In order to understand Japan and the War in the Pacific, we need to approach the region’s history in much the same way that we have considered European history, namely as successive bids for hegemony. Until the mid-19th century, China had occupied the preeminent position in Asia, often controlling most of Asia and keeping other powers as tributaries. When the Europeans arrived in force, however, during the 19th century, China’s period of undisputed leadership was over, and every Asian society had to come to terms with the new power structure. The Europeans had better ships, better weapons, and powerful industrial economies, and they used these advantages to wrest economic and political concessions from the entire region. Among the Asian nations, only Japan rose to challenge the European powers on their own terms.
Nothing in Japan’s history suggested that it would be better able to withstand European aggression than any other country. In 1638, the third Tokugawa Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-1651) closed Japan to the outside world, with the exception of Nagasaki, whose trade with foreigners was strictly controlled. This policy stayed in effect until 1854, when American naval power cowed the Japanese into opening their ports to trade. In 1853, the United States sent Commodore Matthew C. Perry to open trade talks with Japan, which he did by threatening to blow up the Japanese port of Uraga. In 1854, he returned with a larger naval force and negotiated an agreement on better treatment for shipwrecked sailors, the rights of US ships to buy supplies, and opened the door to future trading privileges. In 1858, the Japanese were forced to sign a broader trade agreement with the United States that later also included Great Britain, France, Holland, and Russia. The repeated retreats by the Shoguns before the force of western arms made the Shogunate look weak and doomed the institution.
In 1867, a group of reformers held a coup in the emperor’s name and ousted the last Shogun. In the same year, Emperor Komei died and was succeeded by his son Meiji Tenno (1867-1912). Emperor Meiji was a driving force behind Japan’s rapid modernization. During his reign Japan abolished feudalism, founded a post office, developed newspapers, built a school system, and reformed the army. In addition, Japan industrialized very rapidly. The government funded new industrial concerns and then sold finished factories to the private sector, often at a loss. Thus, by the start of the First World War Japanese manufactured goods were competing well on the world market. In 1897, Japan put its currency on the gold standard, which was a ticket to economic respectability. In 1899, the Japanese negotiated a deal with the European powers to eliminate any special rights they had on Japanese soil. By the turn of the century, Japan had fully joined the industrialized club.
In joining the club of powerful nations, however, Japan also began to act like one of them. In 1895, Japan annexed the island of Formosa, right from under a weakened China’s nose. In 1902, the British thought Japan worthy enough of an alliance; this was really a recognition by the British that Japan had become powerful enough to threaten their interests. Japan’s power became clear in 1904, when the Japanese launched a surprise attack against the Russian fleet anchored at Port Arthur, China. The subsequent Russo-Japanese War went badly for the Russians, and only American interference restrained the Japanese and saved the Russians from complete embarrassment. The Japanese were not, however, sated and in 1910, they took Korea on account of its strategic value.
Thus, by 1910 Japan had clearly become an aggressive industrialized power. Then two important things happened. First, in 1911, the last Chinese emperor was deposed by a revolution and China descended into complete political chaos. Second, in 1914, war broke out in Europe. These two events had important strategic implications for Japan, as well as direct effects on its economy. Strategically, the lack of a powerful government in China invited further Japanese aggression, while the outbreak of war in Europe made Europe’s imperial settlements appear to be ripe for the picking. In 1915, Japan presented China with its famous “21 Demands,” which was merely a long list of concessions that would have made China a Japanese protectorate. In addition, Japan seized all German colonies in China, something that the Entente Powers could hardly have objected to. The war was also good economically for Japan, since Europe’s need for supplies kept Japanese factories busy. Overall, the war was good for Japanese interests.
American and British intervention checked Japan somewhat in China, but they still got most of their “21 Demands.” After the war, Europe and America concentrated more intently on Japan. This included limiting Japan’s wartime gains in the Treaty of Versailles and making Japan an original member of the League of Nations. Japan got to keep its Chinese colonies, for example, but only as League protectorates, not as conquered territory. The United States also tried to restrain the Japanese through further diplomacy. In 1921, the United States, Great Britain, Japan, and France signed the Four-Power Pact, which stipulated that all signatories would be consulted on any “Pacific Question.” In 1922, two more agreements were signed. The first was the Five-Power Naval Limitation Treaty, in which the United States, Britain, and Japan agreed to a formula of 5:5:3 for the relative size of each navy. France and Italy were also included, but their navies were not strategically important. Next came the Nine-Power Treaty, signed by the five powers plus the Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium, and China, which guaranteed China’s sovereignty and granted the nine signatories equal access to Chinese markets. Japan was boxed in diplomatically, for the moment, but it was never completely happy with the outcome and rapidly became a revisionist power like Germany and Italy.
