“Seventy-five years ago on December 1st, the Japanese cabinet, in the presence of the Emperor himself, voted to start a war with the US, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. The Japanese had assurance from Nazi Germany that if war came to the Pacific, they too would join in the conflict by declaring war on the United States. One has to wonder if that assurance had never been given, whether or not Japan would have waited? In any case, a group of a few men, sitting in a room decided the fate of millions based on an idea that was clearly flawed with a grand strategy that failed to take into account the capabilities of the opponent.”. — Dave Bowman
Events that led to this meeting and the decision to go to war:
When the young Emperor Hirohito ascended to the throne in 1926, Japan was enveloped in a struggle between liberals and leftists on one side, and ultraconservatives on the other. In 1925, universal male suffrage was introduced, increasing the electorate from 3.3 to 12.5 million. As the left pushed for further democratic reforms, right-wing politicians pushed for legislation to ban organizations that threatened the state by advocating wealth distribution or political change. This resulted in 1925’s ‘Peace Preservation Law,’ which massively curtailed political freedom.
The disintegration of the liberal left gave impetus to the rise of ultra-nationalism. Japanese nationalism was born at the end of the nineteenth century. During the Meiji period, industrialization, centralization, mass education and military conscription produced a shift in popular allegiances. Feudal loyalties were replaced by loyalty to the state, personified by the Emperor.
Although early ultra-nationalists called for a tempering of Japan’s ‘westernization,’ through limits on industrialization, their focus changed after the First World War. Western politicians criticized Japan’s imperial ambitions and limited Japanese military expansion (in 1922’s Five-Power Naval Limitation Agreement). The 1924 Japanese Exclusion Act prohibited Japanese immigration into the US. Ultra-nationalists saw these actions as provocative; they moved towards xenophobic, emperor-centered and Asia-centric positions, portraying the ‘ABCD Powers’ (America-British-Chinese-Dutch) as threatening the Japanese Empire.
Between 1928 and 1932, Japan faced a domestic crisis. Economic collapse associated with the Great Depression provoked spiraling prices, unemployment, falling exports and social unrest. In November 1930, the Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi was shot by an ultra-nationalist. In summer 1931, as control slipped away from the civilian government, the army acted independently to invade Manchuria. Troops quickly conquered the entire border region, establishing the puppet state of Manchukuo. Though the League of Nations condemned the action, it was powerless to intervene, and Japan promptly withdrew its membership. International isolation fed ultra-nationalism. Mayors, teachers, and Shinto priests were recruited by ultra-nationalist movements to indoctrinate citizens.
In May 1932, an attempt by army officers to assassinate Hamaguchi’s successor stopped short of becoming a full-blown coup but ended rule by political parties. Between 1932 and 1936, admirals ruled Japan. Within government, the idea of the ‘Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’ emerged. This plan called for Asian unification against Western imperialism under Japanese leadership, leading to Asian self-sufficiency and prosperity. It meant an agenda of Japanese imperial domination in the Far East.
In July 1937, Japanese soldiers at the Marco Polo Bridge on the Manchuria border used explosions heard on the Chinese side as a pretext to invade China. The offensive developed into a full-scale war, blessed by Hirohito. Japan enjoyed military superiority over China. The army advanced quickly and occupied Peking. By December, the Japanese had defeated Chinese forces at Shanghai and seized Nanking. In that city, troops committed the greatest atrocity of an incredibly brutal war: the ‘Rape of Nanking’, in which an estimated 300,000 civilians were slaughtered.
By 1939, the war was in stalemate; Chinese Communist and Nationalist forces continued to resist. Japanese imperial ambitions were undimmed. In 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, creating the Rome-Tokyo-Berlin Axis, building on the alliance established in 1936 by the Anti-Comintern Pact. Japan now looked hungrily towards the oil-rich Dutch East Indies to fuel its Co-Prosperity Sphere. In 1941, when Imperial General Headquarters rejected Roosevelt’s ultimatum regarding the removal of troops from China and French Indochina, the US President announced an oil embargo on Japan. For Japan, the move was the perfect pretext for war, unleashed in December 1941 with the Pearl Harbor attack.
