Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy

December 5, 2013


JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to welcome our members, guests, and C-SPAN Book TV to this very special program.

We are delighted to be hosting Eri Hotta, author of Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy, and her husband, who is a celebrated Asian scholar and a prolific writer whom I know many of you are familiar with, Ian Buruma. Ian will engage Eri in what is certain to be a very lively conversation about Japan and its role in World War II. This will be followed by a discussion with you, our distinguished audience.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, stunned virtually everyone in the United States military. Numerous ships were sunk or damaged, scores of planes destroyed, and over 2,000 people were killed that day.

This decision has always been regarded as reckless to the point of suicidal. The presumption of irrationality is, of course, understandable and natural, given Japan's acute imperial overstretch in 1941 and America's overwhelming industrial might and latent military power at the time.

Still, despite many attempts to address this great historical puzzle, questions about Pearl Harbor continue to perplex. For example, one often wonders whether the Japanese recognized the odds against them. Did they really think they could survive a war, much less defeat an enemy possessing an invulnerable homeland and an industrial base 10 times that of Japan?

In this very thought-provoking narrative, Eri makes it poignantly clear that the Japanese decision for war must be seen in the light of available alternatives, whether real or imagined, but that nevertheless were perceived by Japanese leaders in the fall of 1941.

Today, in an era of heightened international tensions, I would posit that understanding the attack on Pearl Harbor, and doing so from a Japanese perspective, will provide us with not only a new insight about the war in the Pacific, but could also be quite instructive for those who may choose to act impulsively, without forethought, on the global stage.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to a most thoughtful and astute couple, our guests today, Eri Hotta and Ian Buruma.

Thank you so much for joining us.


IAN BURUMA: Good evening. Thank you very much for coming.

It's always a somewhat artificial situation of two people who know each other well—and husband and wife, I suppose, fall into that category—to do an interview in public like this. Why should I ask her questions that I can ask her over the breakfast table? On the other hand, one doesn't really normally discuss Japanese naval strategy in 1941 over the breakfast table. So it's as good an opportunity as any to discuss this a little bit further.

One of the things that I find most interesting about the book, and revealing, and possibly for many readers in this country also, is that it tackles certain myths about Pearl Harbor.

One of the myths, which was of course very much encouraged in the immediate postwar period, not only by the Japanese themselves but also by the American administration, is that Japan had been hijacked by the militarists, by the military, and that the civilians really were not to blame for what happened. It was a kind of militarist coup, and the Japanese people and the emperor himself were really sort of duped by the militarists into embarking on this reckless adventure.

What would you say to that particular myth?

ERI HOTTA: It was a very easy and convenient myth because it disengaged quite a few of the people who were actually responsible in reality. Of course, for the Japanese nation as well, to think that the war could have been averted was too painful a question to ask, I think. That was sort of a self-perpetuating myth that the Japanese themselves took very easily to after the war, after having lost so much.

IAN BURUMA: In your book you also describe why it is wrong to think of it in terms of the civilians being duped, because some of the civilian politicians, not least the prime minister for much of the time, Prince Konoe Fumimaro, was actually to a large extent responsible for what happened, even though he saw that it probably would lead to a disaster. Can you say something more about that?

ERI HOTTA: Right. The fact that the decision-making responsibility was shared between the civilian and the military is hard to imagine, because people just take it for granted that the military took over. But it was not the case, because the leaders actually met over 70 times in the one-year run-up to the Pacific war and discussed the alternatives and different steps to be taken. Those conferences were called liaison conferences. It was not for anything that it was called that, because its function was to liaise civilian and military strategies and policies and create sort of a unified voice. So civilian politicians can't really say they didn't have say, because they did have equal say in those conferences.

IAN BURUMA: So why did they go along with it even though they had great misgivings?

ERI HOTTA: I think it happened over a course of a period in which they gradually deluded themselves into thinking "Oh, we can say this much," but then some kind of diplomatic breakthrough will happen and they will nullify all the militaristic steps that they were taking.

When all this deliberation was going on, I think the military leaders had to put up a really bold front to preserve their face and to appease the young officers who were strategizing and thinking always about expanding their sphere of influence.

There was also an inter-service rivalry. The navy and the army were always fighting with each other for bigger budgets. I think the navy and army within themselves were very much divided into different cliques and sympathies. So you can't really talk about the military voice as one and monolithic. That's another myth.

IAN BURUMA: This rather makes mincemeat of another myth, which is that there was always tremendous consensus. On the one hand, on the surface there is consensus, but actually behind the scenes there was tremendous rivalry and different factions and cliques.

