“There was lit­tle room for diplo­macy in Ja­pan’s in­creas­ingly ex­treme world view”

BBC History Magazine - - Anniversaries - Dr Christo­pher Hard­ing

Why did the US not dis­cover the plan to at­tack Pearl Har­bor be­fore it was too late? By De­cem­ber 1941, Amer­i­can de­crypt­ing ma­chines were crack­ing the code used to send mes­sages be­tween Tokyo’s For­eign Min­istry and Ja­panese em­bassies around the world. But the For­eign Min­istry was un­aware of the specifics of the Pearl Har­bor plan – it had been cooked up within the Navy Min­istry. The US sim­ply didn’t get hold of the right in­tel­li­gence in time.

Here was a rare ex­am­ple of the di­vi­sions in­side Ja­pan’s power struc­tures work­ing in the coun­try’s favour. Across the 1930s and into the 1940s, fac­tions in Ja­pan’s pol­i­tics, bu­reau­cracy and mil­i­tary fought vi­ciously over their coun­try’s place in the world, with the most ex­treme points of view steadily win­ning out: Ja­pan as a cen­tury-long vic­tim of grasp­ing, white western im­pe­ri­al­ism; Ja­pan now fa­tally en­cir­cled by those pow­ers and their east Asian al­lies.

There was lit­tle room for diplo­macy in a world view like this. In­stead, an un­winnable but un­stop­pable war was launched in China, at the cost of 20 mil­lion Chi­nese lives and the poi­son­ing of re­la­tions with Amer­ica to the point where Pearl Har­bor be­came in­evitable – not as grand strat­egy, but as a des­per­ate at­tempt to es­cape the quag­mire cre­ated by Ja­pan’s di­vided lead­er­ship. On these terms, Pearl Har­bor was a per­verse suc­cess: within a few years, Amer­i­can anger would force an apoc­a­lyp­tic wip­ing clean of the slate.

Dr Christo­pher Hard­ingis the au­thor of Ja­pan Story: In Search of a Na­tion, 1850 to the Present, pub­lished this month (Allen Lane)

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