A History of Japan: From Mythology to Nationhood/World War II

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The Pacific Theater in August 1942

Japanese Preparations for War

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In an effort to discourage Japanese militarism, Western powers including Australia, the United States, Britain, and the Dutch government in exile, which controlled the petroleum-rich Netherlands East Indies, stopped selling iron ore, steel and oil to Japan, denying it the raw materials needed to continue its aggressive activities in China and French Indochina. In Japan, the government and nationalists viewed these embargos as acts of aggression; imported oil made up about 80% of domestic consumption, without which Japan's economy, let alone its military, would grind to a halt. The Japanese media, influenced by military propagandists, began to refer to the embargoes as the "ABCD ("American-British-Chinese-Dutch") encirclement" or "ABCD line".

Faced with a choice between economic collapse and withdrawal from its recent conquests (with its attendant loss of face), the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters began planning for a war with the western powers in April or May 1941.

The key objective was for the Southern Expeditionary Army Group to seize economic resources under the control of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, most notably those in Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies, known as the "Southern Plan". It was also decided—because of the close relationship between the UK and United States, and the (mistaken) belief the US would inevitably become involved—Japan would also require an "eastern plan".

The eastern plan required

  • initial attacks on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, with carrier-based aircraft of the Combined Fleet, and
  • following this attack with
    • seizure of the Philippines, and
    • cutting the U.S. lines of communication by seizing Guam and Wake Island.

The southern plans called for:

  • attacking Malaya and Hong Kong, and
  • following with attacks against
    • the Bismarck Archipelago,
    • Java, and
    • Sumatra.
  • isolating Australia and New Zealand

Following completion of these objectives, the strategy would turn defensive, primarily holding their newly acquired territory while hoping for a negotiated peace.

By November these plans were essentially complete, and were modified only slightly over the next month. Japanese military planners' expectation of success rested on the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union being unable to effectively respond to a Japanese attack because of the threat posed to each by Germany; the Soviet Union was even seen as unlikely to commence hostilities. There is no evidence the Japanese planned to defeat the United States; the alternative would be negotiating for peace after their initial victories. In fact, the Imperial GHQ noted, should acceptable negotiations be reached with the Americans, the attacks were to be canceled—even if the order to attack had already been given.

They also planned, should the U.S. transfer its Pacific Fleet to the Philippines, to intercept and attack this fleet en route with the Combined Fleet, in keeping with all Japanese Navy prewar planning and doctrine.

Should the United States or Britain attack first, the plans further stipulated the military were to hold their positions and wait for orders from GHQ. The planners noted attacking the Philippines and Malaya still had possibilities of success, even in the worst case of a combined preemptive attack including Soviet forces.

Declaration of War

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USS Arizona sinking during the attack.

On the 22 June 1941 the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany invaded Soviet Russia in "Operation Barbarossa". The Japanese had also signed a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union, and there was little chance that the Soviets would attack Japan (although the Soviets later broke the pact) This freed the Japanese Armed Forces to expand southwards.

On the 7th of December 1941, The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Their Mission to destroy the American Pacific Fleet. The idea was to emulate the Japanese attack on Port Arthur. They succeeded in sinking many American battleships however, crucially they failed to destroy the repair houses and the carriers of The American Pacific Fleet. This meant much of the American fleet was back in action relatively quickly. The carriers were much more decisive a weapon in the war as a whole, eventually rendering battleships obsolete. This can be seen with the mega-battle ships of the Japanese. These ships had massive guns, however they were destroyed by planes, mainly launched from carriers. Finally many of the battleships of Pearl Harbor were to be scuttled, and the Japanese attack may have just saved them from the scrapyards.

Initial Japanese Successes

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British, Australian and Dutch forces, already drained of personnel and material by two years of war with Germany, and heavily committed in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere, were unable to provide much more than token resistance to the battle-hardened Japanese. The Allies suffered many disastrous defeats in the first six months of the war. Two major British warships, HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales were sunk by a Japanese air attack off Malaya on 10 December 1941.

Thailand, with its territory already serving as a springboard for the Malayan campaign, surrendered within 24 hours of the Japanese invasion. The government of Thailand formally allied itself with Japan on 21 December.

