Middle-ranked officers also to blame
Top-ranking political and military leaders were not necessarily solely responsible for the Showa War. Army and Naval General Staff officers, whose duty was to draw up plans for various military operations in support of the military leadership, were not entitled to have command authority. But arbitrary, unbridled actions and misjudgment by staff officers and bureaucrats seriously affected the nation’s direction.
Kanji Ishihara, a Kwantung Army staff officer, was the first staff officer in the Japanese forces to manipulate his commander and carry out military operations at will. At the time of the Manchurian Incident in 1931, Ishihara was only a lieutenant colonel, but he forced Kwantung Army Commander Shigeru Honjo to behave submissively toward him and his cohorts. The Cabinet of Prime Minister Reijiro Wakatsuki rubber-stamped a dispatch of military forces to Manchuria after the Japanese troops stationed in Korea had arbitrarily crossed the border into Manchuria. The Cabinet apparently could not resist the lure of going along with what had become a fait accompli after considering the benefits that could be gained. Ishihara gave Japan a large foothold from which to invade other countries and established what should be called the “Ishihara model”—a military-led political model under which military staff officers gain control of state power to effect their policies.
Akira Muto and Shinichi Tanaka, staff officers of the Kwantung Army, followed suit. Seishiro Itagaki, another staff officer of the Kwantung Army, was Ishihara’s closest ally. They worked closely with Kenji Dohihara, chief of the Mukden Special Service Agency, and finally established Manchukuo as Japan’s puppet state in Manchuria. Ishihara, Itagaki and Dohihara became “heroes,” although in reality they were rebels who violated the Imperial Japanese Army’s penal code by arbitrarily moving units. Itagaki and Dohihara moved forward with plots to put northern China under Japanese control through additional, suspect actions. Itagaki, later as War Minister in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Kiichiro Hiranuma, also supported signing the Tripartite Alliance with Germany and Italy.
Lieutenant Colonel Teiichi Suzuki, working for the War Ministry’s Military Affairs Bureau, played a central role in Mokuyo-kai (Thursday Society), an association of general staff officers such as Ishihara and Hideki Tojo. Suzuki became a member of the Cabinet Research Board. He later led the Political Affairs Section of the Asia Development Board before becoming President of the Cabinet Planning Board. Suzuki not only worked in military-related offices, but got himself constantly involved in a diverse array of general and economic policies. At the Imperial Headquarters-Government Liaison Conference, he presented fabricated data in an analysis of national power concerning prospects for the management of the war, which paved the way to open the war.
Some reformist officers ranked lieutenant colonel or lower set up a club named Sakura-kai (Cherry Society), led by Lieutenant Colonel Kingoro Hashimoto, who masterminded two coup d’etat attempts—the March Incident and the October Incident—in collaboration with leading nationalist Shumei Okawa. Hashimoto continued his unsanctioned actions during the Sino-Japanese War. As chief of the Thirteenth Heavy Field Artillery Regiment, he shelled the British vessel HMS Ladybird on the Yangtze in December 1937.
When Japan was about to embark on the war against the United States, Akira Muto was chief of the War Ministry’s Military Affairs Bureau and Takazumi Oka was his counterpart at the Navy Ministry. They played a central role in drawing up national policies and significantly influenced the selection of prime ministers and cabinet ministers. Muto engaged in all kinds of political maneuvers. He forced Shunroku Hata to resign as War Minister in the overthrow of the Cabinet of Prime Minister Mitsumasa Yonai, who had served in the Navy. Muto had the second Cabinet of Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe, which followed that of Yonai, decide the “Basic National Policy Outline,” which stipulated the establishment of a “new order in Greater East Asia” and formed a policy to prepare the entire populace to defending the nation.
Kenryo Sato, Tojo’s close aide who replaced Muto, played a crucial role among those who supported Tojo’s leadership—namely Vice War Minister Heitaro Kimura and Joichiro Sanada, chief of the Operations Section of the Army General Staff. Sato had a scuffle and exchanged blows with Operations Bureau chief Shinichi Tanaka, who opposed Tojo’s plans for Guadalcanal operations. At the time of the Battle of Leyte, Sato even interfered with the Navy’s operation. “We should take heed of lessons learned from the death of Combined Fleet seamen and utilize these lessons for our future war management,” he said, showing support for future operations without prospects for success.
