Explain Japan's "Strategy" in WWII, Please!

I am totally confused by how Japan handled itself in WWII-what exactly did they think they could accomplish? The whole conduct of the war makes no sense to me. It seems that the war (in broad outline) went like this:
-Japan needs resources, so attacks China. However, the Japanese army bogs down, stymied by guerilla opposition. So, Japan sees SE Asia as new source of resources (oil, iron, rubber, et.). So, Japan launches war with USA: Brilliant attck on Pearl Harbor, but fails to sink US Navy aircraft carriers. Meanwhile, Japan attacks Philippines, Hong Kong, Malaya, Dutch East Indies: brilliant success, but japanese forces spread out over 1000’s of miles-garrisons on S. Pacific Islands drain their strenght. Then, the Japanese conceive a strategy to knock US out of the war: Invasion of MIDWAY Island: instead, Japan loses 4 carriers and most of naval air arm. Now the japanese are fighting on many fronts-China, Burma, New Guinea, Guadacanal, etc. Supplying far-flung forces exhausts the Navy. So what did they think they were doing? Invasion of Australia is impossible-Japan has neither the ships or resources to attempt this. Shouldn’ they have thrown in the towel in 1943?

The Japanese were not so much “bogged down” in China as they had taken as much land as they needed for the resources they wanted.

They considered two separate strategies to gain access to more raw materials, the Northern strategy which would give them access to Siberia and the Southern strategy that would give them access to Southeast Asia.

On the Mongolian border, they tested their “Northern” strategy–and promptly got badly whipped by Soviet tanks. It was not really a thorough test of the two armies, but the supporters of the Northern strategy had made their brags (based on the Japanese humiliation of Czarist Russia in 1905 and the recent purge of generals that Stalin had launched), so when their troops were utterly defeated, they lost Face and were no longer able to promote that campaign.

The Southern strategy was always the more difficult one, based on the presence of the British and U.S. fleets (along with any support that France and the Netherlands could provide, which was not negligible). That was why the supporters of the Northern strategy were able to make the first attempt.

Once the European war broke out, effectively eliminating France while severely hampering or reducing the effectiveness of the British and Dutch, Japan figured it only faced the isolationist U.S., which had few possessions in the region and had already declared the intention to give independence to the Philipines.

The basic intent of the Pearl Harbor strike was to remove the U.S. fleet from consideration so that Japan could have its way with all of Southeast Asia, at which point the Japanese (mistakenly) assumed that the U.S. (where the Japanese confused isolationism with pacifism) would sue for peace to avoid a protracted war.

It did not quite work that way.

The Battle of midway was based on two needs of the Japanese military: to extend the Japanese perimieter out far enough to make an attack across the Pacific a hopeless endeavor, further reducing U.S. desire for war, and to lure the U.S. carriers out into battle where the massive Japanese fleet could guarantee destroying them, leaving the Japanese as the only navy in the Pacific.

It was hardly a foolish plan. In the most recent battle, (at Coral Sea), the U.S. had, while turning back the Japanese lost one fleet carrier and sustained enormous damage on another fleet carrier while the Japanes had suffered damage to one fleet carrier and lost a light carrier. The idea that the Japanese entire fleet, including four fleet carriers, could not defeat two U.S. carriers was not really considered likely. It was only the heroic (and hasty) repair of the Yorktown that brought the odds up from 4:2 to 4:3 and then a combination of luck and both good and bad decisions that resulted in the loss of all four Japanese carriers to one U.S. carrier–leaving the rest of the Japanese battle fleet with no air cover.

You have to take a broader view. Japan in 1854 is a third world nation, humiliated by the U.S. (which is at that point slightly below Portugal on the world power scale). By using German, British, and Russian technology, they build themselves up to where they’re among the major world powers (Germany, France, UK, USSR, USA, and Japan, on any objective basis).

They win wars with China and Russia, taking Korea, Sakhalin, Kurile Islands, Taiwan, various small Western Pacific islands. Side with the Allies in WWI and come out of it with more concessions in China.

But all this comes at a cost: raw materials for their growing industrial might must be imported. Even food must be imported. They need oil, iron ore, rubber, you name it – and mostly, the Japanese Archipelago doesn’t have it.

Invasion of China is not nearly the quagmire you suggest – yes, they didn’t conquer the whole thing. Their war aims were to take as much as they could take and hold, and they got major ports and fertile coastal areas. The rest of China is too fragmented to throw them out: the KMT, the Maoists, and the independent warlords will not end up at the same table to agree on anything.

In Summer 1940, with France defeated by Germany, they seize Indochina, rich agricultural source.

But they’re still hurting for iron ore, the various trace metals that make various steels (molybdenum, vanadium, etc.). And above all, oil.

