The Ambassador in Japan (Grew) to the Secretary of State

No. 2740

Sir: On December 13, 1937, Admiral Nobumasa Suetsugu became Japanese Minister of Home Affairs, succeeding Mr. Baba who had resigned shortly before for reasons of health. Mr. Baba had been one of the strongest leaders in the Konoe cabinet—the individual most relied upon by the Premier, according to a statement made in October by the Premier’s private secretary in personal conversation with a member of my staff—and his resignation with the usual explanation of poor health gave immediate rise to rumors of political intrigue. These rumors were however dispelled a few days later by Mr. Baba’s sudden death from pneumonia.

The new Home Minister, Admiral Suetsugu, was born in 1880 and graduated from the Japanese naval academy at the age of nineteen. He has risen rapidly through an active naval career, becoming rear admiral in 1923, commander-in-chief of the combined fleet in 1933, full admiral in 1934, member of the supreme war council in 1935, and, since commencement in July 1937 of the hostilities in China, returning to the more active stage in the office of cabinet councillor.

Suetsugu’s appointment to the Home Office shows how far the orientation of Japanese politics veered during the year 1937. Subsequent to the grave national warning embodied in the insurgency of February 26, 1936, it was a conscious and determined aim of Japanese leaders to clear from the ranks of the military services the political machinations which were so seriously threatening military discipline. The composition of every cabinet from that time forward has borne evidence of that aim. The officers named to be the War and the Navy Ministers in each succeeding cabinet were not chosen from the partisans: they have been the ablest, most regular, and politically and factionally most uncommitted men available. This is not to assert, on the other hand, that they have been men opposed to a pre-eminent ascendancy of the military services in the formulation of Japanese policy; but care has been taken that they be not chosen from the groups in the movement out of which developed the political assassinations and attempted coups of the last half-dozen years. Now, with the appointment of Admiral Suetsugu, that principle of avoidance is abandoned. The new Home Minister, though never considered one of the conspirators in any of the various incidents, is definitely of the group standing for a renaissance of Japan under army-navy dominance.

[Page 588]

In 1928 Suetsugu became vice chief of the naval general staff, and it was from that office that he resigned in protest over Japanese adherence to the London naval treaty.6 Those opposed to limitation of the Japanese navy took the position that the government misused the prerogative of the Emperor in overriding the opposition and ratifying the treaty, and the cabinet was seriously embarrassed in consequence of the gravity which the question assumed. In this juncture Suetsugu became the spokesman and leader of the big-navy group, and he still enjoys that distinction. Outspoken, confident, direct, severe, chauvinistic, dominating, he has the very qualities which make the select type idealized by the Japanese military mind.

By the time of the political assassinations of May 15, 1932,7 Suetsugu found himself one of the idols of the conspirators. Politically ambitious, he was careful, at that time and since, to do nothing to lose the confidence of the young direct-actionist officers. He continues to be looked upon as the high naval officer most approved by the younger politically-minded men in the army and navy. By reason of this following, which is again assuming importance with the progress of the warfare in China, and by reason of Admiral Suetsugu’s recent elevation to the responsible cabinet position of Minister of Home Affairs, particular interest attaches to an interview with him published in the current January issue of the Japanese monthly periodical Kaizo (enclosure 18). In that publication the interview is dated December 11, two days before Suetsugu became Home Minister.

The Kaizo’s interview ascribes to Admiral Suetsugu the expression of a number of frank views as follows: He asserts that Kiangsu, Anh-wei, Kiangsi, and part of Hupeh will be in Japanese hands, and that the Nanking Government will become a merely local regime if surviving at all. Even Soviet and British aid to China will not avail. The realities in north China call for a new regime. Other local governments will naturally arise elsewhere. All these governments, at one in a common sympathy for Japan, can be expected to unite. The interest of the white peoples in China is an interest in profit in trade; the Japanese interest is more inclusive and can not be guided by the leisurely logic of occidentals. Cooperation of Japan, Manchuria, and China is essential. Whether or not this will mean ejection of the whites from eastern Asia must be a critical issue for the future course of history. World peace is impossible unless the colored races are rescued from their miserable slavery to the white races. To bring the liberation about quickly might mean great bitterness, but the goal is clear. China boasts that it can resist indefinitely; this must mean [Page 589] counting on British assistance. This evil must be extirpated at the root, even at the cost of a clash between Japan and Great Britain. Japan is strong and will never come to Germany’s fate of defeat by blockade. In event of war between Japan and Britain the United States would surely stay out. Singapore would be difficult to reduce, but Hongkong is vulnerable to submarine and aircraft attack. A Japanese declaration of war on China would be useful in stopping British sale of arms to China. The fall of Nanking is a mere prelude to the most important part of the hostilities; the major fighting is over, but the real war is still ahead.

In conversation (enclosure 2, despatch 2738, January 21, 19389) on January 7 the British Ambassador informed me of having brought to the attention of the Japanese Foreign Office this anti-British outburst of a man in high Office, pointing out that although the interview was dated two days previous to Admiral Suetsugu’s becoming Home Minister it was not published until several weeks thereafter and could easily have been stopped in the interval. This observation is scarcely pertinent because even at the time of the interview itself Suetsugu was already a cabinet councillor, which amounts to being a cabinet minister without portfolio, and the same limitations upon public expression of views might be expected from such an official. The fact is that the air in Japan is so charged with anti-British sentiment that such expressions from men in office do not seem at all surprising to Japanese; and it can be confidently predicted that the British Ambassador will obtain no satisfaction in the matter.

It is common knowledge that Admiral Suetsugu favors a declaration of war against China, chiefly as simplifying Japanese action against the British in China. His arguments have been heard and weighed by the Government, and no war has been declared. But Japanese friction with Great Britain in China is not over. Japan, in the midst of a campaign of conquest, finds herself face to face with British territorial possessions and jurisdictional and political interests in China, all of which stand in the way of the completeness of Japan’s conquest. There is therefore a substantiality to Britain’s interference to Japanese expansion which is not paralleled by American interests in China; and the Japanese attitudes toward the United States and toward Great Britain are not in the same category. There is no indication that relations with Great Britain are destined to improve in the near future. Rather is increasing friction to be expected, particularly growing out of difficulties at Hongkong. If such is the future course Admiral Suetsugu must become a more and more formidable figure in Japanese politics.

[Page 590]

Admiral Suetsugu’s ascendency is a regression reminiscent of the Araki10 days. The soldier statesmen, the soldier politicians, are once again in the spotlight. They can not be relegated to the wings in times like the present, when the military services are determined to make a clean sweep of outstanding scores in China. A leader whose bent is strongly and confidently anti-British is that much more in step with the times. Frequent mention of Suetsugu as probable successor to Prime Minister Konoe is not idle chatter. There can be little question that the present conjuncture favors his political future.

Respectfully yours,

Joseph C. Grew
  1. Signed April 22, 1930, Foreign Relations, 1930, vol. i, p. 107.
  2. See ibid., 1932, vol. iv, pp. 684 ff.
  3. Not printed.
  4. Neither printed.
  5. Gen. Sadao Araki, Japanese War Minister, December 1931–January 1934.