Why Did Japan Attack Pearl Harbor



Analyzing the history of diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the critical moment happened after Japan’s victory in the war with Russia in 1905. After the end of the Russo-Japanese War, Japan established itself as the dominant regional power in East Asia. This shift in the balance of power provoked a cautious attitude of the United States towards Japan. The immigrants of Japanese descent experienced American racism, emotional distress, and economic concerns in America. In return, the Japanese were discontented with a number of agreements that discriminated against the Americans.

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US Foreign Policy in the Far East

The relationship between the Americans and the Japanese cooled even more at the beginning of World War I, when Japan concluded a pact with Germany, under which it received concessions from China and put forward a list of requirements to China. This aggression on the part of Japan caused intense resistance in the U.S. Administration, which believed that the entrenchment of the Japanese in China would negate the Open Door Policy. Roosevelt himself developed a tentative plan for a naval operation against the Japanese fleet. From the other side, Japan was frustrated by the irrelevant position it occupied in diplomatic and military relations with the United States. The pride of the Japanese people was increasingly affected by America’s tough policy and treatment of the Japanese nation.

Japan and the United States did not commit any attempts to reduce the tension in the following period. In 1933, the Japanese left the League of Nations. In 1934, they proceeded to withdraw from the Washington Naval Disarmament Treaty. The terrible relationship between Japan and the West was underscored by the failure of the London Naval Disarmament Conference in 1935-36. In 1936, the Japanese concluded the Anti Comintern Treaty with Germany out of a feeling of political failure and exclusion. At the economic level, Japan was subjected to trade limitations and product embargoes in China and Southeast Asia. The significant Japanese islands were severely short of raw materials. With the increase in population, the Japanese tried by any means to ensure their sphere of power, which they considered themselves eligible to claim. They sought to experience the consequences of foreign economic competition by exercising power to extend their economic sphere and living area.

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The dispute between Japan and China was not the only disagreement between the U.S. and the Japanese. Their relations were inextricably linked to the manner in which they dealt with Europe. The Japanese were allied with Germany, and the United States retained close ties with Great Britain. Because of this, Japan was on the list of imminent enemies when it allied with Germany and launched aggression in East Asia. From the other side, the Japanese considered the American policy as double standards. It appeared that Americans were embracing European colonies while simultaneously speaking out against Japanese colonies. The Japanese had hit the no-return line and could barely escape moving southward in order to accumulate resources for their survival.

American economic sanctions against Japan

The United States consistently pursued a policy of economic sanctions against Japan. Specifically, the economic restrictions introduced against Japan in 1941 to deter the country from continuing its aggressive actions in the Far East were the fundamental reason for the attack on Pearl Harbor. Oil sanctions against Japan were intended to induce the Japanese to stop their Asian war aggression. The imposition of these sanctions against Japan was backfiring, as they were not effective in deterring Japan, but rather encouraged the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor and sparked World War II in the Pacific.

The commercial agreement that had existed between Japan and the United States was terminated in 1939. After that, the United States introduced licensed exports to Japan of aircraft fuel and high-quality scrap iron and steel. These measures drove the Japanese into a corner, who regarded these actions as inflammatory. In order to obtain resources, the Japanese invaded Indochina in 1940. By July 1941, Japan had occupied the Southern part of French Indochina. In response, the US freed Japanese funds and implemented oil sanctions. As a result, Japan suffered an oil shortage, as its army and navy relied on imported oil, and its reserves only lasted for two years.

The USA’s actions during negotiations with Japan

The last effort by the United States and Japan to achieve a diplomatic settlement in 1941 failed. This left Japan’s war-making decision unavoidable. American officials had already mistrusted the Japanese even before they entered a series of negotiations. The discussions reached a deadlock over the issue of the removal of Japanese troops from China. The scheduled meeting between Konoe and Roosevelt did not take place again. The Japanese were insulted by the actions of the United States and considered them to be inappropriate.

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Rather than conducting bilateral negotiations, the US put forward a series of ultimatums to the Japanese that demanded the removal from China and Indochina, backing of the Nationalist government of China, with which Japan had been at odds for four years and Japan’s redefinition of its obligations. These and other actions threatened the talks and humiliated the dignity of the Japanese people as a nation. Indeed, the Japanese had no reason to delay the negotiations, as their oil reserves had declined as a consequence of the ongoing oil embargo introduced by the US and its allies. The Japanese were determined to defend the pride of the Japanese people, not to receive threats from the United States.


The Japanese were extremely concerned about the situation in which they found themselves. To overcome the impasse, they had to undertake decisive military actions. Oil was an essential energy carrier needed for modern warfare. Therefore, Japanese assets were in danger of becoming unnecessary. Due to the official duties of Japan, it was necessary to establish control over the rich oil resources of Southeast Asia at the earliest possible time. However, the US stood in the way of accomplishing this goal. At the time when the Southern Operation was unfolding, Japan resolved to liquidate the Pacific Fleet in the order of departmental subordination. That is the reason for the sudden attack of the US Navy on Pearl Harbor.

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