The main responsibility lies with Tojo
What positions and roles did Hideki Tojo assume in the Showa War, which included the Manchurian Incident, the Sino-Japanese War and the Japan-U.S. War? Utmost blame must be placed on Tojo when we look at two aspects of war responsibility: responsibility for launching the war and for continuing the fighting when defeat was inevitable. The first refers to the escalation from the Sino-Japanese War to the war with Britain and the United States. The latter stemmed from the decision to initiate hostilities with the United States while knowing that Japan stood little chance of prevailing and the failure to employ effective measures to bring the war to an early end.
Tojo’s involvement in the Showa War began in March 1928 (the third year of the Showa Era). At the time, Lieutenant Colonel Tojo was Senior Staff Officer—a post equivalent to that of acting section chief in today’s government hierarchy—of the Army Affairs Section of the Military Affairs Bureau of the War Ministry. During a meeting of the Mokuyo-kai (Thursday Society) that included reformist bureaucrats of the military, Tojo declared, “We will establish an absolute political force in the Manchuria-Inner Mongolia area.” Mokuyo-kai members were military elites who formulated and determined national policies in the War Ministry and the Army General Staff. Tojo, along with Tetsuzan Nagata and Yasuji Okamura who had been Tojo’s senior by one year at the Army Military Academy, aimed to topple elements from what was the Choshu clan (now Yamaguchi Prefecture), who had dominated the mainstream of the Army since the Meiji Restoration. They also wanted to prepare the entire nation for an all-out war and establish the prerogative of supreme command. As the aftermath of World War I showed the necessity of national mobilization for an all-out war, Mokuyo-kai members believed Japan would have to secure Manchuria to effect national mobilization.
For them, the 1928 assassination of Chang Tso-lin (Zhang Zuolin), a warlord in northern China, engineered by Kwantung Army staff officer Daisaku Komoto heralded of a major change for the nation. When the Manchurian Incident occurred in September 1931, Colonel Tojo was chief of the First Section (Operations and Mobilization) of the Army General Staff. From 1935–38, he served as Military Police Commander and then Chief of Staff of the Kwantung Army. During this period, the Manchurian Incident escalated into the Sino-Japanese War. As the Kwantung Army’s Chief of Staff, he was involved in the colonial rule of Manchuria formulated by chief of General Affairs of Manchukuo Naoki Hoshino, deputy chief of Industry and Commerce of Manchukuo Nobusuke Kishi and by President of the South Manchurian Railway Yosuke Matsuoka, among others. After the Sino-Japanese War erupted in July 1937, Tojo advocated strong-arm measures against China and led troops into Chahar Province in Inner Mongolia. On that occasion, he commanded troops in battle for the first time. By encouraging his men to charge time and again, his forces gained control of Inner Mongolia. In the Chahar offensive, many Chinese are said to have been executed.
What Japan did in the Manchurian Incident and in the Sino-Japanese War violated the 1922 Nine-Power Treaty, which obliged Japan and the other parties to the pact to respect the sovereignty and independence of China and observe an open-door policy there. It has been pointed out that members of the Imperial Japanese Army at that time, including Tojo, started arguing that the interpretation of the international treaty signed in Washington was now outdated and amended its interpretation in order to justify the invasion of China. The Cabinet of Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe approved the Army’s policy toward the pact. In November 1938, Foreign Minister Hachiro Arita told U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew of Japan’s effective disapproval of the treaty.
Tojo was appointed War Minister in Konoe’s second Cabinet in July 1940 and made the first government comparison of military strength between Japan and the United States. The findings indicated Japan would face a formidable struggle should it engage in a prolonged war with the United States. Nevertheless, Tojo said: “America, as a nation, has no core. In contrast, our Empire has a national polity that has been in place for 3,000 years.”
The government decided in June 1941 to station troops in southern French Indochina, but there were no indications that Tojo gave serious credence to the risk that the United States would impose an oil embargo on Japan. Moreover, Tojo ruled out withdrawing from China as an option in negotiations with the United States. Tokyo and Washington were at loggerheads over the U.S. demand that Japan pull out of China. Tojo thought Japan’s claim to Manchukuo and the rule of Korea could collapse like dominoes if Japan conceded to the U.S. demand.
Tojo insisted on going to war with the United States, resulting in the fall of the Konoe Cabinet. Tojo was picked as Konoe’s successor. As the new Prime Minister, Tojo reviewed the national policy by considering what Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Koichi Kido described as Emperor Showa’s wishes to avert a war with Britain and the United States. Chief of the Military Affairs Bureau of the Army General Staff Akira Muto told Tojo, “In an effort to withdraw [the decision to start a war with the United States], chief of operations at the Army General Staff Shinichi Tanaka will have to be dismissed. To make this happen, I also will step down.”
