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

No. 3600

Sir: [Here follows report of changes in Cabinet at Tokyo.]


Baron Hiranuma’s1 coming to the premiership requires discussion in relation to the question of the probabilities of hostilities between Japan and the Soviet Union.

In the above biographical sketch of Baron Hiranuma it is easy to find warrant for the assertion, repeatedly heard, that he has in the past been associated (and probably continues to maintain such association) with persons and organizations which are reactionary in the extreme. Among those persons and organizations there are many who have long preached the necessity of a war against the Soviet Union. Baron Hiranuma himself seems to have personally avoided commitment on the question; but there can be little doubt that he has been close to many who are passionately devoted to a Russian war policy and, in event of crisis, might well feel have a claim to the Premier’s ear.

It can be pointed out that the reactionaries who have been supporters of Baron Hiranuma are primarily devotees of an expanding greatness of Japan rather than specifically of a war against the Russians. Their war advocacy has been secondary to a nationalistic crusade. In present Japanese policy in China there is ample outlet for all the energies of Japanese nationalistic enthusiasts, and the majority of observers are of opinion that the reactionaries’ cry against the Soviets is not, under existing contingencies, a cry looking to actual war. At the same time, ideas persistently advocated acquire an inertia of their own; and long years of open talk of a Russian war have served to give body to the thought and to transform it into a definite expectation. Practically every Japanese is of opinion that, in the course of time, a war against the Soviet Union is inevitable. For too [Page 2] many years the War Office pamphlets and other writings in the press have said so.

There are additional reasons for appraising the year 1939 as being charged with danger of use of force by Japan against Soviet Russia. The ejection of occidental political influence from Asia, at the least from eastern Asia, has become a well formulated and publicly ex-pressed objective of Japan; and, because blocking the attainment of that new objective, the position occupied by the Soviet Union assumes a new prominence and provocativeness. Secondly, as compared with two years ago, or even with one year ago, Japan finds herself in a better position for a Russian conflict in that China as an organized military threat has been removed from the scene. In the present state of Chinese military affairs, Japan might well expect, if involved in hostilities against the Soviet Union, that, although execution of plans of economic exploitation on the continent would be seriously delayed, Japan would face no acute military problem from China. Thirdly, a change has come about as a consequence of the Munich conference of September 1938.2 As late as August 1938 the Konoe3 government showed an unmistakable desire to avoid war against the Russians, and showed the ability to hold in hand Japanese troops known to contain many individual supporters of such a war—for whatever the uncertainties of the Changkufeng incident,4 which took place that month, it did prove those two points; but the Munich conference has had a marked effect upon Japanese thinking with regard to foreign relations, and the conference is taken here to mean that no obstacles will be interposed against German pressure upon the Soviet Union. Fourthly, Japan considers the Soviet Union at the present time internally weakened and externally in a position of singular isolation. Fifthly, Baron Hiranuma is premier, and whether or not he favors fighting the Russians he would, because of past associations, find it harder to say no to the nationalists if they come to favor hostilities. These five reasons are all reasons why a Russo-Japanese conflict is more threatening in 1939 than in past years, and are all in addition to the standing arguments for such a conflict (that Japan can not tolerate the air menace of a hostile Vladivostok; that there is no prospect of a peaceful solution of the important Siberian fisheries question in a manner permanently satisfactory to Japan; that Soviet influence in China hinders Japan’s policy there; that the repeatedly [Page 3] strengthened anti-comintern pact5 must sooner or later lead to war).

Discretion is the principal force for a policy of peace toward the Soviet Union. Candid and experienced Japanese leaders assuredly recognize the terrific burden that a major conflict would impose upon Japan in the present stage of its history, in spite of the assurance with which some influential military men view the matter.

If there should be a crisis between the Soviet Union and Japan, that it develop into an armed conflict seems to the Embassy more likely under the present administration than under the Konoe Government. Prince Konoe’s influence was definitely opposed to war against the Soviet Union; Baron Hiranuma’s is not known to be so.


A final word needs to be said for the circumstances leading to the recent change of government. As pointed out, there was a specific cause, and that was the presence within the Cabinet of a man with a strong personality who was out of harmony with his colleagues. There was, however, another cause which cannot be described in specific terms but nevertheless had to the Japanese mind every validity. Prince Konoe assumed the premiership before the conflict with China broke out; he met the emergency which arose upon outbreak of hostilities; and he saw things through until the conclusion of what is termed positional military operations. Thereupon there began to be sensed the feeling that the capacity of Prince Konoe for continued leadership had exhausted itself—a feeling which was apparently encouraged by the Prince himself. It is a fact which those who know Prince Konoe have long realized that he is not a dominating character and never has had political ambitions. The position of eminence which he has enjoyed, and which he will continue to enjoy whatever official post he may occupy, derives to no small degree from the eminence of his family, which has intermarried for centuries with members of the Imperial family. He combines all the agreeable personal qualities of the courtier class, but decisiveness is not one of his outstanding characteristics. In the circumstances now prevailing, with grave difficulties to be faced at home, in China, and with the powers, a desire was being increasingly felt and expressed for a new leader, one relatively fresh and in whom the public could impose confidence. The fact that there has been chosen as his successor an ascetic and a leading proponent of the return to medievalism is a significant indication of the present trend in Japan.

Respectfully yours,

Joseph C. Grew
  1. President of the Japanese Privy Council until January 5.
  2. See Foreign Relations, 1938, vol. i, pp. 707 ff.
  3. Prince Fumimaro Konoye, Japanese Prime Minister prior to January 4.
  4. See Foreign Relations, 1938, vol. iii, pp. 441 ff.
  5. Agreement between Japan and Germany, signed November 25, 1936, Foreign Relations, Japan, 1931–1941, vol. ii, p. 153; protocol concluded by Italy, Germany, and Japan, November 6, 1937, ibid., p. 159.