The Razor

Ralph Zuljan

There is a surprising paucity of information regarding Hideki Tojo, the Japanese prime minister from 1941 to 1944. Tojo led his country into the Second World War and was ultimately responsible for Japanese conduct of the Pacific war until his forced resignation. He remains almost completely unknown in the West. In contrast, an enormous quantity of information is available regarding Emperor Hirohito. It is as if historians had chosen to focus on King George of England and disregard Winston Churchill's role in the war.

Hideki Tojo was born in December 1884. His father, Hidenori, was an officer in the Japanese army, with a reputation as a brilliant tactician, the scion of a minor Samurai family. Hideki was originally the third son of seven boys and three girls but his two elder brothers died in infancy, leaving Hideki as the eldest son, a position of grave responsibility in a Japanese family. The young Tojo was destined for a military career; photographs show him in military uniform while little more than a toddler.

His early education was marked by undistinguished grades and school yard fights. Tojo hated to be bested, however, and he became an excellent student at the military academy he attended in Tokyo. It was here that he opted to join the cavalry, generally regarded as the elite branch of military service. In 1902 Tojo entered the central military preparatory school. He was graduated as a 2nd lieutenant and sent to the front lines during the waning days of the Russo-Japanese war. His term of service was dull, the class had been graduated early because of the need for officers, but there was little for them to do by the time they were ready and almost no opportunity for rapid advancement in the field. Tojo returned from overseas duty in 1906, received a minor decoration and a promotion to 1st lieutenant. He lived the quiet, routine life of a junior officer for several years until he entered the War College in 1912.

Meanwhile, in 1909, Hideki Tojo married Katsu Ito. Katsu was an unusual girl. In an age when women were almost wholly uneducated she was attending college, working towards a degree in Japanese literature. Due to family and marital duties she never finished her degree, but she never lost her scholarly bent either. Between 1911 and 1932 they had seven children together. Later, during the war, she made public and radio speeches in support of her husband and the Japanese war effort.

The War College was a prestigious institution. It was difficult to get into, had high standards and very few graduates. Tojo was a dedicated student and achieved high grades. Upon graduation Captain Tojo received an honor reserved for the best and the brightest, he was sent abroad for further study.

Tojo went first to Switzerland in 1919 where he spent about two years. Afterward, he was posted to Germany, in 1921, for a few months. Due to financial constraints Tojo traveled alone during this period. He returned to Japan in 1922 via the United States. The America of the "Roaring Twenties" did not impress Major Tojo. He came to believe that (what he perceived to be decadent) Americans could never pose a threat to anyone.

In the years that followed Tojo held various military appointments, including command of the prestigious 1st Infantry Regiment stationed in Tokyo (that in 1936 participated in a mutiny against the government). Tojo rose to prominence during his service in Japanese occupied Manchuria. It was at this time that Tojo acquired the nickname "Kamisori" - the Razor. It was well deserved, he was hard and sharp and merciless in dealing with those he perceived as being enemies, either his own or Japan's. In May 1938, he returned to Japan and began his political career as Vice-Minister of War.

Tojo was an uncompromising militarist; he advocated formation of the Tripartite Pact with the Third Reich and Italy; and, after he became prime minister on October 16, 1941, Tojo proposed the creation of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere under Japanese leadership. Along with the continued occupation of Manchuria, these moves increased the tension in relations with the USA. War came to be viewed as the only possible resolution.

Japan's official entry into the World War II began with an all-out offensive in the Pacific, the hallmark of which was the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. The military successes were stunning at first and they continued up until about the Battle of Midway in June, 1942. It was at this point that the war began to turn against Japan. Tojo's dictatorial powers were so absolute by then that the Japanese people were convinced for some time that Midway had been another Japanese victory rather than the fiasco it actually was. As the war progressed Tojo held an increasing number of ministerial portfolios. By the time he was removed as premier (and de facto dictator) the Razor was the Minister for War, Armaments, Education and Chief of the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff.

The prolonged series of military reverses Japan suffered after Midway slowly weakened Tojo's government. Finally, on July 16, 1944 Tojo was relieved of command of the General Staff; two days later the entire Cabinet resigned and Tojo's leadership officially ended on July 19th. Between this time and the end of the war, Tojo was left powerless as the relentless Allied offensives closed in on the home islands.

Tojo had attempted suicide in August 1945, after the surrender process was initiated, but he was nursed back to health. He was arrested by Allied forces and tried as a war criminal before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. Throughout the trial proceedings Tojo proclaimed the Emperor's innocence of any wrongdoing. Ultimately, Tojo was convicted. He accepted his conviction with dignity and refused to allow an appeal of the death sentence. In many respects, Tojo was a traditional Japanese warrior. He was hanged on December 22, 1948.

Originally published in "World War II" at on February 1, 2001.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

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