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Why did Japan Attack Pearl Harbor?

Japan attacked Pearl Harbor to cripple the U.S. Pacific Fleet, preventing it from interfering with Japan's expansion into Southeast Asia. Fueled by resource needs and imperial ambition, this surprise assault aimed to secure Japan's dominance in the Pacific. But what strategic miscalculations led to this fateful decision? Dive deeper with us to explore the pivotal moments that led to December 7, 1941.
R. Anacan
R. Anacan

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.

Aerial view of the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.
Aerial view of the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.

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.

USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

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.

Aerial view of Pearl Harbor before the attack.
Aerial view of Pearl Harbor before the attack.

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 Empire of Japan wanted to conquer the resource rich areas of southeast Asia, however its leaders felt that it could only do so if the United States was knocked out of the war at its onset.
The Empire of Japan wanted to conquer the resource rich areas of southeast Asia, however its leaders felt that it could only do so if the United States was knocked out of the war at its onset.

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.

Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II.
Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What were the main reasons Japan attacked Pearl Harbor?

The Japanese attacked U.S. military installations on Hawaii's Oahu island on 7 December 1941.
The Japanese attacked U.S. military installations on Hawaii's Oahu island on 7 December 1941.

The primary reason Japan attacked Pearl Harbor was to neutralize the United States Pacific Fleet as a strategic impediment to Japan's imperial expansion in Southeast Asia. Japan sought to secure access to natural resources like oil and rubber, which were abundant in the territories they aimed to conquer. By crippling the U.S. naval presence in the Pacific, Japan hoped to prevent American interference in its expansionist goals.

How did U.S. sanctions influence Japan's decision to attack Pearl Harbor?

U.S. sanctions played a significant role in Japan's decision to attack Pearl Harbor. In response to Japanese aggression in China and Southeast Asia, the United States imposed economic sanctions and trade embargoes, particularly the 1940 Export Control Act, which restricted Japan's access to vital materials like oil and steel. These sanctions severely threatened Japan's industrial and military capabilities, pushing them towards a preemptive strike to secure their strategic interests.

What was the goal of Japan's military strategy in attacking Pearl Harbor?

Japan's military strategy in attacking Pearl Harbor was to deliver a quick, devastating blow that would incapacitate the U.S. Pacific Fleet, thereby buying time for Japan to consolidate its gains in Asia. The goal was to force the United States into a defensive position, making it difficult for the U.S. to retaliate effectively and allowing Japan to establish a strong defensive perimeter around its newly acquired territories.

Did Japan believe they could defeat the United States with the attack on Pearl Harbor?

Japan did not necessarily believe it could defeat the United States outright with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese military planners hoped that a surprise and demoralizing blow to the U.S. fleet would compel the United States to negotiate for peace on terms favorable to Japan, rather than engage in a prolonged and costly war. They underestimated the American resolve and capacity for industrial mobilization in response to the attack.

How did the attack on Pearl Harbor change the course of World War II?

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a pivotal moment in World War II, as it directly led to the United States' full entry into the conflict. The attack galvanized American public opinion and transformed the United States from a nation divided over involvement in the war to a unified force determined to achieve victory. This resulted in a significant increase in U.S. military production and manpower, which ultimately contributed to the Allied victory.

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Discussion Comments

anon980702

Read Admiral Nimitz's biography.

anon352838

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

anon337018

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.

anon328150

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

anon315662

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.

anon282459

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.

anon276510

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.

anon243419

@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.

anon169352

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.

anon160404

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.

amypollick

@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.

anon135572

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.

anon124952

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.

anon85068

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.

anon37716

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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    • Aerial view of the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.
      Aerial view of the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.
    • USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
      By: John Sfondilias
      USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
    • Aerial view of Pearl Harbor before the attack.
      Aerial view of Pearl Harbor before the attack.
    • The Empire of Japan wanted to conquer the resource rich areas of southeast Asia, however its leaders felt that it could only do so if the United States was knocked out of the war at its onset.
      By: Moustyk
      The Empire of Japan wanted to conquer the resource rich areas of southeast Asia, however its leaders felt that it could only do so if the United States was knocked out of the war at its onset.
    • Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II.
      By: Paylessimages
      Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II.
    • The Japanese attacked U.S. military installations on Hawaii's Oahu island on 7 December 1941.
      The Japanese attacked U.S. military installations on Hawaii's Oahu island on 7 December 1941.