In the 1930s, China was a divided country. In 1927 Chiang Kai-Shek had formed a Nationalist Government – the Kuomintang (the KMT), but his dictatorial regime was opposed by Mao Tse Tung’s Communists (CCP). Civil war between the Communists and Nationalists erupted in 1930 – the period of Mao’s legendary ‘Long March.’
In 1931, Japan, eager for the vast natural resources to be found in China and seeing her obvious weakness, invaded and occupied Manchuria. It was turned into a nominally independent state called Manchukuo and the Chinese Emperor who ruled it was a puppet of the Japanese. When China appealed to the League of Nations to intervene, the League published the Lytton Report which condemned Japanese aggression. The only real consequence of this was that an outraged Japanese delegation stormed out of the League of Nations, never to return.
In the 1930’s the Chinese suffered continued territorial encroachment from the Japanese, using their Manchurian base. The whole north of the country was gradually taken over. The official strategy of the KMT was to secure control of China by defeating her internal enemies first (Communists and various warlords), and only then turning attention to the defense of the frontier. This meant the Japanese encountered virtually no resistance, apart from some popular uprisings by Chinese peasants which were brutally suppressed.
In 1937 skirmishing between Japanese and Chinese troops on the frontier led to what became known as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. This fighting sparked a full-blown conflict, the Second Sino-Japanese War. Under the terms of the Sian Agreement, the Chinese Nationalists (KMT) and the CCP now agreed to fight side by side against Japan. The Communists had been encouraged to negotiate with the KMT by Stalin, who saw Japan as an increasing threat on his Far Eastern border and began supplying arms to China. China also received aid from Western democracies, where public opinion was strongly anti-Japanese. Britain, France and the US all sent aid (the latter including the famous ‘Flying Tigers’ fighter-pilot volunteers). Because of historical ties, China also received support from Nazi Germany for a short period, until Hitler decided to make an alliance with Japan in 1938.
Although the Japanese quickly captured all key Chinese ports and industrial centers, including cities such as the Chinese capital Nanking and Shanghai, CCP and KMT forces continued resisting. In the brutal conflict, both sides used ‘scorched earth’ tactics. Massacres and atrocities were common. The most infamous came after the fall of Nanking in December 1937, when Japanese troops slaughtered an estimated 300,000 civilians and raped 80,000 women. Many thousands of Chinese were killed in the indiscriminate bombing of cities by the Japanese air force. There were also savage reprisals carried out against Chinese peasants, in retaliation for attacks by partisans who waged a guerrilla war against the invader, ambushing supply columns and attacking remote units. Warfare of this nature led, by the war’s end, to an estimated 10 to 20 million Chinese civilians deaths.
By 1940, the war descended into a stalemate. The Japanese seemed unable to force victory, nor the Chinese to evict the Japanese from the territory they had conquered. But Western intervention in the form of economic sanctions (most importantly oil) against Japan would transform the nature of the war. It was in response to these sanctions that Japan decided to attack America at Pearl Harbor, and so initiate World War II in the Far East.
Japan became seen as a serious threat to the economic interests and influence of the US and European powers in Asia. By July 1937, with Japan engaged in all-out war with China, relations plunged to new lows. US President Roosevelt imposed economic sanctions, and Japan turned to the Axis powers, signing the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in September 1940.
When Japan occupied French Indochina in July 1941, Roosevelt continued to avoid confrontation. But Japan’s imperial ambitions in the Pacific had placed her on a collision course with the United States, which controlled the Philippines and had extensive economic interests throughout the region. When the US imposed an oil embargo on Japan, threatening to suffocate her economy, Japan’s response was to risk everything on a massive pre-emptive strike which would knock the US out of the Pacific, clearing the way for a Japanese conquest of resource-rich South East Asia.
The use of American “volunteer” fighter pilots acting for the Chinese against the Japanese forces in China and the stationing of a squadron of B-17 bombers at Clark Air Force base in the Philippines with the capability of bombing Japanese forces in Taiwan added impetus to the decision to attack the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands.
