question in Matsuoka’s mind that Germany was going to prevail. By attacking the Soviet Union, Japan could gain territory while convincing the Nazis of its good faith. To him, Japan was in a situation similar to that of Italy in June 1940, when Mussolini decided to attack France after German victory had already become apparent. But there was a fundamental problem with Matsuoka’s new policy preference: Not only was there no practical strategic outline to accompany his proposal of “striking north,” but nobody else in the Japanese leadership wanted a war with the Soviet Union.

Though the Japanese army had always looked northward, seeing Russia—and then the Soviet Union—as Japan’s primary enemy, it had some compelling reasons for not being at all keen to back Matsuoka. Soviet superiority over the Japanese army, which did not possess any of the heavy tanks necessary for fighting in Mongolia and Siberia, had already been demonstrated during the border battles in Nomonhan in 1939. Japan also did not have enough soldiers to fight in both China and Russia. In June 1941, the army joined the navy to push instead for an expansion into the southern half of French Indochina.

Military planners insisted that the transfer of control from French colonial authorities to Japan would be peaceful, with proper “diplomatic” pressure applied. After all, in the past ten months alone, Japan had managed to take over the northern half of French Indochina and to mediate a territorial dispute between Thailand and French Indochina (in the former’s favor) through the use of diplomacy backed by threats and force. By occupying the whole of the Indochinese Peninsula, not only would Japan establish a strategic foothold much closer to British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, but it would also gain access to more rice, tin, and rubber, enabling it to fight China in the short term, to build a self-sufficient economic bloc in the long term, and perhaps to fight a bigger war in the future. Also, the Dutch in the East Indies might be deterred by the Japanese presence in their backyard and finally agree to provide Japan with more oil. No further military adventures would be necessary south of the Indochinese border, it was said.

Matsuoka vehemently objected. He was wrongly convinced of a swift German victory over the Soviet Union (as were many others, including some in Britain and the United States), but he was now rightly worried about the risk of a severe Anglo-American retaliation should Japan decide to occupy even more of France’s colonial territory. That would unduly advertise Japan’s greater ambition in the region, sending up a flare in Washington. The question of whether to strike north (the Soviet Union) or go south became the focus of Tokyo’s policy deliberations in late June 1941. The institutional forces and mechanisms that enabled such a debate would have a lasting impact on Tokyo’s policy formulation in the following months.

Broadly, Japan’s strategic outline was set by the Imperial General Headquarters, the highest organ of the high command of the Army and Navy General Staffs. The general staffs initiated strategic proposals, but so did the Army and Navy Ministries, which were part of the cabinet. In both these ministries, ministers resided at the top of the institutional hierarchy, followed by vice ministers, chiefs of various bureaus (including military affairs, personnel, legal affairs, and supply and accounts), and then chiefs of sections (subgroups within the bureaus). The general staffs had a similar chain of command, with the chiefs of staff at the top, followed by vice chiefs of staff, chiefs of divisions (including operations, information, and mobilization), and, finally, various section chiefs. Strategic proposals were rarely formulated at the top levels; they were usually initiated at the bureau and section levels of the ministries and at the division and section levels of the general staffs. With many specialist groups trying to advance their interests, arriving at a new policy was a very complicated business.

If, for example, one division or section of the Army General Staff proposed a new initiative, it would first have to be approved, modified, and endorsed by the other division and section chiefs. Only then would the proposal be discussed in a joint meeting of the Army General Staff (independent of the government) and the Army Ministry (part of the government), usually attended by the chief and vice chief of staff and minister and vice minister. Meanwhile, the bureau and section chiefs of the Army Ministry would be introduced to the Army General Staff’s proposal; if in agreement, they would all work toward convincing the navy (the general staff, as well as the ministry) and the Foreign Ministry, both of which had their own intricate groups and subgroups. After agreement from the Foreign Ministry and the navy was secured, the prime minister’s cabinet would finally be approached by the chiefs of staff, as the representatives of the high command, to put the proposal on the agenda of a liaison conference.