Hong Kong was attacked on 8 December and fell on 25 December 1941, with Canadian forces and the Royal Hong Kong Volunteers playing an important part in the defense. U.S. bases on Guam and Wake Island were lost at around the same time.

Following the 1 January 1942 Declaration by United Nations (the first official use of the term United Nations), the Allied governments appointed the British General Sir Archibald Wavell to the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM), a supreme command for Allied forces in South East Asia. This gave Wavell nominal control of a huge force, albeit thinly-spread over an area from Burma to the Philippines to northern Australia. Other areas, including India, Hawaii and the rest of Australia remained under separate local commands. On 15 January Wavell moved to Bandung in Java to assume control of ABDA Command (ABDACOM). In January, Japan invaded Burma, the Dutch East Indies, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and captured Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Rabaul. After being driven out of Malaya, Allied forces in Singapore attempted to resist the Japanese during the Battle of Singapore but surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942; about 130,000 Indian, British, Australian and Dutch personnel became prisoners of war. The pace of Japanese conquest was rapid: Bali and Timor also fell in February. The rapid collapse of Allied resistance had left the "ABDA area" split in two. Wavell resigned from ABDACOM on 25 February, handing control of the ABDA Area to local commanders and returning to the post of Commander-in-Chief, India.

Meanwhile, Japanese aircraft had all but eliminated Allied air power in South-East Asia and were making attacks on northern Australia, beginning with a psychologically devastating (but militarily insignificant) attack on the city of Darwin on 19 February, which killed at least 243 people.

At the Battle of the Java Sea in late February and early March, the Japanese Navy inflicted a resounding defeat on the main ABDA naval force, under Admiral Karel Doorman. The Netherlands East Indies campaign subsequently ended with the surrender of Allied forces on Java.

In March and April, a raid into the Indian Ocean by a powerful Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier force resulted in a wave of major air raids against Ceylon and the sinking of a British aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes as well as other Allied ships and driving the British fleet out of the Indian Ocean. This paved the way for a Japanese assault on Burma and India.

The British, under intense pressure, made a fighting retreat from Rangoon to the Indo-Burmese border. This cut the Burma Road which was the western Allies' supply line to the Chinese Nationalists. Cooperation between the Chinese Nationalists and the Communists had waned from its zenith at the Battle of Wuhan, and the relationship between the two had gone sour as both attempted to expand their area of operations in occupied territories. Most of the Nationalist guerrilla areas were eventually overtaken by the Communists. On the other hand, some Nationalist units were deployed to blockade the Communists and not the Japanese. Furthermore, many of the forces of the Chinese Nationalists were warlords allied to Chiang Kai-Shek, but not directly under his command. "Of the 1,200,000 troops under Chiang's control, only 650,000 were directly controlled by his generals, and another 550,000 controlled by warlords who claimed loyalty to his government; the strongest force was the Szechuan army of 320,000 men. The defeat of this army would do much to end Chiang's power." The Japanese exploited this lack of unity to press ahead in their offensives.

Filipino and U.S. forces resisted in the Philippines until 8 May 1942, when more than 80,000 soldiers were ordered to surrender. By this time, General Douglas MacArthur, who had been appointed Supreme Allied Commander South West Pacific, had retreated to the safer confines of Australia. The U.S. Navy, under Admiral Chester Nimitz, had responsibility for the rest of the Pacific Ocean. This divided command had unfortunate consequences for the commerce war, and consequently, the war itself.

