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Japan in the Pacific War

Japan entered World War II with limited aims and with the intention of fighting a limited war. Its principal objectives were to secure the resources of Southeast Asia and much of China and to establish a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" under Japanese hegemony. In 1895 and in 1905 Japan had gained important objectives without completely defeating China or Russia and in 1941 Japan sought to achieve its hegemony over East Asia in similar fashion. The operational strategy the Japanese adopted to start war, however, doomed their hopes of limiting the conflict.

Japan believed it necessary to destroy or neutralize American striking power in the Pacific - the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and the U.S. Far East Air Force in the Philippines - before moving southward and eastward to occupy Malaya, the Netherlands Indies, the Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, the Gilbert Islands, Thailand, and Burma. Once in control of these areas, the Japanese intended to establish a defensive perimeter stretching from the Kurile Islands south through Wake, the Marianas, the Carolines, and the Marshalls and Gilberts to Rabaul on New Britain. From Rabaul the perimeter would extend westward to northwestern New Guinea and would encompass the Indies, Malaya, Thailand, and Burma. Japan thought that the Allies would wear themselves out in fruitless frontal assaults against the perimeter and would ultimately settle for a negotiated peace that would leave it in possession of most of its conquests.

The Japanese were remarkably successful in the execution of their offensive plan and by early 1942 had reached their intended perimeter. But they miscalculated the effect of their surprise attack at Pearl Harbor which unified a divided people and aroused the United States to wage a total, not a limited, war. As a result Japan lost, in the long run, any chance of conducting the war on its own terms. The Allies, responding to their defeats, sought no negotiated peace, but immediately began to seek means to strike back.

In November 1936, the Anti-Comintern Pact, an agreement to exchange information and collaborate in preventing communist activities, was signed by Japan and Germany (Italy joined a year later). War was launched against China after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 7, 1937, in which an allegedly unplanned clash took place near Beiping (as Beijing was then called) between Chinese and Japanese troops and quickly escalated into full-scale warfare. The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) ensued, and relations with the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union deteriorated.

The increased military activities in China--and the Japanese idea of establishing "Mengukuo" in Inner Mongolia and the Mongolian People's Republic--soon led to a major clash over rival Mongolia-Manchukuo border claims. When Japanese troops invaded eastern Mongolia, a ground and air battle with a joint Soviet- Mongolian army took place between May and September 1939 at the Battle of Halhin Gol. The Japanese were severely defeated, sustaining as many as 80,000 casualties, and thereafter Japan concentrated its war efforts on its southward drive in China and Southeast Asia, a strategy that helped propel Japan ever closer to war with the United States and Britain and their allies.

Under the prime ministership of Konoe Fumimaro (1891-1945)--the last head of the famous Fujiwara house--the government was streamlined and given absolute power over the nation's assets. In 1940, the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of Japan, according to tradition, Konoe's cabinet called for the establishment of a "Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere," a concept building on Konoe's 1938 call for a "New Order in Greater East Asia," encompassing Japan, Manchukuo, China, and Southeast Asia. The Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere was to integrate Asia politically and economically--under Japanese leadership--against Western domination and was developed in recognition of the changing geopolitical situation emerging in 1940. (In 1942 the Greater East Asia Ministry was established, and in 1943 the Greater East Asia Conference was held in Tokyo.)

Also in 1940, political parties were ordered to dissolve, and the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, comprising members of all former parties, was established to transmit government orders throughout society. In September 1940, Japan joined the Axis alliance with Germany and Italy when it signed the Tripartite Pact, a military agreement to redivide the world that was directed primarily against the United States.

In September 1940, with the permission of the pro-Nazi Vichy government of France, Japan moved into northern French Indochina, establishing a foothold in strategically important Southeast Asia. A few days later, Japan signed a mutual defense agreement, the Tripartite Pact, with Germany and Italy, putting it on a collision course with the United States.

The relation of forces in the Far East was such that war against the Soviet Union presented itself to Japan as a very difficult matter whose issue was far from being considered as certain, even by a section of the Japanese generals themselves. But on the other hand, consideration of the growing strength of the Soviet Union and of the Red Army drove the most aggressive Japanese militarists to come out against any postponement of the war and in favor of using all opportunities as rapidly as possible and finding allies that could enable them to begin the war instead of putting it off until tomorrow. The German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 relieved the Japanese of the Soviet threat in East Asia.

From 25 June to l July, Japan convened six joint meetings of cabinet and general headquarters to decide on whether to advance northward or southward. Japanese Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka strongly recommended a northward operation before moving southward. But most people objected to this plan. Minister of Army Hideki Tojo held that the Chinese issue could never be put aside. Chief of the General Staff Suj Iyama also pointed out: Most of Japan's troops are now deployed in China, actually there is no way to advance northward.

On 02 July 1941, an "Outline of the Empire's Policy To Keep in Line With the Development of the Situation" was adopted at a meeting in which the emperor took part. The outline stipulated: "The empire will persist in building the 'Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere' no matter how the world situation develops." "It will make further efforts to deal with the case of China and will continue to expand toward the south." "The empire will resort to force to solve the problems on the northern front once the situation in the German-Soviet war becomes favorable to it."

