In 1941, then Japanese emperor Hirohito, like his military advisors, believed that Japan could win a single "decisive battle" against the US and then engage in negotiations that would leave it in an advantageous position.
It's not Japanese tradition to directly confront with a powerful opponent and risk humiliating failure.
And back then, only ultra-nationalist fanatics believe Japan could completely defeat the US.
However at that time, the majority of Japanese believed that confrontation with the US was inevitable.
Most thought Japan could win a single decisive battle and then break even or gain from the war, just as it had done following the naval clash at Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).
When we talk about Japan's "insanity" before World War II, we often concentrate on the aggressive and authoritarian nature of Japanese militarism.
But in some ways Japan was also "forced" to declare war against the US, though it cornered itself through its own aggression.
The Japanese leadership was fatalistically convinced a clash was sure to come with a US it believed was inexorably opposed to Japan's rise.
The Japanese saw this as the first step to an inevitable war and believed that if they didn't strike first, the US would take the initiative. This thinking ultimately doomed the Japanese empire.
Now history is pushing Japan to another critical point. The question of national direction has seriously worried some Japanese elites since the disastrous earthquake in March 2011.
There is a popular view that currently what Japan needs most is a new spirit of striving to make the country stronger, otherwise their national decline will be inevitable.
Several important elements aggravate such a sense of crisis. First, the third generation in the post-war era has already grown up under the penetration of Western culture. They are not as good as the two post-war generations at either enduring hardship or working collectively.
Besides, Japan faces a continued demographic crisis as its society ages. And the continued economic stagnation since the popping of the bubble economy in 1997 worsens people's sense of frustration and anxiety.
In this period, China's rise has been in sharp contrast with Japan's decline, which strikes Japanese national confidence.
In the eyes of some Japanese elites, Japan's morale is fading, and could only be restored through waking the nation's sense of superiority and its national dignity.
China has thus become a target to stir up Japanese national morale. Some Japanese politicians take aggressive actions over issues like the Diaoyu Islands dispute, catering to the public's deeply rooted sense of fear and anxiety.
It is often difficult to change an element rooted in a nation's collective consciousness. The national spirit of tenacity enabled Japan to recover from the post-war ruins within a decade. However, the fatalist view that confrontation with others is inevitable still lingers.
In this new era of globalization, many countries are facing challenges in consolidating national spirit. The US, European countries and China are all not exceptions. But seeking an enemy and binding the national fate with a battle against it will not solve the problem, nor will it magically unite the new generation in the same consensus that drove their grandparents to work to rebuild society.
Japan's hesitance in its China policy shows that it may make a fundamental mistake and see the increasingly powerful China as its enemy.
If Japan doesn't properly recognize the value of its own neighbor, or fails to seek the path of win-win cooperation which is the mainstream trend in Asian development, the nation will be increasingly trapped by its own fears.
The author is a senior editor with People's Daily. He is now stationed in Bangkok. firstname.lastname@example.org