** war and social upheaval: World War II Japan

World War II: Japan

Figure 1.--This little Japanese boy was born in 1937, the photograph probably taken on his first day of school in 1943. Notice cap, jacket, short pants, and long stockings. I am not sure what he has on his jacket or what he is holding in his right hand. Once the American submarine campaign began to suceed (1943), conditions in Japan began to deteriorate. Conditions became even worse when farmers brought in a dreadful harvest and the Americans began bombing Japanese cities. I am not sure where the photograph was taken, but it is labeled Shougakusei. Fortunately the boy here survived the bombing and went on to graduate from high school. Click on the image to see his graduation portrait.

Japan with little encouragement joined the Allies in World War I. The country played only a minor role in the War, but gained German possessions in the Central Pacific which they proceeded to turn into fortified bases. Japanese diplomats at both Versailles (1919) and the Washington Naval Conference (1921) failed to achieve goals and this angered nationalist elements, especially in the Army. The Depression and resulting protectionist trade policies in America and Europe adversely affected the Japanese economy. The Japanese military increasingly advocated action to secure markets and raw materials. This process began with the Japanese Army seized Manchiera and set up the puppet state of Manchuko (1931). This brought international condemnation and Japan withdrew from the League of Nations. An Army revolt in Tokyo failed, but left the Army essentially in control of the Japanese Government (1936). The Japanese signed the Anti-Comentern Pact to protect their position in Manchuko (1936). Japan invaded China proper (1937). Many historians date this as the beginning of World War II. After the NAZI victories in Europe, Japan moved into French Indo China (1940). Japan formally joined the Axis (1941). The United States objected to Japanese expanonist policies and moved the Pacific fleet to Pearl Harbor and ininitated embargoes of strastegic materials. The Army had been the main force pushing for war, the Navy realizing they would have to fight the American and British fleets were less enthusiastic. Once the decession was made, however, the Navy dutifully prepared for war. Hitler as Soviet resistance stiffened expected Japan to join his anti-Bolshevik struggle. Instead the Japanese struck south with a devestating carrier attack at Pearl Harbor (1941). This brought America into the war and initiated a war of unprecedented savegery. The Japanese Army treated both POWs and civilians with unprecedented cruelty. As Japanese naval commander Yamamoto predicted, spearheaded by a powerful carrier force, Japan in 6 months swept over Southeast Asian and the central Pacific with largely ineffective opposition. The decisive American naval vicvtory at Miday (1942) significantly weakened the Imperial Navy. This provided America's vast industrial strength to build the naval forces needed to seize the Pacific island bases to bring the war to Japan. America then laubched a desestating strategic bombing campaign culminating in the dropping of the atomic bombs (1945). Most countries that played important roles in World War II have come to terms with the War. Japan is the principal country today which keeps the truth of the War from their school children.

Road to World War II

Looking back as a historian, it is almost incomprehensible that Japan decided to wage war against the United States. War with Britain and the Netherlands is more understandable. Britain in 1941 looked like if not a defeated nation, at least a severely weakened one. The Netherlands was occupied by Axis ally NAZI Germany. America is a very different matter. The United States was not at war. It had not been weakened by the War. And Japan had no commitment that the Germany would join them if they attacked America. War with America seems like an extrodinarily wreckless decession for a country already mired down in a war with China and that had experienced a sharp defeat in a short war with the Soviets. Why would Japan have decided on war with America, a country with a larger population and a much larger industrial and scientific base. The road to war began early in the history of modern Japan. Wars with China (1895), Russia (1904-05), and Germany (1914-18) proved both short and profitable, enabling Japan to build a small empire. The risring influence of the military brought to power men of limited outlook who saw military action as a legitimate use of sate power. They were backward looking men who saw the European empires of the 19th century as to what Japan should seek to establish. And they were men who were strongly influenced by the historic image of the Samurai and Bushido which convinced them that Japanese racial superiority and martial spirit could prevail over the material supperority of America. Despite the power of American induistry, tgey saw Americans as a weak, decadent people who would not fight. Most of the Japanese militarists who made this judgement on which the very life of Japan would hang, knew no Americans and had little or no experience with Ameica.

Strategic Concepts

The Japanese faced a quandry. They had achieved sucess after success in China, but still the war dragged on. The war in China put substantial demands on the Japanese economy. To make matters worse, their primary source of resources to conduct the war in China as the United States. This was especially true of petroleum. Japan would have to end the war in China or find alternative supplies of natural resources. German successes in Europe opened up the prospects of seizing the resource rich British, Dutch, and French colonies in Southeast Asia. But situated between the Home Island and those resources were the American Phillipine Islands and the implied threat threat of the Pacific Fleet which President Roosevelt had moved forward to Pearl Harbor. One of the not yet fully inderstood questions of World War II is why the Japanese did nor strike north at the Siviets after the Germans had destroyed much of the Red Army. Once the Japanese had decided on war with America. Their focus became the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese strategic concept was to smash the Pacific Fleet and seize a huge empire with the resources it needed and then fortify it so that it would be enormously costly for the Americans to retake. The resources from the empire which the Japanese called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere were to be used to support the Japanese military. The Japanese with little knowledge of America were convinved that America would never make the sacrifices needed to retake the Japanese conquests. This strategic concept was fataly flawed. First, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a starteling military success, but a strategic blunder of incalcuable proportions. The attack turned a biterly divided America into a unified, mortal enemy. Second, the Japanese strategy had no provision for attacking the industrial base of the United States, an industrial base far exceeding the industrial capacity of Japan. This industrial base allowed American to build a military force that Japan could not possibly match. Third, the Japanese were unprepared for the American submarine campaign, a campaign which by 1943 was beginning to deny Japanese industry the resources from their newly won empire. The Japanese found their army bogged down in unwinnable campaigns in China and Burma and morooned on isolated Pacific islands that they could no longer supply or even defend. Nor could the resources of their empire be brought back to the factories on the Home Island. Japan at the time of its surrender in 1945 was approaching starvation.

