October 1998

The Japanese Motivation

       As players of computer games that largely draw on historical events, most of us know something about the Pacific War in World War II. Ask the average player who were the principals and he will answer; the Americans, the British, the Chinese, and the Japanese, with the first three combating the latter. The phrases Pearl Harbor, Midway, Nangking, and Hiroshima promptly come to mind. But as to the origins of the conflict, the genesis of tensions between the Empire of Japan and China, the motivations that led Yamamoto to advocate a hit 'em first strategy--these may not be so well-known. Most people know the actual war between the two titans America and Japan started on December 7, 1941. What happened on December 7, 1941? The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii. But why did Japan attack the United States? Oil embargo? Economic sanctions? International pressure? Madness? To understand the motives that led Japan to make war on the US, let's go back and examine Japan's history and relationship with the West.

       Japan's nation was organized as a feudal system from the twelfth century until the 1600s. During this four hundred year period, rival lords fought each other for power, land, and vassals in a low grade civil war. In 1404, official trade with China began. Japanese traders became active along the coasts of Korea and China. In 1543 , the first European traders came to Japan. Portuguese, Spanish, English, and Dutch traders began to frequent the home islands. A few years later Christian missionaries arrived and began to spread the Gospel. The movement enjoyed success for thirty years.

       The feudal era in Japan ended in the early 1600s. Power was consolidated under the Tokugawa shogunate. Ieyasu Tokugawa was named shogun (military governor) in 1603. He subdued his rivals and organized the powerful local lords into a federation. Under the Tokugawa rule, Japan enjoyed extraordinary peace and stability. The capital city was called Edo.

       Tokugawa and the leaders of Japan were alarmed by the widespread influence of the Europeans and missionaries. Fearing Japan was being prepared for foreign conquest, the government expelled the Christian missionaries and prohibited the Christian religion. This may sound overly reactionary, but consider the examples of the Mayan, Aztec, and Inca empires and their experiences with missionaries and foreigners! The American Indians and African natives did not react to the presence of the Europeans until it was too late, to their regret. One should credit the Japanese with great foresight in sustaining their culture and freedom. Wouldn't you want the leaders of your country to protect you and your way of life?

       By 1638, Japan was rid of outside interference. The Tokugawa leaders cut back on foreign trade and influence until in 1641 only Dutch and Chinese merchants were allowed a single ship to enter Nagasaki harbor, and then only once a year. Japanese were forbidden to leave their homeland. The country entered a period of isolation that would last for 200 years.

       Japan flourished under isolation. The economy boomed, advances were made in farming techniques, Osaka and Edo became great commercial centers. By the 18th century, Edo, with a population of 500,000, was larger than any city in Europe. Literacy among the peasantry increased and a refined culture was established.

       In the middle 1800s, the United States was just coming into its own as a nation. One of America's biggest industries was whaling. The hunting grounds were the Northern Pacific. Periodically, whalers would be shipwrecked on Japanese soil or forced to seek resupply at Japanese ports. They received cold welcomes, and this offended US politicians.

       Seeking to establish fueling stations and trading outposts globally to compete with the English, President Millard Fillmore ordered Commodore Matthew Perry to journey to the mysterious island nation of Japan and negotiate a trade agreement. There was to be no refusal.

       On July 8, 1853, Perry audaciously arrived in Japan with four powerful American warships bristling with cannons far larger than anything the awed Japanese had ever seen. Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay and threatened the dockfront until Japanese envoys met with him. Powerless to oppose such military might, the Tokugawa government ended their era of seclusion and opened their country to foreign trade and diplomatic contact. They signed a treaty of friendship in 1854. The Netherlands, Russians, British, and French quickly pressured the Japanese into signing a series of unequal treaties. Several Japanese seaports were opened to trade. Western nationals were exempt from Japanese law. One sided tariff rates were established that the Japanese could not alter. Japanese sovereignty was seriously compromised.

       Many Japanese viewed the acquiescence to the Westerners with humiliation and shame. The Tokugawa government lost face and political power. The people demanded the expulsion of the arrogant foreigners. In 1868, the Tokugawa government fell. A new government was established under the Emperor Mutsuhito. The capital city of Edo was renamed Tokyo.

       Many of the leaders of the new government were former samurai. They adopted a constitution in 1889, modeled after Germany's. Pushed into dealing with the world, Japanese leaders were fearful of Western dominance. They became aware of the fates of many third world countries that the Europeans colonized: Australia, Philippines, Hawaii, India, and every part of Africa except Liberia and Ethiopia. The nation undertook a modernization program, determined to become the equal of any industrial nation. Factories and foundries were erected. Commercial banks and market networks created. Literally overnight, the Japanese went from a closed feudal country to the most powerful industrial nation in Asia.

       By 1890, Japanese leaders began to set their sights on a little imperialism of their own. There were many reasons for this. The emulation of the powerful Western countries. Successful Western nations had already set this precendent. The British, having recently acquired Hong Kong from the Chinese, seemed to serve as a good role model. The Japanese needed to secure markets for their products and protect their resource base. Japan has very little natural resources and imports their oil, rubber, and ore from the surrounding areas. Japan fought two wars at the turn of the century, dealing decisive defeats to China and Tsarist Russia. Japan's new navy sank the entire Russian fleet in the Battle of Tsushima, and the world realized that the quaint little Oriental country was a force to be reckoned with. Japan began to exert control over the surrounding countries.

       After World War I, Britain and America pressed their Japanese ally hard to limit its navy. Unable to evade the pressure, Japan accepted a reduced ratio that would give the Anglo-American powers naval a 10:3 superiority.

       In the 1920's Japan's economic interests were threatened by the spread of Communism in China and the emerging Soviet Union. Concerned, Japan began a full scale military occupation of Manchuria and war broke out with China in 1937. The US and Europe voiced alarm and tried again to pressure Japan to withdraw. But Japan had come to the conclusion that it was their role to control the Pacific Rim. If this sounds familiar, just think of the phrase "manifest destiny" to keep perspective. With Japan on the move, it seemed obvious that the foreign powers in the West were certain to interfere again.

       In the summer of 1941, the Roosevelt administration imposed an embargo on exports to Japan. Britain and Holland followed suit. Their intentions were to force Japan to withdraw from the occupied Chinese mainland and to deter future expansion. The colonial powers did not want Japan to join their club. Faced with the onset of shortages that would cripple their nation's defense, the Japanese government approved of a military plan to destroy the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. This would buy them time to occupy and reinforce the oil-rich Dutch Indies and remove the American threat in the Philippine Islands. Many in the Japanese military felt this would also serve to discourage further interference from the West. Thus, Japan figured their control of the South Pacific would be impervious to Western intervention.

       On Dec 2, 1941, under the military guidance of Admiral Yamamoto, a graduate of Harvard University, the Japanese combined fleet sailed forth on a voyage that would alter the history of the world. We'll always remember the "day that will live in infamy." It's also important to understand the events that led up to it.


Neal Stevens





Your thoughts on the subject?
I think . . .