Big Talk

To Maintain Peace, Talking About Military Affairs Cannot be a Taboo

Tokyo International University Professor Yuzo Fukui, who does research in the field of World War II military history, won the Prize for Excellence in the third APA Japan Restoration Grand Prize for his book The Japanese Army was the Strongest in the World: The Military That Made Stalin Tremble. Toshio Motoya spoke with Fukui about the false discourse of the “bad” army and “good” navy, and about what should be done to prevent future wars.

The navy’s arrogance stems from its flawless victory in the Battle of Tsushima

(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today, and congratulations on winning the Prize for Excellence in the third APA Japan Restoration Grand Prize this year.

(F) Thank you very much. Modern Japanese history is my field of study, and World War II is the particular focus of my research. I received the prize for my book The Japanese Army was the Strongest in the World: The Military That Made Stalin Tremble. Based on the results of my research, it questions the common discourse of Japan’s ”bad” army and “good” navy.

(M) Your book appeals to me because I’ve always felt that way. The Judging Committee unanimously agreed to award you the Prize for Excellence. How did you come to view history in the manner described in your book?

(F) Ryotaro Shiba had a historical viewpoint in which the strangeness of Showa-era Japan came from the army’s reckless behavior and self-righteous way of thinking. Conversely, he thought the navy had a broad perspective and was well balanced. First of all, I felt like something was off about this. I believe the Imperial Japanese Army was the strongest in the world during World War II, and I am sure it would have won if it had been equipped to the same level as other nations. However, the army was honorably defeated over and over in fierce battles in the jungles on Pacific islands. Of the two million Japanese soldiers who lost their lives in World War II, 400,000 perished in mainland China. The other 1.6 million died fighting the United States in the Pacific Ocean. Among these, 1.2 million died of starvation and disease before having a chance to fight the enemy.

(M) It was one thing to send these troops to the islands, but the supply lines could not keep up.

(F) Yes, and the navy is responsible for this failure. Another issue is the navy’s tendency to conceal things. The Battle of Midway in June 1942 was an ignominious defeat for the navy, which lost four aircraft carriers. However, the navy announced that it had won an overwhelming victory and desperately covered up the truth, even from the army.

(M) I think the navy grew more arrogant after it defeated the Baltic Fleet in the 1905 Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War.

(F) The perfect victory in the Battle of Tsushima was a great achievement for Japan. Buoyed by this win, the navy wanted to build its own power structure.

(M) However, the Battle of Tsushima win was due in a large part to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The United Kingdom gave detailed information to Japan about the movements of the Baltic Fleet as it traveled the long distance from the Baltic Sea to the Sea of Japan. The UK also pressured the countries where the Baltic Fleet stopped, so the fleet was unable to procure anything but crude coal.

(F) Thanks to luck and these actions by Japan’s ally, Japan achieved a complete victory in this naval battle the whole world was watching. I think it created a breeding ground for future problems exactly because it was so flawless.

(M) Back then, the accepted understanding was that the tiny, weak nation of Japan could never defeat the major power of Russia. I think this victory had unimaginable impacts. People often point out that the army and navy were equal under the supreme command of the Emperor, but it was problematic that there was no organization like the current Japan Self-Defense Forces Joint Staff Office to manage these two forces.

(F) The Emperor was the commander-in-chief of the army and navy, but they acted independently because he could not actually issue war orders. The army controlled all military operations until the Russo-Japanese War. The Navy General Staff was abolished in 1933 and then renamed. That was a major problem, because the navy was fully independent of the army and it could draft its own national defense strategies. The army should have been in charge of finishing things, playing the main role while the navy was subordinate. But because they gained equal footing, the army and navy could no longer carry out joint operations, and it was like they were in an arms race.

(M) Did the army and navy have equal budgets as well?

(F) An unusual circumstance started around 1935, when the navy used almost half of the national budget. This strange situation was covered up and concealed through the Battle of Tsushima victory.

Communism has killed over 100 million people

(M) Another major factor behind the Battle of Tsushima victory was that Japan captured 203 Meter Hill, built an observation post there, and destroyed the Port Arthur fleet by bombarding it. In this way, it stopped the fleet from joining up with the Baltic Fleet.

(F) I think so, too.

(M) Maresuke Nogi, who led the siege of Port Arthur, lamented the many soldier casualties (including his two sons). He also regretted that he had allowed the battle flag to be stolen away in the Satsuma Rebellion. He wanted to commit suicide to apologize to Emperor Meiji for these things, but the Emperor stopped him from doing so.

