Uninformed Tojo takes action
The war command of the Tojo Cabinet was greatly shaken after defeats in the battles of Midway and Guadalcanal Island. In late December 1942, when defeat at Guadalcanal Island seemed certain, staff officers of the Imperial Army and Navy in charge of operations were engaged in a fierce argument. An Army officer said: “How can you win a war without ammunition and food? The Navy dropped its guard, letting the enemy occupy [Guadalcanal Island], and the Army fell victim to the failure. That was the beginning of all this.” A Navy officer argued back, “Wasn’t it the cause of failure when the Army’s Second Division put so many troops into that dense forest?”
It was evident that a delay in withdrawing troops would lead to more deaths from starvation. But both the Army and the Navy were busy trying to blame the other side for the imminent defeat at Guadalcanal.
The two sides had fundamentally different strategies—the Navy focused on fighting against the U.S. forces, while the Army placed emphasis on conquering the Chinese continent and beating the Chiang Kai-shek government in Chongqing. After the massive number of deaths of Japanese soldiers on Attu Island, Emperor Showa expressed concern to the chief aide-de-camp, saying, “I wonder if the Army and the Navy are able to have frank discussions.”
Confrontations between the Army and the Navy also occurred among the U.S. forces, but the chain of command was simpler: the Joint Chiefs of Staff consisting of the chiefs of the Army and Navy (which became more formal and legislated for in 1947) who were clearly subordinate to the Commander-in-Chief, President Roosevelt (who directed he be called “Commander-in-Chief” rather than “Mr. President” during the war) the ultimate decision maker.
In Japan, the Army General Staff and the Naval General Staff planned and practiced different operations. The Imperial Headquarters was supposed to coordinate the plans but was often unsuccessful when the two sides opposed each other. According to a military historian, “When the two military sides could not reach an agreement, the only person who could make a decision was the Emperor. However, the Emperor never exerted his authority or made adjustments to individual problems. In reality, it was extremely difficult to have the Army and the Navy cooperate with each other and to develop an integrated operation.”
The Meiji Constitution stipulated that the supreme command organization in charge of operations and troops was independent of government organizations. As both the Army General Staff and the Naval General Staff were supreme command bodies, they did not let the government, including the Prime Minister, know about their weapons, troops or operation plans. The Naval General Staff did not disclose information on the Battle of Midway to Tojo, who was then the Prime Minister. Tojo was informed of the defeat more than a month later.
The independence of the supreme command allowed the senior officers of the General Staff to do as they pleased. Around midnight on December 6, 1942, chief of Operations at the Army General Staff Shinichi Tanaka came in person to Prime Minister and War Minister Tojo to request an increase in the number of vessels to win back Guadalcanal Island. When Tojo did not comply, Tanaka cried out, “You idiot!”
Tojo was frustrated with the war situation that put Japan on the defensive while the U.S. forces won islands through its “stepping stone operations.” The concept of the “Absolute National Defense Zone,” (See Footnote.) announced in September 1943, was developed to reduce the battlefront and to strengthen the troops to allow them to fight back. However, the Army and the Navy had different interpretations of the term.
In February 1944, Tojo replaced Chief of the Army General Staff Hajime Sugiyama, announcing that he would take over the post. Tojo’s surprise move reflected his pent-up distrust of the supreme command organization, which not only failed to achieve success but also gave no information to him. Sugiyama argued back, referring to Germany’s Adolf Hitler, that when politics and the supreme command are mixed, it can hinder the supreme command’s authority. Tojo dismissed the claim, saying: “Chancellor Hitler was a soldier. It’s not the same for me. I am a general. There won’t be any problems.”
For a War Minister to act concurrently as the Chief of the Army General Staff, who was at the helm of the supreme command, was a violation of a longstanding rule that had been in place since the Army was founded. Emperor Showa asked Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Koichi Kido, “Isn’t it against the Constitution, which dictates the independence of the supreme command?” suggesting that Tojo should reconsider his decision. However, Tojo appointed Navy Minister Shigetaro Shimada to be Chief of the Naval General Staff as well.
Tojo’s efforts were unsuccessful. Takushiro Hattori, then chief of the Operations Section of the Army General Staff, said after the war: “Letting one individual have such enormous power caused more harm than good—it brought suspicion, dissatisfaction, pressure, confusion of policies and failure in carrying them out.”
After the war ended, Tojo told former Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu when reflecting on the war leadership: “The fundamental reason [for Japan’s defeat] was the lack of control. The Prime Minister, in whose hands lied a country’s future, did not have the authority to control the reins of its military forces. Such a country would never win a war.”
Absolute National Defense Zone
A command policy of war was finalized at a conference in the presence of the Emperor in September 1943. It named areas and locations that must be defended for the continuation of the war. The zone included “Chishima (Kuril) Islands, Ogasawara Islands, Uchinanyo Islands (mid- and western-south sea islands located to the north of the equator), western New Guinea, Sunda and Burma (presently Myanmar).”