ERI HOTTA: And power bargaining and so on, yes.

IAN BURUMA: I was trying to think, and it escapes me now. There is a Japanese expression for the top guys being driven by the middle-ranking people who are more radical.

ERI HOTTA: Gekokujou.

IAN BURUMA: Yes. Perhaps you could explain.

ERI HOTTA: I think the exact translation would be something like the retainers upping the lord. Does that make sense? Does that sound okay as a translation?

IAN BURUMA: Yes. Relatively, the lord who has complete authority in principle but is actually weak and is driven into a more radical position by hotheads who are in the middle ranks.

ERI HOTTA: It justifies ousting of power as well by indicting weak-kneed leaders as ineffective, basically.

So I think the young officers throughout the 1930s, especially at the beginning of the first half of the 1930s up to the February coup in 1936, were really driven by this desire to renovate the Japanese polity and also to strengthen the imperial system and so on. Everything was done in the name of salvaging the emperor from the corrupt Western influences that put Japan under tremendous economic strain. Economic considerations cannot be separated in this period, like any other part of the world.

So I think there were hot-blooded officers and soldiers who were ready to mobilize, or so it was perceived by the leaders, who had to be appeased. So they were in a constant state of fear about what could happen to them as well.

IAN BURUMA: Which also again rather destroys another myth, of Japan as a very authoritarian society, which on the one hand has some truth. On the other hand, the authorities were often not really in control.

You mentioned the 1936 coup, which may not be immediately clear to everybody. In 1936, a number of middle-ranking officers, often from the northeast—they were country boys, and the northeast was particularly badly hit by the Depression, and that's where people were often really hungry and the daughters had to be sold into prostitution and that kind of thing—the military officers at the time—and they weren't, of course, unique in this in the world—believed that the people responsible for this plight were the capitalists, the bankers, the elite, the establishment, and so on. They were radicals of the right and wanted to stage a coup to make the emperor into a kind of dictator, which he wasn't, and to set up a fascist state with the emperor in the center.

Even though a lot of the people—the admirals, the generals, and so on—were rather sympathetic to the aims of these young hotheads and admired their "sincerity" and so on, for the more conservative members of the establishment, including the imperial household I would have thought, they went too far. They didn't disagree with the aims necessarily but didn't like the means. So this was a clear case of young people in the middle ranks driving the people in authority into positions they may not have wanted to be.

ERI HOTTA: Right. I think the fact that the emperor was so affected by the experience of the failed coup, which nearly toppled him, is important too, because that affected his passiveness, and perhaps diffidence, in putting his foot down in 1941. He talks about it after the war, that he thought that if he tried to veto the war decision, Japan would have a coup d'etat of the kind that they tried in 1936—"Hence, I didn't say anything." But that also speaks for the fact that he thought that veto was possible, which is not as clear in the constitution as he claims or he seemed to think.

IAN BURUMA: Would he have been replaced? Was the idea that if they could have made a case that he was badly advised and they would have replaced him with his—

ERI HOTTA: One of the brothers, younger brothers.

IAN BURUMA: One of the brothers, who was much more radical?

ERI HOTTA: He was popular. He was an army officer.

IAN BURUMA: What about the other myth? The myth that the Japanese people, including the emperor, were duped by the militarists is sort of the standard mainstream myth. The right wing nationalist myth, which you still hear in Japan, is that Japan was trapped, was sort of forced into attacking Pearl Harbor, because they were surrounded by Western colonial powers, the ABCD—my countrymen were involved in this—America, Britain, China, and the Netherlands, and that Japan had a perfect right to defend its interests in East Asia, and that included its presence in China and so on, and that they were surrounded by Western powers who didn't want Japan to have its moment in the sun. So they were driven by economic boycotts and that sort of thing. They had no more choice. They had to do it.

Then, of course, we can also talk about that. The Americans—this is the myth again—forced their hand by the famous Hull note.

ERI HOTTA: The ABCD encirclement is the classic explanation for many of the war origins. I think Kaiser's Germany in World War I complained about encirclement very much. I think that was very much on the Japanese mind as well.

The fact that the wartime government made use of that narrative—Tojo, in fact, gave a speech on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, saying that Japan was reluctantly going into the war.

IAN BURUMA: This was General Tojo Hideki?

ERI HOTTA: Who was the prime minister.