(F) That’s true. Emperor Meiji understood how Nogi felt, but he told him to stay alive as long as the Emperor continued living. Nogi followed the Emperor into the grave by committing ritual suicide by sword together with his wife right after the Emperor’s funeral.

(M) I think he was a stupendous soldier.

(F) Shiba endlessly writes about Nogi’s incompetence in Clouds Above the Hill and other books. That simply wasn’t true.

(M) Why did Shiba believe that?

(F) As I mentioned before, in Shiba’s view of history Japan became a bad country at the start of the Showa period. He saw the 1939 Battles of Khalkhin Gol as the biggest tragedy symbolizing this. Shiba argued that the indirect cause of the Japanese army’s defeat was incompetent generals like Nogi traditionally being put in power.

(M) However, documents released after the collapse of the Soviet Union reveal that Japan did not actually lose the Battles of Khalkhin Gol.

(F) That’s right. The Japanese army had 25,000 soldiers while the Soviet Union had 230,000, nearly 10 times more. The Soviet damage was much greater; Japan had 29 damaged tanks and the Soviet Union had 800, and 180 Japanese aircraft were damaged in contrast to the Soviet Union’s 1,700. Despite this, the Soviet Union had to make people believe that Japan had lost to hinder Japan’s movement to the north. This tactic was continually successful from the postwar era. A ceasefire was declared before reinforcements reached the army due to a lack of information, but Japan would certainly have won if they had arrived.
The Soviet army at that time was broken down due to Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge, and its weapons had poorer performance and quality than those of the Japanese army. Shiba says the Soviet army was an “advanced, modern, mechanized force,” but that is an outright lie. The Soviet Union was humiliated directly after the Battles of Khalkhin Gol in a hard struggle with the small country of Finland, then it was annihilated by the German army in the Russo-German War two years later. This exposed the weakness of the Soviet army to the whole world. It only makes sense that Japan put up a hard fight at the Battles of Khalkhin Gol.

(M) I’ve heard the Soviet army conscripted Mongolians.

(F) Yes, it did this in a horrible way. One theory says that Mongolians were chained inside tanks so they could not surrender during battles, just like Genghis Khan forced his slaves to fight.

(M) That’s so cruel. It reminds me of how the Chinese volunteer army that aided the North Korean army – which was cornered at the Chinese-North Korean border during the Korean War that began in 1950 – had a command group in the rear to shoot and kill fleeing soldiers.

(F) The volunteer army soldiers were from the Kuomintang army.

(M) Yes. Chiang Kai-shek escaped to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War, but many members of the Kuomintang army were left on the mainland. The Chinese Communist Party put them on the front lines, where they could not run away, so they wouldn’t cause any trouble.

(F) That’s true. It is said that about one million volunteer army soldiers died.

(M) Mao Zedong killed many people through his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Dictator Pol Pot drew influence from Mao while carrying out his repeated massacres in Cambodia.

(F) Fifty million people died in the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Under the Pol Pot administration, 2.5 million of Cambodia’s 7.5 citizens were killed.

(M) Communism has led to the deaths of so many people throughout history.

(F) There were 30 million deaths in the Soviet Union, so the total is certainly more than 100 million. All communist nations have invariably waged class warfare in which many people died.

Yamato should have been sunk in Leyte Gulf

(M) I think there are reasons behind war victories and defeats. Although we should study these reasons in depth, military history research has been neglected in postwar Japan. But you are doing that kind of research right now, and I think it will achieve great things for Japan in the future. People say Japan was victorious in the Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281 thanks to “divine winds.” However, that was only true because the fighting took place during the typhoon season. There were many other factors besides the divine winds, too. The Mongol army was a highly mobile equestrian group with bows that could shoot many arrows. Yet their weapons had short ranges, and the Japanese bow had a longer range that would have prevailed in a fight on land. Also, the Japanese warriors fought with great solidarity.

(F) I think we should be astounded by the strength of the Kamakura samurai. The Mongol army had gunpowder weapons and at first the Japanese army was perplexed about how to fight them. Japan gradually rallied and drove the Mongol army back to its ships. That’s when the divine winds arrived.

(M) I think even the divine wind would have caused less damage if the Mongol army had landed and built a base. We should evaluate the reasons for these victories and defeats, as well as wars themselves, with a cool head. I think Asia and Africa would still be colonies of the Western powers if Japan hadn’t fought the Greater East Asian War, and we would not be living in a world of racial equality today. Of course there are positive and negative aspects of wars. It is meaningful for us to impartially research and release information on what actually happened. That is a way to prevent wars from occurring.

(F) I agree entirely. We must study military affairs to avert wars. Due to the shock of our defeat in World War II, in Japan it has become taboo to speak about warfare in a multifaceted way.

