When Japan attacked the United States in 1941, argues Eri Hotta, its leaders, in large part, understood they were entering a conflict they were bound to lose. Availing herself of rarely consulted material, Hotta poses essential questions overlooked by historians in the seventy years since: Why did these men - military men, civilian politicians, diplomats, the emperor - put their country and its citizens in harm's way? Why did they make a decision that was doomed from the start?
Introducing us to the doubters, bluffers, and schemers who led their nation into this conflagration, Hotta brilliantly shows us a Japan never before glimpsed - eager to avoid war but fraught with tensions with the West, blinded by traditional notions of pride and honor, nearly escaping disaster before it finally proved inevitable.
©2013 Eri Hotta (P)2013 Tantor
The narration was first rate. The writer showed the complex politics of Japan leading up to the war. One of my few complaints was, I believe that the writer tried to show that no one in Japan wanted war and it was a massive misunderstanding and that Japan was trying to be a peaceful nation. That went in direct contrast of what really happen; example, the rape of Nanking, the blatant attack on the Gunboat Panay. The force occupation on indochina, the horrible treatment of the Chinese civilians that was only exceed by Nazis Germany and Stalin's Soviet Russia. But the biggest complaint that I found hard to swallow was that up to August 12, 1941, Japan was trying to do everything to stop the upcoming war. Fact, the Pearl Harbor attack plan was started in 1940. Fact, they Japanese Navy was gathering their combined fleet to attack Pearl Harbor and Singapore and the Phillippines. To say that Japan was only trying to keep world peace is like saying that Hilter had a bad hair day.
That being said, I did find the inter workings of the Japanese government very interesting and also showing that Emperor Hirohito knew or at least was informed of what was happening and did nothing to try to stop it. The public has been told that the Emperor was only a figure head but in reality, he was commander in chief of the military and at anytime he could have stopped it.
A very well written interesting read on the series of events that lead to WWII from the Japanese perspective. Certainly an incomplete history but I already know the American / western side so that's what made this such a good read.
The author goes out of their way to make note that when you try to explain history from a certain side of an event it can come of as being an apologist for that side. I was worried this would mean we'd get some politically correct "history" in an effort to blame the US for everything. Happily that is not the case here, while the US, like all countries, makes mistakes I felt everything was handled extremely fairly and the author did a great job of just laying out events as the Japanese seen them - which is exactly what I was looking for. In retrospect I don't think the authors note was needed as this book in no way came off as being apologetic, at least not in my opinion.
The reader does a good job, nothing fancy but is easy to listen to and didn't make any obvious mistakes - at least as far as I know.
Overall if you're interested in learning the Japanese perspective of the events leading to Pearl Harbor, this is an excellent read. I've read (listened) to well over 100 books about WWII on Audible and this is right up there with the best of them since it covered ground rarely covered and seemed to be very well researched and the story remained interesting throughout.
I am an avid eclectic reader.
Eri Hotta is an independent scholar specializing in Japan international relations. Hotta was born in Tokyo. She received her BA in history from Princeton University, master and Ph.D. from Oxford. She taught at Oxford from 2001-2005. What led me to read this book was it offered the view point of Japan leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack. Hotta makes two central points, 1). Japan’s leaders and its people were influenced by a belief that Japan was destined for international greatness---going to war was a gamble. 2). Japan’s policy making process by 1940 was not open and parliamentary but Japan was not a dictatorship. Decision involved preliminary bargaining interaction with a complex administrative structure. The Japanese constitution allowed the military to advise the Emperor independently of the rest of the government. The author pain staking guides the reader through a convoluted mesh of personalities and principles. Hotta provides a brief history of Japan so the reader can understand what is happening in the eight months leading up to Pearl Harbor. Reading the book led me to learn something about Japanese politics and how Japan’s admiration for the United States began to turn sour in the first part of the twentieth century. A Hotta point out the Japanese language tends to be vague which led to problems with negotiation with the U.S. Secretary of State. Even though Hotta explains about Japanese history, government and politics she lays the blame for the war directly on Japan. Laurel Merlington did a good job narrating the book. If you are interested WWII history this book would interest you.
The different aspect of this book was its view of how the Japanese side got into the Pacific War.
Thus 36 million people--50% of WWII deaths--lost their lives.
It is also highly relevant to today. We still have stupid and delusional leaders--and followers--who continue the same disastrous militarism.
A detailed analysis of the historic, cultural and political roots of the Japanese war against the US. Lays the responsibility with the political leaders.
Well narrated with just the right tone of irony and outrage.
Say something about yourself!
Eri Hotta did an amazing job distilling the way in which the political leadership in Japan defused and abdicated responsibility for war. Their lack of political will, initiative and courage set the groundwork for so many innocent people to die.
This book would make a compelling read for every citizen. Although the author doesn't state it, it seems many comparisons could be made to modern political institutions. This books tragic story actually makes me grateful for the debates we have in our political institutions.
Perhaps, to refresh my memory.
