In the summer of 1941 the US Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold Stark met secretly with Japanese ambassador Kichisaburô Nomura. The envoy was a former admiral and the two naval men were trying to prevent a wider war in Asia. The discussions led nowhere. Nomura had nothing to offer because his government was adamant that the “China Incident” could only end with a Tokyo victory.
Adm. Stark ended the conversation with a warning about the danger Japan faced if she persisted in her aggressive course. A war with America could only end as a disaster for Japan. Even if Tokyo won some initial victories, her destruction was inevitable:
Ambassador Nomura did not reply. How could he disagree? He understood the correlation of forces as well as Adm. Stark. War with America meant almost certain doom.
You will be unable to make up your losses, while we, on the other hand, will not only make up our losses, but will grow stronger as time goes by. It is inevitable that we will crush you and break you empire before we are through with you.
Yet, in December 1941 that was the course the leaders of Japan chose.
In On War Clausewitz writes that any war is shaped by the interplay of three forces: passion, reason, and chance. In his era the major challenge for a government was a deficit of passion; the populace often remained detached from the war and uncommitted to the cause. Government policy and military capabilities were constrained as a result. When a government could harness patriotic passion as Napoleon did in France the war-making power of the state made a giant leap forward.
Always, though, passion was harnessed by the state (reason) and military professionalism.
In the decade before Pearl Harbor, passion broke free from nearly all constraints in Japan. Military officers took it upon themselves to murder politicians and senior officers who were insufficiently supportive of military adventures. The Navy was forced to deploy tanks and machine guns to protect its headquarters against radical officers. Yamamoto was himself a target because he opposed the Tripartite Pact with Hitler and Japans invasion of China.
Army officers actually initiated hostilities in China and Manchuria with no notice to, let alone approval by, the government in Tokyo.
It is not strictly accurate to say that Japan’s leaders chose war. They chose to drift along and avoiud hard choices.
A pattern had been set: a hopelessly passive government accepting military aggression that it had neither initiated nor endorsed.
Eri Hotta, Japan, 1941: Countdown to Infamy
There had been no clear-cut, overwhelming consensus among the Japanese leaders to take preemptive actions in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Many remained hopelessly uncertain and ambivalent about their decision.
Having talked themselves into believing that they were victims of circumstances rather than aggressors, they discarded less heroic but more rational options and hesitantly yet defiantly propelled the country on a war course.
Admiral Stark’s warning to Nomura was prophetic. Before the war the war ended Japan weas crushed and her navy was destroyed. The Pearl Harbor strike force was not spared. None of the twenty surface ships survived the war. By July 1944 the Kodo Butai ceased to exist as a meaningful force. Japan, which once led the world in naval aviation, no longer possessed a modern navy.
No one starts a war-- or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so-- without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.
The US Navy did grow stronger by leaps and bounds. At Pearl Harbor Yamamoto massed all of Japan’s naval airpower: six carriers and less than 400 aircraft. By February 1944 the US Pacific Fleet could send nine carriers and nearly six hundred aircraft to strike Truk.