To be sure, the combat strength of the mighty Red Army was one of Japan's major concerns which stopped it from attacking the Soviet Union in coordination with Germany. However, China's resistance to Japan was apparently an important factor and not one to be neglected. Having heard that Japan had given up the northward advance plan, the Soviet Union transferred most of its troops from the Far East to its western front to support the Moscow Defense Campaign at a crucial moment.

In July 1941 Japan decided to move its troops into southern French Indochina for possible operations against the oil-rich Netherlands Indies. The United States responded by freezing Japanese assets in the United States and imposing an oil embargo on Japan. Britain, the Commonwealth of Nations countries, and the government of the Netherlands Indies quickly followed suit, cutting 90 percent of Japan's oil imports.

There had been a long-standing and deep-seated antagonism between Japan and the United States since the first decade of the twentieth century. Each perceived the other as a military threat, and trade rivalry was carried on in earnest. The Japanese greatly resented the racial discrimination perpetuated by United States immigration laws, and the Americans became increasingly wary of Japan's interference in the self-determination of other peoples. Japan's military expansionism and quest for national self- sufficiency eventually led the United States in 1940 to embargo war supplies, abrogate a long-standing commercial treaty, and put greater restrictions on the export of critical commodities. These American tactics, rather than forcing Japan to a standstill, made Japan more desperate. After signing the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact in April 1941, and while still actively making war plans against the United States, Japan participated in diplomatic negotiations with Washington aimed at achieving a peaceful settlement. Washington was concerned about Japan's role in the Tripartite Pact and demanded the withdrawal of Japanese troops from China and Southeast Asia.

Japan countered that it would not use force unless "a country not yet involved in the European war" (that is, the United States) attacked Germany or Italy. Further, Japan demanded that the United States and Britain not interfere with a Japanese settlement in China (a pro-Japanese puppet government had been set up in Nanjing in 1940). Because certain Japanese military leaders were working at cross-purposes with officials seeking a peaceful settlement (including Konoe, other civilians, and some military figures), talks were deadlocked. On October 15, 1941, army minister Tojo Hideki (1884-1948) declared the negotiations ended. Konoe resigned and was replaced by Tojo. After the final United States rejection of Japan's terms of negotiation, on December 1, 1941, the Imperial Conference (an ad hoc meeting convened--and then only rarely--in the presence of the emperor) ratified the decision to embark on a war of "self-defense and self-preservation" and to attack the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Faced with a choice of submitting to United States demands for a return to the pre-1931 status quo or confronting the United States, Japan determined to strike out boldly. Beginning with a devastating attack against the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, it quickly took advantage of superior air and naval power to occupy the Philippines, the Netherlands Indies, Malaya, and Singapore. An overland offensive brought Burma and Thailand under Japanese control, and a string of amphibious operations established Japan's control of the South Pacific. By mid-1942 Japanese forces appeared to be in control of most of their objectives.

It was at this point that the superior economic and industrial power of the United States began to turn the tide. In June 1942, the Japanese directed the bulk of their navy to Midway, a tiny atoll at the northern tip of the Hawaiian chain, expecting to destroy the rest of the United States Pacific fleet. Instead, the United States, forewarned of the attack, used carrier-based aircraft to devastate the Japanese fleet. The United States counteroffensive had begun. After initial naval and battlefield successes and a tremendous overextension of its resources in the war (known to Japan as the Greater East Asia War, to the United States as the Pacific War) against a quickly mobilizing United States and Allied war effort, Japan was unable to sustain "Greater East Asia".

In the South Pacific, after six months of heavy fighting, Japanese forces evacuated Guadalcanal in February 1943. From there, revitalized United States and Allied forces retook most of the South Pacific islands occupied by the overextended Japanese forces. By June 1944, United States and Allied forces had reached Saipan, in the Mariana Islands, putting their bombers within range of the Japanese homeland. When United States air, ground, and sea power began to reverse the tide of Japanese victories, the authority of the Japanese forces began to wane in the captured territories. As early as 1943, Konoe led a peace movement, and Tojo was forced from office in July 1944. His successors sought peace mediation (Sweden and the Soviet Union were approached for help in such a process), but the enemy offered only unconditional surrender.

After the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 8, 1945, respectively, the emperor asked that the Japanese people bring peace to Japan by "enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable" by surrendering to the Allied powers. The documents of surrender were signed on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. The terms of surrender included the occupation of Japan by Allied military forces, assurances that Japan would never again go to war, restriction of Japanese sovereignty to the four main islands "and such minor islands as may be determined," and surrender of Japan's colonial holdings. After years of war, resulting in the loss of 3 million Japanese lives, Japan lost all of its overseas possessions and retained only the home islands. Manchukuo was dissolved, and Manchuria was returned to China.

In the final analysis Japan lost because the country did not have the means to fight a total war against the combination of industrial, air, naval, and human resources represented by the United States and its Allies. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Fleet at the outbreak of the war, put his finger on the fatal weakness of the Japanese concept of the war, when he stated: "It is not enough that we should take Guam and the Philippines, or even Hawaii and San Francisco. We should have to march into Washington and sign the treaty in the White House." This the Japanese could never do, and because they could not, they had to lose the war. The great arbiter of the Pacific war had been American industrial power, which produced a mighty war machine.

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Page last modified: 14-06-2019 18:16:56 ZULU