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Japan Surrenders
Prelude to a War 
Pearl Harbor - Prelude to a War 
by Gregory Karpicky

"Why, then, do the winds and waves of strife
Rage so turbulently throughout the world?"
-- Emperor Hirohito

Until 1853, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry anchored in Yokahama Bay, the islands of Japan had been relatively isolated. Having a long and very proud history of self-reliance, they considered themselves a chosen race. Their Emperor was considered a god, supposedly descended from Amaterasu, or Great Spirit Illuminating the Heavens, and could trace his lineage back well over 1000 years. Added to this long national history was an equally long military history of victories against invaders and foes that had left Japan feeling invulnerable. But the isolation became clear with Perry's visit, and the Japanese quickly realized they needed to arm themselves with modern weapons if they were to deal with the outside world. They performed this task so well that by 1895 they had annexed Formosa and part of the Korean peninsula and had shamed the Czar's army and navy in the short Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05.  By the early 20th century Japan was recognized as a world-class military nation. Militants in the Japanese army were moving into control of the government and were bent on conquest. The early 1930's involved Japan in a war to seize China.

Sensing that Japan was headed toward an eventual war with America Admiral Isoruko Yamamoto, one of the most commanding figures in the Japanese navy, had begun operational planning in early 1941. The key to his plan was a decisive attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. His idea was to force America to accept a quick peace after a swift blow to their naval forces in the Pacific. It was at this time the details of the Operation Hawaii began to be worked out. The idea was actually based on American studies performed during the 1920's and 30's, where it was found a fleet of aircraft carriers could "bomb" the US fleet at Pearl Harbor before an effective defense could be mounted. It seems ironic that an idea that the Japanese Navy found so appealing was largely ignored by the American military.

In July of 1941, Japanese Prime Minister Konoye called a meeting of his cabinet to decide the matter of continuing and expanding the war or seeking peace. At this meeting Navy Minister Admiral Nagano made a speech that showed how quickly things were moving with regards to war:

"As for war with the United States, although there is now a chance of achieving victory, the chances will diminish as time goes on. By the latter half of next year it will already be difficult for us to cope with the United States, after that, the situation will become increasingly worse. The United States will probably prolong the matter until her defenses have been built up and then try to settle it. Accordingly as time goes by, the Empire will be put at a disadvantage. If we could settle things without war, there would be nothing better. But if we conclude that the conflict can not ultimately be avoided, then I would like you to understand that as time goes by we will be in a disadvantageous position. Moreover, if we occupy the Philippines, it will be easier, from the Navy's point of view, to carry on the war." [1]

Only a few realized that in the year 1939 the United States had:

  • Nearly twice the population of Japan
  • Seventeen times Japan's national income
  • Five times more steel production
  • Seven times more coal production
  • Eighty times the automobile production [2]
So while some in the military in Japan were having second thoughts about the ability of Japan to emerge victorious in a long, protracted war with America, there was agreement that the sooner the war started the better. There needed to be a short swift sword stroke to take the United States out of any conflict. And that was the operation against the fleet at Pearl Harbor.

In September of 1940, when Japan, Germany and Italy signed the Tripartite Treaty at Adolph Hitler's Chancellery in Berlin the United States recognized the treaty's significance and began to prepare for an eventual conflict with the Axis signatories. A new Prime Minister, Hedeki Tojo took office soon afterwards and immediately began to clamor for access to French Indo-China (what is now Vietnam and Cambodia.) Japan needed large supplies of rice, rubber, steel, tin, oil and other essential raw materials if she were to continue to pursue her war with China. Later that month the government of a defeated France "invited" the Japanese to occupy French Indochina. American President Franklin D. Roosevelt immediately took notice and clamped an embargo of steel and oil shipments to Japan. The Japanese reaction was one of anger. If the United States could not be made to peacefully accept Japan's needs for raw materials and food, they would have to take those things by force.

As a result, on September 3rd, 1941, an Imperial Conference was called to receive the Emperor's approval to begin a war with the Allies. While the Emperor asked that all peaceful avenues be explored, the military began serious preparations. By October a war with the Americans was inevitable, and the extensive and detailed plans for what was to be called Operation Hawaii were set into motion.


[1]. Japan’s War, The Great Pacific Conflict, Edwin P. Hoyt; p. 206, Transcript of 41st Liaison conference, July 24, 1941

[2].; Grim Economic Realities, Why Japan Really Lost the War.

- - -

Copyright © 2005 Gregory Karpicky.

Written by Gregory Karpicky.  If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Gregory Karpicky at:

About the author:
My literary background has mostly been in writing for various businesses I have consulted for. My father was a career Army officer who earned the Legion of Merit, and the exposure I received at various postings around the world with this gave me a lifelong interest military history.

Published online: 12/17/2005.
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