Military Strengths and Weaknesses

A military historian assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Japan would be hard put to understand why the country would have ever launched a war against the United States. The further imponderable is that unlike their Axis partners where the decesion for war was made by the whims of an all-powerful dictator, the Japanese actually carefully studied the issue and the decision for war wa made a consesus of the country's militay leadership. The only factor that makes the decision for war somewhat understandable is that they were under the impression that the Germans had defeated the Soviet Red Army and the Soviet was about to collapse. Overall, the Jaanese, however, were next to Italy, the weakest of the major World War II beligerants. The Japanese has some real strengths. Japan was an industrial power, in fact the only industrial power in Asia. This gave them the ability to wage war in China, a much more populous country. Japan was better prepared for war having devoted a substantial part of its national income to build a powerful navy. Especially important was the First Air Fleet. This gave them the opportunity to win a short war with the United States which was not prepared. It had a technical capability to produce two important weapons, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero and the Long Lance Torpedo. The Japanese leadership had a compliant population and a lthe fiercely devoted, determined military which supported the leadership at all levels without question. There were some competent military leaders, most prominently Adm. Yamamoto and Gen. Yamashita. And they had a powerful Axis ally--NAZI Germany. Many of Japan's strengths had offsetting weaknesses. While Japan was the only industrial power in Asia, its industrial caability was a fraction of that of the other belgerants and pailed in comarison to the huge industrial base. This meant that while Japan might win a short war, it has little chance of winning a long, drawn out war of attrition. This was especially the case of a naval war which relied heavily on industrial power. The limited industrial also mean that the Japanese soldier fought the War with the worse weaponry of any power. Japan also had only a fraction of the technological capability of America and Britain. The Japanese might have done well if the War was fought with the same weapons that Japan and America brought to the table in December 1941. But it was not. The Japanese lagely did fight the War with the same weapons, but America did not. America with its massive industrial and technoloigical capability not only could replace losses, but could introduce many advancd weaons that the Japanese could not match. A compliant population not asking questions was an advantage as long as Japanese leaders made correct decisions. But of course the decisions they made were disasterous. Overall, Japan had perhaps the most incompetent military leadership of all the major belligerants. The most respected commander was Adm. Yamaoto. His Pearl Harbor plan worked well against the unprepared Americans. Yet it was the same Yamaoto who planned perhaps the most incoherent naval battle plan in history--Midway. Japanese Army commanders exhibited little tactical subtelty. They were prone to ordering Banzai attacks that proved suicidal against a modern military force. In major battles, Japanese casualties exceed American casualties by a ratio of 10 to 1. The large Japanese Army proved of little use in fighting anaval war and air war. And their German ally which they believed had defeated the Red Army proved to have failed disasterously. Japan's wood and paper cities were particularly vulnerable to stragegic bombing. But of all Japan's weaknesses, the most important was the almost total lack of critcal natral resorces. And it was not just a matter that there was very little on the Home Islands, but having to import food, metals, oil, and other material made them vulnerable to a marime interdiction campaign. Japan focused on naval war ships. Its maru fleet (merchant marine) was barely adequate in peace time, but was grossly inadequate for war. And this was before theamerican submarine force began to systemartically destroy the marus.


Japan fought World War II with two services, the Imperial Army and the Imperial Navy. The Imperial Army was the dominant service. There of course was a third unit, the Air Force, but like the United States it was part of the Imperial Army and the Navy had its own separate air service. The strongest support for Pacific War came from the Imperial Army which was determined to complete its subjacation of China. It was the Army that led the militarization of Japanese society, assainating any political leader who questioned the military. Curiously this was after failing to win the War in China which was being fought at enormous cost. Not only had the Army failed to complete its victory in China, but the Army was decisevely defeated by the Red Army in a sharp engagement on the Mongolian Border (July 1939). Fighting the poorly armed Chinese was one thing. Fighting a well armed, modern army was a different matter. One might have though with that Japanese commanders would have realized that there equipment was deficent in fighting a well-armed foe. Incredibly, the Japanese militarists decided that they could go to war with the United States and Britain. The militarists apparently concluded that the Deutsche Wehrmcht after launching Barabrossa (June 1941) would smash the Red Army and the United States would have to concentrate its efforts in Europe. They also did not believe that the Americans had the warrior spirit neede to fight a war. The Whermcht not only failed to destroy the Red Army, but suffered devestating losses in a Red Army Winter Offensive before Moscow. The most technologically advanced service was the Imperial Navy. And they would have to bear the brunt of the Pacific War. They had a magnificent fleet and well trained sailors and aviators. And it was with the First Air Fleet that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor Laubching the Pacific War. It was a brilliant executed attack and one of the gretest blunders in miitary history. The Japanese air forces proved highly effective at the beginning of the War, both because of advanced air craft and superbly trained air crews. The Imperial Army achieved some stunning successes early in the War, but as American industry began to restore the military balance, weaknesses in Army tactical doctrine and weaponry led to one failure after another in the Pacific despite the fanatical commitment of the individual soldier. Asthe Allies began tofield well trained and equipped forces, the Japanese string of victories ended. Even when the Japanese had a substantial superority in forces, they filed to retake Guadalcanal, in large part because of astonishly amateurih tactics. Army doctrine soon degenerated into how to kill as many Americans as possible in hopeless defenses of one Pacific island after another.

Emperor Hirohito's Role

A militaristic party rose to dominate the Japanese government during the early era of his reign. His complicity with the milatarists is a not well researched subject. Not every authority agrees with the widespread belief that Hirohito had no hand in Japan's conduct in World War II. Far from it. One example is Imperial Conspiracy written by David Bergamini (1971) who found that Hirohito was behind all the major decisions in the war, but that his role was covered up, and that General MacArthur knew, but went along with the whitewash for pragmatic reasons. Loyal Japanese officials and military commanders, unwilling to see the Emperor soiled by association with crimes committed in his name, saw their honorable duty as taking the punishment. What ever Hirihito's role, the militarists during his reign pursued expansionism, war with China (1937-45), and military alliance with the Axis powers (1940). The alliance led to Japan's participation in World War II and its attack on the United States in 1941. Toward the end of the war Hirohito sought peace, and in August 1945 he broadcast the unconditional surrender of Japan to the Allies.

