Many people who experienced the Showa War have died in the 61 years since the curtain came down on the fighting. To younger generations, the war is a distant event. The Yomiuri Shimbun’s War Responsibility Reexamination Committee attempted to determine the truth behind the hostilities, examined the facts and found many lessons that can be learned. To close the committee’s yearlong reexamination process, we summarize Japan’s mistakes made by the political and military leaders:
The international situation: Japan fails to accurately grasp global trends
A nation’s future will teeter on a knife-edge if it cannot accurately read global trends and the balance of power among nations. After World War I, Japan found itself in such a situation. Escalating the Manchurian Incident was Japan’s first mistake. At the Washington Naval Conference held in Washington, D.C., from late 1921 to 1922, the Nine-Power Treaty, whose signatories agreed to respect China’s sovereignty, and the Five-Power Treaty, which limited tonnage of aircraft carriers and capital ships by Britain, France, Italy, Japan and the United States, were concluded. The Kwantung Army’s activities in Manchuria challenged these treaties, which formed the backbone of the international order at the time.
The Imperial Japanese Army’s activities in Manchuria provoked a fierce response from the United States, which advocated compliance with international agreements, nonintervention in domestic politics of other countries, market liberalization and equal opportunities. The reaction led to the Stimson Doctrine of January 1932, named after U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson. The doctrine said the United States would not recognize any territorial or administrative changes imposed on China by Japan through the use of military force.
Japan’s growing isolation from the international community was highlighted by its withdrawal from the League of Nations in March 1933. Less than seven months later, Adolf Hitler’s Germany also withdrew.
Japan’s plan to seek closer ties with Germany exacerbated this isolationism. The idea of entering Tripartite Alliance with Germany and Italy was once dropped due to circumstances in Europe described as “complicated and mysterious” by then Prime Minister Kiichiro Hiranuma. However, dazzled by Germany’s string of military victories, Japan finally concluded the Tripartite Pact in September 1940. Signing the pact allied Japan with the nation bombing London. This was a fatal choice. The Japanese military, whose leaders mostly were pro-German at that time, was unaware of the repercussions the treaty would have on the Sino-Japanese War. Britain had further clarified its stance of assisting Chiang Kai-shek, and the United States also promised substantial assistance to China. Japan had, naively, internationalized the Sino-Japanese War.
Japanese military and government leaders at that time failed to accurately grasp the international situation. They did not understand the rise of nationalism in China that set the foundations for the country’s unification after the Chinese Revolution of 1911. At the heart of the problem was the common perception in Japan in those days that “Shina [China] isn’t a country.” Japan justified its invasion of China by claiming that China was a “society of marauding bandits.” The prevailing view in Japan at that time was that Chinese people lacked the ability to establish a modern state.
Of course, a few politicians, such as Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai who was assassinated in the May 15 Incident of 1932, clearly understood nationalism in China. However, such people were shunted from the political stage early on during the Showa War by acts of terrorism by the military, making it impossible for them to influence Japan’s policy toward China. Furthermore, some Army officers who should have played important roles in policy toward China instead became “an advanced group” to lay the groundwork for invading China. Dubbed “China specialists in the Army,” they included Kenji Dohihara, chief of the Mukden Special Service Agency, and Takashi Sakai, Chief of Staff of the China Garrison Army in Tianjin. As military advisers to warlords possessing territories in China, they used conspiracies and various tactics as if they were real-life characters from the “Three Kingdom Saga.”
They ignored moves by Chiang Kai-shek and other leaders of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and the rapidly rising Communist Party led by Mao Zedong. They failed to study the two parties that would later determine China’s destiny.
The leaders lost a balanced perspective of the international situation because Japan analyzed only one-sided data collected from Germany as to the situation in Europe and from Chinese warlords concerning China.
In the Imperial Rescript on the declaration of war against the United States and Britain, Emperor Showa said the war was for “self-preservation and self-defense.” However, Japan changed the purpose of the war to create the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere after the war started. This was based on the concept of dividing the world geopolitically into four spheres—East Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Soviet Union—in which Tokyo planned to create a self-sufficient bloc of Asian nations free of Western powers led by Japan. This concept ignored the existence of China and focused too much on ideology. Consequently, it opened the door to an almost limitless expansion of battle although Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, who played an important role in wartime diplomacy, took steps such as holding the Greater East Asia Conference in November 1943.
As Japan sought to bring an end to the war, it asked the Soviet Union, which had remained a virtual enemy of Japan, to serve as a mediator in peace negotiations. Japan’s leaders were totally unaware of the fact that the Soviet Union had pledged in a secret agreement at the Yalta Conference to enter the war against Japan within two to three months of Germany’s defeat. Likewise, they had no information about the U.S. success in developing atomic weapons and the U.S.-Soviet tug of war for postwar global political leadership. In the end, Japan suffered two atomic bomb attacks and was attacked by the Soviet Union in the final days of the Showa War, which led to the incarceration of many Japanese in Siberian detention camps after the war.