By MR Josse
KATHMANDU: Last week, outgoing American President Barrack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in Hawaii in a meticulously choreographed encounter 75 years after Japan’s December 7, 1941 unprovoked attack on the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbour leading to America’s World War II entry.
While Japan’s blitzkrieg with more that 300 fighters and bombers caused, besides the decimation of America’s western Pacific naval base, the death of 2,400 American servicemen, it ultimately triggered her atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945 – and Japan’s surrender.
The Obama-Abe rendezvous was designed to underline that the spirit of reconciliation between their countries was alive and well, as also to celebrate a multi-splendoured partnership that has prospered over three-quarters of a century – at a time when the future of that relationship is clouded in uncertainty with incoming American president Donald Trump, whose unpredictability has become his leit motif.
Though it is natural to wonder what the US-Japan relationship will be after Trump enters the White House, what is not much discussed is the fascinating genesis of ‘Pearl Harbour.’ This column attempts to provide some illumination in that respect.
Japan, one of five major powers at the Paris Peace Conference (1919-1920), lobbied for and was granted substantive geopolitical rights within its natural sphere of interest. These gains, including economic privileges in China’s Shandong province that had been in German hands, not merely established Japan as the major economic force on the Asian mainland but also secured her position as the pre-eminent naval power in the western Pacific, at a time when Russia was still buffeted by the after-effects of civil war and the consequent economic mayhem, not to mention that Great Britain was struggling with adverse post-World War I constraints.
Japan soon thereafter began a massive naval expansion programme with Tokyo cognizant that the United States posed the most potent challenge to her expansionist Far East ambitions. In response, Washington transferred the bulk of its fleet from the Atlantic to the Pacific, proceeding to open the dry dock at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. Thereafter, it was only a matter of time before America shaped plans for the projection of her naval muscle across the Pacific into Japan’s neighbourhood.
As American historian William R. Keylor reminds, “The prospect of a costly naval war so soon after the termination of the world war was anathema to all powers concerned. Great Britain, still the mistress of the seas but in danger of being surpassed by the United States and equaled by Japan in the near future, was plagued by chronic unemployment and industrial stagnation…It was in the context of this widespread apprehension about the economic and strategic consequences of unrestrained naval rivalry that President Harding invited the foreign minister of eight maritime nations to the first international conference in the history of the world.
“Held in Washington during the winter of 1921-22, this unprecedented conclave produced a number of agreements to limit the naval arms race in general and to reduce Pacific tensions in particular…The principal achievement of the Washington Naval Conference, the so-called Five Power (Great Britain, the United States, Japan, France and Italy) Treaty, established a tonnage ratio for existing capital ships…The three naval powers (Great Britain, the United States and Japan) agreed to refrain from building new fortifications (excluding
Singapore and Pearl Harbour, the principal forward bases of Britain and the United States, respectively…)
It was soon realized that from the “string of potential air bases in the form of the German mandate islands that lay sprawled across the western Pacific between the Philippines and Hawaii…or from the aircraft carriers that were under construction, Japanese bombers could conceivably block American naval access to the western Pacific, thereby isolating the vulnerable Philippines Islands from the principal American Pacific base at Hawaii.”
Meanwhile, with Sino-American relations receiving a boost following the installation of the anti-communist Kuomintang regime in China – and the impending collapse of the system of foreign privileges there besides the challenge to Japan’s Manchurian interests – Japan perceived herself as increasingly isolated and economically vulnerable. What aggravated this sense of susceptibility was the perception in Tokyo regarding Japan’s security concerns in the western Pacific.
“At the London Naval Conference of 1930…the Japanese delegation was persuaded to accept a compromise agreement that was viewed in Japanese naval circles as a serious threat to Japan’s position of naval superiority in the region…the conciliatory, pro-Western orientation of Japan’s postwar civilian leadership appeared in the eyes of its naval, military and nationalist circles to be leading Japan down the path of national suicide and economic decline.”
In time, between 1931 and 1936, Japan morphed imperceptibly from a Western-type parliamentary democracy into a military dictatorship with foreign policy issues at the fore, even as the outside world was perceived both as the cause of her escalating economic problems as well as a potent source of her salvation.
Japan got away with her egregious foreign adventures in China, including absorption of Manchuria; yet, this only seemed to whet her appetite, even as power ebbed away from the political parties and the Diet to a cabal of cabinet ministers beholden to the military chiefs. Ultimately, on October 16, 1941 General Hideki Tojo replaced civilian Prince Fumumaro Konoe as prime minister. Tojo soon set a deadline for Washington to lift its embargo on strategic materials.
When that deadline expired on November 30, the stage was set for Japan’s massive, undeclared attack on Pearl Harbour.
Not to be forgotten: Japan joined up with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy against the Allies; she announced a Japanese ‘Monroe Doctrine’ under the moniker, ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’; and signed a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union in order not merely to avoid the possibility of a two-front war but lured by the extensive natural resources and territory in Southeast Asia left unprotected by the European powers brought to heel by Hitler.
The fascinating genesis of ‘Pearl Harbour’
By MR Josse