However, Tojo refrained from changing the military leadership. But discussing military policies with these same leaders meant changes were unlikely to be made to these policies. He thus failed to halt the slide into war.
Tojo behaved as a leader bent on securing the interests of the Imperial Japanese Army, despite its having no strategy based on international realism. After reaching the nation’s top post as the star of his group, Tojo made the final decision to initiate war with the United States. Two core tenets of Tojo’s agenda were suppression through the use of the Military Police and monopolization of information and intelligence by the government. These moves date back to when Tojo served as Commander of the Kwantung Army’s Military Police. Tojo investigated civilians critical of the Kwantung Army; his target list covered about 4,000 people, including socialists, those who were suspected of taking part in the national reform movement and others who were connected with the Kodo-ha (Imperial Way Faction) within the Imperial Japanese Army. Staff officer of the Kwantung Army in charge of intelligence and strategy Ryukichi Tanaka and others engaged in secret operations for Tojo. Tojo also kept a close watch on anti-Japanese Chinese and ruthlessly cracked down on them.
Tojo’s maneuvers also extended to targeting his political adversaries. In the April 1942 House of Representatives election, Tojo was obsessed with ensuring all seats were filled by candidates recommended by the Yokusan Seiji Taisei Kyogi-kai, a political arm of the Taisei Yokusan-kai (Imperial Rule Assistance Association). Tojo ordered the Military Police to put such politicians as Yukio Ozaki, Ichiro Hatoyama and Hitoshi Ashida, who were not recommended by the association, under surveillance. He even had Ozaki arrested during the election campaign. After the general election, Tojo had his subordinates work to form Yokusan Seiji-kai (Imperial Rule Assistance Political Society), which was joined by almost all lawmakers. Army veteran and former Prime Minister Nobuyuki Abe assumed the association’s presidency.
With these developments, only one ruling party remained in the nation’s politics and the Imperial Diet became an arena for rubber-stamping assistance for the war effort. Troubled by such circumstances, politician Seigo Nakano committed suicide. The chief of the Military Police in Tokyo and Tojo’s former subordinate at the Kwantung Army’s Military Police, Ryoji Shikata, reportedly watched Nakano kill himself at his residence. As the war situation deteriorated, Tojo also sent the Military Police to watch senior statesmen such as Keisuke Okada and Fumimaro Konoe around the clock.
Tojo also showed the mass media no leniency. Soon after the war against the United States started in December 1941, Tojo established a law controlling free speech, publications, gatherings and associations. The law allowed him, for instance, to stop the publication of newspapers at his discretion. Angered by a Mainichi Shimbun article that read, “We cannot fight with bamboo spears,” Tojo drafted the article’s writer Takeo Shinmyo into the military and tried to send him to a battlefront where fierce fighting was on-going.
Tojo was increasingly described as a dictator, although he denied such claims, “Fuhrer Hitler was a foot soldier, but I’m an Army general. Don’t mix me up with him.” At an Imperial Diet session in January 1943, Tojo said: “I’m just one man. Without His Majesty the Emperor’s trust, or if I’m told to resign, I would have nothing left.” He added, “I’m like the moon: I might look that I’m shining, but I’m just reflecting light from the Emperor.” Tojo advocated the idea that people should obey the Emperor’s words. In this context, Tojo believed defying him was the same as defying the Emperor.
Tojo adhered to a kind of revolutionary ideology that held the general populace and civil servants as equal before the Emperor. Many citizens regarded Tojo as a “savior” when Japan won some battles in the early days of the Japan-U.S. War. However, he sacrificed the lives of soldiers—citizens of the country—like worn-out shoes and crushed the people’s right to pursue happiness and freedom of thought, without reflecting on his conduct. When the Combined Fleet was all but destroyed at the battle of Truk Island in Micronesia in February 1944, Tojo also assumed the post of Chief of the Army General Staff. He intended to change policy course by integrating command authorities to overcome the emergency situation. Only Tojo knew the direction of the war situation and the country’s remaining national power, which made Japan’s defeat almost certain. However, Tojo did not use his absolute authority to engage in responsible politics. Instead, he only exercised it to continue the war.
