“World War II” is a collective term, encompassing a number of different conflicts that took place just prior to the mid-20th Century, in a number of different places, involving a number of different combatants, over a number of different durations.
For the US, the war started, with Japan, in 1941. For the UK, the war started in 1939, against Germany. For the USSR, the Great Patriotic War started in 1940, against Germany, with the follow-on Soviet-Japanese War limited to August, 1945. And for the Japanese, the Greater East Asia War began with the Second Sino-Japanese war, between Japan and China, in 1937 and later spread to the Pacific War, between Japan and the US and its allies, from 1941 to 1945.
I’m not going to talk about WWII in Europe. The European War is much more straightforward, one might even say traditional. The ruler of a country (Hitler) embarked upon a program of conquest through a war of choice. With a different ruler, one can argue, Germany would most likely not have gone to war. From that standpoint the European War serves to validate the Great Man theory of history. On the other hand, the Pacific War is fascinating because it can be attributed to the inevitable clash of cultures and national objectives, the Blind Forces of History. No one man pushed the Japanese into what one author calls the war they could never win. It was the Japanese (and American) view of themselves (and the world), that caused it.
As I said in an earlier essay, most Americans have this vague notion that Japan woke up one morning and decided to attack Pearl Harbor. I mean, it was a dull Sunday, and they still didn’t have cable TV, right? Of course it was more complex than that.
Around the world, the late 19th and early 20th Centuries saw a burst of New Imperialism, mostly on the part of European nations and the US. In the Scramble for Africa, the UK, France, Germany and Italy carved up those parts of the continent not already colonized. At the same time, the defeat of China in the Opium Wars allowed the UK, France, Germany, and Russia to establish spheres of influence there. Japan got some concessions out of it, but was treated as a decidedly minor partner. The US was not as imperialist as the other countries, possibly because it was still busy colonizing the lands between St Louis and San Francisco, but it still managed to come into possession of Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and of course earlier it had used the armed might of its Black Ships to force Japan to open up to the West.
The lesson was clear: If you didn’t want to be a colony, you had to be a modern, industrialized nation. And to become an industrialized nation, you had to have resources, either your own or from your colonies.
Japan, a backward and resource-poor nation, learned that lesson well, at the hands of Oliver Hazard Perry. As soon as they felt up to it, they set about becoming both modern and industrialized, which meant acquiring colonies.
Between 1894 and 1910 they fought one war with China and another with Russia, as well as engineering several short-of-war incidents*, in order to transform Korea from a Chinese vassal state to a Japanese colony. Along the way they succeeded in getting China to grant them control of the Liaodong peninsula but the major European powers ganged up on them and forced them to give it back. This was one more example, if they needed one, that European nations still looked down on all Asians, and that Japan would not get any respect from Europeans unless they forced it out of them.
The Russo-Japanese war was a disaster for Japan. They won every battle. They drove the Russian field armies back and back, from one well-prepared defensive position to another. They bottled the Russian Pacific Fleet and another Russian army into the area around Port Arthur, at the end of the Liaodong peninsula, and forced a surrender after a year-long siege. Five months later the final disaster occurred — the Battle of Tsushima. There, the Japanese fleet utterly destroyed the Russian Baltic Fleet, and brought an end to the war.
Why was this highly successful war an ultimate disaster? Because the Japanese military came to believe they were the equal of any of the Western powers, that the army that destroyed the Tsarist armies, 4,000 rail miles from their home bases, and the navy that destroyed the Tsarist navy, 18,000 nautical miles from its home ports, in 1905, could prevail against Britain and the US in the 1940’s.
The Japanese came to believe that they were destined to become the dominant power in Asia, superseding both China and the West. No-one believed this more than the Japanese Army. They, more than any other group came to see this as what Americans would call their Manifest Destiny. Not only was Japan now technically and industrially equivalent to the West, they felt they were also morally superior as well.
At home, the Army terrorized all who stood in their way. Assassination was a time-honored solution to problems of opposition**, and they, or their supporters, murdered recalcitrant generals, admirals, and politicians, even Prime Ministers. Abroad, with Russia cowed, the Army-dominated government continued their efforts to subdue China. As Allied participants in WWI they gained control of former German colonies across the Pacific, and in China they unsuccessfully attempted to push out their Western allies as part of their 21 Demands.
In 1931 the Japanese army engineered the Mukden incident, and used it to justify seizing all of Manchuria and establishing the vassal state of Manchukuo, a 100% Japanese creation, three times the size of the Japanese home islands (with over ten times the arable land), known today primarily for its exports of postage stamps.
But in 1937 the Japanese Army committed a fatal error, one that lead ultimately to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They started a land war in Asia.
*As with the US over the last fifty years, the Japanese used at least 17 incidents — violent events in China, some staged, some false flag operations — as excuses to increase military intervention there.
**In the clan conflicts of the late 1500s, which lead up to the unification of Japan, eight major figures fell to assassination, including Oda Nobunaga, and his brother, and the father, and grandfather of Tokugawa Ieyasu.