Japan, the West, and the Road to World War, 1940-41

CRN 36440
Schedule – TR 1400-1550
Location: 473 MCK
Jane Cramer

It is the summer of 1940. Japan’s war in China is about to enter its fourth year, with no end in sight. While officially neutral, the United States and Great Britain have been assisting the Chinese, and are threatening economic sanctions against Tokyo. With few natural resources of its own, Japan’s industrial economy depends on imported raw materials—particularly oil. However, Germany’s recent conquests in Europe may have just presented Japan with a golden opportunity, as French, Dutch, and British possessions in Asia lay largely undefended. Taking on the roles of leading figures in Tokyo—army or navy officers, bureaucrats, business executives, politicians, and members of the Imperial Court—participants are thrust into the middle of Japan’s strategic dilemma. Influenced by the tradition ofbushido, and armed with the works of the pro-Western Fukuzawa Yukichi, and the ultra-militarist Kita Ikki, they must advise the emperor on how to proceed. Will they call for a “strike south” to seize the natural resources of Southeast Asia—even at the risk of war with Britain and America? Or will they seek an understanding with England and America—even if it means giving up Japan’s conquests in China? Similarly momentous decisions must also be made on domestic policy. How will Japan’s increasingly scarce resources be allocated? Will the powerful privately-owned zaibatsu continue to dominate the economy, or will they be forced to subordinate their interests to the demands of the state?

This game focuses on a single question: Why did the Japanese government decide to attack Pearl Harbor?  Virtually nobody in Japan really wanted a war with the United States.  Indeed, practically everyone who paid serious attention to world affairs agreed that Japan had little chance of winning such a war.  Nevertheless, Japan chose to go to war, and by November 1941 nobody of any importance was even speaking publicly against it.

Ultimately it is a question that cannot be answered adequately without studying the constellation of forces that dominated Japan’s political system—the Army, the Navy, the bureaucracy, the zaibatsu, and the Imperial Court.  This leads in turn to further questions.  Why was the Army, already bogged down in China, willing to consider a war with the United States, which would involve a massive shift of resources to the Navy?  Why would Navy officers, who were by and large pessimistic about the chances of victory against the United States, have gone along with the decision for war?  Why were the most important civilian factions—the zaibatsu and the bureaucracy—unable to make a serious challenge to the aspirations of the Army and Navy?  Finally, if the Emperor truly did not want war (as he claimed through the rest of his life), why did he not do more to prevent it?

These questions not only require an understanding of the politics of Imperial Japan, but some appreciation for the intellectual undercurrents of the age.  Ever since the late nineteenth century Japan had followed a largely pro-western policy, which stemmed both from the realization of Japan’s weakness vis-à-vis the United States and Europe and a belief that Japan could only prosper through international trade.  However, since the 1920s a rising chorus of militarists and nationalists insisted that Japan had become subservient to foreign powers, and had been too willing to swallow western ideas and practices.  Writers such as Kita Ikki argued that the country had to return to its traditions and free itself—and all of East Asia—from thralldom to foreign powers.

The game begins in the summer of 1940 and runs through the end of 1941.  At the game’s start the war in China has been going on for three long years, and although the Japanese Army has won virtually every battle, the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek shows no sign of surrendering.  Even more serious is the attitude of the Americans, who have been sending aid to China and who are now threatening to impose economic sanctions.  Japan’s industrial economy—and its war effort—relies on imports of raw materials from the United States.  If the flow of resources is cut off, Japan will be in serious trouble.  Ultimately the country’s leaders in Tokyo will face a difficult choice—either sacrifice Japan’s goals in China in the name of good relations with the United States, or risk even worse relations with the Americans by seizing the natural resources that the country needs.