The Dutch East Indies are sitting ducks – and the Netherlands are firmly under Hitler’s heel. But the U.S. and the U.K. have warned Japan off from them.

And FDR and his cabinet are strongly pro-China and anti-Japanese-imperialism, so much so that they’ve effectively been told to get out of China, or face the consequences. During 1941 we cut off exports of ore and scrap steel, and in particular oil, to Japan. They entered WWII with, quite literally, a 40-day supply of oil – they had to take an oil producer within 40 days, make drastic cutbacks in their national economy, or run out of oil.

Their strategy was a good one, from the perspective of their own war aims. What made the U.S. a credible threat to them was the Pacific Fleet and our forces in the Philippines. What made the U.K. even a player in the game was its forces in Hong Kong and Singapore (along with lesser forces in other holdings). And if our forces at Pearl Harbor and Manila, and Britain’s in HK and Singapore can be knocked out… Well, from their perspective, with our ability to make war in the Western Pacific effectively eliminated, we’ll be inclined to sue for peace – or lose what we have left coming to the point where we realize we have to sue for peace. And Japanese intelligence had identified ways in which each of these “strong points” had Achilles’ heels.

What happened, of course, was that they won too big, and overextended themselves. Instead of expanding to a defensible perimeter that included the raw materials areas, they took everything they could. Meanwhile, our carriers were at sea and thus not lost, and Pearl Harbor united the nation against them. And for the U.K., Churchill commented that Pearl Harbor was, in effect, the best bad news he’d ever gotten – because it meant that the U.S. was coming into the war alongside him and the Soviets. Both countries were holding their own, of course, but hurting badly from German attacks. It was taking all they had to defend what they hadn’t already lost; counterattack and German defeat was something for the future.

Midway, along with several other Japanese defeats, resulted from, to be blunt, Japanese tactical stupidity. They devised a strategy for winning – but it depended on their assumptions (like not being sighted) and was too intricate to work right in “the fog of battle.”

Invasion of Australia would have been very easy if they’d wanted to attempt it – without looking up the actual figures, it was something like 60 million Japanese against 5 million Australians – with the three top Australian divisions already fighting in the Middle East, unavailable to defend the country – and the majority of industry and resources along the East Coast. Sure, digger guerillas could have held out in the Outback – but Brisbane, Sydney, the economic heart of Australia would have fallen fairly rapidly to a banzai blitzkreig – even taking into account the Aussie willingness to fight.

They were overextended by success, no time to consolidate their gains, had lost important parts of their “fleet in being” and trained troops they had no time to train replacements for. And at that, the war against Japan ending four months after the European theater was either pure luck, brilliant American strategy, or a combination – best estimates in Summer 1945 put the war’s end about eighteen months away at best.

Hmmm . . . I’d say that codebreaking was more important than “(hasty) repair(s) and luck” :wink:

Clearly breaking th naval code waas extremely important to the U.S. knowing that the war was coming to Midway, but without the Yorktown, the U.S. had only two carriers to the four Japanese carriers. The Yorktown not only provided more planes over the Japanese fleet, it also provided a more disperse set of targewts for the Japanese planes to hunt down.

I was not attempting to explain every detail of the battle; I was only pointing out that the assault on Midway was not inherently stupid (however badly Nagumo handled it or whatever mistakes Yamamoto made planning it).

I respect what Polycarp and Tomndebb have written but both I think both are overstating by poo-pooing the Japanese problems in China. I think “bogged down” (and I would use “under siege”) are fair characterizations of what was going on.

From 1937 to mid 1938 the Japanese Imperial Army JIA did everything it wished within China and conquered most of the Eastern seaboard including almost all the major cities.

But by mid-1938 the Japanese offensive had stalled and the puppet Japanese governments were under constant guerrilla attack – despite the fact that by 12-07-41 [Pearl Harbor] roughly 80% of the Imperial Japanese Army’s manpower was inside the today borders of China and actively trying to fight the insurgency.

For your further consideration:

The Chinese strategy had been to prolong the war until it had sufficient strength to defeat the Japanese. And in fact, places like Changsa never really fell – despite repeated JIA attempts to take it.

The JIA lost at least 1.1 million killed, wounded and captured 1938-1945 in China. The total for the same period for all Japanese Services (military not including Civilians) was 2 million .

General Stillwell was terrified that Chang would accept the Japanese peace overtures – what mattered to the U.S. and allies was keeping the stalemate going – that helped win the War.

I am not saying China would have been able to drive the Japanese out by the 50’s without the World’s intervention – however I think anything that implies that China was pacified or not a problem or not really on the Japanese military radar post-1938, like it was occupied France or Norway, is not correct.

