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Prelude to War – Japan

The seeds of the Pacific War were planted in 1853. In that year, feudal Japan came to an end. Fifty two years later, she would stand in front of the world as a major power. The transition from feudalism to a modern government would be a time of massive social, political, and technological evolution. This evolution would forever alter the way the world thought about Japan, and started to dig the chasms over which the Pacific War would start.

In July, 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry landed in Edo Bay with the “black ships” named both for their hull color and the black smoke emanating from their smokestacks. The Japanese witnesses hoped the ships were on fire. They weren’t — they were the herald of a new age — where Japan would not be able to exist apart from the rest of the world. Perry landed upon shores that had driven off or killed any Westerner that tried to establish relations. Only the Portuguese, once per year, were allowed to dock. Even that ship wasn’t allowed to actually touch Japanese soil; it docked in an elaborate wooden platform that obscured the crew’s view. The Treaty of Kanagawa forced Japan to allow trade with the United States and provide shelter to shipwrecked sailors. Japan’s isolation was over.

The xenophobia that pervaded Japanese culture started with its government. The Tokugawa bafuku had existed for 250 years; it was peace achieved through a complex systems of checks and balances that essentially was neighbors spying on neighbors. After a century of bitter civil war that the contemporary Japanese saw as war between alien nations, Ieyasu Tokugawa unified Japan. After his assassination, Toyotomi Hideyoshi created a system that collected all the weapons of the common soldier, placed his enemies amongst friends on all sides, and held his lords families as hostages in a gilded cage in Edo. This created a phenomenon unknown in the West; Japan did not make any military advancements for hundreds of years; in fact, the quality of their military arms actually decreased. Some coastal guns were fired only once a decade.

Perry arrived as the leader of vanguard of western representatives, all of whom had been jockeying to open Japan to western trade and provide safe ports for their ships and wreck survivors. Perry countered entreaties by the Russians, English, and Germans by steaming into Tokyo Bay and ordered the Japanese to sign a treaty or go to war. Despite some leaders’ desires to fight a war and die before the gaijin landed, cooler heads prevailed. It was clear that Japan was behind the West in military technology, if not in culture.

The old order was swept away by a western-styled conscript army during the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. Books extolling the virtues of Japanese culture using western technology were popular. Japanese leaders toured western countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Over the next fifty years, Japan undertook detailed studies of the West, and decided that Japanese culture was superior, but Japanese technology was not. Alliances with the British provided a new navy, and alliances with the Germans trained an army. Within 40 years, Japan undertook its first military operation overseas in 300 years. Using false accusations, Japan attacked Korea in 1895. In 1910, Korea was annexed.

The real shock to the west came in 1904. Contesting the sovereignty of Manchuria, Russia and Japan went to war. In two battles, Mukden and Tsushima, the two Imperial Powers clashed. Mukden, the land battle, was a draw, with neither power able to gain an advantage. Large numbers of Japanese soldiers, poorly armed and supplied, died.

But the Japanese memory of the Russo-Japanese War is that of Tsushima. Admiral Togo, in a modern fleet, took on two naval fleets of Russia. He achieved astounding victories. Both fleets suffered huge losses. The whole world was stunned; a quick Russian victory was expected. Togo was in command of a modern fleet crewed with skilled men of high morale; the Russian fleet was disheartened and underfed. But the land stalemate went on, and the war seemed without end.

Eventually, United States President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated the Treaty of Providence in 1906 that ended the war. Japan enjoyed new status among nations, and received a large sum from the Russians for her war costs. The nation would never want to be taken for granted again.

In World War I, Japan fought on the side of the Allies, entering the war only when Germany’s defeat seemed inevitable. She seized German possessions in the Pacific, took the German treaty ports in China, and expected to be seated at the table of the victors at Versailles. But Japan’s expected gains were not to be. Japan was allowed to keep some South Pacific islands, but many German possessions were returned or given to other Allies.

Japanese leaders began to recognize that they were not going to get the kind of support and respect from other nations that those nations shared amongst themselves. The exclusionary laws of the United States and others, prevented from obtaining resources cheaply and faced with a growing population that the home islands could no longer sustain, Japan entered the Great Depression with an economy that was almost wholly dependent on silk. As cheaper, native alternatives were available in the west, Japan’s economy faltered.

The Great Depression hit Japan hard. Her economy was running on full steam with no ability to expand, either in raw materials, workers, or machinery. These things had to come from somewhere else.

Meanwhile, Japan was wondering where her interests lie. The American embargo in scrap iron hurt and angered the government, and throughout the second half of 1941 the Army is calling for war. One has to only look at a map to see Japan’s strategic dilemma; they are close to Russia and China, and as an island nation they do not have many natural resources. The occupation of French Indochina in November 1941 causes a series of events that would lead to war with the United States.

The rivalry between the Imperial Japanese Army and the Imperial Japanese Navy was growing acute. The Army, who sent its staff officers to Moscow since Russia was the Army’s perceived enemy, agitated for war with the west. The Army radicals thought Japan was superior in arms, and most importantly, in moral fiber. The Navy, which sent its staff officers to Washington and London since they were their perceived enemy, did not favor war with a nation with the economic power of the United States. Not until oil sales were frozen did the Navy relent and approve the war. Throughout the war, the Japanese High Command never doubted that Japanese will would win over the decadent west. Staff officers like Yamamoto privately held great reservations about fighting a nation with America’s industrial capacity.

On November 28, 1941, the First Air Fleet left Hiroshima Bay and sailed for Hawaii. They did not know if they would be recalled; their mission was not approved until the fleet received the message “East Wind, Rain.” This meant that negotiations with the West had failed. 359 planes attacked Pearl Harbor, sinking five battleships and damaging three others. The American Pacific Fleet that was supposed to steam to the defense of the Philippines was on the bottom of their home waters.

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