During the early morning hours of December 7, 1941, various units of the Japanese Fleet delivered a smashing attack on the island possessions of the United States scattered throughout the Pacific Ocean. As a result of this attack the United States Navy suffered a grave loss, both in personnel and material at Pearl Harbor. The reports came in slowly from the more remote spots, places like Wake and Midway, Guam and Manila, but when they arrived they increased the toll.
The American public’s first reaction was one of tremendous, blind rage, a rage that took peculiar forms of expression. The Japanese cherry trees bordering the Tidal Basin in Washington were among the first to suffer. Some misguided patriot attacked them with an axe and had felled four of the lovely things before wiser and calmer heads prevailed. Next came the Japanese deer in the Central Park Zoo. They were not actually molested but only the prompt action of the park authorities saved them. On December 8 freshly painted signs appeared on their cages reading “Asiatic Deer.” Still another episode was the systematic beating-up of any and all Orientals that had the temerity to show themselves on the streets during the first few days. That the victims of these attacks were, in many cases, Chinese made little difference to the bully-boys engaged in the fun.
As with one voice the Japanese were referred to as “yellow,” the sense of the word having to do with their courage rather than with their complexions. And from the use of another word that was on everyone’s lips when speaking of them, one might reasonably infer that there had not been a legal marriage in the Land of the Rising Sun in the past generation.
Thus the first reaction. Everyone was angry and completely thunderstruck; everyone took refuge in calling names and in chopping down trees, in beating up the laundryman and in turning off the lights. It was all very strange and it was all very American.
After the first shock had worn off and this nation had more or less settled down to the grim business of war, the press, the radio, even public men swung to another and equally curious reaction. Not in so many words but by innuendo and implication, the little yellow man who a few short days before had been the embodiment of everything vile and evil, turned out to be not quite so bad after all. Slowly the Japanese average man was talked back into his accustomed niche in our thoughts: a funny little chap with nearsighted eyes and buck teeth; a comic opera character really, and an essentially harmless one at that. To be sure, conceded the editorialists and the cartoonists and the wisemen of the radio, the attacks on Pearl Harbor and Wake, the bombing of helpless Manila, the capture of Guam—all of it was treachery of the most infamous sort but, after all, everyone knows that Japan is not ruled by the smiling, happy-go-lucky man just described. Japan, so we were asked to believe, is ruled by—take your choice—(a) an Army clique, (b) the Army itself, (c) the Samurai, (d) Emperor Hirohito, (e) the Imperialists, (f) the so-called Five Families or, (g) German agents. Still another group was added to the lengthy list of suspects when an eminent English statesman and orator, in an address before the American Congress on December 26, said:
For many years past the policy of Japan has been dominated by secret societies . .. who have enforced their will upon successive Japanese Cabinets and parliaments by the assassination of any Japanese statesman who opposed or did not sufficiently further their aggressive policies. It may be that these societies, dazzled and dizzy with their own schemes of aggression and the prospect of early victory, have forced their country against its better judgment into the war.
No two authorities could agree on just which group to lay the blame but they were as one in agreeing that the guilt must rest with one or a combination of these groups. One of these groups, so the reasoning went, had plunged the poor little Japanese average man into the war in China, into the Tripartite Pact, into Indo- China and now, faced with the awful alternative of war with the United States or of backing down—of losing face in other words—had committed national hara-kiri rather than accept the latter choice.
Now the first or name-calling reaction was unimportant. It did no particular harm other than provide a lot of American youngsters free license to repeat some of the dirty words that had heretofore been restricted to their away-from-home conversations. And, too, the Japanese demonstrated in the first few minutes of the attack that they were definitely not lacking in physical courage, so there was no point in calling them “yellow.”
But the second reaction was and is very important. Our whole concept of the manner in which this war is to be fought and the settlement of the peace that follows must necessarily be affected by it. If Japan is a nation made up of seventy million innocents being led astray by some band of fiends then we must search this band out, expose it, and destroy it. But suppose the truth of the matter is that the Japanese nation as a whole is guilty, that instead of being led into this war, the nation sought it. Then obviously the United States has a vastly different problem with which to contend.
The questions naturally follow: who is the guilty party; where are we to look for him?
