This is a LONG diatribe and I offer very few references, because most of this information is my own that I learned as an undergrad, from books I've read, or documentaries I've seen on WWII. All opinions are my own. All photos are from Wikipedia, unless otherwise specified.
The events leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor can be traced back to 1852, while Japan was still an isolationist country. Until that time, trade with the west was strictly limited to the Dutch trading in Nagasaki. Since Westerners weren't allowed in the country, their influence was strongly discouraged.
In July, 1853, Commander Matthew C. Perry, sent by the U.S. to forcibly establish trade with Japan, initially faced resistance. It didn't take Perry long to overpower the Japanese, though,
and within less than a year, he established American trade with Japan. While Japan's isolation had allowed the Japanese to think they were a powerful nation, Perry showed they were no match for outsiders who wanted to modernize their country.
It didn't take the Japanese long to begin their reformation. They started by ousting the shogun, who was the ruler at the time, and placed the emperor back in control. They watched how the west had colonized many countries, and began their own colonization process. This led to their need for new materials and goods, which were in short supply in Japan. Not only did they begin imitating the West, they began dressing like them, too.
By trying to imitate a 19th century European power, they had to engage in imperialism. The obvious target for imperialism was Korea. The problem was that the Korean king paid tribute (monetary contributions similar to taxes) to the Chinese emperor. While the Japanese could, and did force the Koreans to sign some unequal treaties, the peninsula remained free of the Japanese. However, in 1894, China sent troops into Korea to help put down a rebellion, violating a previous treaty, so the Japanese also sent in troops. Fighting broke out which lead to the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894 and 1895.
The Chinese lost the war, and lost it badly. After that, Korea stopped paying tribute to China and soon became a Japanese tributary state. Japan also took over Taiwan, which led to the rivalry with Russia over Manchuria.
From there, the rivalry escalated to the Russo-Japanese War which lasted 18 months in 1904 and 1905. Japan emerged the winner and was now looked on as a world leader. Manchuria was taken over, as was Korea, since the Russians were in no position to maintain control.
During WWI, Japan joined the Allies, where they took out Germany's colonial empire in the Pacific Ocean.
This included New Guinea, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Samoa. This was probably when Japan was the most powerful and largely accepted by Western powers. It was obvious Japan had acted exactly as the various European colonial powers had.
However, during the period of peace between the two world wars, aggressively expansionist moves, though far from unheard of, were frowned on by many nations. It wasn't simply a matter of geopolitics, either. Most people in Europe really did not want another war, and the countries that seemed to be provoking those wars were looked upon unfavorably. Because Japan hadn't suffered in WWI the way countries like France and Belgium had, they were looked upon as warmongers, or part of a group who wanted to bring the world once again to the brink of war.
Also during this time, China began to get organized. First the south was unified under its government, then the military campaign, led by
Chiang Kai-shek from 1926 to 1928 by what is now called the Northern Expedition, aided by Soviet arms, unified China by ending the rule of the the local warlords along the Yangtze River.
After defeating the warlords, the Nationalist army turned on Britain, who became their primary enemy. In response, the British retaliated in Hankou and Jiujiang but prepared to defend Shanghai. It was at that point the alliance between the communists and the Nationalists fell apart. When communist led labor unions captured Shanghai for Chiang Kai-shek, he attacked and suppressed them, and when he set up his new government in Nanjing he expelled the communists from it. These actions led to the reunification of China in 1928, but made an enemy of the Soviets. This also brought the north under the control of the Nationalist government, which was set up in the city of Nanjing. Nationalist China still had issues, a few warlords among them, but by 1928 it was in much stronger shape militarily.
Japan viewed China's reunification as a threat to its control of Manchuria's railroads. Losing anything to China was seen as unacceptable, so in 1931, the Japanese invaded Manchuria to protect their interests in the railroad. Japan subsequently set up a puppet state which nobody else recognized as a legitimate state. This isolated Japan, and it also meant a continuing series of border clashes with the Chinese.
Eventually, in 1937, the Japanese provoked the Chinese into a full-scale war, known as the Second Sino-Japanese War, or the Eight Year War.
Above image found on Cultural China. I thought this was rather pertinent, so I'm quoting the same site:
The Second Sino-Japanese War (July 7, 1937 – September 9, 1945) was a military conflict fought between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan. From 1937 to 1941, China fought Japan with some economic help from Nazi Germany (until 1938), the Soviet Union (1937-1940) and the United States (see American Volunteer Group). After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the war merged into the greater conflict of World War II as a major front in the Pacific Theatre. The Second Sino-Japanese War was the largest Asian war in the twentieth century. It also made up more than 50% of the casualties in the Pacific War.
Although the two countries had fought intermittently since 1931, full-scale war started in earnest in 1937 and ended only with the surrender of Japan in 1945. The war was the result of a decades-long Japanese imperialist policy aiming to dominate China politically and militarily, and to secure its vast raw material reserves and other economic resources, particularly food and labor. At the same time, the rising tide of Chinese nationalism and notions of self-determination stoked the coals of war. Before 1937, China and Japan fought in small, localized engagements, so-called "incidents". Yet the two sides, for a variety of reasons, refrained from fighting a total war. In 1931, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria by Imperial Japan's Kwantung Army followed the "Mukden Incident". The last of these incidents was the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 1937, marking the beginning of full scale war between the two countries.Had the Second Sino-Japanese War been a short one, the Japanese might have walked away with a hugely favorable treaty and land cessions similar to the First Sino-Japanese War.
