The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

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AUGUST 2014

Sunk Cost
A biting analysis of precursors to Pearl Harbor


By Vicki L. Beyer


BookFranklin Roosevelt spoke the words “a day that will live in infamy” over 70 years ago. Yet, there are few Americans who would fail to recognize the phrase and associate it with the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the beginning of World War II in the Pacific.

Eri Hotta’s book, Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy, provides the reader with access to the Japanese perspective on that pivotal year in history.

Although Hotta is unable to give an entirely satisfactory explanation of why Japanese leadership took their nation into a war they knew Japan could not win, she offers a number of viable reasons, including one that resonates with Americans in their current war on terrorism: sunk cost.

Japan could not readily withdraw from northern China, which it had invaded in 1937, because such a withdrawal would dishonor those who had died there and be an open admission of the futility of the cause.

The leaders made various rationalizations. As Hotta tells us: “Having talked themselves into believing that they were victims of circumstances rather than aggressors, they discarded less heroic but more rational options and hesitantly yet defiantly propelled the country on a war course . . . [T]hat they didn’t think about what would happen afterward was a tragic act of negligence.”

Indeed, much of Hotta’s well-paced narrative of the events of 1941 smacks of tragedy.

“From April to December 1941, the Japanese leadership made a series of decisions that many at first failed to recognize as constituting a doomed path toward war. But with each step, room for maneuver was lost.”

Hotta shows us key government and military leaders of the day in ways that we might not have viewed them before, providing insights into the underlying personalities that contributed to the decision to attack US territory.

It is clear that the “contribution” made by some leaders was their failure to contribute their viewpoint at critical times, so that the decision to go to war was effectively made for them.

For example, Japanese leadership set a December 1 deadline for their negotiations with the United States. Even if the negotiations were looking promising, once the deadline passed, there was nothing anyone could do—it would be war.

The deadline, it turns out, was determined based on Japan’s rapidly dwindling resources; stage an attack in December 1941 or risk being resource-constrained and unable to attack later.

Most of Japan’s leaders had deep reservations about the wisdom of provoking a war with the United States, but no one wanted to be the first to say as much—so they told their diaries instead.

One is reminded of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” except in 1941 Japan, no one clearly spoke out.

The Showa emperor, Hirohito, delivered what he believed to be an indication of his distaste for war by quoting a “pacifist lament” penned by his grandfather, the great Meiji emperor. But, as always, such indirect communication runs the risk of being misunderstood. In this case, that’s exactly what happened.

Another example of squandered influence is Prince Konoe, who in his third stint as prime minister had ample opportunity to set a different course, but could never bring himself to do so.

When he was forced to resign and the emperor handpicked Army Minister Hideki Tojo to replace him, the emperor was expecting the hawkish Tojo to heed the emperor’s desire and steer a course for peace.

Tragically, when the opposite occurred, the emperor felt constitutionally constrained from intervening.

While this book draws back the curtain on Japanese leadership and decision-making of that era, it is disturbing to realize how little has changed. Even today, in urgent and crisis situations, bold and nimble leadership remains elusive in Japan.

Yet the current government wants to expand Japan’s ability to use military force to resolve international disputes. Is that, too, a tragedy waiting to happen? •

Vicki-new

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Vicki L. Beyer is a vice president of the ACCJ.

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