It’s November of 1941, and members of the Japanese Imperial Court are meeting to discuss the possibility of going to war with the United States.
Fushimi Hiroyasu, chief of staff of the Imperial Navy, stands to deliver a message received from the U.S. Embassy.
“They have sent us their final terms, and they have given us two options,” says Hiroyasu. “If we can agree to leave Indochina, they will continue to supply us with crude oil and scrap metal … the second option is if we recognize the Chinese government and renegotiate the Tripartite Pact and leave the Dutch East Indies and leave British colonies alone, they will discuss renegotiation of their trade embargoes.”
The message draws murmurs from members of the Imperial Court gathered this morning in a second-floor classroom of Webster Hall at Missouri Southern.
Some are strongly against the idea of selling out their country’s honor for material wealth; others worried that war would allow the country’s military powers and bureaucrats to consolidate power; as well as those who believe that declaring war on the Western powers would draw the country into chaos and uncertainty.
It’s the Southern Army’s chief of staff, Tsukada Osamu, who rises with a final comment in support of going to war, reminding members of the court that the U.S. ceasing exports to the country and their increasing military efforts in the Pacific and Asia could no longer be ignored.
“I must remind everyone that they have insulted us,” says Osamu. “Honor demands that we go to war.”
The members vote that war is the way forward, setting up the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, leading the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, to offer a defiant speech in which he pledges that “freedom and liberty” will ultimately triumph over the “once honorable” Japan.
The Imperial Court also votes to approve expanding their war efforts in the Philippines, but the steps they have taken will require a literal role of the dice to determine the outcome.
At the back of the classroom, Dr. Rebecca Shriver, assistant professor of history at MSSU, rolls the dice. The outcome results in a strategic victory against Australian, British and Dutch forces, and the Dutch East Indies being taken by Japanese forces.
“The military performed better in the game than in actual historic events,” says Shriver. “Other than that, events remained very true to what actually happened.”
It’s a game, but also an innovative way of learning about the events leading up to the U.S. entering the war with Japan and other members of the Axis powers – Germany and Italy.
Reacting to the Past (HIST 498) is a special topics course, and one that Shriver hopes to eventually offer as a regular class.
Simulating important moments
Created at and licensed through Columbia University’s Barnard College, Reacting to the Past is “an active learning pedagogy of role-playing games designed for higher education,” according to their website.
“The consortium group at Barnard has 25 to 30 games so far, and they’re constantly developing others,” says Shriver. “I used one of the games in an honors world history class. It went so well, I thought it would be amazing to offer a full course.”
The game set in Japan leading up to war with the U.S. is the second that students have participated in this semester.
An earlier game was set in Athens, Greece, as they form a new government in the wake of their defeat by Sparta during the Peloponnesian War. Following the Thanksgiving break, the class will begin a new game set during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Using mechanics similar to other role-playing games, Reacting to the Past is a unique way of learning history.
“The games are usually set during a very important moment in history,” says Shriver. “Each student gets a role, usually a real historical figure. The simulation usually hinges on a big decision, or a series of decisions that have to be made.”
While a game, it’s one that requires participating students to take a deep dive into historical events and the real-life people who experienced them. Students are also learning valuable practical skills as well.
“They have to make at least two public speeches during each of our games,” she says. “That requires a lot of research and writing to prepare for their roles, as well as learning about diplomacy and working with people and factions they may not see eye to eye with.
“As an added bonus, I’ve never seen students have so much fun in a class, which is a huge reward for me.”
Fun, but rigorous
Junior history major Pedro Zepeda played two roles in the most recent game set in Japan.
“First, I was foreign minister Yōsuke Matsuoka for four conferences before I resigned my position,” Zepeda says. “Then I became Joseph Grew, the U.S. ambassador to Japan.
“(This class) has been absolutely amazing. I’ve never had this much fun in a history class, and it makes me want to do even more research about the real-life people.”
Clare Roark, a senior history major, portrayed Japanese Naval Minister Shigetaro Shimada during the game.
“He was a very people-pleasing type of person, and a very big follower of Prime Minister Tojo,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in World War II and (in particular) the Holocaust, but I had never looked at events from the Japanese side.
“There’s a lot of research to get into character. It’s a lot of fun because it’s a different way of looking at history, and you can see what would have happened had things gone another way.”
In the Athens game, for instance, Socrates was acquitted during his trial (in reality, the Greek philosopher was found guilty and sentenced to death).
Another change from historical events during the Japan game came in the way participants negotiated what became the Tripartite Pact between the Axis powers.
“The pact we made obligated us to also fight the Soviets,” says Martin Baty, a junior history major who portrayed Marshall Admiral Osami Nagano of the Japanese navy.
“You’re given a character sheet with background information and related text – book and article recommendations. I did my best to portray him accurately, even though what actually happened was a little different than what happened in the game.”
Shriver says she’s pleased to offer an upper-level history class where students are having a great time and hopes to eventually offer it as a permanent course offering
“Students have told me they would take the course again if there’s different games,” she says. “I’ve created a course proposal and pitched it to my colleagues.”
The approval process will take some time, she says, and there may be opportunities to incorporate Reacting to the Past games into student organization activities within the Social Sciences Department. It’s a way for students to continue exploring historical events while having fun at the same time.
“Particularly after the last couple of years,” she says. “But it’s still very rigorous. Students have to do a lot of research and writing, and step out of their comfort zones when it comes to public speaking. It has gone better than I could have imagined.”