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Japan and World War II

The war has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage.

- Hirohito

An understanding of Japan’s role in the Pacific War requires a look at history.  Japan has always possessed a deep cultural ethnocentrism.  Its religion said it was favoured on earth; its emperor was the "Son of Heaven," believed to be directly descended from God.  Until the mid-19th century, Japan had never been successfully invaded or conquered.

The Tokugawa emperors stamped out Christianity, sealed up Japan, and forbade all foreigners from entering except through one specific, closely-guarded port.  The caste system was hardened and muskets were outlawed - it was illegal for anyone except Samurai to bear weapons.  Thus, for 250 years, did Japan seal off the rest of the world.

But by the middle of the 19th century, Westerners had become increasingly strident in demanding Japan open up to Western products and ideas.  The Shoguns refused.  Then in 1853, Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo harbour and told the Shogun that Japanese isolation was over.  It was, in a sense, the first defeat of Japan by foreigners in its history, and the Shogunate was deeply disgraced by it.  Traditionalists wanted to restore the emperors to redeem Japanese honour so in 1868 there was a revolution which deposed the Shogun and gave power to the Emperor Meiji.  This is known as the "Meiji Restoration".

The new government was made up of realists who pragmatically accepted the fact that no amount of honour and martial prowess (the founding principles of the Samurai) was going to let men armed with swords and bows defeat Westerners who had cannons, rifles and steamships.  The Samurai were disbanded and Japan began to modernise.  In less than 30 years they had become militarily equal to Western nations - at least on paper.

Japan began to think of itself as a Great Power, which Western nations resented.  This came to a head in 1904 in a small war against Russia.  Japan attacked and defeated a small Russian fleet at Port Arthur, then landed and fought a relatively inconclusive ground war.  The Japanese showed their willingness to sacrifice great numbers of men, albeit largely uselessly.  The Russians then mobilised their entire fleet in European waters, sailed around Africa and Asia, and into the Pacific - where the Japanese annihilated them.  The Japanese thought the same thing would happen to any other Western fleet foolish enough to attack them - at which point Teddy Roosevelt used an impressive example of a mailed fist inside a velvet glove.  He ordered a large part of the American fleet to make a world goodwill tour known as the "Great White Fleet," both because the ships were painted white, and because they were manned by white men.  The visit to Japan was totally friendly, but the point was obvious: unlike the Russians, the American fleet reached Japan in first-class condition and was obviously able to fight a war there if need be.  The Japanese had been shamed again – once again by the US.

The shame continued: After the carnage of World War I, the UK pushed the world into a naval disarmament treaty.  A big debate was what ratio of power each major nation should have as a function of its place in the world.  The conference was held in Washington; Americans were able to decipher the codes the Japanese used to send instructions to their diplomatic teams, revealing that the Japanese had a last resort they were willing to accept.  The US wrote the treaty for that amount.  Later, the Japanese learned what had happened.  This was the third time they had been shamed by the US.

The cultural history of Japan was not simply that they were the equal of the US, but that they were better.  And yet the US had shown them up time and again; they were a major threat.  Moreover, the US government in the 1930's was pressuring Japan to stay home and not move out to the imperial glory they deserved.  In fact, some historians date the beginning of World War II to September 1931, when Japan began its conquest of Manchuria.  By 1937, Japan had begun a war with China, an American ally.  The US took a dim view of this and began applying serious pressure on Japan to withdraw.  This would have represented yet another shame by the US - and was not to be tolerated.

After the US and the Netherlands imposed an embargo on oil and scrap steel sales to Japan, it could either withdraw, accepting defeat and humiliation, or it could try to get these goods elsewhere.  Without them, the Japanese war machine would grind to a halt.  Thus Japan was forced to attempt a takeover of someone else’s oil fields.  Japan’s primary target became the Indonesian oil fields.  It was essential to keep them in production; the Japanese invasion of the Philippines and their operations in Viet Nam and elsewhere in the region were intended to secure sources of vital supplies (such as rubber and tin) lacking in Indonesia and, more importantly, to secure the shipping lanes through which vital supplies could safely move.

It was inconceivable that the Japanese would engage in the conquest of Indonesia without also taking the Philippines as there were no reasonable shipping routes from Indonesia to Japan that did not come within air strike range of American airfields in the Philippines.  They must become either an ally or a vassal and considering their relationship with the US at that time, it was clear they would not be an ally.  But since the Philippines consisted of hundreds of islands, the Army would need the cooperation of the Japanese Navy to get anywhere.  Therefore, Admiral Yamamoto had to become involved.

Yamamoto Isoroku was one of the greatest fighting admirals in the history of war at sea (see below).  He was not the ranking officer in the Imperial Japanese Navy but he was unquestionably the most important and influential.  He knew Japan would lose against the US and opposed war on that basis.  However, if it was unavoidable, he insisted that Japan's only chance of victory required destroying the US Pacific Fleet with a pre-emptive strike.  His price for cooperation was that Japan choose Pearl Harbor for the initial attack.

To recap: In face of the embargo, Japan's decision to fight instead of yield was essentially a foregone conclusion; since they had decided to fight, they had to fight the US.  That meant they needed a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, or somewhere very similar.

The leadership of the Army was not stupid - they knew they were incapable of destroying the US, but believed they could conquer such a large area that the US would not be willing to make the sacrifice to retake it all.  With the American fleet destroyed, the US would negotiate.  Of course it didn't work out that way, because the Army failed to understand the depth of fury and hatred that the Pearl Harbour attack would raise in the US.  It was the willingness of the US to pay the price it did which doomed Japan.

