Japan and the u.s

From Pearl Harbor to the Surcharge

“It was always my hope that the economic measures that we had taken against Japan would finally bring Japan to a position where she might come to a reasonable agreement with us.” No, this wasn’t said by Secretary of the Treasury John Connally, explaining why the United States had imposed a 10 percent surcharge on imports in August, 1971. It was said by former Ambassador to Japan Joseph C. Grew, explaining to a postwar congressional Pearl Harbor inquiry why the United States had imposed an embargo on Japan in July, 1941

The words have a topical ring because the two crises—1941 and 1971 — have a good deal in common. In both cases, Japan provoked U.S. action: in 1941 by occupying Southern Indochina and in 1971 by refusing to revalue the yen and abandon her protectionist policies. In both cases, Americans hoped that U.S. economic pressure would cause the Japanese to abandon their offending policies, and thus lead to eventual agreement with the United States. This hope proved unfounded in 1941, partly because we didn’t understand what was going on in Japan. We can apply a good deal from that experience to the current crisis. The interim international financial agreement reached last December 18 reflects some of the lessons that we have learned

In 1941, the American view of Japanese policy-making was simplicity itself. Americans saw the Japanese as their opponent in a large poker game. They thought of the Japanese government as a single player acting according to a single will and hence able to change its policies quickly. And they expected it, despite an occasional bluff, to advance or retreat according to rational calculations of its strength or weakness. Hence, they believed that when confronted by U.S. economic sanctions, Japan would back down instead of resort to hopeless war with America

It now seems clear, from Japanese records and diaries, that this view had little basis in reality. The Japanese government, like most governments, was a coalition of diverse interests. The traditional Japanese insistence on consensus made it difficult for that government to do anything but ratify the lowest common denominator of these interests; hence it could not make large changes in policy very quickly. Least of all could it make changes which seemed to involve retreat under U.S. pressure; the reluctance of any government to appear weak was compounded by Japanese sensitivity on matters of honor

Japanese policy was made in 1941, as it is probably being made today, by the interaction among different groups, none of them powerful enough to dictate a single coherent strategy, much less to get out ahead of the others in advocating a course which might seem to endanger Japan’s honor. Thus a series of ad hoc decisions, designed more to hold domestic coalitions together than to respond to changing outside circumstances, marked the three phases through which Japanese policy passed from July to December, 1941

Phase I saw the Japanese surprised and unnerved by the United States’ imposition of sanctions in reaction to their occupation of Southern Indochina. They milled around in some confusion, and then (as is not unusual with divided governments) decided to go in two directions at once: to seek a settlement with the United States in order to get rid of sanctions, which had cut off Japan’s essential oil supplies from the Dutch Indies; and to prepare for war in order to seize those oil supplies if a settlement was not achieved. Few Japanese leaders expected the terms they were offering, which involved continuing Japanese occupation of Southern Indochina, to be acceptable to the United States, and most doubted victory in war with the United States; but this was the best that they could come up with at short notice. Creating a consensus for change would take more time

Phase II was the forging of that new consensus. In this Emperor Hirohito played some part. When advised of the “two directions” policy on September 5, he called in the Army and Navy chiefs of staff and made clear his skepticism about prospects for military victory. Perhaps he hoped to trigger a frank discussion, in which the Navy would admit what the Emperor knew to be the case—that it shared his skepticism. But the Navy chief refused to humiliate his service by confessing weakness in front of the Army; and the Army’s leaders had already indicated that they could back away from war only if naval leaders took the blame for this retreat. The next day, in a larger, more formal meeting, the Emperor pressed the service chiefs to admit that negotiation should have priority over war. When their answers were lame and halting, he made clear his disappointment by reading aloud a poem in which his grandfather (who had helped to start two wars) wondered why there was so much strife in the world. This might seem an odd way for a head of state to address his national security council, by reading poetry, but to the Japanese the signal was clear: the Emperor was worried about the “two directions” policy; he was going as far as a constitutional monarch of divine origin could go in pressing for a change of policy

There followed several weeks of intense Japanese bureaucratic infighting about whether more flexible terms should be offered America. Prince Konoye was succeeded as Prime Minister by General Tojo, who was supposed to be able to control an increasingly restive Army. Tojo was ordered by the Emperor to fix a new policy without regard to the decisions of September 5 and 6. A new Foreign Minister was also appointed, who was committed to a settlement with the United States, even if this involved some retreat by Japan. He conceived proposal B, a limited temporary deal under which Japan would have evacuated Southern Indochina in return for the United States’ lifting of sanctions, as a prelude to wider negotiations about Japan’s war in China. The Army balked, and then sullenly assented under pressure from Tojo, who was no peacemonger but was sensitive to the Emperor’s concerns. Proposal B included provisions which could not have been accepted by the United States, notably a U.S. pledge to stop aiding China; but the Foreign Minister was told by Tojo that he was prepared to make “further compromises” if the United States responded with a sensible counterproposal

We’ll never know whether he would, in fact, have done so. For U.S. leaders, after a good deal of soulsearching, decided that an agreement which dealt only with the immediate cause of the U.S. embargo—Indochina—and did nothing to end the Sino-Japanese war would demoralize the Chinese and arouse U.S. domestic criticism without, in fact, appeasing the Japanese military. So they answered proposal B by repeating their past demands that Japan evacuate all of China. The United States wanted a comprehensive settlement or nothing at all. Failing a settlement, the embargo would remain in force

Phase III saw a Japanese response which surprised many Americans. When the U.S. reply reached Tokyo, the Cabinet readily agreed that the demand for total withdrawal was too humiliating; the Emperor was of the same view. No Japanese government could quickly make such a far-reaching policy change in the face of evident U.S. pressure. Although the Emperor and many ministers still doubted victory, all agreed on war

