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On December 7, 1941, at 0753 hours- the Japanese attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Around 20 ships were sunk or damaged, 200 aircraft were destroyed, and more than 2400 American, including civilians, were killed by the Japanese in such a short time. This attack was completely unexpected by US military personnel and surprised many American civilians. This brutal event led President Roosevelt to declare the war against Japan in Washington D.C, one day after the attack. During President Roosevelt’s speech, he emphasized the importance of unification by US people to win the war. In fact, the Japanese attack on Pearl harbor encouraged anti-Japanese feelings and a sense of unification among the U.S civilians with a slogan of “Remember Pearl Harbor”. Although it was predictable that the attack boosted the morale of U.S people, why the Japanese military personnel decided to attack Pearl Harbor with taking that serious risks? The key to solving the question is the second Sino-Japanese war that the U.S largely involved in, and Admiral Yamamoto’s belief. This research will examine the possible factors that led Japan to attack Pearl Harbor and its true purpose for the rest of the paper.
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To think about the possible factors of the attack on Pearl Harbor, it is necessary to look over the US-Japan relations during the second Sino-Japanese war that started in 1937 and lasted until 1945. The second Sino-Japan war was the turning point for the US far eastern policy and their neutrality because the U.S provided a large amount of financial support with China and impose economic sanctions on Japan. The economic pressure by the U.S largely damaged Japanese war-time economy because Japan heavily relied on imports from the U.S during the time period. In fact, 58.8 percent of all American exports were shipped to Japan in 1937 and it rose to 66.3 percent in 1938. (Frederick) This US economic sanction was the significant factor that led the Japanese to accelerate the invasion to compensate for their lack of vital sources like raw materials and resulted in the Japanese complaint against the U.S position. However, there were several reasons in the background of the U.S decision: one was aimed to criticize the Japanese unacceptable actions, such as the Japanese assaults in Manchukuo in northern China, and others were US interests of future Chinese market and political benefits by supporting Chiang Kai-shek, which served as the leader of the Republic of China and embraced democracy. (Fredrick) It seems that U.S isolationism had already collapsed at the time.
Actually, although the U.S had expressed the verbal disagreement against the Japanese unacceptable actions against China, they were reluctant to challenge Japan. In fact, the U.S offered the only limited amount of financial assistance to China from 1937 to 1939. However, the compassion that the American felt against China had grown as the Japanese invaded In China. This feeling of compassion spread into not only the U.S civilians but also the members of the government, including President Franklin Roosevelt, and reflected in his politics a lot. The author of the article “Journal of American-East Asian Relations”, Sally Burt, mentions that “A sense of American paternalism is prominent in the U.S. view of China in the lead up to Pearl Harbor.” (Burt, 2012).
At the early of 1938, Fumimaro Konoe, Prime Minister of Japan, announced the National Mobilization Law, which basically allowed the government to authorize civilian organization, industries, and media to control the war-time production. (M.S.F, 1938) It was obvious that the U.S economic sanction gradually impacted on the Japanese war-time economy, and Japan had no effective solution to the severe inflation. The financial assistance by the U.S against China kept increasing, and China was able to secure $75,000,000 on the basis of the $25,000,000 credit received from the U.S by the end of 1938. (Fredrick) The second Sino-Japanese war became no longer the war between China and Japan, but rather the American proxy war with Japan. The National Mobilization Law was the first step to the total war, in other words, the Japanese government had no option to settle the war at this time.
