We have detected that you are using an older version of Internet Explorer and to have access to all the features on this site, you will need to update your browser to Internet Explorer 8. Alternatively, download Mozilla Firefox or Chrome.

Japanese initial success

LAURENCE REES: Why, in the first few months of 1942, are the Japanese so militarily successful?

AKIRA IRIYE: Militarily yes, Hawaii was a success story, right, but you have Midway in June 1942 which is in a way a major turning point. I said Pearl Harbour was, but in terms of military successes, Midway was a turning point. They [ie the Japanese] were more successful in South East Asia and there they invaded the East Indies, Singapore, [and] without too much resistance, Hong Kong. I mean there was resistance but they do succeed in those areas and they still occupy those countries for a while.

LAURENCE REES: Why were the Japanese so successful in Singapore?

AKIRA IRIYE: I am not so sure about strategic preparation for it, but I think it was part of the military strategy. They had been preparing for war in South East Asia since about 1936, and so my understanding is that the naval strategy thinking, even before they thought about going against the United States, had been preparing for a war against the British. They must have further refined that when the European war came, and must have planned for an assault on Singapore and prepared for the attack against the British warships if they should come that way. They had also tried to ensure that the colonial population would not come to the aid of the British colonial masses, but I don’t really know; I don’t think they really tried to make use of them, the people in Singapore or the Burmese or Chinese in Hong Kong. I don’t think they can even have thought of making use of them against the British.

So fundamentally I think it may have been that the British were preoccupied with the war in Europe and there was not enough to prepare for a Japanese assault. They would have been in the same situation as in the Pacific, they had not carried out the full preparation and they were not able to use Australian troops because most of the Australians were engaged in Europe and they were not able to come back. So quite obviously the Japanese outnumbered them.

LAURENCE REES: When would you say it becomes clear to the Japanese leadership that they’re in a situation where they cannot win the war?

AKIRA IRIYE: Coral Sea and Midway do come as a big surprise, shock. [Then] Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbour is killed. But what may have come as a big shock was the so called Doolittle air raid of April 1942, I think. It was that all of a sudden they find American aircraft keep flying over Tokyo and even though it is more for domestic purposes it comes as a shock because the aircraft must have left American aircraft carriers so the aircraft carriers must have reached the western part of the Pacific. This made it much more immediate from the Japanese point of view. Even though the sense that the tide is clearly turning may not have come until 1944. Reading some of the documents that traced the thinking of the Japanese Emperor, it seems clear that by the beginning of 1944 the Emperor said to his confidants that the war is not going well and maybe we should start thinking about ending the war or preparing for the end of war. So the top people, the civilian leaders and diplomats are clearly, by the beginning of 1944, beginning to think about how best to end the war.

But the military are much more adamant. I think the army in particular, because of the sense that as long as they have Manchuria, they have China. Because the China scene has not changed that much, yet.  There is one major battle in 1944 which was inconclusive, so I guess, from the army’s point of view, the view is that the navy could lose its war (there is intense army/navy rivalry there) but the army would hold on on the continent. There were still about 2 or 3 million of the best troops who were still in China and Manchuria and if necessary they could be put back to the home islands and fight. And there is that sense that the war has not been lost yet. Plus, what I was talking about earlier is the suicidal mentality that they’ll fight until the last man type of attitude. They would engage the enemy to the very end and the United States would not want to do that. I think there’s a view that the Americans will not want to engage in that kind of fighting, and so in the end there might be some kind of a truce or some kind of a termination of war short of Japan’s surrender. Now the armies have continued to fight to the very last man. The Emperor starts thinking about peace, ending the war, in 1944 but then it takes time for him to finally make up his mind. But even to the very end he’s still saying that we need one battlefield victory, and he thinks that maybe if Japan could have won victory in the Philippines or somewhere like that then it would show that the Japanese could still fight. But the offer to end the war was [always] on honourable terms with the United States; nobody is thinking about an unconditional surrender until the very end, until the atomic bomb, I don’t think.