Once the Japanese had more or less taken the Burma road, they thought that colonised nations in the region would enthusiasticly throw out their masters, particularly India, where they made quite some effort both to enlist Indians, and stir up an uprising.

Had their assumption been correct, they might have been able to stop at India and use it as their border.

They were rather wrong, and the longest land advance in history was followed by the longest land retreat as the forces under Generals Slim and Stilwell reorganised.

Even if the Japanese had more success in the Pacific, its hard to see how they could have held back this rolling onslaught once it finally got under way.

The tide had turned before Midway, the Japanese had been halted, and although the first counter attacks were not succesful it was the start of the Japanse Asia defeat, in something around 18 months from Pearl harbour, the Japanese were beginning to lose the land war on Asia.

Once this allied offensive began to roll, the Japanese were seriously outnumbered.

I agree with this and around late 1936 the KMT and Communists were actively cooperating in military campaigns against the Japanese Army. There are a few letters out there from former Japanese officers on the mainland who voiced their frustration at the intense guerilla action in China that was causing much more casualities than they anticipated. If you look at the total deaths inflicted on the Imperial Japanese military in WW2 it was around 2,000,000 with the most sustained in China. While the later conflicts with Japan vs the U.S. were bloody the tally was nowhere close to even half a million dead. The war in China also hamstrung the Japanese army from fully utilizing the resources and industry they gained in the war with China to prosecute the war elsewhere.

If Japan did NOT have the problems that they did in China they could have used their vast garrisons of men to fortify their positions in SE Asia and make use of industry and resources to revitalize their military. As it turned out they were lacking in both men and equipment because of the China campaign.

Another (lesser known) issue that the Japanese had were the frequent rivalries between the various branches of their military. The generals in charge of each tended not to get along very well and this led to wartime miscommunication and logistical problems.

All in all if the Japanese succeeded at Pearl Harbor by taking out our carriers we would have been in deep trouble. The short term outcome would have been much more uncertain if they 1) Succeeded in eliminating military opposition in China 2) Destroyed our carriers at Pearl Harbor and 3) secured the resources in SE Asia

Of course in the longterm the allies would have still won because after Germany was annhilated all forces would bear down on Japan.

Good points on China. My intent, at least (and I suspect it was Tom~'s as well), was to simply say that Japan had taken much of the Chinese coast and that the situation in China was such that neither side was going to win a resounding victory – the Japanese could not conquer China, but neither could the Chinese throw them out. And many Chinese in the occupied area collaborated with the Japanese, accepting them as the latest in a long line of overlords.

I also very much respect the point made that the IJArmy vs. the IJNavy, and factions within the IJArmy, did lead to a lack of effective overall strategy.

Ralph (or other interested readers), what questions beyond the Chinese conflict did this leave unanswered so far?

I’m not convinced that this is a sure thing. Asia was a long way away from western Europe, and if the Japanese had crippled the pacific fleet, pacified China, and secured resources from the southeast, I think the allies would’ve been much more willing to consider sueing for peace. Russia would’ve been right pissed, and in a couple of years the Japanese would’ve started expanding again, but in the short term I don’t think anyone would’ve been nearly as enthusiastic about getting into a second protracted conflict.

Sometimes you can keep it simple and effectively understand why they lost and why the decided to proceed as they did: Resources.

Driven by a need for resources, and whooped by a country whose resources they completely underestimated – sort of ironic – they pushed because they needed resources, and they had to deal with the country that had more than they could imagine.

How many losses could the Japanese take? How many losses could the U.S. take? They never factored in “X” number of losses! They planned to win! When you only plan on winning, a big loss pretty much screws up your whole plan.

Think about people that lead countries into war. Think about the arrogance, the ideology, the non-objective view of things. If you don’t plan on contingencies for any big operation, kiss your ass goodbye.

I agree resources are key. Though China has historically been a sinkhole for foreign invaders, Japan did take enough of it to have an unimpeded route for the resources of southeast Asia. And the Chinese people paid an unbelievably high price for their “stalemate,” dying by the millions.

The resources that the U.S. finally brought to bear on them eventually turned the tide. But it would have taken extraordinary foresight for Japan to see this in the late 1930s.

The U.S. was struggling through the second phase of the Great Depression. Industrial production was down across the board and unemployment was still cripplingly high. The U.S. military was a laughingstock, with a paltry number of troops manning antiquated equipment. The population was strikingly isolationist and more importantly, so was Congress, especially the Republicans who were beginning to gain strength again after their low point in 1936.

Nobody in the world anticipated the material production of U.S. factories when they converted to full-time war industries. It was unprecedented and not even theoretically considered.