John Tolland 'Rising Sun'; Max Hastings: 'Retribution'
This book provides valuable insight into the seemingly irrational way the Japanese behaved during World War II. For a non-Japanese, it is truly mind-boggling to learn how inefficient decision-making was in the Japanese government, and how this disastrous inefficiency was ingrained in Japanese culture and even language. It incidentally sheds much light on Japanese behavior today in various situations both political and personal.
Say something about yourself!
If anyone thought they knew the history of the period leading up to World War II in the Pacific, this history will be an eye opener. Ms Hotta has opened up an all new chapter on the mind set behind Japan's decision to go to war. That Japanese decision makers could on the one-hand understand the futility and eventual consequences of going to war and yet allow circumstances to run their disastrous course is astounding. Another element of pre-war Japan that is revealed is the dismal state to which the Japanese economy had descended as a result of the war with China.
As I wrote, this history is an eye opener, a must read/listen to for anyone who is interested in WWII. The narration is excellent. It was hard to stop listening.
Eri Hotta, a Japanese historian, tackles a subject that much of her country, even today, has difficulty talking about - the events leading up to Japan's disastrous decision to go to war with the United States. It's more an indictment than an apologetic - you can sense Hotta's desire to be as even-handed as possible while acknowledging that Japan's actions were short-sighted, ill-advised, and driven by petty egos, intercultural blunders, miscommunication, arrogance, delusion, and multiple failures of will. Of course outside of Japan's far right nationalist circles, hardly anyone today tries to defend Japan's imperialism in the first half of the 20th century, let alone their conduct during World War II, but much of modern Japan prefers to look away from that entire time period. (Though Hotta does name a few other Japanese historians who have taken it on.)
This book is specifically about everything that led to Pearl Harbor, and so it begins in the early 20th century (with some references to the historical background of the Meiji Restoration that still informed the attitudes of many of Japan's leaders) and ends with the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the die was cast.
The most interesting question, of course, is always "Why would Japan do this?"
The easy answer is that Japan was being hemmed in - the United States and Britain were constraining Japan's ability to expand and extract resources from the rest of the Pacific, imposing economic sanctions over their invasion of China (which Japan called throughout "the China Incident," never acknowledging it as a war), and enforcing earlier treaties that limited the ratio of warships that Japan could build. Japan had imperial ambitions and wanted to be recognized as a great power herself. The Japanese had a keen sense of how the West saw them as inferiors, and had also spent centuries under the shadow of China. You could almost say that Japan went to war because they wanted to sit at the big kids table and the other big kids wouldn't let them.
Of course there were other options. Both sides could have made concessions, and indeed, both sides were willing to. But Japan was in an inferior position and was never going to get everything they wanted. So how did they make the decision to go to war, a decision that every thinking person knew beforehand, not just with historical hindsight, would prove to be disastrous?
Japan could never have won the war. Despite the "Japan Banzai!" attitude that prevailed once war got underway, the delusional propaganda the Japanese government fed its people, the cold hard facts were indisputable - the United States' manpower and production capacity was many times that of Japan's even before the US shifted to wartime production. The Japanese strategy was to knock out the Pacific fleet in Hawaii, consolidate gains in the Pacific and Dutch East Indies, and then present the reeling, demoralized U.S. with a fait accompli and enter into negotiations. The idea was the U.S. would be too shocked and lacking in political will to engage in a prolonged war for Pacific possessions the American public didn't really care about. So the Japanese, after their surprise victories, would be able to say "Look, just let us keep what we have now and we can end this unpleasantness."
This was a severe miscalculation on many levels, but it was one that Japanese diplomatic and strategic blunders pushed them into.
There is a lot of blame to go around, but a lot of the blame, according to Hotta, would seem to fall on the shoulders of Yosuke Matsuoka, an ambitious, self-aggrendizing career politician who, ironically, spent his childhood in the United States, graduated from the University of Oregon, and was a baptized Christian. When he returned to Japan, he rose through the bureaucracy to eventually become Japan's Foreign Minister.
Matsuoka seemed to have that talent many men do, especially ambitious and somewhat amoral men, to embrace contradictions without cognitive dissonance. He was a Christian in the U.S. but a Buddhist in Japan. He was for war and against it. He saw no contradiction in signing the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy and yet trying to convince the U.S. later that it didn't really mean anything and that Japan could still be friends with the U.S. even if the U.S. went to war with the Axis.
Most damningly, during the frantic last ditch efforts to negotiate peace with the U.S. even while they were preparing for war, Matsuoka sabotaged many of those efforts because he saw them as undercutting his own position.
Prince Konoe, the Prime Minister who appointed Matsuoka, comes off looking quite weak, being unable to restrain the Foreign Minister whom he appointed. He also tries to negotiate peace with the U.S., but is stymied by Matsuoka, and by the feuding Army and Navy.
