The Pacific War raged for three years and eight months from the attack on Pearl Harbor until Japan’s surrender.
A war should only be started after a viable exit strategy has been thought out. How were Japan’s political and military leaders at the time trying to end the war? Were they just delaying the inevitable by fighting on, thereby bringing further misery and suffering to the people?
This chapter will examine these leaders’ attempts to end the Pacific War.
Military Police obstruct peace moves
Before launching the war against the United States in December 1941 (the 16th year of the Showa Era), Japan did have an exit strategy of sorts in place—“a draft plan to promote the end of the war against the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and Chiang Kai-shek.”The Imperial Headquarters-Government Liaison Conference approved the plan on November 15, 1941, a few weeks before the Pacific War started. This was the only official protocol that gave a notion of how the Pacific War—including the Sino-Japanese War—could be concluded.
According to the plan, “While quickly destroying the strongholds of the United States, Britain and the Netherlands in the Far East to secure the nation’s self-existence and self-defense, we should take aggressive measures to promote the submission of Chiang’s Nationalist government, cooperate with Germany and Italy to drive Britain into submission and then sap the will of the United States to continue the war.”
The Emperor wanted the government to draw up an exit strategy, but this draft plan was done in haste. Historian Masayasu Hosaka said the plan was compiled without even discussing the matter with Germany and Italy. According to him, the plan was self-serving “wishful thinking” that was “based on the assumption that Germany would grind Britain into submission, making Americans weary of the war and consequently lead to war’s end.”
Japanese leaders expected from the beginning that the enemy would eventually become dispirited fighting the Pacific War and consent to an agreement favorable to Japan to end it if Japan stood firm and kept control of a certain region.
They never considered the possibility that Japan would have to take the first step to end the war.
However, worth noting in the plan is the reference to Japan’s relations with the Soviet Union, with which Tokyo had signed a neutrality pact.
According to the plan, Japan “must prevent going to war against the Soviet Union” and, if necessary, “must make [Germany and the Soviet Union] conclude a peace accord with each other and bring the Soviet Union over to the Axis side.”
This policy guideline concerning Moscow was initially aimed at helping Germany focus on its war against Britain, but it would change to one intended to keep the Soviet Union neutral vis-à-vis Japan and, if circumstances required, to end the Pacific War through Soviet mediation if the war situation deteriorated drastically.
How did Japanese leaders think the war would end?
On the day the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, former Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe felt the campaign was already doomed. He told his son-in-law Morisada Hosokawa: “Japan will lose this war. Starting today, you should study how Japan will lose it. This research is the duty of a statesman.”
Although the Japanese military won some early battles, Konoe did not waver in his prediction. According to Nobuya Uchida, one of his friends and former Railways Minister, Konoe said, “As Admiral [Isoroku] Yamamoto stated, such excellent results will only continue for less than a year.”
Shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto reportedly told his aides, “Japan must start making peace overtures quickly while we still hold an advantage.”
Prince Higashikuni (Higashikuni-no-miya Naruhiko), a member of the Imperial Family, told Prime Minister Hideki Tojo: “I think Singapore will fall soon...Japan should advance negotiations with Chiang Kai-shek’s government and start peace overtures with Britain and the United States. We must end this war without further delay.”
However, Tojo was defiant. “I think we will have few problems occupying not only Java and Sumatra but also Australia if things go on like this,” he said. “We shouldn’t think about peace at this time.”
Dazzled by the early successes on many fronts, the nation’s leaders gradually began to turn a blind eye to the notion of Yamamoto and others to start peace negotiations immediately after winning the initial battles.
Former Ambassador to Britain Shigeru Yoshida was the first senior Japanese official who sought an end to the Pacific War. Yoshida, who married a daughter of Nobuaki Makino, former Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, encouraged Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo to start pushing for peace when Singapore fell into Japanese hands on February 15, 1942. Yoshida also tried to let Konoe visit Switzerland, a neutral country, and wait for an opportunity to reach a peace settlement with the Allied Powers.
According to historian John Dower, Yoshida also extolled the virtues of reaching an early end to hostilities with Kumao Harada, former secretary to former Prime Minister Kinmochi Saionji; political critic Tatsuo Iwabuchi; Member of the House of Peers Aisuke Kabayama; reserve Army General Jinzaburo Masaki; retired Navy Admiral Kantaro Suzuki; retired Army General Kazushige Ugaki; and former Prime Minister Reijiro Wakatsuki.
However, Yoshida’s maneuvering ruffled some feathers. According to Yoshida, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Koichi Kido, who was a staunch ally of Tojo, criticized Yoshida’s plan to keep Konoe in Europe. Tojo, who was wary of Konoe’s moves for peace, put pressure on Kido, saying “We have to restrain him.”
Leaders of the armed forces and the Military Police tried to stamp out—both covertly and openly—any hint of support for starting moves for peace talks. Tojo placed Hakujiro Kato, Ryoji Shikata and others, who were his close aides when Tojo was Commanding General of the Kwantung Army Police, in key posts in the Military Police to crack down on groups opposed to him.
“I am determined to clamp down on any behavior that disrupts national unity,” Tojo said at the Imperial Diet in January 1943. “I will not tolerate such actions, even if they are made by ranking officials.”
The Imperial Diet members responded with applause.
In the April 1942 general election in which more than 80 percent of the seats were occupied by candidates recommended by the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, candidates elected without the endorsement of the association’s political arm included Yukio Ozaki, Ichiro Hatoyama, Hitoshi Ashida and Seigo Nakano. However, the Tojo Cabinet intervened and they were eventually branded as being unsupportive of the war effort.
Nakano was arrested for trying to persuade jushin, unofficial senior advisers to the Emperor, to bring down the Tojo administration and contributing an article on the wartime Prime Minister. Nakano committed suicide after being interrogated by the Military Police.