That Japan entered the war reluctantly, despite all the nation's past efforts at trying to achieve peace in East Asia—it went hand-in-hand with this larger regional Asian peace, the concept that the Japanese were taken by, but in the end and in effect abused. But it was quite useful at the time as well, and useful to make them believe themselves that they were fighting for the right cause.

I think that narrative was quite strong. Who would really want to die for the wrong cause? So you want to believe that. If you are ordinary citizens without much access to real information about the China war or about Japanese imperialism, I don't think it is hard to imagine how appealing that narrative might have been.

IAN BURUMA: It had a kernel of truth too, of course. It's true that, unlike Nazi Germany, Japan was fighting a war against other imperial powers. George Kennan, who was one person who actually criticized the U.S. diplomacy in retrospect and said that they should have recognized Japanese interests more than they did—the whole problem really stemmed from the fact that since the middle of the 19th century, when Japan was rather forcefully opened up by American gunships, the Japanese saw as their only chance to survive as an independent nation and not be colonized, to be as much like Western powers as they could. That meant having their own empire. But it was a little late in the game. But one can understand why it was felt that they had their right to an empire just as the Europeans had to have their empires.

ERI HOTTA: I can understand that it's understandable. But then it's not an excuse either. The fact that they had a period of relative peace and democratic experiment in the 1920s and this wholehearted attraction to the liberal internationalism of the League of Nations, which the Japanese more than anybody else took seriously, I think it's shame that they had to go down that way.

Of course, in understanding the broader frame of mind, it's useful to look at racism, colonialism, imperialism, and so on and so forth. But those were not the triggering causes of war, or not even medium-term causes of war. The causes for the war had more to do with Japanese ambitions in East Asia, rivalries for the control of China, competing against the United States and the Russians as well.

The fact that they had been quite lucky in their past wars probably affected the militarists' minds, that perhaps this reckless war too could be somehow won.

IAN BURUMA: The past wars, of course, had been applauded by some of the Western powers. Teddy Roosevelt, when the Japanese beat the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, talked about the "plucky Japanese," and so did the British. The attack on the Russian fleet in Port Arthur could be seen as a kind of—not a dress rehearsal, because it was the real thing—but it was a kind of Pearl Harbor of that time, and it succeeded admirably.

ERI HOTTA: But they were not Americans being attacked.

IAN BURUMA: So the Americans are better than the Russians in fighting wars.

ERI HOTTA: The fact is that Operation Barbarossa was a surprise attack as well, but the Soviets don't seem to make as much of a myth about that, the surprise or sneak nature, stealth nature, of the attack. I think it has to do with the fact that it was so dramatic and the fact that America was attacked on its soil, even though it was a very heavily Japanese-populated island, ironically. I think it just became part of the American psyche and collective historical narrative and became a symbol and departed from its real significance, perhaps.

IAN BURUMA: To what extent does that play into American myths? John Dower amongst others—he didn't necessarily condone the attack on Pearl Harbor; in fact, he certainly didn't—but his analysis is that one of the reasons that the Americans were so shocked by this event, and so outraged, the idea of infamy and so on, was that it played into the—you see it in so many Western movies of the treacherous Indians who were always attacking without warning from nowhere the brave pioneers. In his analysis in War Without Mercy, that's one explanation of why it is still such a strong myth in America, that it's exactly that, it's this treacherous attack. Was it meant to be treacherous or was it a screw-up?

ERI HOTTA: There is a huge debate about who was responsible for the delay in communicating the termination of diplomacy to the White House and so on. But the fact that the delayed document didn't really specify that they were—it was not a declaration of war really, so you can't really argue—the stealth of the attack would have remained, and the sort of treacherous nature would have not been affected anyway in Roosevelt's mind. The fact that he had this oratorical genius and could mobilize the nation of course had something to do with the enormity of that legacy.

But I think there is something to be said about the comparison to the Native Americans. It just speaks for the disproportionate asymmetrical nature of the warfare that was being fought. That's why, I think, after 9/11 it was so compelling and so tempting for people to use that analogy, the attack being much like Pearl Harbor and that a very under-resourced power could overtake a giant, however momentarily. I think that analogy is a good one.

IAN BURUMA: Perhaps to carry on slightly from what we were talking about before, there is another analysis by—is it Hayashi Fusao, a Japanese intellectual who is no longer with us, who started as a communist, I think, and ended up as a sort of ultra-right wing nationalist? His phrase was "the 100-year war," in that Pearl Harbor was part of a war that actually started in the 1860s, when Japan was opened up by Commodore Perry with his gunships, and that ever since, even though there were periods of peace and truce and so on, but ever since Japan had been fighting back against Western dominance. Is there some truth to that?

