The war in the Far East truly internationalised the war being fought in Europe. The war taking place in Europe took on a new dimension in December 1941 when Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. War in the Far East now made the Second World War truly global. 

Today it seems astonishing that a country as small as Japan would attack America but this is what happened in December 1941. Why did Japan attack America ?

1) The Japanese at this time had a very low opinion of the Americans who they saw as drunks who were incapable of hard work. It was believed in Tokyo that the Americans would be an easy target as they lacked fighting spirit. There were those in Japan who actually believed that America could be defeated by Japan. In particular, the military high command was far more influential in Tokyo than politicians who were seen by the public to be weak and ineffective.

2) Japan was expanding throughout the whole of the Far East following her invasion of  Manchuria and in 1941 it seemed that America would use her economic muscle to stop Japan; Japan greatly depended on American oil and America was on the verge of stopping all oil exports to Japan which would have crippled Japan’s military machine. Japan needed to hit America hard and it was believed in Tokyo that a devastating attack would put America off of having any influence in the Pacific leaving Japan with a free hand.

On December 7th 1941, a large bomber force attacked the American Pacific Naval force based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Three battleships were sunk and sixteen other ships damaged. Over 120 ‘planes were destroyed and 2400 people were killed and many more were wounded.

But the vital aircraft carriers stationed at Pearl Harbour were all out on manoeuvres and the oil reserves kept at Pearl Harbor had been drained into underground reservoirs. This has lead some to believe that the American government knew about the raid all along and let it go ahead so that the American public would be so angered by it that when the president, Roosevelt, announced that he had declared war on Japan it would be warmly received by the public. 

At the time before Pearl Harbor there was no obvious evidence that Americans wanted to get involved in a war despite her aid to the Allies fighting Nazi Germany. On December 8th, 1941 America declared war on Japan and Roosevelt received a standing ovation in the American Congress

Why weren’t hundreds of Japanese planes seen flying into Hawaii ? America had radar so they should have been spotted. But an American B17 bomber force was also flying into Pearl Harbor and it is probable that the radar spotters knew this and ignored the sighting of Japanese planes on the radar screens thinking that they were US bombers. In fact, the radar crew did report their sighting only to be told to ignore it. 

Did America crack Japan’s secret code giving details of the raid ? Many think that they had but the official reason given in Washington for not informing Pearl Harbor earlier was that American Intelligence forgot that Hawaii was in a different time zone to them and did not realise this until too late and this delayed Washington informing Hawaii. An important message to the base commanders was received after the raid on Pearl Harbor had finished.

However, it is strange that all the aircraft carriers were out at the same time – it had never happened before – and that all the oil (which would have been a vital loss) was drained into safety. The ships that were lost at Pearl Harbor were replaceable and so were the ‘planes. The carriers would have been much more difficult to replace.

Ultimately, the raid may well have been a surprise. It did infuriate America and Japan found that she had woken a “sleeping tiger”. The “dastardly attack” (Roosevelt) did not defeat America but it was to plunge the Pacific and the Far East into a horrific war that was to end in the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Why were the Japanese so successful at the start of the war?

1. Both the Americans and British – the major colonial powers in the Far East – were unprepared for war. The Japanese had been fighting in Manchuria and China for nearly ten years and they had developed battle tactics needed for modern warfare. Japan’s economy revolved around the military and she was simply more prepared for a full-scale assault on the Far East than either the British or Americans.

2. No soldiers fought like the Japanese. A senior British commander in the Far East – General Slim – commented that every nation spoke about fighting to the last man, but only the Japanese did this. The Japanese soldier lived by the Bushido belief. His life was unimportant and he dedicated his life to the emperor who was a god. To die for the emperor was a great honour and guaranteed a soldier a place in heaven. Therefore the Japanese fought in a manner never seen before. The sheer ferocity of an attack and the failure of the Japanese to surrender or retreat took the Allies by surprise. A Japanese soldier could not understand how or why a soldier would want to surrender and bring shame on his family and emperor. This is why captured Allied soldiers were treated so harshly by the Japanese – they had committed the ultimate sin in the eyes of the Japanese.

Japanese soldiers were trained to live off the land so that supplying troops was never a major problem at the outset of the war. Obedience to officers was total – this had been physically punched into the Japanese soldiers during their training. This culminated in the thousands of young Japanese who volunteered for the kamikazes – either through the use of planes or as ‘human torpedoes’.

