Japanese World War II Economics: Southern Resource Zone

Figure 1.--Here Borneo girls are pounding padi (rice) in Borneo, probably Sarawak. Padi is unmilled rice and the source of the English word paddy. Rice and other food stuffs was an important resource drawing Japan's interest. Resource poor Japan had to import much of its food supply and rice was particularly important. The Japanese like the Germans, their Axis alliy, were interested in the resources of conquered lands, but not the people. Both countries rithlessly seized food supplies without any regard to the impact on local peoples, like the girls here. As a result, millions of people would die in China, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. This photograph was taken in the late-1930s, just before the Pacific war. Photographer: F.K. Wong.

Japan was Asia's first industrial power. Irionically it was an Asian country with very limited natural resources. Fom the onset of the Mejii Restoration, Japan aspired to emulate the European approach and seize a colonian empire to acquire the needed natural resources. The problem was that most of Asia except for China was already an European colonial possession. The major exception was China. So after seizing Formosa (Taiwan) and Korea, and Pacific islands, the Japanese went after China. China was militarily weak, but its emense size and stubborn resistwnce of its people prevented a total Japanese victory. And Japan rather than obtaining the raw matwrioals it needed found itself in need of more raw materials to continue the wae effort. After the out break of the War in Europe, the Strike North Faction gained suppot, but eventually collapsed and the Strike South Faction gained the accendency. Southeast Asia and the adjacent Dutch East Indies, offered Japan allthe resoitces it needed, but meant war with Britain and the Dutch. This was not a major impediment. The Dutch were weak militarily and occupied by the Germans. The British werrefully occupied in Europe and the North Atlantic. The United States was a very different matter. The Philippines had importnt resources, but could have been passed over, except for its location. The Philippines sat astride the sea lanes from the SRZ to Japan. The United States from the Philippines could have prevented the SRZ resources from reaching the Home Islands. Japan was almost totally dependant on imported oil, primarily from the United States which at the time was the leading producer. Japan imported about 90 percent of its oil. Japan had very limited oil fiekds and a small synthetic petroleum industry. And with an industrial economy and a large navy and merchant marine, Japan required large quantities of oil. The ongoing war in China also required oil. Japan's major source of oil was the United States. Before the invasion of China, Japan had been purchasing 80 percent of its oil in the United States (1937). The United States through its moral persuasion policy had suceeded in convincing American ship owners to reduce shipments to Japan without any formal action. Thus on the brink of war the Japanese were only obtaining 60 percent of theor oil in America (1941). The Japanese were importing American oil (along with Latin American and DEI oil) in Japanese and neutral country tankers. Oil was by far the most important product needed by the Japanese, but the SRZ offered much more, including rubber, nickel, tin, rice,and much more.

Japanese Natural Resources

Japan was an industrialized nation that was resource poor. The country had to import raw material, including vital resources like iron and other metals, rubber, and especially petroleum. The increasingly military-dominated government increasingly took the view that Japan needed to expand its empire to control access to these resources. This was a principle taken for granted. The military did not do any assessment of the cost of military expansion. The cost of military operations was not considered. Victory had been quickin Manchuria (1931), but the attempt to conquer China (1937) proved a very different matter. China offered both access to raw materials as well as a vast market for the country's industrial output. The Japanese achieved considerable military success, but as the war dragged on, costs mounted. But rather than disuade the country's military leadership, with the outbreak of war in Europe, they began planning new military adventures. Japan until America embargoed petroleum exports, imported most of its oil from the United States. Thus the Dutch West Indies and British Borneo with their petroleum resources were a major target of the Japanese war effort. Nor was the country self-production in food production. The need to important raw materials made Japan dependant on its merchant marine. The only way that needed raw materials could reach Japan, even from Korea and Manchuria was through its merchant marine. Thus Japan was taking a great risk launching a naval war. The gamble that the Japanese miltarists made was that once in possssion of the SRZ and its resources that not only would tey have what they needed to supply their war industries, but the Americans would not have the stomche to wage a bloody war and would want to make pece.

