Destiny and Demography: A Structural Analysis of Japanese Actions at Pearl Harbor

Posted By November 28, 2018 No Comments

The below is one of the noteworthy essays from our inaugural “Langley Hope Academic Excellence in Security and Defence Commentary Award Programme.” Stay tuned in the coming weeks for the publication of more winning and noteworthy submissions.

On December 7, 1941, Imperial Japan launched a devastating aerial assault on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The strike was sudden, swift, and unannounced; it left Hawaii burning and the confidence of a nation shaken. At a time when the two countries had been engaged in diplomatic negotiations, why did the military planners of Imperial Japan feel the need to initiate war by attacking the United States on its own soil? The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a “day that will live in infamy,” was not really a single day, or a unique event, but rather an inevitable culmination of several historical processes and the end-result of a decades-long tension between Imperial Japan and the United States of America. Throughout the early 20th century, both the Empire of Japan and the United States competed for Pacific hegemony while tousling over the future of the much-vaunted China market, and the nature of Japan’s rapid modernization, militarization, and imperial expansion meant that competition over the Asia- Pacific’s territory and resources would always be a thorn in the side of Japanese-American bilateral relations. The final answer to the question lies only in a recognition that the preceding historical structures of the international system created certain wartime immediacies that pushed the Pacific powers at first to the brink, and ultimately over the edge into the mire of war.

The historiographical debate surrounding the Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor reflects the larger debate in the humanities regarding the role of structure and agency in shaping the behaviour of historical actors. First, let us dismiss outright the prevalent notion that in 1941, “Japanese leaders and officials were no longer operating in a rational manner”.[1]  Pearl Harbor was a calculated risk, made in consideration of the decreasing number of strategic options left to the Japanese, and aware of the increasing necessity to act. By virtue of Western domination of the English war scholarship, the path to Pearl Harbor in the American imagination usually begins in 1931 with the belligerent and unprovoked Japanese invasion of Manchuria.[2]  In this way, aggressive agents within the Japanese government are made out to have been pursuing uncontrolled expansion at the expense of regional stability in Asia, forcing a series of retaliatory measures by the United States that would ultimately escalate into war.[3]  This depiction of Japanese actions ignores the structural context under which Japanese agents acted and pursued action within. The leadership class of 1941 had to wrestle with the diktats of a grand strategy forged by decades of geographical, economic, and political circumstances. They operated within an international system that had been shaped by decisions taken by leaders around the globe, decisions that predated them by decades, centuries even. Structuralist historians understand that the Japanese were never completely free to act as they wished, fettered as they were by a system that offered them a steadily decreasing degree of strategic flexibility, until by 1941 they were left with two options: to cede control of Asia and the vision of a larger Japanese Empire, or to marshal whatever man and materiel was left and risk an attack on the United States in an effort to cripple the American forces in one decisive blow.[4]  The Japanese, as we know, chose the latter. When we see it in this way, as the Japanese would have in 1941, it becomes clear that though the decision to attack Pearl Harbor may have been a gamble, it was an immanently rational gamble.

This gamble was informed, as mentioned, by aspects of the international system. But the Japanese view of their own role within that system, and thus their perception of viable strategies available to them as an international actor, has always been fundamentally determined by the geography of the Japanese state. In a similar position to Great Britain, an island nation off the coast of a vast and foreboding continent, it is no surprise that generations of Japanese leaders from the Meiji Restoration onwards looked to the British Empire as a model of development for Japan’s own growing statehood. Yet Japan, “even more [so] than Britain, was severely limited in size and resources”.[5]  When Meiji-era reforms focused on improving the nation’s capacity to perform as an advanced industrial power, Japan became increasingly dependent on exogenous markets to provide the “raw materials and food [needed] to maintain its economic growth and [burgeoning] population,” and also to act as an export basket for Japanese industrial goods.[6]  This external resource dependency conundrum would haunt Japanese military planners, and the paucity of several key resources – oil, in particular – would be the deciding cause of both the Japanese commencement of hostilities at Pearl Harbor and of the eventual defeat of the empire just four years later. In the long term, a lack of resources on the Japanese mainland meant that Japan would have to push outwards in a bid to reduce its economic vulnerability. In this fashion, the logic of formal empire was established and then sustained. To secure more resources, Japan had to first look to the Korean peninsula. To safeguard this valuable new possession, the Japanese military would have to expand and conquer surrounding areas such as Manchuria. By 1937, this meant getting bogged down in a general Chinese war. And in 1941, to fuel this vast empire and maintain this ruthless military machine it became imperative to go south into Indochina and invade the rich oilfields of the Dutch East Indies, an action that led to a total American economic embargo and a subsequent Japanese retaliation to this embargo at Pearl Harbor. This is why it is insufficient to look at the actions of the pre-war Japanese leadership in a vacuum. It is easy to say that they should not have expanded so far into China, that they should not have provoked the western powers by taking over French, British, and Dutch colonies – that if only they had kept their greed in check, war might have been avoided and their empire might have been left intact. But by 1931-1941, it was too late, for already “Japan’s foreign policy was rooted in a logic going back many decades”.[7]  The nature of Japan’s geography induced the type of sustained structural pressure that pushed Japan into brush-ups against the United States across the Asia-Pacific until finally, fantastically, that system itself ruptured on December 7th, 1941.

