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What Japan and the U.S. can learn from Pearl Harbor: JIIA President Sasae

  • December 9, 2021
  • , Nikkei , p. 4
  • JMH Translation

December 8 marked the 80th anniversary of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor. U.S. President Joe Biden laid a wreath at the WWII Memorial on Dec. 7, local time, and veterans, victims’ families, and Navy officials attended a memorial ceremony organized by the U.S. government at Pearl Harbor. The Asahi Shimbun’s Tobita Rintaro asked Sasae Kenichiro, president of the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) and former Ambassador to the United States, what lessons can be learned from the experience eighty years later.



There is much Japan can learn from the Pacific War, which began with the Pearl Harbor attack.


First, Japan must accurately define its self-defense capabilities. Before the war, the military took the reins and exerted excessive influence over foreign relations. Reflecting on that experience after the war, people came to view the military as evil. Both are wrong.


Second, Japan should recognize the importance of correctly assessing international situations. Even though many military experts knew Japan would lose, it nevertheless plunged into the war without formulating an exit strategy.


Third, diplomatic efforts should focus on not losing even if it means not winning. For example, Japan could have retreated from China and waited for a shift in the situation even though doing so could have created some political difficulties. Even at the eleventh hour, resilience that is linked to domestic politics is necessary .


Fourth, Japan lost the information war. Today, Japan still lags behind other major players in establishing appropriate information protection system. This situation should be remedied.


The United States can learn from the Pacific War as well. The United States overestimated Japan’s capabilities and the threat posed by it. Although there were militaristic elements in Japan, it is debatable to this day whether it was necessary to drop the atomic bombs, considering the state of the Japanese society as a whole at the time.


I would also like to point out the need for deterrence. Whether the United States was skillful enough at conveying to Japan its economic and military prowess to make it realize the futility of waging war is questionable.


The Japanese and U.S. governments tried to find opportunities to hold summit talks, but the efforts were cut short. If there had been a process that enabled the two leaders to talk to each other, the attack on Pearl Harbor might have been avoided.


Today’s U.S.-China race for global hegemony holds similar lessons. The existing bilateral relationship should never be completely destroyed, even if the nations engage in a strategic competition. A U.S.-China war would defeat Japanese diplomacy. A war between the United States and China would pose the risk of a war between Japan and China.


The need for Japan to boost its defense capabilities is urgent. Unfortunately, the world has entered the era of military expansion. To ensure deterrence, Japan must swiftly establish its defense posture within five to ten years. Not doing so could cause difficulties for Japan-U.S. relations as well.


Unlike the ideological conflict of the Cold War, today’s conflict is over which political system is best suited for national governance, efficiency, and the freedom and well-being of individuals. The world must be shown that “while democracy is not the best system, it is better than other systems.” At the same time, Japan and the United States must not neglect efforts to increase their national power.

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