Hell on earth.
March 9, 2015 5:06 AM   Subscribe

Today marks the 70th anniversary of what is considered the single most deadly bombing raid in history, the 1945 US napalm firebombing of Tokyo. Today, there are still victims seeking redress and recognition from the Japanese government for the ‘unparalleled massacre’ of that horrific night.
posted by flapjax at midnite (58 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
From the second link:

"US Air Force general Curtis LeMay, the man who ordered the raids across Japan, once said the US military "scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night ... than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined".

He acknowledged that if he had been on the losing side, he would be charged with war crimes."
posted by dowcrag at 5:17 AM on March 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


The definition of horrific. To live through that and then spend the rest of your life bearing the scars while simultaneously watching it fade from public consciousness must be beyond agonising.
posted by billiebee at 5:18 AM on March 9, 2015


Robert McNamara, later Secretary of Defense during Vietnam worked for Lemay during WWII. He used statistical techniques, learned in his brand-new MBA degree, to determine the optimum methods to create urban firestorms.

Here is is talking about his accomplishments: "He (Lemay) and I, I say, were acting as war criminals."
posted by ennui.bz at 5:48 AM on March 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


For those who don't read the links -- Tokyo is densely populated and extensively used wooden construction. The firebombing was designed and intended to burn as much of the city as possible, as quickly as possible. Not the industrial areas or military targets, bur the entire city, killing as many civilians as possible, as quickly as possible. It was successful, killing directly about 100,000 people, a number comparable to or somewhat more than those killed directly by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and considerably more than those killed directly in Nagasaki. Total casualties were much higher and a million were left homeless.

The firestorm bombing of Hamburg in July of 1943 was unanticipated and unintentional. In fact, it was partly the result of a natural, cumulative targeting error by the bombers whereby successive waves of bombers unintentionally drop their targets slightly in advance of the prior wave, thus creating an advancing wave of conflagration that is ideal for building a firestorm. It also has the appearance of something like an unrolling (toward the viewer) carpet of flame -- thus "carpet bombing".

Unanticipated and unintentional, the result was mind-boggling and terrifying. It directly killed about 37,000 people. Command was well-aware of this and, in February of 1945, the Allies intentionally created a firestorm in their bombing of Dresden. The incendiaries were aimed at the most densely flammable portions of the city. 25,000 people were killed.

Three weeks later, the Allies put these lessons to their most lethal, horrific use, incendiary bombing Tokyo, fully intending the scope of civilian causalities, and more.

Dresden and Tokyo, as well as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were all war crimes, though they're not usually said to be. Winners writing the history books and all that. Nevertheless.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:49 AM on March 9, 2015 [34 favorites]


LeMay was a nut.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 5:50 AM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


It wasn't just Tokyo. Virtually any city of any size in Japan was razed, burnt to the ground. Niigata, Hitachi, Fukui, Toyama, Akita, Osaka, Kobe, Takamatsu...

I am currently in Tsuruga, a small port city of about 70,000 people on the Japan Sea Coast, surrounded by mountains on three sides. Back in 1945 Tsuruga would have been about 25,000 people.

The city survived much of the war despite being the terminus of the Trans-Siberia Railway and a major hub for the colonial administration in Korea, and an army base. There was also a large POW camp down by the port (about 3 blocks from where I am now).

But Tsuruga survived until I think June 1945 when B-29 bomber firebombed the city. It totally destroyed the oldest part of the city (including the POW camp).

Twenty years ago when I first came to Japan people still remembered the bombing. In fact, one of my students was a man in his late 70's who worked for the Occupation forces helping dump ammo from the army camp (now public housing, but the hardened sentry pillboxes guard the entrance to the complex) into Tsuruga Bay. His English was flawless.

I remember the American teachers getting into arguments with their Japanese students sometimes (usually after a few drinks) about the bombings and the P-51 strafing.

I'm a Canadian, so I escaped all that sort of stuff.

But my father-in-law was caught in the firebombing. He was just a kid, and did get burned on his arms. He watched his younger sister burn to death just across the street from where I am typing this.

I think World War II was a race war, plain and simple, both in Europe and in Asia. But I also think Japanese people tend to view the war as a calamity "that happened", like a typhoon or an earthquake.

So, while the American firebombings could be considered immoral and as war crimes (but that would be for a judge and jury to decide, wouldn't it?), I do wonder why people here are not more critical of the uniformed madmen in the Army and Navy who decided to invade China (which set off the conflict with the US as imperial hegemon in the first place).

And then the decision by the Navy to launch a sneak attack on Pearl Harbour.

If you ever go to a Japanese bookstore or library, or read a tabloid or weekly glossy you'll know there is plenty of discussion in Japan about the awful atrocities that were committed during the war.

But when it comes to launching the war a strange sort of obstinate attitude prevails. We were pushed into it. They firebombed us and used the atomic bomb on us because they thought we were less than human (which might be true - it was a race war). We received victor's justice.

I don't think Japan is in much danger of becoming a militarist state again. People still remember the war, and besides, the population is declining, and it would be expensive to transform the country's fundamentally defense-oriented military into something more aggressive like the US, Russian, or Chinese militaries.

