Introduction and Background
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I saw Hirohito (the Emperor Showa) in person on two occasions—both at the Tokyo Basho, one of Sumo wresting’s six honbasho (main tournament). The first time I was sitting some fifty yards away as he made his entrance. He was tiny, wizened, and impassive; the deep creases falling down from the corners of his mouth giving him the appearance of permanent sadness. On the second occasion I was on the far side of the Ryogoku Kokugikan (sumo stadium) and this time I was struck by the roar of approval of the 13,000 capacity crowd that greeted his entrance.
I could not help but reflect on the different fate that had befallen Germany’s Führer and compare it to that of his Axis partner, Hirohito. It has been a question that has intrigued me ever since. However, the title of this work, Hirohito’s War does not mean that I believe that his role was identical to that of Hitler. Although Hirohito was never the entirely passive creature invented by the elaborate post-war propaganda of the Japanese Imperial Court and General Douglas MacArthur, neither was he the arch villain and prime mover behind Japan’s expansionist foreign policy imagined by some historians. In constitutional terms, although Hirohito was, at least in theory, an absolute monarch, head of state, commander-in- chief of the armed forces and godhead, by convention he operated within a framework that allocated power to different elite interest groups. Only ever nominally democratic, Japan’s constitutional checks and balances broke down in the 1930s and power shifted toward the Army and Navy.
It was a shift that the Emperor, perhaps fearing a coup d’état, was powerless to resist. Hirohito, weak and indecisive by nature, was frustrated by the Army’s aggression in Manchuria in 1931 and then later in Mainland China, yet nevertheless enjoyed the fruits of military success and conquest after the event. He may not have been as hard line as his ultranationalist generals but there is no reason to believe that the Emperor’s views differed markedly from the belief in Japanese Imperial expansion, which underlay the zeitgeist in Japan. Thus Hirohito spent most of the Pacific War dressed in military uniform and followed the tides of conflict in minute detail from the war room built in the basement of his palace—increasingly offering the military the benefits of his cryptic advice as Japan stumbled toward defeat. It is notable that the two most decisive interventions of his reign—the last being his acceptance of the Allies’ unconditional terms of surrender in August 1945—came when the army was in a state of decision-making paralysis.
As for his responsibility for Japan’s war crimes in Asia, including mass executions, the use of gas and biological weapons and human experimentation, it seems unlikely that Hirohito was totally unaware of atrocities, particularly in China. However, there is no proof that he was informed about them and certainly no evidence that he was in any way an instigator of policies that in the case of China, where an estimated twenty million civilians died, were in effect genocidal. In international war crimes law, as established at the tribunals at Nürnberg, Tokyo, Shanghai, Darwin and elsewhere after World War II, guilt for atrocities was determined merely by dint of responsibility. In other words ignorance of war crimes was no defense for the senior commanders on trial. On this principle, Hirohito, as Japan’s commander-in- chief, would almost certainly have been found guilty and executed if he had been placed before the Tokyo Tribunal. He was saved by MacArthur’s arbitrary and misguided decision that Hirohito was the key to the post-war stability of Japan.
Whatever the legal and constitutional position of Hirohito, there can be no denying the centrality of his person in the mythology of Japanese exceptionalism. In the post- Meiji Restoration period, the role of the Emperor was put at the heart of an all-encompassing state philosophy and in the Pacific War, Hirohito was the idol for which millions of Japanese soldiers died. As Prime Minister Tojo said in 1942, “The Emperor is the Godhead . . . and we, no matter how hard we strive as Ministers, are nothing more than human.” Many of Japan’s soldiers, in suicidal charges, uttered the last words, Tenno Heika Banzai! (Long live the Emperor!) Hirohito may not have been the prime mover of the Pacific War, but he was certainly its embodiment.
Understanding Hirohito’s role was just one objective of writing a history of the Pacific War. In working on my previous book Empires at War: A Short History of Modern Asia since World War II , it became evident that both the origins and conduct of the Pacific War were historical issues inviting further investigation. Hirohito’s War: The Pacific War, 1941–1945 is a result of this work and also serves as a prequel to my earlier publication.
In spite of the vast and growing literature of the Pacific War, there has been no recent comprehensive one-volume history of the conflict. Indeed since 1945, there have only been three: The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936–1945  by John Toland, The Pacific War 1941–1945  by John Costello, and Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan  by Ronald Spector. While these books have their strengths, they have all become somewhat dated. The main aim of writing Hirohito’s War has been to present a balanced, comprehensive and readable one-volume narrative of the conflict. The book takes advantage of the new material that has become available over the last few decades. Although the written history of the Pacific War is abundant in thousands of narrower studies, many of them superb, I nevertheless believe that there is a point to a one-volume history that is written with a single and consistent voice. Without it, a balanced overview of the war is not possible.
