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The Imperial Diplomat
Review by John E. Van Sant

Agony of Choice: Matsuoka Yosuke and the Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1880-1946. By David J. Lu. (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2002. Pp. xviii, 309. $79 cloth.)

Agony of Choice is a revision and English translation of Matsuoka Yosuke to Sono Jidai[Matsuoka Yosuke and His Times] originally published in Tokyo in 1981.1 David J. Lu, Professor Emeritus at Bucknell University, is particularly well-suited to research and write this biography. Born and raised in Taiwan under Japanese rule, Lu completed high school when education and language were part of Japan’s “assimilation” policies in Taiwan. After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States, he has spent significant parts of his career living, studying, and teaching in Japan. He has written, edited, and translated several books on Japanese history, focusing on Japan’s relations with China and the United States.2 While never obtrusive, Lu’s personal and academic perspectives, as well as his deep knowledge of Japan’s history, is evident throughout Agony of Choice.

Lu wrote this masterful biography partly to document Matsuoka’s unique and influential life, and partly to use Matsuoka as a vehicle through which to explore Japan’s diplomatic, military, and economic quest for empire in the early 20th century. It would be hard to find a better figure for this dual purpose than Yosuke Matsuoka who, Lu tells us, “was the best known Japanese around the world” between 1933 and 1941 (p. xi). Matsuoka met with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Pope Pius XII, Chiang Kai-Shek, and he worked closely with Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe and Army Minister Hideki Tojo. Matsuoka also had several audiences with Emperor Hirohito. Matsuoka was also director, vice-president, and president of the mammoth South Manchurian Railway Company. He was a career diplomat in the Foreign Ministry, serving as Japan’s delegate to the League of Nations in 1933 and rising to the top post of Foreign Minister in 1940. He was a member of the Seiyukai political party. He was formally charged with Class A War Crimes by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East following the Pacific War (his death, from tuberculosis in 1946, probably “saved” him from a death sentence imposed by the Allied tribunal). A study of Matsuoka’s professional life, therefore, provides a fascinating window into imperial Japan.

Born and raised in Yamaguchi Prefecture, the former territory of warrior-dominated Choshu domain, Matsuoka traveled to the United States at the age of thirteen to study and work. Lu tells us that Matsuoka went to the United States for economic reasons and for religious reasons; as a nominal adherent of True Land Buddhism, he believed young Japanese abroad could make the world more conducive to Buddhism. Matsuoka spent nine years in Washington, Oregon, and California where he studied English, worked as an interpreter for Japanese laborers, and earned a law degree from the University of Oregon. He also developed a knack for poker, a talent he later used as a diplomat and politician. By the time he left the United States at the age of twenty two, Matsuoka was “both a quasi-American devoted to freedom and loyal Japanese subject to his Emperor.” (p. 12)

Matsuoka joined the Foreign Ministry upon his return home, in part because foreign service officers were permanently deferred from military service. Avoidance of military service by young men who later emerge as pro-military civilian officials is hardly a phenomenon known only in Japan. By 1921, Matsuoka had worked on Russian, American, and especially Chinese relations with Japan. In fact, much of his career in the Foreign Service and in top positions with the South Manchuria Railway Company centered on Japan’s relations with China. He was a strong proponent of Japanese development of Manchuria, an objective that meant that Japanese businessmen and government officials would have a prominent role in the administration of nearly all of Manchuria’s affairs.

Matsuoka’s quest for Manchuria required cooperation from the Japanese military, especially the army. Lu characterizes Matsuoka’s relationship with the Japanese military as one of reluctant necessity. Yet, Matsuoka’s strong relations with the Army throughout his career seem to this reviewer to have been based on a common vision of Japan’s “proper place” in Asia. Matsuoka’s criticism of some Army actions in China and Indochina notwithstanding, his connections with scheming officers such as Col. Kanji Ishiwara and his vision of Japan’s role in Asia demonstrate his willingness to influence and be influenced by the Japanese Imperial Army. Perhaps Matsuoka was, as U.S. Ambassador Joseph Grew believed, “a willing tool of the Japanese military.” (p. 214)

