Why Did Japan Choose War?

World War II really began when the Japanese army seized Manchuria in 1931. But that was not the starting point of Japanese aggression. Japan started in business as a land-grabbing power in a small way. Moving cautiously, while its modern navy and army were still in the infant stage, Japan took over several groups of small islands not far from its homeland without having to fight for them.

By 1894 it was strong enough to challenge the weak and aging Chinese Empire. In July of that year Japanese naval guns fired on Chinese ships without warning. For the next fifty years Japan’s conquest and absorption of Asia and the Pacific islands has continued, step by step, with time out to consolidate the gains and gather strength for the next move.

The successful war with China in 1894–95 added Formosa and the nearby Pescadores islands to the Japanese Empire. After defeating Russia in 1904–05, Japan took the south half of Sakhalin and the southern tip of Manchuria known as the LiaotungPeninsula. In 1910 Korea was annexed. At the end of World War I, the victorious powers handed the Japanese a mandate over the former German islands north of the equator, one of the most important strategic areas in the Pacific. Twelve years later the Japanese began carving out sections of China, starting with Manchuria in 1931. On the eve of the present war, Japan seized control of Indo-China from defenseless France and reduced Thailand (Siam) to the status of a puppet.

By a combination of bluff and bloodshed Japan’s warlords, in less than half a century, had increased their holdings from 147,669 square miles to more than 1,000,000.

It’s our problem now.

Only a few Americans seem to have realized that the peace and security of the United States were being endangered every time Japan seized a slice of its neighbors’ territory. There is nothing to be gained by reproaching ourselves for not having read the future correctly. But we can plan and act now to keep the sons of the men who are fighting Japan from having to do the job all over again.

We know that the Japanese will be defeated. But though our victory will remove the immediate danger that threatened us in 1941, it will not of itself make us secure against a repetition of that danger. That will depend mainly upon our firmness and wisdom in handling Japan after the victory is won.

A day will come when Japan will lie stricken and harmless. Then will be the time to employ the treatment that will cure the Japanese once and for all of the disease of creeping aggression.

To understand what has to be done to prevent another Pearl Harbor we need to know something of the motives which led the Japanese to stake everything on this greatest gamble in their history. Americans have never before gone to war with a nation about which they knew so little. Since 1941 the people of this country have been too busy fighting Japan and the other Axis partners to spend much time investigating their history and politics.

What were the causes of aggression?

For the purposes of this pamphlet the principal causes of Japanese aggression may be summarized as follows:

  1. The Japanese believe that their nation is superior to all others and that it has a special mission to dominate and rule the rest of mankind.
  2. The Japanese armed forces enjoy a special position that gives them practical control of the government.
  3. Japan is located at the center of the rich Asiatic-Pacific area and had the strongest and most successful army and navy in Asia.
  4. The Japanese were dissatisfied with their economic condition. The working classes had a low standard of living, and big business demanded more raw materials and more markets which could be exploited without meeting European and American competition. Japan was less rich in resources than the United States, Great Britain, and the USSR. Also, high tariffs in the United States and other countries barred Japanese goods from some of the world markets.

Japan’s “divine mission”

The Japanese actually believe that they are descendants of the gods, that their emperor is divine, and that they have a heaven-inspired mission to rule the world. These fantastic ideas are based on what they call “history,” in reality a patchwork of fact, legend, and wishful thinking. We can pass over the business of descent from the gods and the emperor’s divinity. To us the very ideas are absurd. But we must never forget that all Japanese children are instructed in these beliefs from the cradle and that many of the strongest of Japanese emotions are centered in them.

In recent years Japanese education and propaganda have featured a phrase supposed to have been used by the first emperor—eight corners of the world under one roof. This has been interpreted to mean, in plain English, that Japan must dominate about a billion people in Asia and the Pacific area, and eventually rule the world. This is no new idea to the Japanese mind. Three hundred and fifty years ago their combination Julius Caesar and Napoleon, Hideyoshi, wrote: “All military leaders who shall render successful vanguard service in the coming campaign in China will be liberally rewarded with grants of extensive states near India, with the privilege of conquering India and extending their domains in that vast empire.”

This could have been written yesterday. The speeches and writings of Japanese statesmen and superpatriots in modern times reveal dozens of similar warnings of their intentions. Yet, in the summer of 1941, when their plan for conquest was officially published in The Way of the Subjects, the so-called “bible” of the Japanese people, many foreigners still did not take it very seriously. Six months later they did.

Why are the Japanese easily led?

It has been pointed out that highly organized worship of the state and its symbol, the emperor, is a comparatively recent development. The official Shinto religion has been called an instrument to bring the people into line for an all-out war effort. The truth of the matter seems to be that the government did not create a new faith or loyalty. It merely made use of beliefs that the Japanese have held in a rather passive way for centuries. The all too human desire to possess their neighbors’ property was thus elevated to a patriotic and religious duty. Universal schooling and cheap printing made the task easier, as did also the docility of the people and their ingrained respect for authority.

