Q: Ambassador Shigemitsu
Churchill was criticized for his extremely respectful letter to the Japanese Ambassador to Britain in December 1941, when informing him that their countries were at war. Churchill’s response to critics was, “After all, when you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite.” Was Shigemitsu acually killed? —W.H., New York
A: No, he lived on
Churchill was writing in the abstract, so did not actually propose to slay the Ambassador. Mamoru Shigemitsu was Japanese ambassador to the Soviet Union 1936–38 and to Britain 1938–41. Following Japan’s attacks of December 1941 he received unhampered passage home. As Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs at the end of World War II, he signed the instrument of surrender on USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945. This was the formal end of the Second World War.
Convicted of war crimes, Shigemitsu received a sentence of seven years’ imprisonment, but was paroled in 1950. In 1954-56 he served as Japan’s Foreign Minister, and he died in 1957 at the age of 70.
Churchill’s letter to the Ambassador…
…caused a flutter in Parliament for excessive floweriness and diplomatic niceties. Churchill decided to mention this in his war memoirs, but more as a humorous note than a serious defense of it. But decide for yourself—here is the passage from The Second World War, volume III, The Grand Alliance, pages 542-43:
On the evening of December 7th His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom learned that Japanese forces without previous warning either in the form of a declaration of war or of an ultimatum with a conditional declaration of war had attempted a landing on the coast of Malaya and bombed Singapore and Hong Kong.
In view of these wanton acts of unprovoked aggression committed in flagrant violation of International Law and particularly of Article 1 of the Third Hague Convention relative to the opening of hostilities, to which both Japan and the United Kingdom are parties, His Majesty’s Ambassador at Tokyo has been instructed to inform the Imperial Japanese Government in the name of His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom that a state of war exists between our two countries.
I have the honour to be, with high consideration,
Your obedient servant,
WINSTON S. CHURCHILL.
For this and other quotations on the subject see Churchill by Himself, Chapter 20, “Nations…Japan.”