Pearl Harbor (December 1941)

The Japanese militarists having successfully taken on China (1894-95) and Russia (1904-05) and participating in Wiorld War I believed that in possession of a powerful fleet they could now enter World War II to solidify their position in China andexpand their empire with the Southern Resource Zone. Rather than join the NAZI war with the Soviet Union, the Japanese instead struck south with a devestating carrier attack at Pearl Harbor (1941). A Japanese carrier taskforce composed of six carriers on December 7, 1941, executed a surprise attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. It was a brilliant tactical victory for Japan, but perhaps the greatest mistake in modern military history as it brought a suddenly united America with its vast industrial capacity into the War. The Japanese launched 360 aircraft which in 2 hours struck Peal Harbor just as the American sailors were waking up on a sleepy Sunday morning. The strike sunk or heavily damaged six of the eight American battleships, thrre cruisrs, three destroyers, and most of the Army Air Corps planes on the island. America was at war.

American Carriers

The Japanese led by Admiral Yamaoto were the first to begin to grasp the full potential of naval aviation, although the big-gun bttleship devotees still had enormous influence. And even Yamaoto did not fully understand how obsolete the battleships had become. Admiral Nagumo demonstrated the power of carrier-based aircraft at Pearl Harbor. And this was cpmpounded by their sweep across the Pacific (1942). Yamamoto was correct in his assessment of the importance of the carrier. He also warned the Imperial Givernment that he could guarantee naval dominance only for 6 months, an amazingly accurate assessment. Japanese leaders had no concept of how quickly America could build new carriers and update their aircraft. In the end, the Pacific War was won by the carriers, but it would be the American carriers. The primary target of the Japanese at Pearl Harbor were the three carriers of the Pacific fleet Enterprose, Lexington, and Saratoga). By mere chance, none were at Pearl. Admiral Nimitz who after the strike was ordered to Pearl was given command of the Fleet. He had to develop a strategy to hold off the Japanese with those three carriers while America built a powerful new fleet. Had the Pacific Fleet's battleshis not been devetated, there are probably would have been a majpr fleet action in which the U.S. Navy would have suffred far greater damage. Without the battleships, however, Nimitz was forced to build a naval strategy around carriers, the major surviving force. The United States began an emense effort to build a vast naval armada. Priority was given to 40 new carriers-many of which were the Essex class fast carriers. These enorous fighting ships were over 800 feet long and totaled 27,000 tons. These carriers, however, would not begin to arrive until 1943. Until then, Nimitz would have to hold off Yamamoto and the Forst ir Fleet with a few carriers, obsolete aircraft, and a devestated Pacific Fleet.

Savage War

The attack on Pear Harbor This brought America into the war and initiated a war of unprecedented savegery. The Japanese Army treated both POWs and civilians with unprecedented cruelty. Most accounts of World War II find that the Pacific War was fouught more savagely than the European War, especially the fighting between the Germans and Western Allies. The differences can be exagerated. Tere were German attrcities in the West (Oradour-surGlane and Malmedy). Both the Germans and Allies carried out air raids on cvilian populations. There are, however, reasons to conclude that the fighting in the pacific Gheater reached a level of savergy not normally experienced in the Western Front of the European War. A range of explanations have been offered to explain the savagery of the conflict. Race certainly was a factor. The overwealmin factor, however, appears to be the Japanese martial code (Bushido) and the assumtion as in the case of the NAZIs that the War was won and Japan would never have to answer for the attrocities committed. In fct Japan has a nation has never come to terms with the attricities committed by the Imperial army in its name.

American Internment of the Japanese

Japanese American children were severly affected by the war. Those living in Pacific coast states were move into concentragtion camps. Although not separated from their patents, Japanese Americans in Pacific coast states were interned in concentration or relocation camps as they were called. Italian and German families were also interned, but only aliens or those whose parents have been involved or suspected of involvement in subversive activites. The Japanese were treated differently in part because of Pearl Harbor, but racial factors were a signoificant factor. President Roosevelt in February 1942 signed the order "evacuating" Japanese, most of whom were Japanese citizens, from the West Coast. Like the Germans, American authorities developed euphenisms for what was done to the Japanese. The order only affected the West Coast, not the Japanese on Hawaii. About 127,000 Japanese Americans were interned. It was one of the most grevious violations of the civil rights of American citizens in United States history. While the internment of Japanese Americans was a terrible injustice, depriving them of their property in many instances and their freedom for several years, the camps were quite different than the the NAZI and Japanese concentration camps. The internees were given adequate food and the children attended local schools. Japanese Americans formed Boy Scout troops such as at the Gila River Relocation Center, Arizona, during 1943.

Japanese Offensive (December 1941-May 1942)

With the American fleet imobilized at Pear Harbor, the Japanese were able to sweep through the Southwest Pacific and Southeast Asia. Guam was quickly taken. Resistance at Wake sland suprised the Japanese, but after the initial assault was repulsed, a second assault took the island. MacArthur's defense of the Philippines was compromised when most of his planes were destroyed on the fround at Clarke Field. General MacArthur commanded the most important American military force west of Pearl. His handlong of the defense of the Philippines wasdisapponting at best, bordering on incompetence. He failed to strike back at the Japanese in the hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor by bombing Jpanese bases in Formosa. He also allowed much of the available aircraft to be destroyed on the ground. [Schom] The horror of the Batan Death March created an impage of the Japanese military in the American mind that fueled a hatred for the Japanese. [Schom] Hong Kong quickly fell. The Japanese also seized the oil-rich Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia). Allied naval forces fought a series of engagements to stop the Japanese, but could not match the powerful Japanese naval forces. Animitz and Halsey tried to distract the Japanese with hit an run carrier raids. The Japanese moved south from IndoChina, seizing Malayia and then the bastion at Singapore. The Repulse and Prince of Wales are lost in the defense of Singapore. Then they moved west through Thailand and defeating the British in Burma. Within a few months the Japanese had carved out the huge empire with enormous resources that they had long coveted. The Japnese then targeted New Guinea in preparation for a move south to Australia. All that remained to stop them were four American carriers.

