Pearl Harbor and the Rise of Imperial Japan

David Porter charts Japan’s heady ascent from secluded feudal dictatorship to Pacific superpower in less than a century.


The unification of Germany between 1864 and 1871, and the proclamation of the German Empire in the latter year, destroyed the balance of power in Europe. The rapid industrialisation of the new Germany created an economic colossus in the heart of Europe; and the imperative to feed that industrialisation turned Germany into a disruptive power striving to seize raw materials and markets by imperial expansion in Central and Eastern Europe.

Japanese history in that period followed a similar trajectory. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 – essentially the overthrow of the old samurai warrior caste by a new, modernising elite – triggered a similar process of industrialisation, militarisation, and imperialism.

Japan, to an even greater extent than Germany, lacked the resources and markets to sustain her economic development. She was soon embroiled in aggressive wars to gain territory in Korea, Manchuria, and China.

But by the late 1930s, the ‘Northern Road’ was blocked – by the Soviet Union – and Japan’s rulers were forced to look to the ‘Southern Road’. Especially important were the oil and rubber of the Dutch East Indies.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Japanese regime was now dominated by the Militarists, a home-grown brand of fascists with a strong base among army officers and middle-class youth. The Militarists combined modern militarism with traditional warrior culture: samurai with battleships.

The expansionism of Imperial Japan brought it into conflict with the European empires with possessions to protect in South-East Asia, and of course with the United States in the Pacific.

Like Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan lacked the resources and manpower to sustain a long war of attrition. Both powers were compelled to launch blitzkrieg wars to grab as much as they could before their enemies could fully mobilise.

The campaigns in the Far East between December 1941 (Pearl Harbor) and June 1942 (Midway) were every bit as spectacular as the Nazi conquests in Europe in the first two years of the war. They created a vast Japanese Empire and imposed upon the Allies a long, expensive, bloody war of attrition to destroy it.

The surprise attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941 signalled the start of the Japanese blitzkrieg. It also ‘awakened a sleeping giant’ and thereby guaranteed the eventual defeat of the Japanese Empire.

In our special this time, David Porter first charts the rise of Imperial Japan between 1868 and 1941 (which you can read below), and then offers a forensic analysis of the attack – one of the greatest triumphs of naval aviation in military history. You can read this second part here: Pearl Harbor: the Attack, 7 December 1941.

The Rise of Imperial Japan

In 1639, the Shogun (military dictator) Tokugawa Iemitsu issued the Sakoku Edict, which marked the effective seclusion of Japan from the outside world. For more than two centuries thereafter, the country remained in a virtual ‘feudal time-warp’ under the rule of the shoguns, with its emperors no more than revered but powerless figureheads.

Throughout this period, Japan’s samurai-led armies were still equipped with traditional bows, swords, and pole arms. Their only European-derived weapons were cannon and matchlock muskets little different from those introduced to Japan by Portuguese traders in the 16th century.

The arrival of a US Navy squadron under Commodore Matthew Perry in July 1853 forced Japan to begin the process of opening up to the outside world and destroyed the prestige of the shogunate. Although the last shoguns made efforts to reassert their authority, the social and political upheaval caused by the sudden influx of Western influence and technology proved too strong to contain.

BELOW The last stand of the samurai the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. Traditionalist samurai warriors on the right, modern state troops on the left.
The last stand of the samurai the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. Traditionalist samurai warriors on the right, modern state troops on the left.

On 9 November 1867, the 15th Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, ‘put his prerogatives at the Emperor’s disposal’ and resigned 10 days later. This was effectively the ‘restoration’ (Taisei Hokan) of imperial rule – though Yoshinobu still retained significant influence and it was not until 3 January 1868, when the young emperor issued an edict formally notifying Japan and the outside world that he was assuming ‘supreme authority in all the internal and external affairs of the country’ that the Meiji Restoration was completed.

The process of modernising Japanese forces had begun in the 1850s. The shogunate’s armies rapidly adopted European-style uniforms and equipment, whilst its first operational steam warship, the Kanrin Maru, was delivered in 1857. Fundamental change, however, had to await the advent of the new imperial regime.

The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) was formed in 1869, followed by the foundation of the Imperial Japanese Army in 1871.

RIGHT The Meiji Restoration of 1868. The Emperor moves from the imperial residence in Kyoto to the modern capital in Tokyo a symbolic resumption of power at the expense of the samurai-based shogunate.
The Meiji Restoration of 1868. The Emperor moves from the imperial residence in Kyoto to the modern capital in Tokyo a symbolic resumption of power at the expense of the samurai-based shogunate.