I'm also cheered every time I see a billboard that says Article 9: Japan's Gift to the World. I see these billboards quite a lot, so there are people who remember all that can and will go wrong.
posted by Nevin at 5:54 AM on March 9, 2015 [33 favorites]


Nevin, you wouldn't happen to have, or be able to direct us to a photo of one of those billboards, would you?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:59 AM on March 9, 2015


WWII Database on Operation Meetinghouse.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:00 AM on March 9, 2015


LeMay was a nut, but nobody above him did anything to stop him. Indeed, they promoted him and put him in command of the XX Bomber Command and told him to bomb Japan.

He did so. Who was the most immoral? Him? His commanders? His president?

Both sides firebombed cities - Coventry and Nanking burned as hard as Tokyo and Hamburg. Both sides used unrestricted submarine warfare to attempt to starve out an island population, and in the case of the US, it worked. No, the Axis didn't use nuclear weapons, but do you even doubt that they would have if they had them to use?

It was war. If we were behaving morally, it never would have started. Indeed, our distant ancestors would have judged us weak -- we didn't put Japan or Germany to the sword after they surrendered. We rebuilt them.

So, maybe we are leaning something. I hope we can learn faster.
posted by eriko at 6:12 AM on March 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


I don't think Japan is in much danger of becoming a militarist state again.

Not if Abe Shinzō has his way.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:13 AM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


"LeMay was a nut."

Hey, did you hear about the time that he had a SAC bomber overfly Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, without Kennedy's knowledge, because he wanted to start a war? No? Well, it happened.

LeMay was very outspoken between 1945 and 1950 that the US ought to pre-emptively nuke as much of the USSR as possible, before it could build a large enough nuclear arsenal to return the favor. I think that eriko understates how much of a threat that LeMay was.

"I do wonder why people here are not more critical of the uniformed madmen in the Army and Navy who decided to invade China (which set off the conflict with the US as imperial hegemon in the first place)."

Well, Korea and Nanking. Both the Germans and the Japanese have had a kind of traumatic, national aversion to their past imperial militarism and in that sense both have an intense and peculiar reflexive pacifism and a corresponding respect for internationalism. But while the Germans are similarly acutely aware of the German WWII war crimes, and obviously particularly the Holocaust, there's never been anything comparable in Japan. Japan's actual atrocities, its war crimes, have been culturally dropped down the memory hole. In my opinion, for Japan the lesson of WWII was about imperialistic pride, not the cultural chauvinism that drove it. (Of course, I can't really think of an example of a culture learning this lesson. Certainly not the US.)

I've been uneasy about Japan in this regard for a long time. Not about Germany, until recently. Incidentally, numerous German officials are advocating for an EU military. It's starting to occur to me that Germany has sort of sublimated its imperial ambitions into its vision of the European project ... with a German hand on the wheel.

"I don't think Japan is in much danger of becoming a militarist state again. People still remember the war, and besides, the population is declining, and it would be expensive to transform the country's fundamentally defense-oriented military into something more aggressive like the US, Russian, or Chinese militaries."

Well, funny that you should write this now. I think everyone would have wholeheartedly agreed with you ten years ago. But of course Abe has changed things a lot -- or, really, it's that Abe proves that things have changed a great deal in Japan in the last twenty years. There was actually a pretty interesting piece in yesterday's NYT about this.

Basically, though, my sense is that generational changes and the rising threat of China (and its demonstrated territorial aggressiveness), as well as the intense cultural pressures of the vast economic changes represented by the Lost Decade (which is really two) have meant that culturally what was previously unthinkable is now quite thinkable. I expect Abe to get the law changed and a move toward a full-blown offensive military capability within the next five years.

You're right, though, in that economically Japan isn't in a position to counter China alone. However, I think that it's entirely possible that we might eventually see a Pacific Rim version of NATO made up of the US, Japan, South Korea, and Australia as precisely such a counter to China.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:25 AM on March 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


What sort of groupthink was responsible for taking on a country with ten times your industrial output? How did the Japanese come to believe the Americans wouldn't really fight? Did they not study the Civil War? The Spanish-American war? The Great War?

Operation Barbarossa was a canny roll of the dice by comparison.
posted by whuppy at 6:26 AM on March 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


They firebombed us and used the atomic bomb on us because they thought we were less than human (which might be true - it was a race war).

This is wrong, though it's not unexpected that such an opinion would arise in Japan. But I've begun to see it cropping up in the West too, which is strange. It was not a race war. There was a strong ethnocentrist element in the prosecution of the war against Japan; you only need examine the propaganda at the time to see that. But for America the war itself was about Pearl Harbor, not some sudden desire to eliminate the Japanese or their empire, and almost everything done to the Japanese in the way of civilian bombing had been first attempted or perfected against the Germans (outside of circumstances unique to the theatre and the targets; different aircraft were used, and the fact that Japanese cities were made of so much wood and paper was known and taken into account). The nuclear strikes were only an exception because the first nuclear explosion (the Trinity test) didn't occur until mid-July, a month and a half after Germany surrendered. Had the Germans been more dogged in their resistance, as per the Allies' Germany First policy Berlin or some other city in the Reich would have been first on the target list.
posted by Palindromedary at 6:29 AM on March 9, 2015 [13 favorites]


Nice post, Nevin.

I've done some, not much, reading about the group that ran Japan before and during the war; the fact that those who opposed the militaristic policies would get assassinated. What I didn't get was how or why the population went along with it.

Could Japan become a militaristic state again? Here's a question to those familiar with the country - is there no right wing raging against economic and demographic decline, no backlash against the transformation of young men into "grass eaters," pretty much the polar opposite of the militaristic mindset?
posted by kgasmart at 6:30 AM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Not if Abe Shinzō has his way.