This sort of painstaking institutional groundwork was carried out by middle-ranking military planners, most of whom did not even attend the liaison meetings of the top leaders. They were aptly called bakuryo, which literally means “officers behind the curtains.” In the olden days, the word baku (curtains) had a double meaning in explaining concentration of power. One was political, synonymous with the government, as in bakufu (shogunate), meaning “a regime behind the curtains.” The other was strategic, alluding to the makeshift curtains used in encampments during field combat to identify the headquarters, where strategies were secretly debated among the select few. In prewar Japan, bakuryo had come to assume both the political task of negotiating and liaising with different sources of power and the more practical task of planning strategies. Because of the pivotal role bakuryo would come to assume in directing Japan’s policy after July, the term evoked the image of war planners furtively creating bellicose policies in the name of assisting and advising their superiors.

In the early summer of 1941, Japan’s three most influential bakuryo, all about fifty years old, were the chief of the Army General Staff’s Operations Division, Tanaka Shin’ichi; the chief of the Army Ministry’s Military Affairs Bureau, Muto Akira; and the aforementioned chief of the Navy Ministry’s Naval Affairs Bureau, Oka Takazumi. Muto and Oka had the crucial role of working together to create an interservice agreement. Tanaka, on the other hand, often worked alone, driven by a hostile worldview that made him the doomsday oracle of the Army General Staff. His division was the most aggressive.

Tanaka consistently promoted a hard-line stance in China. For him, total victory was the only option, and the willingness Japanese leaders had been showing of late to negotiate with the United States was a disgrace. Refraining from war equated to cowardly surrender and was worse than losing everything after having fought a proper war. Because of the strength of his convictions and his forceful personality, and even though he was only third in the chain of command, he would come to have a greater influence on policy than anyone else on the Army General Staff.

Tanaka was often frustrated by what he perceived as Muto’s accommodationist tendencies (Muto was hardly a moderate). To Tanaka, Sato Kenryo, a section chief in the Military Affairs Bureau who worked immediately below Muto and was a close associate of Army Minister Tojo, held more promise. Sato, in his midforties, had a few years earlier gained national notoriety when he made a strong case for the National Mobilization Law in a parliamentary session. He grew upset when legislators jeered at him, shouting “Shut up!” before he stormed out of the room. The democratic process was clearly not to Sato’s taste.

The navy, too, had its middle-ranking hawks. The primary example was Ishikawa Shingo, a section chief in the Navy Ministry’s Military Affairs Bureau, also in his midforties. In 1931, around the time of the Manchurian Incident, he wrote a controversial book, Japan’s Crisis, under a pseudonym (and without permission from the navy, grounds enough for dismissal from the service). In it, he warned that the United Sates had entertained ambitions to control the East since the middle of the previous century, and he urged Japan to embark on a “great national march to ensure its right to survival” in the face of impending American threats. He thought the conferences on naval reduction that had been held in Washington and London were part of a Western conspiracy to obstruct Japan’s rise to prominence. Like the army’s Ishiwara Kanji, who had conceived of the Manchurian takeover, Ishikawa greatly influenced younger officers with his polemical book, turning many in what had traditionally been the pro-British navy into Nazi sympathizers. His fanatical personality had long alarmed the top brass. Nicknamed Wild Shot, he had been consistently passed over for influential positions for much of his career. Now, in the fall of 1940, Oka, chief of the Naval Affairs Bureau and a strong advocate of Japan’s Axis alliance, appointed Ishikawa leader of its Arms Division, overriding objections from the Personnel Bureau.

Ishikawa, along with other like-minded associates, formed the First Naval Defense Policy Committee (the so-called First Committee), which would shape the navy’s prowar position on the eve of Pearl Harbor. He believed, like Tanaka, that war with the United States was something not to be avoided but to be faced heroically. In his thinking, Japan’s military occupation of French Indochina was about preparing for an inevitable war rather than a possible one. Ishikawa, in fact, favored a forceful military advance beyond Indochinese borders and advocated the conquest of British Malaya within 1941. Ishikawa would later boast, “I am the one who brought Japan to the war course.”

One could say that these bakuryo officers were simply doing their soldierly job of preparing for war while keeping an eye on the opportunity for strategic and territorial aggrandizement. The problem for Japan in mid-1941, however, was that war preparation became the sole focus in the absence of an overarching national policy guiding it. Those at the top were often too willing to be led by the junior officers they should have been restraining, adopting their urgent rhetoric uncritically. The navy’s chief of staff, Nagano Osami, summarized that attitude unabashedly: “Because the section chiefs are the ones most in the know, I accept their views.”

