The Pacific War was caused by the expansionist ambitions of Imperial Japan. The chain of events that led to it can be described fairly easily. It is much harder to explain why Japan initiated a war against the one country that had the power to defeat it: the USA. The answer is perhaps found in Japan's unique culture and history. Having not experienced defeat for a thousand years, and believing in the superiority of their culture and spirit, the Japanese could not conceive of defeat. Somehow, trusting in the living-god Emperor, they would win, even if many would die in the process.
The origins of the war lie in Japan's emergence after more than two centuries of isolation from the outside world. To protect itself from foreign influences, in the early seventeenth century Japan had expelled all foreigners and had severely restricted foreign access to the country. This isolation was shattered in 1853, when four American warships appeared in Tokyo Bay and their commander, Commodore Matthew Perry, began negotiations that led eventually to a commercial treaty between the USA and Japan.
After the end of the period of isolation, the Japanese moved rapidly to modernize their country. The power of the feudal warlords collapsed and in 1868 the new Emperor announced a policy of seeking knowledge from around the world. Japan adopted a vaguely democratic constitution with an elected parliament or Diet. Compulsory education was introduced, although with heavy emphasis on obedience to the Emperor. The Japanese wanted European technology and expertise, but did not have the time or the inclination to absorb Western ideas of democracy or liberalism.
The Japanese observed that the European powers had gained economically by exploiting their military and diplomatic power in Asia. Taking this lead, Japan initiated a short and successful war with China over access to Korea, at the end of which China ceded Formosa (Taiwan) and the Liaotung peninsula in southern Manchuria, which included the fine harbor of Port Arthur. Under pressure from Russia, Germany and France, Japan was forced to withdraw from Manchuria. Russia moved into Manchuria, while Germany and France grabbed further concessions in China. To the enraged Japanese, it seemed that there was one rule for the European powers and a different rule for Asian countries. Three years later, the USA took control of the Philippines.
The Japanese were determined to gain control of the areas they saw as vital to their economic survival. In 1904 Japan blockaded Port Arthur, and moved troops into Korea and Manchuria. In a bloody war with heavy casualties on both sides, the Japanese defeated the Russian army in Manchuria and destroyed the Russian fleet sent to relieve Port Arthur. Japan took control of the Liaotung peninsula and stationed troops to protect the Manchurian railroad. By 1910, Japan had annexed Korea. For the first time, an Asian power had defeated a European power, and the Japanese army gained in prestige and strength.
Japan obtained tremendous advantages from the First World War. Being on the winning side, it seized Germany's possessions in China and the Pacific, but never sent land forces to Europe. Fueled by the demands of the war, Japanese industries continued to expand and Japan built up its merchant navy. In the postwar settlement, Japan retained the former German Pacific colonies under a mandate from the League of Nations. At the same time, Japan was confirmed as a principal power in the Pacific, but was viewed with suspicion by both the USA and Britain.
At a conference in Washington, the USA, Britain and Japan agreed to limit their capital ships according to a ratio of 5:5:3. The USA and Britain undertook not to fortify their Pacific possessions. Japan was aggrieved at apparent restrictions to its navy, but as both Britain and the USA also deployed their forces in the Atlantic, Japan was left as the most powerful navy in the western Pacific. Still suspicious of Japan, in 1923 Britain decided to establish a naval base at Singapore, to which it would send its main fleet in time of crisis in the Pacific.
The Japanese economy and society were coming under great strain. During the 1920s, numerous earthquakes shattered cities and factories. The largest struck Tokyo in 1923. As the world economic system began to falter, Western countries applied trade restrictions that hurt Japanese industries. The Great Depression is generally thought to have begun with the Wall Street crash in 1929, but by 1926 more than three million Japanese industrial workers had lost their jobs. The Japanese government came under increasing pressure from militant nationalist groups, often led by young army officers. This was a similar environment to that which led to the rise of Nazism in Germany, fascism in Italy and communism in various countries.
After subduing Japanese imperialism through the Washington treaties, the governments of the United States, Britain, and the European states with Asian interests regarded Japan as a fully-fledged member of the international community, as a signatory of the League of Nations agreement, and as a global trading partner. Its lack of natural resources except coal meant that it had to remain a supplicant in the international trading order of the 1920s, still only a protégé of Britain and the United States. Westerners, especially the British and Americans, tended to exaggerate their influence on Japanese culture and to underestimate the latent hostility in Japan towards Western civilization.
Unlike Britain, Japan had no empire from which to draw cheap raw materials. Formosa and Korea hardly gave Japan autarky. Its special privileges in Manchuria did not suffice. By the 1930s Japanese politicians saw the economic exploitation of China as Japan’s only salvation from economic retreat. When its economy swooned in the 1930s, Japan chafed under the economic barriers it faced in Asia. The colonial status of South East Asia limited Japanese access to these markets. The hostility of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union toward Japanese economic penetration in Manchuria and China seemed to embody imperialist discrimination, if not outright hypocrisy.
