Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy

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9780307594013: Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy

A groundbreaking history that considers the attack on Pearl Harbor from the Japanese perspective and is certain to revolutionize how we think of the war in the Pacific.

When Japan launched hostilities against the United States in 1941, argues Eri Hotta, its leaders, in large part, understood they were entering a war they were almost certain to lose. Drawing on material little known to Western readers, and barely explored in depth in Japan itself, Hotta poses an essential question: Why did these men—military men, civilian politicians, diplomats, the emperor—put their country and its citizens so unnecessarily in harm’s way? Introducing us to the doubters, schemers, and would-be patriots who led their nation into this conflagration, Hotta brilliantly shows us a Japan rarely glimpsed—eager to avoid war but fraught with tensions with the West, blinded by reckless militarism couched in traditional notions of pride and honor, tempted by the gambler’s dream of scoring the biggest win against impossible odds and nearly escaping disaster before it finally proved inevitable.

In an intimate account of the increasingly heated debates and doomed diplomatic overtures preceding Pearl Harbor, Hotta reveals just how divided Japan’s leaders were, right up to (and, in fact, beyond) their eleventh-hour decision to attack. We see a ruling cadre rich in regional ambition and hubris: many of the same leaders seeking to avoid war with the United States continued to adamantly advocate Asian expansionism, hoping to advance, or at least maintain, the occupation of China that began in 1931, unable to end the second Sino-Japanese War and unwilling to acknowledge Washington’s hardening disapproval of their continental incursions. Even as Japanese diplomats continued to negotiate with the Roosevelt administration, Matsuoka Yosuke, the egomaniacal foreign minister who relished paying court to both Stalin and Hitler, and his facile supporters cemented Japan’s place in the fascist alliance with Germany and Italy—unaware (or unconcerned) that in so doing they destroyed the nation’s bona fides with the West.

We see a dysfunctional political system in which military leaders reported to both the civilian government and the emperor, creating a structure that facilitated intrigues and stoked a jingoistic rivalry between Japan’s army and navy. Roles are recast and blame reexamined as Hotta analyzes the actions and motivations of the hawks and skeptics among Japan’s elite. Emperor Hirohito and General Hideki Tojo are newly appraised as we discover how the two men fumbled for a way to avoid war before finally acceding to it.

Hotta peels back seventy years of historical mythologizing—both Japanese and Western—to expose all-too-human Japanese leaders torn by doubt in the months preceding the attack, more concerned with saving face than saving lives, finally drawn into war as much by incompetence and lack of political will as by bellicosity. An essential book for any student of the Second World War, this compelling reassessment will forever change the way we remember those days of infamy. 

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About the Author:

ERI HOTTA, born in Tokyo and educated in Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom, has taught at Oxford and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, specializing in international relations. She was also a research fellow at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. Ms. Hotta lives in New York.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PROLOGUE 
 
What a Difference a Day Makes
 
In the early-morning hours of a frosty day, December 8, 1941, the Japanese nation woke to astonishing news. It was announced, shortly after seven, that Japan had “entered into a situation of war with the United States and Britain in the Western Pacific before dawn.” Though no specifics were given, by then the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, on Oahu, had been successfully attacked—the first wave of planes was dispatched at 1:30 a.m., Japanese time, and the surprise operation was completed by 5:30 a.m. When news of the attack arrived at 11:30 a.m., the nation was electrified. This was soon followed by Japan’s formal declaration of war on the Allies and the report of its further military successes in British Malaya and Hong Kong. (The Malayan operation actually preceded the Pacific offensive by almost two hours.) Throughout the day, the public broadcasting network, NHK, aired twelve special news reports in addition to six regularly scheduled ones for the millions of Japanese glued to their radios.

On what, because of the time difference, had been December 7 in Hawaii, the air force division of the Imperial Japanese Navy had sunk or damaged numerous ships, aircraft, and military facilities. About twentyfour hundred people were killed in the raid or died shortly afterward from their injuries. The devastating attack was carried out without a formal termination of diplomatic relations by Japan, let alone a declaration of war, a heavy, infamous legacy for the nation. But such tactical details did not interest ordinary Japanese citizens on December 8. The immediate public reaction was one of celebration.
 
When Japan sent planes to attack Pearl Harbor, it was mired in economic and political uncertainties. A sense of helplessness pervaded its population as the state took more and more control of public life. From the beginning of Japan’s war with China in mid-1937, its people were led to believe a swift, decisive victory was imminent. Despite all the announcements of Japanese victories in China, however, the Guomindang (a.k.a. Kuomintang, frequently referred to as the Nationalist Party) leader Chiang Kai-shek was not about to give up. Similar to Napoleon’s army in Russia, the Japanese forces were drawn far too deep into harsh, unfamiliar terrain to carry out an effective operation. The jingoistic tone of Japan’s media coverage continued regardless, but people were privately beginning to question why the war had not ended. Though largely ignorant of the true state of Japanese diplomacy, they had been told that Nomura Kichisaburo, a navy admiral and former foreign minister, had been dispatched to Washington, D.C., in early 1941 to negotiate a peaceful solution to Japan’s international isolation. But no good news was forthcoming, and its absence made people fearful. Many knew the United States was upset over recent Japanese initiatives—such as allying with Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy and occupying first northern and then southern French Indochina—and seemed intent, unless a diplomatic settlement could be reached soon, on crippling Japan with economic sanctions.