The answer to Japan’s dependency question was always going to lie in control of the limitless markets and resources of China. Control of China was a stepping stone to geo-economic control of the rest of Asia, but China was central to the strategic calculations of other nations as well. To the Japanese, “the control of richer territories, such as China, was imperative”.[8]  This necessity to establish Japanese control over China was so pressing, so foremost in the eyes of the Japanese leadership, that it would unquestionably risk the ire of more powerful western states such as Russia and the United States in pursuit of this aim. The fundamental inability of the Japanese leadership to give up or concede on China was understandable – after all, the continuation of Japanese Empire was inexorably tied to its domination of the Asian mainland – but it was this very obstinacy that made irreconcilable tension with the United States an inevitability. The Japanese mission in China was predicated upon “political domination and the exclusion of other powers” in order to establish its own economic sphere of influence in Asia.[9]

The United States would do everything in its power to stop this, unable to step down from its commitment to keeping an “Open-Door” to the markets of China.[10]  American power, after all, was predicated on unrestricted commerce and unfettered trade. Any examination of Japanese behaviour in 1941 must always come back to the resource question, and therefore to control of China. Whenever and wherever its economic interests, trade, or investments in the Far East were threatened, the Japanese would invariably “become more forceful in order to neutralize or eliminate the threat”.[11]  When the Japanese did so, the Chinese market was destabilized, and the confidence of America in the Open-Door waned – to which the Americans would respond by heaping immense economic pressure on Japan. It was a self-fulfilling prophesy. Victim to its natural scarcity, and to the stresses and tensions of the Pacific system, Japan was by 1941 backed into a corner from which the only way out was to either fight or lose its dreams of empire.

Imperial expansion in the Pacific ensured the development of Japanese-American rivalry as over time one tried to contain or outpace the other. By the end of WW1, Japan had been granted its due as a first-rate power. Despite their geographic removal, Japan was perhaps the nation that learned the most from the lessons of German downfall.[12]  Japanese planners grimly took note of German overdependence on foreign food and fuel to sustain its war effort, seeing similarities in Japan’s own situation. Determined to escape this fate, Japanese policymakers reorganized their state in the pursuit of autarky.[13]  Economic autonomy would lead to strategic flexibility. By developing self-sufficiency in industry and agriculture, the Japanese military could fight without fear of shortage, independent from the international economy and free to pursue expansion abroad.[14]  The Japanese mainland would never have been able to provide the resources needed to achieve autonomy. Autarky required empire, and with imperial expansion came the scrutiny of other nations who Japan was still reliant on for trade. They had to take a risk: they knew that “the trade-security dilemma hung over Japan like no other nation” and that risking condemnation in the short-term might lead to the realization of long-term strategic freedom.[15]  To finally vanquish themselves of the paucity plague, the Japanese undertook a

conscious commitment to autarky, well aware that this would entail a commitment to bellicosity, to an expansion of empire in the realization of their own vision of Asia’s future.[16]  It was an acceptance that “Japan [was] an expanding power with interests contrary to those of the United States”.[17]  Between the wars, Japan contested American power on the waters of the Pacific, and on the Chinese mainland itself, undertaking in a great power rivalry that came to blows at Pearl Harbor.[18]  In a bid to rid themselves of an age-old insecurity, the Japanese had unwittingly set themselves on a course towards eventual confrontation with the United States, a confrontation that would altogether see the complete annihilation of Japanese Empire in the Asia-Pacific.