This was a pattern throughout 1940 and 1941 - Japan's government was divided into multiple factions, with the Imperial Army and Navy acting as independent, sometimes opposing, sides, each wanting to dictate the direction of the coming war according to their own needs and capabilities. The civilians in the government might side with the Army or Navy or neither, while civilian and military leaders alike had to be mindful of their rebellious underlings - Japan at this point had something of a tradition of firebrand young officers leading mutinies and assassinations of senior officers whom they thought were not sufficiently zealous or supporting of the military. Military officers and senior government officials alike had been killed, and much of what happened in China was, at least on the surface, commanders on the ground letting their troops get out of control (or actually directing them to do so), contrary to the orders of their superiors back in Japan. Even though everyone was in theory a servant of the Emperor, whose own powers were theoretically limited by the Japanese Constitution (which gave him nominal but little actual legal authority), no one was really "in charge" of everything.
In this environment, what happened was a tragic farce of high ranking officials saying one thing in public meetings while expressing the opposite opinion in private. No one wanted a war with the U.S. - every study, exercise, and projection they conducted showed that Japan couldn't possibly win. And yet they began sidling and stumbling towards the point of no return, all the different parties eying one another and hoping someone else would step up and say "Wait a minute, we shouldn't do this!"
There was even more of this in the last-minute negotiations in Washington, which involved, among other things, an optimistic peace proposal presented to the Japanese Prime Minister as a solid offer from the U.S. when in fact it was really just a list of propositions resulting from informal negotiations by a pair of unofficial diplomats operating through back channels. Both sides were operating under misapprehensions as to what the other side was actually offering and on whose authority the offer was made. This sort of thing happened a lot, and did much to convince the U.S. that Japan acted duplicitously, and convince Japan that the West couldn't be trusted.
Even as the Pearl Harbor strike force was sailing for Hawaii, negotiations were still underway. Admiral Yamamoto was prepared to turn back even until the last minute, if he received orders from Tokyo to call it off. But he didn't, and so came the famous order "Climb Mount Niitaka" - meaning, attack.
This led to one of the many additional small tragedies of the war, because back in Washington, the Japanese ambassadors were ordered to deliver Japan's declaration of war just before the attack. Due to technical difficulties in decrypting their orders from Tokyo, they delivered the message late, thus the infamous "sneak attack." (As a practical matter, it wouldn't have made a difference if they had delivered the declaration before the actual attack, since the U.S. would still have had only a few hours notice.) This was a personal tragedy for the Japanese ambassadors, who had been sincerely trying to negotiate peace in the belief that this was what their government wanted, unaware that the decision to go to war had already been made. The Japanese ambassador's final meeting with Secretary of State Cordell Hull was thus an acrimonious one.
Hotta isn't able to resolve the lingering historical question of Emperor Hirohito's role in the war, but her position seems to be more sympathetic, while not absolving Hirohito completely. According to her, the Emperor also seemed to embrace contradictions - he wanted peace, but was willing to lead Japan in war. He was involved in many high-level meetings at which his role was expected to be merely ceremonial, and yet he sometimes broke tradition and interrogated or scolded his generals and admirals and cabinet ministers. He was probably unaware of Japanese atrocities, but he was certainly aware of, and approved, Japanese aggression. Many officials after the war were complicit in hiding the extent of Hirohito's knowledge and involvement in actual war planning, but it is hard to see Hirohito as a complete innocent here.
More interesting than "How much did he know, and how involved was he?" is the real question — "Could he have stopped it?" Were there points at which Emperor Hirohito could have prevented war by calling a halt to their plans? His authority was apparently a bit fuzzy legally - technically he did not have the Constitutional authority to dictate government policy or forbid the military to do anything. And yet, he was the Emperor, and no final decision could be executed without his nominal approval. There have been suggestions in the post-war years that the Emperor himself could have been assassinated if he had tried to go against what the military leaders wanted. So we will probably never know if Hirohito could have stopped the war, let alone whether he actually wanted to.
Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy does a good job of explaining the ins and outs of negotiations, diplomatic situations, and rationales from both the Japanese and American sides. I am not sure it presents a lot that's new (I've learned much of what Hotta presents here from other books about World War II), but with its focus on the prelude to the war and the personalities involved, it examines an interesting facet that most histories summarize much more briefly, since people are more interested in what happened once the fighting began. Hotta doesn't really interject her own viewpoint very often, other than acknowledging that Japan's leaders bore responsibility for their decisions, and that they were frequently guilty of wishful thinking and ignoring what they didn't want to hear.
The thesis of Ms. Eri Hotta regarding Japan's entry into the Second World War might be summarized as follows: The leaders of Japan, individually too weak and indecisive to argue for peace in the face of rising militarism, bluffed and blundered into a catastrophic war.
This makes for an interesting book, and it is thoroughly researched with memorable characters, but toward the final third of the book one begins to wonder why it hasn't ended. So much detail is given that the development of the central claim begins to feel like bludgeon work.
All in all, this is an interesting but rather bloated account of Japan's run up to war.
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