In everyday life, luxury goods had quickly disappeared, and there was a shortage of food, most noticeably the main staple, rice. As the conflict in China went on and on, those remaining in the countryside—the best men had gone to the military and war-related industries—faced increased pressure to produce more food for the troops. Starting in the summer of
1940, even the fanciest restaurants in Tokyo resorted to serving cheaper imported rice—the drier kind some scornfully called “mouse poops”— mixed with potatoes. After April 1941, in six major metropolitan cities once replete with all the conveniences of modern life, people could obtain rice only with ration coupons. By December 1941, this system applied to
99 percent of Japan. In a country where domestically grown rice occupied an exalted, almost sacred place in the national diet, this was seen as a scandalous hardship.

Life was becoming monochromatic—or “grave yard–ish,” in the words of a contemporary observer. Fashionable men and women, who until recently dressed in colorful kimonos or the latest Western-style clothes and spent their time in cinemas and dance halls, now tried to look as inconspicuous as possible. The novelist Nagai Kafu (known as Kafu), an aging bohemian chronicler of urban life who felt as much at home in the opium dens of New York ’s Chinatown and the cafés of Montmartre as he did in the raffish parts of old Tokyo, deplored those changes. A tall, scrawny man, Kafu did not strike one as a fussy dresser. He actually knew and cared a lot about fashion—a remnant of his high-bourgeois upbringing—though he made sure not to look too perfect in his well-tailored European suits. But he felt the recent Japanese inattention to keeping up appearances had gone too far, even for his unorthodox taste. In the autumn of 1940, the sixtyyear-old complained in his diary:
 
The townscape [of central Tokyo] belies its prosperity of only half a year ago. There are no activities and it is all quiet. Around 6:00 p.m., it fills with crowds of commuters just as before. But the clothes that those men and women are wearing! To say that they have become subdued is an understatement. They have become old-mannish and dowdy. Women do not seem to care what they look like anymore, not bothering to put on any makeup. The street does not get lit at night, so people hurry home. Those people who squeeze themselves into the trains, shoving one another, look like refugees.
 
The deglamorization of city life signified the resounding triumph of a publicity campaign to promote nationwide austerity—prompted by the prolongation of Japanese military engagement in China—that started in the summer of 1940. Fifteen hundred signs bearing slogans such as “A True Japanese Cannot Afford to Be Indulgent” and “Luxury Is the Enemy” (Zeitaku wa Tekida) were put up all over Tokyo (though the insertion of one syllable by a graffitist often turned the latter phrase into “Luxury Is Wonderful” [Zeitaku wa Su-Tekida]).

Volunteers from patriotic women’s associations took to the streets, leading this campaign. These righteous women admonished those who, in their vigilant eyes, wore the kind of lavish clothes they themselves had given up, and they handed out note cards asking them to “please exercise self-restraint.” Women who wore permed hairdos, rings, nail polish, lipstick, or gold-rimmed glasses were also targeted because they were seen as endorsing a “corrupt” and “individualistic” Western lifestyle. There was some angry resistance to this type of witch-hunting. One woman was spotted crying and shouting hysterically, “I can’t stand this!” A young man strutted down the street wearing makeup, daring the patriotic fashion police: “Well, aren’t you going to say something?” But these were very small acts of defiance in the larger scheme of things.

Department stores, once places where dreams were sold, came under strict surveillance, too. Every store was told to enforce a one-item-percustomer policy to discourage excessive spending, which was deemed disrespectful of the general austerity efforts. In 1935, the cosmetics company Shiseido began having beautifully presented “service girls” give free makeup lessons to customers at its department store counters, increasing sales of its beauty lotion twenty-three-fold within two years. But as the China War dragged on, “wartime care packages” replaced cosmetics as top-selling products. These packages, filled with little snacks, handkerchiefs, pencils, and notepads, were sent to soldiers at the front as a show of moral support from home.

On the evening of October 31, 1940, the night before dance halls and jazz performances were to become illegal (they, too, were thought to undermine people’s sense of morality and public order), every hall was packed with men and women having one last, desperate fling. They crowded the dance floors like “new potatoes being boiled up in a pot, constantly bumping into one another,” as the metropolitan newspaper Asahi reported the following day. In fact, only women who were professional dancers had been allowed in dance halls since mid-1938, and their numbers had declined by half, having been pressured to join women’s associations, which competed with one another for recruits and urged new members to take up more “respectable” (but much less profitable) jobs as typists and factory workers. But that evening, even after the bands had finished playing the farewell song of “Auld Lang Syne,” the men and women refused to leave the dance floors, as if to defy—again, in a very small, too small, way—the coming of Japan’s long journey into night.