The narrative structure of Hirohito’s War is different from other histories of the Pacific War. The approach I have taken reflects some of its unique characteristics. First, there is the matter of geographic scale. World War II in Europe took place on a battlefield that was approximately 3m square miles in size (based on a 1,000 mile radius from Berlin). By comparison the Pacific War took place on a battlefield of approximately 28m square miles (based on a 3,000 mile radius from Tokyo).[Map: 0.1]
Second, whereas the war in Europe was mainly two-dimensional (land and air), the war in the Pacific was four-dimensional (land, air, sea and undersea). Although the maritime components were present in the war in Europe they were, apart from the first twelve months, minor elements of the conflict.
Third, the war in the Pacific, unlike Europe, was fought throughout on multiple fronts and in multiple dimensions at the same time. In 1944 battles were raging in the Pacific Islands, New Guinea, the Philippines, northern, central and southern China, Northern Burma and the Burma-India borders.
As a consequence of these special characteristics, the Pacific War was probably the most complex conflict geopolitically, geographically and militarily since the Thirty Years War of 1618–1648. Over the last decade new tools have been transformational in helping to understand the nature of the war. Google Maps for instance has enabled the historian to drill down onto the terrain of battles that are particularly difficult to understand without a detailed understanding of the topography. The fighting of the Pacific War was highly characterized by its unique geography and concomitant logistical requirements. The South Pacific’s geography in particular adds a complexity which may be one of the reasons that there have been so few attempts at writing a comprehensive one-volume history of the conflict. A pure linear timeline narrative of the action of the Pacific War, as undertaken by others, sees the storyline constantly jump from region to region. It is a structure that makes analysis and understanding of the strategic issues of each regional campaign difficult to comprehend.
My approach has therefore been to tell timeline narratives based on individual campaigns rather than across multiple campaigns. Hirohito’s War therefore divides up the narrative into chapters based on individual campaigns or battles. Timelines aim to be consistent within chapters if not always between the thirty-seven chapters into which the book is divided. However, as an aid to readers, an overall timeline of key events is included in the appendices. Hirohito’s War is structured as follows:
Chapter 1 (Part I: Meiji Restoration: 1868) sets out the historical context of the Pacific War between 1868 and 1930.
Chapters 2–4 (Part II : Japan versus America and the World: 1931–1941) describe the events leading up to the Pacific War and evaluate the causes of the conflict.
Chapters 5–10 (Part III : Hirohito’s Whirlwind Conquests: December 1941–June 1942) narrate Japan’s riotous military conquest and expansion in the first six months of the war.
Chapters 11–19 (Part IV: ‘Victory Disease’: Japan’s Reversal of Fortune: June– December 1942) analyse the turning point battles and campaigns of the Pacific War.
Chapters 20–28 (Part V: Toil and Sweat: The Pacific, India, Burma, and China: January 1943–June 1944) report the hard fought battles and campaigns of the middle years of the Pacific War.
Chapters 29–33 (Part VI: Japan’s Forces of Empire Annihilated: June 1944–February 1945) explain the reasons for the crushing Allied victories that put an end to Japan’s imperial ambitions.
Chapters 34–37 (Part VII : Destruction of Japan’s Homeland: February 1945–August 1945) cover the battles on and over Japanese soil as America prepared for the invasion of its four main islands—a campaign that was obviated by Hirohito’s surrender after the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The subjects of Economics, Logistics, the Submarine War, the Japanese Empire, Kamikaze and Intelligence, which have been interwoven in the narrative of Hirohito’s War, have also been included in the appendices as thematic studies. Another theme given particular emphasis is the importance of technology in tipping the balance of the war toward the United States. In 1939 the world was at the cusp of moving from a purely mechanical age to an electro-mechanic age and the onset of war speeded up the adoption of new technologies that had a significant impact on the outcome of the war as well as global prosperity in the succeeding decades. In addition an appendix has been included on the outlying engagements such as the Battle of Hong Kong and the Battle of Attu. A short counterfactual history essay on the “what if ” question, Could Japan have won the Pacific War? is also included as an appendix. This essay argues that victory for the Allies was not inevitable. History is awash with examples of Davids beating Goliaths. Athens’ and Sparta’s defeat of Persia in the fifth century BC is just one important example. Extensive maps, charts, lists, drawings and diagrams have been included in the appendices.
