Looking Back Over WWII
How Japan Could Turn the Pacific War Into A Victory

At this time of year, Japan remorsefully reflects back over its conduct in WWII and looks at how ‘evil’ it was. In the face of raining criticisms from China and North Korea, however, Japanese leaders have to reflect more on how not to repeat the tragedy that produced over 3 million casualties.

Japan made many mistakes, but we must reflect on each decision and think what was the best decision at the time.


The Three Difficulties Faced by Post-War Japan

There were three primary things that Japan was fighting against in WWII: 1) Western supremacy and colonial rule in Asia; 2) the USSR’s attempts to spread communism in Manchuria and China; and 3) post-Depression trade blocs.

Unlike the Western powers, Japan did not have any colonies it could exploit and the country suffered from food shortages. In the 1940s, countries such as the U.S., Britain and China embargoed Japan, which left it with no choice but to fight for survival.

The Showa Emperor declared that the indirect cause of the Pacific War was racial discrimination and the direct cause was the economic blockade. In other words, reasons 1) and 3) were the most significant causes of the Pacific War.

The question is, ‘Did Japan have an option to avoid war with the U.S., or reduce the impact of such a war, and still survive? Below are three possible actions Japan could have taken.


(1) Preserve the U.K.-Japan Alliance

The first possibility of avoiding war with the U.S. would have been to preserve the U.K.-Japan alliance. After the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) U.S.-Japan relations began to sour due to power issues over Manchuria and China.

The U.S. wanted to monopolize its trade authority in China as a potential new colony, which conflicted with Japan’s interests. In the end, the U.S. maneuvered to bring an end to the U.K.-Japan alliance in 1921.

U.S.-Japan relations were going well until then. Right after the Russo-Japanese War, they began a joint railroad project in Manchuria at the request of American railroad executive E.H. Harriman. There was ample opportunity for Japan to strengthen ties with the U.S.-allied U.K. A U.K.-Japan alliance would have been a potential path to avoid conflict between Japan and the U.S.


(2) Accept the Hull Note

It was U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt (in office 1933-1945), however, who intentionally cornered Japan and subsequently triggered the war between the U.S. and Japan.

In July 1940, Nazi Germany invaded Britain and, in a bid to help them, Roosevelt wanted to wage war on Germany’s ally Japan. This would set the scene for a simultaneous war against Germany and Japan.

In November 1941, during its negotiations with Japan, the U.S. sent Japan the Hull note demanding a complete and unconditional surrender. The U.S. never expected Japan to accept such an unreasonable request.

At the time, Japan thought its only other option was to enter war, but experts suggest there was a wiser option: Japan could have disclosed the Hull note to the international community and declared that the U.S. were making unfeasible demands.

At the time the American public was against entering the war against Germany, and President Roosevelt had promised not to send anyone’s sons to the battlefield. This reveals fair judgment by the American public and a government that acknowledged it, meaning that if the public knew the contents of the Hull note, they would have protested against entering war with Japan.

The Japanese Hideki Tojo cabinet, however, concealed the contents of the Hull note out of fear that, once it became known, the Japanese public might demand the government accept it.

If this occurred, Japan’s wisest option would have been to accept the conditions outlined in the Hull note, at least temporarily, especially since its people were becoming war-weary in the prolonged battle against China. Since the Hull note did not specify any particular date for Japan’s withdrawal from China, Japan would have had time to negotiate a truce with the Chinese Communist Party before a complete withdrawal took place.

The war between the U.S. and Japan could have been avoided if the China conflict had been resolved at this point in time.


(3) Only Fight Against the Netherlands

Even after it entered WWII, Japan had the choice not to fight against the U.S. The direct cause of the Pacific War was the European trade bloc, so if Japan found a way to obtain reliable oil imports, the war would have ended.

Japanese cultural critic Kimindo Kusaka holds that Japan should have negotiated, not with the U.S., but with the Netherlands to acquire oil from the Dutch colony of Indonesia.

The Netherlands were taking part in the European trade bloc, so negotiations would not have been easy, and may have led to Japan resorting to military pressure to acquire the oil; this, of course, would have been done in a bid for the survival of the country. Kusaka suggests that an agreement with the Netherlands could have been somewhat justified if Japan paid the Netherlands properly.

