USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Imperial Japan’s Road to War

In Chapter 10, we followed the rise of the Japanese imperial military as it gradually transformed the nation into an authoritarian, fascistic state aimed, like Nazi Germany, on regional hegemony and economic autarky. This drive had begun already decades before as Japan asserted its control over the island of Formosa and the Korean Peninsula. But ultimately, Japan’s regional and economic ambitions were tied to its relationship with its giant neighbor, China. China represented natural resources, manufacturing capacity (with its huge potential labor reserves), arable land, and perhaps most importantly consumer markets for Japanese manufactured goods. In addition, China in the 1920s and 1930s was at a historic point of weakness. If China were able to consolidate around Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party, Japan’s chances for regional supremacy would be diminished, if not extinguished altogether. We saw in Chapter 10 that Japan made its first major inroad into maintain China in 1931 when it cleaved off Manchuria and set the area up as the independent puppet state of Manchukao.

In 1937, Japan launched a major military offensive against Chiang Kai-shek’s China. The result of this action was Japanese control over most of Northeast China and scattered possessions on the Chinese coast. Considering the vicious nature of the warfare and the fact that the war in China persisted until the Japanese surrender in 1945, the outbreak of war in 1937 can rightly be seen as the beginning of the Second World War in the Pacific Theater and Japan’s first major push toward its ultimate war aims.

Nonetheless, it would be another three years before this Second Sino-Japanese War expanded to include direct military confrontation between Japan and the United States. Three major issues weighed on Japan as it pushed its imperial goals. The first was the looming threat of Soviet Russia to its prized possession on the Asian continent, Manchukao. This had to be preserved and defended at all costs. The second issue was the subjugation of China in a Japanese-dominated Asian economic zone. The third issue facing Japan after its victories over Chiang Kai-shek was Japan’s relationship with the United States, the preeminent Western power in the Pacific and the source of much of Japan’s raw materials and consumer goods. All three pieces of the puzzle were closely related.

The main problem facing Japan by 1938 was that while its armies had won decisive victories on the coast and in the north of China, they had failed to crush Chinese resistance. Chiang had smartly retreated into the rural and mountainous interior to fight the Japanese using principles of small unit combat and guerilla warfare. The communists in the south were applying the same tactics. This protracted war was placing a large burden on Japan’s level of supply, first and foremost on its limited oil reserves.

The United States wanted to forestall and reverse Japanese aggression in Asia and at the same time did not want to commit to full-scale war in the Pacific. As a result, the United States flexed its economic muscle against Japan, both in terms of supporting the beleaguered forces of Chiang Kai-shek and by applying debilitating economic sanctions against Japan, including an oil embargo. These were serious matters for Japan and forced its military leaders to make a profound choice. Would Japan heed the American demands to retreat from the Asian continent and thus face domestic humiliation and possible revolution at home? Or would Japan push further south in order to secure for itself the raw materials it needed to fight its war in China and beyond, even if this meant escalation and eventual military confrontation with the United States?

Japan raised the stakes by pushing southwards in 1941 and capturing territory in Indochina. From these coastal bases, the Japanese could now threaten Western (British, Dutch, and U.S.) possessions in Southeast Asia, including the oil-producing Dutch East Indies. Since German aggression in Europe had eliminated any potential challenge from Europe, the only major obstacle to Japan's expansion came from the United States and its economic sanctions. By the end of 1941, Japanese leadership was convinced that the best alternative was immediate war with the Americans. On December 7, 1941, 353 Japanese airplanes struck the U.S. Pacific naval fleet stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Japan was caught in a similar predicament to Nazi Germany. It aspired to regional hegemony and economic autarky. To achieve such aims, it had to take actions that would lead to war with other major world powers. In the years leading up to war, Japan, like Germany, had acquired a distinct short-term military advantage over its potential rivals. But like that of Nazi Germany, the immediate military advantage enjoyed by Japan over the United States only served to mask a more fundamental medium-term disadvantage and crippling weakness. By 1941, Japan was operating at its maximum capacity, while the United States was operating significantly below its own. Japan had little room to gear up for a long and costly campaign against the United States, especially since it could not even definitively defeat resistance in China. Japan would eventually be crushed by the productive capacity of the United States, which could draw on its own resources and those from around the world. Similarly, Nazi Germany would be crushed by the combined war-making capacity of Soviet Russia, Great Britain, the United States and their allies, which when operating at full force dwarfed the Nazi industrial war machine. In response to these fatal disadvantages, Nazi and Japanese war planners sought quick, resounding victories and implemented a style of unprecedented brutalization of conquered peoples in order to assert ideological supremacy and as a way of preventing any resistance to their rule. 

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