In looking at the origins of the Pacific War, I have sought to place the conflict within the context of a 100-year struggle for the domination of the Pacific between the United States and its competitors, particularly Japan. Hirohito’s War argues that it is pointless to look in isolation at Japan’s imperial aggression as the cause of the Pacific War. The economic, social and political implosion of China from its pinnacle as the world’s strongest nation at the beginning of the nineteenth century is central to the story of the destabilization of Asia in which the Western powers, as well as Russia (later the Soviet Union) and Japan scrambled for pieces of its former regional superpower. After World War I, the establishment of a “Pax Anglo-Saxon” in the form of the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations and the Washington System was fatally undermined by the failure of the Western powers to underwrite their international structures with concomitant force.
Finally, in a global context, President Franklin Roosevelt’s determination to prevent America from being locked out of incipient autarkic empires and their markets in Europe and Asia, led him to bring America out of its 1930s isolation to confront fascism that not only threatened America’s own Asian Empire but also its opportunities for global commercial expansion. By his de facto embargo of oil supplies to Japan in July 1941, arguably an act of war in itself, Roosevelt forced Japan’s leaders to consider a war with America—a conflict both sides had contemplated for decades. Faced with the unpalatable alternative of yielding to America’s demand that it withdraw its armies from China, Japan’s leaders determined on a high-risk strategy of attacking Pearl Harbor with the hope of battering America into accepting its imperial ambitions. The result triggered all-out war for America with both Japan and Germany.
The Pacific War is the most written about subject in American history and, perhaps not surprisingly, the focus of American historians tends to be very largely on the campaigns in the Pacific. An unscientific poll of American friends and acquaintances with no strong interest in history normally produces the recall of just five events: Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Hiroshima. The importance of mainland Asia, particularly China but also Burma, is largely eviscerated from the American narrative. Yet China provided not only the casus belli but also the vast majority of the military casualties of the Pacific War — some four million dead compared to 110,000 Americans. Similarly overlooked has been the contribution of the Australians in the “turnaround” battles of the Pacific War; the all-conquering Japanese Armies suffered their first major defeats, not at Guadalcanal, but at the Battles of the Kokoda Trail at the hands of Australian troops. In part this neglect has been the legacy of General MacArthur whose brilliant propaganda machine wrote Australia out of the picture. Partly as a result, British and American historians in the post-war period have largely ignored the significant Australian contribution to the war effort. The campaign in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) has similarly been overlooked although their oil was the primary objective of the Japanese Army’s sweep through South East Asia.
Readers of Hirohito’s War will be confronted with the remarkable effect that MacArthur, the Pacific War’s totemic military figure, had on America’s conduct of the Pacific War and its historiography. MacArthur was fortunate that his reputation was rescued after his bungled defense of the Philippines, his incompetence during the Battles of the Kokoda Trail on New Guinea and his mistakes at the Battles of Buna and Gona. It was rescued not only by his skills as a politician, propagandist and self-publicist but also by much more able American generals under his command such as Lieutenant- General Robert Eichelberger, Lieutenant-General Walter Krueger and US Army Air Force Lieutenant-General George Kenney—a cadre of superb army officers whose achievements were suppressed by comparison with their European counterparts such as Generals George Patton and Omar Bradley. Apart from seeking to debunk the remnants of the MacArthur myth, Hirohito’s War also questions the role of General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell in the Allies’ military debacle in China and its post-war loss to Chairman Mao’s Red Army.
Hirohito’s War puts aside the issue of atrocities to look dispassionately at the capabilities of Japanese commanders. It is argued that Japan’s commanders at the start of the war were a great deal more able than their western counterparts and led troops who were among the finest of the Pacific War, both in terms of bravery and technique. Japan’s commanders were not the unimaginative, one-dimensional soldiers as they are often portrayed. They were aggressive, resourceful, creative and technically highly proficient. Japanese Army units proved as robust in defense as they were fluid in attack—hence it took them just six months to win a new empire after Pearl Harbor while it took the Allies three years to win it back.
Arguably General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the conqueror of Malaya, was the finest of the Japanese generals whose ranks included exceptional soldiers such as Lieutenant- General Masaharu Homma, Lieutenant-General Shojiro Iida and General Shinroku Hata. As with many of his colleagues Yamashita had to operate on the tightest of logistical margins, which made his victories even more remarkable. These men were not the brutes often described in the post-war period and were often more cultured and accomplished than their western counterparts. The conquest of the Pacific and South East Asia was a stunning military achievement by a Japanese Army that was, contrary to most post-war belief, largely unprepared for a jungle campaign. With the Japanese economy already in total war mode to fight the continuing Second Sino-Japanese War, the conquests of Malaya, Burma, Indonesia, New Guinea and the Pacific were achieved on the thinnest of operating resources with hastily prepared troops brought from the temperate to cold conditions of Manchuria and northern China.