Japanese Agriculture

Japan is aelatively small country, especially if you do not include the northern island of Hokaido. That meant that there was only limited land for agriculture. But in Japan's case the areas is especially limited because the country is so very mountaneous. Thus only a small percentage of Japan's land areas is arable land. This meant that after the Mejii Restoration and Japan began to industrialize and exopand cities, it woulf be neessary to import food from abroad. This made Japan like Britain vulnerable. Not only was there limited arable land, but much of it was owned by wealthy landlords. A very substantial portion of the Japanese harvest was produced by peasants who were only able to kepp a portion of it. Japanese milatrarists supported the land lords, seeing them as the rock bed of Japanese society. Ironically, pressures created by military reversals would force the Japanese to launch a masive rural reform.

Japanese Interest in China

The resource-poor Japanese had for years focused on China as a source of raw materials and market fot its industrial output. A united China had dominated Asia for two millenia. Japan had been an outlyer on the edge of the Chinese world, heavily influenced by China. The Mwjii Restoration and the industrialization of Japan gave Jpan for the first time the abikity to challenge Chuna. This began early with the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) anbd thn the seizure of Korea (1909). Korean had traditionally been a Chinese tributary state. Japan's decesion to formnally subgegate China was ,ade during Wiorld war I with the crafting of the Tewnty One Demands (1915). The United States would lead international opposition to the aggresive intermnational opposition to Japanese aggression.


The Japanese after paruticipating in the supression of theBoxer Rebellion (1900), began competeing with the Russians for concessions in Manchuria. This eventually led to Ruuuso-Japanese War (1904-05). At this time that they began enviously looked at the resources of Siberia and the establishment of the Soviet Union created ideological reasons for seizing Siberia. The Japanese helped occupy Vladisvostock during World War I, in part because of the interest in Siberian resources. They did not want to leave after World War I. This fueled the Strike North Faction. The outbreak of World War II escalated forces in Japan seeking to expand the Empire, but undercut the influence of the Strike North faction. The NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact shocked the Japanese. The NAZIs had not consulted with the Japanese and the Strike North faction was premised on an alliance with Germany.

Japanese Invasion of China (1937)

The Japanese interest in China culminated after the seizure of Manchuria (1931) with invasion of China itself 6 years later (1937). The Japanese Government did not order the invasion. Rather Army commanders in China launched what they called the China Incident. The Army achieved impressive victories, occupying large areas of China. The Japabnese, however, could not pursue the Natiionalist Government into the interior and achieve a final victory and the United States increasingly supported China. The war proved inceasingly costly as it draged on. It placed a huge strain on Japan and its limited resources. At the same time the cost of the war in China created a desire for greater access to resources--especially petroleum. The United States was increasing pressure on the Japanese to end its aggression in China and American was Japan's principal source of petroleum. Japanese militarists playing an increasinly important role in Goverment concluded that a greter resource base was needed to complete the conquest of China and that should be pursued despite the opposition of the United states.

Strike South Faction

The Japanese War in China brought on the increasing influence of the Strike South Faction with the aim of seizing the Southern Resource Zone (SRZ). While the Strike North Faction was initially the preminent Arny faction, a series of shocking events after Japan's invasion of China led to the victory of thec Strike South Faction within the Imperial Army. The Japanese were shicked at the very vocal American reaction to their war in China. This was of some consequence, not because of the moral outrage, but the fact that Japan was very dependant on America for raw materials, espoecially oil. The American Moral Embargo (July 1938) was thus a very real threat. Next came the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact (August 1939). NAZI Germany was Japan's principal ally against the Soviet Union which the Strike North Faction wanted to attack. NAZI diplomats had not consulted with the Japanese before signing the pact. This led to the Japanese questiining the value of the Anti-Comintern Pact and their German ally. Perhaps the most important development was an undeclared and poorly reported border war with the Sovirt Union (August 1939). The Red Army routed the Japanese along the Khalka River. This seems to have significantly reduced the Imperial Army's enthusism for invading the Soviet Union. The result was the Strike South Faction emerging as the dominat group in the Imperial Army.