But December 8, 1941, changed everything. The gloom of the national impasse that had arisen over the past couple of years turned almost instantly into euphoria as most Japanese cheered the successful attack. A man who was a second grader at the time of the attack, whose father owned a radio shop in Tokyo, recalled his surprise at the sight of a long line forming in front of his father’s store. People were waiting to get their radio sets repaired, in anticipation of more special government announcements. He never saw his father do so much business in one day before or after.

There was very little of the famous Japanese reserve. Strangers con-ratulated each other on the street. Others gathered at the public square outside the Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo, falling to the ground and thanking the emperor for his divine guidance of their nation. Aboard an overcrowded train that evening, the diarist Kafu detachedly observed “a fellow making speeches in shrill voice,” apparently unable to contain his excitement over the day’s news. This outpouring of emotion stood in stark contrast to the many contrived victory celebrations orchestrated by the government over the previous few years in an effort to rouse support for its lingering war in China.

Men of letters were not immune to the Pearl Harbor spell. One of the most distinguished poets of twentieth-century Japan, Saito Mokichi, fiftynine at the time, recorded in his diary: “The red blood of my old age is now bursting with life! . . . Hawaii has been attacked!” The thirty-six-yearold novelist Ito Sei wrote in his journal: “A fine deed. The Japanese tactic wonderfully resembles the one employed in the Russo-Japanese War.” Indeed, that war started with Japan’s surprise attack on Russian ships in Port Arthur on February 8, 1904, two days before Japan’s formal declaration of war. Japan won that war.

Even those Japanese who had previously disapproved of their country’s expansionism in Asia were excited by Japan’s war with the West. In an instant, the official claim, gradually adopted by the Japanese government over the preceding decade, of liberating Asia from Western encroachment gained legitimacy in their eyes. Until then, the innately self-contradictory nature of fighting an anti-imperialist war for Asia against fellow Asians in China had tormented them. Takeuchi Yoshimi, a thirty-one-year-old Sinologist, now said he and his friends had been mistaken in doubting their leaders’ true intentions:
 
Until this very moment, we feared that Japan, hiding behind the beautiful slogan of “Building East Asia,” was bullying the weak. [But now we realize that] our Japan was not afraid of the powerful after all. . . . Let us together fight this difficult war.
 
Despite the celebratory mood that dominated the country on December 8, there were still people with cool minds and hearts who were doubtful about, if not dismayed by, Japan’s new war. Private sentiments also often differed substantially from the pubic outbursts of joy. Many were simply tired of war and its restrictions on daily life. Others seriously worried about their loved ones having to fight.

A nine-year-old in a rice-growing village forty-five miles (seventy-two kilometers) northeast of Tokyo learned of the Pearl Harbor attack when he came home from school. His mother had been waiting for him outside their house. She cried and said, “We’re at war.” Those were no tears of joy; rather, she was anxious for the lives of her six older sons. If this war was to be anything like the China War, who knew how long it would go on, and the new war might even take her youngest away. The boy was struck by the vivid contrast between the deep sadness of families all over his village and the upbeat voice coming out of the radio.

The  small  number  of Japanese  with  substantial  knowledge  of the West could not celebrate, either. They were too aware of Japan’s limited resources and were convinced that the country would be annihilated in the end. A young man working for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Nagoya recalled a strange combination of exhilaration and fear upon hearing the radio announcement at work. Though he felt a certain satisfaction over the successful attack on Pearl Harbor, he was afraid of what awaited Japan in the long term. His workplace, dedicated to the manufacturing of the Zero fighter plane, would become a prime target of U.S. bombing in a few years’ time. Most of his colleagues perished, and he would barely escape death himself.

But to voice such concerns in the midst of post–Pearl Harbor excitement was to risk arrest for insufficient patriotism. A great tidal wave of enthusiasm following victories in the Pacific and Southeast Asia was felt by most Japanese. They were able to forget, at least for the moment, the immensity of the task that lay ahead.
 
On the other side of the Pacific, Pearl Harbor had stimulated an equally pervasive and patriotic response. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress in a measured but determined voice: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Roosevelt’s cabinet, led by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, initially urged the president to present to Congress a comprehensive history of Japan’s international misconduct. Roosevelt decided instead on an accessible five-hundred-word speech so that his message would get through to as many people as possible: The Japanese attack was treacherous, and the United States had to defeat this cowardly enemy, no matter what it took.
  
The presidential tactic to stir his nation’s deepest emotions against Japan succeeded. The isolationist opposition with which Roosevelt had been struggling over his desire to take the United States into the European theater of war was nowhere to be seen, and his request for a declaration of war was immediately approved, with just one dissenting vote, cast by Jeannette Rankin, a pacifist Republican from Montana. From that historic moment on, Pearl Harbor was etched in the American psyche, reinforced by the powerful battle cry memorialized in the hit song “Remember Pearl Harbor.” Recorded within ten days of the attack, it urged Americans: “Let’s remember Pearl Harbor as we go to meet the foe. Let’s remember Pearl Harbor as we d...

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