Japan was not a sated power, and its subsequent aggression was a natural outcome of this situation. During the 1920s, Japan concerned itself mostly with internal reforms, and the Japanese economy grew along with the world economy. This period of expansion ended, however, in 1929 with the American Stock Market Crash and subsequent Depression. As the Depression deepened, 50% of Japanese factories shut down and national exports dropped by two-thirds, leaving Japan wholly dependent on its Asian markets. The next step was predictable. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria and set up a puppet state called Manchukuo. The invasion was ostensibly a response to the bombing of a Japanese-owned railway, though it turned out later that the Japanese had done the bombing themselves. The League of Nations was, as always, useless. In February 1933, it issued a report that called the Japanese invasion unjustified, but also proposed a settlement that would have made Manchukuo an autonomous state, theoretically under Chinese sovereignty, but under actual Japanese control. Offended, nonetheless, Japan left the League in March. Their behavior became a model for Italy and Germany. In 1937, Japan engaged in further aggression, invading China after a border skirmish and occupying most of the Chinese coast. The Chinese nationalist government was forced to retreat inland to safer country. By 1938, Japanese forces controlled Canton and much of central China.
Given Japan’s expansionist mood, the war in Europe provided an excellent opportunity to create more mischief. With the defeat of France and the Netherlands, and Britain’s strenuous efforts against Germany, much of Asia became a power vacuum. The situation was very tempting for the Japanese, for were they to take French Indochina, British Malaysia, and the Dutch East Indies, they would be self sufficient in almost every important raw material, especially oil. Japan’s only diplomatic problem was to figure out how to grab all of Asia while keeping the United States neutral. In September 1940, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed a pact of mutual aid that stipulated all would come to the aid of any power that was attacked by the United States. Included in this treaty was a clause that gave Europe to Italy and Germany, with Asia going to Japan. In April 1941, the Japanese also signed a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union. The United States was Asia’s only defender.
In September 1940, Japan occupied northern Indochina, inspiring protests from the America. The pressure became more intense in July 1941, when Japan moved through southern Indochina, occupying all French bases on the coast. This action was too much for the United States, which responded by freezing all Japanese assets under U.S. control and imposing an embargo on oil sales. The oil embargo was a major threat to Japan, since they had no domestic sources of oil and no colonies that produced oil. On September 6, 1941, the Japanese government decided that if an accommodation could not be reached with the United States within a few weeks, then war would be the only alternative. Japan had to have oil—war or no war. Talks continued through October 1941, though without success. The United States made unpalatable demands that included calling for Japan to renounce its treaty with Germany and Italy, to withdraw all Japanese troops from China and Southeast Asia, and to open trade in China. Given the situation, the demands were unreasonable, since Japan was not about to do any of these things. On November 26, 1941, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull made matters worse, sending a letter to the Japanese government bluntly telling them to evacuate China and Indochina. The Japanese saw no point in talking further.
Needing to eliminate the United States from Asia, Japan launched a surprise aerial attack on the United States’ largest Pacific naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on the morning of December 7, 1941. The attack was devastating. Five of the Pacific Fleet’s eight battleships were sunk and the other three took significant damage. Three cruisers and three destroyers were also sunk. 180 aircraft were destroyed, and 2,330 troops were killed. At the same time, Japanese planes also attacked an American airbase in the Philippines, destroying more than 50% of the U.S. Army’s Pacific air fleet.
For all the destruction, however, the attack was a failure. First, it did not knock the world’s premier industrial power out of the war, but steeled its commitment to fight and win. On August 8, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked the U.S. Congress for a declaration of war against Japan, which promptly followed. On August 11, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini did the United States the favor of also declaring war. Now the United States was in both wars, and from that moment the outcome was decided. Second, in a bit of bad luck for the Japanese, the United States’ three Pacific aircraft carriers were out to sea on the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack and survived. These carriers became the foundation of the U.S.’s counter attack. Third, most of the ships that were sunk were repaired and returned to service. You see, it does no good to sink a ship in a harbor, where it can be raised easily. Only a direct hit on a gun magazine or fuel tanks can truly destroy a ship in this situation. This happened to the USS Arizona, which is still at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.