The Region and Resources

The War in China put great pressure on the Japanese economy. Rather than auick, victory, the war went in an on. an rather than securing markets and raw material, the war forced the Japanese Givernment to make substantial purchases of eaw materials including oil and merals from the United States. Once the Red Army defeated Japanese wgg=fforts to move noth, the Japanese eyes moved south to the Southeast Asia which hey even began calling the Southern Resource Zone (SRZ). The SRC had everything Japan needed to contunue their war in China to a conclusion. The SRC territories were mostly European colonies. The only exceptions were the Philippines and Thailand. The Philippines was an American Commnwealth which was schedled to be granted independence. Thailand (Siam) was independent. The single most important resource Japan needed was oil. Japan had virtually no domestic sources of oil. There were substantial oil fields in both the Dutch East Indies and Malaya, especially on Borneo. These same countries as well as British Burma and French Indo-China offered many other resources. Especially important for Japan was rice and other food products. The Mekong Deltawas an asian rice bowk, but there was also important rice production in Burma and the DEI. Another key resource needed for war was rubber. Rubber was most obviously needed fr tires, but also used in ships, planes, and motor vehicles. Most of the world's natural rubber came from Malaya. In addition to these key materials and products, the region offered many mineral esources such as chrome, copper, gold, lead, magnesium, silver, tin, tungsten, and zinc. Other important items were palm oil and lumber.

World War II: Military Opportunity (September 1, 1939)

The Japanese leadership saw the ourbreak of war in Europe (September 1939) as offering an opportunity for resolving the war in China. The Strike South Faction saw as the Germans achieved spectacular victories the opportunity to seize the resource rich European colonies in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian from the European colonial powers. The Japanese called Southeast Asia the Southern Resource Zone (SRZ). This included British (Malaya, Borneo, and Burma), French (Indo-China), and Dutch (Dutch East Indies) colonies in Southeast Asia. The American-controlled Philippines was not an essential part of the SRZ. Its geograohic position astride the sea lanes betwee the SRZ and the Home Islands meant that it could not be allowed to remain in American hands. Australia was eventually added to the Japanese concept of the SRZ as well as Pacific islands neded to build a hard defensive shell around the SRZ, a shell that would prove too hard for the United States to crack. Seizure of the the SRZ would not only cut off Nationlist China from Western aid, but also provide the Japanese military the resources it needed to complete the conquest of China. Japan would no longer be dependent on American resources. The SRZ offered large petroleum resouces, but the enticement was not just petroleum. The SRZ also offered various critical mineral resources: rubber, tin, nickel, bauxite (aluminum) and minerals. And not only minerals were involved. The SRZ was a major source of food. Rice was the most important, but not the only food resoure. Southeast Asian produced nearly 70 percent pf the rice involved in international trade. [Kratoska, p.9.]

Japanese Offensive (December 1941-May 1942)

And the Japanese were phenomenally successful, seizing the SRO largely undamaged within only a few months and with minimal losses (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.

Greater East Asian Co-Prospeity Sphere (1941-45)

The Japanese in an effort to sell their new role to Asian nationalists, called thrir empire the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (GEACPS). The GEACPS streaching from Manchuria south to Burma and New Guinea, included Korea, Formosa, China, Indochina, Thailand, Malaya, the Philippines, and the DEI. The overall goal was to modernize the region on a Japanese model, such as the one pursued in both Formosa and Korea. The progressive sounding name was a cover for for brutal imperialism and exploitive trade policies. The GEACPS was actually a much more of an old-fashioned empire than the Europeans had installed. Economically the British had for the most part permitted free trade. It involved both territorial and trade hegemony. The Japanese seized resources without compensation to the local economies. In practice the GEACPS was an area of inensive Japanese exploitation in which millions died of starvation and millions more suffred severe deprivation. The same occurred within the NAZI empire in Europe. There were, however, differences. The Germans made very limited pretenses of dealing with nationalist groups. In addition, the Germans pursued a Hunger Plan in which part of the goal was to kill millions as a matter of policy. The deaths in the Japanese GEACPS werre more a matter of Japanese incompetence and indifference, not an important policy objective. In practice the GEACPS was an area of inensive Japanese exploitation. Millions died of starvation and millions more suffred severe deprivation. The same occurred within the NAZI empire in Europe. There were, however, differences. The Germans made very limited pretenses of dealing with nationalist groups. In addition, the Germans pursued the Hunger Plan in which part of the goal was to kill millions as a matter of policy. The deaths in the Japanese GEACPS werre more a matter of Japanese incompetence and indifference, not an important policy objective. Nationalist leaders primarily focused on European colonialists cooperated to varying degrees with the Japanese. This was particularly true of Sukarno in the DEI and Aung San in Burma. The Brutal Japanese rule, especially the requisitioning of supplies and the conscripting of labor made the Japanese very unpopular. Promises of indepedence of course never materialized. Nationalists for the most part fully understood the real nature of the GEACPS before the end of the War.

