On Friday it struck me how little some people seemed to know about Japan’s war time past. In light of that I decided to write this. It is a (not so)brief look at what Japan did in the Pacific War, and the sequence in which the major events happened.
Let us have a look at Japan’s wartime history. It can be traced back to 1904 when Japan smashed the Russian fleet in Tsushima Strait and occupied Korea, and the Russian harbour town of Port Arthur. For the Koreans this was the start of a brutal occupation that lasted until 1945 and is the cause of Korean claims that their women were “comfort women” to Japanese troops there.
Japan joined the Allies in World War 1 and occupied the German held lands that are now part of China. After the war, China was given those lands, and Japan was rewarded the small islands of the Mariana’s archipelago in the central Pacific.
The militarists in the Japanese army were not pleased with these paltry rewards. Japan was also chaffing at the Washington treaty which limited the scope of naval armaments. Japan was interested in experimenting with flat decked ships from which it could launch aircraft.
In 1931, with the world in a state of economic depression, Japanese militarists gained a foothold in Japanese politics and began advocating expansionist policies. Six years later in 1937, they began to occupy parts of northeastern China, leading to an incident a significant local landmark called the Marco Polo bridge. Large scale war started after this. A few months later, frustrated with Chinese resistance at Nanjing, they subjected the city to ferocious aerial bombardment. After the bombing stopped, troops entered the city and went on a massive orgy of raping and murdering women from the very young to the very old – a war crime that still angers China to this very day. The death toll was about 250,000.
In the late 1930s with international tensions rising, the Washington Naval Treaty limitations were lifted and the Japanese moved ahead with two large carriers and a number of smaller ships. Construction also began on some large battleships (IJN Yamato and Musashi). Japan needed raw materials which were not available in Japan such as coal, rubber, tin and oil. To get these, it needed to access to foreign markets. The militarists envisaged an empire – cynically named the Greater Eastern Asia Co-operation Sphere or something similar.
World War 2 started in 1939. Japan stayed neutral, but in September 1940 it signed an agreement with Rome and Berlin to join their pact. Thus Japan became the third member.
By 1941, concerns about a war in the Pacific were growing. In July 1941 Japan occupied French Indochina. Within days the U.S. imposed a wide ranging embargo on trade with Japan. Because Japan relies on oil, this was a damaging move. The Americans began to call up military reservists later the same month..
The Japanese army now began to plan for a large campaign of occupation. The Japanese navy and in particular Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto were aware of America’s industrial might – Yamamoto himself said Japan had 6-12 months to win the war, after which America’s industrial might would become overwhelming. To win the war, Japan had to destroy the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor from the outset.