History: Witness the GOJ’s negotiating tactics during WWII with its allies, according to W.L. Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of The Third Reich”. Not much different today.


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Hi Blog. I have just spent the past six months getting through one of perhaps the more weighty tomes in the English language: William L. Shirer’s THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH — about Nazi Germany and Hitler’s campaigns before and during WWII. This 1150-page tombstone/doorstop of a book will sit proudly on my shelf as something read cover-to-cover with as much information absorbed from it as possible. I of course wrote a book review in the back cover (if you’re interested in hearing it, readers, let me know, and I’ll append it to the Comments Section), but the thing that I’d like to focus this blog entry upon today is Japan’s historical actions and negotiating tactics (including the Japanese government’s penchant for vagueness, obfuscation, and completely masked intentions) mentioned within the book, and how remarkably similar they remain today.


Let’s start with page 870 of the Simon & Schuster paperback version. The year is 1941, where by the end Hitler is getting bogged down in the Soviet Union (just reaching the suburbs of Moscow only to soon be beaten back). By December, Hitler is asking his ally, Japan, to open a second front and attack the USSR from the East. Shirer writes:

“The next day, Sunday, December 7, 1941, an event occurred on the other side of the round earth that transformed the European war, which he had so lightly provoked, into a world war, which though he could not know it, would seal his fate and that of the Third Reich. Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor. The next day Hitler hurried back by train to Berlin… He had made a solemn secret promise to Japan and the time had come to keep it — or break it.”

According to Shirer, Hitler had but a rudimentary understanding of the United States (thinking it basically governed by Jews and cosseted elites), but knew that he wanted to keep the Americans out of the war until the USSR, and then Britain, were finished with. “Japan was the key to Hitler’s efforts to keep America out of the war until Germany was ready to take her on.” (pg. 871). However, in February of 1941, before Germany would attack the USSR (on June 22), Shirer writes that Germany wanted Japan to join in against Britain, who during the Battle of Britain was showing more resistance to Hitler’s advances than anticipated.  German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop received “hot-tempered” Japanese Ambassador to Berlin, General Oshima Hiroshi, who impressed Shirer as observer as “more Nazi than the Nazis”. Oshima was urged to attack the British Empire’s interests in Asia, such as Singapore, but to leave American holdings alone. The Americans’ turn would come, but action in on that side of the globe would distract the Americans away from their support of the Allies in Europe.  In sum, “the center of gravity of the interests of the United States will be diverted to the Pacific…” (pg. 873).

There was an important caveat in Nazi plans:  If it were perceived that “the entry of the United States into the war cannot be prevented”, then American holdings would be fair game for Japanese attack as well. The US fleet at that time was seen by Hitler as “inferior” to the Japanese, and it was thought the campaign would be easy. However, Japan had a caveat as well: Japan would attack, say, Singapore, only if Germany breached the beaches in Britain. But Hitler basically ignored that, since a) he wasn’t ready for a land campaign in Britain since he was fixated on attacking the USSR, and b) he could not let on yet to Japan that he was going to attack the USSR at all.

This entire negotiation between uneasy allies would, in my opinion, eventually devolve into a comedy of errors, with Hitler’s characteristic intolerant hubris conflicting with the Japanese government’s penchant for vagueness, obfuscation, and completely masked intentions. On March 27th, 1941, we had von Ribbentrop impressing upon then-Foreign Minister Matsuoka Yousuke that “it is only a question of time before England admits … the war has already been definitely won by the Axis.” (pg. 874). Here’s how Shirer depicts the meeting next, based upon its recovered minutes:

“In the next breath, [von Ribbentrop] was urging ‘a quick attack upon Singapore’ because it would be ‘a very decisive factor in the speedy overthrow of England’. In the face of such a contradiction the diminutive Japanese visitor did not bat an eye. ‘He sat there inscrutably,’ [meetings minutes recorder] Schmidt later remembered, ‘in no way revealing how these curious remarks impressed him.” (ibid).

But Hitler also had this assessment of America that Matsuoka expressed agreement towards:

“America was confronted by three possibilities: she could arm herself, she could assist England, or she could wage war on another front. If she helped England she could not arm herself. If she abandoned England the latter would be destroyed and America would then find herself fighting the powers of the Three-Power Pact [Germany, Japan, and Italy] alone. In no case, however, could America wage war on another front… [N]ever in the human imagination could there there be a better opportunity for the Japanese to strike in the Pacific than now. Such a moment would never return. It was unique in history.” (pg. 875)

What happened next is crucial in the designs that would develop when Matsuoka took this message back to the Japanese government — which was increasingly having its foreign policy dictated by the military (and by October 16 would hand over all governing powers to General Tojo Hideki in order to wage total war).

