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Books: Terra Incognita

4 minute read

THE RISING SUN: THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE JAPANESE EMPIRE, 1936-1945 by John Toland. 954 pages. Random House. $12.95.


Though the U.S. helped open the country to trade in the 19th century and eventually occupied it after a grueling 20th century war, the land of the Rising Sun until lately has largely been terra incognita to Americans. Now historical revisionism, the astounding economic resurgence of the Japanese, and concern for the balance of power in the Far East are combining to change that. The most massive and popular new study is John Toland’s The Rising Sun, a detailed, evenhanded chronicle of Japan’s road to war and eventual defeat.

As a journalist-historian, Toland has written often and voluminously about World War II (The Last 100 Days; But Not in Shame). Not only is he married to a Japanese, but he also brings to his book a special perspective, built on several painstaking years of interviews with scores of Japanese soldiers, civilians and former leaders. The war began, Toland writes, “because of mutual misunderstanding, language difficulties and mistranslations.” To make matters worse, both Japan and the U.S. misapplied wildly different concepts of national honor. The charge of incomprehension and ineptitude has been made by each side against the other many times before. Toland damns both with an appalling recital of diplomatic blunders and military miscalculation.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore, they apparently knew that they would be unable to sustain a war for more than two or three years. The militarists in Tokyo who wanted war prevailed partly because the U.S. insisted at a crucial juncture in the 1941 negotiations that Japan pull all of its troops out of China. The Japanese took “China” to include Manchuria—which they had occupied in 1931 and renamed Manchukuo. In fact, the U.S. meant to exclude Manchukuo. Had that point been clear, Toland asserts, war would have been postponed—or avoided entirely. It was only in 1967, he says, that the surviving Japanese leaders learned what the Americans intended. “If we had only known!” said General Kenryo Sato, a Tojo adviser. “If you had said you recognized Manchukuo, we’d have accepted!”

Toland’s account of the internal politics and external maneuverings of prewar Japan is intricate and intriguing, though his discussion of the underlying cultural and social fabric seems sketchy and abrupt. His narrative of military action during the war covers familiar ground. But his talks with Japanese survivors produced chilling combat vignettes as seen from the other side.

Arrestingly, Toland takes issue with the conventional hindsight on the Yalta conference of the Allied Big Three in 1945. It was there that Stalin agreed to declare war on Japan within months after the Nazis capitulated. The customary view has been that the impending atomic bomb made that agreement unnecessary. Top Japanese military leaders, apparently, felt otherwise. By August 1945, the peace party in Tokyo had already turned to the still neutral Soviet Union, asking it to intercede with the British and Americans for a negotiated surrender; when the Russians instead declared war three days after Hiroshima, Japan was left with two alternatives—unconditional surrender or virtual destruction of its island. The Cabinet members most influential with Emperor Hirohito advised him to end the war, but some of the militarists objected. To them, the bomb seemed less deadly than the fierce Tokyo firestorm raids. If anything, the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seemed to stiffen the militarists’ resistance. Eventually, the senior commanders capitulated. Still, on August 14, a band of younger officers had the Imperial Palace surrounded and very nearly managed to stop Hirohito’s surrender broadcast the following day.

The war did not leave Japan a third-rate power for long. Its economic recovery was an even greater miracle than Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder. That is what intrigues Futurist Herman Kahn (The Year 2000; On Thermonuclear War). His short book is clogged with computerese, and his economic extrapolations of postwar industrial growth statistics are unconvincing. He hedges only slightly his prediction that sometime around the year 2000, Japan will have the largest gross national product in the world. Even if that should prove to be an exaggerated forecast, Kahn is probably right that the land of the Rising Sun will come to assume an overwhelming role in the defense of the Far East and that present Japanese antipathy to the military and the possession of nuclear weapons will disappear as memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fade.

Without firing another shot, Japan has, in fact, already achieved something very much like the goal for which it went to war 30 years ago: the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The sun also rises.

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