Japanese torpedo bomber attacks Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor Through Japanese Eyes

Japanese torpedo bomber attacks Pearl Harbor

Although FDR’s ‘Day of Infamy’ speech on 8 December, 1941 painted Japan as an aggressor who’d launched an unprovoked 7 December attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese saw it very differently.

To them, this was the next logical step in rapidly souring relations with the US, and their increasingly desperate situation with trade.

The First and Second World Wars are framed by some historians as one extended civil war that started within Europe.

This is largely true, but can’t fully account for Japan’s rise and imperial imitation of the Europeans (and Americans).

It is perhaps more accurate to think of the period between 1914 and 1945 as a violent transition between two different forms of modernity.

The older form involved conquest, empire, and protection of trade routes; the newer, liberal-democratic model upheld national self-determination and had international (or at least multinational) institutions.

It instead satiated modernity’s thirst for resources through trade agreements and alliances.

But Japan, like Germany, had emerged as a major power at the worst possible time.

They were too late to emerge as major powers on the world stage to have had a significant empire, and too early to have benefitted from the gentler liberal-democratic model of the post-World War Two era.

They would need to fight for a place at the table of imperial powers, something that put Japan on a course for a major war with the west and, in particular, the US.

What is most ironic about this larger historical backstory to Pearl Harbor is that the Americans themselves were indirectly responsible for the emergence of the Japanese empire.


Japan shogun feudal

Matsumoto Castle, a reminder of feudal Japan (image: 633higland)

As an island nation, Japan was well placed to disappear inside itself for several hundred years.

“Sakoku” was the official term for this. Translated as “period of national isolation”, it was implemented in the 1600s and enforced with the death penalty for anyone entering or leaving Japan without express permission.

Meant to keep Japan uncontaminated, the motivation was partly a move to keep out religious ideas from Dutch, Portuguese, and particularly Spanish traders (who were reputedly the most evangelical).

They were seen as a threat to the Tokugawa shogunate, the last of three shogunates, or military kingdoms, stretching back to 1192.

In reality, while the country was preserved culturally, goods were exchanged with neighbouring countries.

The point was for trade to be monopolised and controlled by the shogunate so that competing powers within Japan could not develop.

The effect was to preserve Japan internally as a feudal society while the world beyond moved rapidly forward.

This realisation was brought rudely home to the Japanese in 1853 when ships appeared off their coast armed with weapons that outclassed anything in Japan.


gunboat diplomacy

Commodore Matthew C Perry visits Japan 1854 to help open it up to trade

The vessels were American, and led by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry.

He’d been instructed by the American president Millard Fillmore to use gunboat diplomacy, if needed, and to open Japan to US trade.

‘Manifest destiny’ had seen European settlers expand across the American continent – now they would bring (or impose, if necessary) superior western civilisation to Asia.

Displays of cannon fire had the intended effect, and when Perry returned in 1854 the Japanese were ready to reform. They knew they were militarily outmatched, and intended to catch up.

They opened themselves up to trade and launched the Meiji Restoration, bringing the emperor to prominence again and relegating the, by that point obsolete, shogan military class to the background.

Importing foreign technology, bringing in outside advisors, and sending their own best and brightest abroad to study, the Japanese began a process of furious, frantic modernisation.

This rapid shift from feudal to industrial society, coupled with a drive,like Germany, to aggressively make up for lost ground amongst the club of established empires explains Japan’s extreme brutality and militarism.


Russo Japanese War

Admiral Heihachirō on the Battleship Mikasa during the Battle of Tsushima, in the Russo Japanese War

As the Japanese developed, they began to turn from a junior trading partner into a major competitor.

But initial expansion would lead Japan to jostle with neighbouring powers next.

The First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 would see China pushed out of Korea and Taiwan.

This left China in retreat, and Japan on a collision course with the next regional heavyweight: Russia.

The Russians had been expansive in eastern Siberia in prior centuries, and were staking a claim on both Korea and Manchuria, with its warm water Port Arthur.

The Japanese were willing to give up the latter if Russia would recognise their dominance in Korea, but when Russia refused, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 commenced.

When Russia lost she had the duel shame of having done so to a non-white race.

On a roll, Japan proved yet again that she was every bit the equal of ‘white’ European countries by entering the First World War at the request of the British (and the annoyance of the US, who felt Britain had emboldened their emerging rival).

Taking theGerman-controlled Chinese port city of Tsingtao (or Qingdao), Japan also gained control of the northern Mariana islands when the war ended (as well as the Caroline, Palau and Marshall Islands.)

Germany had bought them from Spain after she’d lost the Spanish American War, and once Germany’s empire was confiscated 1919, those spoils passed to the Japanese.

For all the talk of national self-determination and democracy during the First World War, up until that point the US had engaged in its own empire building.

In the Pacific, this now brought them practically eyeball to eyeball with the Japanese. The US had the Philippines, Guam in the Marianas, and, after a coup, had annexed Hawaii in 1898.

All that was needed now was a dispute over these new imperial boundaries and Japan would be at war with America.


torpedo attack pearl harbor ford island

A Japanese torpedo bomber releasing its payload on American ships at Pearl Harbor (plate by Jim Laurier and Tim Brown from Tora! Tora! Tora! Pearl Harbor 1941 by Mark Stille)

As Japan’s empire grew, so did her need for resources. The brutal logic behind her expansion must have reached its worst point in 1937.

