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 by an international tribunal.
In 1936, Tōjō played a key role in suppressing a coup by junior officers in Tokyo. The coup left Japan's high command fearful of the ultranationalist "Imperial Way faction." To appease this group, Tōjō's "Control Faction" embarked on a massive military buildup and an aggressive foreign policy. Japanese leaders no longer debated whether their nation had the capacity to take on major powers with greater resources. Instead, they argued the merits of "strike north" (against Russia) versus "strike south" (against America). Tōjō, a supporter of the strike south agenda, became the dominant figure in the Japanese government after he was appointed Army minister July 1940. War with America proved to be disastrous for Japan, which surrendered in 1945.
Rise to power
Commissioned as an army officer in 1905, Tōjō rose steadily in rank and acquired the nickname Kamisori (razor) for his sharp mind.
Japan got on the road to ever expanding war when General Araki Sadao was appointed inspector general of military training in 1931. The officer training system Araki introduced encouraged cadets to assassinate superiors they deemed to be insufficiently nationalist. Graduates of Araki's program staged a coup in Tokyo in 1936. Tōjō played a key role in the suppression of this coup. The coup left senior army officers terrified of the ultranationalist chuken shoko, as they were called.
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 Japanese press 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. This was in addition to the still unfinished war in China.
After the Russians defeated the Japanese at Nomonhan in the summer of 1939, further offensives in Mongolia were 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 or with the turbulent junior officers. As a result, both groups retained an unrealistic view of the Japanese military potential.
In July 1940, Army Minister Hata Shunroku resigned unexpectedly and without preparing a successor. His protest brought down the civilian government. Although the army had several generals who were more senior than Tōjō, these men were unavailable for duty in Tokyo at the time. The high command turned to Tōjō, who was appointed 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. Although Tōjō had helped suppress the revolt of 1936, he proceeded to implement the ultranationalist agenda once he was in charge. In September 1940, he neutered any potential civilian opposition by merging the parliamentary 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 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. Mindful of the lesson of Nomonhan, Tōjō and other senior commanders were 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 of 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 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 Emperor Hirohito. 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. To ease his departure, Tōjō was allowed to select a successor as Army minister. He named Sugiyama, now a die-hard militant. Faced with Sugiyama's ferocious opposition, the Koiso government was no better able to entertain Allied peace proposals than Tōjō's had been. Sugiyama was replaced by Anami Korechika, a favorite of Hirohito's, in April 1945.
After the war
Following Japan's surrender in August 1945, 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.