World War II


On New Year’s Eve 1941, Lieutenant Colonel Masanobu Tsuji of the Imperial Japanese Army fumed with indignation. Brilliant, charismatic, and impetuous, Tsuji had crafted a blueprint for conquering Malaya that was running like clockwork. But superiors had just rejected his plan for a frontal assault on an enemy stronghold and ordered a flanking attack instead. At 2 a.m. on January 1, 1942, Tsuji—red-eyed and mud-splattered after racing more than 60 miles on shell-cratered roads—barged into the quarters of the army’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Sōsaku Suzuki.

“What do you mean wearing a nightshirt when I’m reporting from the front?!” Tsuji shouted. General Suzuki dutifully donned his dress uniform and sword. “I’m the Chief Operations Staff Officer responsible for operations of the entire [25th] Army,” Tsuji continued, as recounted in John Toland’s classic history, The Rising Sun. “I submitted my plan based on actual frontline conditions. Your rejection means you no longer have confidence in me.” For more than an hour, the lieutenant colonel harangued the three-star general, then wrote a resignation letter and retired to his quarters, where he sulked for several days before resuming his duties. The flanking attack succeeded.

Suzuki and General Tomoyuki Yamashita, 25th Army Commander, officially ignored the incident, an example of gekokujō (“juniors dominating seniors”)—a peculiarly Japanese tradition of usurpation of authority by midlevel staff officers—that helped lead Japan and its army to ruin in the Pacific War. Tsuji became the very embodiment of gekokujō.

Tsuji forged an astonishing military and political career. He had a hand in Japan’s decision for war with America. His conduct of the Malay-Singapore Campaign won him fame at home. Though lionized by supporters as the “God of Operations,” he craved battle as much as planning and was in the thick of the fighting from Manchuria to Guadalcanal to Burma. A violent racist and mass murderer, he escaped prosecution as a war criminal with the help of American authorities and went on to work for the CIA. He served in Japan’s parliament for nine years.

Wherever he served, Tsuji attracted a circle of devoted admirers—and enemies. Critics condemned him as a dangerous fanatic. Tsuji burned with a vision of Japan’s divinely ordained mission in Asia: a Pan-Asian movement—“Asia

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