Five decades later, Ishii Akiho, a bakuryo officer in the Army Ministry who was responsible for drafting many of its successful proposals, reflected on the power he and his colleagues had once possessed in those crucial months leading up to Pearl Harbor: “Fools that we were, we could make an important policy decision as long as we took the initiative. Of course, our policy might have been modified along the way, but [our voice] was that important.… And so my sin is great.” In his mind, the most fundamental problem of the time was that no one in the chain of command ever doubted that the Japanese empire was destined to achieve regional—if not global—leadership and thus needed to expand no matter what. This meant that even if one expansionist program was rejected, the planners would come up with another just as expansionist. Well, they would ask, “if we can’t go there, where can we go instead?”

It is important to emphasize, though, that in June 1941 the fanatical designs of Tanaka, Ishikawa, and Japan’s other most bellicose strategists were not seen as such by top military leaders or by many of their bakuryo colleagues in the planning bodies. Those leaders supported the occupation of southern Indochina because they believed it was a timely low-risk, high-return venture; the power vacuum in colonial Southeast Asia had to be taken advantage of while the rest of the world occupied itself with the developments in Europe. Just as Matsuoka called for immediate Japanese action in the north, before Germany finished its business with the Soviet Union, the bakuryo officers believed their opportunity in the south was fleeting. This was the backdrop to the critical north-south debate, the outcome of which would have great ramifications for Japan’s international standing.

On June 24, the navy and the army agreed that Japan should occupy the southern half of French Indochina and leave the option open for the army to strike the Soviet Union if a convenient opportunity—such as the large-scale transfer of Soviet troops from the Far East to the European front—arose. Prime Minister Konoe gave his blessing to this quickly emerging consensus partly because he saw the shift in policy objectives as a much-needed expedient to oust Matsuoka. Not so long ago, Konoe had relied on Matsuoka’s forcefulness to lead the government. Now the disenchanted Konoe was relying on the military, the very group he had tried to contain and check via Matsuoka, to bring about the foreign minister’s downfall. The new plan, loaded with unarticulated political motives, had to be approved in a liaison conference for it to become policy.

Far from a ceremonial formality, liaison conferences provided a chance for leaders to put forward specific questions openly and ruthlessly. There was always a possibility that proposals could be rejected, and everyone believed that Matsuoka would oppose. That was why the Navy and Army General Staffs brought the vice chiefs of staff as reinforcements. They were the experts, it was claimed, with command of the details. (In the case of the army’s vice chief of staff, Tsukada Osamu, this claim to expertise was certainly not true, as he reportedly told his junior officers, “I don’t understand data, so I will leave them up to you.”) Matsuoka would have to be confronted. Konoe called a liaison meeting for June 25.

Contrary to expectations, Matsuoka was surprisingly pliable. Without much quibbling, he endorsed the military occupation of southern French Indochina. “This matter requires speedy action,” he said. “So long as we have decided, we’d better get on with it.” It was announced that later in the afternoon a cabinet meeting would be called (to endorse the liaison conference resolution as a government decision, a matter of formality) and would be followed by the chiefs of staff’s interview with the emperor, informing him of the approved plan of action. When the discussion shifted to Japan’s Soviet policy, Matsuoka pushed for an attack on the Soviet Union.

Taken aback, Army Chief of Staff Sugiyama responded:

The foreign minister is preaching aggressive policy, but the army isn’t at all prepared. We can attack only when the conditions in China, the north, and the south become favorable in all three directions.… One must be aware that if we hasten our attack on the Soviet Union, the United States could join forces with the Soviet Union.

Sugiyama mistakenly spoke as if the proposed Indochinese invasion carried no risk of a U.S. intervention. Matsuoka answered Sugiyama by pushing for a “deterrence move” against the Soviet Union. He was going to be the biggest stumbling block after all. Another liaison meeting, the leaders grudgingly concluded, had to be called in order to resolve this disagreement.

The next day, June 26, Matsuoka appealed to the military men’s sense of loyalty to their alliance partner Germany and pressed again for an immediate strike in the north. Vice Army Chief Tsukada became adamant in his opposition: “I don’t know about politics, but as far as military affairs are concerned, Germany is doing whatever it wants to do. That’s all the more reason for us not to consult [Germany]!” Army Minister Tojo agreed with Tsukada, but the decision to endorse an Indochinese takeover was not one he made easily. On June 23, he had met with an officer from the army’s Fuel Division who suggested that the only way Japan could procure petroleum was by advancing into southern Indochina. Tojo blew up. “You are telling me that we ought to steal it?” he asked. He was furious that the army’s engineers had not invented synthetic oil despite their generous budget. “I cannot possibly report to His Imperial Majesty and say, ‘I am afraid we must succumb to being thieves,’ ” he complained.