British historians, like their American counterparts, have tended to focus on the actions where their nation’s troops were represented. Burma has inevitably come to be seen by the British as a central stage of the Pacific War, whereas it was in fact a sideshow, if not without importance. The war in Burma conducted by the British, but mainly with Indian and Chinese troops, had its strategic purpose in keeping Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (Nationalist) forces supplied and active in the war. In absorbing the resources of the Japanese Army, the Kuomintang armies played in terms of human life the same sacrificial role in Asia that Soviet forces played in Europe. American and British historians have tended to ignore the centrality to the narrative of the Pacific War of China and the Second Sino-Japanese War. Many Japanese refer to World War II as the Great East Asia War, the Asia-Pacific War or the Fifteen Year War. I would argue that the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in the suburbs of Peking in July 1937 would be the more logical date for the beginning of World War II. That its start date is normally given as 1 September 1939, after the German invasion of Poland, merely reflects the western-centric narrative that has been dominant in the post-war period.
For the same reasons the West has tended to ignore the role of Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang in defeating the Japanese Empire. Much of this effort was achieved in the first four years of the Second Sino-Japanese War starting in September 1937, in which China drew Japan into a war of attrition that ultimately debilitated its ability to fight a protracted war with the West. The war of attrition in China also undermined the Kuomintang armies. Contrary to the myths propagated by General Stilwell at the end of the war and by the New Deal supporters of Mao Zedong, Chiang Kai-shek’s armies did not flinch from the fight; after 1942, they were simply too exhausted and under-resourced to do anything other than to try to defend the territories under their control until the issues of supply from America were finally resolved by Brigadier-General William Tunner in 1945. (He would go on to expedite the Berlin airlift in 1948.)
The conflict in Burma was important in one particular respect. At the Battle of Imphal in northeast India, in his complete annihilation of a 100,000 strong army led by Lieutenant-General Renya Mutaguchi, Lieutenant-General ‘Bill’ Slim proved himself the finest field commander of the Pacific War in a battle, which was unique in the conflict. It was the only occasion on which two armies met while intent on advancing into each other’s territories. It was a strategic and tactical triumph for Slim who followed it up with an equally crushing victory at the Battle of the Irrawaddy River, the most fluid tactical military victory achieved by either side’s armies during the war. Slim’s innovations would also point to the future of strategic and tactical deployment.
As for the naval war, Hirohito’s War demonstrates how it was America’s inferior pre-war navy, not the one under construction in America, which brought Japan’s expansion to a halt in the Pacific in the summer of 1941, first at the Battle of the Coral Sea and then at the Battle of Midway. Good fortune and mistakes by Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto, not the paladin often portrayed, played a significant part. Particular emphasis is then placed on the often-neglected naval engagements of the Guadalcanal campaign that significantly degraded the formerly superb Japanese Navy. Admiral Raymond Spruance is highlighted as America’s most able commander, while ‘Bull’ Halsey, the more famous and charismatic leader, is shown to have been increasingly reckless and unreliable as the war drew to a close.
Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander-in- chief of the US Pacific Fleet, was an able commander whose only major mistake was the invasion of the island of Peleliu at the end of his thrust through the Central Pacific. In Washington, Admiral Ernest King is shown to be the brilliant and aggressive navy leader who orchestrated the US Navy’s success in the Pacific and America’s winning strategy. On the ground the Marines deserved their reputation as the peerless shock troops of America’s advance in the Pacific. Overlooked groups such as the American submariners and their leader, Admiral Charles Lockwood are given due prominence, as are the US intelligence officers in Washington and Hawaii. Similar weight is given to the US Navy’s remarkable logistical organization built by Vice-Admiral William Calhoun and to the Seabees, the Naval Construction Battalions, who made Nimitz’s winning Pacific advance possible. It is interesting to note that in the current age, when a political union the size of Europe is barely able to field 20,000 troops outside its borders, America, in the Pacific War, supported an army of 1.5m troops in Asia and the Pacific at distances as far as 8,000 miles from the West and East Coasts of the United States. (Military components or equipment manufactured on America’s West Coast might have to travel by train to the East Coast, boat across the Atlantic and round the Horn of Africa, train from Bombay to Calcutta, narrow gage to Dimapur in the Indian state of Nagaland, truck to airfields in northern Assam, flight over the Himalayan hump to Kunming, and finally by truck to Chongqing or central China—a circuitous journey of almost 15,000 miles.) At the same time that America was providing for its own troops, it was also giving critical supply and logistical support to its Allies, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, China and Australia. The Pacific War represented the largest logistical military exercise that the world is ever likely to witness. [Map: 0.2] The scale of the Pacific War meant that World War II was the first genuine ‘World War’ whereas World War I would be better described as a European war or the Great War as it was originally called.
