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After World War I, Japan’s industrial and military power increased, but the modernization of Japanese society caused political conflict. Labor unions, leftists and liberal political parties called for reforms in government and the economic system. Conservatives feared that such dissent was dangerous to the nation. Ultranationalists and the military scorned Japan’s limited democracy, which had been created by the constitution of 1889, and demanded that people give total obedience to the Japanese emperor. Political tensions were made worse by a faltering economy, which neared collapse after the Great Depression began in 1929.
By the early 1930’s, Japanese politics and government had become dominated by aggressive militarists who crushed all political opposition. They believed that Japan’s future as a military, economic, and political power required territorial expansion in the countries of the western Pacific, especially China. They hoped to establish an empire that would supply the natural resources Japan needed for further industrial; development. They also hoped to challenge the dominance of the Western colonial powers in the Far East.
In October, 1941, General Tojo Hideki became premier of Japan. Soon after, Japan demanded international recognition of its conquests in China and the right to buy oil in the Netherlands East Indies which is now Indonesia. Saburu Kurusu was sent to the United States in November as a special envoy to conduct negotiations between Japan and the American government. At the same time, convinced that negotiations would achieve nothing, Japan was secretly preparing for war against the United States.
The United States pressed for an end to Japanese aggression in China and Japan’s withdrawal from French Indochina. Japan, however, issued a declaration of war, which was not delivered until after the surprise attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.
American military planners realized that despite its military buildup, the United States was weak and overextended in the Pacific. In the event of war, the Philippines were expected to be lost, and the American fleet was to fall back to the Netherlands East Indies. After the United States entered the war, the general strategy adopted by the British, Dutch, and Americans was to fight a holding war against Germany. After Germany surrendered, the full strength of the Allies would be turned against Japan. The second part of the plan was never fully applied, because by the time Germany was defeated, Japan was also near collapse. In the meantime, the United States planned to concentrate its efforts in the Pacific on seizing island bases from which to attack and blockade the Japanese mainland.
Japan intended to extend its empire, which it called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, over most of the Pacific, and made haste to seize islands to uses as bases to protect its conquests. The Japanese expected to fight a limited war. Once they and won the territory they wanted, they intended to defend it until the Allies were worn out and willing to negotiate for peace.
Japan had a large, well- trained, experienced army of 120 divisions. Its troops were courageous, highly skilled in tactical operations, and ably led. The Japanese navy, immediately after Pearl Harbor, was much stringer than the United States Pacific Fleet. The quality of Japanese weapons was good. Japan was not prepared to fight a prolonged war. It had accumulated stocks of vital raw materials, but once the war began, replenishing them became difficult. Japan’s manufacturing output could not be increased greatly. The supply system was poorly organized, and supply problems sometimes become acute. Japan’s occupation of eastern China became a great drain upon Japanese resources. Other serious shortcomings were lack of an adequate program tot train pilots and lack of modern anti- submarine equipment. Japanese military effectiveness was also hindered by extreme rivalry between the army and the navy, which led to inefficiency in the planning and execution of operations.
o Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor, an inlet of the southern coast of the island of Oahu, Hawaii, six miles west of Honolulu. It is landlocked and has a depth of from 50 to 60 feet, but there was a bar at the entrance with only 10 feet of water, thus making the harbor useless for large vessels. In 1887, the United States obtained from the Hawaiian king the exclusive right to establish a coaling and repair station at this harbor. With the ownership of the islands an assured fact, the United States government proceeded to make of Pearl Harbor a first class naval base. A channel four and a half miles in length was dredged from the sea across the bar and coral reef, to the yard site, with a depth throughout of 35 feet, with a width through the bar of 600 feet. This makes the harbor available for the largest vessels now afloat. The east and west locks provide ample pier accommodations for the discharging and the loading of naval stores and supplies; Pearl harbor is not intended to enter into commercial competition with Honolulu. The dredging of Pearl Harbor bar was completed toward the close of 1911; and an official entry into the locks was made by Rear Admiral Chauncey Thomas in the flagship California on December 14, 1911.