ERI HOTTA: Yes. If you look at the whole history in terms of cultural civilizational clash, that is very tempting and so facile to explain all the political events that took place in the meantime and reduce everything to these world views, almost.

Of course these things affect one's thinking and they act as furniture of the mind, but you can't really say Japan went to war because of the racism. Of course you can describe individual beliefs and how people might have reacted to a certain situation differently, or certain leaders might have held onto certain beliefs more strongly than others. But it just doesn't explain the whole picture sufficiently in my eyes. But I can see how it could be tempting and it could sell a lot of books.

IAN BURUMA: My role here is to be the right-wing Japanese nationalist and you're the nice liberal Japanese.

So why did they do it? What did they think they were going to—what was the hope? Even the mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Yamamoto, who had been at Harvard, who had been in the Japanese embassy in Washington, who knew the West very well, and a very sophisticated man, who warned the government, I think, on several occasions that it was a very reckless thing to do, but he did it nonetheless. Now, I know that he was a gambling man and he was probably vain enough to think that he was the man to do it, if anyone. But what did they hope to get out of it?

ERI HOTTA: I think in the end it was a gamble. But then, by the time that they felt that they had been cornered into that situation, they justified it in terms of the slim possibility that something diplomatic could be worked out after inflicting a great deal of damage on the Pacific fleet, on the United States. Even though the war was being declared in the name of the failure of diplomacy, they expected the American side to approach Japan with a diplomatic solution. So Japan itself didn't have any exit plan.

IAN BURUMA: Shock and awe might have been the phrase. [Laughter]

ERI HOTTA: Shock and awe, right. But the fact is that the Russo-Japanese War was—Japan also didn't have an exit plan there either, and it was because of Theodore Roosevelt's intervention and peacemaking efforts that Japan just got away, winning it. But it was not a straightforward win.

IAN BURUMA: Not just Roosevelt. The Japanese almost went bankrupt in the Russo-Japanese War and were bailed out by a banker in New York, called Jacob Schiff, who had escaped the anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia, and so was not a friend of the Russians. White Russian officers who were then taken prisoner by the Japanese introduced the Japanese to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Many Japanese then put two and two together and said, "Jacob Schiff, bankers—we have to keep the Jews on our side." That was the conclusion, which is why the Japanese during World War II refused to hand over the Jews to the Nazis when the Germans requested it, from Shanghai and other places.

I think I'm right in saying that in America Pearl Harbor has become a sort of mythical occasion that is used over and over, not least after 9/11 and so on. But in Japan, when people think of World War II, Pearl Harbor is not the first thing that comes to mind.

ERI HOTTA: No. I think the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be the first things that come to mind. But also bombings of every major city, which tends to get forgotten or not discussed in the conventional narratives. I think that sort of experience died hard.

But then it has been nearly 70 years since the end of the war and that sort of collective experience is becoming thinner and thinner. So I can't really say even that they have this strong attachment to any of the bombings, including the atomic bombings, aside from the fact that they get taught in school much more effectively than they are being taught about Japan's more—

IAN BURUMA: But there may be another reason, and we haven't really discussed that, which is why so many Japanese intellectuals, often people who were not fascists or militarists, applauded the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, partly because it came as an enormous relief. They had been fighting China, even though the official propaganda was that Japan was liberating Asia and so on. They had been fighting China and getting deeper and deeper into what became known as a sort of quagmire. Many people felt embarrassed, I think, about it.

Even now, when it's probably true to say that more people know, if they think about World War II at all in Japan, about the atrocities committed against the Chinese than they know about Pearl Harbor. So a lot of intellectuals in 1941 felt, "At last we're giving the West a bloody nose. At last we're fighting a proper enemy. This is the war we should have been fighting to begin with, and not our fellow Asians."

ERI HOTTA: I agree. Quite a few of them had studied in the West and had first-hand experience in Western matters. That's why their ingrained inferiority complexes were much deeper than others.

IAN BURUMA: But those are always the worst nationalists.

ERI HOTTA: Yes, they tend to be.

IAN BURUMA: I know this is an argument against scholarships for people to study abroad and so on. But it's a bit like Daniel Ortega, who picked up his anti-American rhetoric in Berkeley, California.

Perhaps we could open it up to questions.


QUESTION: I'm Noah Smith from Stony Brook University.