Japanese Occupation Policies

The Japanese in the territories territories during the early phase of its imperial expansion (Taiwan 1894 and Korea 1909) were subjected to a Japanization policy. These countries were not so much occupied as sujected to a fundamental reordering of culture. Some attention was given to education, but instruction was in the Japasnese language. This apparenly was also the plan in Manchuria (Manchukuo), but included colonization by immigrant families. The territories seized in the Pacific War were military occupations. It is unclear what Japan's long-term plans for the new Empire were. Occupation policies depended in part on the political orientation of the population. The Japanese were especiallu severe with the Westerners they found in the occupied territories and the Chinese. There were Chinese comminities in many large cities in the Burma, Dutch East Indies, Indo-China, Malaya, Philippines, and Thailand. The Civilians from Allied countries, which happenedto be the colonial powes, were interned in near genocidal conditions. The Japanese also did not trust the Chinese. Singapore had alargely ethnic Chinese population. The most deadly action was the Sook Ching Massacre. While there were differences among the many mostly European countries occupied, the Japanese pursued some consistent policies. First all considerations were secondary to the war effort, including the welfare of the occupied people. And as the Japasnese did not bring food for their soldiers with them, this would result in mass starvastion in the Dutch-East Indies and Indo-China and serious local food shortages throughout the occupied areas. In fact, isolated Japanese garrisons throughout the Pacific began to starve. Second, Japanese civilian occupation authorities had no control overthe military. Third, every occupied area had to be self-sufficent, including food. Occupied areas were not allowed to import food, includung territiries that berfore the War were dependent on imports. Fourth, there was no rule of law. When food shortages developed because of Japanese mismanagement, the Japanese Army was freeto go out into the countrtyside and seizefood from the peasantry. Fifth, the Japanese pursued the propaganda narative of Asia for the Asians. This appealed to some of the nationalists in the European colonies. It was less persusive in the Philippines where the United States was in the process of independence and the Fiipinos already had home rule and Democratic elections. It is unclear to what extent the Japanese would have permitted autonomy after the War. And meaningful independence seems out of the question. Even autonomy is something the Japanese did not allow anywhere in their existing empire, including Japan itself. The military had seized control of the Government. It defies logic to think that the military would have permitted independence when they denied it to their own people. There is absolutely no doubt that the Japanese would have retained control over critical natural resources, especially oil.

Doolittle Raid (April 1942)

Specially trained American aviators in B-25s took off from the carrier Wasp to strike Japan. It was the first blow to the Japanese home islands. The raid was led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle. The physical damage was inconsequential, but the psychological impact was immense. Most of the Amrican aviators crash landed in China and were helped to reach saftey by Chinese Nationalist guerillas. The Japanese reprisals were savage. A estimated 0.5-0.7 million Chinese civilians were murdered. The Japanese Navy was so embarassed th hey rushed forward plns to bring the desimated American Pacific Fleet to battle at Midway Island.


Allied intelligence in breaking the Japanese codes had a substantial impact on the Pacific War, especially at the Coral Sea (1942) and Midway (1942). As the initaitive shifted to the Americans, learning of Japanese intentions became less important. The code breakers did develop information that lead to an air strike which succeeded in killing Admiral Yamamoto (1943). The Americans never launched a major military deception campaign in the Pacific, in sharp contrast to the operations in Europe. One historian explains that the American assessment. The Americans believed that the Japanese Empire was "... too incompetent to understand what was being told them, and stood to low in the estimation of the decessionmakers for it to have done much good if they had." [Holt] The Americans did carryout one important deception effort--Operation Bluebird. This was designed to convince the Japanese that southern China and Formosa (Taiwan) were to be invaded rather than Okinawa.

The Home Front

We do not yet have much information on the Japanese home front during World war II. Japan was the most industrialized country in Asia, but the country's industrial capacity was a fraction of that of America and Britain. And the country had to import raw material, including vital resources like petroleum. Nor was the country self-production in food production. The Militarists who made the decession for War calculated that Japan could seize the resources it needed in a quick war and that the Americans and Eutropeans would not be willing to wage a costly war to recover the lost territory. That was essentially the gamble made at Pearl Harbor. That gamble was lost at Midway. Not only did Japan suffer that disastrous defeat, but it suffered it at a time that the Imperial Navy was still dominant in the Pacific and before American industrial production had decisively shifted the ballance of forces. We do not know a great deal about the Japanese home front. The Japanese militarists absolutely controlled the press in Japan. Only news of Japanese victories were allowed in the press and for the first 6 moths there were plenty of those. When Japanese defeats began to occur, they were strictly prohibited in the press. When the sailors and surviving air men returned from Midway (June 1942) they were held incomunicano least news of the disastrous defeat leaked out. Even Army commanders were not fully informed.) We are not sure when the Japanese people began to realize that their country was losing the War. In fact Japan lost very little territory until 1944. And the fighting was very distant from Japan. The militarists believed that the NAZIs in Europe would occupy America's military and thus Japan's smaller industrial output would be suffient for a shirt war. Japan mobilized the country's industrial capacity. Women and children were ordered to work in factories as well as on farms. Japanese industry, however, proved totally incapable of matching America production in quantity or quality. The Japanese did succeed in seizing vital natural resources in Oceania and Southeast Asia, including oil and rubber (1942). Unfortunately for the Japanese the U.S. Navy was successfully waging a sunmarine campaign that made it impossible to ship these resources to Japanse factories (1943). Worse still the Americans took the Marianas which brought Japanese industry within the range of the new American B-39n bombers. The losses of the tiny attols and islands in the central Pacific, however, brought the Japanese Home Islands within reach of the new American B-29 bombers. The strategic bombing of Japan was a disaster that could not be hidden by control of the press. These raids must have come as a huge shock and may well have been the first infication to the Japanese people that the War had turned into a national disaster. The first raids were of marginal effectiveness, but by 1945 the U.S. Arny Air Firce was burning the heart out of one Japanese city after another--including Tokyo. There was also a poor harvest which combined with the destruction of the Japanese merchant marine meant that there were growing food shortages. Rationing reduced rice and other food purchases to 1,500 calories--subsistence levels. But as the war continued into 1945 even that amount was often not available. Thestategic bombing camopaign hadby mid-1945 destroyed Japan's transportation system. Had Japan not surrendered (August 1945), Japanese civilians would have starved in large numbers during the Winter of 1945-46.