(M) It is also incorrect to assume that preparing for war leads to the outbreak of war. Having military force that makes it possible to stand strong when attacked is a means of deterrence; it saps the other party’s fighting spirit. It is dangerous to be a country that other nations see as open to invasion. Japan should seek to maintain peace through a balance of power in which it is not ruled by other nations and doesn’t rule any itself. We should revise the constitution and have the necessary military power to accomplish that.

(F) Japan has depended on the United States for most of its national defense in the 75 years since the war. The great majority of citizens never think about self-defense at all. How long will this situation continue? Japanese people are so numb that they don’t even realize how bizarre it is for a foreign army to be stationed at bases inside our country. I doubt the U.S. plans to pay back the more than 100 trillion dollars that Japan holds in American government bonds. This is what happens when a country is under military rule. Japan provides money whenever it is needed, and the U.S. will certainly not let go of this convenient “wallet.”

(M) There is absolutely no basis to the thinking that Article 9 of the constitution has prevented war. Many people must believe that we should protect our own country, a wholly reasonable concept. We should make opportunities to discuss national defense and military affairs for that reason, but people who do so are branded as militarists.

(F) Some people, based on comparisons of national power, state that Japan had no chance of beating the U.S. in World War II. However, I believe Japan could have fought in a way that left no regrets, even if defeat was assured. For instance, the attack on Pearl Harbor accomplished very little.

(M) Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet, did not strike a second time because he was afraid of a counterattack. They did not attack docks or fuel tanks that would result in civilian causalities. But if Japan planned to attack Pearl Harbor, they should have occupied the harbor and used it as a base to strike the West Coast of the U.S. and the Panama Canal. On the other hand, the army successfully advanced into Asia in a short period of time after war broke out.

(F) The Fall of Singapore in particular was a rare success in the global history of war. The German General Staff Headquarters thought it would take five Japanese army divisions 1.5 years to occupy Singapore. However, Japan accomplished this in just one week with 50,000 troops. Japan planned for a gradual interception strategy after occupying Singapore, Indonesia, and other neighboring countries. It was the only tactic available and involved limiting the area it would defend to a narrow region around Japan. It would wait for enemies from afar and weaken their fighting power using weapons like destroyers and submarines. When the incapacitated enemies arrived, it would crush them. However, Yamamoto disregarded this strategy to carry out the attacks at Pearl Harbor, Midway, and Guadalcanal.

(M) I think he was planning for another Battle of Tsushima and was dreaming of victory through decisive fleet battles. However, in that era the fighting had already shifted from naval fleets bombarding each other to conflicts waged through aviation strength. The Japanese navy used fighter aircraft alone to sink the Prince of Wales, a British battleship, at the Naval Battle of Malaya in 1941. This should have demonstrated how things had changed, yet the navy could not keep up with the times.

(F) I think Yamamoto was unable to break free from his image of the Battle of Tsushima. He made a terrible choice by wandering around the vast, outer space-like Pacific Ocean and trying to engage the American fleet in decisive battles. As a result, the navy repeatedly experienced the worst possible circumstances by sending insufficient numbers of troops to the front lines – which kept getting farther and farther away – and being completely destroyed.

(M) The Japanese battleship Yamato, which was brought into commission right after the war began in December 1941, was behind the times as well. The situation worsened as this battleship was kept away from dangerous spots. The Yamato was lost in April 1945 in the Battle of Okinawa, because people would have taken a negative view of this ship surviving the war. It is heartbreaking to think of the 3,000 young crew members who went down with that ship.

(F) The Yamato was not useful in any way; it was simply a hotel for the navy. However, it could have accomplished something great in the end at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. There was a plan to ram the Yamato into the American ships right when 200,000 American soldiers (led by Douglas MacArthur) landed at Leyte Island. The Jisaburo Ozawa fleet served as a decoy to draw the enemies away from Leyte Gulf and leave it virtually empty, yet the fleet led by Takeo Kurita did not act according to the plan. The Yamato could have accomplished this glorious feat and gone down in military history by ramming ships and sinking. It should have been sunk at Leyte.

Japan, as the only country that has suffered nuclear attacks, should explore unique methods for having nuclear arms

(M) I think Japan’s turning point was its decision not to advance north. Moscow likely would have been captured by Germany if Germany and Japan had used a pincer movement against the Soviet Union.

(F) I do think history would be drastically different if Japan had gone north. That may have been Japan’s best opportunity to win World War II.

(M) Japan actually decided to move south, lost the war, and was occupied by the U.S. This led to the circumstances of today. Starting war is easy, but one must think about how to end it.