Initially, the Army was given priority for manpower and equipment. In 1873, conscription legislation came into force under which every male between the ages of 17 and 40 served for three years with the field army, followed by a further two years in the first (active) reserve and another two in the second (standby) reserve.

Although many samurai became officers in the new army, they lost their centuries-old status as an elite military caste. In addition, they lost their traditional right to wear swords in public – humiliations that provoked several unsuccessful uprisings, notably the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877.

The new Japanese military and naval forces were supported by a rapid modernisation of the country’s economy. In many cases, defence-related industries such as shipbuilding were established with government funding before being sold to private investors. Equally great efforts were made to promote Western-style education in order to create the skilled workforce required by the new industries, with thousands of students being sent to study in Europe and the USA.

Tokyo’s modern military arsenal, founded in 1871, pictured here in the 1920s.

Japan sought to emulate Western powers in creating its own colonial empire – in the 1890s, it defeated the moribund Chinese Empire in the First Sino-Japanese War and took control of Taiwan. The country’s enhanced status received formal recognition in 1902 with the signature of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, whilst victory in the Russo-Japanese War paved the way for the annexation of Korea in 1910.

Growing ambition

As Anglo-German relations worsened in the decade before 1914, Japanese ambitions grew to include the acquisition of Germany’s Pacific colonies – the Marianas, Caroline, and Marshall Islands – together with her Kiautschou Bay concession on the Chinese coast.

Lack of resources in the Japanese home islands meant that almost all raw materials, such as iron, oil, and coal, had to be imported. (At this time, Taiwan and Korea were primarily agricultural territories.) The increasingly influential Japanese military pressed for control of China’s vast resources, especially Manchuria’s iron and coal.

The growth of Japanese militarism was aided by the armed forces’ freedom from civilian control. In 1878, the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff was established, closely modelled on the Prussian General Staff. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) General Staff was formed in 1893, and both General Staffs were brought under the command of the new Imperial General HQ on 19 May that year. They were responsible for the planning and execution of military operations, and reported directly to the Emperor, bypassing all civilian political control.

In contrast, the Army and the Navy had a decisive voice in the formation (and survival) of any civilian government. The law required that the posts of Army Minister and Navy Minister be filled by active-duty officers nominated by their respective services. There was also a legal obligation on any Prime Minister to resign if he could not fill all of his cabinet posts. This gave the two services the final say on the formation of a government, as well as the power to bring down the administration at any time, by withdrawing their ministers and refusing to nominate successors.

In practice, although this tactic was used only once (ironically to prevent a general, Kazushige Ugaki, from becoming Prime Minister in 1937), the threat was always implicit whenever tensions grew between the military and the civilian leadership.

By 1914, Japan had made great strides in building up a strong naval construction industry. From the 1870s onwards, following a strategy of ‘copy, improve, innovate’, foreign warships were subjected to detailed analyses to highlight potential improvements before being purchased in pairs to allow comparative testing and further improvements.

In the 1880s, smaller naval vessels began to be built in Japanese shipyards, which soon progressed to larger warships. The last major foreign-built addition to the fleet was the battlecruiser Kongo, which was ordered from the Vickers shipyard in 1911.

ABOVE The First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) the first move in what would become a 50-year onslaught on China.
The First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) the first move in what would become a 50-year onslaught on China.

In the period immediately after the Russo-Japanese War, the IJN, under the influence of the naval theoretician Sato Tetsutaro, became increasingly convinced that the USA rather than Russia posed the greatest long-term threat to Japanese ambitions in the Pacific.

This led to the 1907 construction programme for an ‘eight-eight fleet’ – eight modern battleships and eight battle-cruisers – in order to ensure parity with any American naval force likely to be deployed in the Pacific. However, the crippling costs of the programme (more than twice the entire Japanese national budget) prevented any attempt to put it into practice.

Japan in the First World War

Japan’s decision to join the Allies in the First World War realised some of its ambitions, as it gained most of the former German colonies in the Pacific and achieved a considerable degree of control over much of China as the country fell apart in the aftermath of the collapse of the Manchu regime in 1912.

However, Japan resented the limitations to its ambitions imposed by the Western Allies in the immediate post-war period, especially the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which restricted the ambitious IJN construction programme and terminated the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.

