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Book Review Sugihara’s Question of Guilt

By Norman Hu,

Book Review by Translator

It is my privilege to have been asked to translate Seishiro Sugihara’s Question
of Guilt: Japan’s Foreign Ministry and Its War Responsibility from Japanese into
English. This is the first full length book to trace the incompetence and culpability of
Japan’s Foreign Ministry since its beginnings in the Meiji era. Although the Ministry
introduced an examination system in the 1870s based on models established in
Europe and the United States to select and train staff, Sugihara shows how this
paradoxically produced a coterie of individuals dedicated to the pursuit of ministerial
interests over those of the Japanese people.
Most egregious of the Ministry’s blunders was its administrative mishandling
of the “final notice” to the United States that turned the Imperial Japanese Navy’s
surprise assault on Pearl Harbor into an unannounced “sneak attack,” and led to tragic
consequences for Japan. The author explains how this and other blunders were largely
due to the incompetence of Ministry staff, and to deeply flawed institutional,
organizational, recruitment and training issues. He analyzes more recent bribery and
embezzlement cases, and also shows how the Ministry has failed when reacting to
exigent circumstances abroad such as efforts to evacuate Japanese nationals during
the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Critical of the Ministry’s attempts to enact internal
reforms, he makes recommendations to correct these flaws so that Japan may finally
conduct a decent and proper foreign policy that remains true to the national interest,
and to the people of Japan.
Conventional postwar multi-volume narratives of Japanese diplomacy have
largely portrayed the Foreign Ministry in a passive role during the events of the 1930s,
leading up to a war instigated exclusively by Japan’s two military services. This
paradigm has persisted and is perpetuated in treatments by insiders and former
diplomats, who largely take an uncritical approach to the Ministry’s actions in the
postwar era. Little has been made of the antiquated systems in place within the
Ministry, some of which have remained unchanged since their introduction in the
Meiji era, nor of the effect these structural and institutional problems have had on the
Ministry’s general performance. However, factional and policy disagreements over
the past decade have revealed unprecedented influence peddling and embezzlement
scandals, and triggered widespread scrutiny of the workings of the Foreign Ministry
in greater detail than ever before.
In a welcome departure from such uncritical narratives, Sugihara has written
the first major work to examine the Foreign Ministry’s chronic weaknesses. He has
produced an unsanitized history of Japan’s diplomatic blunders and errors, from both
the turbulent decades leading up to war with the United States, and the postwar period
as Japan slowly reestablished its standing in the international community.
Sugihara has written extensively on the diplomatic history of Japan. Question
of Guilt can be viewed as the fourth volume of an unofficial “tetralogy” chronicling
the failings of the Foreign Ministry. The first book in this quartet is Japanese
Perspectives on Pearl Harbor (Asian Research Service, 1995), translated by
Theodore McNelly, and is a survey of media reports around the time of the fiftieth
anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The second is Between Incompetence and
Culpability: Assessing the Diplomacy of Japan’s Foreign Ministry from Pearl Harbor
to Potsdam (University Press of America, 1997) where he examined in detail the
circumstances surrounding the bungling by diplomats at Japan’s Washington embassy
on the eve of war that inadvertently turned the Imperial Japanese Navy’s assault on
Pearl Harbor into a “sneak attack.” This led him to examine more closely the
administrative and political record of Japan’s Foreign Ministry in the postwar period
to determine how officials assessed, recorded, concealed, and begrudgingly
acknowledged their culpability for this egregious error. The third book of the series is
Chiune Sugihara and Japan’s Foreign Ministry (UPA, 2001) which championed the
causes of individuals such as Chiune Sugihara (unrelated to the author, Seishiro, by
family or marriage) and Naoya Nakano, two Ministry employees who followed their
consciences to uphold the national interest over the narrower interests of the Foreign
Ministry, and were subsequently ostracized for their “insubordination.” He ties all
these threads together in Question of Guilt (the final volume in this tetralogy) to
produce an unprecedented survey of the failings of the Foreign Ministry, since its
beginnings in the Meiji period to the present day, and offers alternatives for future
Sugihara has also written extensively on the Japanese education system, and
the significance of the Fundamental Law of Education, the emperor system, and the
separation of church and state in Japan. His work on jurisprudence, religious
education, and historiography in pedagogical studies was recognized by the Japan
Buddhist Education Association in 1998. He was appointed president of the Japanese
Society for History Textbook Reform in 2011, and has recently shepherded a new
middle school textbook through the complicated authorization process, a book that
deals with these complex and controversial wartime, foreign policy and diplomatic
issues in a frank and principled manner. He is dedicated to the cause of overcoming
the tragic consequences of the war between Japan and the United States, and
demonstrates how, even in our fractious and turbulent world, erstwhile foes can
indeed come together as true friends and allies.

Norman Hu
November 2016