One thing you guys didn't discuss is that in 1939 Japan tried attacking the Soviet Union, and it was a lot bigger of an operation than most people realize. They were soundly defeated. The Soviets sent in Zhukov and a bunch of tanks and basically just creamed them. Did news of that not get out? I know that that experience deeply shook a lot of the rightist people, like Tsuji Masanobu, who was really freaked out by that. Didn't that sort of give them pause, or was that all hushed up and nobody really knew it had happened? 

ERI HOTTA: It was hushed up in the public —I mean the newspapers didn't report it in full details. But the army leadership was of course shaken. That's why they decided they couldn't really fight the Soviet Union when the chance arose after June 22, 1941. That was very much on their mind: "We can't really afford to fight the Soviet Union. We have this neutrality pact that Matsuoka had reached in the spring. So we'll just keep things quiet and keep fighting China and go into French Indochina so that they can sustain that warring position in China for the time being."

QUESTIONER: So it was like "Let's attack another giant."

IAN BURUMA: This was also part of the inter-services rivalry, I think, between the navy and the army, wasn't it, that they had the so-called "strike north" faction, which was largely army, who wanted to go for the Soviet Union; and the "strike south" faction, which was naval, because they needed the resources to keep going, who wanted to fight the war in South East Asia. The debacle in Nomonhan in Mongolia, where these battles were fought against Zhukov, basically meant the end of the "strike north" faction.

QUESTIONER: I'm also interested in Tojo Hideki. To what extent was he sort of trying to ride herd on these factions and move Japan toward being a more centralized, less factionalist system?

ERI HOTTA: I'm sorry. At what point are you referring to?

QUESTIONER: What little I've read about him indicated that he was sort of trying to be more—I mean Japan was this very factionalized place, without much of a chain of command. So to what extent was he trying to change that? Was he a centralizer?

ERI HOTTA: He was into efficiency, because he was a very able bureaucrat, if anything, who kept individual notes about people that he dealt with every day of his life. He held grudges against certain people and he would punish them and so forth.

I think he did try to centralize. I think his primary motive was to help the emperor, because he was a very devoted servant of the imperial institution.

When he was appointed prime minister in mid-October 1941, the first thing he tried to do was to avert war. He tried to discuss alternative scenarios, which really goes against this idea of Tojo being very openly bellicose and uncompromising about going to war, which is not true. So he was a bit more complex. Simple-minded as he was, I think his position was a bit more complex.

QUESTION: Jeff Laurenti.

Ian had mentioned the China quagmire at the very end of your dialogue. I wonder if you could explore for us a bit to what extent in 1941 was China and the China quagmire itself perhaps the main driver of Japanese war and diplomatic policy? That is, was the attack on the U.S. in a sense "if you have a problem you can't solve, make it bigger, and then maybe you'll be able to find new opportunities"? And to what extent were they talking about some kind of either peace feelers or some kind of accommodation, or was that entirely off the table for China? What were their war aims in China at that point?

And, if you could make an even larger picture, to what extent were Japan's partners in the Tripartite Pact and their actions in Europe, like the invasion of the Soviet Union, if anything, an inducement to: "We can do more. We can think more boldly. Look, the Germans are at the gates of Moscow"? To what extent were they looking to their Axis partners in Europe as a model and a further incitement to thinking big?

ERI HOTTA: I think the China war was central and they did discuss that it was essential for them to end the China war somehow. To end it meant to exit honorably, in Richard Nixon's words—well, maybe come up with peace terms that were favorable.

They had set up this puppet regime of Wang Jingwei in Nanking, which the Japanese occupied, and they wanted the Americans to recognize that regime as well and have two nationalist regimes in China, which didn't make sense for the Americans. The Americans had no inkling to recognize that regime in the first place.

But in the negotiations that took place in Washington between the Japanese Ambassador Nomura and Cordell Hull and Roosevelt since April 1941, the China issue was always there. In liaison conferences in Tokyo it was always discussed. It became really the sticking point of the negotiations, that the military, especially the army, couldn't openly say "We are willing to withdraw if the U.S. lifts its sanctions," or some kind of bargaining might have been struck. But they couldn't really openly discuss these things.

So the militarists in Japan were depending on civilian leaders, like Konoe, to reach a diplomatic breakthrough. Konoe thought that he could pull off a diplomatic resolution if he met Roosevelt in person. So he promised too much at home to the military: "You can prepare for war in the meantime because you never know, but you have to allow me to go see Roosevelt and say ‘How are you, Alaska?'" He thought, and the military thought, that that was going to happen, until quite late, until mid-September, even early October. When they noticed that the Americans were not going to come to the negotiating table, that's when Konoe panicked and left. So China was central and they knew it.