Of course present-day events cannot be depended upon to enlighten us very much; our interpretation of them is too apt to be prejudiced. The Japanese Navy, for instance, is not the culprit, although the American public is prone to accuse the Navy simply because it delivered most of the initial attacks against us.
Japanese history seems to offer the only solution. There, if any place, the nation and its people will appear in their true colors. There may lie the clue to the identity of this band of trouble-makers that we seek, and there, perhaps, it will be possible to discover the true meaning of the Japanese attacks on us.
Japan did not exist as a westernized nation until Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry visited the Islands in 1854. Our concern in her history dates from that time only. The story of Perry’s trip is too well known to bear repeating. It is sufficient to say that he finally maneuvered them into signing the treaty that opened the empire to foreign trade, and to emphasize the fact that this occurred only 87 years ago.
The Japanese waited for a decent interval after the Commodore had boarded his black ships for the return voyage. Once he was safely out of sight, though, they rolled up their sleeves, set their jaws, and grimly went about the business of catching up with a world that had left them far behind.
It took them a long time. A way of life that has been in effect for generations cannot be swept aside overnight. The people had to be educated to the New Order. An economic system based upon feudalism had to be ground out and replaced with an economy based on manufacturing and trade. Western ideas and modes, customs, even clothes had to be assiduously copied, often with ludicrous results.
But they kept trying and eventually they made it. After forty long years of effort they looked back on what they had accomplished and found it good. There were still some things to be done, naturally, but by and large they felt they were about ready to embark upon their destiny.
It is just possible that they were none too sure of themselves even then. It is a debatable question. In any event, China was picked as victim number one.
Japan and China had quarreled intermittently over Korea almost from the very day that Commodore Perry up-anchored and headed for home. China, naturally enough, looked upon Korea as her vassal, while Nippon, for reasons which in this day and age would be all too plain, held that Korea should be an “independent” state. Of course, once Korea was “liberated” from Chinese influence, the more readily it would fall into the laps of the eager little yellow men from the land of the sun that was barely beginning to rise.
In 1882 the Chinese gave in. They agreed to Korean independence but with the proviso that they were to have the right to send troops into Korea whenever they felt that their interests were endangered. Needless to say, the Japanese assumed similar rights also.
Insurrections broke out in Korea— maybe the Japanese were not to blame; the history books do not say. At any rate both sides felt called upon to dispatch troops to the scene. The Japanese, however, took the precaution of sending more than four times as many troops as did the Chinese.
The Chinese are not and were not fools. They saw what was coming. They entered into negotiations with the Japanese concerning the removal of these troops but at the same time they prepared for war.
The Chinese were right. War was formally declared on August 5, 1894. Twelve days prior to that time, however, there occurred an incident which, in the light of later events, has too much interest to be left out of this narrative.
On July 24 the Chinese, as they had every right to do, dispatched a small convoy across the Yellow Sea. The convoy was made up of one merchant ship—an English ship hired for the trip—loaded with 1,200 troops for the Korean garrisons and two old, second-class cruisers acting as escorts. The Japanese sent three cruisers after this convoy, caught it, sank the Chinese cruisers, and then leisurely blasted the merchantmen out of the water. Of the entire complement of the merchantman only 153 men were saved.
To repeat: war had not been declared; the negotiations were still going on!
The war itself can be dismissed in a very few words. Nippon was the easy victor. The independence of Korea was established. The Japs took over the Pescadores Islands, Formosa and—give them credit— did their best to establish sovereignty over the Liao-tung Peninsula, but Russia, France, and Germany put a stop to that inspired bit of land-grabbing.
In one respect the war was extremely important, for it gave Japan her first real taste of blood and it gave her her first victory over a foe who, potentially at least, was stronger. It showed her, too, that the opportunities this world has to offer to any nation sufficiently treacherous, ruthless, and ambitious are practically limitless.
Next came the Boxer Rebellion. Of course no nation, ourselves included, came out of that mess with its skirts any too clean but nevertheless the record stands: the Japanese Expeditionary Force was in there slugging just as hard as any other outfit when the Society of Harmonious Fists finally tossed in the towel. This diversion, incidentally, kept the Japanese busy during the greater part of 1900.
