Armed Hostilities

Attack on Pearl Harbor: Japanese Reasons

Table of Contents
  1. A Review of the Literature
  2. Conclusion
  3. References
  4. Footnotes

A Review of the Literature

Reviewing the Japanese and United States political affairs history up to the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the turning point came about after Japan won the war over Russia in 1905. From that period henceforth, American and Japanese interests began to collide. The end of the Japanese and Russian War saw Japan emerge stronger in East Asia as a major regional power. This change of power balance elicited caution by the United States towards Japan. In the grass roots level, there was an illustration of the worsening relationship between the two nations. The immigrants of Japanese origin were subjected to American racism, psychological fear, and economic anxiety in America. The hatred led to restrictions and prohibitions upon Japanese land holding, naturalization, immigration, school segregation, boycotts and personal violence against the Japanese.1 In response, the Japanese were dissatisfied by a series of treaties that were discriminatory by the Americans.

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Did the American Far East Foreign Policy Trigger the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor?

The relationship between the Americans and the Japanese thawed further during the outbreak of World War I. The Japanese had entered into a treaty with Germany where it got concessions from China and issued a list of demands on China. 2 This aggression by Japan received strong opposition within the US administration that a foothold on China by the Japanese would nullify the Open Door Policy. The American then secretary assistant to the navy Franklin D. Roosevelt became involved into resisting the Japanese initiatives with a background of sentimental attachment to China. Personally, Roosevelt crafted some rough naval war operation plan against the navy of Japan. Japan on the other hand, was disappointed with the inferior position they were in diplomatic and military negotiations with the US. For instance, the Washington Naval Disarmament Conference in 1922 determined the naval ratio of the US, UK and Japan as 5:5:3. 3 This reinforced the suspicion of Japan that the West degraded her as an inferior power. The pride of Japanese nation was further hurt by America’s harsh policies and attitudes towards the Japanese people.

The Great Depression that happened at the end of the 1920s caused economic turmoil in Japan after the 1930s. Unemployment rate grew high in the cities and Japanese countrysides experienced poor harvests and this fueled unrests by rural and urban labor. In the midst of this turmoil, Japanese rightwing and ultra national groups pursued their ideologies actively, weakening the Japanese parliamentary democracy and strengthening cliques of extremists. The US rebuffed this aggression and regarded as a violation of international by Japan and a direct intrusion to Western prestige in China.4

The Japanese and the US made no efforts to deflate the building tension in the subsequent period. In 1933, the Japanese withdrew from the League of Nations. They followed it up in 1934 by pulling out of the Washington Naval Disarmament Treaty.5 The poor relations between Japan and the West were highlighted in the London Naval Disarmament Conference collapsed of 1935-36. There was an attempt by the US and the UK to impose skewed naval ratios to Japan. This event made the Japanese harden their resolve that only military capability could advance their country to first class. In 1936, the Japanese signed the Anti Comintern Treaty with Germany due to the sense of political defeat and isolation. On the economic front, Japan was going through trade restrictions and product boycotts in China and SouthEast Asia. The main Japanese Islands were woefully lacking enough raw materials. With the expanding population base, the Japanese sought to secure by whatever means necessary the sphere of influence to which they felt they were entitled. They wanted to overcome the effects of foreign economic pressures by using force to expand its economic sphere and living territory.

The Japanese turned their defense policy in 1937 to mainland China and announced a clump down to resistance throughout China. This showed a clear signal that Japan wanted to push the West out of China. These intentions were fiercely opposed by the US because it secured a large market for its goods, and had established the general principles of international order. This had shaped the US policy of the Far East, standing against Japan.

The conflict between Japan and China was not the only differences the US and the Japanese had. Their relationship was inseparably combined with the way they cooperated with Europe. The Japanese had an alliance with Germany and the US had strong ties with the UK. The US despised Nazism and given that the UK was the only major power desperately fighting Germany, they could not allow it to collapse. 6 For this reason, Japan joined its list of an inevitable enemy when it joined an alliance with Germany coupled with its East Asia aggression. The Japanese on the other hand, thought the American policy as double standards. The Americans seemed to accept European colonies at the same time opposing the Japanese ones. The Japanese had reached a point of no return and could hardly avoid moving Southward with the aim of amassing resources for their survival. However, the US was squarely in the path of the Japanese expansionism ambitions.

