The specific impetus to war with the U.S. was that the U.S. was the most powerful Pacific world power and was the most likely to interfere with any plans for expansion that the Japanese had. We had already cut off exports of petroleum and steel-making resources on the grounds that they were “behaving badly” in China. They knew that if they attempted to conquer the petroleum producing (and rubber producing) regions in the Southwest Pacific, we would oppose them. The Philipines was still a U.S. protectorate and they had to eliminate it or we would be able to interrupt their supply lines to any place farther south. Of course, to attack the Philipines meant war, anyway.
Actually, there were two factions in Japan that had different views on what to conquer, next. Ther group that favored conquering Indochina and Malaysia won. The other group wanted to conquer Siberia (for its raw materials. The “Japan moves North” scenario is one which I have never seen many people speculate on.
The problem had it’s roots in the gunboat diplomacy that the Western powers used in enforcing their imperialism. The Japanese premise was to expel the white imperialists from Asia. The so-called Great East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere or Asia for Asians.
Two excellent books on the subject are: The Rising Sun by John Toland and The Pacific War 1941-1945 by John Costello.
They both give a detailed background to the events leading up to the war.
After the Meiji restoration overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate that had ruled Japan since 1600, the leaders of the new regime saw that centuries of isolation had left Japan dangerously vulnerable to European colonization. The Meiji regime established a standing army, instituted compulsory military service for all men, and sent students to study at European and American military and naval colleges.
The impetus of modernization militarization led Japan to be come a military aggressor in order to compete sucessfully with European imperialism. The Japanese extended influence over the Korean royal court in the 1870’s, leading King Kojong to sign a “protection” treaty in 1876. The Japanese also quarrelled with China over the Ryukyu Islands (modern-day Okinawa)and with Russia over the Kuriles. Victory over China in 1895 led to the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ceded Chinese territory including Taiwan to Japanese sovereignty, forced ports open to Japanese trade, and gave Japan exclusive economic rights in China. After a stunning victory over the Russian Empire in 1905, Japan had become an economic and military force to be reckoned with.
After WWI, Japan expanded its colonization aims, taking over Korea in 1910 and turning it into the Japanese colony of Chosen. Japanese hegemony, increased through the cession of German colonies in Shantung province at the Treaty of Versailles, intensified under the Showa (Hirohito) Emperor.
In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria and installed a puppet regime headed by the last Manchu emperor, Pu Yi. Japan signed a mutual non-aggression pact with the Nazis in 1936 and launched full-scale war against China in 1937 following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident.
Japan correctly saw the US as a possible competitor in its dreams of establish a Pacific empire. Sadly for them, the Japanese didn’t realize how isolationist the US was, even as war reaged in Europe. If the Japanese had not bombed Pearl Harbor, it might have kept us out of the war long enough to ensure Japanese military victory.
OK, I’ve skipped over a lot of important military and diplomatic history between Meiji and Showa, but I feel I’ve shown enough to demonstrate that the Japanese policy was not “Asia for Asians” but “Asia for Japan.”
Why did the Japanese have to seize Dutch and French colonial possessions? Germany was Japan’s nominal ally, couldn’t it have forced France and the Netherlands to cede the territory in question to Japan? The US wouldn’t have liked it, but the Japanese would have had to drastictly misread American intent if they thought that the US would initiate a war.
That battle caused the Go North advocates to lose face and allowed the Go South advocates to gain supremacy in the military councils with the Emperor. However, that battle also took place before the Soviets were forced to confront Germany. Any speculation at this point is simply for fun, anyway, but if Japan had used the German invasion as a cue for their own attemmpt to take over Siberia, world history would have been quite different.
The Asian territories of France and the Netherlands never acceded to German rule. Colonial France was a hodge-podge of member states allied either with the Vichy regime or with DeGaulle’s Free French movement. The Dutch tended to see their country as “occupied” rather than “surrendered” and allied themselves with Britain, with Queen Wilhelmina and the government fleeing to Britain to rule in exile.
You’re right, my apologies. The battle for Moscow would have been quite different without the Siberian reserves.
