Japan entered the Pacific War in December 1941 (the 16th year of the Showa Era), plunging into a “sea of battles” for three years and nine months. What on earth was the purpose of this war? How did Japan end up headed for catastrophe after an initial series of victories? This section will mainly examine the Battle of Midway, a decisive battle which set the course for Japan’s defeat.
Ambiguity in war goals
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet. (See Footnote.)
On December 8, 1941, Air Strike Leader of the aircraft carrier Akagi of the Combined Fleet, Mitsuo Fuchida, radioed the following coded message when his plane started to fly over the U.S. Pacific fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii: “To to to to.... (All units, charge).” “To” stood for totsugeki, meaning “charge.”Attack bomber regiments that took off from six aircraft carriers dealt devastating blows to all eight battleships belonging to the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Meanwhile, in operations southwest of Japan, the Twenty-fifth Army commanded by Tomoyuki Yamashita landed on the Malay Peninsula while regiments of Zero fighters based in Taiwan took control of the air over the Philippines within a few days.
On December 10, two days after the opening of the Pacific War, more than 80 Japanese attack planes succeeded in sinking the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser HMS Repulse just prior to the Battle of Malaya. In February 1942, Japan conquered and occupied the British colony of Singapore. This turn in events was soon followed in March by the evacuation of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, Commander of U.S. Forces from the Philippines to Australia.
Indeed, Japan was able to take control of the sea and air in the Western Pacific all at once.
After a series of victories, however, Japan started on the a path to its defeat.
Here, we would like to examine Japan’s purpose in this war—whether it went to war for “self-preservation and self-defense” or whether it aimed to create the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.
Indeed, the very ambiguity of Japan’s war goals led to the failure of its war management.
On November 2, 1941, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo had an audience with Emperor Showa to inform him of the government’s decision to go to war. The Emperor asked Tojo, “What do you think is the just cause of starting this war?” Tojo replied, “We are in the process of studying that, and I will report to you on that soon, Your Majesty.”
At the Imperial Headquarters-Government Liaison Conference, where the Imperial policy decision was made to wage war earlier, no substantial discussion was conducted on the “just cause” of going to war. Within the Navy, the dominant opinion was that the purpose of the war should be “self-preservation and self-defense.” The Navy insisted that Japan had no choice but to go to war because it had no oil available after the United States imposed an oil export embargo.
Also within the Army, the majority supported the notion that Japan would go to war for “self-preservation and self-defense.”
But Tojo, who also held the War Minister portfolio, made it clear that the creation of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere was the “basis” of Japan’s policies every time he was briefed on the process of planning national policies. Kenryo Sato, chief of the Military Affairs Section of the War Ministry, constantly insisted that Japan’s goal was to create the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere while ignoring the arguments for “self-preservation and self-defense.”
“[The Army is not so enthusiastic about] a war with the United States as the Navy and the government. Nevertheless, the Army is willing to fight a 100-year war if that’s what it takes to complete the Second Sino-Japanese War.” The Army obviously was preoccupied with the war with China.
For Tojo and others, the establishment of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere through war with the United States and Britain was Japan’s last resort to make China surrender.
The Principles for Implementation of the Imperial Policy, which was officially approved at a meeting in the presence of the Emperor on November 5, 1941, stated that “the Empire of Japan decided to wage war against the United States, Britain and the Netherlands to make a breakthrough in the current crisis, realize self-preservation and self-defense and build a new order in the Greater East Asia.”
However, the outline merely put in writing the arguments of both the Army and Navy. Later, the phrase “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere” developed a life of its own, and the Army and Navy made separate plans for operations without trying to coordinate their moves.
The Daikairei 1-go, Navy Operation Order Number 1, issued on November 5 in preparation for attacking the southern areas (Southeast Asia), stated the purpose of the war was for “self-preservation and self-defense.” It was written on the assumption that the war would be short. On the other hand, the Dairikumei 564-go, Army Operation Order Number 564, which cited both “self-preservation and self-defense” and “building a new order in the Greater East Asia” as pretexts for going to war, envisioned a long, drawn-out war toward the goal of the reorganization of the Asian colonies held by Britain, the Netherlands and the United States.
The Imperial Rescript on the War issued on December 8, underlined that the war was started for self-preservation and self-defense. On December 10, however, the Imperial Headquarters-Government Liaison Conference decided to call the war the “Greater East Asia War.” According to the Cabinet’s Information Department, the war was so named to indicate its purpose of building a new order in the Greater East Asia.
The central concept of “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere” was to geopolitically divide the world into four major blocs: Greater East Asia, the Americas, the Soviet Union and Europe, with Japan becoming the leader of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. Under this scenario, the Kwantung Army was beefed up in strength to prepare for a possible war with the Soviet Union even after Japan started the war against the United States; the Army also maintained the strength of Japan’s China Expeditionary Army. The Army intended to let the Navy engage in battle with the United States in the Pacific.
After the war ended, Tojo said, “The motivation behind resorting to the use of force was the desire for self-preservation and self-defense.” He also said, “Once the war started, however, we saw to it that the policies aimed at realizing the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere could be implemented.” Thus the creation of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere became Japan’s national policy without due political process.
Meanwhile, the final goal for Japan’s southward advancement—that was launched to attain self-sufficiency—was the Dutch East Indies (presently Indonesia). The Netherlands, however, was excluded from the enemy countries listed by the Imperial Rescript on the War. The Netherlands was regarded by Japan as a “quasi-enemy,” and the idea was floated to negotiate with the Dutch East Indies once the war started so that Japan would be able to bloodlessly invade and occupy the archipelago under control of the Dutch East India Company. It was not until January 1942 that Japan launched attacks on the Dutch East Indies.
At the time the war started, the United States and Britain were alarmed by the possibility of Japan’s gaining access to oil and other resources in the Dutch East Indies by controlling Southeast Asia. They feared Japan was prioritizing gaining a foothold in Asia to fight a long drawn-out war, and avoiding direct confrontation with the United States and Britain and carefully watching their war against Germany in Europe. But Japan defied their assumptions and chose to directly confront the United States and Britain with an attack on Pearl Harbor.
Japan’s Combined Fleet
The core of the Imperial Japanese Navy consisted of two or more fleets. The Combined Fleet was formed before the opening of the first Sino-Japanese War in 1894. Based on the Navy’s tradition of commanders taking the lead and setting the example for subordinates, the Fleet Commander was based aboard his flagship. The Commander-in-Chief was assisted by his Chief of Staff and a large number of staff officers. The Combined Fleet Commander-in-Chief received orders for administration and for operations including battle campaigns from the Chief of the Naval General Staff. But, on many occasions, once the Combined Fleet commander was entrusted with his assignment as the supreme commander of naval operations, he would increasingly clash with the Naval General Staff.