Ironically, the very prosperity of the Japanese economy – sustained by the demands of war-torn and post-war Europe between 1914 and the early 1920s – imposed new strains on successive governments as they tried to cope with the demands of a largely urban population, which grew from 45 million in 1900 to 60 million in 1925. These pressures strengthened the military’s arguments for seizing control of Manchuria and China.

What transformed the situation, however, were the economic consequences of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. The strains sealed the fate of Japan’s weak parliamentary democracy.

BELOW Japanese soldiers in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Japanese victory over a European great power stunned the world and announced the arrival of Japan as one of the world’s premier states.
Japanese soldiers in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Japanese victory over a European great power stunned the world and announced the arrival of Japan as one of the world’s premier states.

Japan in the 1930s

Since 1906, Japan had maintained a garrison in the Chinese province of Manchuria in order to protect the Japanese-owned South Manchuria Railway. This garrison was gradually expanded to become the Kwantung Army. This became a hotbed of gekokujo – an institutionalised form of insubordination by ultra-nationalist officers.

In 1931, a small group of Kwantung Army officers executed an attack on the railway as a pretext for the complete takeover of Manchuria. The weak Chinese government was in no state to resist the attack effectively, and the Japanese conquered the province in less than six months, transforming it into the nominally independent state of Manchukuo, with the deposed Qing emperor Puyi as its new puppet ruler.

Japanese forces provoked a full-scale war with China (the Second Sino-Japanese War) in July 1937. It lasted until September 1945, and the Japanese eventually overran much of the east of the country.

But this proved an unwinnable war, for Chinese armies could always retreat into the vast interior spaces of the country, the conquest of which was far beyond the logistical capacity of the Japanese.

The conquest of Manchuria strengthened the position of the senior officers and politicians known as the ‘Strike North Group’ who supported Hokushin-ron (‘Northern Expansion Doctrine’ or ‘Northern Road’).

This doctrine held that Manchuria and Siberia were part of Japan’s natural sphere of influence and that the economic and strategic value of those territories far outweighed that of other regions.

LEFT Hideki Tojo (1884-1948), the leading Japanese Militarist, who became Prime Minister in October 1941.
Hideki Tojo (1884-1948), the leading Japanese Militarist, who became Prime Minister in October 1941.

Strike north or south?

As Japan strengthened its grip on Manchukuo, tensions with Russia grew – 152 border incidents were recorded between 1932 and 1934, with hundreds more reported in later years. Soviet hostility towards Japan became increasingly open, with the Japanese being called ‘fascist enemies’ at the Seventh Comintern Congress in July 1935.

In June 1938, Genrikh Lyushkov, the NKVD chief of the Soviet Special Red Banner Far Eastern Army, defected to the Japanese with invaluable intelligence on the Red Army’s strength in the region and the effects of Stalin’s purges. The Japanese perception that the purges had fatally weakened Russian combat capability was a factor in the events leading up to the Battle of Lake Khasan on the Soviet/Manchukuo border in July/August 1938.

Although heavily outnumbered (7,000 to 23,000), the Japanese fought the Red Army to a bloody draw, inflicting 4,000 casualties for the loss of less than 1,500 men and destroying roughly 25% of the 350 Russian tanks engaged.

This lacklustre Soviet performance led the Kwantung Army to adopt an aggressive response to Russian and Mongolian incursions in the summer of 1939, leading to a decisive Japanese defeat at Khalkhin Gol. (Although this fatally discredited the Strike North Group, the heavily outnumbered Japanese still managed to destroy almost 40% of the 1,000 or so Red Army AFVs committed to action.)

Khalkin Gol gave considerable impetus to the Nanshin-ron (‘Southern Expansion Doctrine’ or ‘Southern Road’). This was primarily advocated by the IJN’s ‘Strike South Group’, a strategic think tank based in the Taihoku Imperial University in Taiwan.

It was supported by the ‘Study Committee for Policies towards the South Seas’ (Tai Nanyo Hosaku Kenkyu-kai), which explored military and economic expansion strategies, and cooperated with the Ministry of Colonial Affairs (Takumu-sho) to emphasise the military potential of Taiwan and Micronesia as advanced bases for further expansion into the Pacific and the South China Sea.

BELOW Japanese soldiers march through a Chinese town during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1941).
Japanese soldiers march through a Chinese town during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1941).

The insoluble problem that these groups failed to acknowledge was that Japanese shipyards lacked the capacity to produce sufficient naval and merchant vessels to adequately support this policy.

Although the IJN designed each class of its vessels to be superior to their Western counterparts, it could not escape the problem of obsolescence, which was becoming serious by 1941, when 30 of its 111 destroyers dated back to 1921 or earlier and a further 41 were at least 10 years old.