In 1939, the biggest event happened in Europe- the invasion of Poland by Nazi. Because of this event, European countries restricted Japan’s alternative source of supply, and the relative importance of the American market for Japan increased a lot. (Bisson,1940) Especially, the shortage of raw material and oil significantly damaged the Japanese military. At this point, the Japanese military personnel already had an idea to invade south Asia to break away from the situation. On July 1940, 2 months after the Nazi invaded in France, Prime Minister Konoe approved the invasion of French Indochina, that was the region including current Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. This was the first action taken by the Japanese military based on the idea of south Asia occupation, and soon after that, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was announced. Technically, the goal of Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity was protecting East Asia from the western countries, however, it just justified the Japanese invasion and exploitation of the resources such as raw materials and oil in South Asia. At this time, the Japanese government almost gave up relying the materials on foreign trades. The U.S expressed the strong disagreement against the Japanese actions in South Asia, and President Roosevelt decided to prohibit from exporting steel to Japan by the end of 1940. The U.K, Netherlands, and China also joined the financial freeze by the U.S which resulted in promoting the isolation of Japan and intensifying the US-Japan relations more.
In 1941, Nazi broke the non-aggression treaty and invaded in the Soviet. Because of this invasion, the Soviet joined the allied, and it would be a strong advantage for the U.S and Britain because the Soviet had huge industrial capability and resources. Also, at the same timing the Soviet joined allies, President Roosevelt decided to restrict exporting oil to Japan adding to steal. However, the negotiation actually started between Japan and the U.S on March 1941. According to the article “The Hull Nomura Conversations”, “[A number of influential Japanese] had emphasized their interest in seeing a peace agreement reached with the United States.” (Butow, 1960) In fact, the Japanese economy could no longer stand the additional sanction by the U.S.
On November 5, 1941, at the same time as the plan for the attack on Pearl Harbor was approved in the Imperial Conference, Ambassador Nomura presented two proposals to the U.S government: The first proposal proposed the partial withdrawal of Japanese troop from China and making a final settlement of the Sino-Japanese war, however, the U.S rejected it a week after that because they knew that Japan prepared another proposal in case it failed. The second proposal offered to withdrawal the Japanese troop from southern Indochina if the U.S agreed to stop the financial assistance to China and provide Japan with a required amount of oil, but it was also rejected by the U.S because they concluded there was no grantee that Japanese fulfilled it even if they reached to the agreement. Following these results, Hull, who served as U.S. Secretary of State, requested the complete withdrawal of the Japanese forces from China and French Indochina, the approval of the Nationalist party of China and abrogation of the Tripartite Treaty, which was considered as an ultimatum by Charles A. Beard who was the one of the most influential American historians. Unfortunately, Japan and the U.S couldn’t give away their interests in East Asia and reach the agreement as a result. 9 days after it happened, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
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Admiral Yamamoto’s also played a significant role in the attack on Pearl Harbor. His colleague described in his memoir that “[Admiral Yamamoto] strongly opposed the Tripartite Treaty and the war against the UK and U.S. He eagerly wished for a peaceful solution to the question between those countries and Japan.” (Hara) However, he knew that he had to devote himself for the nation’s sake even if he didn’t want to fight. His desire for the attack on Pearl Harbor was also based on the sake of his nation.
At first, the Japanese navy had a plan to attack the U.S fleets with aircraft and submarines after they departed the Pearl Harbor and sank them at the coastal sea around Japan, but Admiral Yamamoto rejected the plan. Because he believed that it is impossible to destroy the U.S naval fleets by the conventional operation based on his experiences of studying at Harvard University, he presented the idea of surprise attack when he performed the training of shooting torpedoes. Admiral Hori believed that Yamamoto’s desire for the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor actually came from his respect for the U.S Navy. (Tsunoda,1978) Although there were some concerns about the surprise attack, most of the Japanese military personnel had no choice other than accepting Yamamoto’s plan at the time.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was probably inevitable when we looked at the international relations and the Japanese isolation from 1937 to 1941. The Japanese actions against China were obviously unacceptable for the U.S, however, U.S intervention in the Sino-Japanese relations was also not acceptable for Japan. It was hard to tell whether the American justification was right or it should have been resolved between the parties. However, it was the fact that the Japanese isolation led them to attack Pearl Harbor as the last resort and it was the self-defense for the nation’s existence.
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