Tōjō Hideki (1884-1948) was Japan's top leader during World War II. He was prime minister from 1941 to 1944. He was executed for war crimes in 1948.
Commissioned as an army officer in 1905, he rose steadily in rank and acquired the nickname Kamisori (razor) for his sharp mind. Tōjō was involved in the suppression of an attempted coup by ultranationalist junior officers in 1936. The coup left the high command fearful of ultranationalist assassins and plotters. To appease this faction, Japan embarked on a massive military buildup and an aggressive foreign policy.
Appointed head of the Kwantung Army in Manchuria, Tōjō participated in the 1937 invasion of China. He was recalled to Tokyo in May 1938 to serve as vice minister for the Army. Tōjō agitated for war with Russia and an offensive was launched in Mongolia in July. Tōjō first made headlines in the autumn of 1938 when he delivered a fiery speech that stressed the need to prepare for war against both the Russians in the north and the Anglo-Americans in south, not to mention continued war against China.
After the Russians defeated the Japanese at Nomonhan in the summer of 1939, the proposed offensive in Mongolia had to be called off. Tōjō was always more of a careerist than an ideologue. This was just one of various occasions when he revised his views to accommodate the Army's ever changing line. Details concerning the battle, which cost Japan 30,000 to 50,000 casualties, were not shared with the Japanese public, which retained an unrealistic view of the country’s military potential.
Rise to power
In July 1940, General Hata Shunroku resigned unexpectedly as army minister and without preparing a successor. His protest brought down the civilian government. Although the army had several generals who were more senior than Tōjō, they were unavailable for duty in Tokyo at this time. The high command turned to Tōjō, who was appointed army minister.
Although Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro was Tōjō's nominal superior, the civilians in the new government were cowed by the recent humiliation inflicted by Hata. Tōjō had played a key role in suppressing the revolt of 1936. But once in charge, he proceeded to implement the ultranationalist agenda. In September 1940, he merged the political parties into an “Imperial Rule Assistance Association.”
In early September, while the government was negotiating with the French, the army in China attacked the French in Indochina without authorization. Tōjō responded by court martialling those responsible. This allowed Tōjō to get a handle on the problem of troublesome junior officers, or chuken shoko, who had frustrated the hapless Japanese governments of the 1930s.
In October, General Sugiyama Hajime was appointed Army chief of staff. With Sugiyama in command, it was no longer necessary for the ultranationalists to engineer coups, "incidents," or assassinations to get their way. One of their own was issuing the orders.
In the course of a few weeks, Tōjō had gone from obscure bureaucrat to military ruler of Japan—a position for which no precedent existed. Compared to a dictator like Hitler or Stalin, his powers were curtailed. He never gained control of the industrial combines, or zaibatsu, the navy, or the imperial court. Even within the army, his powers were limited by the fact that chief of staff was an independent position. He saw himself as the army's representative and advocate and rarely acted without the backing of the high command.
Road to war
The records for the imperial conference of September 1940 reveal that by this time Tōjō had revised his views concerning the strike north/strike south issue. He now opposed an attack on Russia, but supported expansion into Southeast Asia. At this point, strike south was more of a dreamy ambition than a strategy. Tōjō had no idea what to do about the U.S. Navy, which was likely to oppose action of this kind. In November, the British destroyed an Italian fleet in Taranto using a carrier-based air strike. To Yamamoto and other Japanese naval officers, this suggested a solution to Japan's dilemma: An air strike on Pearl Harbor, the home base of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. As an army man, Tōjō saw the United States as the Navy's problem.
Matters came to a head when Hitler attacked Russia in June 1941. The Russians pulled military forces out of the Far East to focus on Europe, and an imperial conference was held in Tokyo in early July to fashion a response. Officers serving in the Kwantung Army argued that the time was ripe to attack Russia from the East. However, Tōjō and other senior commanders were still anxious to avoid conflict with Russia. By this time, the Navy had extensively war gamed Yamamoto's air strike plan, as well as other scenarios. This allowed naval officers to listen more sympathetically to the army's pleas for adventurism.
The July conference resolved upon a strike south policy and Japanese reserves were secretly mobilized. If America or Britain stood in the way of southward expansion, it was resolved that Japan would "not decline" (jisezu) a war with either or both these nations. The conference set a deadline of October for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis. War in the South would keep the army busy and prevent junior officers from agitating for war with Russia. After Nomonhan, the high command understood that such a war was unwinnable. The danger posed by hotheaded militants in the lower ranks led their commanders to resort to this devious, and ultimately disastrous, strategy.
Japanese war plans were shockingly optimistic. They called for a brief offensive to conquer Southeast Asia, after which the army would return to Manchuria to guard the border with Russia. Unlike the chuken shoko, Tōjō had access to detailed intelligence and was under no illusions. Privately, he estimated the chances of success at fifty-fifty. By this time, he had gone too far down the ultranationalist road to consider alternatives.
On October 14, a meeting of retired prime ministers chose Tōjō to replace Konoe as prime minister. A military leader was the logical choice in light of the decisions reached at the July conference. As prime minister, Tōjō bore responsibility for the attack on Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of the Pacific War.
Ousted as prime minister
Japan's rampage across the Far East continued until mid-1942. Two battles, one in the Coral Sea in May and a second at Midway in June, turned the tide. At this point, Tōjō had been master of the Pacific for six months. Like Nomonhan earlier, these battles were concealed for years from the Japanese public and from the still volatile junior officers. With the war souring, Sugiyama retired in February 1944. This left Tōjō holding all three of Japan's top positions: prime minister, army minister, and chief of staff. He did not get to enjoy this status for long. After Saipan fell in July, Tōjō was dismissed by the emperor. By leaving office, Tōjō narrowly escaped an assassination plot led by Major Tsunoda Tomoshige, although this was not disclosed until later. General Koiso Kuniaki, considered a moderate, was named prime minister. Tōjō named Sugiyama to be his successor as army minister. Faced with Sugiyama's ferocious opposition, the Koiso government was no better able to entertain Allied peace proposals than Tōjō's had been.
After the war
Following the end of the war, as American troops moved in to arrest Tōjō, he made a failed attempt at suicide. At the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, Tōjō was found guilty of waging unprovoked or aggressive war against China, the United States, United Kingdom, Netherlands and France and for permitting the inhumane treatment of prisoners of war and others. He was sentenced to death and executed by hanging on 23 December 1948.
- The Cambridge History of Japan, Volume 6, "Ascent of Tōjō," pp. 323-325.
- Hoyt, Edwin Palmer, Warlord: Tojo Against the World, p. 38.