Japan was the only Asian country that adopted industrialisation and modernisation in the late 19th century. She developed the most advanced and modern economy in Asia. See image 1
As Japanese confidence grew, she developed ambitions to build an empire and secure natural resources which would guarantee prosperity for future generations. Japan did not have enough natural resources in her islands alone.
She planned to establish an empire which encompassed many countries in Asia that were rich in natural resources. This empire would be called the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.
The Pacific background to World War II is the story of the growth of Japanese power in Asia in the pursuit of natural resources. This included Japan's intrusion into northern China and the brutal campaign against the Chinese. Japanese ambitions eventually led to conflict with America, her arch-enemy in the Pacific.
When Japan enacted her plans for the domination of Asia, she sought to eliminate America's naval power at Pearl Harbor.
Japanese plans were not to be achieved without difficulty; by attacking America she brought into the war a nation with boundless resources and energy, starting the long and bloody campaigns that made up the Pacific War.
Japan after World War I: Aggression and the need for Natural resources
The nation of Japan occupies 3000 islands, the four largest being Hokkaido, Kyushu, Honshu, and Shikoku, off the coast of northern China and Korea. Japan had the only industrial economy in Asia. As Japan was a mountainous island nation, she had limited agricultural land and few natural resources.
Her industrial economy needed natural resources. The lack of resources saw Japan fall hard in the Great Depression. Her population was poverty stricken and starvation was rampant in rural areas.
In the early 1930s, the populace turned to a right-wing conservative government that promised to improve Japanese living standards. A militarist government came to power and turned Japanese policy towards developing an empire through the acquisition of natural resources.
These natural resources included coal, iron, copper, lead, tin, zinc, rubber, oil and rice. The government planned to create the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. The plan also developed into a bid for living space. It was comparable with Hitler's Lebensraum policy.
The extended Japanese living space would include China, the Malayan peninsula, Indo-China (modern Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), Singapore, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. Economic domination of Asia became a matter of Japanese public interest and importance.
Japan versus China
On 18 September 1931, Japanese forces challenged the authority of the League of Nations and invaded and occupied Inner Manchuria in northern China. The occupation was complete within six months. The Japanese set up the puppet state of Manchukuo. Called the 9.18 incident, it was the beginning of Japanese invasion, occupation and attempted overthrow of all of China. See image 2
The League of Nations took no action.
In January 1932, Japanese forces attacked Shanghai. The invasion ended in stalemate as the invading army could not gain a foothold in the harbour. The United States and British ambassadors negotiated a shaky peace three months after the initial invasion.
In February 1932, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations after the international body refused to recognise her puppet government, Manchukuo, as an independent nation. Japanese withdrawal removed the Far East from the plan for collective security proposed by the League.
Japan's imperial policies were taking their toll on Japanese society. In the grips of nationalism, a group of young army officers assassinated Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi for supporting the London Naval Treaty on May 15 which limited the naval forces of many nations, including Japan. It was symptomatic of the tension and anarchy among the Japanese aristocracy and the strength of Japanese nationalism.
The Japanese government created the Amau Doctrine which it released to other countries. The doctrine proposed that foreign countries regard China as being within Japan's sphere of influence and authority. The doctrine told foreign countries to abandon trade with the Chinese and to cease assisting the Chinese against the Japanese.
Western countries did nothing to stop Japan from enforcing the policy. The British adopted a policy of appeasement towards the Japanese, temporarily closing the frontiers between China, Burma, and Hong Kong -' further isolating the struggling Chinese.
In November 1936, Japan, Germany, and Italy signed the Anti-Comintern Pact which was an alliance that posed a two-front threat to Soviet Russia. The Pact, however, was not a true alliance as Japan had no intention of being drawn into the European War.
On 7 July 1937, the Japanese army launched an attack against the city of Peking (modern Beijing). Japanese high command believed that all of China could be swiftly subdued. Over the next four months, Japanese forces advanced along the Yangtze River valley. There was widespread fighting in northern China.
In November, the capital of China, Nanking (also known as Nanjing), was captured. The tragic 'Rape of Nanking' followed. Japanese soldiers were left to loot and pillage the city. Over 20 000 men were killed, and women were raped and mutilated. Countless children were murdered.
