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 Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy

By Eri Hotta. 320 pp. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. $27.95.

Why did Japan start a war its top leaders knew it had slim to no chance of winning? Japan 1941 shows us not only why but how, ushering us much farther inside Japanese decision-making than prior accounts. Eri Hotta injects vivid life into the hugely complicated process, so bound up in the Japanese cultural imperative of consensus and warped by profoundly dysfunctional political and military power structures.We watch the senior leaders as they ratify successive blurred policy agreements that create an ever-increasing inertia toward war. All the while, fanatical junior officers maneuver their supposed superiors via rose-colored projections and staff work that channel discussions toward ever more bellicose military and diplomatic options. Most importantly, the author, born in Tokyo and educated in Japan and the U.S., shows us a cohort of the country’s powerful upper leadership willing to let narrow personal and institutional interests trump their own valid fears that war will destroy the old Japanese order that they personify.The result: Pearl Harbor.

Matsuoka Yosuke, one of the most influential Japanese foreign ministers in history,exemplifies how Japan’s leaders could ignore the responsibility for their decisions. Hotta describes Yosuke aptly as a Technicolor figure with the flair of a Kabuki actor, “overstating his every move and line to thrill the audience.”This hardliner, obsessed with his own starring role, steered Japan toward a disastrous alliance with Germany, then created a careless momentum toward war by playing a reckless game of bluff with the United States. In 1941Yosuke performed not one but two astonishing about-faces. In January, he casually dismissed the prospect of a strong American response to a Japanese advance into Southern Indochina, and followed this in April by signing a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union. In June and July, Yosuke reversed himself by urging that Japan join the German attack on the Soviets,then he belatedly warned that the advance into Southern Indochina would trigger a fateful American retaliation.

Hotta sets the stage for her large, diverse, and revealing cast of characters with familiar but sturdy furniture: the obsession with Japan’s supposed destiny to lead Asia and overcome European imperialism and colonial attitudes; the frustrations of an endless war in China that relentlessly sapped Japan’s military power and economy; and the tempestuous relationship with Nazi Germany. She details the insistent clamor for war from the middle and lower echelons of Japanese leadership.

But above all, Hotta has unearthed evidence that by 1941, almost all top-tier leaders, who outwardly professed accord with their juniors, feared that tackling the United States would bring catastrophic defeat. Even prototypical hawks like Admiral Nagano Osami privately expressed deep reservations about taking on the West. In Hotta’s intriguing portrait, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo emerges as a limited but more complex and insightful leader than usually described. Nevertheless, only Yosuke’s successor as foreign minister, Togo Shigenori—in Hotta’s crisp summary, a “sixty year old dandy with copious graying hair”—emerges as a truly tragic figure, courageously prepared to raise a lonely voice against war in leadership councils.

Buttressed by diligent research, keen analysis, and fine writing, Hotta drives home her succinctly stated central thesis: “The root problem in the Japanese government remained consistent throughout 1941: None of the top leaders, their occasional protestations notwithstanding, had sufficient will, desire, or courage to stop the momentum for war.” The gravest fault of Japan’s leaders was not fanaticism or blindness, but lack of moral courage.


Originally published in the April 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.