Born December 30, 1884
Died December 23, 1948
Japanese military and political leader
In the years leading up to World War II, Japan began to aggressively expand its empire into nearby Asian countries, especially China. This expansion concerned the leaders other nations, and they began to view Tojo, the Japanese prime minister and the leading symbol of the country's militarism. Tojo was seen as an all-powerful dictator similar to Germany's Adolf Hitler (1889-1945; see entry) or Italy's Benito Mussolini (1883-1945; see entries). Although Tojo played a major role in Japan's wartime affairs, his power and ambitions were actually not as great as Hitler's or Mussolini's. He has been described as an uncomplicated, hardworking man intensely dedicated to his profession. His fatal error was in not realizing that the United States and its allies could win a long-term, large-scale war.
The Kamisori (razor)
Tojo was born into a family known for producing many samurais or warriors. His father, Eikyo Tojo, was an army general who fought in Japan's war with Russia. In school, Tojo was an energetic, competitive, self-confident boy; fellow students nicknamed him "Fighting Tojo." He graduated from the Japanese Military Academy in 1915 and entered the army. He spent a few years in Europe, including a stint in Switzerland and one as assistant military attaché (advisor to the embassy) in Berlin, Germany. Returning to Japan, Tojo became an instructor in Japan's war college.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Tojo rose through the ranks of the military, gaining a reputation as a decisive, hardworking, very efficient officer whose nickname was kamisori (the razor). He became a member of the Control Group, which was made up of army officers who thought the military should have more control; moreover, they also believed that Japan could solve its economic and population problems by expanding its borders into China and other parts of southeast Asia. The Control Group felt that the Western countries (especially the United States) were hostile toward Japan and that Japan would have to aggressively defend its own interests.
By 1933 Tojo had reached the rank of major general, and in 1935 he became the head of military police for the Kwangtung Army (the branch of Japan's army that was in China). He took a strong "law and order" stance, enforcing rules strictly. From 1937 to 1938 he was appointed chief of staff of the Kwangtung Army, and he proved his leadership abilities in combat when fighting broke out between the Chinese and the Japanese in the summer of 1937.
The fighting between Japan and China was very brutal. The Japanese completely destroyed many of the cities and villages that they invaded. The Chinese forces fought hard to prevent the Japanese from taking Shanghai, defending it for four months, from August to November, before the Japanese were able to take the city. The worst example of Japan's brutality is the reported destruction of China's capital city of Nanking. Irish Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking, reports that here, in December 1937, Japanese soldiers murdered nearly 100,000 Chinese prisoners of war and raped, tortured, and killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians.
Pushing Japan further toward war
In May 1938 Tojo was called back to Tokyo to serve in the government of Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoye. He took an aggressive stance, claiming that Japan would have to go to war (against both China and the Soviet Union) to reach its goals and that Japan's weak economy could only be improved if the military became stronger. Tojo left this position in December 1938 to become inspector general of army aviation.
By July 1941, when Tojo was appointed minister of war, Japan was still fighting China and had also invaded Korea. The United States government protested these actions strongly and even stopped selling U.S. goods to Japan, thus increasing Japan's economic hardships. Some moderate leaders wanted to withdraw troops from China and negotiate with the United States, but Tojo opposed them. He drew up new plans for more aggression, and he approved the Tripartite Pact—an agreement that made Japan an ally of Germany and Italy—because he felt it would put Japan in a stronger position.
A prime minister with a "clean slate"
When Konoye resigned in October 1941, Tojo took over the job of prime minister, while remaining head of the departments of war, education, commerce, and industry. Tojo insisted that he begin his new job with a "clean slate," meaning that he did not have to honor any earlier promises to negotiate with the United States. Although the military was now in control of the country and Tojo was its top leader, he was not a dictator, because he still had to answer to a "Supreme Command" made up of civilian and military leaders. He was also supposed to be under the emperor's command, but in fact Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989; see entry) did not have much real power.
On December 7, 1941—even as some Japanese diplomats were in Washington, D.C., meeting with U.S. leaders— Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Thousands of people were killed and many ships and airplanes were destroyed. The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945; see entry) declared war on Japan. Meanwhile, Tojo broadcast a radio message to the Japanese people, warning them that "to annihilate this enemy and to establish a stable new order in east Asia, the nation must necessarily anticipate a long war."