IIRC, the only French colonies that sided with de Gaulle’s Free French were New Caledonia and Tahiti (perhaps also St-Pierre et Miquelon). However the Japanese didn’t technically annex Indochina until 44 or even 45. Before that, I’m not sure of the proper terminology, they only had basing rights or it was a protectorate. Of course, that didn’t prevent the Japanese to do as they pleased with it, it only allowed the French to save face.
In 1939 Prince Konoye declared " a new order in East Asia" to save China from her traditional fate as “a victim of the imperialistic ambitions of the occidental powers”. It was mostly meant for Japanese consumption as everyone in the West was well aware of the real motives.They intended to replace western imperialism with their own.
“Asia for Asians” was the propaganda Japan used to justify their aggresion.
Basically, Japan was developing just like a typical Western power. The big difference was it was doing so a few decades late; by the time it reached its imperialist phase, all the good territories were already occupied.
Another unfortunate factor in Japanese society was that by the 1930’s the military had become virtually independant of the Japanese government.
I recently read a book called “The Yamato Dynasty” which describes the Japanese Imperial family and the politics surrounding it from the Meiji restoration of 1868 to the present day. It’s a fascinating read. The book reconfirmed something I had heard before, that the US inadvertently caused the war in the Pacific.
Since the Meiji restoration, which was brought on by US Admiral Perry sailing to Japan and forcing them to open their borders for trade, those that were for open trade and diplomatic relations with the West and those against, balanced the Japanese ruling elite. Britain became an ally of Japan at the turn of the century and supported the Japanese in their annexation of Korea and Taiwan (colonialism was an accepted policy with Western nations back then) as well as the Russian-Japanese war where the Japanese were victorious. This alliance and support from Britain boosted the Japanese Pro West faction considerably. All was well until the end of WWI when the US took over from the British as the most influential world power.
The Americans did not fancy the Japanese-British alliance and pressured the British to give it up. The British did not want to give up the alliance and even proposed a three-way (US, Britain, Japan) alliance, which the Americans rejected. The British, succumbed to the pressure from the Americans and agreed not to renew the alliance with Japan in 1921. The immediate effect in Japan was a realignment of power from the Pro-West to the Anti-West faction. The new rulers began preparing for war 15 years before the first bullets were fired. Had the British remained allied to the Japanese, or better yet, had the Americans joined the alliance, the war in the Pacific would probably never have occurred.
In addition to my previous post, here are some more interesting facts:
Up until the '20’s, the entire Japanese fleet was built by the British. Only after the alliance was cancelled did the Japanese focus their effort to build up an industrial base capable of manufacturing enough military hardware to be self-reliable.
In addition, Japanese navy ships were serviced at British naval basis in Asia during the alliance. Britain would have made a lot of much needed revenue had they maintained their alliance with Japan. As for Japanese aggression towards neighbors, Britain had already encouraged and supported Japanese conflicts in Korea, Manchuria and Russia. Only when the alliance ended did the Japanese look at Western held territories.
Remember Woody Allen’s one-line summary of World War 1? “England owned the world, and Germany wanted it.” A gross oversimplification? Sure, but essentially accurate.
To ask a Stanislavskyish question, “What was Japan’s motivation?” To put it simply, they were a growing power, and they wanted an empire. They thought, “England has an empire. France has an empire. Russia has an empire. America has an empire. Shoot, even Belgium has and empire- why not us?”
Now, I have NEVER been a fan of moral equivalence, and I make NO excuses for the brutality of the Japanese, in their conquest and oppression of surrounding Asian nations. They HAD to be stopped. I merely note that ALL empires are built by conquest. To obntain land, you have to take it by force from the original inhabitants (as England took Australia from the aborigines, as Spain took Peru from the Incas, etc.) or from the previous conquerors (as the U.S. took Puerto Rico from Spain, etc.).
So, were the Japanese wrong? Of course- but they weren’t doing anything that other empire-building nations hadn’t done for centuries. To THEM, it appeared that the Allies were hypocrites, saying “Now that WE have OUR empires, the empire-building game is over, and everyone else has to be content with what they have.”
Well sure, just as in poker, the side that’s winning wants to walk away, while the side that’s behind wants to keep playing.