Japan 1941 – countdown to infamy
By Eri Hotta
Published by: Alfred A. Knoff, 2013
Review by Tony Henderson
What amazed me on reading this book was the lack of co-ordination among all those involved in making the final call for Japan to go to war. Not only did I learn of the inadequacies of Japan’s top echelon – at least as a collective – in its communications, its prioritisation of decision making, in divisions among the miliary branches regarding how much of the budget and which department got it, but all that brought to mind an immediate and current more dire matter – the frailty of governments when it comes to handling the nuclear problem in light of the monied power of the nuclear industry – besides any call to war. This latter feeling of concern is existentially about today… What a mess then in Japan and it went to war; so, how is it today, anywhere and everywhere?
Other than two strong voices in those times, no one else in Japan really wanted to go to war with the United States of America. The people, the public, were neither consulted nor informed and that also is a marker for today despite a more widespread democratic form and with a freer press. Sadly, not so free everywhere!
Those Japanese that had been in closest contact with the West, as travellers, as ambassadors to Washington, to Paris and the like, they were the most apprehensive as they understood the might of the USA and it’s European allies and Britain of course and that ‘enemy’ for them had not been dehumanised.
Even the emperor, who was and is not in command of either government nor military, did not want to go to war but could only pen a poem that could be taken and interpreted depending on which side you were on, or better, which side a person felt he had to go-along with for reasons of self-pride public face, and, to maintain the position of a particular faction. Interesting that no women played any significant role in the pre-Pearl Harbor years.
Recalling my initial interest in this book, referred by friends as to do with the Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere, was my question concerned the sincerity of the Japanese intention behind that concept or push. Was it pure expansionism?
All the nations in the sphere – Burma (now Myanmar), British Malaya (Malaysia and Singapore), the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia, French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), and the Philippines, had been part of western colonial empires (page 12 of the book) – though Philippines was no longer a colony at the time of the Japanese invasion. Thus the occupying Japanese could legitimately say they were liberating their Asian brothers and sisters from the white peoples. But, this was seen by the Japanese more in the vein of, “reorganising their societies into viable cultural, economic and political bloc under Japan’s leadership”. Economic imperialism. Change of owners!
As an aside note, the list would also take in Australia, Samoa, Hawaii and Guam, all in the sphere of East Asian nations.
The USA was freezing Japan’s assets and using sanctions and navy control of sea lanes to determine inputs into Japan and with its urgent industrialisation Japan needed lots of raw materials and following the countries military successes against China and against Russia, was in a plucky mood. All the above led to the adventures across Asia and the planning and intention underlying those adventures had reasonableness given the plight of an island nation without resources. Japan was being squeezed. There were reasons for that but, what does a cornered creature do?
The Japanese media used the term ABCD – standing for American, British, Chinese and Dutch – in domestic propaganda to mellow the population’s point of view on the necessity for military action and the media in Japan was in no way free at that time, totally controlled by government and industry finance.
Whatever good intentions certain Japanese might have had – and it is worthy and delightful to read such as Kakuzo Okakura’s The Awakening of Japan (1904) , or his The Ideals of the East to determine what those intentions were or might have been – it was he who declared that there is no Yellow Peril, that the empire (Japan’s) though warlike, stands not for aggression but for peace!
He was worried about Japan’s modern successes and would that lead to the loss of its ancient and distinctive arts – the essential interest that lay at the centre of his writings was all to do with the Japanese spirit! To reiterate, was it pure expediency and expansionism that fired Japan at that moment or was their an underlying care for Asia?
This is important because in Asia today Japan and China are facing off and as is plain to see the benefactor of that is the threatened industries of the Western-based corporate conglomerates that are increasingly trans-national. Money does not have an ethical base, human societies have or need to have.
It’s not that Asia has better values than do the European countries, to speak of the usual juxtaposition. This little writing is approaching a wider arc where East and West do meet. However, an underlying question is about the sameness of Asian values, Asian cultures, and do they more easily latch together, at least more easily than with ‘western’ cultures?
Surely the answer is yes, they do. The reasons for China and Japan to be at odds today is that typical to family feuds, neighbour feuds, because of proximity and the immediacy of their contact. It is easy to ‘love’ someone who is far away from one’s reality, thus brothers fight.
The over-arching influence of western cultures on Eastern cultures is causing those of Asia who care enough about the phenomenon to activate against those influences and rightly so when they destroy the fabric of daily life, family life. But it has to be understood by Asia that the West has sacrificed it’s own essential values to make it on the world scale as seen in the excesses – to put it mildly – of the British in India. A mix of the good and the bad – see the movie Passage to India, or read E. M. Forster s book…
Looking through all of this and as a conclusion to this instigating effort to remind us all of the importance of regaining the ground of real values in a world that is rapidly losing valid references I appeal to a quote from Lilly Adams Beck:
“The values of East and West do not clash. They are supplementary and interchangeable; and it will be well for the world when this is fully realised, and there is free circulation of thought. The faith of a nation is its soul. Her literature is her intellect. Nations who do not meet on these grounds cannot understand one another, and understanding is the most vital need of the present day”, from The Story of Oriental Philosophy (1928).