Reflections on the bombing of Pearl Harbor: Japan’s move to imperialism
SAN JOSE, Calif., Dec. 10, 2015 — Although Americans remember Dec. 7, 1941, as an incredibly dark day in the nation’s history, the remembrance of this atrocity should not evoke hatred or ill-will toward Japanese people – it should be directed at unrestrained government power. Americans, regardless of whether they migrated to this country from Peru, Nigeria, Mexico, Italy, Iraq or even Japan, should be familiar not only with the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, but also with the history within Japan that led to this horrible tragedy. History holds valuable lessons for all people that they can utilize for the future well-being of everyone.
Remembrance of the insidious attack upon Pearl Harbor, in light of current world tensions and international events, should stimulate Americans to seek an understanding of the root cause of this tragedy. Although the bold bombing of Pearl Harbor was designed to cripple the U.S. Pacific Fleet, it served more as a sucker punch for the Japanese imperial military, which seriously intended to keep the U.S. out of Japan’s business of empire building. To be sure, the tragedy went far beyond Hawaii and the United States, and to understand it is important.
The divisive history of Japan in the first half of the 1900s reveals what led to the violent events of December 1941 and the brutal confrontation between Imperial Japan and the United States. This history can provide answers to the questions regarding who were responsible for such destruction and death on such a massive scale. Japan’s history of this period reveals a slow, deliberate ascent to power of extreme militarists in the nation’s Imperial Army, and it demonstrates the extreme results of violent internal political strife and unprovoked aggression against neighboring nations.
When President Roosevelt addressed Congress on Dec. 8, 1941, he revealed that the Empire of Japan “had undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area.” F.D.R. reported to Congress that he was aware that the Japanese government had launched simultaneous attacks against Hong Kong, the Philippine Islands, Malaya, Guam, Wake Island and Midway. The militaristic government of Japan attacked the U.S. military installation in order to keep the only free nation that could stop it out of its way. The Empire of Japan, via its military, had calculated the benefits of such an outrageous act, and Admiral Yamamoto had developed a very good plan to execute it.
This extreme outcome started well before the planning of Admiral Yamamoto, the officer who predicted that such an unprovoked attack would “arouse a sleeping giant.” The empire-building ambitions of militarists in Japan ran back centuries; Japan had a great interest in the Korean peninsula. In the mid-1800s, Japan was victorious in a war with China and could eliminate Chinese influence in the area. At the turn of the century, the Japanese gained strong economic and military influence over Korea. In time, rivalry with Russia over the greater control in the developing nation led to the Russo-Japanese War, fought from 1904 to 1905. Through victory in this war, Japan eliminated the final rival for dominion over Korea.
Ironically, President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated peace with Japan in the early 1900s, while his cousin, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was the one to ask Congress to declare war against the Empire of Japan in 1941. The first President Roosevelt made efforts throughout 1905 to mediate the Russo-Japanese War. He succeeded in hosting the peace negotiations in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Through the Portsmouth Treaty, he and the U.S. government recognized Japan’s “paramount political, military, and economic interests in Korea” and permitted the Imperial government to attain complete dominion over Korea. This irony reveals dramatic changes in the world of the early 1900s.
Unfortunately, it was the colonization of Korea that led to the Empire of Japan’s formulation of a model of dominion. Korea became a protectorate through the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1905, but essentially came under Japanese domination. “Reforms,” which were designed to weaken any chances of Korean resistance, transformed the new state. The Korean Army was reduced from 20,000 to 1,000 troops as Japan disbanded all garrisons, leaving only one garrison in the capital, Seoul. Japan also eliminated the Korean police in Seoul and installed a Japanese police inspector in each of the Korean prefectures. Korea was an established and pacified colony of the Empire of Japan long before the outbreak of the Great War in Europe.
While the Japanese government had been aligned with the allies during World War I and was beginning to become more democratic during the 1920s, such a major structural change in government was poorly timed, as the effects of the Great Depression reverberated through the world. The Japanese people struggled in the 1930s, and their democratic experiment became increasingly distrusted, especially by leaders in the Japanese army. Like militarists in Europe, the Japanese military was extremely nationalistic. Yet, unlike fascist efforts in Europe aimed at destroying traditional systems of government, the Japanese army sought to restore political control to military leaders.
The leaders in the Imperial Army believed Japan’s economic problems could be solved by foreign expansion, which translated into empire building or foreign dominion, specifically domination of China. They sought to duplicate the Korean “protectorate” throughout the rest of Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. In September of 1931, Japanese troops from the Kwantung Army blew up a section of their own Japanese-controlled railway line that stretched across Manchuria. They blamed it on Chinese “terrorists” and seized the town of Mukden, nearby. The Japanese parliament, who supported a free people’s right of self-determination, was shocked by the army’s actions.
Unfortunately, those in the Japanese parliament who favored democracy had little power to control the highly militant army. Through a deliberate and determined effort throughout Japan’s political system, extreme militarists in the Japanese army increasingly secured more power. The self-directed destruction of the railway line provided a convenient excuse to simply take over Manchuria and to transform it into a colony, which they renamed “Manchukuo.” By this time, the militarists had realized that they could control Japan by utilizing the emperor as the central symbol of national power, and this ensured popular support for strong army leaders ruling in his name.
The true obstacle for the extreme militarists within their nation was the democratic-minded civilian government. One incident in May 1932 is quite revealing. Nine army officers went to the home of Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai to challenge his views. After he cordially invited them in, instead of talking, the leader of the officers shouted, “No use talking!” The officer pulled out his pistol and shot Inukai, prompting the others to also shoot the civilian leader in what was like a Mafia-style execution. The outrageous incident essentially generated serious intimidation of other civilian government leaders considering control of the army, which only became bolder and bolder.
It is recorded that between 1921 and 1944 there were at least 64 incidents of political violence in Japan. During this period, Japan gradually eroded into a divided nation, and at the core was a bitterly divided government. Boldly, on Feb. 26, 1935, a large faction of Japan’s army officers attempted an unsuccessful coup, which had the sympathy of Prince Chichibu, one of Emperor Hirohito’s brothers. Yet, when the emperor learned of the coup, he immediately ordered it quashed, and boldly stated if there were any problem with doing so, he would personally lead an effort to subdue the “rebels.” The rebellion had to be suppressed by the Japanese navy, and most of the coup leaders were secretly executed.
From the 1935 coup, circumstances worsened, and Japan‘s civilian government grew weaker, incapable of controlling the militants in the Kwantung army. In July of 1937, Chinese soldiers clashed with Japanese troops from the Kwantung army on the Marco Polo Bridge in Peking. The leaders of the Japanese Army ignored Tokyo’s order to create a ceasefire, and from Manchukuo began an invasion of China. This bold action only strengthened the power of the militarists, and Japan’s civilian government eventually became powerless. The army’s mad dog behavior and tactics ultimately led to the Sino-Japanese War, which can be viewed as part of World War II, but it is not recognized as such by western historians.
While the subjugation of the Korean people and their land was one foundation that led to Japan’s aggressive conquests during the 1930s, to continue funding the war effort, Japanese militarists needed ways to acquire more resources. The military decided to make a drastic adjustment to the geo-political arrangement of the nations of Southeastern Asia – via military dominion. To clear the way, in July 1940, a moderate government under Admiral Yonai was replaced by Prince Konoe. On Sept. 27, 1940, Hirohito eventually approved of Japan’s joining the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, which cemented their common commitment to global domination.