Although the Japanese government claimed the rampage was the act of insubordinate soldiers, some historians believed the actions were ordered by high officials in Tokyo to exact revenge for Chinese resistance. Whether the 'Rape of Nanking' was planned or spontaneous, it marked an increasingly vicious change in Japanese military strategy that would become infamous in the Pacific War.
By January 1938, Nanking had fallen. By October, Japan controlled all of northern and eastern China. The West made no attempt to intervene in Japanese activities. The Japanese then turned their attention to French, British and Dutch possessions in South-East Asia.
Finally in July 1939 the West made a move to stop Japan. A conference in America called for arms embargo's against Japan in protest at the Japanese infringement of American rights in Asia.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt also dissolved the 1911 Treaty of Commerce and Navigation signed with Japan. He threatened embargoes for six months.
American threats did little to deter Japan. The world's focus shifted to Hitler's activities in Czechoslovakia and Poland. Hitler invaded Poland and war was declared by France and Britain in September 1939. France fell in June 1940.
Taking advantage of the weak political control, Japan demanded the French allow Japanese troops to be stationed in French colonies in Indo-China.
As Hitler moved into Holland, the Japanese prepared to make similar demands of the Dutch. Troops were moved into the Dutch East Indies soon after.
Japanese Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro warned the European nations not to get involved in Japanese expansionism. He was confident the European powers would not respond. No European nation was in a position to resist Japanese invasion of their Asian colonies.
On 3 June 1941, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Act, a mutual defence agreement. The Act strengthened Japan's ties with Germany and ensured that while Europe was dealing with Hitler and Mussolini, Japan was free to complete establishing her Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.
Opposition, however, came from the other side of the Pacific - the United States of America.
The outbreak of the Pacific War
The Japanese and Americans had been suspicious of one another for many years. Both nations had strong industrial economies. They were in competition for raw materials provided by Asia. Americans were disgusted by the Rape of Nanking.
The American government undermined Japan's activities by making loans to Chinese resistance forces, providing military assistance, and enforcing trade embargoes against Japan.
It became clear that Japan had to neutralise the threat posed by the Americans in order to create her empire in the Pacific. America had a powerful navy which could act as an obstacle to Japan's plans. Japanese high command thought that American resolve to oppose Japan would dissolve if Japan struck a decisive blow against her. See image 3 and animation
When Japan signed the Tripartite Act, America strengthened its Pacific fleet with extra naval reservists. Japanese financial assets in US were frozen, existing treaties dissolved, and a more severe trade embargo enforced. The Americans attempted to negotiate with the Japanese to withdraw troops from China and Indo-China. Mutual distrust brought about the failure of negotiations.
It became apparent that Japan's decisive attack should fall upon America's Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The majority of the American fleet was stationed on the island in the centre of the Pacific, within striking distance of the Japanese islands.
Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander of Combined Imperial Fleet, developed a plan to deliver a significant blow against the American fleet and initiate the Great East Asian War in the Pacific.
The attack on Pearl Harbor coincided with the 25th Japanese army invading the east coast of Malaya (modern Malaysia) near the border with Siam (Thailand). Japanese forces would then move down the peninsula and seize Singapore.
The 14th army would occupy the Philippines. Simultaneous attacks on Hong Kong, Gilbert Islands, Guam, and Wake Island would sever American communications.
The 16th army and navy would occupy the Dutch East Indies and secure oil supplies.
The plan was intended to create a secure defensive perimeter -' the Philippines in the east, Malaya in the west, the Dutch East Indies in the south. The destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor would be the final key to securing the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was precise -' the Japanese air force spent weeks in preparations. They flew practice 'bombings' over a village in southern Japan called Kagoshima. High command studied maps and models of the island of Oahu. They watched the fleet and tracked its movements. The decision was made to attack the fleet on a Sunday morning when the greatest number of ships and sailors were stationed in Pearl Harbour.
On Sunday, 7 December, 1941, Japanese planes flew over sleepy Pearl Harbor and bombed the US fleet. The attack destroyed half the US fleet. The Americans immediately joined the Allies in World War II.
The Pacific War had begun. Hitler declared war on America on 11 December, a strategic blunder which strengthened the Allied forces pitted against him. The unlimited resources of America proved a decisive factor in the European War.
Between December 1941 and April 1942, Japanese forces occupied Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, Burma and the Dutch East Indies with the same military precision and coldness with which the Japanese had executed the bombing of Pearl Harbor.