Coral Sea (April 14, 1942)

The first importantAllied effort o stop the Japanse sweep through the Pacific occurred in the Coral Sea. The Japanse vplanned to seize Port Moreseby, completing their conquest of New Guinea. Port Moresby would have also posed a threat to Australia itself. A Japanese naval task force en route to seize Port Moresby was intercepted by an American carrier force, alerted by code breakers. It was the first carrirer to carrier engagement in history. The Japanese succeeded in sinking Lexington and heavily damaging Yorktown. The Japanese lost a light carrier and another carrier was heavily damaged. Despite the American losses, theJapanese invasion force turned back, the first major Japanese reversal of the War.

Midway (June 1942)

The decisive American naval vicvtory at Miday (1942) significantly weakened the Imperial Navy. This provided America's vast industrial strength to build the naval forces needed to seize the Pacific island bases to bring the war to Japan. Admiral Yamamoto was convinced that the remaining American carriers could be brought to battle and destroyed at Midway. The Japanese plans were based on achieving an element of curprise and on the fact that two American carriers had been destoyed in the Coral Sea, in fact the Yorktown, although heavily damaged had not been sunk. American code breakers had alerted the Ameicans to the Jaspanese plans. Admiral Nimitz positioned Enterprise and Hornet, along with the hastily patched up Yorktown northwest of Midway to ambush he Japanese. The American carrier victory at Midway dealt a crippling blow to the Imperial Navy. The Americans sank four first-line Japnese carriers, killing most of the well-trained crews. While the Imperial Navy still held an advantage, it was no longer an overwealming one. Meanwhile American shipyards were turning out the new Essex clss carriers that would engage the weakened Imperial Navy in 1943.

South Pacific (1942-43)

The first America land offensive in the Pacific occurred on the virtually unknown island of Guadacanal in the Solomons. Allied coast watchers reported the Japanese were building an air strip on Guadacanal. From that base, the Japanese could threaten the sea lanes to Australia. A marine invasion force was rapidly assembled. It was a risky operation from the onset. Although dealt a serious blow at Midway, the Imperial Navy still dominatd the Pacific and outnumbered the American Pacfic fleet in virtually every class of warship--including carriers. Yamamoto, the bold naval commander who planned the Pear Harbor attack, turned tentative after Midway.

Twin Offensives

The United Sates after climbing up the Solomon chain and isolating Rabaul persued two separate offensives. American industry was by 1943 producig war material in such quantity that it could both supply the European theater and support twin offensives in the Pacific. First, MacArthur and the Army would continue to move west along the New Guinea Coast toward the Philippines. Second the Navy would open an entirely new offensibe in the Central Pacific. Carrier strikes had hit Japanese-held islands, but the new offensive would be amphibious landings to seize the islands. The first landing was at Tarawa in the Gilberts. Te casualties were horendous. The next was the Marshalls. These landings covered by the Big Blue Fleet steadily expanding in size and capability were unopposed by the Imperial Fleet. The strength and timing of these landings caught the Japanese off guard. They did not believe the United States capable of so many landings over such a wide area. They had hoped that heavily fortified islands could resist amphibious invasion. This proved to be an illusion.

The Marianas (June 1944)

While Midway and Guadacanal were the turning point of the Pacific War, it was in the Marinanas that Japan's fare was sealed. American carrier aircraft broke the power of Japanese naval aviation. The one power Japanese First Air Fleet never again staged a major carrier strike on American forces. Even more significant were the air bases affored by the Mariana Islands. These bases brought the Home Islands into range of the the new long-range B-29 bombers. The invasion of Saipn was one of the key confrontations of the Pacific War. Earlier Pacific Island invasions had made it clear that the Jpanes would not surrender no matter how great the forces availed against them. American planners concluded that if the Japanese would fight to the death on isolated Pacific islands, tht they would resist to the end in the defense of the Home Islands. The casualties of an invasion of the Home Islands could be orrendous. It was thus important to bring the Japanese Home Islands within the range of American bombers so that the Jpanese war making power could be smashed. Seizure of the Marianas would provide the bases from which America could begin the bombardment of the Home Islands. There was a Japanese civilian population on Saipan. Japanese authorities urged the civilians to kill their children and commit suiside. Many did. After the Americans secured the island, the Jpanese civilians were interned, but in realtively comfortable circumstances.

Political Changes (July 1944)

The American conquest of the Philippines was an event that was impossible to hide even by the Thought Police. Even the most obtuse subject of the Emperor could not fail to ask himself if the War was one glorious Japanese vicgory after another, how could the Americans take the Marisanas? The most obvious casualty of the loss of the Marianas was Primeminister Tojo. Army fanatics who assumed that any defeat was the result of incompetance threatened assaination. Tojo had never been a dictator and he resigned and withdrew into a quiet retirment until after the War American MPs arrested him. A new Goverment as formed (July 1944). The new Goverment included Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai who had argued against war before Pearl Harbor.

Strategic Thinking

The Emperor was not, however, despite the appointment of Admiral Yonai intent on ending the War. Rather he adopted te policy of gyokusai--broken gem. The essence of this concept was a Japanese saying--"better to be a gem smashed to bits than a whole tile". Imperial General Headquater's documents at this time speak of "Gyokusai of the 100 million". The 100 million was an inflated reference to the entire Japanese population. [Thomas, p. 139.] Now that American had proven a potent military force, the militarists no longer believed that Japan could prevail on the battlefield. Most still did not believe that Japan could be forced to surrender. Rather the prevailing strategic thinking was to make every American offensive as costly as possible and simply outlast the Americans. The Emperor wondered why the Imperial Navy did not engage the Americans more forcefully in the Philippine Sea and demanded a major fleet action.