Matsuoka’s most dramatic international moment occurred when he ordered Japan’s delegation to walk out of the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva in response to the Assembly’s condemnation of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria. Lu reveals that Matsuoka did not want Japan to withdraw from the League of Nations, nor did he want to give up Manchuria–renamed “Manchukuo” by the Japanese government. Foreign Minister Kosai Uchida ordered Matsuoka and the Japanese delegation to withdraw from the League. Although Matsuoka regarded his defense of Japan’s interests in Manchuria/Manchukuo a failure, the Japanese public hailed him as a hero for defending Japan’s rightful interests in the face of the Western powers. Lu perceptively notes that the broader and longer term effect of Matsuoka’s performance at Geneva: he lost Britain as an ally and increased American suspicion of Japan. When Matsuoka became Foreign Minister in 1940, neither government trusted Matsuoka or the country he represented.

By the time he was appointed President of the South Manchurian Railway Company in August 1935 at the behest of former Army Minister Jiro Minami, Matsuoka had become convinced of the need for an alliance with Nazi Germany. He soon advocated a Japanese alliance with Germany, a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union, and an understanding with the United States. Despite the failure of an attempted coup by some Army officers inspired by “the imperial way” in February 1936, and the Army’s failure to defeat Soviet military forces at Nomonhan on the Manchuria-Mongolia border in May 1939, the Japanese Imperial Army became more powerful and feared-both at home and in Asia. While some in the Imperial Navy objected, the Army and Matsuoka agreed on the need for a closer alliance with Germany. Germany was all the rage in Japan by 1940. Its military forces were gaining territory and striking fear throughout Europe, the Japanese translation of Mein Kampf as well as Ken Sawada’s lauditory Life of Hitler were bestsellers. According to Lu, Matsuoka believed Japan would be in a better position to negotiate with the United States with Nazi Germany on Japan’s side.

The opportunity to pursue this strategy came in July 1940, when Matsuoka was appointed Foreign Minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe. Konoe and Matsuoka, along with Army Minister Hideki Tojo and Navy Minister Zengo Yoshida often met during the next year to direct diplomatic and military actions designed to forge a close alliance with Germany, agree on a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union, and keep the United States from interfering in Japan’s economic and military actions in Asia. Matsuoka made dramatic changes at the Foreign Ministry, dubbed “the Matsuoka cyclone,” such as re-assigning and replacing over forty senior foreign ministry officers.

In March 1941, Matsuoka negotiated the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Italy, and then a Neutrality Pact with Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union in April. His whirlwind diplomacy put him on the cover of Time magazine on July 7, 1941. Despite qualms expressed by Emperor Hirohito that the Tripartite Pact was “too overtly anti-American” and resistance by some Imperial Navy officers, the army and Matsuoka convinced most political leaders the Japan-Germany-Italy pact was “defensive” and would secure Japan’s economic and political interests in Asia. Lu correctly judges the Tripartite Pact “a failure.” Instead of producing grudging respect for Japan in the United States, the pact “accelerated the hostility that existed between the democracies and totalitarian regimes of which Japan had become a recent convert” (p. 170). Soon after Matsuoka’s whirlwind diplomacy and cover story in Time magazine, he was forced to resign as Foreign Minister. His disagreements with the Army concerning the takeover of Vietnam, his attempts to negotiate with Chiang Kai-shek, his advocacy of declaring war on the Soviet Union after Germany’s attack on June 22, 1941, and American Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s complaint to the Japanese government that Matsuoka was not negotiating in good faith led Prime Minister Konoe to remove his independent-minded Foreign Minister.