The Tide Turns

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The Battle of the Coral Sea

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By mid-1942, the Japanese Combined Fleet found itself holding a vast area, even though it lacked the aircraft carriers, aircraft, and aircrew to defend it, and the freighters, tankers, and destroyers necessary to sustain it. Moreover, Fleet doctrine was inadequate to execute the proposed "barrier" defence. Instead, they decided on additional attacks in both the south and central Pacific. While Yamamoto had used the element of surprise at Pearl Harbor, Allied codebreakers now turned the tables. They discovered an attack against Port Moresby, New Guinea, was imminent with intent to invade and conquer all of New Guinea. If Port Moresby fell, it would give Japan control of the seas to the immediate north of Australia. Nimitz rushed the carrier USS Lexington, under Admiral Fletcher, to join USS Yorktown and an American-Australian task force, with orders to contest the Japanese advance. The resulting Battle of the Coral Sea was the first naval battle in which ships involved never sighted each other and aircraft were solely used to attack opposing forces. Although Lexington was sunk and Yorktown seriously damaged, the Japanese lost the aircraft carrier Shōhō, suffered extensive damage to the aircraft carrier Shōkaku and heavy losses to the air wing of warship Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku (both missed the operation against Midway the following month), and saw the Moresby invasion force turn back. Even though Allied losses were heavier than Japanese, the Japanese attack on Port Moresby was thwarted and their invasion forces turned back, yielding a strategic victory for the Allies. Moreover, Japan lacked the capacity to replace losses in ships, planes and trained pilots. Destruction of U.S. carriers was Yamamoto's main objective, and he planned an operation to lure them to battle. After Coral Sea, he had four fleet carriers operational—Sōryū, Kaga, Akagi and Hiryū —and believed Nimitz had a maximum of two—USS Enterprise and USS Hornet. USS Saratoga CV-3 2 was out of action, undergoing repair after a torpedo attack, while Yorktown sailed after three days' work to repair her flight deck and make essential repairs, with civilian work crews still aboard.

The Battle of Midway

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A large Japanese force was sent north to attack the Aleutian Islands, off Alaska. The next stage of Yamamoto's plan called for the capture of Midway Atoll, which would give him an opportunity to destroy Nimitz's remaining carriers; afterward, it would be turned into a major airbase, giving Japan control of the central Pacific. In May, Allied codebreakers discovered his intentions. Nagumo was again in tactical command but was focused on the invasion of Midway; Yamamoto's complex plan had no provision for intervention by Nimitz before the Japanese expected him. Planned surveillance of the U.S. fleet by long range seaplane did not happen (as a result of an abortive identical operation in March), so U.S. carriers were able to proceed to a flanking position on the approaching Japanese fleet without being detected. Nagumo had 272 planes operating from his four carriers, the U.S. 348 (of which 115 were land-based).

As anticipated by U.S. commanders, the Japanese fleet arrived off Midway on 4 June and was spotted by PBY patrol aircraft. Nagumo executed a first strike against Midway, while Fletcher launched his aircraft, bound for Nagumo's carriers. At 09:20 the first U.S carrier aircraft arrived, TBD Devastator torpedo bombers from Hornet, but their attacks were poorly coordinated and ineffectual; they failed to score a single hit, and Zero fighters shot down all 15. At 09:35, 15 TBDs from Enterprise skimmed in over the water; 14 were shot down by Zeroes. Fletcher's attacks had been disorganized, yet succeeded in distracting Nagumo's defensive fighters. When U.S. dive bombers arrived, the Zeros could not offer any protection. In addition, Nagumo's four carriers had drifted out of formation, reducing the concentration of their anti-aircraft fire. His most-criticized error was twice changing his arming orders: he first held aircraft for shipping attack as a hedge against discovery of U.S. carriers, changed this based on reports an additional strike was needed against Midway, then again after sighting Yorktown, wasting time and leaving his hangar decks crowded with refueling and rearming aircraft, and ordnance stowed outside the magazines. Yamamoto's dispositions, which left Nagumo with inadequate reconnaissance to detect (and therefore attack) Fletcher before he launched, are often ignored.

When SBD Dauntlesses from Enterprise and Yorktown appeared at an altitude of 10,000 ft, the Zeroes at sea level were unable to respond before the bombers pushed over. They scored a small number of significant hits; Sōryū, Kaga, and Akagi all caught fire. Hiryū survived this wave of attacks and launched an attack against the American carriers which caused severe damage to Yorktown (which was later finished off by a Japanese submarine). A second attack from the U.S. carriers a few hours later found and destroyed Hiryū. Yamamoto had four additional small carriers, assigned to his scattered surface forces, all too slow to keep up with the Kido Butai and therefore never in action. Yamamoto's enormous superiority in gun power was irrelevant as the U.S. had air superiority at Midway and could refuse a surface gunfight (which, by remarkable good fortune, Spruance moved to avoid, based on a faulty submarine report); Yamamoto's flawed dispositions had made closing to engage after dark on 4 June impossible. Midway was a decisive victory for the U.S. Navy and the end of the high point in Japanese aspirations in the Pacific. After merely a year the Japanese had reached their high point in the Pacific, but the process of recapturing the land the Japanese had quickly conquered, was to be no easy task.