I don't know about that... I can't recall the numbers, but in order to change the constitution there has to be a supermajority or some sort of really hard to achieve number of votes in the Diet, which at this time the LDP doesn't have (they lost seats in the last election).

And Shin Komeito, their coalition partner would never ever facilitate a vote to amend the constitution and abolish Article 9 (Shin Komeito for those who don't know is a Buddhist denomination party aligned with the Sokka Gakkai cult/religion that despite all of its weirdness is pacifist).

Abe has also talked about circumventing the constitutional roadblock by rewriting the laws or some such thing He did say, erroneously, last fall that the prime minister retains the right to interpret laws.

There is the incremental approach to somehow allowing Japan to participate in military missions in support of allies.

I don't think though this is ideological, though. It's pragmatic.

The United States, with whom Japan is allied with, wants Japan to assume a greater role in its defense. Japan, which needs American protection, is obviously (under the current "gutless" Abe regime) going to be eager to please, especially since China show every sign of continuing to be, quite frankly, aggressive in the region (as another aside - it's interesting to note how much things have calmed down between Japan and China since Abe took over).

The nationalistic crap Abe spouts off is a hobby that the establishment - the people running the LDP and the country - indulge as long as the money taps are turned on.

But like I said in a previous comment - Japan is an ageing society. There are no soldiers to go marching into Asia. Japan does not have any ability to launch a military campaign, and it would be expensive and difficult to build up an offensive capability - Japan's military budget is actually pretty small in relative terms.

The interesting development is Japan's cooperation with Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Japan is basically doing a lend-lease program to send them advanced naval patrol boats.
posted by Nevin at 6:30 AM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is wrong, though it's not unexpected that such an opinion would arise in Japan. But I've begun to see it cropping up in the West too, which is strange. It was not a race war.

What do you think of John Dower's work? He makes a pretty good case for race war.
posted by Nevin at 6:31 AM on March 9, 2015


In other words, as Churchill said before Congress: "What kind of people do they think we are?"
posted by whuppy at 6:32 AM on March 9, 2015


It was war. If we were behaving morally, it never would have started. Indeed, our distant ancestors would have judged us weak -- we didn't put Japan or Germany to the sword after they surrendered. We rebuilt them.

There is simply no comparison, however. What happened in the middle of the 20th century was slaughter on all sides on a scale and at a speed totally out of proportion to the rest of the entire history of warfare. The mongol conquests are supposed to have killed tens of millions, but over 150+ years. We, axis and allies, did double that in 6. I think our distant ancestors would've been as horrified as many of our closer ancestors were.

I met a woman who lived through the bombing of Hiroshima. She said that ancient flowers, never before seen by human eyes, long buried in the soil bloomed in the heat of the false sun we created to annihilate a city, only to wilt within hours. (Maybe that's just a myth, I dunno.) What humanity did in the second world war took us outside of time, and transformed time forever. We are utterly discontinuous with the past, I think, and so I just hate it when that sort of comparison gets made between the brutality of pre-industrial warfare and the awesome horror of modern warfare.
posted by dis_integration at 6:34 AM on March 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


~They firebombed us and used the atomic bomb on us because they thought we were less than human (which might be true - it was a race war).
~This is wrong, though it's not unexpected that such an opinion would arise in Japan.


In regards to race in the prosecution of WWII, it's important to remember that a great deal of Japan's militarist adventures were absolutely informed by their own racist/supremacist attitudes toward other Asian peoples, especially the Chinese and Koreans.

As for the US attitude, there was definitely a racist attitude toward the Japanese, but, I think that was pretty-much more of America's deep-seated home-grown racism being given a particularly virulent outlet to further the war effort. The US didn't enter the war as an overt act of racism. Rather, racism was used as a highly-effective propaganda tool, that exploited (mostly) white America's seemingly natural talent for demonizing the "other", and their desire for revenge.

Once you've been convinced your enemy is sub-human, it's pretty easy to bomb the shit out of them.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:56 AM on March 9, 2015 [15 favorites]


What sort of groupthink was responsible for taking on a country with ten times your industrial output? How did the Japanese come to believe the Americans wouldn't really fight? Did they not study the Civil War? The Spanish-American war? The Great War?

It was very well understood that the United States had a greater population and resource base than Japan did (though not in all ways; for example, the Washington naval limitations treaty of 1922 that enshrined an American-to-Japanese fleet tonnage ratio of 5:3 was bitterly resented by the Japanese navy, but was really their best friend, since when the war came the Americans outbuilt them far in excess of that amount).

Generally it was assumed that the American people lacked the will for war, which is what really mattered. I can't help but feel that the Japanese, largely spared from the First World War and with a successful experience in the Russo-Japanese War that saw them carry heavily defended positions though superior aggressive spirit and a willingness to absorb massive casualties, were fighting with a very obsolete mindset (though the Nazis managed to carry some element of this into their war as well, so it's not a unique set of WWII blinders).

Essentially it was felt/hoped that the Pearl Harbor strike and the securing of a massive defence perimeter based on islands seized in the wake of the strike would make the Americans think that the war would be too costly to be worth fighting. It was a catastrophic misreading of the American national character, which fights with the most enthusiasm against perceived naked and dishonourable aggression directed against them. A surprise attack with no prior declaration of war was in fact the perfect way to ensure the Americans would have the very will for war that they probably have otherwise lacked.

