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Contrary to popular myth, Japan’s version of Adolf Hitler was not the Emperor (Showa) Hirohito, but rather its infamous War Minister Hideki Tojo. But who was this powerful man so few outside Japan know of? The son of an army general, young Tojo followed dutifully in his father’s footsteps, attending the Japanese Military Academy. Over the next 20 years, he received promotion after promotion, eventually reaching the rank of lieutenant general. In 1935, Tojo was promoted to Head of the Army’s Military Police. Nicknamed Kamisori, or “Razor” Tojo by his peers, he was both respected and feared for his sternness, efficiency & ruthlessness. By 1937, he was Chief of Staff of the Kwantung Army in Hobei Province China. During the China-Japanese War, he ordered the consumption of Manchuria’s vast natural resources to power and feed Japan’s hungry military industrial machine.
Returning to Japan in 1938, he became Vice Minister of War, adopting an aggressive stance by continuing pre-emptive strikes against China that captured the key cities of Shanghai and Beijing. By 1940, he was appointed Minister of War by then Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe. When Adolf Hitler’s war erupted in Europe, Tojo pushed the Prime Minister for an alliance with Germany where he had briefly served as military attaché in the 1920s. He greatly admired Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Third Reich.
Japan’s continued imperial expansion in Indochina worried the West and eventually led to economic sanctions by western powers with a freezing of all Japanese assets in the US. Then in the summer of 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt enacted a fateful oil embargo against Japan as punishment. That was all the fuel Razor needed. By September, Tojo and his naval commanders began boldly and openly discussing war with the United States. Staunchly against war at any cost, Prime Minister Konoe resigned in October 1941.
Emperor Hirohito summoned Tojo to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and named him Japan’s 40th Prime Minister.
He was now the most powerful man in the empire. Tojo’s first task was to conduct a careful evaluation of a Pacific War. He noted: For the past six months, the foreign minister has made painstaking efforts to adjust relations with the United States. Although I respect him for that, the heart of the matter is the imposition on us to withdraw from Indochina. If we yield to America’s demands, it will destroy all the fruits of our China expansion.
In November 1941, Tojo’s diplomatic staff reported their failure in searching for any peaceful solution with the U.S. and Britain. This was the tipping point that Razor was waiting for. Tojo presented detailed war plans to Emperor Hirohito, who formally approved “War Against the United States and England.” As we know, the Pacific War began on the morning of Sunday, 7 December 1941 when Japanese aircraft bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He then opened a second front in the west by invading British-controlled India.
Japan’s early victories greatly strengthened Tojo’s personal prestige in Japan and his “Faith in Victory.” Over the course of the war, he methodically placed himself in direct charge of the Army, Foreign Affairs, Commerce, and even Education. As Education Minister, he began militaristic indoctrination of the Japanese people with his feared Tokko (Gestapo-style) Secret Police. Throughout the war in the Pacific, the ruthless brutality of Japan’s military became apparent to the Allies. There were numerous atrocities committed against Allied American and British POWs including torture, starvation, beheadings, burnings, wholesale massacres and bayonet executions.
By 1944, the U.S. military began winning the war, “island hopping” towards Japan in a series of deadly but successful battles at the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. As an act of desperation, Tojo authorized the Kamikaze suicidal attacks by Japan’s Naval pilots on U.S. and British naval ships.
In 1944, he assumed the role of the Commander-in-Chief as well, effectively gaining dictatorial powers.
Yet despite all his many titles, Tojo was never able to establish a dictatorship on a par with Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin. When Japan’s defeats by the Allies in the Pacific mounted, and its industrial foundation began to crumble, Tojo sought to gather total administrative control of Japan. He still however served at the behest of the Emperor. Without the support of his party, the industrial complex and the courts, he was unable to do so. After the islands of Saipan and the Philippines fell to American forces in July 1944, he was forced by Emperor Hirohito to submit his resignation in disgrace and not even told who would replace him.
The war in Europe ended in May 1945, with the suicide of Adolf Hitler. Faced with a long and deadly invasion of Japan, President Harry Truman ordered the dropping of 2 atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Tojo knew what his ultimate fate would be. As American soldiers surrounded his house, he tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the chest. The bullet missed his heart however and he survived the attempt. He was arrested by the Allies while recovering and sent to military prison.
“I regret,” he is quoted as saying, “that it is taking me so long to die. The Great War was justified and righteous.”
Tojo was sent to prison and tried by the International Military Tribunal for War Crimes. Hideki Tojo accepted full responsibility for his actions during the war. He was found GUILTY of “waging unprovoked wars of aggression in violation of international law, and ordering, authorizing, and permitting inhumane treatment of POWs.” Razor Tojo was sentenced to death and hanged by the neck until dead in 1948. Before his execution, he apologized for his actions, and claimed that in regard to the atrocities committed by the Japanese military, he was simply following orders from Emperor Hirohito.