Delayed notification to U.S.
On December 8, 1941, Japan time, the Navy’s task force made a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. At 1 p.m.Eastern Standard Time on December 7—30 minutes before the planned time to start the attack—Ambassador Nomura and special envoy Kurusu were supposed to present Japan’s memorandum to U.S. Secretary of State Hull. But the memorandum—which was meant to be Japan’s declaration of war on the United States—was actually presented at 2:20 p.m., about an hour after the attack started.
What brought about such a blunder? The Foreign Ministry had previously transmitted three telegraph messages to the Japanese Embassy in Washington regarding the memorandum.
Message Number 901 instructed the Embassy to take necessary measures so that the memorandum could be handed over at any time. Message Number 902 was the notification memorandum itself. Message Number 907 stated when the memorandum was to be delivered. Due to its lengthiness, Message 902 was sent in 14 parts. The 14th part stated: “The Government of Japan regrets to have to notify hereby the government of the United States that in view of the attitude of the Government of the United States of America, it cannot but consider it is impossible to reach an agreement through further negotiations.”
The Foreign Ministry completed transmission of Number 901 and the first 13 parts of Number 902 before noon on Saturday, December 6, Eastern Standard Time. The Ministry then sent the 14th part of Number 902—the most important part—and Number 907 in the early hours of Sunday, December 7. Though time was needed for decoding and typing, the Embassy had enough time to prepare the memorandum for the scheduled delivery time.
The Embassy finished decoding Number 901 by noon on December 6 and the 8th and 9th parts of Number 902 by about 7 p.m. However, since the 14th part had not arrived by the time the 13th part was decoded around midnight, First Secretary Katsuzo Okumura allowed his subordinates to go home at about 3 a.m. on December 7 and he slept at the Embassy. Since he was ordered not to use an American typist, Okumura had planned to type up a clean copy all by himself. But he did not immediately type them when the decoded messages arrived, possibly assuming that the next day would be a day off—Sunday.
Telegraph communication officials finished decoding Number 907 at about 11 a.m. on Sunday, December 7 and the 14th part of Number 902 at around noon. The time to deliver the memorandum, as instructed in Number 907 as 1 p.m, was approaching. But clean copies of the messages up to the 13th part of Number 902 were still unfinished at that time. The clean copies were finished at about 1:50 p.m.
Nomura and Kurusu, not knowing Pearl Harbor had already been attacked by Japan, rushed to the U.S. State Department. When they arrived at Foggy Bottom, not only had Hull already been informed of the attack, but he had also known the details of the Japanese memorandum in advance through successful U.S. code-breaking.
After pretending to read the memorandum, Hull said, “In all my fifty years of public service I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions—infamous falsehoods and distortions on a scale so huge that I never imagined until today that any government on this planet was capable of uttering them.”
Foreign Minister Togo later said that the Japanese Embassy in Washington committed an act of “carelessness and negligence” in decoding and producing the document.
Some observers have commented that there was a lack of communication between Tokyo and the Embassy and a disparity in perception of the gravity of the situation.
A year after the end of the war, Nomura said, “I don’t think the only one hour difference was the Embassy’s fault.”
Several years later, Hull wrote: “...knowing the importance of a deadline set for a specific hour, Nomura should have come to see me precisely at one o’clock, even though he had in his hand only the first few lines of his note, leaving instructions with the Embassy to bring him the remainder as it became ready.”
It was also pointed out that the wording of the memorandum, which only notified the termination of Japan-U.S. negotiations, did not follow international law. Experts believe even if the memorandum had arrived on time, there would have been criticism of Japan.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the attack a “treacherous attack,” and the Americans were united under the phrase: “Remember Pearl Harbor.”
The delay in notifying the United States of the planned attack planted stereotyped images in the minds of the Americans that the Japanese were sneaky, later providing one of the grounds for President Harry Truman to justify the use of the atomic bombs.
Even after the war, the American public was occasionally warned negatively about Japan’s national character.