Japan loses the war
What Tojo did not anticipate was the strength of the Allied forces and their determination to win the war. Although the Japanese forces achieved some success at the beginning (including invasions of the Philippines and Singapore), their fortunes began to decline as the war continued and they lost several important battles. Nevertheless, Tojo rejected the idea of a negotiated peace treaty. He thought Japan should continue to fight. But in July 1945, U.S. troops defeated the Japanese on Saipan (part of the Marianas island chain in the South Pacific) putting American bomber planes in range of the main Japanese islands.
Tojo now came under great pressure to leave the government, and on July 18 he resigned. Harshly criticized by the public, who blamed him for Japan's problems, he and his wife retired to private life. In early August the Allies dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the war soon came to an end. Shortly thereafter the Japanese agreed to an unconditional surrender.
Tried and executed for war crimes
General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964; see entry) was chosen to lead Japan's occupation government and help the nation prepare for economic recovery and transition to a democratic society. MacArthur arrived in Tokyo in September and immediately called for the arrest of all those who were thought to have committed war crimes (violations of the laws or customs of war), especially top military leaders. When Tojo learned that American soldiers had arrived at his home to arrest him, he shot himself in the chest. The wound did not kill him, however, and American doctors saved his life.
Tojo was held in prison until May 1946, when his trial before the International Military Tribunal began. During the two-year trial, Tojo took the blame for his country's actions during the war, but claimed that it had all been done for Japan's survival. The trial found that Tojo had "major responsibility for Japan's criminal attacks on her neighbors," and he was sentenced to death. He was hanged on December 23, 1948, one of seven Japanese war criminals executed for their parts in World War II. In his final statement, Tojo expressed regret for the many horrible acts committed by Japanese forces.
Where to Learn More
Butow, Robert J. C. Tojo and the Coming of the War. Stanford, CT: Stanford University Press, 1961.
Browne, Courtney. Tojo: The Last Banzai. New York: De Capo Press, 1998.
Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
Hoyt, Edwin P. Warlord. Lanham, MD: Scarborough House, 1993.
Doolittle Leads Revenge Attack
In the months after the December 7, 1941, surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, American military commanders worked on a plan to take revenge on the Japanese. By April 1942 their plan was ready: bomber planes led by General James Doolittle would carry out a raid on Tokyo, the capital of Japan.
The plan called for sixteen bombers to take off from the deck of the aircraft carrier Hornet, which sailed from San Francisco on April 2, 1942. They hoped to make a surprise attack. On April 18 the aircraft carrier was spotted by a Japanese patrol boat, so the planes had to take off immediately. They arrived at Tokyo in the middle of the day, instead of at night as they had planned, and began dropping bombs on this city as well as Osaka, Nagoya, and Kobe.
After the attack, the planes flew to the Chinese mainland, but because of the change in timing the airfield was not ready to receive them and the pilots had to make crash landings or bail out of their planes. Twelve of the eighty-two men who had taken part in the raid were killed.
Although the raid did not have a huge effect on the outcome of the war, it boosted American spirits. For his role in the action Doolittle received the Congressional Medal of Honor and a promotion to brigadier general.
Hideki Tojo (1884-1948), a Japanese general and premier during World War II, was hanged as a war criminal. He symbolized, in his rise to leadership of the Japanese government, the emergence of Japanese militarism and its parochial view of the world.
Hideki Tojo was born in Tokyo on Dec. 30, 1884, the eldest son in a family of samurai descent. Tojo entered military school in 1899, following in the footsteps of his father, a professional military man who served as a lieutenant colonel in the Sino-Japanese War and as a major general in the Russo-Japanese War. Tojo likewise saw service, though briefly, in the latter war. In 1915 he graduated with honors from the army war college and was subsequently sent abroad for 3 years (1919-1922) of study in Europe. After his return he served as an instructor in military science at the war college.
