In this hefty tome, John Tolland describes in vivid and personal detail from the perspective of Japanese soldiers, statesmen, and civilians, the experiences of the Second World War; a conflict that drastically reshaped the global order and the Pacific region. Although the Pacific Theater did not possess the scale of the war against Germany (of the approximate 60 million people that died in the war, about 20 million were Soviet citizens, and another 8 million were Germans), the intensity and consequences proved just as fierce and substantial.
The Rising Sun
By the 1930s, the Empire of Japan had a emerged as a modern military power. It possessed a rapidly growing industrial base, a stable government, a capable military, and imperialist ambitions. Unique among modern states however, the country had an Emperor that, in theory, possessed absolute power, but in practice rarely exercised it. Rather, day to day government was determined by the Prime Minister and his cabinet, within which the Army and Navy had considerable influence. The Emperor provided general guidance and at times approved specific government policies.
The government also suffered internal dissension, with various cliques competing for influence. Most importantly, these cliques clashed about the policy towards China, and whether or not Japan should aim to conquer the country. The intensity of these disagreements reached such heights that it inspired assassinations and coup attempts. In another Japanese peculiarity, conspirators of these plots rarely suffered the death penalty (or even prison time) as the political culture of the time tolerated excesses in pursuit of defending the country’s honor.
Eventually, the war clique, led by the Army facilitated by a usually non-committal Navy, emerged victorious. Even as Japan proclaimed it was liberating China (and eventually all Asian peoples) from the imperialism of white nations, Japanese brutality and oppression caused millions of civilian deaths. A quick victory in China eluded the Japanese, even with the establishment of a puppet government and conquest of tens of millions of people.
Victims of Japanese atrocities in Nanking, China
This aggression, and the country’s eventual alliance with Nazi Germany, raised alarm in Washington and London. Both governments gradually raised pressure on Japan as relations deteriorated. All sides sensed a coming conflict.
In anticipation, the Japanese government, split as it was between its civilian and military cliques, pursued a schizophrenic policy. It haphazardly pursued a diplomatic understanding with the United States, recognizing that it lacked the resources for an extended war, while arbitrarily limiting the time it would allow itself to negotiate before making the first military strike.
Miscommunication, misunderstanding, and even mistranslation led to a political impasse between the United States and Japan. On December 7th, 1941, in a surprise attack, Japan launched a carrier airstrike, supported by mini-submarines and even a spy on Hawaii itself, against Pearl Harbor, touching off a bitter war.
One Hundred Million Die Together
Japanese military thought, informed by its samurai tradition as well its recent military experiences (particularly its victory over the Russian Empire in 1905), suffered from two disabling pathologies.
First, the Japanese Army and Navy sought to end the war through a single decisive battle. The attack on Pearl Harbor assumed that America’s aircraft carriers would be present and that sinking them would cripple American sea-power. As Japanese forces swept aside Allied forces in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, Japan abandoned the previous strategy to allow the Americans to extend themselves into Japanese held territory. Instead, the Japanese launched another risky carrier strike, this time at Midway, in the hopes of decisively turning the war into their favor. Instead, it resulted in the destruction of a considerable portion of Japan’s carrier force, which could not be easily replaced. Time and time again, Japanese military leadership at every level needlessly risked valuable military resources chasing after a fantastical final battle, often resulting in their own annihilation.
An artist’s rendition of the sinking of a Japanese carrier during the Battle of Midway
Secondly, Japanese military leadership could not countenance retreat or withdrawal in any form. By 1943, elements of the leadership realized that Japan could not defeat the United States and should sue for peace. But this option could not be seriously considered in the open without risking one’s own life. The Army and Navy regularly fed new forces into futile battles piecemeal, never mounting a seriously organized campaign that had a reasonable chance of success. Even at the tactical level, one account recalls a Japanese officer, realizing the futility of an attack, calling for his unit to retreat. When the soldiers failed to move, he instead called for them to advance, and they followed his lead toward the enemy. Once moving, he promptly turned around, and his men followed him to the rear.
These pathologies lead to a highly destructive war, forcing the Americans to fight for every inch of the beaches, jungles, and caves of the Pacific. It also led, in part, to Japan’s terrible treatment of captured prisoners, resulting in summary executions, torture, and negligence that killed thousands of Allied servicemen. It also culminated in the fire-bombings and atomic bombings of Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of people.
The remains of Hiroshima after the first use of the atomic bomb in war
Towards the end of the war, the situation of the Japanese government was desperate. It was both ready to surrender – a scenario thought impossible only four years earlier – and to suffer 100 million deaths in the defense of the home islands. Only the direct intervention of the Emperor himself quelled the Japanese spirit to continue fighting to the ultimate end.
John Tolland’s work offers an easily accessible reading of this terrible experience from start to finish. He illustrates the militant spirit of over-confident military officers who would later commit suicide rather than be captured, the plight of civilians trapped in caves fearful of American invaders that propaganda told them would rape and murder, and the breakdown of a society crushed at all levels by a combination of total war and total devotion. Most importantly, it humanizes a most inhumane war, and shows the terrible cost of humbling a proud people in the contest between nations.