In Manchuria and northern China, Japan was facing new challenges. In China, nationalist forces were being consolidated under Chiang Kai-shek. The Japanese semi-autonomous Kwantung Army, policing the Manchurian railroad, was a highly political organization that attracted the best and most ambitious Japanese officers. Officers of the Kwantung Army falsely accused the Chinese of sabotaging the Port Arthur-Mukden railroad. Against the wishes of the government, Japanese forces attacked the armies of the local Chinese warlords and quickly overran Manchuria. Powerless, the Japanese government acquiesced, and the following year Japan established a puppet state - Manchukuo.
The Japanese waged a harsh, bloody, punitive campaign in Shanghai in 1932 in retaliation for anti-Japanese actions and riots in that port. The Chinese Army fought with considerable effectiveness, and the Japanese found themselves hard-pressed to drive the Chinese from the city. Only by using a marine brigade and three army divisions were they able to defeat the Nineteenth Route Army, which was trained and armed by German and Soviet advisers. In the meantime, the Japanese withdrew from the League of Nations and renounced the three Washington treaties it signed in 1921.
Despite these belligerent actions, the Japanese government was actually in disarray. In November 1930 the Japanese Prime Minister was gunned down for accepting allegedly humiliating conditions at a naval conference in London. In February 1932 two leading politicians were assassinated by members of the Blood Brotherhood - modern day samurai warriors who were prepared to sacrifice themselves for the good of Japan. In May 1932 they murdered the new Prime Minister for criticizing Japanese aggression in Manchuria. In February 1936 radical army officers attempted a coup d'etat, murdering several leading government ministers. The coup attempt failed, but the army gained even more power.
A mature, forceful Emperor might have rallied the peace party coalition and controlled the military, but the slight, bespectacled Hirohito, who became Emperor in 1926 at the age of twenty-five, accepted his traditional non-activist role. He entitled his reign showa or ‘enlightened peace’. However, his first twenty years of rule proved neither enlightened nor peaceful. Much influenced by British culture, Hirohito valued most of all his role as reigning monarch. Although his power was theoretically absolute, his real power remained limited, but real enough.
The limited Japanese military operations in northern China brought no serious European intervention, not even from the Soviet Union. The diplomats dithered, but the consensus from Europe, alarmed by Hitler’s annexation of Austria, was that the United States should assume principal responsibility for policing Japan. Congressional and public isolationism made it difficult for Roosevelt to assist China, even by halting the flow of oil, scrap iron, and strategic metals to Japan. The United States had no taste for a confrontation over distant Asian lands.
On the night of 7 July 1937, shots were fired at a Japanese detachment on maneuvers a few miles from Peking. Japanese and Chinese forces had engaged in frequent skirmishes during the previous six years, but this time the Nationalist Chinese leader, Chiang Kai-shek, believed that he could no longer tolerate Japanese provocation. To some historians the 'China Incident', as the Japanese called it, marks the true beginning of the Second World War. China and Japan were to remain at war until 1945. Over the following months the Japanese would take Shanghai and the Chinese nationalist capital, Nanking.
Thrusting deeper into China, by the end of 1938 Japan had captured large areas of northern China, the Yangtze valley, and pockets along the coast. Chiang Kai-shek withdrew his government to the inland city of Chungking and tried to come to a cooperative arrangement with the Chinese Communists under Mao Tse-tung. The Communists conducted guerrilla warfare against the Japanese, who had established a puppet Chinese government in their area of occupation. Meanwhile, the Nationalist Chinese were working hard to win American support.
Skirmishes between the Japanese and Russian armies on their common border dividing Manchuria from Mongolia erupted into full-scale war, commonly known as the Nomonhan Incident. Tokyo judged the Russians to be weak and vulnerable, and committed an army to test their resolve. The outcome was a disaster for the Japanese. General Georgy Zhukov launched a counter-offensive, supported by powerful armored and air forces, which achieved a comprehensive victory. Peace was restored on Moscow’s terms.
Bogged down in China and checked by the Soviet Union, the Japanese were unsure of their next step. Then, in September 1939 Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany. The German invasion of France in May 1940 suddenly offered Japan new opportunities to cut China's overseas supplies. Chased out of Europe and hammered from the air, Britain was not strong enough to resist Japan's demand to close the road from Rangoon in Burma to Chungking, which was supplying the Nationalist government with vital supplies. Nor could the Vichy French government, formed after the German occupation, resist demands to close the port of Haiphong and give access to bases in northern Vietnam from which Japanese planes could attack southern China.
