Over the years, I have discovered that, given time, people will create a narrative of the events and motives of their personal lives that can effectively be used to transfer, deflect, or dissipate guilt for what they have done to other people. It is often a subtle process that begins by telling the story in a way quite calculated to protect one’s ego from harm to a person who does not know enough about the actual story to counter it. After telling the narrative often enough, it obtains a status of actuality by means of repetition without dissent. The events as decribed come to have actually happened that way by repetition.
What happens in global conflict is simply that the victor in any conflict gets the power to repeat their narrative until it becomes “what happened” with a force that is even stronger than what happened. What is said to have happened most frequently and without dissent is eventually more “true” than what may actually be true.
An interesting case of this phenomenon is the prison journal Japanese Admiral Hideki Tojo. After WWII, Tojo was put on trial (and executed) for war crimes. In the days before his death, he kept a diary of his fundamental arguments, justifying Japan’s actions in launching the attack on Pearl Harbor. Ironically, the “day that will live in infamy” for him is not the day that his air force attacked the American fleet in Hawaii. It is the day that America refused to compromise diplomatically with Japan over Japan’s involvement in Manchurian China, combined with the declaration that Japanese assets were to be frozen in the United States and that further commerce of necessary goods would be suspended.
From the American point of view, Japan was involved in a war of aggression against China and had established a puppet state there. From the American perspective, Japanese intentions were for world domination and racial superiority. Tojo sees things differently.
“Immediately before the beginning of the Great East Asian war [which commenced on December 7, 1941], Japan was still engaged in the unfortunate Sino-Japanese War, which had already gone on for more than four years. Throughout that period, Japan had made honest efforts to keep the destruction of war from spreading and, based on the belief that all nations of the world should find their places, had followed a policy designed to restore an expeditious peace between Japan and China. Japan was ensuring the stability of East Asia while contributing to world peace. Nevertheless, China was unfortunately unable to understand Japan's real position, and it is greatly to be regretted that the Sino-Japanese War became one of long duration.”
For Tojo, the war was a result of misunderstandings between the American and Japanese governments regarding what Japanese soldiers were doing in China. I suspect that a similar claim could be made when the right to place American soldiers in Iraq is asserted.
“Despite Japan's desires and efforts, unfortunate differences in the ways that Japan, England, the United States, and China understood circumstances, together with misunderstandings of attitudes, made it impossible for the parties to agree. Up until the very end, these were important reasons for the outbreak of war, and from Japan's point of view, this is a matter of great regret.”
From Tojo’s perspective, the American support for Chiang Kai-Shek was what was thwarting the peace effort in China. Not the presence of the Japanese military.
“Thus, England and the United States supported the Chungking [Chinese] government [of Chiang Kai-Shek] in every way, obstructed the peace between Japan and China that Japan desired, and thwarted Japan's efforts towards East Asian stability.”
This support was extended to include an American economic “blockade” of Japan in relation to essential goods and war materials.
“During this period, in July 1939, the United States suddenly gave notice of the abrogation of the treaty of commerce [signed in 1911, its termination restricted the importation of essential raw materials] thereby threatening the existence of the Japanese people. At present, looking back coolly upon the past, I think that both nations have much to reflect upon.”
What does he mean by saying that BOTH nations have much to reflect on? Quite clearly, he means that by cutting Japan off from its oil supplies instead of pursuing negotiations, American STARTED THE WAR. For Tojo, the economic consequences of America’s strong arm tactics put Japan in a “no-way-out-but-fight” position.
“At about that time, in order for Japan to sustain its own people, and because of the necessity of maintaining internal production, and in order to prosecute the Sino-Japanese War, we were faced with the necessity of obtaining such things as rice and oil from the southern islands, including French and Dutch Indochina. Particularly at the time when the United States broke off commercial relations with Japan, and the routes that depended on the United States were cut, the survival of Japan was closely connected to whether or not peaceful commerce would be possible with these southern areas.”
To secure supply lines, The Japanese took a more aggressive approach to resource laden South Indochina, setting off a chain reaction of fears in England and America.
“However, the British-American side called this a threat to their own territories, and in July 1941, together with Holland, ordered the freezing of assets and, in effect, commenced an economic blockade.”
Tojo notes that Britain and America began to militarize first. Like Germany in 1914, Japan began to feel itself being “encircled”. It is the feeling of a caribou who has not been actually bitten yet by a pack of wolves that is slowly inching closer and increasing in numbers. For Tojo, America was threatening Japan. Not visa versa.