Matsuoka subsequently contributed little to the Japanese government. His health deteriorated and he retreated to his upstairs room in his spacious Tokyo home. On December 8, 1941, he came downstairs to listen to the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor and reportedly exclaimed, “Tojo my boy. You are a lot better than I gave you credit for!” (p. 247) The occasional visitor from the Foreign Ministry or Army called on Matsuoka at his home during the war. His third son, Shinzo, died while serving in the army. On August 10, 1945, Army Minister General Korechika Anami asked Matsuoka to lead a cabinet of resistance when the Americans began their expected invasion of Japan’s home islands. The cabinet and the imperial headquarters would be located in the Matsushiro tunnels in Nagano Prefecture. Demonstrating that his sickness was affecting not only his physical health but his mental health as well, Matsuoka accepted the plan and began drawing up a list of his cabinet ministers. Japan’s surrender, embodied in Emperor Hirohito’s acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration on August 15, 1945, ended General Anami’s deranged scheme.

Overall, Agony of Choice is a fine examination of Yosuke Matsuoka and his times. Nevertheless, the book fails to resolve a few specific questions and one larger analytical issue. Lu is probably correct to view Matsuoka as an outsider to Japanese and American societies. While his Japanese colleagues admired his managerial, negotiating, and language skills, they regarded him as tainted by his time spent in the United States. Yet, because he was Japanese, American officials did not trust despite his cultural affinity with American society. Yet, Lu’s constant depiction of Matsuoka as a “lone ranger” seems overdone. Overdone also are references to September 11, 2001 in the beginning and ending sections of Agony of Choice. Lu also mentions that Matsuoka helped Jews escape Hitler in Europe by way of Manchuria, and then approved their passage to South America and the United States. (p. 135-36, and p. 272) This may be true, but the evidence to support the claim is very slim; Matsuoka was no Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who sacrificed his career in order to help thousands of Jews escape Hitler’s final solution.

The analytical issue concerns Matsuoka’s motive for seeking an alliance with Germany. Did he really believe that close relations between Japan and Nazi Germany (and Mussolini’s Italy) in the late 1930s and early 1940s would make the United States more likely to grant Japan a free hand on the Asian continent? In July of 1940, the newly appointed Foreign Minister Matsuoka told an American reporter that, “In the battle between democracy and totalitarianism, the latter adversary will without question win and control the world. The era of democracy is finished and the democratic system bankrupt.” How could Matsuoka possibly believe that a Japan-Germany alliance, and an espoused belief in the governing philosophy of totalitarianism, would gain the respect of Secretary of State Cordell Hull and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt? David Lu raises this issue a number of times. Yet, the question is never satisfactorily answered because, in my view, there is no satisfactory answer.

Any author attempting a biography of “the most well known Japanese” of the decade preceding Pearl Harbor will be hard pressed finding anything significant Dr. Lu has not covered in Agony of Choice. Lu’s prodigious research in primary and secondary sources, mostly of Japanese and American origin but also from German and British sources, plus nearly 100 interviews of Matsuoka’s family, friends, colleagues, and others conducted from 1966 to 1975, make Agony of Choice an exceptionally well-sourced work of scholarship. Anyone seriously interested in Yosuke Matsuoka and the Japan-China-United States relationship that ultimately led to the Sino-Japan and Pacific Wars will find a great deal of useful information and analyses in Agony of Choice.End.

1. Matsuoka Yosuke to Sono Jidai was published in 1981 by TBS Britannica in Tokyo, and the original translation was by Shinichi Hasegawa. For this review, I have put Japanese names in the order more familiar to Western readers; that is, surname first and family name second. For example, ‘Yosuke’ is the given name and ‘Matsuoka’ the family name of the primary subject of this biography. The traditional name order for most East Asians, including Japanese, is family name first and given name second.

2. From the Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor: Japan’s Entry Into World War II (Public Affairs Press, 1961); Inside Corporate Japan (Productivity Press, 1987); Japan: A Documentary History (M.E. Sharpe, 1997), are a few of David Lu’s works.


John E. Van Sant, is an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His research focuses on modern Japan (i.e., Japan since 1600) and Japan-United States history. His first book,Pacific Pioneers: Japanese Journeys to America and Hawaii, 1850-1880 (University of Illinois Press, 2000), is a transnational examination of the first Japanese who came to the United States and the Kingdom of Hawaii.


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