Matsuoka reminded Hitler that he “did not control Japan. at the moment he could make no pledge on behalf of the Japanese Empire that it would take action.”

But Hitler did absolutely control Germany and could make a pledge.  And this he did.  Shirer writes:  “If Japan got into a conflict with the United States, Germany on her part would take the necessary steps at once…”.  Matsuoka “did not quite grasp the significance of what the Fuehrer was promising, so Hitler said it again: ‘Germany, as he had said, would promptly take part in case of a conflict between Japan and America.'” (pg. 876)

This degree of rashness and obfuscation on both sides essentially settled everyone’s hash. The next stop on Matsuoka’s current trip to Europe was Moscow, where Japan, unbeknownst to Germany, thereby negotiated its OWN treaty of neutrality and nonaggression with the Soviet Union on March 28. After all, the Nazis had done one of their own (and Matsuoka himself had mentioned to von Ribbentrop only “in a superficial way” (pg 876) that he had met with the Russians regarding this on his way to Germany this trip). And the Nazis had made no intimations that they were about to break theirs. This would throw a spanner into Hitler’s ultimate plans for opening a second front with the USSR, as the Russo-Japanese treaty was in fact kept until the final days of WWII, when the USSR attacked Japan and took Sakhalin and the Northern Territories. And although personally, according to Shirer, Matsuoka remained in favor of attacking the USSR, the Tokyo government did not agree (their attitude seemed to be, “if the Germans were rapidly defeating the Russians, as they claimed, they needed no help from the Japanese” (pg. 877)), and Matsuoka was soon forced out of the cabinet.

Although still allies, the Japanese then employed stalling tactics towards the Germans that would frustrate Hitler no end.  Observe how these are observed essentially intact in Japanese diplomacy today.  I will quote Shirer’s footnote on page 878 in full:

“Ribbentrop kept trying all that fall and several times during the next two years to induce the Japanese to fall upon Russia from the rear, but to each the Tokyo government replied, in effect, ‘So sorry, please.’

“Hitler himself remained hopeful all through the summer.  On August 26 he told [Grand Admiral] Raeder he was ‘convinced that Japan will carry out the attack on Vladivostok as soon as forces have been assembled.  The present aloofness can be explained by the fact that the assembling of forces is to be accomplished undisturbed, and the attack is to come as a surprise’.

“The Japanese archives reveal how Tokyo evaded the Germans on this emarassing questions. When, for instance, on August 19 [German Ambassador to Tokyo] Ott asked the Japanese Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs about Japan’s intervention against Russia, the latter replied, ‘For Japan to do a thing like attacking Russia would be a very serious question and would require profound reflection.’  When on August 30 Ott, who by now was a very irritated ambassador, asked Foreign Minister Admiral Toyoda, ‘Is there any possibility that Japan may participate in the Russo-German war?’ Toyoda replied, ‘Japan’s preparations are now making headway, and it will take more time for their completion.'”

Even Nazi Germany’s world-class negotiator Hitler, Shirer concludes, “had been bested at his own game by a wily ally” (pg. 878).

Again, why I’m writing about this:  I’ve dealt with and witnessed the actions of the GOJ for decades now. Although now more than seventy years later, none of this seems out of sync with the way Japanese bureaucrats or politicians talk or act today.  And once anyone overseas thinks they have a handle on and an avenue into the political situation, the cabinet changes and then you have to start again. Someday people are going to have to learn how the GOJ works internationally.  Arudou Debito

12 comments on “History: Witness the GOJ’s negotiating tactics during WWII with its allies, according to W.L. Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of The Third Reich”. Not much different today.

  • ” And once anyone overseas thinks they have a handle on and an avenue into the political situation, the cabinet changes and then you have to start again.”

    I think that ironically, the real constants are the cliched, conservative interests of Japan; these are largely unaffected by cabinet changes. This is why politicians spout “The Rice is sacred” to stop US demands to end protectionism and to maintain the status quo.

    When a popularly elected maverick like Hatayama pops up and naively (?) attempts to enact meaningful change, Obama (Change but not change in Japan?) can just stall him until he steps down. So it works both ways and change is thwarted.

    Matsuoka reminded Hitler that he “did not control Japan. at the moment he could make no pledge on behalf of the Japanese Empire that it would take action.”
    -Japanese politicians do not control Japan due to their short terms in office. The conservative interests prevail. Arguably why so very many aspects of Japanese society and law are backward and in need of reform (e.g. immigration, human rights for foreigners, custody rights etc). Lawmakers cannot or will not make laws. Some politicians do argue for change, but they re not around long enough to enact them (?)