The Phillippines (October 1944)

The Philippino people suffered greviously under Japanese occupation. This helped fuel an effective Resistance campaigns carried out by guerillas which had achieved control of substantial areas. The Japanese, gowever, controlled the population centers, especially on Leyte and Luzaon. The Navy preferred targetting Formosa (Taiwan), but MacArthur eventually prevailed with his insistence that America must retun to the Philippines. He considered his vow to return a pledge to the Philippinp people that had to be honored. Some how his vow, "I shall return." sems less approaptiate than "We shall return", but it was pure MacArthur and he convinced President Roosevelt. Reports from resistance fighters and American pilots revealed that the Japanese were not heavily defending large areas of the Islands. The inasion of Mindanao was considered unecessary and the decession was made to strike first further north at Leyte. It was in this engagement that the Kamakazis first appeared, although still in relatively small numbers. MacArthur President Sergio Osme�a waded ashore with the invasion force at Leyte Gulf (October 20, 1944). The American Army forces advanced steadily. The Japanese resisted, but could not match American fire power. The most serious Japanese resistence occurred at sea. The resulting naval engaement following on Battle of the Philippones Sea is commonly referred to as the Battle of Leyte Gulf. It was the largest sea battle ever fought and resulted in the destruction of the Japanese fleet as an effective fighting force. This opened the way for the land campaign. Further landings occurred at Ormoc (December 7, 1944).

The Home Islands

Japan began its aggression by invading Chinese Manchuria (1931). Here snd fir 14 years the Japanese inades other counttids snd territories. And even fter the y were stopped at Guadakcanal, they fought the war locatiins fsr away from the Japanese Home Islands. The little white boxes came home to Japanese mothers and rationing brcame more severe, but the actual fighting was still in distant lands. This changed dramtically in 1945. It should not have been a surprise to any Japanese people reading a map. Nut one catasteophe after another began to unfold. The American took Iwo Jima (February 1945). Iwo was the first Japanese territiory to fall to the Americans. This was followed by the first really destructive air raids (March 1945). In the ensuing months, the United States would burn the heart out of industrial Japan. Than the Americans landed on Okinawa, another actual Japanese territory. The Generals assured the Emperor that this would be the decusibe battle and they woiuld be defeated. They had mdde thee same preduction about other major battles. After Olinaw fell--the Emperor wuth Tokyo burning befiore his eyes lost all confidence in the miliitary. After Okinawa fell, it was clear that the Americans were preoaring to invade the Home Islands and they realised that the blow would begin in southern Kyhshu which was un range of newly won air bases in Okinawa. The Japanese began a massive builup of man and material in Khyshu. Units were drawn down from China and Manchuria to prepare for the invasion. Not only were military resources deplouyed, but the Japnrse organized civilians, including children, to stop the Americans. All of the Japanese islands are mountaneous, including Khhshu. This provided like Okinawa, enumeral defensive positions to klll Americans. This was a strategy the Japanese adopted beginning with Trawa in the Gilberts. The Japnese believed that if the killed enough Americans that the United States would tire of the War and make peace. Unfortunately for the Japanese it failed on Pacific island after another. It not only filed, but convinced the Americans that the atomic bomb had to be used to avoid the terrible bloodletting that would result from an invasion. The Anmeicans might have used the bomb anyway, but the terrible losses on Iwo and Okinawa made the use of the bomb inevitable.

American Invasion Planning: Operation Downfall

The last step in the war against Japan was the invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. Based upon Japanese resistance on one after another Pacific islands, American planners believed that Japan woukd never surrender and a climatic, bloody invasion would be needed--Operation Downfall. This was the proposed Allied invasion plan. There were two elements: Operation Olympic and Operation Coronet. Operation Olympic was scheduled for November 1945. The goal was to capture areas of the southern-most main Japanese island--Kyūshū. Invading the northern island of Hokido was considered, but discarded, largely because of the inclemnet weather. Kyūshū was the obvious objective because newly one bases in Okinawa could provide staging areas and air cover. The Japanese easily predicted the target. All they had to do was to calculate the range of air cover from Okinawa. As a result, the Japanese Army began to heavily reinforce Kyūshū. Next would be Operation Coronet in early-1946. This would involve the invasion of the Kantō Plain, near Tokyo, on the main Japanese island of Honshu. Airbases on Kyūshū captured in Operation Olympic would permit land-based air support for Operation Coronet. Air support was central in American military operations. Gen. Marshal advocated an invasion and Adm. Nimitz supported him. Gen. MacArthur was assigbned to command the invasion and began the planning. His plan provided that once Kyushu was secured, that air bases there could cover more northerly landings close to Tokyo. Had Downfall been launched, it would have been the largest amphibious operation in history, dwarfing the D-Day landings which had the advantage of being just a few miles across the Channel. In addition to the huge logistical issues, Japanese geography and terraine made these invasions a daunting prospect. Japan is a very mounaneous country. There were few flat plains making sweeping armored thursts possible. A fight for the Home Islands woukd be more like Okinawa, namaning huge American casualties and much larger Japanese losses, in both military personnel and civilians, not even including the fact that Japanese civilans were already approachiung starvation. The Japanese were palnaning a massive defense of Kyūshū. American casualty estimates ran up into the millions. The Japanese casualties which had been 10 to 1 in just military personnel on Okinawa would have been astronomical on the Home Island. And the Japanese as part of Operation Ketsugo planed to use civilians to resist the invasion. The American military fully expected, and had every reaon to do so, that the Japanese Army would resist to the death just had they had done on Okinawa. In addition, the Japanese had amassed large numbers of aircraft which could be used in Kamakazi attacks on any invasion fleet. Many Japanese today maintain that Japan was near defeat and ready to surrender. It is certainly true that the military situation for Japan was hopeless and the population approaching starvation. This does not mean, however, that the Imperial Army was preparing to surrender. The situation had been hopless in every island fight after vGuadakcanl and the Japanese still fought bto the death. Ultra intercepts reported that the Japanese were strenthening their defenses in southern Kyushu. The Army High Command deployed three divisions there (June 1945) and that had been increased to 9 divisions (Juky 1945). Reinforcenents were brought back from China and Manchuria. In addition, the Army had incouraged, even forced, civilians to commit suiside as on Siapan and Okinawa. Some observers are convinced that Japanese civilian casualties in any invasion of the Home Islands would have been the greatest civilian disaster of World War II. Millions of Japanese soldiers and civilians may have died if America had invaded Japan. Ultra intercepts revealed constant strengthening of forces on Kyushu which reached 13 divisions. Both Marshall and Nimitz began to have second thoughts. Planners began to consider alternatives like poison gas, atomic bombs, or changing the invasion site. MacArthur continued to insist on Kyushu. [Giangreco]


