Hirohito’s Pearl Harbor

Nakajima B5N1 Torpedo bomber

Stacy Danielle Stephens is back with yet another fascinating insight into the thought processes of the leaders in WWII.  We love receiving these pieces, as they make everyone think…  this one in particular!


In the spring of 1940, Admiral Isoruko Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, and Rear Admiral Shigeru Fukudome were watching torpedo planes in a training exercise when Yamamoto wondered aloud if a carrier strike against the Americans at Pearl Harbor might be possible.  A long war with the United States could only end in Japan’s certain defeat and likely destruction.  The Japanese government was under no illusions about this.  But Yamamoto anticipated that a surprisingly powerful strike at America’s Pacific Fleet would cripple the US Navy long enough for Japan to secure a number of strategic island chains, forcing the United States to negotiate a settlement.

Japanese Aircraft Carrier

For the next several months, Commander Minoru Genda prepared a preliminary plan, aspects of which were then tested and refined throughout the spring and summer of 1941, although no formal decision was made until September 6th, when an Imperial Conference was brought to a conclusion by Emperor Hirohito’s recitation of a short lyric verse[1] his grandfather, Emperor Meiji, had written almost forty years earlier at the beginning of Japan’s war with Imperial Russia.  All officers and officials at the conference were taken aback.  Not only it was this poetry reading unprecedented, but the Emperor’s intent was not clear.  Meiji’s poem was generally seen as voicing an Emperor’s concern and anxiety over the uncertain fortunes of war.  However, in light of the outcome of that war, one might wonder if Hirohito were, in fact, openly endorsing pacifism and urging diplomacy, or in reality expressing confidence in his military, in spite of their failure to subdue China as handily as he had wished, and tacitly encouraging them to proceed toward a victory which only appeared doubtful at the outset?

Emperor Meiji


Admiral Yamamoto understood the Emperor to mean that the Navy’s plan to attack Pearl Harbor should be considered operational, and immediately set it into motion, so that the fleet would be ready to weigh anchor by November 26th, with the understanding that it could be recalled at any time prior to the first wave of aircraft leaving the carrier decks.

General Hideki Tojo, Minister of the Army, understood the Emperor to mean that the Army’s plan to attack the Philippine Islands, as well as British and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia, met with approval, and should be finalized, and that all preparations necessary to carry out these attacks, in the event US acquiescence could not be garnered within the next twelve weeks, should be made immediately.

Prime Minister Konoe understood the Emperor to mean that he was determined to avoid war with the United States.  So Konoe renewed his attempts to negotiate the restoration of US oil exports to Japan, although he had no reason to believe any agreement on this matter was possible.


* * *


As he let slip the dogs of war in September of 1941, what was Emperor Hirohito about?  Within four years, his country would be reduced to wreckage strewn upon ashes, and he would not be held responsible.  Had no one heard him cry havoc while those summer days faded into an autumn that would culminate abruptly on a day which would live in infamy?


[1] Across the four seas, all men are brothers.  In such a world, why do the waves rage, the winds roar?


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