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Why did Japan Attack Pearl Harbor?

By R. Anacan
Updated May 23, 2024
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On 7 December 1941, a Japanese naval attack force launched a surprise air attack on U.S. military installations on the island of Oahu, in the U.S. Territory of Hawaii. Two waves of aircraft, totaling 253 aircraft in all, attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor, the home of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Hickam, Wheeler and Bellows Army airfields, Schofield Barracks, Kaneohe Naval Air Station, and Ewa Marine Corps Air Station. The attack was the greatest military defeat in U.S. history, and when it was over, 2,388 U.S. sailors, soldiers, and civilians were dead, while another 1,178 were wounded. The Japanese had sunk or damaged 21 ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, including eight front line battleships. The attack thrust the United Stated into World War II against Japan and her Axis allies, Germany and Italy.

While the Japanese achieved a temporary victory against the United States, the attack set in motion the chain of events that would ultimately lead to the defeat of Japan and the Axis nations in 1945. The seeds of the attack were planted in 1931, when Japan invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria. The invasion of Manchuria was the first step in Japanese imperial expansion, and in 1937 Japan launched a full scale war against China.

In response to the Japanese invasion of China, the United States increased military and financial aid to the Chinese and cut off exports of oil and other raw materials to Japan. This embargo was viewed by the Japanese as a direct threat to their national security and decided to seize and conquer other Asian and Pacific area territories that were rich in oil and the natural resources that Japan did not possess.

Japan knew that the United States did not condone its war with China and would not agree to its seizure of additional territory in Asia. Both the American and Japanese governments had taken strong diplomatic positions in regards to each other that would not allow "backing down" without some sort of national humiliation and embarrassment. While the two governments continued negotiations to find a peaceful solution to the diplomatic impasse, the Japanese government believed that war with the United States was inevitable and began to prepare accordingly.

Japan decided that the only way to defeat the United States was to preemptively destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor with a strong and decisive blow. They believed that American industrial might would tip the scales against Japan in a prolonged war, and felt that its military success was dependent on destroying the U.S. Pacific Fleet early in the war. While the United States was recovering from such an attack, the Japanese felt they would be able to pursue its military campaign throughout Asia and the Pacific, unimpeded by the United States.

The Japanese also believed that a decisive victory would demoralize and eliminate the will of the American people to engage in war with Japan. While history has shown us that the Japanese were greatly mistaken about this, it should be remembered that the American people in 1941 were deeply divided over the issue of war, with a large share of the populace holding isolationist views. While many Americans tended to sympathize with the Allied nations, the memory of World War I still lingered in the national psyche, and the American people as a whole had no desire to fight another war.

It can be argued that the Japanese attack was, in a sense, a desperate act by a desperate nation. Japan's quest for imperial expansion put it on a collision course with the United States. With either side unwilling to retreat from its positions, the Japanese believed there was no other course of action but war with the U.S. Once this was decided on, Japan concluded that the only route to victory was to destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet in a quick and decisive attack. Through a long, winding and difficult road, Japan finally made the fateful decision that would forever link Japan with Pearl Harbor and 7 December 1941.

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Discussion Comments
By anon980702 — On Dec 06, 2014

Read Admiral Nimitz's biography.

By anon352838 — On Oct 25, 2013

Why don't you put something in here that tells how this war ended?

By anon337018 — On Jun 02, 2013

It's always interesting to me how people who live here and enjoy our freedoms love to bash our country. We don't make slaves out of people, but Germany and Japan sure did. Thank goodness we won the war.

By anon328150 — On Apr 02, 2013

It would probably have nothing to do with the fact that America had been bombing Japanese factories via the Flying Tigers.

By anon315662 — On Jan 24, 2013

Nonsense. This article does not cover accurately the motives. Pearl Harbor was just a way of getting the US to join the war. They knew full well it was coming and sought to provoke the Japanese to create public outrage in USA. It was 9-11 by another means. Look up the Gulf of Tonkin incident; this was another incident that started a war, proven to have been fabricated, allowing the USA to invade Vietnam. It has happened time and time again. Iran is next.

