- Sailor Diplomat: Nomura Kichisaburō and the Japanese-American War
Admiral Nomura Kichisaburō’s historical reputation remains inextricably tied to his role as Japanese ambassador to the United States in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although credited with good intentions of averting war between the two countries, Nomura has drawn severe criticism for his diplomatic performance, most notably in Robert J. C. Butow’s classic study of his negotiations with Secretary of State Cordell Hull.1 Peter Mauch attempts to revise this historical verdict in his new biography of Nomura.
Mauch’s work has three main themes. First, he seeks to demolish the “simple sailor” view of Nomura by demonstrating that he was hardly a novice in the field of diplomacy. Second, he attempts to explain Nomura’s behavior as ambassador in the context of Japanese bureaucratic politics, arguing that he accepted the position because he considered himself first and foremost a representative of the Navy rather the Foreign Ministry, expecting that the admirals in the Navy Ministry would support last-ditch efforts to avert war with the United States. Finally, Mauch devotes a chapter to revealing Nomura’s postwar role as an advocate of Japanese rearmament and cooperation with the United States.
Mauch successfully demonstrates that Butow missed the mark in characterizing Nomura as “a man who knew virtually nothing about the art and practice of diplomacy.”2 In addition to an unhappy and lackluster stint as foreign minister in the short-lived Abe Nobuyuki cabinet in 1939–40, it is widely known that Nomura served as naval attaché in Washington during World War I and befriended many U.S. naval officers and Franklin D. Roosevelt, then undersecretary of the U.S. Navy. These U.S. connections of course played a key role in his selection as ambassador. However, Mauch points out Nomura’s many other involvements in foreign relations, including language study in Austria (1908–11), service as an aide to Chief Delegate Admiral Katō Tomosaburō at the Washington Conference, stints aboard ships in revolutionary China (1911 and 1923–25), command of a training squadron that visited various ports in the United States during a 1929 goodwill [End Page 399] mission, and the sensitive assignment of leading Japanese naval forces at Shanghai after fighting broke out there in early 1932. In the latter role, Mauch credits Nomura for contributing to a negotiated settlement of the conflict, an outcome that contrasts sharply with the quagmire war which resulted from Sino-Japanese clashes five years later.
The U.S. mobilization for World War I greatly impressed Nomura during his initial Washington assignment, convincing him that Japan could never hope to defeat a foe with such wealth and resources. Mauch argues that henceforth Nomura placed high priority on the avoidance of conflict between the two countries and personally sought to promote amity through ongoing relationships with several U.S. naval counterparts, most notably Admiral William V. Pratt.
Mauch’s interpretation of the internal politics of the Imperial Navy reflects that of Sadao Asada,3 a senior scholar of Japan-U.S. relations whose guidance and assistance he acknowledges. Both greatly admire Admiral Katō’s management of the Japanese delegation at the Washington Conference and his acceptance of a naval limitations treaty which he, Nomura, and other realists believed advantageous to Japan’s overall position, despite its severe short-term negative effects on the Navy and the strong opposition of many naval officers. Although Katō became prime minister shortly after the Washington treaties were concluded, he died in office the following year. Still, his supporters (the “treaty” faction) retained sufficient clout to keep the Navy on a moderate course through the 1920s.
This changed after the Japanese government overruled the rising “anti-treaty” or “fleet” faction’s objections and accepted a compromise with Britain and the United States at the 1930 London Naval Conference. Subsequently, Katō’s disciples lost influence and pro-German sentiment greatly increased, causing a marginalized Nomura to take early retirement in 1937. A former...