Wolf Hatch, 27 April 2004

Yamamoto Isoroku

Yamamoto Isoroku (1884 - 1943) was the most outstanding Japanese naval commander of World War II.  Born Takano Isoroku in Nagaoka, his father, Takano Sadayoshi, was a low class samurai.  "Isoroku" is a Japanese term meaning 56, as 56 was his father's age at Isoroku's birth.  Takano enrolled at the Naval Academy in Hiroshima, graduating in 1904.  The next year, during the Russo-Japanese War, he saw action as an ensign on the cruiser Nisshin, in a battle against the Russian Baltic Fleet.  During that engagement, he lost two fingers on his left hand.  After that war, he was assigned to various ships all over the Pacific.

In 1913, he went to Naval Staff College, a sign he was being groomed for high command.  Upon graduation, he was appointed to the staff of the Second Battle Squadron and was adopted (at the age of 32) by the Yamamoto family, thereafter changing his name.  From 1919-1921, Yamamoto studied at Harvard.  Promoted to Commander upon his return to Japan, he taught at the Naval Staff College for a brief period before being sent to Japan’s new air-training centre to direct it and also to learn to fly.  From 1926-1928, he was naval attaché to the Japanese embassy in Washington, traveling widely in the US.  This gave him considerable insight into his opponent in the terrible war to come.  Next, he was appointed to the Naval Affairs bureau and subsequently promoted to Rear Admiral.  From 1933, Yamamoto headed the bureau, directing the entire navy air program.

In December of 1936, Yamamoto was made vice minister of the Japanese navy, from which position he argued passionately for more naval air power, opposing the construction of new battleships.  He also opposed the invasion of Manchuria and the prospect of an alliance with Germany.  When Japanese planes attacked a US gunboat on the Yangtze River in December 1937, he apologised personally to the American ambassador.  He eventually became the target for right-wing assassination attempts, causing the entire naval ministry to be placed under constant guard.  However, he was soon promoted to full Admiral and then appointed commander-in-chief of the entire fleet in 1939.

Yamamoto did not soften his anti-war stance when Japan signed a pact with Germany and Italy in September 1940.  He warned the Japanese Premier not to consider war with the US: "If I am told to fight ... I shall run wild for the first six months... but I have utterly no confidence for the second or third year."  His foresight led him to believe that a pre-emptive strike against US Navy forces would be vital if war did occur.  He also accurately envisaged the "island-hopping" and air dominance tactics such a war would have, although his vision failed him when it came to battleships, which he (in common with many officers in the American navy) still believed to be the main component of naval force – this failing would be a key cause for the disaster that later befell Japanese naval forces at Midway.

Japan invaded Indochina, which caused the US to freeze Japanese assets in July 1941.  But Yamamoto won the argument over tactics - in December, when war was declared, the entire First Fleet air arm under Admiral Nagumo was directed against the American fleet at Pearl Harbour, attacking on December 7.  With 350 planes launched from six carriers, 18 US warships were sunk or disabled.  However, Nagumo's failure to order a second strike and Yamamoto's disinclination to press him turned a tactical victory into a strategic defeat.

In the movies Tora! Tora! Tora! and Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto's character says, after the attack on Pearl Harbour, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve."  Doubt exists whether he said or wrote that (it was probably invented for the movies), though it may well have encapsulated his feelings.

Yamamoto directed operations for the Battle of Java Sea in February 1942.  Airpower played an insignificant role; fought almost entirely by cruisers, the Japanese defeated the combined force of Dutch, British, and American ships.  This enabled Japan to seize Java.  Yamamoto then decided on an ambitious plan to defeat the American Pacific Fleet in a decisive battle.  He chose the atoll of Midway Island as a strategic target.  If the Japanese occupied it, would draw out US carriers.  Yamamoto intended to lure the Americans into an ambush.  He believed that if Japan did not soon win a decisive battle, defeat was merely a matter of time.  He had at his disposal a massive fleet of 250 ships, including eight carriers.  His strategy was a complex series of feints and diversions meant to trap the Americans.  Unfortunately for Japan, Americans were well aware of his plan.  Decoded communication intercepts meant that by the end of May, the US knew date and place, as well as the composition of the Japanese forces.

Communication was poor on the Japanese side; commanders were inadequately prepared and the Japanese tactical disposition, dictated by outmoded doctrine which still held battleships to be key units, was flawed.  Viewing aircraft carriers as protection for battleships, they were moved forward in advance of battleship units; US doctrine placed battleships around the aircraft carriers - the true key units - as protection for them.

The Battle of Midway, from 4 – 6 June 1942, was a disaster for Japan, losing them four carriers to the US loss of one and 3,500 men to 300 American dead.  To be fair, luck of timing, catching Japanese carriers just as they were about to launch a strike, increased the American victory.  Yamamoto never recovered from this defeat, although he remained in command.  He next directed the Solomons campaign.  Realising the strategic importance of the Battle of Guadalcanal, he initiated efforts to remove the American troops who had landed in August 1942.  However, he failed to properly grasp the magnitude of the effort needed to win.  Japanese forces suffered huge losses before conceding they could not dislodge the Americans, whose strength by then had grown too large.  In January, Yamamoto ordered the evacuation of the island.  This evacuation was a tactical masterwork.

To boost morale following Guadalcanal, Yamamoto decided to make an inspection tour throughout the South Pacific.  In April 1943, US intelligence intercepted and decrypted reports of the tour.  Sixteen American P-38 aircraft flew from Henderson Field, Guadalcanal to ambush Yamamoto in the air.  On 18 April, his aircraft was shot down near Bougainville; he was apparently killed in the air by a machine-gun bullet which had struck him in the head, although there is some controversy over whether he died immediately or in the subsequent crash.

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This page last updated on: Sunday, 18 January 2004

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