Japan 1941 by Eri Hotta

I just finished a really good history book — “Japan 1941” by Eri Hotta.

It’s about (obviously) Japan during the fateful year of 1941.

While most who study World War II can name major German politicians of the pre-war period — Hindenburg, Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, et al, for most people, even those knowledgeable on World War II, Japan’s pre-World War II politics and its actors are unknown for the most part beyond Tojo and Emperor Hirohito.

Hotta does a serviceable job bringing the lesser known, notably Prime Minister Prince Konoe, to life.

She also lays out how the Japanese political culture led to an inevitable slide into war. Dominated by the (relatively recently created) tradition of the emperor, Japan’s leaders rarely spoke honestly or directly to each other, much less with Emperor Hirohito. They danced through conferences and meetings trying to avoid insults or even saying what was actually on their mind. The result was that they literally painted themselves into a corner with paranoia, sense of victimization and a self-imposed secret diplomatic deadline that was not remotely reasonable.

Few thought Japan could win a war against the United States yet no one was willing to speak against the war train once it left the station. Much of the prelude resembled World War I’s march to war — timetables and schedules drove everything. Japanese military and civilian leaders calculated that unless Japan acquired a source of petroleum, the country was under a U.S.-led petroleum embargo due to the occupation of southern French Indochina (i.e. South Vietnam), it would run out of oil in a couple of years. No one seemed to have bothered to think through the possibly disastrous ramifications of a war.

Hotta draws a picture of a military that already had its hands full with China (including the puppet state of Manchukuo) and several other mainland projects yet no one would step forward to say that.

My one complaint, and this may not be knowable due to the passage of time and the destruction of Japan during the war, is that Hotta doesn’t investigate the Japanese ultranationalist movement which held an intimidating position in Japan. She notes that they were involved in assassinations and wielded a great deal of influence in the military but that’s as sketchy as it gets.

Having said that, this is a useful volume for anyone wanting to be knowledgeable on World War II and its genesis.


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