In his narrow focus, Tojo had failed to consider the ominous political implications for Japan’s diplomatic relations with the West. He eventually supported the Indochinese advance, abandoning too easily his professed moral objections. Though the liaison meeting of June 26 ended inconclusively, the infighting was beginning to take its toll on Matsuoka. He became uncharacteristically inarticulate by the end of that meeting, saying he agreed with the military plan “broadly,” though he disagreed with it “fundamentally.” He promised to explain himself the next day.

Another day, another conference. In the meeting of June 27, Matsuoka again tried to retract his impetuous endorsement of the Indochinese invasion. He said he understood the broad strategic logic behind it but felt it was a fundamental political mistake because it would provoke the Allies to retaliate. An invasion of southern Indochina would be feasible only after Nazi preponderance in Europe was firmly established (which he felt would happen soon). Matsuoka dismissed Sugiyama’s earlier concern that the United States might join forces with the Soviet Union against Japan; the United States had always hated the Soviet Union, he said.

True, the Soviet Union had never been a preferred member of the international community. The very war Hitler was now waging in Europe was precipitated as much by Stalin’s territorial ambitions in Poland, the Baltic, and the Balkan states as by Hitler’s master plan. Western opinion favored Finland when it refused to cede territories to the Soviet Union and was then attacked in late 1939. This resulted in the Soviet Union’s becoming the only member ever to be expelled from the League of Nations. All this was true. But no one in the liaison meeting even mentioned the possibility that the United States, like Britain, hated Nazi Germany more than it hated the Soviet Union.

Matsuoka kept hammering away in meetings on June 28, 30, and July 1. “My foretelling for the near future has never been wrong,” he said at one point. “I predict that going south would bring a great disaster.” Muto disagreed. Recognizing that the discussion was going nowhere, Matsuoka also resorted to placating his opponents. “Why not postpone [the southern Indochinese takeover] for another six months? If the high command and the prime minister are resolved to go through with it no matter what, however, I cannot object to their decision, having once endorsed the plan myself.”

Matsuoka’s rare nonconfrontational tone seemed to shake the resolve of some leaders. Navy Minister Oikawa proposed to Army Chief of Staff Sugiyama that the plan be postponed for six months. Kondo, the navy’s vice chief of staff, whispered to his army counterpart, Tsukada, to consider delaying. But Tsukada was not about to be mollified so easily. He openly admonished his superior, urging Sugiyama to stick to the original proposal. He did, and Konoe concurred. The finance minister and minister of industry and commerce, who could have helped the leaders see the situation in a more practical light, were only invited to attend liaison meetings after June 30. It was too late.

THE FORMAL APPROVAL for Japan to occupy southern French Indochina (or to become thieves, in Tojo’s words) was given at an imperial conference held on July 2. Imperial conferences were rare, marking, more often than not, the beginnings and endings of wars. They were attended by key ministers of state, the chief cabinet secretary to assist the cabinet ministers, the director of the Cabinet Planning Board, the president of the Privy Council, chiefs and vice chiefs of the Army and Navy General Staffs, and chiefs of the Military Affairs Bureaus of the Army and Navy Ministries (though the army’s bureau chief was absent on July 2 because of illness)—all formally attired in either military uniforms or tails.

“Imperial conferences,” Hirohito once said, “were a curious thing.… The emperor had no deciding power, unable to dictate the atmosphere of the conference [despite its name].” The emperor would listen to the background of the proposal to be approved, and the president of the Privy Council would question the leaders on his behalf. The imperial approval was a mere formality with no constitutionally binding power. Yet it bore the stamp of uncontested authority, and there was no historical precedent of its having been overturned. By acquiring imperial sanction, policy decisions would become divine, suddenly apolitical, and political leaders would be collectively relieved of any personal responsibility for the newly approved policy.