As the Second Sino-Japanese War started, Japan’s forces moved on Nanjing, the then capital of China.

What followed was a shocking six-week orgy of mass slaughter. Details are disputed, including the death toll, which is thought to be between 40,000 and 100,000.

Accounts speak of brutal atrocities committed on unarmed civilians and to this day the incident is still a huge point of contention between China and Japan.

Rape of Nanjing

Bodies of victims along Qinhuai River out of Nanjing

Expansion aside, not all of Japan’s leadership were hawkish.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was a studious naval cadet, and a seasoned veteran, who lost two fingers in the Russo-Japanese War.

In senior leadership, he was a terrific strategist and fan of go and shogi in Japan, and later learned poker and bridge.

As a naval attache, he became a hero back in Japan for convincing the US and Britain to scrap the 5:5:3 arms limitation agreement that allowed Britain and the US to retain five capital (large battle) ships and Japan only three.

But he did not want war, opposing the Tripartite Pact that bound Japan militarily to Germany and Italy, as well as war with the US.

He told his superiors that Japan’s navy, largely through its air power, could put up a good fight for six months to a year, but beyond that point would be unable to win a long war with America.

Similarly, Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura was a former military man seeking peace.

As a fleet commander he’d lost his left eye in a terrorist attack following the 1932 Shanghai incident (a flare up of anti-Japanese sentiment in the city).

He had since come to disagree with Japan’s military leaders and became the country’s representative in Washington D.C.

commander-in-chief japanese navy Japan ambassador to US

Yamomoto (left) and Namura (right)

But Yamamoto and Nomura could not stop the jaws of the Thucydides trap that were slowly drawing closed around them.

The term was coined by American political scientist Graham Allison, Jr to describe the fear of ‘top dog’ Sparta at the rise of Athenian power that sparked war between the two great Greek city states.

The resulting Peloponnesian War ran from 431-404 BC.

The phrase is also used to describe similar scenarios such as Britain’s relationship with Germany before World War One, and certainly described America’s relationship with Japan before World War Two. 

As the Japanese empire grew, so did its thirst for resources, particularly oil.

So when the US Fleet moved into Pearl Harbor in the Spring of 1940, this was taken as a thinly veiled threat.

America could now project military power into Japan’s sphere of influence, and threaten her resource base.

The two countries also disputed territorial rights in the region.

When Marshal Petain’s Vichy Regime agreed to let Japan take over French Indochina, President Roosevelt responded by embargoing steel, iron, and aviation fuel to Japan.

Unless this could be repealed diplomatically, war would be unavoidable because the Japanese empire would otherwise collapse. A huge share of key resources came to Japan through US trade.

On November 23, 1941, Ambassador Nomura met urgently with Secretary of State Cordell Hull, promising that Japan would not expand beyond Indochina as long as trade links were restored.

His government told him November 25 was his deadline for resolving the matter, because other ‘considerations’ were ticking away in the background.

president secretary of state

President Franklin D Roosevelt (right) and Secretary of State Cordell Hull (left)

The deadline was later extended, but when the Americans refused the terms, the secret dealings behind the scenes set the gears of war in motion.

The Americans suspected Japan might make some kind of military move, and warned Admiral Kimmel and Major General Short, the Naval and Army commanders at Pearl Harbor.

But they were expecting a naval confrontation, not an air attack.

In top secret, and keeping radio silence, Yamamoto’s navy had sailed south after the negotiations failed to get into position for an attack on Pearl Harbor a little over a week later.

It would be an air rather than a sea armada and one that would take the Americans completely by surprise.

For his part, Nomura played his part in doing the honourable thing. A warning, a declaration of war, was to be delivered to Hull in Washington so that the Americans would at least know they were now in an open fight.

But miscommunication and a lack of coordination meant that Nomura was stuck in an impossible situation.

He had a slow typist and translator, trying to get clearance for high-level, sensitive information, and not having been made aware that events on the ground were rapidly accelerating past him.

When he finally delivered the message to Cordell Hull, he was as surprised as the Americans to learn that the attack had already taken place. Berated by the Secretary of State, he slumped his shoulders and left the office in shame.

As a focal point for US fury, he was detained, and only later repatriated, living until 1964.

Though reluctant to go to war, Yamamoto agreed to help his country win once it was committed to fighting.

He planned the Pearl Harbor attack to either bring America to the negotiating table, to disable her severely military if war followed.

He was a respected commander and died when his plane was shot down in 1943 en route to visiting his men.

For more on Pearl Harbor, read Pearl Harbor 1941 The Day of Infamy by Carl Smith, or Tora! Tora! Tora! Pearl Harbor 1941 by Mark Stille. For more on military history, visit Osprey Publishing.

More: ‘Before 9-11, There Was Pearl Harbor’

Related topics

Join Our Newsletter


Hydra: The next-gen drone armed with laser-guided Brimstone missiles

Ukrainian troops impress British Army instructors during leadership course

M1A1 Abrams: All you need to know about Ukraine's latest Western tank