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Scramble for Oceania - Japan

During the later part of the 19th Century, the "Scramble for Africa" engaged the Great Powers of Europe to accumulate territories in Africa, which looked good on a color-coded map [pink for Britain, etc], but which for the most part proved to be more trouble than they were worth. There was also a less noticed "Scramble for Oceania", in which Germany and Japan, and to a lesser extent the Soviet Union, vied against the Anglo-American hegemony in the Pacific.

In its newly found integrity as a state well governed, stable, and economically capable of supporting its military forces Japan was not long in taking advantage of favorable opportunities to annex neighboring territories that could pose serious threats to Japan if occupied by foreign powers. Thus, in 1875 a treaty with Russia resulted in the Kurile Islands becoming Japanese territory, and in the following year the Bonin Islands were annexed. In 1879 Japan formally annexed the Ryukyu Islands, despite Chinas protests of prior claim.

Bonin Island was not by any means the most important upon which Japan might depend for offensive and defensive uses in the event of war with any Power that might seek to question her policies of expansion in the Pacific. The island had been Japanese territory since 1861. It might prove of tremendous strategic importance under certain contingencies. Much significance was attached to the activities of the Japanese naval forces on Bonin Island by the fact that it was only ten hours' steaming distance from Guam, the American naval base.

It was by no haphazard stroke of luck that Japan won a strategic advantage at the Paris peace conference and before the League of Nations when it secured the control over some of the most important islands in the Pacific. The real aspirations of Japan was for control over the former German island possessions that, in certain emergencies, might prove of inestimable value as naval bases.

When Japan, in May 1919, was given a mandate over the former German islands in the Pacific ocean north of the equator it was understood by President Wilson that the little group of islets called Yap, which had been used by the Germans as a cable station, was reserved and therefore exempt from the same treatment as the other islands.

At a meeting on 01 May 1919 President Wilson stated that as the cables' lines all alike passed through the island of Yap it thus became a general distributing center for lines of communication for the northern Pacific and that Yap should not pass into the hands of one power. Wilson had asked that Yap should be internationalized so that the United States and other nations might use it in common as a cable station. In addition, US Secretary of State Robert Lansing served formal notice on the Japanese peace delegates in Paris that the United States understood Yap to be specially reserved for disposition by the communications conference. On May 7, however, the supreme council allocated the islands to Japan without making any exception of Yap. On Dec. 17, 1920, the league of nations' council in Geneva perfected the mandate as it had been shaped by the supreme council.

The Japanese islands given under mandate were the Carolines with 56,000 population, the Marshall with 15,000, the Ladrone (thief) with 5,000 and the Island of Yap with 10,000. The combined territory of these islands was not far from 10,000 square miles. In addition to these Japan controlled the Pelew, the Ogasawara and the Parry groups, the combined area of which is probably 5,000 square miles.

Fortification of mandates was forbidden by the Versailles treaty. Initially, no direct information regarding either Japan's plans or actual undertakings in the line of fortifying the highly important island bases which were now under her control was to be obtained. One very good reason for this was that Japan allowed no aliens without Special permits to land on any of the new islands which, her critics said, she will use in precisely the same manner as she had Asiatic territory over which she exercised fairly complete economic and partial political control.

Under German control from the late 1890s through the end of World War I, the Marshalls had been assigned to the Japanese as mandates in accord with Article 22 of the League of Nations Charter. The Marshalls lie in two roughly parallel chains about 100 miles apart. The eastern, or "sunrise," chain contains the large atolls of Mille, Maloelap, and Wotje. The western, or "sunset," chain includes Jaluit, Kwajalein, Rongelap, Bikini, and Eniwetok. Both chains have numerous smaller atolls. An atoll normally consists of a perimeter of flat coral islands surrounded by reefs with a lagoon in the center. The lagoons are generally navigable since the coral reefs usually have breaks which permit seaborne traffic to enter and exit the atoll with comparative ease. There are 32 separate island groups in the Marshalls with 867 reefs, spread over 400,000 square miles of ocean. Kwajalein, the world's largest coral atoll, with over 90 islands, is located in the geographic center of the Marshalls and is approximately 2,100 nautical miles southwest of Pearl Harbor.

The administration of these islands has been turned over to the Navy Department, notwithstanding the introduction of civil administration on the Marshall and Caroline Islands. The plans of Japan regarding the islands which she occupied before the German war and which have since come under her control form a lively subject of discussion among not only foreign diplomats but business men representing the interests of countries dealing with the Mikado's Government and people.

No Japanese naval officer could ignore the fact that the Philippines are 1318 knots and Guam 1360 knots from Japan, and that on both islands America had splendid potential naval bases, to guard which magnificent fortifications were to be erected.

On 15 December 1921 the U.S. State Department made the following announcement of agreement reached with respect to naval bases in the Pacific: "It is agreed that with respect to fortifications and naval bases in the Pacific region, including Hongkong, the status quo shall be maintained, that is, that there shall be no increase in these fortifications and naval bases except that this restriction shall not apply to the Hawaiian Islands, Australia, New Zealand, and the islands composing Japan proper, or. of course, to the coasts of the United States and Canada, as to which the respective powers retain their entire freedom.