However, the Nationalist government didn't give in, so this took many more resources than Japan had at the time. In my opinion, this was the beginning of Japan's decision to bomb Pearl Harbor, since this war pushed the Japanese economy and the military to the breaking point.
Japan's supplies of rubber, iron, and oil were pushed to the breaking point, who now had no allies in the region. The view in the international community was that Japan was a rogue state, which did not help Japan procure the materials needed to keep fighting the war in China. An attack on a U.S. gunboat on the Yangtze River alienated the U.S., as did widespread Japanese atrocities against Chinese civilians. Eventually, this led to embargoes on trade with Japan.
Since Japan desperately needed resources, there were only two places to get them. One place was Siberia and the other was the South Pacific. The Imperial Army favored invading Siberia, while the Imperial Navy wanted to take the South Pacific.
The Imperial Army was forced to abandon their quest for Siberia when in August, 1939, just weeks before Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland, the Soviet Union and Japan fought a massive tank battle on the Mongolian border. The Soviets won a crushing victory, the largest the world had ever seen to date. Defeat persuaded the Japanese to expand into the Pacific, where they saw the United States as a weaker opponent than the Soviet Union. And although this is just conjecture, if the Japanese had not lost this battle, they might never have attacked Pearl Harbor.
It was a decisive victory for the Soviets in other ways, too. When the Japanese decided to expand in the south, it also meant that the Soviets didn't have to fight on two fronts, but could use their troops against the threat of Nazi Germany in the West. In terms of its strategic impact, this battle and subsequent Soviet victory was one of the most decisive battles of the Second World War. It also served to show the Japanese military that it was not a match for the Soviets, especially since Japanese forces were still fighing throughout China. The Soviets forces were stunning, while Japanese tactics remained stuck in the traditional mindset that more highly valued honor and personal bravery on the battlefield than massive forces.
The end result to all this was the Imperial Japanese Navy got its way, although it had to deal with the fact that the South Pacific had already been colonized. As a result, there were simultaneous attacks on Pearl Harbor, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Malaya. The Japanese felt the United States was a less formidable adversary and didn't want war with the U.S. or the British while they scrambled for rubber and oil. This turned out to be suicidal and a complete misreading of how the Americans would react to Pearl Harbor, but it was, as I see it, about 90 years in the making. The above photo shows what Pearl Harbor looked like in October, 1941.
Even though Pearl Harbor was a defeat for U.S. troops and the Pacific Fleet, the Japanese didn't learn the lessons handed them by the Soviets. Honor and bravery remained central to the Japanese military mentality and, once they had recovered from the initial onslaught, the U. S. and Britain were able to combine forces and push the Japanese out of the Pacific and back to Japan in one brutal battle after another.
This leads to another point I personally saw that still existed, albeit far less, when I worked with Japanese in industry. The Japanese believed that America, as a nation of diverse races of peoples, was a mongoloid mix incapable of acting with a united resolve. That perception was fueled by the propaganda perpetrated by Japan that they were the superior race.
America was quite alien to the Japanese, and it's not surprising that the homogeneous Japanese couldn't comprehend how such a diverse range of extreme individuals, an attribute prized by Americans, could possibly become a united and unified body.
The Japanese Imperial Navy convinced themselves and their country that a devastating attack would dishearten the Americans who would come to accept a new reality of Japanese superiority.
Beside the fact the Japanese wanted the oil, rubber, food, and wealth they thought they could gain by conquering the U.S. through economic attrition, they also hoped they could wear the U.S. down politically, which would enable them to keep their conquests.
Not everything went according to plan, though. According to Wikipedia:
Important base installations such as the power station, shipyard, maintenance, and fuel and torpedo storage facilities, as well as the submarine piers and headquarters building (also home of the intelligence section) were not attacked.
Although the Japanese dealt a huge blow that December 7, 1941, it didn't take the U.S. long to regain control. This was especially true since, also according to Wikipedia:
Within six months, five battleships and two cruisers were patched or refloated so they could be sent to shipyards in Pearl Harbor and on the mainland for extensive repair.Further, to our (U.S.) shame, according to the same Wikipedia article:
One further consequence of the attack on Pearl Harbor and its aftermath was that Japanese American residents and citizens were relocated to nearby Japanese-American internment camps. Within hours of the attack, hundreds of Japanese American leaders were rounded up and brought to high-security camps such as Sand Island.And finally, also according to Wikipedia:
Fortunately for the United States, the American aircraft carriers were untouched by the Japanese attack; otherwise the Pacific Fleet's ability to conduct offensive operations would have been crippled for a year or more (given no diversions from the Atlantic Fleet). As it was, the elimination of the battleships left the U.S. Navy with no choice but to rely on its aircraft carriers and submarines—the very weapons with which the U.S. Navy halted and eventually reversed the Japanese advance. While six of the eight battleships were repaired and returned to service, their relatively low speed and high fuel consumption limited their deployment, and they served mainly in shore bombardment roles.Aircraft carriers dominated the seas in WWII. They played a crucial role in every major naval battle because they were built for speed and efficiency. They carried fighter planes, dive bombers, and torpedo planes.
This is what Ford Island that sits inside Pearl Harbor looks like today.
I hope this story, as told by me in honor of Pearl Harbor, was meaningful. I also hope you learned a bit about why the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. There are many more reasons that I could have given, but I feel I've written enough for now.
Thanks for visiting, thanks for remembering Pearl Harbor, and thanks for reading through this long post.