Your second question was about the Tripartite Pact. I think they were mesmerized by the German successes—not that they understood the dangerous, lethal aspects of Nazi ideology or wholeheartedly embraced it, because the Japanese were relegated to second-class citizens, the yellow race.

But people who read the tract in the original German did know the truth of Hitler's pronouncements. So that was not so much the embracing of the ideology but the martial aspects of the Nazi success and also the fact that the shock factors in Europe, especially after Barbarossa—the Japanese casually thought: "Okay, South East Asia is really ripe for plucking because nobody is looking at it. If we could push the Vichy regime to hand it over peaceably with the threat of force, the Western powers are not going to quibble because it's so far away."

I think that was a big mistake. That's what triggered the total embargo on oil, or de facto total embargo on petroleum and the freezing of Japanese assets by Allied powers.

IAN BURUMA: Just to add to that, didn't they also see Operation Barbarossa as an opportunity to attack not only South East Asia but even the United States, because they thought that with the Russians out of the way Europe would go—

ERI HOTTA: The hardest core of the military strategists in the general staff did toy with that idea. That was not the mainstream because they were not thinking in terms of war at that point, in July 1941, at all. They were more concerned about power struggles at home. Yosuke Matsuoka, the eccentric foreign minister who was becoming a sort of persona non grata within the Konoe cabinet, had to be undermined. He was saying, "Just show the gesture to allied Germany and attack the Soviet Union quickly so that we can claim to have participated in their war and maybe take some Soviet possessions."

But everyone, including the army, who had traditionally seen the Soviet Union as their hypothetical enemy, opposed it. It was partly because of the experience of Nomonhan that really told them otherwise. It was also to undermine the position that Matsuoka was taking, and Konoe especially wanted him to leave his cabinet without him having to dirty his own hands.

IAN BURUMA: But the relation with the Axis power was a very old one because they didn't really trust one another. The issue of wanting to have the Jews on their side is one illustration of this.

But on the other hand, you hear stories from German businessmen who visited Japan until not so very long ago and being taken out for a drunken evening on the Ginza by their Japanese colleagues, who then thought it would please their West German colleagues enormously if they, over their steins of beer, would suddenly start singing "Horst-Wessel-Lied," which was not the thing to do to ingratiate themselves with most West German businessmen—maybe some, but they wouldn't have admitted it.

QUESTION: George Berlstein.

I was interested in whether Germany was instrumental in urging Japan to enter the war, and I was curious did they know that the Japanese were going to attack or any of the details of it?

After the attack America declared war, but not against Germany, and there was a period of five days or so when it wasn't clear what was going to happen. There was even some thought that it might be beneficial for Hitler to not declare war and see what happened. That didn't happen. Do you know the details of those few days? Did the Germans urge Japan to do this?

IAN BURUMA: Not as far as I know, and I doubt if they knew at all. One of the mysteries of World War II is why Hitler decided to declare war on the United States, which he didn't actually have to do. But maybe Hitler was an honorable man. [Laughter]

And thank goodness he did, because that made it very easy for Roosevelt to get into the European war. So it's not for nothing that when Churchill was given the news over a late-night dinner at Checkers, or wherever he was, he said he slept very well.

ERI HOTTA: To add to that, I think what the German were keen for the Japanese to do in the middle of 1941 was to attack Singapore so that they could help the war cause in the Soviet Union somehow. Hitler was obsessed with this idea of, of course, conquering the isle of Britain. So I think he probably thought the Japanese could be used that way more effectively by way of attacking the British.

IAN BURUMA: There was actually very little communication, wasn't there, during the war between the Axis partners?

QUESTION: Don Simmons.

A different topic. For several decades after the Second World War, both Germany and Japan did all they could to sort of reintroduce themselves, reingratiate themselves, with the rest of the world—their subdued military policy particularly in the case of Japan—and generally trying to contribute as much to the common good as they could.

In the case of Germany, within 20 or 25 years their relations with their neighbors, including very much occupied countries, ranged somewhere from cordial to warm. That did not happen with Japan, and still has not happened. Why the difference?

IAN BURUMA: Well, there is a very long answer to that and a shortish one. One is that they were very different neighbors. Germany was in the middle of Europe and its neighbors to the west were Western democracies and were tied to West Germany in a military alliance as well as in unifying Europe. That was a very different proposition.