Under the agreement for maintenance of the status quo to fortifications and naval bases in the Pacific the United States will refrain from further development of fortifications and advance bases at Guam and the Philippines, while Japan will refrain from further development of fortifications and naval bases in the Pescadores, Bonin Islands and O-Shima, and from building forts in other islands not a part of Japan proper. Similarly England will maintain the status quo with respect to fortifications and naval bases at Hongkong and other British islands."

A comparison of the distribution of the islands in the Pacific which might be called upon to play important parts in a war involving the future of Asia indicated that Japan occupied a very formidable position. Of the thirty-two islands scattered between the Japanese COast and Australia that could be used to great advantage by the nations controlling them, Japan exercised dominion over six, not counting over a hundred little islands around Japan itself. The number of islands thus controlled by Japan was not so important as the location of them. All of them are situated north of the equator and dot the waters within a radius of 2,000 miles of the sea.

In this distribution of Pacific island territory the Japanese found themselves advantageously placed almost directly in the line between the Philippines and the Hawaiian Islands, over which the United States exercises direct control.

In the nine-power conference held in Washington in 192122, Japan, Britain, France, and the United States agreed to respect each other's rights in the Pacific, and the United States, Britain, and Japanwhich had the world's three largest navies agreed to stop their naval arms race by capping battleship and aircraft carrier tonnage. Japan also agreed reluctantly not to expand its bases and fortifications in the Pacific beyond those already in existence. Despite these measures, Japan's determination to increase its influence in Asia and the Pacific remained strong.

On withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933 after that organization condemned the invasion of Manchuria, Japan declared its holdings in Micronesiaup to that time administered under a League of Nations mandate to be an integral part of the Japanese Empire. The islands were then closed off to non- Japanese and began to be developed into a series of fortified bases. In 1935, after repudiating the Washington naval limitations treaty, Japan began openly to build up its naval forces on a scale unmatched by either the United States or Britain.

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.

From 1941 to 1944, the Japanese occupied the majority of islands in the Pacific - the Philippines, Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, Burma, the Dutch East Indies, Wake Island, Gilbert Islands, New Britain and Guam; these provided depth in their defense to prevent US intervention. Japans seizure of several islands in the Pacific increased their operational reach. This action allowed Japan to defend its territory and attack other nations within the theater. During itsattack on islands inside the Pacific Theater, Japan also attacked neighboring nations to include Australia and colonies belonging to both the United Kingdom and the Netherlands in theSouthern Pacific and Indian Oceans. Occupation of the islands and attacks on neighboring nationsset the stage for further Japanese expansion in the Pacific. Japans strategy led to the control of natural resources within the Pacific area andstrategic lines of communication from East Asia through the South Pacific.

The Allies, responding to their defeats, sought no negotiated peace, but immediately began to seek means to strike back. In February and March 1942 small carrier task forces of the Pacific Fleet hit the Marshalls, Wake, and Marcus, and bombers from Australia began to harass the Japanese base at Rabaul. In April Army bombers, flying off a naval carrier, delivered a hit-and-run raid on Tokyo. Meanwhile, the United States began to develop and fortify a line of communications across the southern Pacific to Australia and to strengthen the defenses of the "down-under" continent itself.

These new bases, along with Alaska, Hawaii, and India, also strengthened during the period, could become the launching points for counteroffensives. Japans expansion plan required the construction of massive airfields and ports in areas such as Rabaul, Japans major air and naval base, in the East New Britain province of Papua New Guinea and at Lunga Point on nearby Guadalcanal in the southern Solomon Islands.

Imperial General Headquarters' instructions of November 1941 directed the capture of Rabaul at the earliest opportunity after the fall of Guam. Rabaul supported the offensives against the Allied lines of communication, and defensively was a bastion which would help defend the Caroline Islands, the Netherlands Indies, and the Philippines against attack from the south. It was one of the most important bases in the semicircular string of island fortresses that stretched from Burma through the Indies and the Bismarck Archipelago to the Marshall Islands, thence north and northwest to the Kuriles. By late 1942 Rabaul had been developed into the major air and naval base in the Japanese Southeast Area, and was the site of the highest headquarters in that area.

By early 1943 the Japanese were holding a network of mutually supporting air and naval bases arranged in depth, running in two converging arcs through New Guinea and the Solomons to Rabaul. From the defensive point of view, these positions would serve to protect Rabaul, the Netherlands Indies, and the Philippines. Offensively, these bases could support advances southward, and although the Japanese had decided on delaying action in the Solomons, they were determined to take the offensive in New Guinea.

The US Navy was determined to fight the Japanese in the South Pacific by garrisoning island bases to extend American sea and air power into areas held by the Japanese. Once the Allies became strong enough to threaten the Japanese defensive perimeter from several directions the Japanese lost the advantage of interior lines, and with it the strategic initiative, for Japan did not have and could not produce the means to defend and hold at all points. Allied commanders could employ superior forces over a vast area while the Japanese had no recourse but to entrench themselves in an effort to hold out and inflict as many casualties as possible.

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.



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