What do you think of John Dower's work? He makes a pretty good case for race war.

I haven't read War Without Mercy yet, though it's on The List (I just went and ordered it, actually, thanks to your mention). There's a lot of ways to argue the concept of "race war", whatever he defines that as, and the war is certainly racially charged, as I mentioned, but if he simply argues that the war began and the firebombing and nuclear strikes occurred because of racial elements, I don't believe the evidence at all bears him out. But again, I haven't read the book and I'm not sure what exactly he's arguing, so I guess we'll see. Thanks again.
posted by Palindromedary at 6:56 AM on March 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


Although from recollection it is set in Kobe and not Toyko - the movie Grave of the Fireflies is one that is indelibly etched in my mind and covers similar territory from the perspective of two siblings Seita and Setsuko. Extremely powerful and the movies very existence, to my mind , reiterates the very significant and long standing consequences of actions taken on all sides taken during that period of time.
posted by numberstation at 6:56 AM on March 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


almost everything done to the Japanese in the way of civilian bombing had been first attempted or perfected against the Germans

Don't you mean "By" the Germans. IIRC the London Blitz was a directed attempt to so demoralize the citizens of Great Britian that the Americans and the British would turn on each other (because it was assumed that the American people did not want to fight a second European war) and delay America's entrance into the European war.

Morality aside, this was "total war", and in such cases either side had no problem razing the enemies cities and resources regardless of collateral damage because the hope was it would shorten the war, decrease the enemies will to fight, and ultimately save lives, and treasure of the victors.
posted by Gungho at 7:11 AM on March 9, 2015


flapjax at midnite: I don't think Japan is in much danger of becoming a militarist state again.

Not if Abe Shinzō has his way.


I wouldn't say "having a military" is the same as militarist. Japan is not likely to become a military dictatorship anytime soon, even if they change their military posture. It's not like the "self-defense force" isn't already a world-class offensive military in all but name.
posted by spaltavian at 7:24 AM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Don't you mean "By" the Germans.

No, I do not.

I don't know about American air force plans, but I do know their doctrine, which said strategic bombing was a way to victory. They don't matter really in any case since by the time they joined the war civilian ("area") bombing was only two months away from formal activation.

But the RAF planned on a bomber offensive from the very start, and once France fell this was embraced all the more, since it was pretty much the only way the British had to strike. That the Germans also took their turn at bombing didn't really affect British plans in this regard: the British had different aircraft, different goals, and different methodologies, and developed them largely through their own efforts against Germany, not by being bombed by Germany.
posted by Palindromedary at 7:35 AM on March 9, 2015


It was very well understood that the United States had a greater population and resource base than Japan did (though not in all ways...

Essentially it was felt/hoped that the Pearl Harbor strike and the securing of a massive defence perimeter based on islands seized in the wake of the strike would make the Americans think that the war would be too costly to be worth fighting. It was a catastrophic misreading of the American national character, which fights with the most enthusiasm against perceived naked and dishonourable aggression directed against them. A surprise attack with no prior declaration of war was in fact the perfect way to ensure the Americans would have the very will for war that they probably have otherwise lacked.


This is exactly groupthink as whuppy suggested. If Japanese leadership hadn't realized how outmatched they truly where, then it could be argued it was a rational decision based on flawed data. They fact they knew and went ahead with it anyway is due to a particular form breakdown of rational decision-making that is endemic to cartelized regimes. Imperial Germany was making the same sort of foggyheaded decisions in 1914. Over reliance on appeals to national character, esprit de corps, emotional and even artistic motivations and reasoning. (Not sure if Japanese philosopher-chickenhawks were saying stuff as silly as "we need to protect the German feeling from Latin indifference", but same basic stuff.) Democratic governments obviously have their own flavor of failure mode, but you typically don't see "victory disease".

I recall reading somewhere that Japan actually did underestimate the imbalance somewhat; they estimated American industrial capacity at 11 times their own when it was really 20-25 times. Still, they knew the war was un-winnable in terms of manpower and materiel. But their decision making structure didn't allow for this to be rationally dealt with.
posted by spaltavian at 7:38 AM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


spaltavian: "This is exactly groupthink as whuppy suggested. If Japanese leadership hadn't realized how outmatched they truly where, they it could be argued it was a rational decision based on flawed data. They fact they knew and went ahead with it is due to a particular form breakdown of rational decision-making that is endemic to cartelized regimes."

I'm not sure how that makes it an example of groupthink. Thinking "X could do Y, but it would be too costly, so they won't" is an often used and often correct line of reasoning. Japan was wrong about this issue. Perhaps Japan was wrong because of groupthink. But the mere idea that "America could win, but they won't engage because it will be to costly" isn't the evidence that proves it.
posted by Bugbread at 7:48 AM on March 9, 2015


As for the US attitude, there was definitely a racist attitude toward the Japanese, but, I think that was pretty-much more of America's deep-seated home-grown racism being given a particularly virulent outlet to further the war effort.


It is worth remembering, however, that US officially sanctioned race hatred of the Japanese had its reverse side with officially sanctioned race tolerance (albeit at times patronizing) and approval of our allies, be they never so Asiatic. Indeed, the US army handed out instructions (done by Milton Caniff, no less!) to help the GI distinguish between virtuous and trustworthy Chinese and perfidious Jap. This was the era of Henry Luce and Pearl Buck, remember; it was in 1943 that congress reversed the Chinese Exclusion Act.
posted by BWA at 7:49 AM on March 9, 2015 [9 favorites]


They firebombed us and used the atomic bomb on us because they thought we were less than human (which might be true - it was a race war). We received victor's justice.