By anon282459 — On Jul 29, 2012

You are all wrong. Japan was a very weak country at the time, and they believed would be able to destroy a strong nation like America.

By anon276510 — On Jun 24, 2012

What would a little U.S. do if a big Japan said get out of all those countries you occupy? What if Japan then said, no more oil for you until you do? What if our military then only had enough fuel for six months? We'd do exactly what Japan did: go for a surprise first strike and then try and negotiate.

By anon243419 — On Jan 27, 2012

@anon169352: You do understand it was the Japanese government that started it, don't you? Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto led the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The events in World War II are completely different. Hirohito allowed his people to die. By August 8, 1945, newspapers in the U.S. were reporting that broadcasts from Radio Tokyo had described the destruction observed in Hiroshima. "Practically all living things, human and animal, were literally seared to death", Japanese radio announcers said in a broadcast received by Allied sources.

Hirohito and his 'minions' deserved to die, but not the civilians. They could not prevent the war; they were practically defenseless. I say the same for American civilians. War truly is tragic.

By anon169352 — On Apr 20, 2011

Hirohito and all Japanese war criminals should have been executed. Japan got what it deserved when the nuclear bombs was dropped on them. What is going on now is not deserved. I am hoping things get better for Japan.

By anon160404 — On Mar 15, 2011

The Japanese government wished ill on themselves when they attacked Pearl Harbor by surprise. Treacherous! God says in the Bible: "Vengeance is Mine." His vengeance came 70 years later. They even invaded the Philippine which caused a lot of suffering. I'm praying for the Japanese people just the same.

By amypollick — On Dec 21, 2010

@anon135572: You raise some excellent points, but there are some things you need to understand. Admiral Yamamoto told the war cabinet in no uncertain terms what would happen if they attacked Pearl Harbor. He said, "I can run wild for six months, but after that..." He spent time as a Naval attache in Washington in the 1920s and he knew Americans. He knew once the war machine was cranked up, there would be no way Japan could keep up.

However, the war cabinet was convinced the American people would not support a war, that "they had no stomach for fighting" and would accept the first overtures for peace Japan offered after the attack. Obviously, they were sadly mistaken. Japan had been wildly successful in its military advances for the previous several years and they had "victory fever" that went straight to their heads.

It could have all ended very differently, however. The U.S. aircraft carriers were not in port during the attack and, as horrible as the loss was, had the carriers been lost as well, Japan may very well have been able to dictate its terms for peace. Times were changing and air warfare had come to the fore.

That's why the attack on Tokyo and the Battle of Midway, some seven months later, that resulted in the loss of four Japanese carriers, was such a blow to the Japanese Navy.

By anon135572 — On Dec 19, 2010

I've read in many places that Japan had grown a bit deliriously cocky in the fact that the country had never lost a war on Japanese soil. Maybe this lead them to believe that they could not be defeated due to some kind of divine protection?

I just don't understand how little ol' Japan could have possibly ever thought that taking out a military base in the middle of the pacific would completely cripple such a big country. It's crazy. They had to be under some spiritually empowered belief of superiority.

By anon124952 — On Nov 08, 2010

America has always viewed itself as the country backed by God, and has always gone out of its way to say it and play the self righteous one. No wonder other countries view America as they do and Japan actually had the guts to do something. War doesn't solve anything, except to be profitable of course. hopefully one day the human race will learn from the past.

By anon85068 — On May 18, 2010

Emperor Hirohito was afraid that the Us Navy would retaliate against his vision of "a great empire." He wanted to destroy the carrier task force but luckily they were at sea. Thank god.

The world would be in total chaos if the carriers were sunk.

By anon37716 — On Jul 21, 2009

It must be remembered that Japan viewed America's continued meddling in her 'sphere of influence' a major concern, as well as America's continual opposition and thwarting of Japan having a blue water navy.

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