Japan's immediate neighbors were Communist China and South Korea, which was a sort of ally, and then you had North Korea. There wasn't an East Asian alliance that was in any way comparable to the European Community or NATO.

That's one reason.

I think the other reason is—and also I think one must not overstate the warmth of the relations between Germany and its immediate neighbors. Certainly I remember in 1988, when my own country, the Netherlands, beat Germany at the European soccer championship, more people went into the streets to celebrate than on May 8, 1945, at the end of the war. [Laughter]

Having said that, they were very different wars. And there were two Germanys, that's the other thing. There was West Germany and East Germany, and they had very different relations with the outside world.

As far as West Germany is concerned, when people talk about coming to terms with the past and all that kind of thing, people really are not talking about the invasion of Norway; they are talking about the Holocaust. That's a very specific crime committed by a criminal regime.

Japan didn't really have a criminal regime. They were the same people who had been in power before the war. And there wasn't an equivalent to the Holocaust in the sense of an ideological war to exterminate a particular people because they didn't even have the right to exist.

So for all these reasons I think relations with the outside world—I mean there are other reasons to do with a pacifist constitution and the fact that the wartime history became a very political issue in Japan and a very polarized one, unlike the history of the Third Reich in Germany, which is not a particularly polarizing issue.

So I think there are a large number of reasons. None of them have much to do with some kind of essential aspect of the Japanese character or anything of that kind.

I hope that answers some of your question.

QUESTION: Matthew Olson.

I had a very soft question, but you have raised a very hard question. I'll start with the hard question. I have read about islands, especially in the neighborhood of Indonesia, where entire populations were wiped out. I have never forgotten my reading of The Rape of Nanking. So when you talk about the difference between what the Nazis were doing—and I understand it was pretty awful—and what the Japanese were doing, I'm not clear that there's a difference, because they were both wiping out populations. A hard question.

Second question, just if you can. Starting with grade school when I first started reading history, they talked about the warm relations between the United States after the opening of Japan, and that warm relation was supposed to have continued until the start of the Japanese-Russo peace brokered by Roosevelt. The explanation that I was given—and I've never read a contradiction of this since—was that that was the beginning of the end of the Japanese-U.S. friendship because the Japanese resented the fact that they didn't get more out of the peace that they thought they should have gotten, and they thought the United States cheated them. I'm perfectly open to that hypothesis being questioned or denied. But this is my first opportunity to ask somebody knowledgeable on the subject.

IAN BURUMA: Why don't you deal with the second one and I'll take the first one?

ERI HOTTA: I had not heard that narrative before, because I think in Japan they concentrate on the failure of diplomats and negotiators who didn't get Russian indemnities in the terms of peace, and there was a riot after the war, and so on and so forth.

So it was more perceived in Japan as a failure of diplomacy, which explains the popularity of very strong, hard-nosed diplomats, like Yosuke Matsuoka, who signed the Tripartite Pact. Here was this very clear-headed diplomat who could stand up for Japanese interests. He was, incidentally, the one who walked the delegation out of the League of Nations after the Manchurian crisis erupted.

The Russo-Japanese War and settlements are more perceived in terms of the failure of Japanese diplomacy more than American designs. I have never heard it blamed on the American side. If anything, it perpetuated the idea that America, a great power, could afford to be generous and be a peace broker, that sort of thing.

So when the China war was not really going anywhere from the Japanese perspective, the Japanese kept asking the Americans to be the mediator between Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese. So I think that built in perhaps unfair Japanese expectations of the United States as being some kind of benevolent policeman standing up for Japanese interests rather than anything else, which is self-serving of course.

IAN BURUMA: On the atrocities, of course it makes very little difference if you are the victim of somebody torturing you, let alone shooting you, it doesn't really make much difference who is doing it or for what reasons.

But I think there is a difference between military atrocities—and they were indeed terrible, not just in Nanking in China but in Manila and other places—which cannot be excused. They should be faced. They are horrifying. But there is a slight difference between military atrocities—and we can talk about why they happened—and a government that has a program to exterminate a people for ideological reasons, because they do not have the right to exist.

There was never such a thing in the Japanese war. In the Japanese war there were many military atrocities. If you like, if one is to be provocative about it, the psychology of Nanking is a bit like what happened in My Lai during the Vietnam War but on a vast scale. You had a lot of soldiers in hostile territory who often couldn't see the difference between civilians and guerrilla fighters and so on. They were undisciplined, brutalized by their own officers, and often found themselves in a position where they thought the safest thing to do was to just shoot everybody. That can quickly escalate to orgies of violence.