I think it's understandable to feel that way but I don't really think this is the case. This raid occurred on 3/9/45 and by this time it was obvious to the allies that the war in Europe was winding down - VE Day was 5/8/45 almost exactly two months later and I think there was pressure on all of the Ally leaderships in their own countries to bring the war to an end ASAP. After all it had been going on for the US for over 4 years at this point and on other Allied countries much longer. Further it wasn't a nearly painless war on the home front like the more recent not-so-excellent-adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was a draft and a whole lot of people had children in uniform in harms way. There was rationing of food, gasoline and all kinds of materials. There were war taxes. If the American people had been asked to sacrifice for the more recent wars the way they were during WWII GWB and Cheney would have been run out of town on a rail.

Add to that the prospect of invading the Japanese home islands. It was nasty enough island hopping to get close enough to Japan to launch land-based air raids the thought of the Japanese defending their actual home turf gave everyone the willies.

So, I think Roosevelt, who died on 4/12/45 and then later Truman when he ordered the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (8/6/45 and 8/9/45) were acting primarily in the interest of ending the war ASAP with as little loss of American life as possible. I think that had Truman initiated a land invasion of Japan with the estimated loss of Allied and American lived that entailed - estimated in the millions not to mention Japanese lives - rather than the atomic bombings that brought the war to a swift and decisive close he would have rightly been condemned for that.
posted by lordrunningclam at 8:05 AM on March 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


> There were war taxes

I actually never knew this. Was it seriously declared as a "war tax?" God I wish we did that for Iraq / Afghanistan... Having the direct cost of it reflected as such could seriously shape political dialogue in a positive way.
posted by MysticMCJ at 8:18 AM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


There was a strong ethnocentrist element in the prosecution of the war against Japan; you only need examine the propaganda at the time to see that.

I recently attended a lecture by George Takei and am now reading his autobiography. He points out that Japanese Americans (himself included) were interned during WWII; but though there was a considerable amount of anti-German animus during WWI, in the Second World War German Americans were not at all subjected to the treatment those of Japanese ancestry were.

I'm happy to see someone already mentioned Grave of the Fireflies. It's a beautiful, moving, and difficult film.
posted by Gelatin at 8:19 AM on March 9, 2015


Bugbread: I'm not sure how that makes it an example of groupthink. Thinking "X could do Y, but it would be too costly, so they won't" is an often used and often correct line of reasoning. Japan was wrong about this issue. Perhaps Japan was wrong because of groupthink. But the mere idea that "America could win, but they won't engage because it will be to costly" isn't the evidence that proves it.

The idea itself doesn't make it groupthink; and it wasn't presented as "proof". It's how that idea became cemented and how it cannot be challenged. Imperial Japan's decision making leading up to the Second World War is literally a textbook example of groupthink (at least at my university).
posted by spaltavian at 8:29 AM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


If Japanese leadership hadn't realized how outmatched they truly where, then it could be argued it was a rational decision based on flawed data. They fact they knew and went ahead with it anyway is due to a particular form breakdown of rational decision-making that is endemic to cartelized regimes.

It's important to note that Admiral Yamamoto himself expressed deep reservations about attacking the US and bringing it into the war. His comments show that he understood how much leadership was underestimating the US will to win a war if attacked.

Nonetheless, of course, he obeyed his orders and prosecuted the Pacific war until his death.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:29 AM on March 9, 2015


One of the things that fascinates me about history is worldviews that are internally consistent, supported, and completely wrong. In this case, (and in hindsight) Japan clearly learned the wrong lessons from The Russo-Japanese war, in particular The Battle of Tsushima, in which a Japanese force of 4 battleships, 27 cruisers, 21 destroyers, and 37 auxiliary forces defeated a Russian force of 8 battleships, 3 coastal battleships, 6 cruisers, 9 destroyers, and 12 other ships, losing only 3 torpedo boats. The loss of the Russian fleet essentially ended the war in Japan's favor.

From there, it's pretty easy to imagine people writing long papers about how this is clearly how war works now, and all we have to do is bring the enemy fleet to a decisive defeat and then they surrender! This was the basis of Zengen Sakusen, "The Great All-Out Battle Strategy": Japan would lure out the American Pacific fleet into the defense of the Philippines for the Decisive Battle. Japanese submarines would first strike the American battleline, weakening it. Then, Japanese cruisers and destroyers would launch night attacks with their long ranged torpedoes, weakening the American battle line still further. Finally, the Japanese battle line, supported by two of the largest battleships ever built (Yamato and Musashi), would close with the American battle line and annihilate it. This was expected to lead America into a negotiated peace, just as the Russians had before. Japan fully recognized that it had no ability to win a prolonged war, so they ignored the possibility.
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:36 AM on March 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


Nevin: But when it comes to launching the war a strange sort of obstinate attitude prevails. We were pushed into it. They firebombed us and used the atomic bomb on us because they thought we were less than human (which might be true - it was a race war).

It wasn't. There was surely a lot of racism in America, and racism was certainly a powerful propaganda tool once the war was started, but that's not why Japan and America fought each other. (Japanese actions in China are a different story.) American sentiment was against any entry in the war until Pearl Harbor, and the United States conducted total warfare in Europe as well. Tellingly, American actions towards Japan and Germany after the war were similar as well.