In contrast to the Japanese approach to war, the British still fought ‘by the rules’. An example was the British base of Singapore. Britain fully expected Singapore to be attacked once war had started, but we expected an attack to come from the sea. Hence £50 million defence improvements to Singapore faced out to sea. When the Japanese attacked Singapore, they came through the jungles to the north. The newly placed guns to attack Japanese shipping did not face inland. We simply did not expect a military force to come through jungle as we had never experienced anything like this before. The loss of Singapore and the troops stationed there was a huge blow to Britain – both militarily and psychologically.

3. To some extent, the Japanese had the local population on their side to start with as they played on the fact that the British and Americans were the colonial masters of the region and the Japanese offered these people freedom from colonial rule. Such a promise was never kept, of course.

4. America’s military might was based in America itself and any deployment of this might would take time to organise thus giving Japan more of a free hand in the area with regards to conquering land.

Japan took vast sections of the Far East in a matter of months. However, once America got her military act together, such swift Japanese advances had to come to a halt.

Why did Japan eventually lose the Pacific War?

1) The sheer massive power of America overwhelmed Japan once the USA got itself fully organised. Her ability to produce war goods and her man power totally outstripped Japan. Also all her factories were on the US mainland so they were free from any fear of bombing. Do note that the attack on Pearl Harbour sunk a number of ships including 3 battleships this made great propaganda for the government but the ships were not critical from a military point of view and were easily replaced in the numerous shipyards in America.

2) Japan only had 10% of America’s economic might and was very short of basic and vital minerals especially iron and oil. America had both of these in huge quantities. If the Americans lost a capital ship (a battleship or aircraft carrier) it was simply a loss. If the Japanese lost a capital ship it was a disaster as it could not be easily replaced. After the Battle of Leyte Gulf (Oct 1944) the Japanese Navy all but ceased to exist. The navy minister, Admiral Yonai, said with regards to the result at Leyte Gulf,  I felt that that was the end.”

3) The American submarine service targeted Japanese merchant ships transporting goods from mainland Asia to Japan. She had 8.9 million tons of shipping of which the submarines alone sunk 55%. Thus Japan was starved of needed commodities. She only had 3% of America’s farmland so food was a real problem. When America had the range she bombed Japanese cities and factories.

43,000 tons of bombs were dropped on factories in Japan and 104,000 tons on 66 cities.   The bombing of factories was effectively a waste of time as they were already starved of raw materials anyway. The fire bombing of Tokyo made it clear to the Japanese government that it was facing complete destruction.

4) US forces in the Pacific were commanded by Douglas MacArthur. He realised that the Japanese Imperial Army would take years to defeat if every island in the Pacific was fought over. The American casualties would be massive. Her forces at Iwo Jima and Okinawa had taken many deaths from just a handful of defenders. He adopted a policy of taking the main islands only and ignoring the smaller ones which could be ignored and isolated with the troops on them being left without any transport to get off of them. This was called “island hopping” and the small islands were “left to wither on the vine“. This does explain why Japanese troops were found on Pacific islands some years after the war but it also confirmed to those who had fought that the Japanese were fanatics who would have inflicted massive casualties on Allied troops if each island had been taken.

In mainland Asia, British and Commonwealth forces had pushed back the Japanese as they approached India. Fierce fighting took place on the mainland though it was rarely reported back home in Britain and the men who fought out in the Far East frequently referred to themselves as “The Forgotten Army”. Orde Wingates’s ‘Chindits’ fought the Japanese using what would now be called Special Forces tactics – dropping by parachute behind enemy lines, disrupting their supply routes and generally causing the Japanese the maximum damage. 

5) American intelligence estimated that if a land invasion of Japan was to take place i.e. if Japan refused to surrender, then America would have to expect at least one million casualties which would be politically and militarily unacceptable. It was thought that the Japanese would get together a Home Guard of at least 14 million to guard both the country and the emperor. With the example of kamikazes, many generals in America feared that the war would go on for a long time and that a surrender would have to come from the emperor for all Japanese to obey it. With this background, President Truman authorised the use of the atomic bomb. On August 6th, 1945 Hiroshima was attacked and on August 9th, Nagasaki. The emperor ordered a surrender.

6. Once America had got herself prepared, Japan could not have won the Pacific War. Her overwhelming industrial might, her vast food producing capacity, her huge manpower and her freedom from bombing, meant that Japan had to take on the world’s most powerful nation. The fact that it took so long for this victory can be explained by the ferocious commitment of the Japanese soldier and the geography of the region. But nearly all historians are of the opinion that an Allied victory was inevitable.