Imagine if England had retained the tradition of knights in shining armour into the mid-1800’s. Imagine if the UK had remained as it was in the mid-1400’s, with a weak king and strong barons. Imagine if Queen Victoria was the first English monarch in seven hundred years to actually rule the United Kingdom. Now, jump ahead fifty years, and imagine what British society might be like half a century later. You now have an idea of what Japan was like at the beginning of the last Century.
Japan was always a militaristic society, in a knights in shining armour way. For almost their entire history this militarism was aimed inwards, with more or less continuous Wars of the Roses style fighting between rival clans and warlords using small armies of samurai, or with indian wars in the north, to pacify the Ainu. Unification of the country in the 1600’s under one chief warlord (Shogun) suppressed the fighting, and converted the samurai to a governing civil service (while not decreasing their militaristic ethos). The rise of a national army, in post-Meiji Japan, gave an outlet for those who yearned for more than trusted places in the bureaucracy. By the start of the 20th Century, Japanese society could still be classified as militaristic, but not in a nostalgic way. Large parts of it embraced the militarism that would later lead Europe into two World Wars.
And now we come to the place where hubris evokes nemesis. In the first essay in this series, the Japanese had gained control of agricultural Taiwan and Korea, and had established a sphere of influence in the Liaodong Peninsula. Occupation of resource-rich Manchuria had earned them the censure of the League of Nations, but no economically important countermeasures. It did, however, kick off continuing clashes with Chinese forces, which the Japanese generally won. If they had stopped there, they might have consolidated, grown, and prospered. They didn’t.
In 1937 the Japanese army in China, which by now was pretty much out of control, exploited, or manufactured, several incidents, that lead to an all out war with the Kuomintang (KMT) government, and a parallel guerrilla war coordinated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At the start of the war, the Japanese army totaled 17 divisions. By the time of Pearl Harbor, approximately 35 out of 51 divisions, and 38 out of 39 independent brigades were committed in China. Japan managed to occupy a number of the major cities — Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan — but had less luck pacifying the country in between.
The start of the Second Sino-Japanese War threatened Western business interests in China. That, combined with the associated Japanese atrocities against Chinese civilians, well reported by the US Christian missionaries in-country, provided the basis for US support for the KMT. Initially, there were no overt actions against Japan directly. Diplomatic objections were raised. Loans were made available to buy military equipment and supplies for the Chinese army, much of which was delivered through Haiphong, in French Indochina, and thence via rail to Yunnan. So far, the Japanese were still ahead in the game. This lasted for three years.
We now begin a series of escalatory tit-for-tats, each of which, on its own and viewed narrowly, was perfectly logical. The problem was, the Japanese army was bogged down in China. They were looking at a scaled up version of what the US faced in VietNam — a patriotic people, fighting on their own ground, with continuing resupply from an untouchable sanctuary. Ultimately, it would lose somewhere between one and two million casualties there. Probably half of those were suffered by late 1940. The solution was, of course, to close off the resupply. By September of that year French Indochina was in the hands of the neutral Vichy government, and the Japanese tried to get them to close the rail line through diplomatic pressure. They refused, and the Japanese staged an amphibious landing south of Haiphong, as well as moving ground troops across the border at Lang Son, closing the railway. The US reaction was to halt all sales of scrap iron (75% of Japan’s supply), machine tools, and aviation gasoline, one step short of a total trade embargo. This lead the Japanese to make plans to obtain their own oil, by seizing the British oil fields in Borneo, and the Dutch oil fields in Indonesia. They took the next step in July of 1941, by occupying the southern half of French Indochina, putting their aircraft in range of Dutch and UK targets. The US froze all Japanese assets, and instituted a complete trade embargo, including all exports of oil to Japan. The final stage was set.
Throughout all of this, the US demonstrated an almost complete lack of understanding of the Japanese goals and values. In fact, US actions continuously confirmed the Japanese understanding of the West. Immigration restrictions were informally imposed on the Japanese in 1907, and formalized in the Immigration Act of 1924. As early as 1895 the European powers had ganged up on Japan to roll back major provisions of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the First Sino-Japanese War. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 limited Japan to the short end of a 5:5:3 ratio in battleships. And now the US was adopting a hard line withdraw from China and then we’ll talk approach. The Japanese were faced with unconditional surrender and acceptance of a second class existence as a client state of a nation that despised them, or a war that might allow them to achieve at least some of their goals, or that might end in ruin for the nation. What’s a proud samurai to do?