Attacking Japanese Morale, 1940-1945

20 September 2017

Empire and Globalism | History | War and Conflict

Among the gems in the Foreign Office Files for Japan are two files that consider the role of the enemy’s “civilian morale” in war and diplomacy. In both, British officials presupposed that targeting civilians might be an effective means of deterring or defeating the Japanese war machine. 

The first file, “Japanese Agriculture under War-time Conditions,” tells the little known story of British attempts to prevent Japanese expansion on the eve of the Pacific War. In autumn 1939, the British embassy reported a glaring vulnerability in japan’s strategic position. The Japanese empire no longer enjoyed self-sufficiency in food because of poor rice harvests in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. According to British sources, rice shortages gave rise to widespread popular dissatisfaction with the Japanese state’s policies which fed on overall weariness with the nation’s three-year-old war in China. Desperate to maintain home-front morale, the Japanese government took the unprecedented step of purchasing large quantities of rice from outside the Japanese empire, from Thailand, British Burma, and French Indo-China. 

In January 1940, French authorities and Britain’s Ministry of Economic Warfare explored the possibility of curtailing the sale of Southeast Asian rice to Japan in order to deter japan’s aggressive designs on the region. The Foreign Office squelched the plan, remarking “we are not at war with Japan, and . . . we have [not] reached the stage where we should connive at starving her people.” Officials also feared that a rice embargo would drive Japan into the hands of the Germans and Soviets. However, in October 1940, after Japan joined the Axis, the embassy in Tokyo revived the idea of using food as a “weapon” to contain Japan by driving up the price of Southeast Asian rice. This plan, too, foundered on practical grounds. Other officials noted the difficulties of forcing the pro-Japanese Thai government and Vichy-controlled Indo-China to cooperate, while Burma’s colonial officers insisted they needed the revenue from sales to Japan. Nonetheless, the British had correctly diagnosed japan’s food vulnerabilities. In wartime, the Anglo-American blockade of Japanese shipments from Southeast Asia contributed to dire food shortages at home and eventually to Japanese defeat.

Japanese Agriculture under War-time Conditions; with Special Reference to the Food Supply: Japanese Rice Crops and Purchase of Rice from Other Countries, 1939-1940 © Crown Copyright documents are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK

The second file includes the draft memorandum, “Attack on Japanese Civilian Morale,” written toward the end of the war (January 1945) by the Working Party on Japanese Morale. Affiliated with the Political Warfare Executive and Ministry of Information, these propagandists explored “methods of breaking the Japanese will to resist when continual heavy bombing and/or invasion of metropolitan Japan has either begun or is imminent.” They made two key predictions. First, Japanese civilians would more fanatically resist attacks on the homeland than Westerners, having been trained in the military virtues of obedience and “fanatical patriotism.” Japanese would fight any attempt to end their way of life, whereas “complete defeat, occupation, and the imposition of a European conqueror’s will seems (sic) tolerable enough to a European nation (contemporary Germany’s fight to the finish against Allied invaders would suggest otherwise). Second, the Working Party predicted that civilian morale could not be crushed simply by “sheer strength of arms.” It instead recommended the use of propaganda to persuade the Japanese people to reject their leaders and press for new leaders who would end the war.

Japanese civilian reaction and morale: survey of c..., 1945, © Crown Copyright documents © are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK

Neither prediction proved accurate. Sheer Allied terror did much more to demoralize Japanese civilians than propaganda. Moreover, those civilians reacted remarkably unfanatically to the U.S. firebombing of 64 cities (before the two atomic bombs). Most Japanese neither stayed in the coastal cities to fight and work, nor did they revolt against their leaders. More than eight million Japanese fled the bombed cities. In deciding to surrender in August 1945, Japanese leaders recognized that their vaunted home front had collapsed into a stream of hungry, panicked refugees.

Bookending the Pacific War, the two files demonstrate how easy it was to theorize about attacking civilian “morale,” but considerably more difficult to apply the formula in practice. 

“Japanese Agriculture under War-time Conditions; with Special Reference to the Food Supply: Japanese Rice Crops and Purchase of Rice from Other Countries,” 1939-40, Code 23 file 222, FO 371/24735 (frames 302-494).

Working Party on Japanese Morale, “Attack on Japanese Civilian Morale,” 2 January 1945, in “Japanese Civilian Reaction and Morale: Survey of Conditions in Japan,” Code 23 File 101, FO 371/46442 (frames 2-10)

These files are available open access for 30 days following the initial publication of this blog.

Japanese Imperialism and the War in the Pacific, 1931-1945, the first section of Foreign Office Files for Japan, 1919-1952 is out now. Read more here. This resource is part of Archives Direct, sources taken from The National Archives, UK.

About the Author

Sheldon Garon

Sheldon Garon

Sheldon Garon is the Nissan Professor of History and East Asian Studies at Princeton University. A historian of modern Japan, he also writes “transnational history.” He recently published Beyond Our Means: Why America Spends While the World Saves (2012), and he is currently writing a transnational history of home fronts in Japan, Germany, and Britain in World War II.

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