    As for the delaying tactics, I think Japan`s (non) signing of the Hague Convention is the best current example. From a Japanese politicians point of view, even if Japan signs, it will be a huge task to enact the domestic legislation needed to implement the changes; a complete overhaul.
    And so we get officials saying things like ‘Japan’s preparations are now making headway, and it will take more time for their completion.’”

  • I guess for many in Japan, they look at the axiom, “The more things change, they more they stay the same.” and figure what’s the point of doing much in the first place then? Based on “The Way,” the hemming and hawing is common sense. BTW, this approach to decision making is equally found at the personal level – not just in terms of international relations, IMHO.

  • I apologize for making an off-topic coment, but about that book… I’d suggest completing with another, more recent book. Shirer’s book didn’t benefit from documents that were made public since it’s writing, and also it’s a very biased book. He makes no mention of the persecution of gays by the Nazis, and even goes as far as to blame some of the Nazi atrocities on the fact that they had a few gays in their ranks. Doesn’t affect what it says about Japan though.

    — Yes, I briefly noted Shirer’s anti-gay attitude in my casual back-cover book review (which I always do nowadays for every book I finish reading). Also not mentioned in his book, and I felt this was inexcusable, were Mengle and Riefenstahl. Again, that book review if you want it.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Thought provoking piece Debito, thank you. May I also suggest Max Hastings excellent ‘Nemesis’, which examines (in part) how Japanese commanders buck-passing, putting off of important decisions, refusal to accept facts, and insistence on greater efforts to ‘ganbare’, are what lost Japan the war. Additionally, has a nice section on how Japanese commanders used ambiguous language between themselves, and in discussions with the Emperor, intentionally.
    What’s the Japanese saying? ‘A man without responsibility is not a man’? Surprising then that Japanese leaders historically have a culture of responsibility-dodging.

  • I must agree, I have often felt this way about Japan as well, that is manipulation and control are two basic characteristics of the J gov and academia. I have read and heard about what Japan did during their occupation of Asia, and its shocking. I cant read the book Debito reccomends, it makes me think too much about what evil is lurking about, whats behind all this insanity here in Japan. Id rather stay ignorant for now, Ive read/heard enough.

  • Flyjin notes:

    “Some politicians do argue for change, but they re not around long enough to enact them ”

    This is true, yet I believe not relevant.

    Politicians should be selected by voters in Japan on the basis of whether they will publicly and loudly and repeatedly call for severe changes, and whether they will work towards such changes.

    I do believe that the Japanese public would be quite receptive to change.

    There is an intriguing notion [http://www.gladwell.com/tippingpoint/index.html] of a tipping point, and it is possible that Japan may be close to such a tipping point.

    Certainly, at some point the sheer demographics of Japan will force such a tipping point with regard to many issues, such as immigration.

    I wonder whether any of these groups – http://wwwsoc.nii.ac.jp/japor/ — ever engage in public opinion research on the receptivity of the Japanese public for a radical increase in the level of accountability of their government.

    Japan, as Debito implicitly notes, has an ossified governmental system that dates back to WW2 and before that.

  • Japan is the last country with still a mild form of national socialism in act. You can tell very easily by the propaganda on TV during sport events, international contests but also in the CMs of big insurance groups “we are beautiful, pure, all the same” concept.
    The flag still resembles the good past ages, the national anthem and so. you don’t see this in Germany or Italy, only here.

  • Momi: I GET it.

    The thing I always wonder though is why is it when you see a group of Amerikans expressing national pride and solidarity with fellow Amerikans it feels more or less run of the mill but to see that kind of thing happening in Japan it feels more like….”uh-oh”

    This is off topic but maybe in some way related…. The whole Olympus debacle that currently has the stock value in a 3,000 mile per hour verticle dive…on fire.

    From the ex-ceo, his frustrations with what was happening regarding shady biz practices and more so, the response he was given from the other tops seem to indicate that this kind of vague lang./ inability to accept responsibility/ hemming and hawing is in fact, something that is largely woven into the culture itself??? At least the corporate culture anyway….

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    As for the Olympus crime (let’s call it what it is), this is just a cultural difference, surely? Stupid gaijin CEO poking his nose into directors (shady) business….just who does he think he is?! He doesn’t understand Japan’s unique culture, clearly.

    — Olympus is clearly a NJ in Japan issue, therefore germane to this blog. Should I open up a separate blog entry? There’s an excellent Reuters article out on this out now to build upon.

  • @Debito,
    Of course, I do agree it is an NJ in Japan issue, and should be treated as such.

    @ Crustpunker,
    As a Tepido regular, I would have expected you to be au fait with sarcasm. I am attacking your apologist inference that embezzlement/fraud is a ‘cultural difference’, and therefore somehow not really a crime, and that Mr. Woodford is stupid for not understanding that.


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