The Russo-Japanese War that followed four years later provides us with a perfect insight into Japanese character. The causes of the war are obvious: Nippon feared the extension of Russian influence into Manchuria and Korea, particularly the latter place. Korea is close to Japan and the Japs were afraid that the Russians, if unchecked, might eventually establish land and sea bases right next door. They feared that if the Russians moved in the Japanese colonists would be moved out and, above all things, they feared the loss of trade that must follow the Russian incursions.
The Russians should have known better, but they allowed themselves to be talked into sitting down at the conference tables with the Japs. These negotiations began in August of 1903. The following February, with the negotiations still going on, the Japanese attacked.
The attack itself was well executed, the whole thing, incidentally, being carried out with that incredible secrecy so characteristic of the Japanese. On February 7 they cut the cable from Chemulpo to Port Arthur. On the 8th they landed troops at Chemulpo and dispatched them inland where they were to be used for an attack on an important railroad center. And on the night of February 8-9 they delivered a destroyer-borne torpedo attack on a large detachment of the Russian Fleet which lay peacefully at anchor in Port Arthur.
Accounts of the attack vary according to the side which tells of it, but it seems fairly well established that the following conditions existed in the Russian Fleet: most of the officers were ashore at a special theater performance, the ships were at anchor in an open roadstead, there were no picket boats in the water nor were there any booms or nets rigged, every ship had her lights burning brightly, and no ship had steam up. In general it was an astounding situation.
The Russians suffered serious damage to two battleships and one first-class cruiser before they succeeded in driving off the attackers.
The subsequent war and its conclusion in Japanese triumph does not concern us here. What does concern us is the facsimile resemblance between the start of that war and the beginnings of our own conflict with the Japanese some 38 years later. In both cases the Japanese considered themselves menaced by the activities of the White Man in Asia—the rightness or wrongness of their attitude is immaterial. In both cases they determined on a farsighted plan of action and put this plan of action into effect long before the actual hostilities began. And in both cases they succeeded in inflicting damage on their adversary’s fleets one day prior to the actual declaration of war.
It might also be worth-while to digress long enough to have a brief look at the attitude of the Japanese public toward that war. Mention has been made of facsimile resemblances; perhaps here too some resemblance may develop. One authoritative source, G. G. Aston’s Letters on Amphibious Wars, is quoted:
... and it was necessary to have recourse to coolies for the transport of necessary stores. Fifteen thousand of these coolies, the greater portion being Japanese, were collected for the purpose, and I believe that many men in good positions in professional life in Japan volunteered to do this work, when they were not selected for embodiment in the fighting troops. The reason I mention this is because it confirms the statement that the Japanese military forces were supported in their operations by the feeling that they had the whole spirit of the population behind them. . ..
The reader may refer to any historian he pleases; they all say virtually the same thing.
Among other things, the Treaty of Portsmouth which ended the Russo-Japanese War established the independence of Korea. This was exactly what Nippon had been waiting for so impatiently. As soon as the treaty was signed they began a systematic infiltration into the economic, civil, and political life of that nation that was so callous and so obvious that before long the Koreans turned and fought against their persecutors. They fought well too, but the odds against them were overwhelming. When they were finally forced to surrender the Japanese set up a protectorate over them that amounted to virtual enslavement. Incidentally, the ruthlessness and ferocity with which the Japanese went about conquering the Koreans left the rest of the world aghast; at that time there were some silly notions abroad about the “rights of man” and “humanity” and “justice.”
Came the first World War and the marvelous opportunity it offered the Sons of Nippon to stab Germany in the back. They saw their opportunity, too, and lost no time in grasping it in eager hands. At this time they also took advantage of every other nation’s preoccupation with other, more important matters to have a try at reducing China to slavery—the Chinese to do the slaving, of course, the Japanese to be the masters. Only the belated intervention of the United States saved the Chinese from the necessity of having to capitulate to Japan’s notorious Twenty-one Demands.
After 1918 there followed 14 years of peace for Japan, 14 incongruous years which do not readily fit into the picture of “Japan the Aggressor—The Disturber of the Peace.” Perhaps one ready explanation for these years is the devastating earthquake, flood, and fire which wreaked such havoc on the Islands in September of 1923. Or perhaps the nation was worn out from two decades of almost continuous fighting and had to have time to rest, recuperate, and prepare for bigger things to come. Whatever it was, they kept the peace.
