Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy
Contributor: Andrew Nguyen
Review Date: 29 Apr 2015
When studying the Pacific War, one must wonder what the Japanese leadership was thinking when they decided to go to war against the US. By any rational standard, Japan would have an exceptionally difficult time in a war against the United States particularly one that would last for a long time. And yet Japan's leaders decided to go to war anyway in perhaps the most dramatic manner possible, the attack on Pearl Harbor, which Roosevelt called a day of infamy and a day that may have put the nail into the coffin on Japan's slim hopes of victory.
In Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy, Japanese author Eri Hotta attempted to discuss this question via use of newly revealed information from Japanese sources on the events that took place at the time. The conclusion one draws from this book is the thought that the Japanese leaders at the time were overall mad.
The book kicks off in the aftermath of the Japanese invasion of French Indochina and the resulting sanctions that the US, Britain, and other nations put in place because of the invasion. In additional to dealing with the Japanese political crisis, it also dealt with the point of view of the local population as they had to deal with their country moving to a war footing. At the same time, Japan had been making real achievements that offered a potential possibility to be something other than an imperialist power. Chief amongst them was the right for Tokyo to host the Olympics in 1940. Sadly, the war in China and the eventual war around the world forced the cancelation of the Olympic Games and it would take 24 years until Tokyo would finally host the games after having to rebuild from the ashes of American bombing raids.
One of the surprising elements was the attempt to make Army general Hideki Tojo into a sympathetic figure in the story. Although his bellicosity is well known, there are instances in the book in which after he became Prime Minister, Tojo had moments of pause on the road to war. However, he like every other Japanese politician or military official went with and at times took the lead in the march towards war. In return, the book displays his predecessor Price Fumino Konoye as a bumbling idiot of the worst order who is more concerned with preserving his status and his life instead of actually trying to lead. Some Japanese politicians and military officials did earnestly try to stop the rush to war but either lost their lives to assassinations or time, or succumbed to pressure from their colleagues or to their own personal concerns.
Intertwining with the main stories are the activities of the legendary Russian spy Richard Sorge. While it is at times vital due to the people that Sorge was in contact with as well as the damage his arrest in October 1941 caused to his Japanese contacts, it plays only as a minor element to the overall story.
After reading this book, one would be well within their rights to consider the Japanese leaders insane and wondering if they all needed to be committed to the insane asylum for their warped minds. If only one top-level official had taken the risk to speak flat out about the situation as a whole, it would have perhaps stopped the madness from happening. If the person failed, at least he failed for the right reasons and served the right cause. Instead, they all shifted the responsibility to the next man and as a result, Japan entered into a fight to the finish that ended with the country burned to a cinder and Hiroshima and Nagasaki vaporized by atomic bombs.
While Hotta does question the actions of the American government during this period, they pale in comparison to her harsh criticism of the Japanese leadership as they inched closer to war with the US. Such shifting of responsibility would continue in the aftermath, as Japan has unlike Germany, attempted to avoid discussion of its own actions in World War II. That decision has continued to haunt its relations with the other nations of Asia to this very day.
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Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, Aug 1939