In tracing the history of Japanese military action from 1931 to 1945, historian Saburo Ienaga shows how an authoritarian tradition in Japan undergirded military policies and practices. Few restrictions were placed on the military: the top echelon of leaders were responsible only to the Emperor, who was the supreme commander, and did not answer to the civilian authorities that comprised the National Diet (Japan's legislature) or parliament. They even resisted demands to share information with the cabinet officials of non-military departments. Despite a few minor changes, this arrangement continued from the late 19th century Meiji reorganization onward and played a strong role in Japan’s escalating aggression as it entered World War Two. Furthermore, each branch of the military protected its independence.
The crucial decision to go to war against America and Europe followed the same pattern. Everything related to Japanese military strength was classified. Cabinet ministers and other chief advisers . . . lacked the information to assess Japan’s chances for victory. . . .
The services kept the government ignorant of the military situation after the war began. The army and navy each jealously guarded their autonomy. Not only would they not tell the civilians anything, but each service refused to share information with the other.
As the war progressed, maintaining popular support within Japan proved increasingly difficult. Any organized resistance was immediately quashed, as the government insisted that victory depended on absolute loyalty. Ienaga argues that the weakness of Japanese democracy prior to the war was one of its causes. He also argued that this weakness contributed to the continuation of a war even after the military realized it was unwinnable. The nation’s leaders increasingly kept the truth from the people and vigorously suppressed dissent of any kind. The author is convinced that if popular opinion had been considered, the war would have been shorter and the atomic attack might have been forestalled.
Military expansion abroad required repression at home. . . . After Japan was at war, controls on intellectual and political activity were tightened again and again until civil rights virtually ceased to exist. . . . There was no way to stop the escalation in the 1930s; there was no freedom to demand an end to the war in the 1940s even when it was obviously lost. The meaningless slaughter continued until Japan’s cities were smoldering ashes and atom bombs brought the Japanese people to the brink of genetic holocaust.
The military leaders often did not simply consider the loss of Japanese lives justifiable in pursuit of victory but also encouraged sacrifices such as suicide or killing their own soldiers so they would not become Allied prisoners. To Ienaga, the extreme case of the Kamikaze (meaning "Divine Wind") Special Attack Unit initiated in October 1944 exemplifies the “desperate tactics” to which the military resorted late in the war, causing countless “meaningless deaths.” The pilots were required to crash their airplanes, filled with explosives, into enemy warships. The pilots in these units
launched in droves against the US Navy in the battles in the Philippines and Okinawa . . . A “successful” mission ended when they blew themselves up against an American ship. The units were glorified as the supreme expression of Japanese military spirit, and the impression was given that all the pilots were volunteers. . . . [T]he sordid reality behind this cherry blossom myth . . . [was that] the “volunteers”…had joined after intensive psychological pressure or were assigned to the duty. . . . The condemned pilots suffered terrible mental anguish. Many were so desperate they crashed their planes into the ground or into the ocean just to end it all.