The keynote of the Japanese character is loyalty rather than freedom and individuality. A citizen’s duties and obligations to the nation are emphasized, but almost no recognition is given to his rights. To argue the merits and demerits of this philosophy is outside the scope of this pamphlet. But these beliefs and ideals of the Japanese people have made it easy for them to be led into war.

How did the war lords get control?

In Japan the armed forces have won almost complete control of the government and the nation. Every department of the national life—industry, commerce, agriculture, education, the press, even religion—is subject to their will.

Japan was not always an out-and-out military dictatorship. For a brief period after the first World War there were indications that it was on the road to establishing representative government and was following the lead of Western nations in carrying out some badly needed social and political reforms.

The Japanese constitution of 1889 provided the framework of a nineteenth-century monarchy modeled on Prussia. At the head of the state is the emperor, assisted by his privy council. There is a cabinet, headed by the prime minister, and a parliament consisting of the House of Peers and the House of Representatives, the latter elected by the people. Actually, the emperor is a figurehead. He is worshiped, but he does not originate either policy or action. For centuries the imperial power has been in the hands of a few nobles, soldiers, or statesmen who had the strength to use it.

The makers of this system did not plan for or want popular government. But from about 1921 to 1931 the Japanese political parties gained in power, and it seemed to many observers that the cabinet and the House of Representatives might in time become the controlling elements in the government. Critics have claimed, however, that even during this brief period there was no true republican system in Japan. If Japan is ever to have democracy in the future there must be fundamental reforms in the system by which the country is governed.

The so-called “liberals” of Japan who came to the fore after 1920 were not liberal in our sense of the word. For the most part they represented big business. But they did, advocate a moderate foreign policy to further the expansion of international trade and they realized the value of remaining on friendly terms with the United States. Their period of influence reached its high point with the signing of the London Naval Treaty of 1930.

Military fascism raises its ugly head

A movement was on foot, however, which in the end swept away the weak machinery of representative government and launched Japan on its biggest gamble for empire. The army and navy die-hards opposed bitterly any limiting of Japan’s fighting power. In November 1930 the “liberal” Prime Minister Hamaguchi was shot by an assassin.

Who were the men behind this drive? The usual answer is “the army.” To be more specific, it was a group of extremists within the army, backed by powerful “superpatriot” influences outside. The extremists are sometimes referred to as the “younger officers,” because many of them were below the rank of colonel.

To follow the rise of military-fascist dictatorship in Japan it is necessary to understand the unique position which the armed forces occupy in the government and in, the minds and hearts of the people. Before the rise of modem Japan, the nobles and their fighting men (samurai) formed the ruling class. After 1868 the old system of warrior clans was abolished and universal conscription was introduced.

The honor of bearing arms, which had always been regarded as a mark of the superior man, was extended to the entire nation. The mingling of emperor worship with the glorification of war, plus continued victories over half a century, have given the army and navy a popular prestige that will be hard to destroy.

Tradition and the constitution

An unusual feature of the Japanese government which the militarists have used in their rise to power is the make-up of the cabinet. The posts of war and navy minister can be held only by a general and an admiral on the active list. So the army or the navy can prevent the formation of any cabinet that is not acceptable to them merely by refusing to fill these positions.

Another dangerous feature is the division of control over civil and military affairs. The emperor is nominal commander in chief of the armed forces, and on military matters he receives advice only from high-ranking officers. The ministers of war and the navy have direct access to the emperor and do not have to approach him through the prime minister.

The modern Japanese army admired and imitated the German. Its officers regard themselves as heirs of the old samurai. The majority of them are poor, proud of their service, and fanatically devoted to the emperor. Dangerously ignorant of the world outside Japan, they dislike foreigners and regard prosperous Japanese businessmen and politicians who have absorbed Western culture with a mixture of envy and suspicion.

Discontented militarists

By 1930 there was serious discontent in the armed forces. The world-wide depression hit Japan hard, causing much privation among the poor farmers from whose ranks the army was largely recruited. There were many failures of small businesses and serious unemployment among industrial and white-collar workers.

Army officers were alarmed at the spread of Western political ideas, especially communism. Their own rather vague political philosophy was not unlike Hitler’s National Socialism. Their faith in the government was shaken by the evidence of bribery, graft, and corruption in the chief political parties, and by deals between politicians and big business to the disadvantage of the mass of the people. Like the Nazis, the Japanese military fascists claimed to be friends of the common man.