And again, what we were talking about earlier, where the senior officers are not really in proper control of the middle-ranking ones, I think that played a role as well. Even though the image of the Japanese army was entirely correct when it came to the Russo-Japanese War, when they were very disciplined and actually treated POWs very well and so on, the discipline often left a lot to be desired in the Second World War. So you did have these enormous massacres and raping and looting on a vast scale and so on.

But it's not quite the same thing. To be a victim of this is equally unpleasant, but it is not quite the same thing as gassing people or shooting people because they don't have the right to live.

QUESTION: I'm Richard Katz.

I am fascinated by the degree of misperception in both Tokyo and Washington of the other. I have had conversations with people who were descendants of some of the Japanese leaders at the time, who really believed that the United States must have sort of a Proposal B, a Plan B, for peace, or at least that the U.S. would actually accept the document that ratified Japanese control over China, which of course the U.S. did not do. The fact that they really thought the U.S. might do this is an incredible, to my mind, misperception of everything to a stunning degree.

From the American side, from what I can see, there were two groups in the leadership, both of whom were kind of nuts about what they thought about Japan, and they were very well-informed people. On the one hand, you had, say, Stanley Hornbeck in the State Department, who knows Japan very well, who insisted that Japan would never go to war against the United States because they knew they were going to get smashed. When some diplomats in the embassies say, "Out of sheer desperation they might do it," he goes, "When does a nation ever attack out of sheer desperation?" So he said, "Let's take a very hard line because that will force the Japanese to back down. They won't dare attack us."

Then you have Joseph Grew, again very, very informed, ambassador for god knows how long in Japan, who kept talking about these mythological moderates and peaceniks in Tokyo that we dare not undermine by being too soft, therefore we should take a very soft line so the moderates can come to the fore.

It seem to me that, besides all the issues of interest and clashes, whatever, that the astonishing degree of misperception by, at least on the American side, people who should have known better, who at least were informed—I don't know the level of pure information on the Japanese side. If you could discuss was this self-delusion, or what was going on that created this incredible degree of what I see as just people lying to themselves about the other side?

IAN BURUMA: You're talking about Japan, not Iran? [Laughter]

ERI HOTTA: I think the U.S. perception of Japan could be described as underestimation of their resolve or desperation or whatever. But then I think the Japanese themselves didn't really—most leaders couldn't have conceived of this plan of attack had it not been for Isoroku Yamamoto. So I think it was quite an outlandish thing to do and to pull off anyway.

I think Roosevelt was perhaps expecting some minor attack, even as late as December 1, a minor attack on the Philippines or Thailand or wherever, because he saw the troops mobilizing around Taiwan. He couldn't have conceived of this attack on Pearl Harbor, which really was a dramatic turn of events.

And the Japanese themselves were surprised by that too. So I think there was an underestimation of what Yamamoto could do on all sides almost. That's my feeling about it.

I think the military leaders, someone like Navy General Staff Nagano Osami—when he looked at the plan in late October, he said, "No way. We are not going to do it. It's too risky. We are not going to win this war anyway, so why risk so much? We will lose all our battleships."

IAN BURUMA: But it's hard to underestimate the human capacity for self-delusion. For example, there is a wonderful film made in Japan in 1942. It came out in December 1942. It was commissioned by the Imperial Japanese Navy to celebrate Pearl Harbor. They recreated the attack so well—it was one of the first films that used special effects so skillfully that they are still sometimes used in documentaries about Pearl Harbor because there is very little actual documentary footage of it.

One of the scenes shows the pilots and so on on the aircraft carriers on their way to Pearl Harbor. They listen in to the American radio on Hawaii and they hear jazz music and somebody conducting a dance. They all giggle and say, "This is the Americans, the decadent, weak-kneed Americans. All they can do is dance and listen to this absurd sort of music. Once they get a taste of the real Japanese martial spirit, they will cave in." It's a very common misperception of democracies held not just by the Japanese at the time but by authoritarian regimes.

Then there were more idiotic misperceptions too on both sides. I think on the Japanese side some people really believed that Americans couldn't shoot straight because their noses were too big so they couldn't look past their noses. At the same time, in America there were ideas that the Japanese, because of their Oriental Mongol eyes, couldn't shoot straight and so on. The stupidity of people is boundless.

JOANNE MYERS: I am sure Japan 1941 was maybe not the topic of your breakfast conversation, but you will probably talk a lot about it at dinner.

I want to thank you both for being with us this afternoon for a wonderful discussion. Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less