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Yoroku: 80 years later, many lessons still not learned from responses to Pearl Harbor

"The world has changed completely. The era was just now enormously severed (from that which came before). Yesterday feels like the distant past." Kotaro Takamura (1883-1956), a poet known for "The Chieko Poems," a collection of works centered on his relationship with his wife until her death, had described his emotions as such on Dec. 8, 1941, the day Japan declared war on the United States and Britain. It was a defiant approach to powerful nations which seemed to drive away the gloomy atmosphere brought about as Japan was caught up in the turmoil of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

    Of course, there were also people who had an entirely different reaction. Nagaharu Yodogawa (1909-1998), a film critic who at the time worked for a distributor of American films, recalled the moment he saw a newspaper extra, stating, "I thought, 'Oh no,' and this instinctive reaction raced through my mind, and I thought Japan would lose."

    One famous tanka poem written in response to the start of the Pacific War, was compiled by Shigeru Nambara (1889-1974), who went on to become the president of then Tokyo Imperial University, today's University of Tokyo. The poem goes, "Against common sense, against scholarly sense, it's happened: Japan's at war with the world."

    So who then said, "We are in great trouble, I have a premonition of Japan's tragic defeat," with a grave expression? Such words were voiced by former Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe (1891-1945), who had resigned two months earlier while failing to make progress in negotiations with the United States. He was the one who oversaw the Japanese invasion of French Indochina, which led the U.S. to ban oil exports to Japan, opening a pathway to war between the two countries. In 1940, Konoe was also the one who entered into the Tripartite Pact between Japan, Germany and Italy, which was taken by the United States as an act of hostility.

    Another figure lamented this tripartite agreement as "the greatest mistake of a lifetime" when the Pacific War began. That was Yosuke Matsuoka (1880-1946), the foreign minister at the time of the signing of the agreement who played a central role in the pact. His objective was to prevent the United States from joining the war. In tears, he apparently told a confidant, "This differs altogether from my intentions, and I have too much regret to die in this way."

    Public opinion was in a frenzy following Japan's early-stage victory, while there were predictions of defeat by a U.S. film expert, a scholar dumbstruck by the government's decision which was beyond knowledge and reason, and the melancholic statements of concerned parties who paved Japan's path to war. There are endless lessons yet to be learned as 80 years have passed since the beginning of the Pacific War.

    ("Yoroku," a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun)

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