Look to the eruption of ethnic and sectarian violence on the Eastern Front in Europe for a race war.

Thorzdad: It's important to note that Admiral Yamamoto himself expressed deep reservations about attacking the US and bringing it into the war. His comments show that he understood how much leadership was underestimating the US will to win a war if attacked.

Of course, the Japanese weren't stupid. Their defective decision making process in the years leading up to the war, however, kept wise counsel from moving the needle.
posted by spaltavian at 8:38 AM on March 9, 2015


Gerhard Weinberg's A World at Arms has a great chapter on the morality of the American bombing campaign in Japan.
posted by zzazazz at 8:46 AM on March 9, 2015


I would not mind the expansion of Japanese military forces if government officials showed proper acknowledgement of the atrocities committed in history.

I do not trust the American military for the same reason.
posted by halifix at 9:15 AM on March 9, 2015


Okay, I don't really trust any military. Maybe the Germans.
posted by halifix at 9:20 AM on March 9, 2015


There’s a good case to be made for ‘race’ war. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, from the inception of hostilities, your position (as Japan’s was) is racially based, then no matter who you fight, you are by definition in a race war. Certainly the U.S. got on board with it (sub-human are we? No, you!) but I’m kinda curious where the ideology (certainly mostly lip service/propaganda for expansion) shoehorned in with Nazi Germany (the Onion’s gem: “Japan Forms Alliance With White Supremacists in Well-Thought-Out Scheme”).

Everyone at the time seemed to be on board with the whole race idea, except for some handful of more enlightened souls, but they tend to be against atrocities as well so they’re usually ignored once any given war gets rolling.

And indeed, so are rational warfighters, which is a strange state of affairs. The propaganda seems to take on a life of its own and supplants any country’s (or group’s) reality picture. That is, it overthrows even the guys who would otherwise be most effective at prosecuting a war effort.
LeMay seemed to be our version of Tojo. Both sides seemed to lean towards their philosophies – pipe dreams really - more than the ones who were cold eyed realists and genuine strategists. For some reason we follow our assholes instead of our hearts or brains. At least for a while. At least until reality sets in and we realized we've summoned something we might not be able to put down. (Plenty of militarists in Japan went after dissenters. And on the U.S. side, was there a more obviously glaring injustice than Japanese internment?)

And yeah, Yamamoto, on the Japan side: “If I am told to fight, I shall run wild for six months...but I have utterly no confidence for the second or third year.” He went to Harvard. He was familiar with the potential American industrial capacity. He was completely against fighting the U.S. But he was ordered to and did it to the best of his ability, all the while saying (paraphrasing) “This is a really goddamn bad idea.” And so the militarists in Japan tried to kill him too.
(Speaking of which, I’m curious if Yamamoto’s diplomatic essay wasn’t purposefully delayed before Pearl Harbor *shrug* I dunno.)

We’re fortunate, in the west, to have our fanatics be a bit less competent than our realists. But it’s odd how the best warfighters, Rommel comes to mind as well, are often sabotaged by those who say they want war.
Really? Is it war you actually want?
Then why the acrimony for the men best able to do the job? Why ignore, revile and/or even assassinate officers universally recognized as their absolute best strategists? Retrospectively, certainly, but even contemporarily Rommel was considered the best general the germans had. Yamamoto, all things considered, was a miracle worker.

His communications were compromised, he was outmatched logistically and technologically, he was sabotaged by his own side (the high command refused to rotate naval pilots to training, which led to poorly trained pilots which led to devaluation of skill and the kamikaze pilot tactic), drained of resources towards the end, etc. etc. and still held out for 10 months before Nimitz sent fighters to specifically target him, because, despite losing, he was still that much of a threat.

So, I’m thinking the militarists want something other than war. Their kind always seem to support atrocities, torture, etc. regardless of what side of any given war they’re on.

Had the Japanese not invaded Manchuria, that is, had the militarists not grabbed Liaodong and said to hell with orders (strange how serious they are about obeying authority when they’re in charge though, eh?) there wouldn’t have been an oil embargo (et.al) and so, no Pearl Harbor, and so, no firebombing.
And indeed, that was a war crime by any standard, U.S. firebombing.
By the same token though, after Operation Sook Ching

(straight up genocide with between 30,000 – 100,000 casualties), working 13,000 POWs and 100,000 laborers to death on the Burma-Thai railroad (*whistles Colonel Bogey March*), and outright slaughtering 100-odd thousand civilians with rifle, machine gun and bayonets in Manila, (et.al) yeah, it comes off as someone who kills their parents asking for justice because now they’re an orphan.

Yes, the assholes on our side firebombed Tokyo. The assholes on the Japan side did stuff too. I think we all need to reign in our own assholes, because clearly, they're the problem regardless of country borders.
War is a problem in and of itself of course. But there seems to be this attendant disconnect with reality, beyond even the make a buck off it madmen my patron saint criticized, that allows this evil to spread. It's got to be evil, 'cause it ain't just war.
Even the Nazis recognized putting bullets into civilians drained resources and was an inefficient use of time.
But SOMEBODY wants these kinds of things to happen. And those people never seem to be on the front lines either. Pretty obviously too.

You'd think we'd've learned by now.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:24 AM on March 9, 2015 [12 favorites]


It's important to note that Admiral Yamamoto himself expressed deep reservations about attacking the US and bringing it into the war. His comments show that he understood how much leadership was underestimating the US will to win a war if attacked.

