Photograph of Edward J. Drea by Guy Aceto
Photograph of Edward J. Drea by Guy Aceto

‘Looking at Japan’s performance in World War II, you have to ask: Why fight to the death?’

With Japan’s Imperial Army: Its Rise and Fall, 1853–1945, the eminent scholar Edward J. Drea caps an impressive career devoted to the study of the history of Japanese military affairs. The recipient of the Society for Military History’s Samuel Eliot Morison Prize for lifetime achievement, Drea is the author of MacArthur’s ULTRA: Codebreaking and the War Against Japan, 1942–1945 (1992), among other works. For his latest book, he relied primarily on Japanese sources. “Twenty-five years ago, younger Japanese historians dismissed the military as a robotic tool enslaving the nation for its imperialistic ventures,” Drea, who is fluent in Japanese, says. “Now they’re much more sophisticated, and see it as an integral part of society exemplifying both the best and the worst of Japan.”

What drew you to this topic?
Looking at Japanese performance in World War II, you have to ask: Why would they do that? Why fight to the death? Why use kamikaze aircraft? So I looked at how Japan’s army evolved, how its leaders thought, how its doctrines developed, culminating for the worse in 1940 and 1941 with decisions that were really unrealistic. Yet, in the context of being a unique nation led by a divine emperor, they made perfect sense.

How so?
The Japanese army stressed intangibles in battle. They realized they were qualitatively inferior to any potential major opponent. They knew the Soviet Union outnumbered them in armored cars, tanks, airplanes, divisions. They decided that the Japanese fighting spirit was a force multiplier: Japanese infantrymen could defeat Soviet armor. They realized the United States had a ten-to-one production advantage, but believed these intangible factors could somehow offset it.

Why would they believe that?
After the Russo-Japanese War, the army made a determined effort to create this doctrine that Japan is endowed by the gods with special qualities, making it invincible. They carried this forward through 40 years of indoctrination and education in modern myths like Bushido.

What was Hirohito’s role?
From the Meiji Restoration on, the army always appealed to the throne for its legitimacy and authority. Hirohito was mainly an arbiter. He attempted to influence policy—asking questions, requesting studies. He comes into his own with the surrender. The civilian cabinet is unable to agree; he steps forth and says, “We will end it.” But throughout the war, he has an ambiguous position. He’s not an active policymaker. He’s fairly well informed about the various fronts and what’s going on at home. So he becomes a locus of information, a centerpiece of Japan’s total effort.

How involved was he?
I don’t want to make him sound like a fighting general. But since the 1990s, there’s been a great deal of fresh information about him. It’s clear he knew much more than was popularly credited to him. If the military needs to make a major decision, they have to request his approval. But he doesn’t have a veto.

Was he opposed to the war?
Everybody agreed they wanted this war, including Hirohito, despite his apologists arguing he was a man of peace. He was nervous about going to war, and very conscious of the consequences of defeat. But he felt it was time for Japan to stand up and do what it had to do to make its place in the world. They all knew exactly what Western imperialism had done in China and the rest of Asia. No one wanted it to happen to Japan.

Could Hirohito direct the military?
Not necessarily. The Okinawa garrison tells Imperial General Headquarters [IGHQ], “We need another division for a successful defense.” IGHQ won’t send it. So the garrison says, “Fine, we won’t defend the beaches. We’ll fight inland.” Hirohito gets the plan and asks, “Why are they allowing the Americans to land unopposed?” He’s scratching his head; IGHQ is waffling. Here is a field army defying doctrine, IGHQ, and the emperor. In China, field commanders are waging private wars.

How did the commanders justify this?
The army considered itself as occupying a unique place in Japanese society: defender of the throne, with prestige and authority putting it above the law. Over time, younger officers interpret this much more radically. They take steps to ensure the throne does what they want.

Such as?
Young captains and lieutenants mutiny in the streets and murder senior officials in the 1920s and 1930s. Midlevel staff officers and senior officers plot to overthrow the state. Tokyo headquarters winks at senior officers plotting conspiracy in Manchuria. The army never acknowledges its crimes; it attempts to cover them up. Its only concern is its prestige. It’s willing to sacrifice almost anything—including Japan itself.

Did the army and navy cooperate?
The relations between the Japanese army and navy high commands made American interservice rivalry look like complete agreement. They wouldn’t even share their operational plans. The army was astounded to find that the navy had a full timetable laid out for an attack on Pearl Harbor five months before it happened. Of course, the army didn’t tell the navy what it was doing in China.

How did they coordinate strategies?
They didn’t. The army always looked north, to fight a war on the continent against the Soviet Union. The navy always looked south, to fight a decisive naval engagement against the United States. Two quite separate strategies.

Why fight in China?
It was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. They let a minor July 1937 incident, gunfire between a Japanese infantry battalion and some Chinese partisans on the outskirts of Beijing, escalate out of control. Within a month, there were multidivisional operations. Soon they committed almost all of their standing army and called up the reserves. By Pearl Harbor, they’d lost 700,000 troops. They tried to blockade the coast and seal China off. They tried to take major cities. They tried to bomb Chungking into submission. They launched punitive raids. None of this was successful. So finally they decided, “If we cut off aid from the U.S. and Britain to China, Chiang Kai-shek will collapse.” That brought them into direct confrontation with the West.

Did they plan for that?
They understood they had no way to defeat the United States. But what plans they made were based on wishful thinking. They believed that the United States, like all democracies, was soft and decadent, so it would not fight a protracted war. They thought that if they could seize a defensive perimeter and hold it, after maybe a year or 18 months of trying to break through, the Americans would give up and seek a negotiated settlement, leaving most Japanese gains intact.

What about the Russians?
The Japanese army suffered a terrible defeat at Nomonhan in 1939, after spending the previous decade developing doctrine and tactics to defeat the Soviets. They sent in their two tank regiments—their pride and joy, since they didn’t have the industrial capacity to manufacture a lot of tanks; they lasted two days. They sent an infantry division in, and [Soviet general Georgi] Zhukov executed a double envelopment, surrounded it, and chopped it to pieces.

How did the Japanese army react?
In its after-action reports, the army candidly acknowledged its failure to pay attention to intelligence, poor logistics, the need for better tanks and weapons, and so on. Yet their conclusion was that they needed to enhance their spiritual power. They became enclosed by their ideology: if the Germans can reach Moscow, we can go in and partition Siberia, have a buffer zone, and the Red Menace will be destroyed. They felt the Germans would defeat Great Britain, lowering American morale. Once all these wishes happened, it would all work out.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of World War II magazine. You can read more interviews here.