The situation was even worse as far as naval auxiliaries and merchant shipping were concerned. There were only nine fleet oilers in service in 1941, forcing the IJN to charter many civilian tankers on the outbreak of war. This ate into an already inadequate merchant fleet. Pre-war Japan required 10 million tons of shipping but had to charter 40% of this total from foreign sources.

Although some of the shortfall was made up by vessels captured in the first months of the war, attrition soon began to take its toll, with losses running at almost 108,000 tons by May 1942.

LEFT Japanese light artillery in action in Nanking in 1937 scene of the notorious Nanking Massacre, in which between 50,000 and 300,000 Chinese were murdered by the Japanese.
Japanese light artillery in action in Nanking in 1937 scene of the notorious Nanking Massacre, in which between 50,000 and 300,000 Chinese were murdered by the Japanese.

The road to war, 1940-1941

The collapse of France in June 1940 offered the Japanese an unexpected opportunity to secure their position in southern China by gaining effective control of French Indo-China (modern Vietnam).

The perceived German and Japanese threat led the USA to pass the Two-Ocean Navy Act in July 1940, which authorised $8.55 billion for a massive naval-construction programme, including 18 aircraft carriers, 7 battleships, 6 battlecruisers, 27 cruisers, 115 destroyers, 43 submarines, and 15,000 aircraft.

The IJN reacted by ordering fleet mobilisation – a lengthy process of refitting and modernisation which would be completed in December 1941 and give it temporary superiority over the US Pacific and Asiatic fleets, but at the cost of imposing immense strain on the already hard-pressed Japanese economy.

Diplomacy also played a key role on the road to war. The Japanese–Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was signed on 13 April 1941, together with a supplementary declaration that the Soviet Union would respect the territorial integrity of Manchukuo, and a reciprocal Japanese undertaking regarding the Russian satellite state of Mongolia.

Ostensibly, the pact was mutually beneficial in that it allowed both Japan and the Soviet Union to avoid fighting on multiple fronts, but in practice Russia gained far more than Japan. As soon as the pact was signed, Stalin initiated Operation Snow, a plot to force Japan into war with the USA and Britain by manipulating Washington into imposing an embargo on exports of oil and other strategic commodities to Tokyo.

The operation was run by Communist agents and sympathisers who had infiltrated the Roosevelt administration during the 1930s, notably Harry Dexter White, chief adviser to Treasury Secretary Morgenthau. In June 1941, White’s NKVD contact had him draft a memorandum proposing that Japan should be presented with a de facto ultimatum to ‘withdraw all military, naval, air, and police forces from China and French Indo-China’.

Although this did not go any further at the time, it did play a part in the imposition of trade embargoes in the summer of 1941 by the USA, Britain, and the Dutch colonial administration of the East Indies (modern Indonesia) in the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of southern Indo-China. This dramatically increased economic pressure on Japan by cutting off over 90% of its oil supplies, and understandably infuriated Japanese public opinion.

However, there was still a possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough. At a cabinet meeting on 7 November, Roosevelt declared that he intended to ‘strain every nerve to satisfy and keep on good relations’ with Japan, telling Secretary of State Cordell Hull, ‘Let us make no move of ill will. Let us do nothing to precipitate a crisis.’

In mid-November, Tokyo did indeed attempt make a final negotiated settlement, providing two offers, known as ‘Proposal A’ and ‘Proposal B’.

Under Proposal A, Japan would promise to negotiate a peace treaty with Chiang Kai-Shek, to withdraw from Indo-China, and to remove ‘all Japanese troops in China’ within two years, ‘except for garrisons in North China, in the Mongolian border regions, and on the Island of Hainan’.

If this proved unacceptable, Proposal B offered a temporary truce under which Japan would immediately withdraw from Indo-China and enter negotiations for ‘the restoration of general peace between Japan and China’.

The possibility that the President might accept the Japanese proposals seriously alarmed White, who persuaded Cordell Hull to effectively sabotage negotiations by drafting the ‘Hull Note’ demanding the withdrawal of all Japanese military, naval, air, and police forces from China and Indo-China. The note was presented to the Japanese ambassador on 26 November, and, faced with this de facto ultimatum, the Japanese cabinet voted unanimously in favour of war on 1 December. •

David Porter worked at the Ministry of Defence for 30 years, and is the author of nine Second World War books, as well as numerous magazine articles.
Images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.

You can read the David Porter’s analysis of the attack here.