While Tojo was War Minister in January 1941, he announced the “Senjinkun” (Field Service Code) that contained the phrase, “Live without the humiliation of being taken prisoner and die without leaving a blemish on your name.” The code, which prohibited soldiers from being taken prisoner, also justified deadly human sacrifices by promoting “gyokusai” suicide attacks. Tojo lauded kamikaze suicide attacks in air and naval battles in June 1944, “The best thing about Japan is that all the people will risk their lives and are not afraid of dying...Making infinite use of this advantage, we can destroy the enemy with death squads, by which one airplane destroys one enemy vessel or one special submersible sinks one enemy vessel.”
Tojo also said: “In Japan, the things flying in the air are not airplanes—they are spirits. Since a sheer number of spirits are flying, there is no way we will be defeated in this war.”
His disregard for people’s lives reached its zenith after an air raid on Kitakyushu in June 1944, when he said, “The raid was like a mosquito landing on one’s arm or like mud splashed on a muddy road.”
As the impending fall of Saipan drew ever closer and Tojo teetered on the brink of being forced to resign, he made speeches as if he had been possessed by the supernatural, “This is a sign from heaven to us Japanese. Heaven says: ‘You are not serious yet. When will you realize the seriousness of the situation?’ Now is the time for us to exercise our potential strength. It will be troublesome if you don’t understand there is a wall until you hit it with your head so many times.”
Even after stepping down from the prime minister’s post, Tojo pleaded for the continuation of the war through special suicide attacks and battles on the Japanese mainland. He even directly made such an appeal to the Emperor. Until the bitter end, Tojo lacked a sense of consideration for the lives of the people.
More than 3.1 million Japanese die in the Showa War
According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the number of Japanese killed after the Sino-Japanese War started in 1937 reached about 3.1 million. These included 2.3 million servicemen and civilian employees who assisted the military: 200,000 were killed on the mainland, and 2.1 million were killed on Okinawa, Iwo Jima and overseas. Civilian war deaths were estimated at 800,000: 500,000 killed in Japan and 300,000 overseas. Since 1963, a government-sponsored memorial service to honor the war dead has been held every August 15, the date in 1945 when the Emperor announced the nation’s surrender by radio, at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan hall near the Imperial Palace. Speeches by prime ministers and speakers of the House of Representatives at the services have mentioned the figure of “more than 3 million” war dead. This number is based on the ministry’s figure. The domestic war dead total of 500,000 was originally compiled by Taiheiyosen Zenkoku Sensaitoshi Kubaku Giseisha Irei Kyokai, a foundation for consoling the souls of air raid victims during the Pacific War, based on the estimates by more than 100 cities that were bombed in large-scale air raids. However, many other municipalities were targets of smaller air raids during the war, so the actual figure is likely much higher.
The government has not carried out detailed studies on casualties resulting from the atomic bombs and air raids. The number of civilian victims in Manchuria and other places abroad is not certain. People were drafted into the armed forces and as civilian personnel through a notice called akagami (red paper) because of its color, but the government has been unable to calculate the actual number of Japanese war dead. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, which took over clerical work from the War and Navy Ministries, has war dead figures by region, but only in units of hundreds or thousands.
Foreign military forces that fought against Japan in the Asia-Pacific region also suffered significant casualties. According to foreign parliamentary and military government research institutions, the United States suffered between 92,000 and 100,000 deaths, including 2,335 during the Pearl Harbor attack, 6,821 on Iwo Jima, 307 in the Battle of Midway and 12,520 during the Battle of Okinawa. The Soviet Union recorded a total of 22,694 deaths, including civilians, in the war against Japan, including those in the Changkufeng Incident in 1938, the Nomonhan Incident in 1939 and in fighting after its entry into World War II against Japan. Britain puts the number of war dead of both soldiers and civilians in the Asia-Pacific region at 29,968, and the Netherlands puts its toll at about 27,600.
The Chinese government puts the combined number of soldiers and civilians killed and wounded in the war with Japan at 35 million. China has not provided a breakdown for this figure. However, a number of varying figures regarding China’s casualties during the war against Japan have been put forward. Figures available in Japan have not been accepted as reliable. According to historian Ikuhiko Hata, the original Chinese figure was based on one submitted by Defense Minister Ho Ying-chin (He Yingqin) of the Nationalist Chinese government to the Tokyo Tribunal. He put the figure of military casualties at 3,208,000 with 1,889,000 killed and 1,319,000 wounded. But this figure has grown since then. In 1985, China announced that it suffered 21.68 million casualties among soldiers and civilians, 12.21 million killed and 9.47 million wounded. In 1995, then Chinese President Jiang Zemin said the number stood at 35 million.