Wartime leader of Japan’s government, General Tôjô Hideki (1884-1948), with his close-cropped hair, mustache, and round spectacles, became for Allied propagandists one of the most commonly caricatured members of Japan’s military dictatorship throughout the Pacific war. Shrewd at bureaucratic infighting and fiercely partisan in presenting the army’s perspective while army minister, he was surprisingly indecisive as national leader.
Known within the army as “Razor Tôjô” both for his bureaucratic efficiency and for his strict, uncompromising attention to detail, he climbed the command ladders, in close association with the army faction seeking to upgrade and improve Japan’s fighting capabilities despite tight budgets and “civilian interference.” Tôjô built up a personal power base and used his position as head of the military police of Japan’s garrison force in Manchuria to rein in their influence before he became the Kwantung Army’s chief of staff in 1937. He played a key role in opening hostilities against China in July. Tôjô had his only combat experience later that year, leading two brigades on operations in Inner Mongolia.
Seeing the military occupation of Chinese territory as necessary to force the Nationalist Chinese government to collaborate with Japan, he continued to advocate expansion of the conflict in China when he returned to Tokyo in 1938 as army vice minister, rising to army minister in July 1940. He pushed for alliance with Germany (where he had served in 1920-1922) and Italy, and he supported the formation of a broad political front of national unity. In October 1941 he became prime minister.
Although Tôjô supported last-minute diplomatic efforts, he gave final approval to the attacks on the United States, Great Britain, and the Dutch East Indies in December 1941. Japan’s early victories greatly strengthened his personal prestige and his assertion that there were times when statesmen had to “have faith in Victory.”
When the war intensified, Japan’s losses mounted, and its fragile industrial foundations threatened to collapse. Tôjô characteristically sought to gather administrative levers into his own hands. Serving as both prime minister and army minister, at various times he also held the portfolios of home affairs (giving him control of the dreaded “thought police”), education, munitions, commerce and industry, and foreign affairs. In February 1944, he even assumed direct command of army operations as chief of the Army General Staff. Yet despite all his posts, Tôjô was never able to establish a dictatorship on a par with those wielded by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. He served constitutionally at the behest of the emperor, without support of a mass party, while crucial power centers, such as the industrial combines (known as zaibatsu), the navy, and the court, remained beyond his control. After the island of Saipan fell to American forces in July 1944, he was forced from power, despite arguments raised by some officials close to the throne that Tôjô should be left in office to the end to accept responsibility for the loss of the war so that a court official could “step in” to deliver peace.
After Japan’s surrender the next year, Tôjô attempted suicide when threatened with arrest by occupation authorities, but he was tried and hanged as a war criminal on December 23, 1948. At his trial, he asserted his personal responsibility for the war and attempted to deflect attention from the emperor. In 1978, despite the protest of many citizens opposed to honoring the man they felt had brought disaster on Japan, Tôjô’s name, along with those of thirteen other “class A” war criminals, was commemorated at Yasukuni, the shrine in Tokyo dedicated to the memory of warriors fallen in service to the imperial family.
THEODORE F. COOK, JR.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.