“This was a grave threat to the existence of Japan. In addition to this, the British-American side concentrated troops in Hawaii, the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaya, and reinforced their defenses. In this way, economic pressure was increased just as the circle around Japan was tightened, and conditions arose that severely threatened the existence of Japan.”
Again, the dominoes of fear begin to fall and the conflict begins to escalate. In response to their fears, Japan invests more in its military. In response, Britain and America invest more. In response, Japan invests more. And so on. One of the most prescient cartoons of the WWI period in England is a cartoon where someone says “We have to build a battleship that will be bigger than the battleship our enemies will build when they hear what a big battleship we have built.” (rough paraphrase.) Tojo refers to Japanese arms spending as “preparing for passive national defense”.
“One of the reasons that Japan prepared for a passive national defense was the worsening conditions in the Pacific, but this was not the main reason.”
It reminds me of the Cuban Missile Crisis (which took place a month before I was born) where President John f.Kennedy kept referring to Soviet missiles in Cuba as “offensive nuclear weapons” and to American nuclear missiles in Turkey as “defensive nuclear weapons”. As if nuclear weapons come in two forms. In Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s war message, he makes it clear that America was the power seeking diplomatic peace between the countries. In Tojo’s narrative, it is the Americans who gave up on diplomatic initiatives. Tojo writes:
“The hope for a peaceful solution by means of a summit meeting thus disappeared, but Japan, wishing to reach a solution through diplomatic means, made several later proposals in response to the American position. However, the United States held firm to its initial position and would concede nothing.”
In short, Tojo is arguing that what the Americans were trying to call “diplomacy” was really simply “bullying”. America had laid down an ultimatum and labeled it a “diplomatic effort.” Meanwhile they were conducting what amounted to an economic war, denying natural resources to Japan that it absolutely needed. (It is interesting that Japan, more than any other country, has determined to never allow itself to be so totally dependent on energy imports and now has the most robust nuclear energy supply on the planet.)
“During this period, Japan's peaceful commercial relations were successively obstructed, primarily by the American rupture of commercial relations, and this was a grave threat to the survival of Japan. In particular, the economic blockade by the various powers, led by the United States, inflicted a mortal blow to the survival of Japan.”
Again and again, Tojo repeats the narrative that, had Japan won the war, would not doubt have become “the” history of the origins of the conflict rather than just his his own personal interpretation:
“Japan attempted to circumvent these dangerous circumstances by diplomatic negotiation, and though Japan heaped concession upon concession, in the hope of finding a solution through mutual compromise, there was no progress because the United States would not retreat from its original position. Finally, in the end, the United States repeated demands that, under the circumstances, Japan could not accept: complete withdrawal of troops from China . . . At this point, Japan lost all hope of reaching a resolution through diplomatic negotiation.”
“Since events had progressed as they had, it became clear that to continue in this manner was to lead the nation to disaster. With options thus foreclosed, in order to protect and defend the nation and clear the obstacles that stood in its path, a decisive appeal to arms was made.”
Underlying the whole conflict is a difference in the story being told about why Japan was in China in the first place. Again, for most Americans, the American military finds itself in Iraq for reasons of “self defense”. It should come as no wonder to us that others might not see it as so. To Tojo, Japan was forced to use coercive means in China largely by the way that America and Europe were excluding it from its markets. Here is how Tojo explains that the American assertion that Japan was a malignant and global threat – that it had determined to “take over the world” – was, from his perspective, a fiction.
“The causes of the China Incident were the exclusion and insult of Japan throughout China, the exclusion of Japanese goods, the persecution of Japanese residents in China, and the illegal violation of Japanese rights. As Japan had declared on such occasions, it was thought that the stability of East Asia depended on the close, mutual assistance and cooperation between China and Japan. That Japanese troops were stationed in China at the time was the result of unfortunate incidents and not something that Japan had originally desired. Consequently, there would have been no objection to the total withdrawal of troops should the causes be eliminated . . . On the British-American side the causes were seen entirely to be a Japanese policy of invasion, and little thought was given to actual circumstances. The Japanese policy, as was made clear at the time, was a non-expansionist policy, and it was not carried out as a matter of national intent.”