Oka belonged to a pro-Tripartite Alliance camp within the Navy. After he assumed the post in the Naval Affairs Bureau in October 1940, the Navy’s hard-line stance toward the United States stiffened further. Oka created the Second Section in the bureau, aiming to give the Navy more influence than the Army in leading the nation’s policy. Captain Shingo Ishikawa was singled out to head the important section because he was “fond of politics,” having a broad network of political allies. Within the Navy, Ishikawa, along with Toshitane Takada, chief of the First Section of the Naval Affairs Bureau, and Sadatoshi Tomioka, chief of the Operations Section, continued to advocate their hard-line ideas. They cracked the whip at superiors who hesitated to advance into southern French Indochina, and strongly insisted Japan should wage war against the United States.
”It’s like a captain is guiding the Navy,” grumbled Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue.
After the war broke out, Ishikawa said, “I’m the one who brought Japan into the war.”
Before the war started, the Naval General Staff argued for an orthodox strategy of ensuring stable supplies of resources in preparation for a lengthy battle by placing Southeast Asia under Japan’s influence.
However, Combined Fleet Commander-in-Chief Isoroku Yamamoto insisted on making a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Captain Kameto Kuroshima, Senior Staff Officer of the Combined Fleet, persuaded the Naval General Staff to approve Yamamoto’s plan, but the surprise attack enraged the United States and provoked a relentless full-blown response. After Yamamoto’s death, Kuroshima became director of the Second Bureau (Weapons and Mobilization) of the Naval General Staff. He was involved in the development of special suicide attack weapons, believing it would be impossible to win the war using conventional tactics.
After a Japanese fleet was crushed in the Battle of Midway, Shigeru Fukutome, chief of the Naval General Staff’s First Bureau (Operations), said to his subordinates, “The losses were massive.” However, he instructed them to conceal the extent of the losses suffered in the battle from political leaders.
He did not change his behavior even after he was appointed Chief of Staff of the Combined Fleet. Mineichi Koga, Commander-in-Chief of the fleet, was not informed of operations and war situations and, therefore, he sometimes had to ask young officers, “How is the war situation now?”
In March 1944, Fukutome’s plane crashed on Cebu Island, the Philippines, as he fled from an air raid in Palau. Confidential documents he was carrying were taken by local guerrillas and passed to U.S. forces.
Tasuku Nakazawa, who replaced Fukutome as Operations Bureau director in June 1943, finally approved the start of kamikaze suicide operations after Japanese forces suffered a succession of losses in sea battles, including those off the Mariana Islands and Leyte Island, and Takijiro Onishi, Commander of the First Naval Air Fleet in Manila, ordered the first attack by a kamikaze special attack force in October 1944.
Colonel Shinichi Tanaka, when he was chief of the War Ministry’s Military Service Section, contributed to the expansion of the Sino-Japanese War. Tanaka became Operations Bureau chief of the Army General Staff in October 1940. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Tanaka initiated preparations for war against the Soviet Union. The Kwantung Army mobilized 700,000 soldiers to prevent a Soviet invasion. At the same time, Tanaka championed the conquest of southern French Indochina. A typical Army General Staff officer, Tanaka was extremely vocal with his hawkish ideas, especially in emergency situations. Renya Mutaguchi, the Fifteenth Army Commander, was another officer who tenaciously stuck to reckless hard-line theories. Mutaguchi, who was trained by Tojo, commanded operations in the Battle of Imphal, in which 72,500 troops were killed or wounded.
Hiroshi Oshima was a former Army officer who became Ambassador to Germany. His pro-German attitude was extreme. When Oshima was a Military Attach at the Japanese Embassy in 1936, he started negotiations over the Anti-Comintern Pact with German Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Joachim Von Ribbentrop—without reporting to the Foreign Ministry—and concluded the bilateral pact. Around the start of the Japan-U.S. War, he failed to forecast that Germany would attack the Soviet Union, and he also kept sending reports to Japan that mirrored his blind belief that Germany was assured of victory. Ambassador to Italy Toshio Shiratori, as a leader of the Foreign Ministry’s pro-reform group, substantially influenced young bureaucrats. He eagerly supported signing the Tripartite Alliance with Germany and Italy. “It’s natural that Japan, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union immediately stand up together and place themselves as equals to those who want to maintain the status quo,” he said.