Three blunders, including the mandatory appointment of active duty generals as war ministers
After the February 26 Incident in 1936, genro senior statesman Kinmochi Saionji recommended that Fumimaro Konoe succeed Prime Minister Keisuke Okada, but Konoe declined. The name of Hirota then emerged. Konoe, Saionji’s secretary Kumao Harada and Shigeru Yoshida persuaded Hirota to become Prime Minister.
However, Prime Minister Hirota’s formation of a Cabinet was complicated because of the interference by Akira Muto, a military section staff member of the War Ministry, and others. Hirota wanted Shigeru Yoshida to become foreign minister but the idea was rejected on the ground that Yoshida was married to a daughter of a liberal, Nobuaki Makino. Yoshida, who became prime minister after the war, recalled this as “a fork in the road of destiny.”
In May 1936, Hirota made the mistake of reviving the practice of appointing military ministers only from the active roster of high-ranking officers. The rule that qualified only active duty military officers to become military ministers meant the military could topple a cabinet if they decided to withhold sending a military minister. Actually, General Kazushige Ugaki, who was ordered to form a cabinet as a successor to Hirota, could not do so as the Imperial Japanese Army did not send a military minister, a move that reflected the opposition of staff officers, including Kanji Ishihara. “If a Ugaki Cabinet had been formed at that time, the Sino-Japanese War might have been avoided.” This historical “if” has been referred to ever since.
Stating that advancing to the southern seas was a national goal was another problem. This goal was adopted as the “Basis for National Policy” at a five-minister conference held in August 1936, which was attended by Prime Minster Hirota, Foreign Minister Hachiro Arita, War Minister Hisaichi Terauchi, Navy Minister Osami Nagano and Finance Minister Eiichi Baba. Advancing to the southern seas was mentioned for the first time as a national policy goal. The fundamentals of Japan’s national policy specifically envisaged “securing the position of the Empire of Japan in the East Asian continent and advancing to the southern ocean.”
Another special factor that should be mentioned was Japan’s tilt toward Germany. In Germany, Adolf Hitler was appointed as Chancellor in January 1933. Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union, meanwhile, kept expanding the Communist International (Comintern) movement. Under these circumstances, the Hirota Cabinet signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany in November 1936. Army Attach at the Japanese Embassy in Germany Major General Hiroshi Oshima initiated contact with Joachim von Ribbentrop, who was responsible for Nazi diplomacy. Elbowing in on the government’s diplomacy, Oshima had acted without reporting to Tokyo.
After the war, Prime Minister Yoshida asked the Foreign Ministry to compile documents, “Mistakes of Japan’s Diplomacy.” The Japan-Germany agreement was evaluated therein as having “brought no merits except satisfying the desire to address [Japan’s] international isolation.”
After a Ugaki Cabinet failed to emerge, Prime Minister Senjuro Hayashi was installed in February 1937 in line with the aims of Kanji Ishihara. This was a turning point for Japan’s diplomacy. The Xian Incident led Japan to reconsider the policy toward China. For example, pro Anglo-American Foreign Minister Naotake Sato tried to change the provocative and deceptive operation to separate northern China from the rest of China. However, the Hayashi Cabinet collapsed four months later as its strong-arm dissolution of the House of Representatives caused a backlash from the political parties.
On the eve of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, was there any way that war could have been averted? An expert on modern Japanese history insists that Japan could have averted the war if it had inherited the diplomatic policy toward China followed by Foreign Minister Sato.
However, in the following Cabinet formed by Konoe, Hirota became Foreign Minister again. Itaro Ishii, who served as Asian Affairs Bureau chief, regarded Hirota as, without any doubt, “a peace-lover from the bottom of his heart, seeking international harmony” but also as “a man with weak resistance to the military and the right wing.”