The year 1932 found the Japanese back in character again. The Mukden incident, manufactured out of whole cloth, resulted in the two-year war in Manchuria and the setup of the puppet state of Manchukuo. And then, because they hated and feared the spirit of nationalism that was so unmistakably asserting itself throughout China, they manufactured other incidents—this time at Shanghai and Peking—and used them as an excuse for an attack on China proper.
That war still goes on.
Thus the long and gory saga builds up to its thunderous climax on December 7, 1941.
After reviewing this condensed version of Japanese history, what interpretation is to be made of it? What, if any, significant conclusions are to be drawn from the unholy record? Surely the fact that Japan has been engaged in war of one sort or another for 17 out of the past 45 years— against seven different nations—has some meaning.
It has. It means that our devious search for the person or persons responsible for the Japanese attack against us is at its end. At last the culprit stands exposed in his true light, and like the denouement in any murder mystery thriller—which in truth this is—the guilty person is the one individual that we least suspected.
The guilty person is none other than the poor, little Japanese average man; the one with the nearsighted eyes and the buck- teeth; the one they would have us believe is essentially harmless!
Can any sensible person believe otherwise? Can anyone think that any band or group of hotheads could lead a people, even the Japanese, through the perpetual blood bath that has been their lot without the consent and connivance of those very people themselves? Perhaps an army clique or a secret society or the like might plunge an unwilling nation into one year of war, or two years, or even three or four—but seventeen years! That is not possible.
Why has the Japanese average man given his support to this program; why has he let himself in for all these years of “sweat and toil, blood and tears”?
The answer is that he has used, or attempted to use, war as a means to a very obvious end: the improvement or salvation of his economic lot. The Japanese have never fought a war for any other reason. True enough, the desired end has not always been realized: the peace that followed his first victory over China, for example, brought him only moderate returns; against Russia on the other hand, he was successful beyond his wildest dreams. The war against Germany can be entered in black on whatever ledgers he keeps; the campaign in Manchuria in red. And so it has gone: a success here, a failure there, but through it all the Japanese average man has deviated not once from the end in view: the improvement or salvation of his economic lot. That is the reason he has put up with the 17 years of the hell that war entails, and that is the only reason.
Of course, the argument will be advanced that economic benefits do not accrue to war’s victors any more; that war these days treats victor and vanquished with equal contempt and ruins them both. Furthermore, it will be said that average men never partake in war’s spoils anyhow, even should there be any.
Neither argument is strictly accurate. World War I was pretty rough on both sides, that is true, but countless wars prior to the 1914-18 affair have proved of immense economic value to the victors. Germany after the Franco-Prussian War is one example; Japan herself, after her war with Russia, is another. And as for the second argument: certainly an improved economic position, no matter how acquired, benefits a nation as a whole. It does not seek out any one particular class, any small group or clique or secret society and bestow the blessings of a better standard of living on it alone. All classes share in the bounty: rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief— and the average man—all are better off.
So the Japanese average man’s record over the past 50 years stands exposed. It is not one of which he may be proud. Covetousness appears to have been his guiding light always, and this trait, together with his willingness, nay eagerness, to fight (none too cleanly, it might be added) for the things he has coveted has made it almost impossible for the rest of the world to live in peace with him. If he were an individual and lived in America, he long ago would have gone behind bars as a convicted “habitual criminal.”
But, after all, our interest in him concerns the present, not the past. Is he guilty now? Is he the person responsible for the Japanese attack on the United States?
Nobody outside of Japan can answer that. Americans know this much, though; they know that the Japanese average man is prone to resort to war to improve his economic position. They know that this man had, through the 1930’s, descended through one economic spiral after another until, in 1941, he stood on the brink of complete disaster. And they know that the whole fabled wealth of the Indies lay almost within his grasp, denied him only by a preoccupied Britain, an unprepared United States, and the Dutch.
Maybe he is not guilty. Maybe the radio soothsayers, the men that write the editorial columns, and the public speakers are correct. Maybe some group or clique or secret society did push the Japanese average man into war. Maybe. But what do you think?