When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor exactly 72 years ago, it was taking a mad gamble. Bogged down in one war with China, it would double down by waging another war on the United States: The bigger the risk, the sweeter the victory. That daring decision was the product of a peculiar political culture, one dominated by belligerent minority views precisely because it favored consensus.
Watching Prime Minister Shinzo Abe today, tensing up and pushing back against China’s provocations in the East China Sea, one wonders how much of that tradition has survived within the Japanese leadership. Mr. Abe seems determined to be defiant. He has recently pushed through Parliament a bill to establish a U.S.-style national security council and allow the government to withhold information it deems vital to national security. He has argued for revising Japan’s Constitution, including its war-renouncing provision. Is this tough talk the same kind of ultranationalism that led Japan into war with China in the 1930s and then the West?
Japan in 1941 was neither a military dictatorship nor a democracy. Its parliamentary politics had already collapsed under the pressure of mobilizing for its ill-conceived conquest in China. In their place emerged a centralized political system called the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, whose quasi-fascist agenda sought to control every aspect of human endeavor, even reproduction.
Still, the overriding feature of Japan’s decision-making in the years before World War II was an insistence on building consensus among a handful of leaders, civilian and military. Not long after the outbreak of Japan’s war in China, they began holding “liaison conferences” to unify national policy during crises. In the year prior to Japan’s attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet, more than 70 such conferences were convened, mostly under the leadership of Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe, a popular civilian politician.
Konoe predicted that conflict with the United States would end in “a miserable defeat” for Japan. Many senior military officers also worried about overstretch, given that Japan still could not control China. But mid-ranking strategists from the army and the navy were saying now or never, partly out of competitive bravado. The top brass, intent on saving face and appeasing the restless young officers, coaxed the civilian leaders, including Konoe, into making preparations for war, all the while continuing to expect some diplomatic breakthrough.
By the time General Hideki Tojo became prime minister on Oct. 18, 1941, and called for discussing alternatives to war, Japan’s leaders were already trapped at the narrow end of a decision-making funnel. In order to procure resources to keep fighting China, Japan had expanded its occupation in French Indochina in the summer of 1941, bringing upon itself more economic sanctions from the Allies. And its deadlines for making diplomatic progress with Washington, which had been set to preserve Japan’s option to attack before its resources were depleted, were unrealistic.
Because the responsibility for policy making was spread across institutions and among many leaders, no one felt personally obliged to halt the momentum. Lack of accountability was built into the system, for in the center sat the emperor, lending his imprimatur to every major decision even though he had little political authority. It was in his name that Japan’s leaders finally agreed to wage a reckless war.
Today, Mr. Abe’s frequent references to national security and calls for concentrating state power seem to echo the authoritarianism of prewar Japan. In addition to the secrecy bill and amending the Constitution, Mr. Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party have talked about restoring the emperor to being the head of state — he is now only its “symbol.” and an emblem of peace. The implied aim is to make the emperor, once again, a rallying point for nationalism.
Another constant is the Japanese preference for consensus in decision making. This tendency also remains institutionalized, at least in the way that lawmakers and bureaucrats, who have considerable behind-the-scenes influence over policy making, build coalitions together.
But the differences between 1941 and today are greater than the similarities. Japan is now a proper parliamentary democracy, accountable to voters and an independent media. The public’s response to Mr. Abe’s secrecy bill, for example, has been cautious at best; in one poll, 50 percent of respondents opposed it. Though the prime minister’s ratings are high, his forcefulness could backfire.
By now, reviving the nation’s will to do battle would require entirely recasting a mindset that was shaped over several generations. The country’s devastating defeat in World War II put a decisive end to its conqueror’s impulses. And the relative quiet that has prevailed since then, thanks largely to the security umbrella the United States opened over Japan during the Cold War and has continued to hold over it, has made peace seem natural to most Japanese.
Pacifism is enshrined in Japan’s Constitution and ingrained in its collective consciousness. This implicit consensus may not curb Abe’s ultranationalist rhetoric. It may even enable it. But if it does that is only because he, like the rest of the country, knows that Japan will not go to war.
Eri Hotta is the author of Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy.