Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on 7th December 1941. While facts of how are widely known, the why question is far more interesting.
While there are many reasons for the attack, most and possibly all of them boil down to Japan’s lack of natural resources. Japan began to rapidly modernize after Commodore Perry ended Japan’s self-isolationist policy in 1853. Shortly thereafter, Tokugawa Shogun was forced to agree to a series of unequal treaties with major Western powers. After the Tokugawa Shogunate had collapsed, the Meiji leaders – starting in the 1870s – began rapid modernization with the aim of liberating Japan from Western yoke.
Yet Japan’s lack of natural resources meant that it could not catch up to West in terms of industrial output. Iron, coal and food were all lacking in supply in Japan itself, forcing it to look abroad. First steps to expansion were conquest of Korea and Manchuria, secured in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5 and Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. And at the end of World War I, Japan was recognized as one of great powers by the Treaty of Versailles. During 1920s, Japan continued to industrialize and establish peaceful trading relations with many nations across the world, especially the United States. Much like the period of 1815. – 1914., the 1920s were a time of particularly open and free trade between countries, and all seemed well until the end of the decade.
But during 1929. – 1931., growth in Chinese nationalism and the economic crisis forced the Japan to reassess its policies and situation in general. Scarcity of resources, growing population and an economic crisis convinced Japan that military expansion in imitation of Western European powers and the United States was the solution. By the end of 1920s., Japan has had a massive unemployment rate, and in 1927. – 1928. went through a domestic depression. This was made only worse when the Great Depression hit in 1929., especially as Western nations raised high tariff walls.
Japan assessed Russia and China as being inferior to its own military. But this was rapidly changing, as both countries were rearming. Soviet Russian and Chinese rearmament had the potential to threaten the Japan’s secure economic position in Manchuria. In response, Japan overran Manchuria in 1931., and by 1932. turned it into its puppet state called Manchukuo. This was the true beginning of the Second World War, though nobody realized it then. Japan proceeded to attack strategic cities in China in 1937. In both cases, Europe and United States barely sent a strongly worded letter in response.
Proper response came only in 1940., when United States imposed economic sanctions on Japan, banning export of iron ore, scrap iron and steel to Japan. When these measures failed, in July 1941. United States established a complete embargo including oil trade on Japan; Great Britain, China and Netherlands joined the embargo. This and the freezing of Japanese assets in China deprived Japan of 94% of its oil supply. With this, Japan was deprived of several crucial resources it required for survival. There was no alternative: during 1930s, half of the resources vital to Japan’s economy came from the United States. United States themselves criticized Japan for its imperialism in China, yet had themselves conquered Philippines in the 1899. – 1902. war (Philippines had gained independence from Spain in 1898.).
At that point, Japan has several options. First one was to abandon its imperialistic conquests in Asia. Second option was to maintain the “status quo”. This in turn would have forced Japanese economy to grind to a halt. Both options would have caused Japan to lose face, and the second option might have cost it its status as a great power. Third option was to gain control of the areas necessary to satisfy its resource need. Original plans were to conquer just Dutch Indonesia, but eventually decision was made to conquer also the French Indochina, Philippines, Malay Peninsula and Singapore in order to secure the conquests. This would obviously lead to war with France, United States and Great Britain, but the Japanese leadership had already anticipated a full blown naval war with the United States. The embargo had also stirred up the anger at Western interference in what the Japanese saw as Asian affairs, and convinced Japan to stand its ground.
To carry out and secure these conquests, Japanese planners wanted to eliminate the Allied naval presence in the Hawaii and the Singapore. Latter was limited, but the US Pacific Fleet was a major threat which had the potential to disrupt the Japanese shipping lanes and even offensive plans. Japan could potentially have waited for the US counterattack and destroy the Pacific Fleet following its trip of thousands of miles, but the in the April 1940. the fleet was relocated from San Pedro in California to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. This was not necessarily a logistically smart move – even in January 1941. the anchorage was not actually sufficient and the fleet suffered from lack of supplies, training and inadequate facilities. But the move made the fleet much nearer to Japan’s sphere of influence, and it was hoped this would serve as a deterrent. Yet this same move also made it a threat, and a target.
And Japan had in fact not lost a war in modern history (1854. – 1941.). It had won the war against Russia in 1904. – 1905., and its involvement in the First World War (1914. – 1918.) had secured it significant gains with very little effort. As a result, the government and the people were in favor of the war. So while Tokyo and Washington negotiated in the months leading up to the attack, the negotiations could not prevent the war.
In the end, Pearl Harbor would be attacked, and the rest is history.
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