One of the war’s biggest opponents in Japan was Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku (1884-1943), the very man who planned the Pearl Harbor attack. At the time the government decided on war, Yamamoto told his superiors that a successful attack would allow him to run wild in the Pacific for six months, but after that Japan faced defeat. Yamamoto was right on both counts. Japan did run wild for six months. By January 1942, Japanese forces had taken much of Burma, as well as Guam, the Gilbert Islands, and Rabaul in New Guinea. By February, it controlled most of oil-rich Indonesia, and the Philippines fell by May of 1942. Japan planned to take New Caledonia, the Fiji Islands, Samoa, and Midway, but by this point the United States and Britain had begun to recover their equilibrium.
Initially, things looked bleak for the Americans; most of their offensive fleet was sunk or under repair. Nonetheless, smarting from the Pearl Harbor disaster, the Americans were desperate to seem like they were doing something. So American forces planned and executed a daring, if symbolic, attack on Tokyo. On April 18, 1942, 16 U.S. bombers took off from aircraft carriers on a one-way mission to Tokyo. Let by the soon-to-be-famous Commander James Doolittle, they successfully bombed the city and flew on to an airbase in China, where most of the planes landed safely. The raid was of no strategic importance, since 16 bombers could only do so much damage. It was, however, a significant morale boost for the American side.
While the Americans were rebuilding their fleet, the Japanese made a few strategic blunders that helped to even the conflict. Japan desperately wanted to take the island of Midway, since its naval and air bases afforded strategic control of the central Pacific. The idea was that if Japan took Midway, it might knock the US out of the war. In June of 1942, seeking a final showdown, the Japanese attacked the island with the better part of their fleet. The Japanese did not know, however, that the United States had broken their codes and knew, thus, where and when the Japanese fleet would attack. The battle did not go well for Japan, and within three days, four of Japan’s six heavy aircraft carriers and one heavy cruiser went to the bottom of the ocean. This was the war’s turning point, since the Japanese had lost not only most of their first-line aircraft carriers but also their best pilots. From this point forth, the Japanese and American navies were on equal footing, and Japan could not hope to outproduce the United States’ industrial machine.
With Japan’s defeat at Midway began the great island-hopping march to Japan. The Japanese had spread their troops across many islands in the Pacific, trying to control as many points as possible. The United States responded with a strategy of only taking the most important islands. They would attack a strategic location that had an airfield or major port, but would leave less significant islands alone. The first true test of American arms in the Pacific came in July of 1942. On July 6, the Japanese landed troops on one of the Solomon Islands, called Guadalcanal, and began constructing an airbase. The Americans responded almost immediately, and a six-month battle ensued that was fought on land and sea. The Japanese lost more than 24,000 dead on the land to the United States’ 1,600. On the sea the losses were roughly equal, with each side losing multiple cruisers, battleships, and at least one carrier. This battle was important, however, because it stopped the Japanese drive south and meant that New Guinea and Australia were no longer threatened. There were also major engagements in Burma at this time, and many British soldiers faced serious opposition. These engagements were not, however, central to the course of the campaign, since the only way to end the war was to take Japan’s home islands.
The U.S. military had to claw its way across the Pacific in order to get to Japan. American forces took the Gilbert Islands in November 1943, the Marshalls in February 1944, the Marianas in July 1944, and the Philippines in April of 1945. The battle in the Marianas was both important and foreboding. It was important, because taking the island of Saipan, which was part of the Marianas, gave the United States an airbase that was within flight range of Japan. By this point, the United States had developed the most sophisticated four-engine bomber in the world, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. This bomber had more weaponry and greater range than its predecessor, the B-17 Stratofortress, which had been used in Europe to pummel German cities. American B-29s then began pounding Japanese cities regularly, reducing much of Tokyo to ashes with the resulting firestorms. The foreboding aspect of the fight for Saipan was the fanaticism of Japanese defenders. Almost 50,000 defenders were dug in so deeply that it took a division of Marines plus an army division to defeat them. (This was at least 40,000 people.) The Japanese defense was so fanatical that it ended with a suicidal counterattack on July 7, 1944, in which most of the Japanese soldiers ran willingly and enthusiastically into American weapons. Overall, the Japanese lost 46,000 killed in the Marianas to the United State’s 4,750.