After the outbreak of World war in 1939, the Navy Department began to develop Pearl Harbor Navy Yard’s dry dock and repair facilities with large appropriations, made available by Congress. But when the Pacific Fleet began using the harbor as an operating base in 1940 deficiencies were revealed inconsistent with its reputation as the “Gibraltar of the Pacific”. These were in process of being remedied when, on December 7, 1941, at about 7:55 a.m., Japanese aircraft consisting of an estimated 150 to 200 fighting, bombing and torpedo planes launched from three or four carriers, made a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Among the 86 naval vessels moored there at the time and consisting of the entire pacific Fleet, excepting two surface ship task forces carrying out assigned missions at sea, were eight battleships, seven cruisers, 28 destroyers, and five submarines. Of the 19 vessels sunk or severely damaged by Japanese bombs and torpedoes, the 26 year old battleship Arizona was the only one totally and permanently lost, the others being salvaged and most of them restored to active service. The Arizona was destroyed and the Oklahoma capsized. The West Virginia and California were sunk in shallow water and the Nevada was beached. Three cruisers and three destroyers were damaged. The fleet’s carriers, by a stroke of good fortune, were at sea and escaped the attack.
The Pearl Harbor attack put the United States Pacific fleet temporarily out of action- most of the ships were eventually refloated and repaired- allowing Japan to proceed with its conquests with comparative ease. But Pearl Harbor also had a harmful effect on Japan- it instantly united the American people behind the war effort, dashing all Japanese hopes for a negotiated peace.
Investigations of the Pearl Harbor disaster showed that the United States government was aware of the possibility of a Japanese attack, but had not considered Hawaii a probable target and had not definitely warned the command there. A radar warning on the spot was ignored.
The Japanese made simultaneous attacks at many other points. Guam fell on December 10. Wake Island, heroically defended by its Marine garrison, was taken on December 23. The British surrendered Hong Kong on Christmas Day. Air attacks on the Philippines severely damaged the defending force. The attack on Pearl Harbor was the immediate cause of the United States entrance in the World War II.
o Isokoru Yamamoto
Isokoru Yamamoto, Japanese Naval officer. He was born in Nagaoka, Honshu, Japan, April 4, 1884. Of the Samurai descent, he graduated from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in 1904 and served aboard the battleship Nisshin, at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. After serving as assistant naval attaché in the United States from 1919- 1921, he became executive officer and instructor at the Kasumigaura Naval Air Station in 1924. From December 1925 to November 1927 he was naval attaché in the United States in 1928- 1929 commanded the aircraft carrier Akagi. He was then head of the Bureau of Naval Aviation of the Naval General Staff and in October 1933 became commander of Carrier Division One. During his various assignments on the Naval General Staff, he made tours of Europe and America to examine naval facilities. Appointed vice minister of the navy in December 1935 and commander in chief of the First Fleet in August 1938, he was commissioned admiral in November 1940 and was given command of the Combined Fleet in August 1941, a few months before Japan entered World War II.
The Japanese war plan in 1941 was first to seize the rich areas of Southeast Asia and then prepare to meet a United States movement from overseas. This strategy had been successful in the Russo- Japanese war, but Yamamoto claimed that the United States Fleet would have to be destroyed first, before that country’s full potential could be brought against Japan. He forced his Pearl Harbor plan on the Naval General Staff, and it was a major success. His campaign against Midway six months later, however, took his country into divergent efforts; a defeat there enabled the United States to seize the initiative in the Solomons in August 1942. Near the end of the desperate struggle for these islands, Yamamoto was shot down in an air ambush over the Shortland Islands. He was granted the title of admiral of the fleet as of the day of his death on April 18, 1943 at Solomon Islands. Yamamoto was a brilliant, devoted, confident man with a dynamic personality, but complete trust in his genius was one of the major causes of the Japanese defeat.
o The Surrender of Japan
A plan to invade Japan in the autumn of 1945, followed in the spring by a larger invasion with troops released in Europe, did not have to be carried out. The Japanese navy had been destroyed in Leyte Gulf. Japan could no longer import the grain, coal, oil, and vital raw materials needed to sustain its war effort because a large part of its merchant marine had been destroyed and because it was under a tight air and sea blockade. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan on August 8 and immediately attacked Japanese in Manchuria. The two atomic bombs underlined the hopelessness of Japan’s position.
On August 14 Emperor Hirohito announced that Japan would surrender unconditionally. The surrender took place September 2 aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Japan was reduced to its home islands and occupied by American forces.
1. Churchill, Winston. The Second World War (6 Volumes; Houghton Mifflin, 1948- 53).
2. Graff, Stewart. The Story of World War II. (Dutton, 1977).
3. Taylor, Theodore. Air Raid Pearl Harbor: the Story of December 7, 1941 (Crowell, 1971).
4. Theobold, Robert Alfred. The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor.( New York: Devin-Adair, 1954)
5. World War II (15 volumes; Time Life Books, 1976- 79).
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