New Guinea and the Solomons

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Japanese land forces continued to advance in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. From July 1942, a few Australian reserve battalions, many of them very young and untrained, fought a stubborn rearguard action in New Guinea, against a Japanese advance along the Kokoda Track, towards Port Moresby, over the rugged Owen Stanley Ranges. The militia, worn out and severely depleted by casualties, were relieved in late August by regular troops from the Second Australian Imperial Force, returning from action in the Mediterranean theater.

US Marines rest in the field during the Guadalcanal campaign in November 1942 In early September 1942 Japanese marines attacked a strategic Royal Australian Air Force base at Milne Bay, near the eastern tip of New Guinea. They were beaten back by the Australian Army, which inflicted the first outright defeat on Japanese land forces since 1939.


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At the same time as major battles raged in New Guinea, Allied forces identified a Japanese airfield under construction at Guadalcanal. In August 16,000 Allied infantry—primarily US Marines—made an amphibious landing, to capture the airfield. Japanese and Allied forces occupied various parts of the island. Over the following six months, both sides fed resources into an escalating battle of attrition on the island, at sea, and in the sky. Most of the Japanese aircraft in the South Pacific were drafted into the Japanese defence of Guadalcanal, facing Allied air forces based at Henderson Field. Japanese ground forces launched attacks on US positions around Henderson Field, suffering high casualties. These offensives were resupplied by Japanese convoys known to the Allies as the "Tokyo Express", which often faced night battles with the Allied navies, and expended destroyers IJN could ill-afford to lose. Later fleet battles involving heavier ships and even daytime carrier battles resulted in a stretch of water near Guadalcanal becoming known as "Ironbottom Sound", from the severe losses to both sides. However, only the US Navy could quickly replace and repair its losses. The Allies were victorious on Guadalcanal in February 1943.

End of World War II

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Emperor Hirohito surrendered on national radio six days after the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki. Japan surrendered due to the 2 Atomic bombs and due to the Soviet Declaration of War caused them to surrender, or at least contributed to it.

For fear that if Japan accepted Unconditional Surrender that the monarchy would be deposed, Japan had been attempting to get the USSR to mediate a peace deal between the USA and Japan. However the USSR delayed and decisions and had been discussing with the other allies a possible Soviet declaration of war against Japan. After defeating Germany many Soviet troops were moved to East Asia where they invaded Manchuria. This may have been a large reason for the surrender of Japan.

Many people wanted to keep fighting the war however the Showa emperor broadcast an order to surrender. Many holdouts have also been found, some as late as 1974. This shows the Japanese ideal that was around that the Japanese never surrender.

The war officially ended in 1951, with the Treaty of San Francisco, which was signed by 48 nations.

Japan's Home Front

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Strict rationing was imposed as Japan depended on many imports for its food.

Bombing of Japan

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The United States strategic bombing of Japan took place between 1942 and 1945. In the last seven months of the campaign, a change to firebombing tactics resulted in great destruction of 67 Japanese cities, as many as 500,000 Japanese deaths and some 5 million more made homeless. Emperor Hirohito's viewing of the destroyed areas of Tokyo in March 1945, is said to have been the beginning of his personal involvement in the peace process, culminating in Japan's surrender five months later.


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Women were not utilised, and were not drafted into industry. Rather they were expected to have good families.

Plan for a Last Defence

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Lack of weapons meant that people were issued with bamboo sticks.

Japanese History

Prehistory through the Jomon Period – The Yayoi Period – The Kofun or Yamato Period – The Asuka Period – The Nara Period – The Spread of Buddhism in Japan – The Early Heian Period – The Middle Heian Period – The Late Heian Period – The Kamakura Period – The Kemmu Restoration – The Nanboku-chō Period – The Muromachi Period (Ashikaga) – The Warring States Period – The Azuchi–Momoyama Period – The Edo Period – The Meiji Restoration – The Meiji Period – The Taisho Period – The Rise of Militarism – World War II – The American Occupation of Japan – Post-War Japan – Japan Today
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