Why Japan Attacked Pearl Harbor

Part 2: Military Pre-eminence

Japan had a representative at the Versailles Peace Conference and gained a permanent seat on the Council of the League of Nations. The country also solidified its position in the Far East by retaining Germany's Shandong territory and some islands in the Pacific.

This position of military strength, in regard to China, a longtime enemy, and Germany, regarded as a first-rate world power, gave rise to a more militant tradition within Japan. As the country struggled through the economic downturn in the 1920s, military leaders gained more and more control.

This amplified the structure that was already in place during the Meiji period, when nearly all leaders were former samurai or descendants of the fierce warriors. Building on the introduciton of universal conscription in 1873 and the introduction of war philosophy and tactics after that nation's victory in the Franco-Prussian War, Japan set itself firmly on a military footing as it increased its industrial capacity.

In the first half of the 20th Century, the military was so powerful within Japan that it could dictate the appointment of the head of government, the prime minister. The cabinet contained both an Army Minister and a Navy Minister, both of whom were active duty officers. If either minister himself resigned, it meant that the prime minister could not fill his cabinet and so would be forced to resign himself. As well, the prime minister in 1932, Inukai Tsuyoshi, proved so unpopular that a group of navy cadets and junior officers assassinated him.

Japan signed naval treaties with the United States in 1922 and with Great Britain in 1930, both of which were seen within Japan as limiting that country's naval capabilities. The navy and army at this time were strong, and Japan wanted to maintain its position of strength on the world stage.

In 1931, Japan, after the destruction of some of its railway in Manchuria, invaded that large Chinese province. The invasion persisted and strengthened, and the result was a Japan-friendly state named Manchukuo. An invasion of the very large city of Shanghai followed the following year, and Japan soon widened its attack zone within China. The eventual result was the Second Sino-Japanese War, which began in 1937 and lasted until the end of World War II. Chinese resistance, aided by Britain and American aid, proved far more than Japan had anticipated.

Part 3: The Second World War

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