In the final years building up to the exchange of open hostilities in the Pacific, the aforementioned systemic pressures and structural contingencies combined and rigidified to further limit Japanese strategic options in the face of a deteriorating international environment.

After the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, American sanctions meant to deter Japan from further militarism ended up placing severe strains on the Japanese economy.[19]  Though successful in crippling the Japanese economy, these sanctions did not elicit the intended changes in national policy that the American government had hoped for. Instead of discouraging Japanese aggression, the sanctions had merely exacerbated the longstanding Japanese resource dilemma, forcing the Japanese into further military action in a desperate attempt to find new revenue streams for the empire. It was in this endeavour, and faced with pessimistic trade expectations elsewhere, that Japanese strategists accelerated the quest for national self-sufficiency through the expansion of empire.[20]  They turned to French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies, for the Japanese “wanted the treasures of Southeast Asia so badly that it would fight any power or combination of powers to secure them”.[21]  By the summer of 1941, the United States had responded with a full trade embargo against the Japanese, halting at last the flow of oil to an empire in dire need of fuel for its war machines.[22]  At this point, decades of decisions had conspired to limit the responses available to the Japanese leadership. Their ability to maneuver within the international system had been narrowed the most at a time when the absolute need for coordinated action was at its greatest. The Japanese position was “deteriorating daily, while the Allies’ position improved”.[23]  The Japanese stockpile of oil could at best last for a year or two of sustained conflict, and this is partially why Japan took the gamble it did.[24]  They could launch a surprise attack while they still had the capacity to do so, hoping to facilitate a swift American capitulation by catching the United States unprepared for war and destroying most of the American war-making capability before the fight well and truly begun. The Japanese were aware that they lacked the resources and ability needed to outlast the Americans in prolonged total war, but they were not left with so little oil reserves as to back down entirely. They had enough to take the risk, but they did not have so little as to deter military ambition entirely. Keeping these considerations in mind, and thinking through them as the Japanese leadership would have at the time, the explanation for the Pearl Harbor raid becomes much clearer. Certainly yes, it was a gamble, a risk taken in immense desperation. The alternative, however, was to concede defeat in China and withdraw their overextended forces, all but acquiescing to American supremacy in the Pacific and accepting the dissolution of the wider Empire of Japan. The logic of empire and Japanese sensibilities alike forbade such humiliating self-abasement. As many lives as it could have saved, backing down in 1941 was not a real option for the Japanese leadership either.

Perhaps there was an air of inevitability about the whole affair, an inevitability that stretched back almost to Commodore Perry’s fateful 1854 landing on the coast of Kanagawa. Inevitable that the Japanese would seek empire on the shores of the Asian continent. Inevitable that Japan would conquer China, Korea, and Malaya for the purposes of exploitation and extraction. Inevitable that the two great powers of the Pacific would form a natural rivalry, one that would culminate in a gruesome and bloody jungle war that spanned the breadth and depth of the world’s largest ocean. Structural factors that spanned decades had arrested control from any of the actors present in 1941. It was not Tojo or Yamamoto’s fault that Japan lacked rubber and oil, and that the rest of Asia could provide the same in material abundance. No amount of individual tactical nous could have overcome the basic fact of geography, or the constraints of the international system itself. In many ways, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was as much of a historical inevitability as the daily rise and fall of the red sun over the calm, blue Pacific.


Barnhart, Michael A. Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search for Economic Security, 1919-1941. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Copeland, Dale C. Economic Interdependence and War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Ferrell, Robert H. “Pearl Harbor and the Revisionists.” The Historian 17, no. 2 (1955): 215-33.

Gompert, David C., Hans Binnendijk, and Bonny Lin. “Japan’s Attack on Pearl Harbor, 1941.” In Blinders, Blunders, and Wars: What America and China Can Learn, 93-106. RAND Corporation, 2014.

Johnson, William Bruce. The Pacific Campaign in World War II: From Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal. London: Taylor and Francis Ltd., 2006.

Murnane, John R. “Japan’s Monroe Doctrine?: Re-Framing the Story of Pearl Harbor.” The History Teacher 40, no. 4 (2007): 503-20.

Paine, S. C. M. The Japanese Empire: Grand Strategy from the Meiji Restoration to the Pacific War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Prange, Gordon W. At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1981.