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Did American Economic Sanction Cause Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor?

The U.S. had systematically engaged in the policy of economic sanctions against Japan. In particular, the economic measures imposed on Japan in 1941 with the aim of deterring Japan from further aggressions in the Far East, was the major cause of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The oil sanctions against Japan were aimed at inducing the Japanese to halt Asian military aggression. The application of these sanctions on Japan were counterproductive as they failed in preventing Japan and instead made the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and ignite the Second World War in the Pacific.7

The commercial treaty that had existed between Japan and the US was renounced in 1939. The US followed this by putting aviation fuel exports and high grade scrap iron and steel to Japan under license. These actions cornered the Japanese who interpreted these actions as provocative. In order to gain resources, the Japanese attacked Indochina in 1940. By July 1941, Japan had conquered the Southern area of French Indochina. 8 In reprisal, the US froze Japanese assets and introduced oil sanctions. This placed a stranglehold of devastating economic consequences on Japan. As a consequence, Japan experienced oil shortages as both its army and the navies were dependent on imported oil and only had about a two year supply left.

Did American Actions during Negotiations Cause Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor?

The final attempt between the US and Japan to reach a diplomatic agreement was not successful in 1941. This made the decision to war on the part of Japan inevitable. The armies and navies of both countries continued with preparations for war in anticipation of a breakdown of the talks. The American officials had already distrusted the Japanese before they had begun the series of talks. The negotiations stalled over the question of Japanese withdrawal of forces from China.9 Again, the proposed meeting between Konoe and Roosevelt did not happen. The Japanese felt offended by the US actions and found them completely unacceptable.

Instead of bipartisan negotiations, the US presented a raft of ultimatums to the Japanese that called for; withdrawal from China and Indochina, support the Nationalist government of China with which Japan had been in conflict with for four years, and Japan to interpret its pledges under the tripartite pact. These measures and others jeopardized the negotiations and slighted the pride of the Japanese people as a nation. Thus, the Japanese did not see the point of dragging the negotiations because its oil supplies dwindled as a result of continued oil embargo imposed by the US and allies. The Japanese were hell bent to protect the pride of the Japanese nation, rather than accepting the US threats. It therefore it necessary to take up arms before all her oil reserves dwindled or else reconcile herself to eventual capitulation.


The Japanese took the situation they were in extremely seriously. To break the stalemate, it had to take drastic military measures. The measures taken were essentially based on oil security. Oil was an indispensable energy item necessary for the conduct of modern warfare. Therefore, Japanese facilities such as naval ships, aircrafts, trucks, and others risked being rendered useless. As a matter of agency, Japan had to control the rich oil petroleum producing South East Asia as soon as possible. However, the US stood in the Japanese path of achieving this objective. While the Southern operation was launched, Japan decided to eliminate the Pacific Fleet as a matter of agency. That was why there was a surprise attack of the American naval fleet on Pearl Harbor.

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Baldwin, D. Economic Statecraft. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Kurashige, L. Japanese American Celebration and Conflict. California: University of California, 2002.

Spiller, Clancey, Young. The United States, 1763-2001. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Siracuse, Coleman. Depression to Cold War. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002.


  1. Kurashige Lon. Japanese American Celebration and Conflict. (California: University of California,), 70.
  2. Siracusa Joseph, Depression to Cold War (New York: Green Wood Publishing Group, 2002), 79.
  3. Fry, Goldstein, & Longhorne. Guide to International Relations and Diplomacy. (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004), 494.
  4. Spiller, Clancey, Young. The United States, 1763-2001. (New York: Routledge, 2005), 197).
  5. Fry, Goldstein, & Longhorne. Guide to International Relations and Diplomacy. (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004), 494.
  6. Siracusa Joseph, Depression to Cold War (New York: Green Wood Publishing Group, 2002),83.
  7. Baldwin, D. Economic Statecraft (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985), 166.
  8. Baldwin, D. Economic Statecraft (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985), 167.
  9. Siracusa Joseph, Depression to Cold War (New York: Green Wood Publishing Group, 2002),84.

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