His argument obviously raises questions about the morality of post war “trials” in which victors get to execute the losers. Looked at from the vantage point of 60-70 years, can we not concede that Tojo had some points to make? This document spent some 40 years in obscurity. A generation of people have taken U.S. History courses now without any reference to the Japanese narrative as outlined by Hideki Tojo. Indeed, few students coming out of an American history class in high school will even know that Franklin Deleno Roosevelt cut Japan off from its oil supplies before the Pearl Harbor attack. “It is natural that I should bear entire responsibility for the war in general, and, needless to say, I am prepared to do so,” says Tojo in his diary,
“Consequently, now that the war has been lost, it is presumably necessary that I be judged so that the circumstances of the time can be clarified and the future peace of the world be assured. Therefore, with respect to my trial, it is my intention to speak frankly, according to my recollection, even though when the vanquished stands before the victor, who has over him the power of life and death, he may be apt to toady and flatter. I mean to pay considerable attention to this in my actions, and say to the end that what is true is true and what is false is false. To shade one's words in flattery to the point of untruthfulness would falsify the trial and do incalculable harm to the nation, and great care must be taken to avoid this.”
As students of history and teachers of history, we do not have to agree in entirety with narrative accounts of the people we defeat, but it seems that we owe it to truth and to the future to hear them. How long did it take for Americans to take seriously the account of its treatment of American Indians (as told in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee)?
Tojo’s journal speaks to us today about our present conflicts. “World peace must be built upon reality and an understanding of the other's position,” he says,
“And can be achieved only by finding means that are acceptable. It is not conducive to negotiations for one country to ignore reality and force its own self righteousness upon another country.”
To Tojo, it was America who had fundamentally determined that it wanted to go to war. From his perspective, nothing in the actions that the U.S. took could be seen to be anything but intentional provocation. “It can only be said that the United States, seduced by its own doctrines and selfishness, was planning to expand the war” he writes:
“Although it avoided handling its international relations by means of force, the United States government advanced its harsh claims by applying economic pressure, together with the British government and others. This kind of pressure can, at times, be even more inhumane than military pressure and should be avoided as a means of handling international relations.
In every instance, what the US government demanded of Japan ignored reality in China and attempted to subvert the position of Japan, which was the stabilizing force in East Asia. . . . The above makes it clear that Japan had lost all hope in further negotiation, and was forced to extreme measures as a matter of pure self defense.
“According to the address by the chief of counsel, Japan declared war on civilization, but the responsibility for declaring war lies rather, as explained above, with the AngloAmerican side, which forced Japan into war. Japan fought in order to ensure its own survival and also to establish the proper survival of the people of East Asia. In other words, it sought true civilization for mankind. This truth is not to be judged hastily as the sorrowful lamentations of a vanquished country, for it is the truth of mankind.”
“Japan never planned to wage a war for the purposes of aggression. Japan always tried to establish its independence and self-preservation and self-defense, and tried to counter the instability and turmoil that resulted from European and American aggression in East Asia. Japan tried to stabilize East Asia and believed that this was a contribution to world peace.”
During the trial, Hideki Tojo was apparently asked to explain his position that the war was “made in America”. Here is how he answered.
“Answer: As has already been demonstrated, after the First Great European War, and after the Manchurian Incident, the United States adopted a policy of high tariffs, Britain built up an imperial economic bloc, and Japan's trade was excluded from one part of the world after another.
Further, at the end of July 1939, the United States suddenly applied economic pressure, principally by rescinding its trade and commerce treaty with Japan. This, together with the outrageous act of economic blockade by means of the freezing of Japanese assets by the United States, Britain, and Holland, was a mortal threat to Japan, whose economic activities depended on foreign trade. This kind of economic blockade by nations with which Japan was not in a state of war was felt as an enemy act that was little different from war.”
Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 31-85.
Repetition. Repetion. Repetition. Needless to say, his narrative was not accepted by the court that tried him. It was probably not even heard. Who in their right mind would want to complicate their own narrative when to do so would bring the ego that has created an acceptable version of the story into account?
Nothing in the above should be taken as agreement with Hideki Tojo’s account. Clearly, nothing is as simple as one person’s account of anything. All I am doing here is illustrating a point. People can do some pretty mean things to you and find ways to justify it with a story that declares them to have been simply acting in “self defense” somehow.
Question for Comment: Do you ever catch yourself modifying narratives of your conflicts to suit you?