The July 2 conference was the first of four imperial conferences to be held before Japan’s attack on the United States. It took place in the First Eastern Hall of the Meiji Palace, a proud edifice located on the vast Imperial Palace compound in central Tokyo, built in 1889. The hall represented a marriage of Eastern and Western aesthetic sensibilities—ceilings hung with glass chandeliers, walls adorned with purple silk embroidered in traditional Japanese floral patterns. The long conference tables were blanketed in silk with multicolored checkered stripes in various shades. The infusion of color produced the muted opulence seen in the best kimono designs.

The conference lasted from 10:00 a.m. to noon. The decision to move on southern Indochina was challenged and questioned by Hara Yoshimichi, the president of the Privy Council. The leaders were expected to demonstrate in front of the emperor that they had weighed their decision carefully; the session was not intended to be an occasion to scrutinize or reconsider their decision. On July 2, the greatest concern for Hara was a chilling passage in the policy outline for the southern Indochinese occupation: “The Empire shall not flinch from war with Britain and the United States.” It first appeared in a military draft in early June, and at different stages of formulating the outline, the bakuryo planners had deleted and reinserted the sentence. It was directed specifically at Matsuoka and his opposition to the Indochinese occupation. “Going to [occupy] Thailand or Indochina requires the resolve to fight Britain and the United States,” he’d said. “In the absence of that resolve, I am disinclined to discuss this matter further.” In order to force the occupation plan through, its proponents wanted to convince Matsuoka of their determination.

The “shall not flinch” resolve was hardly built upon a thorough deliberation within the armed services. Hard-line strategists like the army’s Tanaka and the navy’s Ishikawa gladly adopted Matsuoka’s uncompromising tone and formalized it in their draft. Others in the services—the majority—were put off by the passage. Most navy men shuddered at the possibility of having to fight Britain and the United States single-handedly at sea. Sawamoto Yorio, the vice navy minister at the time, recalled afterward:

I was surprised [at the “shall not flinch” passage] and asked Navy Minister Oikawa about it. He said he was against war, but considering the army’s general preoccupation with the north … we had to say that much to stop the policy from slipping out of [the traditionally south-inclined] navy’s control. I’ve also asked Admiral Toyoda, minister of commerce and industry, about the passage, and he reassured me, “Don’t worry, Minister Oikawa doesn’t want [war].”

For the navy leadership, the inclusion of the passage was a means of putting up a bold front for not only the foreign minister but the army as well. Ostensibly preparing for the possibility of war also suggested an increase in the navy’s share of the military budget.

At the imperial conference of July 2, rightly sensing the flippancy of the leaders’ bellicose rhetoric, the septuagenarian Privy Council president asked the attendees a series of questions related to their determination to “not flinch” from war with the West. A bespectacled, mustached man with a background in law, Hara was known for his conservative and anti-Communist beliefs, which made him sympathetic to Matsuoka’s advocacy of striking the Soviet Union instead of occupying French Indochina. But common sense now guided him in his questioning. He said to the leaders:

We need to be careful with the use of force.… It’s one thing to make French Indochina listen to our demands by hinting at our power. It’s quite another to exercise it.… We don’t want our action to be seen as an “invasion.” … You say that you won’t refrain from fighting Britain and the United States … but how do you square that resolve with the reality [of not having prepared for such a war]? I am inclined to think that Britain and the United States would react if we went ahead with [the occupation of southern] French Indochina.… What is the likelihood of [the new policy] prompting them to join forces [against Japan]? I would like a clear answer.

Tojo conceded that it was indeed a serious matter to consider. Matsuoka supported this view. But they reassured Hara that the planned occupation would not employ force and would be a peaceful one. This is not what Matsuoka really believed; at one point that day he pronounced that the possibility of war “cannot be said is nil.” But even he did not want to derail the plan once it had reached this awe-inspiring formal stage. Hirohito, at the head of the long blanketed tables, listened silently.

The purportedly peaceful and noncoercive nature of the planned takeover was an important point for the leadership to harp on. In the previous year’s occupation of the northern half of the Indochinese Peninsula, despite Tokyo’s agreed policy of peaceable, diplomatic transition, impetuous officers of the Japanese field army started firing at the local French forces, who were refusing to leave. There were several hundred casualties before the Japanese could settle the matter with the French authorities. This event reinforced Japan’s reputation as a rogue in the West and was very much on Hara’s mind when he asked his questions.