By the second half of 1940, war between Japan, the USA and Britain had become increasingly likely. Britain, the USA (concerned for the security of the Philippines), Australia and the Netherlands considered defensive plans in south-east Asia. Belatedly, Britain built up its garrison in Malaya and Singapore with British, Indian, and Australian troops. But preoccupied by events in Europe and the Middle East, Britain did not give the defense of Malaya high priority. The German attack on Russia in June 1941 changed the situation. Japan could either fall on Russia's Far East empire while Russia was fighting for its life in Europe or it could continue its southern expansion, secure in the knowledge that Russia would be too preoccupied to attack in Manchuria. Japan decided to strike south.
US naval cryptanalysts broke the Japanese diplomatic ciphers. The resulting intelligence, known as Magic, gave the Americans clear insight into Japanese intentions. Japan's decision to strike south was known within a few days in Washington, London, and Canberra. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt was well prepared when the Japanese moved into southern Indochina: the USA, in agreement with the British and the Dutch, froze Japanese assets and applied a further embargo that reduced trade with Japan by three-quarters. Roosevelt also ordered an embargo on high-octane gasoline and crude oil exports.
Throughout the summer and early autumn of 1941, Japanese and American officials considered the immediate prospect of war, and neither set of diplomats and officers found much comfort in their calculations. American planners had worked on a variety of contingency plans since the fall of France, and Roosevelt had pushed them to accept the principle of Germany First if the United States was forced to declare war on the Axis nations at the same time. This meant that only token forces would be committed to the defense of Southeast Asia.
The Japanese Cabinet met with Emperor Hirohito and decided to continue negotiations, while preparing to go to war if the negotiations were not successful by 10 October. When the deadline passed without progress in the negotiations, the War Minister, General Hideki Tojo, indicated that he had lost confidence in Prime Minister Konoye, who then resigned. Tojo became Prime Minister, while retaining his post as War Minister. He was determined to establish Japanese primacy in the Far East, to defeat the Western nations that had colonies in the Far East, to incorporate China into Japan, and to establish the East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere in the countries of south-east Asia.
Although the Japanese intended to strike without warning, they still played out the diplomatic charade of presenting the US with an ultimatum to rectify a list of grievances. This diplomatic note was to be presented at 1.00 pm on the day of the attack at Pearl Harbor. As soon as the message was transmitted from Tokyo to Japan's Washington Embassy, it was deciphered by the Americans and it was passed to Roosevelt, who remarked, 'This means war.' The Japanese Embassy failed to decipher and translate the cable as quickly as the Americans, and the Japanese diplomats were not able to present the note formally to Cordell Hull until 2.30 pm. By then both Roosevelt and Hull knew that Hawaii had been under air attack for more than an hour.
By 1941 the Japanese army consisted of 31 divisions, with a further 13 in the Kwantung Army. Each division generally numbered about 18,000 men. By Western standards, much of the army's heavy equipment was obsolete, but the troops were well trained and experienced from years of operations in China. The lack of adequate tanks and heavy artillery was not an important factor in jungle and island warfare. The Japanese air force was based mainly in China, but units were later deployed to larger islands such as New Guinea and the Philippines.
At the outbreak of war, the American population was about twice that of Japan, but its industrial capacity was considerably greater. This industrial strength and large population enabled the USA to expand its armed forces at an unprecedented rate and to manufacture huge quantities of equipment and war materiel not only for its own forces but also for Allied forces. The US fought a war in Europe, but still deployed massive forces in the Pacific. General George C. Marshall remained the Chief of Staff of the US army throughout the war. Of the USAAF's 16 air forces, seven served in the Pacific and the China-Burma-India theaters. The US navy deployed the majority of its strength in the Pacific. Like the other services, it too underwent a huge expansion.
By December 1941 Britain had been at war with Germany and Italy for more than two years. Few military resources could be spared for the Far East. The imperial troops in Malaya included two Indian divisions and an understrength Australian division. Most of the aircraft there were inferior to those of the Japanese. There were few major naval units and no aircraft carriers. British forces in south-east Asia were always afforded a low priority for men and equipment. Operations would have been impossible without the assistance of forces raised in India. Britain provided a larger proportion of the air forces. The British Eastern Fleet operated in the Indian Ocean but was not a strong force until 1944.
The Chinese armed forces were divided between those under the control of the Nationalist government, those organized by the Communist Party, and those under various warlords. Both the Nationalist and Communist forces expanded during the war. The Chinese air force was organized and flown by American volunteers.
The days of peace for the United States dwindled to a precious few; but for Japan, Pearl Harbor brought a chance to end four years of war in China and free Japan from racial humiliation and economic interdependence. Blinded by their own sense of cultural superiority and distorted notions of industrial progress and economic determinism, the Japanese could not fathom why the United States should care about the Chinese, who exhibited an irrational traditionalism and pathetic social disorganization.