Certainly the Japanese made tactical and strategic mistakes and spread themselves too thin. However, they did so realistically in their eyes - and in the eyes of most of the world - based on what all considered at the time to be sound extrapolation. As it turned out, they underestimated the U.S. greatly. But they were hardly alone.

If Japan had succeeded in defeating the U.S. navy and isolating China/SE Asia from the rest of the world I believe Russia would have invaded. There’s no way that prior “non-aggression” pact would hold given Stalin’s eagerness to gain another new territorial foothold for his Communist state. WW2 wasn’t just a war between the axis and allies there was a lot of jockeying for territory and influence against Communism as well.

You have to consider the fact that Stalin already had well laid out plans for defending Siberia with an eventual push SE into Asia if they needed to. In fact early in the war he was already preparing for what he thought would be a war with Japan. He had several divisions of well trained and equipped Siberian soldiers posted out there and a few tank divisions as well. Even after the fall of Berlin the Russians could have still regrouped with half their forces and fought a land campaign against Japan in China. It’s not out of the question considering Soviet heavy industry that was relocated to the east was largely intact from war production against Germany.

There’s a few major quibbles about his otherwise fine synopsis.

  1. The Dutch East Indies had all the Oil Japan wanted and could have been snagged without anything bu protests from the USA.

2.The Reason Japan needed all that Oil was to continue its war machine. Peacetime Japan wasn’t being deprived of Oil, it was Warfooting Japan.

Japan attacked the USA, IMHO because it was an “Alpha dog” thing- they felt they had to to assuage their honour.

Besides Japan’s"strategy" was not being run by rational beings.The war/super-nationalist parties had plenty of zealots who would assassinate anyone who counseled common sense.

I ran several wargames where it was shown if Japan had simply taken out the Dutch East Indies then helped Germany by invading Siberia- the Axis would have won.
(Barring Nukes, of course)

Given that the largest percentage of Japanese forces were in Asia, and that those forces were already beginning to lose toward the back end of 1942. This wasn’t blindingly obvious, there isn’t really a defining moment in the land war when the balance changed, but certainly by Imphal it was obvious and it was a matter of time. Once they had started to lose the Japanese would have then looked a more attractive proposition for being attacked.

Imagine the US carriers destroyed - it was still something of a sideshow, which might seem an understatement, but we in the West do have a tendency to overestimate our importance in terms of combat, when it was our resources that really made the differance.

The US simply would not have given up, and I just cannot imagine suing for peace, those carriers would have been replaced had the war lasted longer.US sunbs did immense damage, this would have continued apace and would have made many Japanese positions untenable, add to that far better aircraft, and Japans loss of experienced aircrew, aircrew she could not replace at anything like the rate of the US.

Had it been more protracted, Japan would have lost slower, but once the German threat had been dealt with, and this started to become clearer as 1942 wore on Stalin would surely have taken the opportunity to seize territory and crush the Japanese - by this time the Red Army was an extremely effective fighting force.

In factk the Japanese held a war game with deliberately low US production and low estimates of U.S. fighting capability, and even after a total loss of the pacific Fleet with the US side being run by non-military personnel, the japanese forces were completely crushed, more or less on the rough same schedule as actually happened.

Note, however, that the question in the OP was “explain the strategy.” China was not providing the oil and iron that Japan needed and which it felt it could find in either Siberia or the Dutch East Indies and other Southeast Asian countries.

I do not recall encountering any discussions of Japanese goals in China that would have alleviated the need to select either the Northern or Southern Strategy. Regardless of the Japanese situation in China in December, 1941, I suspect that they had to go North or go South in order to remain dominant in the region.

The US built 24 Essex class aircraft carriers during the war, and from what I’ve read, had the programs in place needed to populate those carriers with modern aircraft and trained pilots. Even if Japan had won at Midway, how would they have dealt with the new fleet that was under construction?

I’ve read some autobiographies of Japanese pilots. They seemed to have started out with a large group of pilots, well-trained and with combat experience in China. After Pearl Harbor, everything seemed to go very badly for them, heavy losses of aircraft and pilots, with little capacity to replace them.

Yes, the Battle of the Coral Sea, usally held for be a draw or small win for the IJN, actually lost them far too many irreplacable pilots and aircrew.

(Oh, and Dudes, as this continues- remember not to use the word “Japs” here, it is now considered taboo on this board)

This just isn’t a reasonable assumption. Japan and the United States did not become enemies on December 7; they were openly hostile well before then. Attacking the Dutch East Indies would have been a strategically untenable thing for the USA to allow and would unquestionably have resulted in immediate war.

Japanese people are not insane or stupid, and in any event the strategy was being directed at its highest levels by Yamamoto, who was not a war zealot.

There’s a heck of a lot of hindsight being used here that Japan did not have access to in 1941.