The Buzz

The Forgotten Reason Why Japan Attacked Pearl Harbor

By the time the attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II, Japan had been preparing for an all-out offensive in the Pacific for months.

Japan relied on imports of raw materials and natural resources to survive. Rubber, tin, iron, and especially oil had to be imported for Japanese industry to function. The same raw materials were also essential for the Japanese war machine.

In 1894-1895, Japan defeated China in a short war and gained control of the island

of Formosa, part of Korea, and a bit of Manchuria. Along with these territories came all their natural resources. In 1905, after Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, the Empire of the Sun took control of all of Korea and part of Manchuria that had earlier been gobbled up by the Russians.

On September 19, 1931, in the midst of a worldwide depression, Japan staged an incident at a railway station on the Korean border of Manchuria, which it used as an excuse to invade the mineral-rich Chinese province. When the League of Nations condemned the act, Japan resigned from the League. In 1936, to expand her navy, Japan renounced the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, which had limited the size of the Japanese Navy. In July 1937, Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China on the pretext that Chinese soldiers had fired on Japanese troops in Manchuria. Although Japan could not conquer all of China, by 1939 it had captured almost all of the important port cities and had firm control of the raw material that went into or out of the Asian giant.

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In June 1940, after Japan moved into French Indochina while France was under Nazi occupation, the U.S. Congress passed the Export Control Act, which prohibited the export of “strategic minerals and chemicals, aircraft engines, parts, and equipment” to Japan. Conspicuously absent from this list was crude oil.

The already strained relations between the United States and Japan worsened in September 1940 when the Japanese signed the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Hitler, who was already planning to start a war in Europe, was hoping that the Tripartite Pact would encourage Japan to invade the British holdings in the Far East to pin down forces already there.

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At the same time, the Japanese hoped that the pact would provide security as they formulated plans to invade and capture the rich oilfields of the Netherlands East Indies. In response to the Tripartite Pact, the United States embargoed even more material—brass, copper, and iron. Still, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stopped short of barring Japanese purchases of oil.

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By the spring of 1941, Japan signed a five-year nonaggression pact with Russia, assuring that her backdoor was closed and safe. Next, Japan moved more troops into French Indochina and began eyeing the Netherlands East Indies. In response to the troop movements, Roosevelt froze all Japanese assets in the United States and after much consideration finally placed an embargo on crude oil.

On the heels of the American embargo, the Dutch proclaimed that the Netherlands East Indies would also stop selling oil to Japan. To conquer the Netherlands East Indies and capture its vital oilfields, Japan first had to eliminate the British stronghold of Singapore, crush the American forces in the Philippines, and cripple the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Within 24 hours on December 7, 1941, Japan launched attacks against Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Northern Malaya, Thailand, Guam, Wake Island, and Midway Atoll and began planning to capture the island of Sumatra, east of Java, along with the oil refineries and a key airfield in the vicinity.

In December 1940, the Japanese Army began experimenting with airborne forces. Training of the first volunteers took place at Ichigaya near Tokyo. Requirements for the unit were rigid. Most of the volunteers were between the ages of 20 and 25, and officers could be no older than 28. All had to go through a rigid medical examination. Additional psychological and physical tests were administered and, acting on the belief that paratroopers had to have cat-like abilities to land safely, volunteers were given intense physical fitness training similar to that of a gymnast.

After about 250 volunteers were selected, training moved to a Tokyo amusement park that had a special ride featuring a 165-foot parachute drop. Historians Gordan Rottman and Akira Takizawa wrote, “Thrill seekers were attached to a canopy that was hoisted by cable before being released to float to the ground. Because the existence of the paratroop unit was secret, trainees were directed to visit the park disguised as university students, to experience a couple of simulated descents.” Additional training consisted of somersaults and tumbling, leaping from various heights to learn landing techniques and, finally, actual jumps from moving planes.