Each time Hara brought up the issue of war with Britain and the United States, he received a vague reply. The leaders didn’t feel compelled to discuss matters in depth at an imperial conference. After a while, Sugiyama summarized the majority thinking. The army chief of staff said that it was very necessary

to carry out the proposed plan to resist an Anglo-American plot [of cornering Japan economically]. If Germany’s plan [to dominate Europe] suffers a setback, yes, it becomes conceivable that the United States will go to war [with Japan]. But Germany is winning the war now. [With such a powerful ally behind Japan], I think Americans are not going to go to war with us over French Indochina. It goes without saying that we must complete the occupation in a peaceful way. We are tempted to go as far as Thailand, but that would be too close to [British] Malaya, causing a big problem, so we are stopping at the borders of French Indochina this time.… We intend to carry out this plan very carefully.

Hara was reassured. He said they were in “basic agreement” as long as it was clear to everyone present that Japan should avoid war with Britain and the United States, despite the bold words in the proposal. Everyone was convincing himself that as long as the military occupation of southern Indochina did not involve any physical violence and did not go farther than the peninsula, the world was not going to quibble, let alone start a war, with Japan.

Hirohito had qualms about the occupation, as Hara’s insistent questioning revealed. When the proposal was introduced on June 25, the day Matsuoka impulsively endorsed it, Hirohito said, “In terms of international law principles, this makes me wonder.” But in the face of the leaders’ confidence (and in defiance of Matsuoka, whom the emperor did not trust), those qualms were not great enough for him to consider putting a stop to the plan. Prime Minister Konoe kept silent. When political leadership was called for, he was nowhere to be heard.

THE JULY 2 IMPERIAL CONFERENCE RESOLUTION was a turning point for Richard Sorge. Though Matsuoka’s frequent reassurances had led the German embassy in Tokyo to count on Japanese participation in the Soviet war, Sorge remained skeptical. He later recalled:

Ozaki’s observations of the state of affairs before the imperial conference were that Prime Minister Konoe and his nonmilitary cabinet members did not want war with the Soviet Union and also that the navy did not want the war, either. Within the army, there was a strong desire to join in the war [with Germany]; nonetheless, such a stance had been tilted toward one of observing the situation for the time being.… Foreign Minister Matsuoka alone was of the opinion that Japan should reject the Soviet-Japan neutrality pact, which he himself had concluded.

Matsuoka personally informed Ambassador Ott of the decision of the imperial conference, which was how Sorge heard about it. Sorge noted:

Foreign Minister Matsuoka’s message consisted of two important points from the imperial conference resolutions. They were: (1) In the north, Japan would expand militarily and prepare in every way to oust Bolshevism. (2) In the south, Japan would launch an active advancement program.… Ambassador Ott interpreted these points with most emphasis placed on the first point; hence he was of the view that Japan would build up its forces in the north and Manchuria … understanding that this mobilization implied the beginning of Japan’s war with the Soviet Union.

Ozaki, according to Sorge, “placed more emphasis on the aforementioned second point,” meaning that he believed Japan would begin an active military venture only in French Indochina. Sorge knew which one to trust and notified Moscow that

at the imperial conference it was decided that there was no change in the military action plan for Saigon [southern Indochina]. There it was also decided that in case of the Red Army’s destruction, Japan would consider military action against the Soviet Union.

The Red Army’s general staff took Sorge’s report seriously, prompting it to underline Sorge’s conclusion. But there was no guarantee that Japan would not change its mind, especially since Japan seemed adamant about remaining a German ally. This suspicion would draw the Soviet Union closer to the United States.

A few days after the imperial conference, top fleet commanders were summoned to Tokyo by the navy minister and the naval chief of staff. When the commanders were informed of what had been decided, including the passage declaring Japan’s resolve not to flinch from war, they were, on the whole, astonished. “Are we really ready for an aerial war?” Yamamoto Isoroku asked. He knew the answer better than anyone. Koga Mineichi, the commander of the Second Fleet, was furious. “How could you have endorsed such a critical policy without consulting us? What if a war really broke out? You can’t just tell us then, ‘OK, you go ahead and fight.’ We won’t win!” he said.

Navy Chief of Staff Nagano, the leading proponent of the southern Indochinese plan, responded as if he had had no part in advancing the proposal: “What can I say? The government decided on it.”

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