Isoroku Yamamoto is a fascinating figure. He didn't buy into the idea of the Decisive Battle, and in fact in January of 1941 he wrote in a letter:
Should hostilities break out between Japan and the United States, it would not be enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House. I wonder if our politicians, among whom armchair arguments about war are being glibly bandied about in the name of state politics, have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.
On preview, what Smedleyman said above is exactly the point I was headed toward: It's so strange that even when fighting a war with so very much on the line, we don't allow those best suited to actually make the decisions.
posted by IAmUnaware at 9:32 AM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Really? Is it war you actually want?
Then why the acrimony for the men best able to do the job? Why ignore, revile and/or even assassinate officers universally recognized as their absolute best strategists?


Because the actual holy grail isn't war itself, but the ideological purpose for which the war is waged. Your best fighter/strategist may be a traitor to the ideology - and thus a traitor to the cause and to the homeland who must be eliminated regardless of his actual fighting strengths.
posted by kgasmart at 9:40 AM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


My father's parents were 2nd generation German-American (one fully, one 50%), and if you substituted the term "Japanese" for "German", he probably would've spent WWII in a 'camp'. Instead, he volunteered for the Marines and was assigned to the Pacific Theater even though he was a resident of Baltimore, Maryland. Assigned to the Marine Air Corps but never trained as a pilot, he personally dropped a lot of bombs, but never wanted to talk about exactly where. He feigned ignorance or disinterest about a lot of things about his military service to his dying day at 90. But a lot of his behavior for my entire life suggested undiagnosed PTSD. My own attempts to learn more independently were worrisome enough to give up on early and assume the worst. Regarding WWII, Tom Brokaw and his ilk are as dishonest as Bill O'Reilly; it was not "The Good War" and my father's was not "the Greatest Generation".
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:46 AM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


I actually never knew this. Was it seriously declared as a "war tax?" God I wish we did that for Iraq / Afghanistan... Having the direct cost of it reflected as such could seriously shape political dialogue in a positive way.

Particularly when it works out to about $3000 per year for the average American federal taxpaying household just for budgeted defense spending. The actual war spending is mostly extra above and beyond that.
posted by srboisvert at 9:47 AM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


From a determinedly snarky perspective, Japan won their part of the Second World War. They started the war (racist we're better than you attitudes toward the Koreans and Chinese aside) to secure raw materials for their industry and markets for their products. Now, 70 years later, they are a major player in the global economy, with raw materials coming in and finished goods going out at a boggling rate for such a small country, and all secured and protected by none other than the United States Navy. If you're thinking in generational terms (which, admitedly, the war hawks in Tokyo most assuredly were not), it's not that bad an outcome, even given the firebombings and the nukes.
posted by mrz80 at 9:58 AM on March 9, 2015


About the "necessity" to bomb Japan in order to save lives: Japan was trying to surrender. See this from Jacobin:

The most damning evidence against the firebombing can be traced to August 19, 1945, when Walter Trohan of the Chicago Tribune finally published a piece gracefully titled “Roosevelt Ignored M’Arthur Report on Nip Proposals” that he had been sitting on for seven months.

Trohan wrote:

Release of all censorship restrictions in the United States makes it possible to report that the first Japanese peace bid was relayed to the White House seven months ago. . . .

The Jap offer, based on five separate overtures, was relayed to the White House by Gen. MacArthur in a 40-page communication, [who] urged negotiations on the basis of the Jap overtures. . . .

The offer, as relayed by MacArthur, contemplated abject surrender of everything but the person of the Emperor. President Roosevelt dismissed the general’s communication, which was studded with solemn references to the deity, after a casual reading with the remark, “MacArthur is our greatest general and our poorest politician.”

The MacArthur report was not even taken to Yalta.


Japan was trying to surrender!

I think that war develops its own gestalt and it becomes very difficult to explain things at the macro level because the decisions are not made in any way that makes sense outside of the war.

Japan at War: An Oral History sheds some really interesting light on the situation for ordinary people, a situation that was pretty horrible by all accounts. Pre-war, there had basically been this weird power struggle in and around the military that was all tied up with racial superiority, militarism, money and factions, and the people in charge were basically fascists, plus there wasn't really that much popular oppositional structure (there's some interesting stuff about anarchists in pre-war Japan, though.) And there had been a huge state apparatus dedicated to cracking down on dissent pre-war, too.
posted by Frowner at 10:31 AM on March 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


Morality aside, this was "total war", and in such cases either side had no problem razing the enemies cities and resources regardless of collateral damage because the hope was it would shorten the war

True, but total UK civilian deaths were 67,100 in World War 2 (for comparison, 9,169 people were killed on UK roads in 1941), and German deaths from strategic bombing are estimated at 500,000.
posted by ambrosen at 11:34 AM on March 9, 2015


Eastern Front (World War II):
Estimated civilian deaths range from about 14 to 17 million. Over 11.4 million Soviet civilians within pre-1939 borders were killed, and another estimated 3.5 million civilians were killed in the annexed territories.[101] The Nazis exterminated one to two million Soviet Jews (including the annexed territories) as part of the Holocaust.
posted by kiltedtaco at 11:42 AM on March 9, 2015


Japan was trying to surrender!

