We go forth in universal brotherhood
to guide the people of the four seas
and establish a righteous peace
so that the ideal may blossom like a fragrant flower.
Aikoku Koushinkyoku (“Patriotic March”), my translation
No, this isn’t a pro-Japanese Empire post. I just thought that this particular piece of imperialist propoganda made for a good window into the mindset of the times.
So, since tomorrow is Pearl Harbor Day, this is the first post in a two-parter about Pearl Harbor, starting with a summary of how Japan got to the point of pillaging and burning their way through the Pacific in the first place.
In order to dissect the massive clusterfuck known as the early Shouwa period, we need to backtrack all the way to the beginning of the Meiji period. Now, the first thing you need to remember is that Japan was a highly insular country. This caused them to develop a certain sense of nationalism, especially after that sort of thing came into fashion in the 20th century. They valued their Japanese-ness intensely, to the point of feeling a degree of superiority to other peoples. In order to maintain their Japanese-ness, they figured out how to adopt foreign concepts and methods while still putting a distinctly Japanese spin on them. Their writing system is a good example. They didn’t just adopt kanji wholesale — they adapted it, adding a syllabary to make it fit their language better, then even added some new kanji to fill in the lexical gaps.
So, it stands to reason that when Perry busted down their door, they adapted to the “modern world” in their own way. There were still some identity crises involved, but in time they found ways to hang the trappings of a Western-style democracy on their stubbornly monarchist framework. Their constitution was built on a Prussian model; there were elections and parties, but in practice the only people getting elected just so happened to be the former noblemen. Meanwhile, the Emperor still ran everything.
Also meanwhile, the nation’s economy advanced at breakneck speed. The country was industrialized within a few short decades, and soon both Russia and China had been defeated by this tiny island nation’s growing military — turning over Taiwan and Korea in the process. The whole country collectively patted themselves on the back for their ingenuity. Who could come so far in such a short time but the magnificent Japanese? Clearly, this meant that they were the chosen people, destined to one day rule over all of Asia.
Then the First World War happened.
I think many people in the West don’t even know that Japan was involved there at all. My middle school history classes didn’t mention it except in passing, if they ever did. Well, that’s because we Westerners collectively forgot all about them. Their main role was way over in the Pacific, where they helped the Allies seize Axis colonies in Southeast Asia, cutting them off from their rubber plantations and copper mines and so on. They were also involved in the Siberian Intervention. A vital contribution, but one well out of sight of the rest of the world, who had their eyes fixed on Europe. When the Japanese delegation arrived at Versailles, they were constantly overlooked. They got the invitation to the big Everybody Hates Germany Party, but no one remembered sending it. In the end, all they got out of the treaty were a few German ships and a big, ugly bruise on their collective ego.
Remember what I said about the Japanese feeling superior? Yeah, that was still very much a thing. On top of that, at the same time their industry started growing, so did Japan’s military. Their victories against China and Russia only served to swell their egos. Meanwhile, big things were happening in the government, starting with the death of the Meiji Emperor. His successor, the Taishou Emperor, was a rather frail man, so he delegated most of the governing to elected officials. This was generally a good thing, but it allowed the military to gradually take over his government from the inside, even influencing his son Hirohito. And while the government was being taken over by the military, the military was being taken over by imperialistic nationalists. By the time Hirohito ascended as the Shouwa emperor, the transformation was just about complete.
Back down in the civilian realm, things were getting rougher. As we all know, Japan is a small island nation. Militarism requires industry, and industry requires resources. But the islands could only produce so much metal, wood, and coal to feed this growing beast, and importation was painfully expensive. The economy began to suffer, and with it, so did the people. So, the Japanese reasoned, they would have to find a way to cut costs. And what’s the fastest way to make foreign resources cheaper? Why, just take them for yourself, of course! Never mind that League of Nations nonsense.
And so we have the circumstances that led to Japan’s 1937 invasion of China. At the time, China was in the thick of a civil war between the nationalist and communist factions, and even when they decided to call a temporary truce, Japan still steamrolled the hell out of them. Or so it looked for a while, but we all know that you should never get involved in a land war in Asia. The Imperial Army succeeded at invading Manchuria and establishing a puppet state there (on the pretense of forming a new, ethnically Manchu country). The hard part was pushing into the mainland. After a few victories, the campaign stalled out by 1939, mainly because their lines of supply and communication were stretched hair-thin across literal thousands of miles.
Meanwhile, Germany and Russia invaded Eastern Europe together, until Germany turned around and stabbed Russia in the back. Japan, down to just a few months’ worth of fuel and supplies in China, decided to take advantage of the ensuing chaos in Europe to do the exact same thing they did in the last war: invade the East Indies. With all of the European powers busy wrestling each other, they could barely spare the manpower to defend their delicious, resource-rich Pacific colonies. So Japan sent their Navy along with what they could spare of their Army, and carried out a swift campaign to snap up these islands. They acquired the Dutch East Indies’ oil fields, the Malayan rubber plantations, and the tin and copper mines in both. In a matter of months, the only place left to conquer was the Philippines.
I think you can see where this is going. The Japanese generals weren’t fools; they knew the U.S. would try to defend their territory in the Philippines. So while the Army geared up for invasion, the Navy assembled a task force for the sole purpose of crippling the U.S. Navy’s ability to counterattack. They would launch coordinated air, naval, and submarine strikes on major naval bases such as Midway, Wake Island, and of course, the U.S. Navy’s main anchorage at Pearl Harbor, where they kept most of their battleships and carriers.
What they didn’t account for was the sheer force with which the United States would counterattack once they recovered. With several times more scientific advancement, industrial capacity, and manpower, the U.S. outclassed Japan thoroughly. If they hadn’t been so greedy, they might have succeeded in uniting “eight nations under one roof” (hakkou ichiu), but that just wasn’t happening with America in the picture. By bombing Pearl Harbor, invading the Philippines, and smashing up the United States’ Pacific bases, all the Japanese managed to do was shoot themselves in the foot.
And we all know how that turned out in the end.
*The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict – A detailed summary of wartime Japanese culture, written for the military by a cultural anthropologist.
*Emperor Hirohito and Showa Japan: A Political Biography by Stephen F. Large – Explains the Emperor’s role in all this.
*If you want another look at how the Emperor factored in, the movie Emperor is about a diplomat’s effort to determine whether he could be held responsible for his military’s war crimes, and if so, what to do about it.
*The film Tora! Tora! Tora! also does a good job of explaining how the Japanese military rationalized the Pearl Harbor raid.
 The reign of Emperor Shouwa (born Hirohito), which lasted from the death of his father Emperor Taishou (Yoshihito) in 1926 to his own death in 1989. I refer to them by their regnal names because that’s the custom.
 During the First World War, the Allies sent a small expeditionary force into Russia, in an attempt to assist the “White Russians” in the revolution and evacuate friendly units who had been caught in the crossfire. Japan’s forces were sent unilaterally, under their own command, rather than cooperating with the Allies; some elements in the military had planned to annex Siberia to create a buffer state between them and the new Soviet Union. I will probably write about this in the future.
 China is a lot more ethnically diverse than Western depictions would have you believe. The Han are the most common, with Manchu in fourth place; however, the Manchu actually ruled China for a few hundred years until they were overthrown by the 1912 revolution. Afterwards, the Republican regime painted the Manchu as outside colonizers, causing ethnic tensions between them and everyone else. The Japanese capitalized on this to get the Manchu on their side when they started invading the region.