apan in 1945 was in a very different position than Germany. The Bulge offensive was Germany's last desperate gamble. The German armies in all sectors (except Norway) were defeted abd no longer capable of offereing effective resistance in either the wetern or eastern fronts. The generals saw no posdibility of staving off defeat and the situation became increasingly clear as the Western llies and Soviets drove into the Reich. The situarion for the Japnese was very different. Defeat had only been experienced at sea and on Pacific islands invokving relatively small garrisons. The bulk of the Imperial Army ws still in tact in China and facing Chimese armies of limited capabiities. And even after Okinawa, the Jpanese had a very creditable military force as well as a largely hidden force of Kamikazee aircraft ready to reign hell on any invasion fleet. In addition the Government were still controlled by military men concerned primarily with their honor and seeing no obligation to the civilian population. The War Cabinent even after the Nagasaki attack was was still undecided on surrender. War Minister Korechika Anami still wanted to continue the War, When told about the mushroom cloud, he replied, "Would it not be wondrous for this whole nation to be destroyed by a beautiful flower?" [Pellegrino] And this is how many Japanese military commabders thought. It seems almost incredible today, but it was all true in 1945. Many Army commanders simply saw it dishonrable with strong forces in the field to surrender. And to them honor transcended the future of their nation. There was no diubt about where the first Ameican blow would fall. Iy would be tge southern island of Kyhshu because of the limits of American air power from the newy won bases on Okuinawa. The Japanese began moving reinforcements and supplies into Kyshu. Kamikazze planes were staged there. Civilians were to be a part if the defense under the Ketsugo program. The People's Volunteer Army was formed. Millions of copies of 'People's handbook of resustance combat' was printed. Milions of copies were distributed.

War Cabinent (June 22)

After nearly 3 months of savage battle, resistance finall collapsed on Okinawa (June 22). The same day the War Cabinent met. For the first time the Emperor took the lead in the discussions. He had gotten his final decisive battle--Okinawa. And the Japanese defense failed without any observable slacking of America's determination to persue the War. He pushed the Govvernent to persue a diplomatic option gto end the War without specifying specific offers to the Allies. Both factions spoke out, the emerging Peace Faction led by Foreign Minister Tojo and the War Faction led by General Anami. It was decided to ask the Soviet Union to mediatea end of the War. There was no reason to believe that the Soviets would do this.

Ending the War (July-August 1945)

The Japanese from the very ouset of the War were behind the times. There war olan was based on the Germans fefeatuing the DSioviet Uniion and just as the boms were falling on Pearl Harbor, the Red Army had launced their winter offensive before Moscow has stopped the Wehrmacht cold. The first 6 months were stunning, but then at Midway (June 1942), it all began to unravel. the It took the Japanese Army a year to even realize their princoal enemy was the Americans. [Shindo] The were first foicused in the Soviets and then the British. The American twin South/Pacific Campaigns kept the Japanese constantly off balance. It bdecame invreasingly clear even to the Japanese after a year of war that they were not going to win the Pacific War. The dawning took a little longer to filter through the military establishmnt, in part because the Imperial Navy kept the Midway disaster and other naval reverses secret from the Army. After losing the Marianas, the Japanese became increasingly desperate to end the War, but were dtermined to win a battle so that would improve their baragining position. That victory never came--just more defeats. And then the bombing. They wanted to end the War, but not to give up territiry or permit an occupation. Even after the loss of Okimawa, the militarists were delusional. They actually thought that Stalin would help them negotiate a settlement with the United States. And after the Potsdam Deckaration, they saw no urgency in endung the War as they=built up their denfenses on Kyūshū-contuning their policy that had failed ine island after another--bleed the Americanns. And all the while the American air campaign was buring one city after another. The Japanese had been bombing China for more tha 10 years. Now the bombs began falling on Japanese cities. Japan's military commanders were unmoved. Gen Anani talked of a beautiful death for the nation like a cherry bloosom. Emperor Hirohito was constantly fristrated as the War played out. His military commanders promised him againa nd againa decisive battle that force the Americans to make peace. Batlles Japan would lose one after another. And then after Okinawa, the militart was planning one more 'decisice'; battle, to defeat the Ameriucan invasion force. Finally, the Emperor broke the deadlock and chose to surrender.

Surrender (September 1945)

The Allies at in the Potsdam Declaration demanded that Japan surrender (July 27, 1945). , the Allied powers requested Japan to surrender. The Japanese military despite the fact that the Allied bombing had destroyed major cities, were determined to resist, hoping that the cost of invading Japan would deter the Allies. The United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6 and 9). The Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria (August 8). There is reason to believe that the Soviet declaratioin of war and rapid seizure of Manchuria was more important in forcing Japan to surrender than the atomic bombs. Emperor Hirohito finally decided to surrender unconditionally (August 14). The success of the Soviet Army convinced even Imperial Army officers and the Ministry of war that defeat was inevitable. Emperor Hirohito on August 14 decided to surrender unconditionally. Even after the atomic bombs and the debacle in Manchuria, there were hardliners that were opposed to surrender. A group calling themselves the Young Tigers seized the Imperial Palace grounds and tried to prevent the Emperor's surrender broadcast. The attempted coup almost succeded. On what has become called "Japan's Longest Day" the attempted coup, bombing raid blackout, intrigues, killings, and sepukus determined fate of millions of Japanese people. It iwas a complicated series of events involving both great heroism and treason by officers convinced that they were behaving honorably. The Commander of the Eastern Army, however, remained loyal to the Emperor, dooming the coup. [PWRS] The formal surrender was held underneath the guns of the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Not knowing just what the Japanese were planning, the American carriers were standing at sea off Japan.


