Skip to main content

The Movies: Tora, Tora, Tora

September 2019

"TORA TORA, TORA" was the code the Japanese pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, used to signal their mission’s success. Focusing on the attack on the U.S. Navy's Pacific headquarters, this film devotes almost an hour to scene after scene of Japanese planes diving over the harbor and targeting the battleships cooped up there, unable to escape or offer much resistance.

The background to the attack is presented from both the Japanese and the American perspectives. Adm. Yamamoto Isoroku, commander-in-chief of Japan's combined fleet and architect of the plan to attack Pearl Harbor, is presented as a brilliant strategist who nevertheless opposes war with the United States. In the film, Yamamoto (played by Soh Yamamura) even says that it is a great mistake to underestimate the fighting potential of the Americans, who—though seemingly easygoing, materialistic, and unwilling to make sacrifices for their country—will make a fierce opponent if aroused. The real Yamamoto, though keenly aware of the grave consequences of war (he had gone to school in the United States), dutifully worked out the Pearl Harbor attack plan throughout 1941. By the time the orders were confirmed in late November, he was ready to execute the plan.

In the film, Yamamoto insists that the Japanese deliver an ultimatum to the U.S. State Department one hour before the attack, scheduled to commence at 1:30 P.M. eastern standard time (8:00 A.M. in Hawaii). He later becomes furious when he learns that Japanese ambassadors Kichisaburo Nomura and Sahuro Kurusu submitted the message to Secretary of State Cordell Hull at 2:20 P.M.—some fifty-five minutes after the attack (the assault began five minutes ahead of schedule). "To awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." Yamamoto tells other naval commanders as they celebrate the success of the Pearl Harbor mission, "is sowing the seed for certain disaster." And with this remark, the movie ends. Everything after December 7. 1941, happened as the admiral predicted.

The Japanese ultimatum was delivered late because the embassy was instructed not to entrust its decoding and typing to clerical staff. To illustrate this, the film shows a young diplomat typing the lengthy fourteen-part message with one finger as the minutes tick past. By focusing the coming of the war on so trivial a matter as incompetent typing skills, Tora! Tora! Tora! gives the impression that if the Japanese typist had been a little faster, the Americans might have fought less passionately and the course of history would have been quite different. Such a scenario loses sight of the larger picture. Yamamoto keeps saying. "If Japan is forced to enter into war against the United States...,” but the passive voice is misleading; it was the United States, not Japan, that was forced to go to war in the Pacific. While the film shows Secretary of State Hull and Ambassador Nomura engaging in endless and futile negotiations to avert war, the fundamental obstacles to peace are never clarified. Nothing is said about Japanese aggression in China or the much-publicized atrocities committed by the Japanese during their occupation. It was American outrage at these events that precipitated war in the Pacific.

There is casual mention of Japan's invasion of Indochina and the retaliatory U.S. oil embargo, although this is technically incorrect: There was no formal embargo, only a de facto prohibition of oil shipments through the denial of export licenses. The film also refers to the Japanese alliance with Germany, depicting the Japanese army as aggressively seeking a treaty with the Nazis despite the navy's opposition. These digressions, however, are never placed in a coherent picture, and the viewer has no way to make the connections among them.

In reality, Japan sought an alliance with Germany for a number of reasons: Among them was the belief that a pact with Germany would keep the United States out of a war it would be forced to fight on two fronts. The Japanese navy, which had different and conflicting aims, initially opposed the alliance. Some senior officers thought it would actually increase the chances of war with the United States (for which the navy was not yet prepared), while others thought the continuation of the war in China without the threat of a Pacific war would mean more money for the army and severe cutbacks for their own service.

Instead of depicting these disputes, the film remains preoccupied with the Pearl Harbor attack itself and the question of why it was not prevented, or at least predicted in sufficient time to minimize damage. At times, the story comes close to embracing a conspiracy theory—namely, that Washington did not forward to its Hawaiian commanders pertinent information obtained from decoded secret Japanese messages (the so-called Magic intercepts, made possible by a major American cryptographic breakthrough) for fear that such information might alert the Japanese to change their codes. Yet the overall impression the film conveys is less one of conspiracy than of ineptitude, bureaucratic and otherwise. Except for a few middle-ranking and low-level officers, the American military is portrayed as either complacent or ignorant. Although the commanding officers in Washington know the bilateral relationship has reached a critical point, they do little or nothing to alert Hawaii.

Those responsible for the defense of Hawaii, too, are depicted as unimaginative, bureaucratic types. For instance, the movie accurately locates a Japanese submarine in the vicinity of Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7. The submarine, engaged in a scouting mission, was sighted and immediately sunk by a U.S. patrol boat. However, the report of this incident is not taken seriously by the senior officers in the film. In fact, Tora! Tora! Tora! repeatedly contrasts determined Japanese initiatives with the complacent American responses (or lack thereof).

Within this narrow framework, the film stays fairly close to the known facts. All the characters are based on real people and on the whole they conform to the historical record. It is certainly true that, before the attack, the U.S. military was both shortsighted and nonchalant. Its commanders utterly underestimated the Japanese war machine's strength and ability, and even after the attack several prominent U.S. military advisers thought Germany must have been behind it: ironically, they doubted that Japan had the technology or the engineering skill to create such an effective assault force.

Tora! Tora! Tora! is a binational movie, giving the Japanese side of the story as much authenticity as the U.S. side. The translation of Japanese conversations is fairly accurate but greatly abbreviated, omitting several key passages. (For instance, the poem the emperor actually recited at the meeting where the decision for war was taken was not his, as is indicated in the subtitles, but his grandfather's.) Also, the Japanese keep referring to the date of the Pearl Harbor attack as December 8 (which it was in Japan. across the International Date Line), but the translation always comes out as December 7. These, however, are minor problems, and on the whole we can applaud the filmmakers' sincere effort to be evenhanded in presenting the Pearl Harbor tragedy.

The movie was released in 1970, when U.S.–Japanese relations were cordial and uncontroversial. American scholars and the public were eager to solidify the Pacific alliance through a better understanding of the causes of the war. The Cold War was still the basic framework for U.S. foreign policy, and there were as yet no overtures to the People's Republic of China. Despite—or one might say, because of—the Vietnam War, both countries sought a stable relationship.

Today, in the changed atmosphere of the post–Cold War era, a Pearl Harbor movie might well take a different form. It is doubtful that Yamamoto would be portrayed as a hero, as this film does, and it certainly would contain some information on Japanese aggression in Asia, as this film does not. In many ways, therefore, the movie is an interesting source not only for the Pearl Harbor attack but also for the atmosphere in the two countries around 1970.