Yes but the Allies demanded full unconditional surrender and Japan wouldn't agree until after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You can agree or disagree with that but I agree in principle. If you start a war, or a fistfight, you don't get to call it off when your shit goes south any more than the country or person that was attacked had any say so as to whether they were attacked.
posted by lordrunningclam at 11:58 AM on March 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


Frowner: About the "necessity" to bomb Japan in order to save lives: Japan was trying to surrender.

It's really not that cut and dried. Japanese decision making was not very clear; and some proposals didn't actually have the full support of the cabinet. (I mean, there was an attempted coup against the Emperor, even with his minor impact on policy by 1945.) The Imperial Cabinet in general had agreed to surrender by June 1945; but only after repelling the American invasion of the home islands. The full cabinet was not willing to surrender unconditionally, and they believed the only way to get the Allies to accept something less was to repel Operation Downfall. They then hoped to bring in the Soviets as a mediator; believing the Soviets would not accept total American occupation of Japan.

The direct amphibious assault was exactly what American leadership wanted to avoid; but they couldn't accept less then unconditional surrender. Japan and the Allies "win sets" simply didn't overlap. Japan didn't even surrender after the first atomic bombing; it didn't fully convince them that this obviated the American need to invade. The second bombing; combined with the Soviet entry into the Pacific War (and lightning sweep through Manchuria) is what convinced them the Americans wouldn't have to invade, and the Soviets wouldn't mediate.

So Japan was only willing to surrender in the context of probably more loss of life then the bombings. We're talking end of 1945, early 1946 if everything went their way.
posted by spaltavian at 12:42 PM on March 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


There were Germans interned in America. (These are separate from P.O.W.camps for Germans and Italians in the U.S.)

But there were so many more Germans already living in the U.S. at the time that they couldn't all be packed off to the camps: Wisconsin & Minnesota would have been depopulated, and Pennsylvania, too! Heck, there was even a Nazi-friendly party in America called the German American Bund: if just a fraction of the German-Americans were sympathetic, it was enough to get a couple tens of thousands together.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:11 PM on March 9, 2015


We must never again let the world descend into the madness that was the Second World War.
posted by humanfont at 1:11 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips"; Wikipedia:
Bugs Bunny lands on an island in the Pacific and is pitted against a group of highly racially stereotyped Japanese soldiers. Bugs shows no mercy against the Japanese soldiers, greeting them with several racial slurs such as "monkey face" and "slant eyes", making short work of a large sumo wrestler, and bombing most of the Japanese army using various explosives, including grenades hidden in ice cream bars
posted by kirkaracha at 1:47 PM on March 9, 2015


Frowner: “About the "necessity" to bomb Japan in order to save lives: Japan was trying to surrender. See this from Jacobin:”
Thanks for pointing this out. It's a really good article. Well worth the few minutes it will take to read it.

“The Firebombing of Tokyo,” Rory Fanning , Jacobin, 09 March 2015
posted by ob1quixote at 3:18 PM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Japan at War: An Oral History sheds some really interesting light on the situation for ordinary people, a situation that was pretty horrible by all accounts.

Yes, this is a tremendous book, well-worth tracking down.
posted by Nevin at 4:39 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Now, 70 years later, they are a major player in the global economy, with raw materials coming in and finished goods going out at a boggling rate for such a small country,

In 2015 Japan is no different than any other major industrial economy. Take Canada: while we might have "resources", they are shipped away, and we have to import almost everything. How is that different than Japan?
posted by Nevin at 4:41 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


>I don't think Japan is in much danger of becoming a militarist state again.

>>Not if Abe Shinzō has his way.

>>>I wouldn't say "having a military" is the same as militarist. Japan is not likely to become a military dictatorship anytime soon, even if they change their military posture. It's not like the "self-defense force" isn't already a world-class offensive military in all but name.


To give you an idea of what the national discussion in Japan around revising Article 9 (which renounces war) is all about at the moment, there is serious debate in the ruling coalition about whether or not minesweeping sea lanes would be going too far (ie, too warlike) when exercising collective self-defense.

This is a heated debate; junior partner Kometo opposes the concept.

So Japan is not talking about deploying troops to Iraq of Syria to fight ISIS (which Western governments do as a matter of course without even consulting Parliament or Congress), although there is some talk of creating a special forces group that would (somehow?!?!) rescue hostages.
posted by Nevin at 6:16 PM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Tokyo’s hosting of the Olympic Games in 1964 served as a symbol of Japan’s post-war reconstruction. In the same year, the government awarded General Curtis LeMay – the architect of the firebombing campaign – one of its highest honors, the First Class Order of the Rising Sun, for his work in establishing Japan’s postwar Air Self-Defense Force.
posted by Nevin at 1:59 AM on March 10, 2015


Japan at War: An Oral History. I cannot praise this book too much.
posted by SPrintF at 2:23 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


My father's parents were 2nd generation German-American (one fully, one 50%), and if you substituted the term "Japanese" for "German", he probably would've spent WWII in a 'camp'. Instead, he volunteered for the Marines and was assigned to the Pacific Theater even though he was a resident of Baltimore, Maryland.

Not in Baltimore, I don't think. From what I read, relocation affected only those living in Military Area No. 1, that is, the west coast for a distance of one hundred miles inland. How many Japanese or Japanese Americans were living in Baltimore, I do not know. In 1930, there were only about a thousand. (As to the marines, they had a very limited presence in the European theater. Japanese Americans also had a very limited presence in the European theater, but a noteworthy one to say the least.)

(BTW, Canada also had a relocation policy after Pearl Harbor.)
posted by BWA at 9:08 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


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