It should be clear to you by now that one of the craziest things you can do if you ever become a dictator is to start a war with countries before you’re ready to do so, and under no means should you ever consider invading Russia. But Russia isn’t the only country that it’d be crazy to invade.

The United States is nearly as large as Russia, has more people, and in 1941 was much wealthier, despite suffering from the Great Depression. Add to that the fact that the US was much more cohesive and homogenous in 1941, it has some pretty drastic topographical diversity, and nearly every American owns a gun, it would seem like suicide to start a war with that place.

But that was exactly the crazy decision Japanese Prime Minister/dictator Hideki Tojo made when the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Many historians see it as one of the biggest military and political blunders of the 20th century, right up there with Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, American sentiment towards participating in World War II wasn’t especially high. Most Americans thought those were European and Asian affairs and there was organized resistance to American involvement led by Charles Lindbergh and other notable Americans.

Before Pearl Harbor, America was a sleeping giant. It was numerically, economically, and industrially strong, but for the most part, far removed from the major conflicts of the world.

However, Tojo was a firm believer in Japan’s militaristic ideology, the divinity of the emperor, and the supremacy of the Japanese people. He also harbored a special loathing for Americans, who he thought were lazy, weak, and would put up no real defense. So when Tojo was given complete command of Japan’s military and civilian government in 1941, he went full steam ahead with the attack on US soil.

The result, of course, was the complete devastation of Japan, which ended with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. And just like the other dictators we’ve profiled who made the crazy decisions to invade countries that would’ve been better left alone, the move brought about Tojo’s downfall. He was executed by an Allied tribunal in 1948.

Tojo should’ve let the giant sleep!

All Work and No Play Makes You the Dictator of Japan

There was nothing necessarily remarkable about Hideki Tojo that would’ve made anyone who knew him as a child believe that he was going to have a dramatic impact on world history. His father’s family was descended from the Samurai, which positioned him for a career in the military, while his mother came from a devout Buddhist family.

Young Hideki wasn’t the brightest student, but he was usually the hardest worker, choosing to stay after class and spend most of his free time studying. He was actually pretty much a party pooper, which never gained him any friends though it did help his career in the military.

After seeing action in Russia in the early 1900s, Tojo was poised to become one of the leaders in the new Japan that was emerging in the 1930s. It was a Japan that was strongly anti-communist, allied with the fascist states of Germany and Italy, and was highly imperialistic.

The Japanese government planned to create an empire called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, but for the most part, the only people who would prosper were the Japanese. One of the first countries incorporated into the Sphere was Manchuria, which was ruled by Japan from 1919 to 1945. One of Tojo’s first major assignments in the military high command was to command the Kenpeitai (Japanese military police) in Manchuria.

It was Tojo’s first taste of dictatorial power, which he apparently relished. He rooted out all resistance to the Japanese occupation. The exact numbers of Manchurian civilians killed during the Japanese occupation is still being debated, but many say it was at least one million.

Tojo’s activities in Manchuria and his workaholic behavior earned him the praise of his superiors, so by 1940 he was in command of the military and second to the Prime Minister. Although the Japanese government was technically still a democracy at the time, the Prime Minister essentially had dictatorial powers and was second only to Emperor Hirohito.

Still, there were two major factions within the government: those who wished to negotiate with the United States and those who wished to go to war. Tojo was the head of the war faction.

Americans Are All Weak and Lazy

Hideki Tojo’s experience with Americans was somewhat limited, although he probably had more interactions with them than many of his countrymen did at the time.

After serving as a military attaché for the Japanese government in Germany from 1919 to 1922, Tojo traveled home via steamer across the Atlantic, then a transcontinental train in the United States before taking another steamer across the Pacific.

Needless to say, he wasn’t impressed with the American people.

Being the consummate workaholic that he was, he looked with disgust on the Americans who were drinking, partying, and generally having a good time. To Tojo, this proved that all Americans were decadent, weak, lazy, and generally soft.

It should be pointed out that Tojo’s time in America was quite limited and he only stayed in the larger cities. It was also the “Roaring 20s,” so his view of the American people was quite skewed. Most Americans were hardworking farmers, factory workers, and small businessmen who were nothing like the Americans he met in the cities and on the trains.

That mattered little to Tojo, though, and as his star began to shine brighter in the Japanese government, he became the leading voice of war. The American government enacted sanctions and embargos on Japan for its occupation of Manchuria and Indochina and its war with China, so Tojo argued that the only option was a quick first strike.

When Tojo was elevated to Prime Minister on October 17, 1941, he only had to convince the emperor that attacking Pearl Harbor was a good idea.

After the tide of the war went against Japan, Tojo was relieved of his office by the military in 1944, but the damage had been done. Japan fought on for another year and when the Americans finally came to Tokyo, Tojo attempted to kill himself with a gunshot to the heart but failed.

He was tried, convicted, and executed by hanging in 1948. Tojo’s fate probably could have been avoided if he just hadn’t made the crazy decision to attack Pearl Harbor.

Did You Know?

  • Although Tojo would be considered shorter than average for men today at only 5’4, he was taller than the average Japanese soldier at the time; who only stood 5’3.
  • Like most dictators, Tojo had a nickname. He became known as “Razor Tojo” due to his quick rise in the military and government; the name also has a tough and scary ring to it.
  • Tojo married his wife Kotsuko in 1909. The couple had seven children—three sons and four daughters.
  • While Tojo was being held in a prison before his trial, an American dentist inscribed the message “Remember Pearl Harbor” in Morse code on his teeth.
  • Similar to Mussolini, Tojo’s tomb has become a pilgrimage destination for ultra-nationalists.