If this occurred, Asia’s greatest colonizer, the British Empire, would not have remained silent. This may have resulted in hostilities between Japan and the British fleets, but would not have given the U.S. enough reason to step in and prevent Japan’s desperate plan for survival.


Ambushing the U.S. Fleet

None of this rules out the possibility that President Roosevelt would have created a reason to go to war with Japan anyway.

If this occurred, Japan could have ambushed the U.S. Pacific Fleet near the Philippines or the Mariana Trench.

By this time the Japanese Navy had long built and trained warships in preparation for a short naval battle. If they could face the U.S. in the waters near the Philippines, it would have had no need to go on an expedition to Hawaii.

Between 1941 and 1942, the Japanese naval force was twice the size of the U.S. They could strike the U.S. fleet with submarine torpedoes followed by battleships Yamato and Musashi. Aircraft carriers could also launch airstrikes. At that time the U.S. had yet to experience the power of Japanese air attacks, so Japan would have won. If this scenario took place, Pearl Harbor would not have occurred.

After a successful naval battle, Japan could then have immediately proposed a peace treaty, and Roosevelt would have had no choice but to admit defeat.


(4) A Naval Battle With the U.S. Leading to Peace

Following history as it actually happened with Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway and the Battle of the Philippines Sea, let’s look at how Japan could have at least brought about a draw.

The basic line of action would have been to engage front-on in a naval battle against the U.S. and lure it into a peaceful resolution as quickly as possible. (This was actually Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s original plan, but he failed when he was concentrating his forces and hesitated to engage in battle.)

For this to have worked, Japan would have needed to make a formal declaration of war before launching its attack on Pearl Harbor.

In his famous speech, Roosevelt used Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor as an opportunity to turn the previously anti-war U.S. public against Japan. If Japan had not given Roosevelt such an opening, the pacifist American public would have supported a speedy and peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The first golden opportunity to bring about peace negotiations would have been right after Pearl Harbor. The attack was originally a sub-strategy to avoid U.S. intervention when Japan tried to acquire oil from Indonesia. It would have been better if Japan had damaged the U.S. fleet enough for Roosevelt to have no choice but to engage in peace negotiations.


Multiple Opportunities for Peace

The second golden opportunity was right after the Battle of Midway in June 1942.

This battle, of course, ended in Japan’s defeat. The outcome would have been different had Japan concentrated its forces. If it had not simultaneously enacted the Battle of Dutch Harbor and brought all six aircraft carriers to Midway, it could have established a secure formation and brought nearby Yamato to the fore to attack the three U.S. aircraft carriers. This way, as long as Japan did not let their guard down, they would have emerged victorious.

If this did end up leading to the Battle of the Philippine Sea (including the battle of Saipan), potential peace negotiations would have been possible as long as Pearl Harbor was not a surprise attack. This was the third golden opportunity.

The Battle of Saipan was crucial because U.S. invasion of the island would secure them passage to the Japanese mainland. The Japanese Army, however, was not careful enough.

The best strategy would have been to give up the preceding battles at the Solomon Islands and New Guinea earlier, before Japan’s skilled pilots died. Also, they could have used the 100,000 or so left over troops from China to strengthen defense power at Saipan. If these troops dug tunnels on the island and started a guerilla battle, like they did at Iwo Jima, it would have been a great blow for the U.S.

If this happened, the war-weary American public would have risen up and demanded peace, making peace negotiations much smoother.


The Absence of a Leader

The ideas outlined here are all ex-post facto reasoning. Thinking about what we could have done differently, however, is the only way we can avoid the repetition of horrors like WWII.

Japanese politicians must think and act to protect the country and the people in the midst of growing threats from China and North Korea; but none of this is happening in the Diet. Japan is suffering from the absence of a leader, much more so than in the pre-war decades. Japan’s survival rests on whether or not this issue can be overcome.

This article simply explored war as a state’s means of survival. Our discussion would be very different if we were to look beyond that into the ‘ideal world order’ and ‘bringing an end to racism in the world’. I would like to explore this issue in a future article.

Jiro Ayaori

Looking Back Over WWII
Copyright © IRH Press Co.Ltd. All Right Reserved.