(F) Although it was defeated, I think Japan could have capitulated in a more skillful and honorable way. However, it was overpowered by the U.S. and lost the war. We probably wouldn’t have to depend so abjectly on the U.S. if Japan had fought more efficiently and caused more damage that it received before its defeat.

(M) Economic strength and national power are the same thing. In a protracted war, this difference has decisive effects on the results. For that reason we must work to avoid war by being willing and capable to reciprocate when attacked.

(F) I agree.

(M) Warfare has been continual in Europe, where countries have won and lost numerous battles. In contrast, Japan had never lost a war with an external power until World War II. I think that’s why this single defeat caused such a big shock wave. The Japanese people still have a servile spirit today. For example, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs cannot refute groundless claims like the Nanjing Massacre.

(F) That shows just how terrible it is to lose a war. Being defeated means a country loses its right to stand up for what it believes. The Nazis definitely committed an immense crime with its intense persecution of Jewish people. However, people in Germany who raise the slightest doubts about the Nazis’ offenses have been penalized, so these actions have been overly exaggerated and embellished up until today. As a result, Germany is censured for things it never did and the German people have to endure these criticisms without being able to make any counterarguments. As a fellow defeated country, Japan cannot disregard these issues in Germany. Perhaps things will change with historical research in the future…

(M) Japanese people cannot fathom the idea of slaughtering six million people just because they are Jewish.

(F) As people have re-examined history afterwards, the figure of six million has been revised to 1.5 million. Now some are newly theorizing that number is still inflated, and that the actual number was 300,000. Still, it is certainly true that Europe – which experienced more wars than anywhere else – used its tremendously destructive power, for better or worse, to continually rule the globe over the past 200 years. This situation changed with the advent of nuclear weapons.

(M) Nuclear weapons are the most affordable and effective type of weapon. The issue isn’t how many you possess, but whether you have any at all. Nuclear weapons also provide overwhelming benefits in diplomatic negotiations.

(F) It’s no wonder that North Korea wanted nuclear weapons.

(M) Yes. As I’ve spoken with important persons in Asian countries, I’ve learned that they view Japan as having latent nuclear weapons capability. They think Japan could immediately obtain them if it wanted to. If that is how others see our country, I think Japan should possess some type of nuclear arms. For example, we could have nuclear weapon components that could be assembled in the event of an emergency.

(F) Japan is the only country in the world that has been the victim of nuclear attacks. I think we should explore ways of having nuclear weapons that are in line with these unique circumstances.

(M) However, we haven’t had a strong enough government to accomplish this. Now is the time for Japan to review all sorts of things from the past and utilize them in the future, rather than apologizing over and over for World War II. We must build a structure that discourages aggression by other countries, which would prevent wars that harm our national interests. We must maintain deterrence with an attitude that we will strike back when attacked. Unarmed neutrality is the most dangerous thing of all.

(F) Carl von Clausewitz, a German military theorist from the 19th century, said that war is an extension of politics. Discussions by the people on national defense are essential for preventing war. We must erase this taboo in Japan as soon as possible.

(M) I think so, too. At the end of the interview I always ask for a “word for the youth.”

(F) Otto von Bismarck, a politician in 19th-century Germany, said, “Countries are not destroyed by defeat. They are destroyed when citizens lose their national spirit.” I want to share this inspiring quote with young people.

(M) They must not lose their spirit. Thank you for sharing this interesting conversation with me today.

(F) Thank you.

Date of dialogue: December 25, 2020


Yuzo Fukui

Born in Kurayoshi City, Tottori Prefecture in 1953. Graduated from the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Law. After working in a corporate job, he became a professor at Osaka Aoyama Junior College. He has worked as a professor at Tokyo International University since 2012. His fields of study are international politics and modern Japanese history. Striving to be an “active” social scientist, he took a round-the-world trip in the year of the Soviet Union’s collapse to cover what was happening in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Afterwards, he traveled throughout mainland China and Taiwan. His 2020 book, The Japanese Army was the Strongest in the World: The Military That Made Stalin Tremble (PHP Institute), won the Prize for Excellence in the third APA Japan Restoration Grand Prize. His other published works include The Subterfuge of Historical Novels (Sowasha), The Tragic Start of War Between Japan and the United States: Joseph Grew and Militant Japan (PHP Institute), Seishiro Itagaki and Kanji Ishihara (PHP Institute), The Historical Truths Concealed in Clouds Above the Hill (Shufunotomo Infos), and Ryotaro Shiba’s Unusual Historical Views (Shufunotomo Infos).