Newspaper article International New York Times

Dec. 7, 1941: The Remains of That Day

Newspaper article International New York Times

Dec. 7, 1941: The Remains of That Day

Article excerpt

Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ultranationalist rhetoric, he, like the rest of the country, knows that Japan will not go to war.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor exactly 72 years ago, it was taking a mad gamble. Bogged down in one war with China, it would double down by waging another war on the United States: The bigger the risk, the sweeter the victory. That daring decision was the product of a peculiar political culture, one dominated by belligerent minority views precisely because it favored consensus.

Watching Prime Minister Shinzo Abe today, tensing up and pushing back against China's provocations in the East China Sea, one wonders how much of that tradition has survived within the Japanese leadership. Mr. Abe seems determined to be defiant. He has recently pushed through Parliament a bill to establish a U.S.-style national security council and allow the government to withhold information it deems vital to national security. He has argued for revising Japan's Constitution, including its war-renouncing provision. Is this tough talk the same kind of ultranationalism that led Japan into war with China in the 1930s and then the West?

Japan in 1941 was neither a military dictatorship nor a democracy. Its parliamentary politics had already collapsed under the pressure of mobilizing for its ill-conceived conquest in China. In their place emerged a centralized political system called the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, whose quasi-fascist agenda sought to control every aspect of human endeavor, even reproduction.

Still, the overriding feature of Japan's decision-making in the years before World War II was an insistence on building consensus among a handful of leaders, civilian and military. Not long after the outbreak of Japan's war in China, they began holding "liaison conferences" to unify national policy during crises. In the year prior to Japan's attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet, more than 70 such conferences were convened, mostly under the leadership of Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe, a popular civilian politician.

Konoe predicted that conflict with the United States would end in "a miserable defeat" for Japan. Many senior military officers also worried about overstretch, given that Japan still could not control China. But mid-ranking strategists from the army and the navy were saying now or never, partly out of competitive bravado. The top brass, intent on saving face and appeasing the restless young officers, coaxed the civilian leaders, including Konoe, into making preparations for war, all the while continuing to expect some diplomatic breakthrough.

By the time General Hideki Tojo became prime minister on Oct. 18, 1941, and called for discussing alternatives to war, Japan's leaders were already trapped at the narrow end of a decision-making funnel. …

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