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Rationality of Pearl Harbour

LAURENCE REES: So you would describe the Japanese action in starting this war as irrational?

AKIRA IRIYE: Well, it was irrational to think that they could fight against all these enemies: the United States, Britain, the Dutch and Chinese. The Pearl Harbour strategy itself may have had its own logic within its framework, and that’s why Admiral Yamamoto had conceived of it, he had thought that it was just a strategy for one battle so to speak, for one war engagement with United States. If war should come he said this was the only way that Japan could win any kind of initial victory. It’s not going to amount to very much, he said. This is not going to mean that Japan is going to win the war, but this might be the only thing that might give this initial blow to the United States. I think that was the idea, that if they succeeded in this Pearl Harbour attack then it would take time for the United States to recover and recapture the supremacy in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. This was not so much Yamamoto but other Japanese at the time who felt that the Americans would be so shocked by this, so shaken by it that they might be willing to come to some kind of accommodation, that they might say, well, this is just too much, they’d rather not have another such calamity and they might be willing to let the Japanese stay in China instead.

LAURENCE REES: That’s a monumental misjudgement.

AKIRA IRIYE: It’s a monumental mistake, but that’s why one asks the question about the turning point in this war and it has to be Pearl Harbour. If by war we mean the war that went back to 1931 the whole turning point beginning with the entry for Japan is Pearl Harbour. I mean, ironically speaking Japan’s initial success story is in the first phase of what would eventually end as Japan’s total defeat.

LAURENCE REES: Did the Japanese deliberately delay the actual formal declaration of war until the attack on Pearl Harbour was underway?

AKIRA IRIYE: That’s a story in itself and it’s very controversial. And recently a book has been published by the son of one of those Japanese diplomats in Washington, because the usual story is that the Japanese government had sent some kind of an ultimatum, not a declaration of war itself, but an ultimatum to the United States, saying that we’re going to end all negotiations because our diplomatic engagement has got nowhere and that this is going to be a termination of our peaceful relationship. That, according to the Hague Treaty, would have been sufficient, that is that you are supposed to provide an ultimatum to the other country, and then you start a war.  But Japan did not even send that ultimatum to the United States.

I mean technically speaking even this final memo that the Japanese Ambassador brought to Cordell Hull on December 7th was not even an ultimatum but something less than ultimate. But even if it had been an ultimatum, as we all know it arrived to the state department half an hour or one hour after Pearl Harbour had taken place, hence the idea of Japan’s sneak attack, betrayal, this shameful behaviour and all those things.

And that’s quite true, and it has been very convenient for the Japanese to attribute this to poor typing skills of the Japanese diplomats who had received the final message to be represented to the State Department by eleven o’clock on the morning of December 7th. And if they had been more skilful in typing, because they had to decipher, transcribe and things like that, then they might have been able to put together a new typescript by one thirty or two pm and would have had just enough time to present it to the State Department just before the Pearl Harbour attack. This has been a very convincing story on behalf of the Japanese Government and the foreign minister and everybody else who was blaming everything on the typists.

Now one of these people who was staffing the Japanese Embassy, I think the First Secretary of the Japanese Embassy, by name Iguchi, and he, along with others, became the scapegoat for this because of the poor typing job, and the Americans accused the Japanese of dishonourable conduct. His son wrote a book recently on the basis of all kinds of research which shows that it’s totally wrong and ridiculous to blame everything on his father and the typists at the Japanese Embassy, because the message came too late to begin with. The message consisted of about 14 parts or something like that and the Japanese started sending it one by one, one part at a time, and unless you got to the final message you didn’t know that it was an ultimatum. So they were taking their time typing the first 13 sections and then finally they got to the final section which first indicated something like an ultimatum. So they got busy typing, and they were not professional typists, they had dismissed these American typists, because they were told to dismiss all the Americans. But the real blame should have been put on the others, the foreign minister and the others who had delayed sending this message, particularly the final segment. If they had done that earlier then the embassy staff would have known that this was something very serious.