Finally, it is shown that in the late 1930s armed forces were in the process of a dramatic shift in technology from the purely mechanical to the electro-mechanical. War hastened the process of technological change in a wide number of areas, including fire and control, servo motors, radar, decryption, manufacturing automation, mass assembly, communications, explosives, automatic weapons, engine design, aeronautics and of course the atom bomb. Hirohito’s War explains how America won the technological war. As a result, in the course of the Pacific War, Japan was qualitatively as well as quantitatively outgunned.
Japan’s war strategy was predicated on the mistaken belief that a rapid victory and settlement was possible. As the war dragged on, it was a conflict that Japan found was logistically and economically unsustainable in the face of an American enemy that found the will to fight for unconditional surrender. Ultimately America won the Pacific War because it could harness its huge under-utilized pre-war industrial capacity not only to produce more weapons but also better ones. Furthermore by mobilizing its economic and logistical resources America was able to project its firepower at distances from American shores that would have been inconceivable a generation earlier.
At the forefront of the range-extending technological war was the aircraft carrier, whose arrival on the world stage as the key weapons system of the conflict was only announced by Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on 8 December 1941. The battleship, until then the principal weapon of mass destruction for all of the interwar period, was instantly relegated. Hirohito’s War shows that with its aircraft carriers, in their infancy as a weapons system, and so complex and advanced that still only nine countries have ever built and operated one, the United States made the better technological and operational choices. In addition, although the Mitsubishi Zero A6M appeared all-conquering as a fighter plane in the first few months of the war, by the summer of 1942 the Marine and US Army Air Forces had nullified its superior flying characteristics as a result of better training and tactics. Thereafter the Zero rapidly became technologically redundant as America produced better, more heavily armed and faster fighter aircraft. Not only did Japan’s armed forces choose the wrong design route for its fighters—light and maneuverable rather than America’s heavily armed, armored and robust aircraft—but also its designers and factories could never keep up with technological advance. In exasperation at America’s fighter dominance in the air, Japan eventually had to turn to using its pilots as Kamikaze, not an illogical choice of tactic in the circumstances but one whose effectiveness helped make the decision to drop an atom bomb an easy one to make.
Lastly, in the writing of Hirohito’s War, I have not forgotten that war is not just about geopolitics, technology and strategy. The Pacific War was fought by ordinary Allied and Japanese soldiers, sailors and aviators, most of them called-up civilian recruits, who operated in the most difficult of conditions—usually thousands of miles from home. Arguably in the sparsely populated jungles of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, Japanese and Allied soldiers fought in probably the most hostile topographical environment of any war in history. The living and fighting conditions of the foot-soldiers and seamen, both American and Japanese, including food, clothing, accommodation, disease, and medical treatment, are described in detail, often using their own words. Neither are the sufferings of civilians ignored, particularly those who faced imprisonment and the barely credible scale and barbarity of atrocities committed by the Japanese armed forces. The moral issues of bombing—conventional, fire-bombing and the atom bomb—are also confronted. It was a war that posed unique questions concerning morality, justice, blame and accountability—issues that are still alive and relevant today.
Hirohito’s War shows that the Pacific War was an astonishing triumph of arms for America at significant human cost but little economic pain. It is easy to forget that in the history of warfare, the conquest of one nation by another by invasion by sea has rarely been accomplished, let alone at a distance of 6,000 miles. By comparison it should be noted in World War II Germany failed to negotiate the 25 miles of the English Channel. Those who blithely assert that American victory was inevitable should think again. Thereafter, America’s victory in the Pacific, over which it achieved mastery, set the stage for Asia’s remarkable surge in prosperity in the post-war period. For Japan the war, under the leadership of the hapless Hirohito, was a human and economic tragedy from which it nevertheless recovered rapidly under the umbrella of American protection. For Britain the Pacific War brought the curtain down on it great Asian empire as it struggled to deal with its reduced circumstances at home. The United States meanwhile embarked on an époque of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity with an economy far more productive and technologically advanced than the one with which it had started World War II.
For China, its principal victim, the Pacific War was just the start and probably the major cause of a national calamity that, under the aegis of Mao Zedong, would run for a further thirty-five years. The irony for America and Japan, two nations implacably hostile to Marxist-Leninist ideology in the pre-war period, is that the Pacific War was significantly responsible for condemning them to a much longer drawn-out war against communism in Asia in the second half of the twentieth century.