The Japanese seized Manchuria, ut there was only limited fighting and minimal caualties (1931). Chiang and te Nationalists declined t contest the aggession. The Japnese launched the Second Sino-Japanese War by ivading China proper (1937). Here the ationalist fought and there were csaualties on bothsides. After heavy combat and the lost of the best Nationalist units, the nationalits began to withdraw into the interior. Fighting continued, but at a lower level. Casualties declined, but continued. More impotrant for the Japanese was the strain on the economy. After 4 years of fighting the casualties mounted, although only a fraction of Nationalist casualties let alone the enormous civilian casualties in China. Japanese civilians were affected by the economic strain and family losses. But as the Chinese had no appeciable navy and air forces there were no loss of life on the Home Islands. The Japanese attack on the Amrican Fleet at Pearl Harbor, as strange as it may sound. was intended to finally end the fighting in China (December 1941). Of course it did not. Casualies at first were limited as the Japanese swet over the Pacifc and Southeast Asia, tis began to change after Midway (June 1942). The loss of carriers at Midway and ddeclining control of ocean area meant the the Imperial Navy could no longer provide Japanese soldiers the support they needed. And casualties behan to mount, especially after high performance aircraft and newships began to pour out of American factories and shipyards. The losses sustained only added to te steady stream of losses from China. Even so the level of losss should not be overestimated. Japanese garrisons might fight to the death on a Pacific island, but there were only so many men that could be crammed on to a Pacific island, even defeat in Burma did not involve massive losses. There were substantial losses in te Philippines and Okinawa, but not cripplng losses. The strain of war had begn to affect Japanese civilans from an early point, primarily due to food shaortages and the American submarine campaign meant that their cictoris in the Pacific and Souuthwast Asian would nt benefit civilians or aid te war economy. The loss of the Marianas meant that the United States could begin the strategic bombing campaign (June-July 1944). This meant that for the frst tkm, Japanese civlians faced not only shoratages, but death and destruction from the skies. American bombers methodically reduced Japan's timber and paper cities to glowing ashvheaps even before dropping the two atomic bombs. Japanese miitary casualties totaled over 2.1 million men. Civilian casualties resulting from military action, mostly the strategic bombing campaign totaled about 0.5 million people. Another 0.5 million civiliams may have perished from malnutiion and related diseases. Today in Japan discussion of the War gives great attentin to civilian casualties. There is vrtually no appreciation for 1) japanese Army actions against their own civilians and 2) how small Jaoanese civilian casualties were in comparison the civilians who ere killed by Jaanese soldies or who perishd in amines caused by the Japanese occupation actionsd in China, the Pacific, and Southeast Asia.

Occupation and Aftermath

American troops landed in Japan immediately after the Imperial Government surrendered on September 3. The American occupation was completely unlike the Japanese occupation of the countries that it had conquered. Most Japanese were stunded by the final year of the War and the massdive destruction. There was also widespread hunger. Many Japanese had been led to expect a brutal American occupation. The United States oversaw an occupation with fundamentally changed the nature of Japanese society, rooting out Japanese militarism and fomenting the development of democratic political regimes and social structures. Women were enfranchized and labor unions allowed to organize.


We note an unidentified boy graduating in 1939. Japan had been at war in China for 2 years. While China was devestated by the Japanese onslaught, the Japanese people at home were not yet significantly affected as would be the case when Japan attacked the United States. A Japanese reader Fujioka Keisukeremembers his childhood during and after the War began with America. We also note Okinawan girl Tomiko Hika. One of the hear-rending image if the War is an unknown Nagasaki boy. He is only knowen to history as 'The boy by the crenmatorium place'.

Japanese Views of the War

Most countries that played important roles in World War II have come to terms with the War. Japan and the Soviet Union are the principal country today which keeps the truth of the War from their school children. What Japanese children are told about the War is a widely debated subject in Japan. Most Japanese children today believe that their country was a victim of the War and not the primary agressor nation. The atmomic boming of Hiroshima and Nagasaki receive wide coverage every year leading children to view theur country as a victim of the War. Few Japanese children have any ide of the enormity of Japanese war crimes. Important Japanese politicians, especially officials with nationalist sympathies in the Liberal Democratic Party, persist in perpetrating a number of myths and historical lies. This has caused considerable problems for Japan in countries they occupied during the War and wear war crimes were committed. One of the most persistent myths is that Japan was "tricked" in attacking the United States by a wiley American President. The truth of course is that the decision to go to war was made by a series of Japanese government after a lengthy study of the evolving military situation in Europe and Asia. The Japanese decided to hitch their star to the Germans and the decesion to attack the United States was made at a time when the NAZI Panzers were ranpaging through the Soviet Union and the Soviet collapse seemed inevitable. The defense of being "tricked" is unworghy of a great nation. It is the kind of defense used by petty criminals caught up in a sting opetation.

Japanese Sources

The Japan Defense Agency Historical Branch (BKS) is an impoerant source of information, but Westwern researchers have found them very difficult to work with. One researcher says that communications with BKS must be by letterv in the Japanese language. Responses may take 6 months, if they come at all. Another researcher says that a 6 month turn asround is an optimistic expectation. The problem with the BKS is that it is not governed by Western historical standards. The War is still a very subject in Japan and Japanese Government and military authorities are still internt on positioning Japan as a victim of the War rather than a perpetrator. As a result, most of the Government's military records have been destroyed. One source estimates 95 percent. Much of what has survived is in the BKS archive. And given the enormity of the War effort, even 5 percent is aAs a result, unlike the Western Allies and European Axis, the archives are extremely limited. Soviet archives are also extensive, but difficult to access. The principal Japanese source on the War is the Senshi Sosho, a detailed, multi-volume work. There are 102 massive volumes and it is by far the most detailed account of the Japanese war effort. Not addressed are the attrocitioes commited by the Japanese military during the War. A copy is archived in the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, it has never been translated in its entirity and thus requires Japanese-language capability to use. Only a few relatively small segments of some of the volumes have been traslayed. A very important additional source is war-time the Ultra/Magic decripts. And as in the West there are wr time accounts published by Japanese officials and military figures.


Giangreco, D.M. Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947

Halloran, Richard. "How Japan got ready for suicide," New Tork Times (August 5, 1985)

Pacific War Research Society (PWRS). Compiler Kazutoshi Hando. Japan's Longest Day.

Shindo, Hiroyuki. "Japan's War, 1943-45" 2018 International Conference on World War II, (National Workd War II Museum: December 1, 2018). Btoadcast on C-Span.

Spector, Ronald H. At War at Sea: Sailors and Naval Combat in the Twentieth Century (Viking, 2001), 463p.

Thomas, Evan. Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 1941-1945 (Simon & Schuster: New York, 2006), 414p.


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Created: 11:08 PM 4/10/2005
Last updated: 3:18 AM 3/11/2021