The Misplaced Confidence of Hideki Tojo
Japanese Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo hadn’t even seen the results of the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor when he started to declare Japan’s ability to defeat the United States and Allied forces in the Pacific. It’s known that the Japanese leadership had great confidence in their navy, but the fact that Tojo was already declaring the Empire’s victory before the first bombs were dropped is a new revelation that paints a picture of the nation’s overconfidence.
A Memo Comes to Light
A five-page memo written by Internal Affairs Vice Minister Michio Yuzawa was recently discovered by Takeo Hatano, a secondhand bookstore owner in Tokyo. Both The Japan Times and Yomiuri Shimbun, two major Japanese newspapers, confirmed what was in the memo, which paints a clear picture of Tojo’s frame of mind in the days and hours leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The memo was written by Yuzawa on December 7, 1941 at 11:20 PM local time (4:20 AM in Hawaii). At that point, a meeting including Yuzawa, Army Vice Minister Heitaro Kimura, and Tojo had ended several hours earlier and the attack on Pearl Harbor was less than four hours away. Yuzawa claimed in the memo that he wrote it because he “was deeply moved and felt honored" to be a part of the war preparations.
“I’m perfectly relieved,” Yuzawa quoted Prime Minister Tojo in the memo. “You can say we have already won [the war], given the current situation.” The situation Tojo was referring to isn’t entirely clear, though it may have to do with the planned attack on Pearl Harbor or Emperor Hirohito’s endorsement of the preparations of war.
According to Takahisa Furukawa, a professor of history at Nihon University who was interviewed by The Japan Times, the memo showed Tojo’s elation before the Pearl Harbor attack began. “This was a private chat. I think Tojo was saying what he was actually feeling,” Furukawa stated after studying the historic memo.
The memo also puts to rest any doubts about how Emperor Hirohito felt as the hour of the attack neared. Though he was known for having had early reservations about going to war with the United States, the memo indicates a calmer state of mind after endorsing the Japanese government’s decision to go to war.
Tojo’s relief after completing the administrative steps necessary for launching the attack and receiving Hirohito’s final approval indicate that he approached the war not as a military leader but as a politician. According to The Japan Times, Tojo’s elation seemed to be more about gaining the Emperor’s approval.
Another historian, University of Shizuoka professor Atsushi Moriyama, commenting on Tojo’s view of the impending war, called it “very narrow-sighted” as it ignored the other factors that would determine the ultimate victory or defeat. Tojo's thinking seems to have been influenced mainly by the preparations he had been involved in, without taking into account other variables such as advances in the American fleet or even the possible failure of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Moriyama explains “The memo vividly showed [Tojo] was very happy because the Emperor approved of his preparations.”
What Tojo ignored or overlooked in his excitement were the warnings of top government and military leaders. As Moriyama told The Japan Times, these officials admitted that Japan could sustain several victories early in the war, but were unsure of the nation’s ability to continue the successes considering its limited resources. As the newly-discovered memo shows, Tojo dismissed these claims.
Unfortunately for Tojo, just as the military officials feared, Japan lost momentum shortly into the war and, on September 2, 1945, was forced to surrender to the Allies.