To pull Japan out of the depths of the depression a vigorous program of social, economic, and political reform was needed. But the big landowners and industrialists were not prepared to accept changes which threatened their interests. The army had another sort of program in mind—expansion by force in China to overcome Japan’s dependence on foreign trade, plus a military dictatorship with the emperor as figurehead, and a wartime “controlled economy” on the home front.

The army moves in

“Soldiers have always saved Japan,” said fire-eating General Araki. “To our soldiers will fall the grave responsibility for quieting unrest in our agrarian communities—both material and spiritual unrest.” To gain their ends the army extremists developed two characteristically Japanese methods: first, resorting to direct military action in China without authorization by the government; and second, terrorism against their political opponents at home.

For support among the civilian population the militarists depended upon the ex-servicemen’s association, with its three million members, and the so-called “patriotic societies.” Membership in these powerful organizations ranged from college professors, government officials, and prosperous merchants to half-starved students, poor peasants, and hired killers.

The worst of these superpatriots worked with the army fanatics to organize numerous assassinations, after 1930. The victims were leading statesmen, bankers, industrialists, and even generals and admirals who advocated a moderate policy. Most of the killers were given light sentences when brought to trial and were regarded as heroes by millions of Japanese because of the “purity” and “sincerity” of their motives. The government of Japan during the ten years before Pearl Harbor has been aptly described as “government by assassination.”

The first blow

Discontent and revolutionary unrest were seething within the army like a volcano preparing to erupt. On September 18, 1931 the top blew off in Manchuria. Commanders of troops guarding the South Manchurian Railway faked a piece of railway sabotage as an excuse to occupy the chief Manchurian cities. This was done without the consent of the cabinet then in office, which resigned as a result. In 1932 a government headed by Admiral Saito approved the seizure of Manchuria by formally recognizing Manchukuo, a dummy empire set up by the army. The militarists followed up their gains by the occupation of a large slice of north China in 1933, forcing the Chinese government to sign a humiliating truce.

In February 1933, Japan quit the League of Nations, burning its most important bridge with the outside world. In the words of former Ambassador Grew this step meant “a fundamental defeat for the moderate elements in the country and the complete supremacy of the military.”

Military mutiny

In February 1936, after two years of deceptive quiet, the army volcano erupted again, this time in a mutiny almost within the shadow of the imperial palace. Only about 1,400 troops, led by their captains and lieutenants, were involved. But there is good reason to suspect that some of the highest ranking generals were in sympathy with the mutineers. The fascist-minded young officers were not in rebellion against their military superiors, but against the government. They had prepared a long death list of prominent men whose principles and actions they disapproved. Actually they succeeded in assassinating only three high officials. The chief result was greater power for the supreme command.

The army’s consolidation of the home front proceeded during the years 1937–41. The outbreak of a large-scale war, in China rallied the people to the support of the militarists. All opposition to the war was suppressed. The army took over the conduct of affairs in China, allowing the politicians little or no say. The state, which had always exercised strong controls over industry, trade, education, religion, and the press, tightened its grip.

Step by step, the Japanese people were prepared for a “unified,” that is, a military-fascist government. In the summer of 1940 all political parties “voluntarily” disbanded. On September 27, 1940, Japan concluded a military alliance with Germany and Italy. The “New Order in Greater East Asia,” to include not only China but the rich territories in southern Asiatic waters, became the official foreign policy.

By the beginning of 1941, for all practical purposes the army and the state were one. Even big business, since 1937 an uneasy partner in the wartime economy, could no longer offer effective opposition to the fascists in uniform.

The chance of a century

It is unlikely that any nation will risk its very existence in a war if it lacks a gambler’s chance of winning. On the other hand, a powerful army and navy tuned to a high pitch of enthusiasm and efficiency are a strong temptation to a war-minded government in time of crisis. Japan had the best army, navy, and air force in the Far East. In addition to trained manpower and modern weapons, Japan had in the mandated islands a string of naval and air bases ideally located for an advance to the south.

From 1937 to 1941 the Chinese war had cost Japan many billions of dollars and at least a million casualties. In return for this heavy investment, the Japanese expected great gains. Economic resources were at a low ebb; this was the chief weakness. Nonetheless, in the fall of 1941 Japan was at the peak of its military and naval strength. Britain and Russia faced victorious Axis armies in Europe and Africa, and the British navy was fighting the Battle of the Atlantic. France and Holland were in no position to come to the rescue of their Eastern possessions. Only the United States Navy was a formidable threat, and Japan’s plans included a sneak attack to cripple our Pacific fleet.

This challenging opportunity, the equal of which might not occur again in centuries, was the final temptation which led Japan’s war lords to make their fatal choice. They knew that they must strike soon, or give up forever their dream of conquest. Certain events of the years between 1932 and Pearl Harbor had convinced even the arrogant descendants of the gods that the United States was not going to be pushed around much longer.