It is, of course, possible that even a U.S. counterproposal designed to sweeten up proposal B would have been rejected by Japan. But a disinterested observer thinks not. Sir Robert Craigie, then British Ambassador to Japan, has recorded his view that a counterproposal would probably have led to an agreement on Indochina which would have averted early war and gained time in which negotiations on the underlying issue, China, could have been pursued at greater length


Much has changed in Japan since 1941, but the Japanese insistence on consensus as a prelude to any policy change and their sensitivity on matters of pride and honor remain. Japanese policy-making in the current crisis, as in 1941, reflects the interaction among groups with widely differing views and interests: exporters and importers, strong and weak industries, foreign affairs and economic ministries, pro-American and nationalist elements in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. As in 1941, no one of these groups can afford to get tagged as the one that wants to humiliate Japan by giving in to the United States. Thus Japanese policy seems to be passing through three phases, not unlike those which marked it in 1941

Phase I: Surprise, shock, and confusion in reaction to the 10 percent import surcharge and other U.S. protectionist measures was evident immediately after last August 15

Phase II: Infighting among different groups in Tokyo about the terms to be offered America in return for lifting the surtax followed shortly

Phase III began in late 1971. It seemed to be pointing toward consensus on a limited modus vivendi, under which Japan would join Europe in offering the United States a major realignment of currencies in return for lifting the surcharge. This would defuse the immediate crisis and pave the way for negotiations on longerterm issues: trade, monetary reform, and sharing the defense burden

In the period immediately after August 15, such a modus vivendi would have been unacceptable to the United States. The Administration was holding out for a comprehensive agreement, one which would include not only currency realignment but large Japanese and European concessions on trade, monetary reform, and burden sharing all in one fell swoop. The only result of following this course, in 1971 as in 1941, was to overload the Japanese capacity for consensus: agreement eluded us; the surcharge remained in effect. If this policy had been continued, Japan (as well as Europe) would eventually have retaliated. The result would have been a trade war—not a military conflict, but bad enough

In late 1971, U.S. policy began to show more flexibility. In his November visit to Japan, Secretary of the Treasury Connally took pains to avoid making large and specific demands; he described the problem and left the initiative to his hosts, who appreciated his tact. At the December discussions of the group of ten finance ministers, a limited interim agreement finally emerged

But the U.S.-Japanese economic dialogue will continue; important long-term issues of trade and monetary reform remain to be addressed. Success in these continuing negotiations will still depend on whether we understand the Japanese political process and how it responds to external pressure and negotiation

Conspiracy theory

This understanding will not be helped by a recently published book which has attracted a good deal of attention. In telling the story of prewar and wartime Japan, David Bergamini’s Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy (William Morrow & Co., $ 14.95) perpetuates the illusion of a monolithic Japan. Mr. Bergamini believes that the Emperor and his advisers were of one view in favoring war and that their disputes with each other were either staged or trivial. By implication, he suggests that they could readily have accepted U.S. terms in 1941 if they had wished to avoid war; the problem of executing a dramatic retreat under evident U.S. pressure was not insuperable. He dismisses accounts, such as those of Premier Konoye and Marquis Kido (the Emperor’s special assistant for national security affairs), which do not sustain his thesis; he relies on less well known sources, such as the papers of General Sugiyama, which support it

There’s nothing wrong with choosing among sources; that is the historian’s privilege. But Mr. Bergamini does not explain his selection in the detail that we are entitled to expect of a historian, even though it is crucial to his conclusion and contrary to that of most other students of this period. The manner of his writing and footnoting, which is informal and anecdotal, explains why: not only is he not a historian but he doesn’t want to become one. He is a preacher; he has a point of view, and he means to persuade the reader of its validity. He has written over 1000 pages of highly readable narrative to this end

Mr. Bergamini’s book follows shortly on another which covers the same period, also in great detail, John Toland’s best seller, The Rising Sun (Random House, $12.95). Like Mr. Bergamini, Mr. Toland is not a professional historian. And he may be biased by having a Japanese wife, as Mr. Bergamini may be biased by his wartime imprisonment at Japanese hands. Mr. Toland agrees with Mr. Bergamini that the Emperor approved all decisions taken, knew of the Pearl Harbor attack in advance, despite later protestations to the contrary, and did not dissent from the final consensus in favor of war. But he does not agree that the Emperor planned it that way. He shows us a deeply divided government whose final consensus was uncertain and depended greatly on time and events

This account is more consistent with available information than is Mr. Bergamini’s. The evidence is hard to refute that there were deep divisions in the Japanese government in 1941 and that some elements in that government preferred a negotiated settlement to war. Independent accounts by Japanese participants agree as to what the Emperor said at the meetings of September 5 and 6; the arguments within the Japanese Cabinet leading up to proposal B are a matter of record

All this does not prove that the Japanese were great peacemakers; they had been waging aggressive war against China since 1937, and it was this war which lay at the heart of the U.S.-Japanese dispute. But it does suggest that Japanese policy-making, then as now, was characterized by a search for consensus among groups with widely differing views, and that the Japanese Emperor was no more able to force large rapid changes in Japanese policy then than that mythical combine of big business and government known as “Japan, Inc.” is able to force such changes now

Today, as in 1941, Japan needs time to turn around, to make large changes in policy. In the long-term negotiation which will follow the current interim agreement, Japan’s shift from outdated and unfair protectionist measures toward more forthcoming trade and monetary policies will have to be carried out in stages. As in 1941, an attempt to force the Japanese to compress the entire process into a short time could end badly. That can be averted only if the United States understands the peculiar processes through which Japanese policy is made. That is why a careful review of the events of 1941. which Mr. Bergamini’s and Mr. Toland’s books describe, is now of critical importance