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Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbour in 1941? Essay

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In December 1941, the Japanese struck. A well-coordinated series of attacks across the Pacific, most notably the American naval base of Hawaii, bringing about Japanese dominance in South East Asia; sending a direct message to the ‘oppressive’ west. Japan for a significant period of time had been viewed by the US and its western allies as a major threat in the Pacific, and as a direct consequence of a series of the events tensions boiling point was reached and the climax of nearly 1/2 a century of rivalry exploded. “The Great War destroyed the multilateral balance of power in East Asia and left Japan and the United States directly confronting each other across the Pacific”; Japan’s continued growth as the leading industrial giant in Asia, allowed an increase in global power but to the Japanese they were never recognised in the manner in which they believed they deserved. Americas realization that this growth could threaten their superiority led to a number of subjective decisions but where they left too late, so late in fact that it was a point of no return, the imperialistic mindset of the Japanese was too full of honor to back down in the face of what seemed uncertainty.

In the years succeeding the Great War, Japan had embarked on a meteoric rise in its industrial power, and rising concurrently was their global power; this was all achieved under the control of Emperor Hirohito, a man determined to meet Japans goals on the Asian mainland. Nevertheless, this industrial growth would not have been possible without the importation of a number of vital commodities such as oil and aviation fuel. These commodities were imported primarily from the US and if not directly from the Americans from a country allied to the isolationist giant. Yet the US was not blind to the progress of the small island of Japan, the sudden increase had not gone unnoticed and at the Washington Conference of 1921 a report was released that described “Japans naval armament as a ‘silent power’ with which is used to deter the United States”, in response to this the Americans ensured that the Japanese naval power was restricted to a position weaker than that of their own. Within Japan this was met with a feeling of aggravation with her status not being observed as that of a major global power; and not for the first time, Japan had been in a similar position following the Treaty of Versailles with land they had captured in the war being returned and her foreign ambitions once again quelled.

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Japan was becoming cognizant that “at some date, the US would interfere and disrupt Japanese goals” and having been used to foreign involvement the Emperor was not going to allow for the Americans to once again change Japan’s ambition: “the political, commercial and military dominance of the Western Pacific”. This aggressive policy towards its rivals in the Pacific has been attributed to a collection of reasons that led to the attacks in December 1941. To the Japanese they believed that they were entitled to expand their territory and with this being restricted it pushed the ruling elite into a position that, despite experts claiming there were alternative solutions Japan only saw one; and “war became the most viable option” to render them useless in preventing the objectives of Japan being met.

Japan then expanded into Manchuria a military move that left the country isolated internationally. This coincided with the US government banning the export of oil and scrap metals to Japan if not from a licensed company, the first steps towards a complete embargo. Once Roosevelt had given the green light for the complete embargo things began to change internally in Japan as the ultranationalist’s consolidation of power continued ensuring expansion was not held back. This consolidation of power by the ultranationalists was crucial in the decision to attack Pearl Harbor, they felt Japan needed to use what it had learned from WW1 and ensure a ‘quick showdown’. With no oil coming into the country they were left with no choice but to go on the military offensive to keep their booming industry alive. This embargo had put the leading figures in Japan in a position of serious decision making, they could no longer allow being ‘disrespected’ on the international stage; and “Japan now defined the United States as its foremost enemy in terms of both capabilities and intentions”.

Coinciding with the embargo President Roosevelt moved the US fleet to Hawaii in order to discourage Japans expansive ambitions in the Pacific, and with the army officers of Japan being of a militaristic nature it led to a push for action and this action was to be the first strike in what was to become the Pacific War. It can be therefore suggested that the reasoning behind the attack on Pearl Harbour came as a consequence of the humiliation Japan felt it had endured on an international level at the hands of the United States. The United States was a country that “from the perspective of the Japanese government, was unnecessarily intervening in affairs in which it had little specific, concrete interest”.

Despite the continued interference of the Americans in preventing Japans expansive actions, civilians paid little attention to Japan despite the strong racist feelings between the two countries, a feeling that was highlighted by the San Francisco School incident; further increasing tensions between the two feuding powers. The incident was one of five key provocations that the Japanese used to justify their surprise attack; yet despite the increasingly hostile foreign policy aimed in the direction of Japan, little was done to increase military support by the Americans; allowing the Japanese to feel confident enough to attack Pearl Harbour with the hope of undermining American morale, such that the US government would drop its demands contrary to Japanese interests.

However, there is no hiding the pivotal reason behind the attacks and this was the defilement of the economy. The destruction of the Naval fleet was a direct “retaliation for America’s existential attacks on Japans economy”. Coupled together with naval limitation, the unequal treaties and the continued dishonor on the international stage, Japan felt it best to strike swiftly rendering the US military presence in the Pacific non-existent.

The elite of Japan was not prepared for the catastrophic consequences of their attack on Pearl Harbor, at the time what was such a successful foreign attack, it turned out to be the defining moment in not only the War but in Japan’s history. Some argue that the attacked doomed Japan by waking a sleeping giant, a giant that up until the point of attack was happy to find a compromise with Japan over the issues in the Asian region. Moreover, the awakening of this giant gave a reason for the whole US military machine to be set in motion; Clay Blair and Mark Parillo “believed that Japanese trade protection was so incompetent that the US submarines alone would have strangled them to defeat.” Had the Japanese put more time into planning out the response of the US they would have seen to enter the military conflict directly was not the way to go. However they did not highlight this as an issue and the awakening of the Americans ultimately led to the most devastating of consequences, this was the subsequent dropping of the 2 atomic bombs on Japanese soil, killing 100,000 instantly with the death toll rising for decades thereafter.

Despite this Japan did enjoy some positive consequences, the attack allowed a significant area of the Pacific to be conquered and held for a period of time. By conquering these lands, as a direct result of Pearl Harbour, Japans economy continued with a positive trajectory, and the populace continued its “strong support for the Japanese attack”. Japan had met its goals, the Navy of the US had been removed as a threat for the time being and Japan won every major battle until Midway in June of 1942. However had the military officials of the rising power in Asia targeted the crucial shore facilities that housed the oil reserves, the damage inflicted could have been existential.

Consequently, the attacks had the opposite impact on the Americans themselves, “American attitudes about the war change radically”. This consequence allowed the full force of the US military machine to be put into action, a consequence that conclusively led to the defeat of Japan.

Pain and rage swept across the states, a strong feeling of nationalism returned. The surprise attack was seen as ‘unjust and malevolent’ and the racism that had been rife prior to the attack in 1941 was now at the point of Japanese immigrants within America being sent to detention camps for the duration of the war. A reaction that the militaristic government of Japan had not foreseen. And although attempts had been made to prepare the country for war through the publication and use of anti-US propaganda, many were still ‘apprehensive and dismayed’ at the news Japan was now at war with the Americans. With this as a direct result of the Pearl Harbor attack, it did no favors for the morale amongst Japanese citizens who were aroused with both alarm and anger subsequent to the attack.

In the long term, Pearl Habor bored more sententious ramifications that struck a blow to the honor and integrity of a once feared nation. Following the decimation of Japan with the dropping of the atomic bombs it was thought that the consequences to the attacks on Pearl Harbor had come to their end, yet this was not the case; American occupation was to follow. It is easy from here to trace back the source of this occupation, had the torpedoes not been dropped on the US naval fleet then it is highly unlikely that the ‘giant’ would have entered the war in the Pacific and engrossed itself in the dealings of Japan.

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