Brusque, scrupulous, and hardworking, Tojo came to be known as kamisori (the razor) for the sharp, decisive, impatient qualities that he manifested as he rose rapidly through the military hierarchy. He was assigned first to the War Ministry and subsequently to the general staff and various command posts. Promoted to lieutenant general in 1936, Tojo became chief of staff of the Kwantung Army in Manchuria, where he worked effectively to mobilize Manchuria's economy and strengthen Japan's military readiness in the event that war broke out with the Soviet Union. When full-scale hostilities broke out instead between China and Japan following the Marco Polo Bridge incident, Tojo in his first real taste of combat experience led two brigades in a blitzkrieg that quickly brought the whole of Inner Mongolia under Japanese control. In 1938 he was recalled from field service to become vice-minister of war, a position in which he pressed resolutely for preparations that would allow Japan to wage a two-front war against both China and the Soviet Union.
In mid-1940 Tojo was appointed war minister in the second Fumimaro Konoe government, which proceeded at once to sign the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. Relations with the United States gradually worsened during succeeding months as Japanese troops moved south into Indochina; but Tojo hewed to a hard line. Convinced of the righteousness of the imperial cause and of the implacable hostility of the Americans, the British, the Chinese, and the Dutch, he stoutly opposed the negotiations and concessions that Konoe contemplated. Speaking for the army command, Tojo demanded a decision for war unless the United Statesbacked away from its embargo on all exports to Japan. When Konoe hesitated, Tojo is reported to have told him that "sometimes it is necessary to shut one's eyes and take the plunge." Konoe, however, was reluctant to take the plunge and instead tendered his resignation.
Leadership in War
An imperial mandate was then given to Tojo in October 1941 to become premier and form a new Cabinet. It was thought that only Tojo had full knowledge of recent developments and an ability to control the army. Tojo was given an imperial command to "wipe the slate clean, " review all past decisions, and work for peace. But a reconsideration of Japanese policy failed to reveal alternatives acceptable to the army, and the decision for war was taken. Within hours after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Tojo broadcast a brief message to his countrymen, warning them that "to annihilate this enemy and to establish a stable new order in East Asia, the nation must necessarily anticipate a long war."
Tojo had great power at the beginning of the war and in the West was often likened to Hitler and Mussolini. Besides serving as premier, he was a general in the army, war minister, and, for a short time, home minister. Later in the war he also served as chief of the general staff. In 1942 a tightly restricted national election resulted in a pro-Tojo Diet. Nonetheless, while wielding great power, Tojo was still not a dictator like Hitler or Mussolini. The senior statesmen, the army and navy general staffs, and, of course, ultimately the Emperor still exercised considerable power independent of Tojo.
Defeat and Dishonor
By early 1944 even though the tide of battle had turned decisively against Japan, and Tojo admitted to the Diet that the nation faced "the most critical situation in the history of the Empire, " he stood firmly opposed to increasing sentiment in favor of negotiation. The fall of Saipan in July 1944, however, put American bombers within range of the home-land, and the senior statesmen together with ministers in Tojo's Cabinet forced him into retirement.
With the end of the war Tojo awaited at his Tokyo residence his arrest by the occupation forces. On Sept. 11, 1945, when Gen. MacArthur ordered his arrest, Tojo attempted to shoot himself. After his recovery he was held in Sugamo prison until his trial as a suspected war criminal by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East began in May 1946. After proceedings which stretched out over 2 years, during which Tojo willingly accepted his responsibility for much of Japan's wartime policy while declaring it legitimate self-defense, he was found guilty of having "major responsibility for Japan's criminal attacks on her neighbors" and was sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out on Dec. 23, 1948.
The definitive work on Tojo is Robert J. C. Butow, Tojo and the Coming of the War (1961). A compilation of the 1941 policy conference records, in which Tojo played a leading role, may be found in Nobutaka Ike, ed., Japan's Decision for War (1967). For a revisionist interpretation of the role of the military in foreign-policy decisions see James B. Crowley, Japan's Quest for Autonomy: National Security and Foreign Policy, 1930-1938 (1966). □
Historians depict Tojo as a militant and expansionist nationalist who underestimated the United States's determination and industrial capacity to fight total war to defeat Japan. In a narrow sense, Tojo was a competent administrator (nicknamed “Razor Tojo”), but he was neither an imaginative strategist nor a skillful political leader. He accelerated Japan's atomic research, worshipped the emperor, and to the end clung to his belief in the innate spiritual strength and victory of the Japanese.
Robert J. C. Butow , Tojo and the Coming of the War, 1961.