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Originally published Sunday, November 3, 2013 at 4:06 AM

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‘Japan 1941’: massive misjudgments led to war

In “Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy,” Japanese-born historian Eri Hotta examines the misjudgments and misunderstandings that led Japanese government officials to believe that America would be easily and quickly vanquished in any conflict.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy’

by Eri Hotta

Knopf, 320 pp., $27.95

Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941? Japan had been trying to conquer China for four years. Why pick a fight with unbloodied America?

In “Japan 1941,” Japanese-born historian Eri Hotta focuses on the leaders: Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka, “so hyperactive that some thought he was addicted to cocaine;” the “notoriously evasive” Prince Fumimaro Konoe, prime minister until October 1941, and his successor, Gen. Hideki Tojo, clean living, honorable, unimaginative and obsessed with not dishonoring the Army’s dead.

Hotta’s strength is in sketching these characters. “Matsuoka was a Kabuki actor, overstating his every move and line to thrill the audience,” she writes, “while Konoe was a Noh actor, moving very little and concealing his intentions behind a silent, expressionless mask ...”

Matsuoka, who had negotiated the alliance with Mussolini and Hitler, knew America. He was a Duck: He had earned a law degree at the University of Oregon. He had even converted to Methodism. But he had bad judgment about his former host country.

America was not asleep. By mid-1941 the U.S. government was rhetorically an enemy of the Axis powers and was supplying the Allies with arms. When Japan seized Vietnam, President Franklin Roosevelt froze Japanese assets and cut off shipments of petroleum. The U.S. demanded that Japan withdraw from Indochina and China.

Other writers have questioned the bellicosity of American diplomacy. Hotta focuses on the delusionary and prideful actions of Japan.

Its leaders were apprised of the odds. In August 1941, young officers at Japan’s war college presented them with the results of war games that imagined a three-year war. Their conclusion: Japan would run out of resources and lose.

But diplomacy was not getting Japan’s leaders what they wanted. Their response was to set a time limit on talk, with war as the automatic alternative. They imagined a short war, a quick punch to the jaw that would make the Americans more agreeable to Japan’s imperial ambitions in Asia.

A number of high-level Japanese military men thought this made no sense. The general who headed Japan’s army in China advised against a second war. The admiral who proposed the attack on Pearl Harbor, Isoroku Yamamoto, knew America. He had attended Harvard. He was an admirer of Abraham Lincoln. Yamamoto thought attacking America was a bad idea, but “if it had to be fought,” Hotta writes, “he could not see anyone but himself in charge of it.”

Japan’s culture of consensus made it difficult for the realists to challenge the dreamers. By early October 1941, Prime Minister Konoe had reluctantly decided that Japan would have to concede to U.S. demands and withdraw from China — but he kept his thoughts to himself, writes Hotta, “in the hope that things would get fixed in a less confrontational, more furtive manner ...”

He was replaced by Tojo. To the general, the thought of withdrawing from China was hateful because it meant Japan’s soldiers had died in vain.

Japan went to war, Hotta writes, knowing the odds were poor and feeling a “gambler’s high.” Her account is a warning to any country that would talk itself into a foolish war.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.

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