US President Franklin Roosevelt called Dec. 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy,” but to many Americans it’s more of an occasion for head-shaking confusion. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor wasn’t a crippling blow so much as an unprovoked act of imperial suicide. When Japan took on the US, it picked a fight with a country with more than five times its gross domestic product and twice its population. From the day the US entered World War II until the day it ended, Japan produced 17 new aircraft carriers. The US produced 141.
But it gets worse. At the time it attacked the US — and the British Empire at the same time — Japan was already engaged in an attempt to subjugate the world’s most-populous nation. It was the ill-fated bid to conquer China — a country with 10 times the population and 20 times the land mass of Japan — that prompted the US to place an oil embargo on the Japanese Empire, which was what prompted the attack on the US and Japan’s conquest of Southeast Asia. Japan desperately needed oil, because fighting China meant going up against impossible odds. The Empire’s offensives had already started to bog down by 1939.
Now here is a piece of history few Westerners know. Before it attacked Southeast Asia, Japan had tried its luck against another oil-rich nation — the Soviet Union. The Soviets called in Georgy Zhukov, and his tank divisions made short work of the under-equipped Japanese army.
So just to reiterate: Within a span of three years, the Japanese Empire attacked not one, but four of the five most powerful nations on the planet. In its attempts to destroy its own empire, Japan was nothing if not persistent.
But why? Japanese leaders were neither stupid nor insane. Historical records indicate that the Japanese leaders knew they were unlikely to win the war against the US and Britain, and they had already lost against the Soviets. Japan’s top admiral, Isoroku Yamamoto, was sure that his forces would be defeated in a protracted struggle. When the emperor asked his top military advisers if the war was winnable, they couldn’t even bring themselves to say yes.
A close reading of history suggests another explanation for Japan’s behavior: internal disorganization. Although many Westerners think of Japan as a highly unified, hierarchical nation, it often more closely resembles a squabbling confederation of loosely affiliated gangs.
Consider that at least four times during the 1930s — in March 1931, October 1931, May 1932 and February 1936 — low-level Japanese military officers, in collaboration with ultranationalist militias, attempted to overthrow the government in bloody coups d’etat. Unbelievably, the first three of these coup attempts received only the lightest of punishments from the government!
Or consider that neither the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 nor the invasion of China in 1937 was authorized by the central government. Instead, low-level military officers disobeyed orders and acted on their own initiative, dragging Japan into war — and were subsequently glorified rather than punished for their insubordination.
Other examples abound. The idea of “gekokujo” — meaning “the low overcoming the high” — inspired many mid-level officers, such as the infamous Masanobu Tsuji, to run around forging orders from generals and violating the chain of command. Meanwhile, ultranationalist groups assassinated both of Japan’s top party leaders in the 1920s, and even threatened to kill Admiral Yamamoto for being insufficiently bellicose.
As for the emperor himself, although many of the ultranationalist gangs claimed to be acting in his name, and although Western wartime propaganda sometimes depicted him as an absolute monarch, he had little control over policy, and was himself subject to bomb threats and kidnapping attempts from some of the ultranationalists.
These and many more incidents can be read about in historian John Toland’s excellent book, “The Rising Sun,” as well as in many other sources. It’s clear that the Japanese Empire stumbled into suicide, pushed by chaos from within.
By now, many Western readers are probably picking their jaws up off the floor. Not only do these incidents turn the typical image of hierarchical Japan on its head, but they represent a degree of high-level disorganization that would be unthinkable in the US.
That brings us to Japan’s current political and economic difficulties. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, one of only two really dynamic and authoritative leaders in recent decades, was recently forced to call a snap election after a surprise recession — perhaps due to noisy economic data rather than to a real slowdown — causing a flurry of hand-wringing over his Abenomics policy program.
Meanwhile, the structural reforms that were supposed to constitute the “third arrow” of Abenomics have bogged down in the legislature, despite the overwhelming supermajority enjoyed by Abe’s party, the Liberal Democrats. Factional fighting and special interests within that party have always made it — like the Japanese military in the 1930s — more of a collection of gangs than a hierarchical organization. The opposition parties are no different, breaking up and reforming constantly.
Whether in the military campaigns of the 1930s or the political campaigns of modern days, Japan seems to struggle to unite at the highest levels. The reason for this isn’t clear. But some observers see the tribal culture — in which people are loyal to their patrons or team leaders instead of to organizations as a whole — as a pervasive feature of Japanese business and news media, as well. Those images of Japanese employees singing corporate anthems might have been an exercise in wishful thinking.
Whatever the reason, the problem of high-level disorganization seems to be the biggest long-term challenge facing Japan’s institutions.
Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University and a freelance writer for a number of finance and business publications.