Shortly before 8 am on Sunday 7 December 1941, the first of two waves of Japanese aircraft launched a devastating attack on the US Pacific Fleet, moored at Pearl Harbor. The raid, which came with no warning and no declaration of war, destroyed four battleships and damaged four more in just two hours. It also destroyed 188 US aircraft. While 100 Japanese perished in the attack, more than 2,400 Americans were killed, with another 1,200 injured.
The Japanese achieved complete surprise at Pearl Harbor, something that can largely be attributed to failures in US intelligence. Although the US had cracked Japanese radio codes, in this case, the raw data was not interpreted correctly by army and navy. Although the attack pummeled American battleships, US aircraft carriers escaped unscathed. This was critical because the Pacific Fleet would have been virtually incapable of operating without them.
The following day, the US declared war on Japan, where a shared sense of outrage and hatred had united the country’s bitterly divided media and public behind Roosevelt. On 11 December 1941, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, thus bringing America into World War II.
Pearl Harbor appeared to be a huge success for Japan. It was followed by rapid Japanese conquests in Hong Kong, Singapore, Burma, the Philippines, Malaya and New Guinea. In the long term, the attack was strategically catastrophic. The ‘sleeping giant’ had awakened, ’.and in America, a sense of fury now accompanied the mobilization for a war of the world’s most powerful economy. The losses at Pearl Harbor would soon be more than made good and used to take a terrible vengeance on Japan.
December 1941 was a black month for the Allies. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December, the seemingly unstoppable Japanese steamed their way through the Pacific and South East Asia, attacking the islands of Wake and Guam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Burma. For Britain, the most severe material, strategic and psychological blow came with the loss of two of the ‘jewels’ in its imperial crown: Hong Kong and Singapore.
Just eight hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 52,000 Japanese troops attacked Hong Kong. British, Canadian and Indian forces, commanded by General Maltby and supported by the Hong Kong Volunteer Defense Force, were outnumbered three to one. On the first day of the battle, the Japanese wreaked destruction upon RAF aircraft, achieving immediate air supremacy. On 10 December, they breached the recently constructed defenses of Gin Drinker’s Line, causing the evacuation of Kowloon and forcing Maltby’s forces to retreat onto Hong Kong Island. On Christmas Day, following a week of bombardment and fierce fighting, the beleaguered Allied forces surrendered. It was the first time in history that a British crown colony had surrendered to an invading force. It became known as ‘Black Christmas.’
The worst blow to British imperial pride was still to come. Singapore, situated at the end of the Malayan Peninsula, was known as ‘the Gibraltar of the East and was a powerful symbol of British power in Asia.
When the Japanese arrived in February 1942, Singapore’s defenders were woefully underprepared. The head of the British Army in Malaysia, General Arthur Percival, had repeatedly delayed the reinforcement of Singapore’s defenses. He was convinced that no army would be capable of crossing the dense jungle which protected the colony in the north. He also saw the construction of defenses as dangerous to civilian and military morale. To make matters worse, the two biggest British warships in the Far East, Repulse and Prince of Wales, had been sunk by Japanese air attack on 10 December 1941, which destroyed any hope for the naval defense of Singapore.
In the ensuing battle, Japanese forces were commanded by General Tomuzuki Yamashita, who became known as the ‘Tiger of Malaysia.’ His troops had entered ‘by the back door,’ crossing Thailand and moving down the east coast of Malaya. Japanese forces began landing on Singapore Island on 8 February. In some areas, there was fierce resistance, but thanks to Japanese air cover, and the ineffective preparations and deployment of Commonwealth troops, the Japanese soon made critical inroads into the defenses. General Percival surrendered the island’s garrison after seven days of fighting. It was the largest surrender of British-led troops in history. 80,000 British, Australian and Indian soldiers became prisoners of war. The defenders lost 138,000 men in the battle; the invaders 10,000.
For Churchill, the fall of Singapore was the ‘worst disaster in British history.’ In the mentality of the time, the easy defeat of the ‘white man’ by Asiatic forces represented a huge loss of face for the British. Many historians argue that the defeats fueled the confidence and strength of the post-war anti-British movements. Both Hong Kong and Singapore were occupied by the Japanese until the end of the war.