Importance in World War II

The Dutch own oil fields in the DEI would be able to provide all of Japan's needs, even the expanded ewquirement needed during war. The DEI was, however, only one part in what the Japanese called the Southern Resource Zone. Southeast Asia offered many other vital resources: bauxite (needed for aluminum ans airplane construction), iron, tin, and rubber. Rubber was another commodity which Japan had to import. Rubber was a particularly vital resource. Here seizure of the Southern Resource Zone offered other advantages, namely denying rubber to the Americans and British, And the great bulk of the world's rubber production came from the SRZ--especially Malaya. There was a major weakness in the Japanese plan to seize the SRZ by force to support their war effort. This was that the oil, rubber, and other resources had to be brought back to Japan. Thus Japan would not only have to swize the SRZ, but maintain permanent command of the sea lanes to allow the Japanese merchant marine to supply Japanese industry. Here the Japanese badly miscalculated. A naval war was by definition aaval war. And Japan had an industrial capacityonly aaction of that of the United States. They had temprary naval superority bt outbuikding the United stats durin opeace time. Now the Imperial Japanee Navy would have to face the expanded output of American shipyards and aircraft plants. The Imperial Navy would not only have to fight naval battls, but have the responsibiliy to get Japanese shipping full of the cargos from the SEZ back to the Home Islands.

Japanese Mechant Marine

The Japanese did succeed in seizing vital natural resources in Oceania and Southeast Asia, including oil and rubber (1942). Japan had a basic problem in that these resources were located at some distance from the Home Islands. The Japanese had to rely on its merchant marine to bring these resources home and to deliver war material to Japsanese fighing men. Japan began the war with the world's third largest merchant marine--Marus. It was necessary for an industrialize but resource poor island nation that needed both raw materials and food imports. Japan in peace needed 3 million tons of shipping. For war, however, the Japanese needed double that ammount. The Japanese won an empire streaching from Siberia to the South Pacific. Not only was shipping needed to transport the boutfiful resources of the SRZ back to yhe HomeUIslns, but to supply thousands of Japbnese gariosons throughout the Pacific and Southeast Asia. None of the spectaculr Japanese victories were of any benefit if the resources obtained could not be brought back to the Home Islands. This was a serious weakness and opened Japan to a commerce war like the one the Germans unsuceesfully waged in the North Atlantic against Britain. Unfortunately for the Japanese the U.S. Navy launched a major a submarine campaign in the Pacific. The American campaign was not very effective in 1942 and early 1943, primarily because the Navy had supplied its submarines with defective torpedoes. Once that problem had been corrected, U.S. Navy submarines based in Pearl Harbor set about destroying the Japanese merchant marine. They were aided by the breaking of Japanese codes. The Marusdaily reported theur posituion and American decrypts meant that this information was made available to Ameruican submatiners. The American submarine campaign and the U.S. liberation of the Philippines had made it impossible to ship the SRC resources back to Japanse factories on the Home Islands (1944). By 1945 not only were Japanese factories that survived the air war having to scale back production because of raw material shortages, but food imports were decling to a pointthat the country faced famine.

American Submarine Campaign

The American submarine campaign was hampered by by poor strategic and tactical concepts and ineffective torpedoes in 1942. The American submarines by 1943, however, began to significantly affect the delivery of raw materials to Japan. The American submarines targeted the Japanese merchant marine (maru) fleet. While the big fleet carriers got the headlines. The American submarines sunk over 50 percent of all vessels destroyed during the War. The Japanese merchant marine was almost completely destroying, cutting the country's war industries off from supplies and bringing the country close to starvation by 1945. The American submarines did to Japan what the German u-boats tried to do to Britain. Surprisingly the Japanese submarine fleet had little impact on the Pacific campaign. Unlike the Americans, the Japanese began the War with the effective Type 93 Long-Lance Torpedo. The Japanese Navy never used their submarines to interdict American supply vessels. Rather they were used to target fighting ships with only limited success because of their tactical deployment. The Japanese used theor submarines as scouts and to target warships. As the American offensive moved toward the Home Islands, the Japanese used their submarines to supply bypassed island garisons, some of which were near starvation. They were also used to supply bypassed islasnd bases where garrisons were close to starvation. They also managed to get some secret German military technology to Japan late in the war (1944).

Feeding the Japanese Military

Food in Japan


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Created: 8:36 PM 4/3/2013
Last updated: 7:11 PM 8/12/2018