The United States’ most important and difficult island battles were, however, at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Iwo Jima was important to military planners, because it was about halfway between the Marianas and Japan and would have provided a much better air base than Saipan. With a base at Iwo Jima, American fighters would be able to escort bombers to Japan and back, making the bombing runs more effective. The American attack on Iwo Jima began in February 1945, and the soldiers encountered stiff resistance. 20,000 Japanese defenders had dug in even deeper than in the Marianas. In spite of repeated pounding with naval artillery Japanese defenders held firm, and Marines had to land on the beach in the face of severe Japanese resistance. By March, the island was completely taken, but the U.S. had lost 6,000 men. The Japanese had fought to almost the last man.
With Iwo Jima in hand, the Americans turned to Okinawa, the last stepping-stone to the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu. After pounding the island for days with bombers, the Americans launched an amphibious assault in March of 1945. The resulting battle lasted until July and was the deadliest for American forces since Guadalcanal. The Americans lost 12,000 dead and 36,000 injured, along with 34 ships sunk and another 368 damaged. The Japanese lost the greatest battleship on earth, the 72,000-ton Yamato, along with 100,000 dead. The nature of the battle and Japan’s desperate measures are awful to comprehend. The Yamato had been sent on a suicide mission, with only enough fuel for a one-way trip and no air cover. In the end, repeated hits by American bombs and torpedoes sank her and her crew. Japanese kamikaze pilots repeatedly hit American ships. And then Japanese fighters also introduced a new suicide weapon, the Baka, which was a rocket-propelled glider full of explosives. Japanese bombers towed these gliders to the target area, where the pilot turned on the engine and directed his flying bomb to the target. The difficulties of this campaign had a strong effect on America’s military planners, as they comprehended what an invasion of the home islands would cost in men and material.
Throughout July of 1945 the Americans bombed Japan to rubble. Night after night, American napalm raids torched Japanese cities, often creating firestorms in which thousands of people died. (A firestorm occurs when the flames are so intense that the fire consumes all the surrounding oxygen. Thus, people asphyxiate, even if the fire never actually gets them.) Coastal defenses in particular were attacked repeatedly, as if preparatory to an American invasion. The Americans, however, had decided not to invade, hoping to end the war quickly by a massive show of destructive power.
Just two weeks before being sworn in as president of the United States, Harry S. Truman had learned of a secret American program call the Manhattan Project, which had successfully developed the world’s first atomic bomb. As the United States planned the invasion of Japan, its most conservative estimate for soldiers killed was 100,000. The United States had lost 170,000 dead to that point in the Pacific War. Given the casualty estimates and the emerging rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, Harry Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. This would end the war quickly and give the Soviets something to worry about.
On August 6, 1945 a single B-29 called the Enola Gay took off from the Marianas Islands and headed toward Hiroshima with only one bomb in its bay. When that bomb exploded over Nagasaki, it destroyed five square miles of the city and killed 70,000 people, while injuring another 70,000. With the war clearly in its final moments, the Soviets joined in, declaring war on August 8 and sending an invasion force into Manchuria. The Soviets may have won the war in Europe, but they were nothing more than vultures in the Pacific. The Soviets took the Kuril Islands as payment for their tremendous efforts in defeating Japan. This was justified to the extent that the Japanese had stolen them from the Russians in 1855. (Japan still wants the southernmost Kuril Islands back.) At this point, the United States confronted a problem: the Japanese did not respond to the bomb, and no declaration of surrender was offered. So on August 9, 1945, another B-29, this one named Bock’s Car, took off from the Marianas for Nagasaki. This bomb was different from the first; it was made with plutonium, rather than uranium. The results were, however, no different. 1.8 square miles of the city were obliterated and 40,000 more people were killed. On August 10, the Japanese government issued a letter, agreeing to the United States’ call for unconditional surrender. The formal surrender ceremony was held on September 2. The most destructive war in the history of the world was over.