chapter  10
21 Pages

THE HIROTA PERIOD, 1933-7

When Uchida resigned because of ill-health and disillusion in September 1933, Hirota Koki (1878-1948) was chosen as foreign minister. He was in Tokyo on leave from Moscow where he had been ambassador (1930-2). Hirota was a career diplomat who had served in Washington and several European capitals. Appointed by Admiral Saito, he continued to serve under Admiral Okada. After the military mutiny of February 1936, he was chosen to head the new ministry which lasted for one year. After a period out of office, he returned to his former post as foreign minister (1937-8). While Hirota did not hold major office thereafter, he was at the Foreign Ministry in 1937 at the time of the Nanking atrocities and was adjudged by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East to be one of those responsible for that great human tragedy. He was found guilty and condemned to death in 1946. (1)

By the very nature of his years at the top, Hirota was bound to have a great influence on foreign policymaking. This was 'the Hirota period'. Yet Hirota was not a strong character? and his influence should not be exaggerated. Essentially pragmatic and vacillating, Hirota imparted a certain consistency to policy-making without dominating its course. His relation to right-wing forces is ambiguous. There is hardly an account of him which does not dwell on his early connections with the Genyosha (the Dark Ocean society) as a disciple of Toyama Mitsuru and his continuing closeness with the army. While these facts have been authenticated, it is less easy to see how they affected his actions in this period of high office. Perhaps the Genyosha connection was unduly played up because it was a good credential for survival in the dangerous atmosphere of assassination

198 Chapter 10

in the early 1930s. But foreign observers found it hard to pinpoint instances where his ultranationalist tendencies had affected his attitude to them. R.L. Craigie saw Hirota go 'with genuine regret' when Konoe dismissed him in 1938. (21

Let us look at a character sketch of the new minister given by Shigemitsu Mamoru who was his viceminister from 1933 to 1936. He believed that Hirota, though well qualified for the Foreign Ministry, was ill at ease at its head and did not approve the policies of the army, with which he could not wholeheartedly co-operate, though from the way he talked one might have assumed that he was advocating military policies:

What he really meant was that those who held the authority to discharge the functions of government should openly reflect the people as a whole. If they could not prevent the machinations of those working behind the scenes, government would never be clear-cut? it would lack a sense of responsibility? it would ever be the prey of the schemers, (31

By this interpretation Hirota was preoccupied with preventive policies rather than with acting boldly and constructively? he tended to respond to initiatives by others. It is probably true that his policy at the Foreign Ministry was not militaristic or dominated by the military. He tried hard to keep on good terms with the Powers and to restore relationships after the Manchurian crisis. Yet his record shows that he was weak; and it will always remain a puzzle why it was he that the genro and his advisers thought would be the most suitable statesman to lead Japan out of the slough of the 1936 crisis. Perhaps Hirota was among the most ready of the Foreign Ministry professionals to compromise with the army though it can be argued that he was only keeping its leaders alive to world opinion. (4)

Xt is necessary to write of the influence on Hirota of his vice-minister, Shigemitsu. Shigemitsu had been minister to China when he was recalled by Uchida to replace Arita as vice-minister after his banishment (May 19331, He was in short inherited by Hirota. It is said by some scholars that Hirota inherited from Uchida the failure of 'Foreign Ministry diplomacy' iGaimusho no gaikS] and its replacement by a new form of 'individual (free for alii diplomacy' [Dokuji no gaiko] which Uchida had pursued. The break from Japan's foreign policy of the twenties took place under

199 Chapter 10

Uchida rather than Hirota. (5) Since Hirota was not a man of great originality of ideas, it is probable that he adopted much of Shigemitsu1s philosophy as the centrepiece of his foreign policy, at least in the period before he became premier himself in 1936. It has to be remembered that Shigemitsu was only four years junior to Hirota in the service and his career pattern (Paris conference, London, Shanghai, Peking) was perhaps more relevant to Japan's political problems in the mid-1930s than Hirota's. The foreign minister was specially indebted to Shigemitsu for his China policy, for the so-called East Asian Monroe doctrine, for the ideas underlying the Amo (Amau) statement and for his attitude over foreign garrisons in China, (6) Basically both were content to let various aspects of the China problem be settled by military means where Japan was unquestionably superior rather than diplomatic means where China had infinite capacity for confusing the issue.