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Japan in the Pacific War

ISOROKU YAMAMOTO stared across the ocean, gripping the rails of the deck of his ship. It was 1941, and this fleet of warships was on a rendezvous across the Pacific, and to the American base in Pearl Harbor. His mission was simple, and as a commander in the Imperial Navy, he had the responsibility to commit to it with his utmost energy and dedication. All the same, he felt as if a great weight had fallen on his shoulder. Japan, in his time, was on a path of destiny.

Throughout the decades since the collapse of the Tokugawa, Japan had taken upon herself a personal crusade of honor, trying as much as possible to gain recognition before the world. She waged war with Manchu China in 1895, and then Czarist Russia in 1905 to impress upon the other powers her nation’s strength. She joined the Allies in their war with Germany not only to reward herself of the riches of the German Pacific, but also to show solidarity to the world. For all of this, the United States shunned her, deemed her a threat, and imposed an economic embargo on her.

His more radical colleagues blame the United States for their troubles. It was they who brought this attack upon themselves. Doubtless, the Americans will blame the “growing imperialism” of Yamamoto’s countrymen, and their “insatiable lust for power”. But who really was to blame for this attack? Who was responsible for having Yamamoto here now, with this fleet, in an act of almost suicidal bravado? Yamamoto was disturbed by the insanity of the ideas of his comrades, and did not waste time saying it; but for him to accept that his people were “savages out to ravage lush fields” would ignore Japan’s honorable tradition.

As extreme as his colleagues may be, they were nevertheless driven by the code of samurai. So—the Americans then? Was it really as simple as the propagandists have said it? Yamamoto knew that these Americans were deeply stirred by a feeling of democracy and freedom for the world, though admittedly often they act to suppress these on local peoples. The Japanese naval commander thought about Perry. Commodore Matthew Perry. After all, that American expedition was the impetus that begun his nation’s exodus upon the world. Perhaps, the answer is there?

It is in studying the paths of his nation and America’s, he might find whose hand forced the Kido Butai to sail to American waters? This paper, then, seeks to follow this imagined thought of the admiral, and his analysis of the slow evolution of the two nations—the United States and Japan—as he searches for some clues as to whether this conflict between the two civilizations was inevitable. We shall see if, at points in time, they did react the same, and if Pearl Harbor was not a question of if, but of when. In Perry’s Eyes: America, from Manifest Destiny to Yellow Peril

The purpose of the Perry expedition was partly an economic one. For years, the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan had closed the island nation to any European contact. They only allowed Dutch trade with severe restrictions and under inhumane conditions1. American ships began to venture to the Sea of Japan, began to profit from whaling in its waters2, but was constantly harassed by incidents of the Japanese driving them away with guns and great impudence. As the United States had reached coast-to-coast of their vast heartland, they itched to broaden their economic horizons, and open up trade both to Europe and the Pacific.

The American spirit, however, was not merely about economics; their people always looked to expand beyond the familiar fields and at whoever’s expense. Thus, for the sake of greener pastures they warred with the Mexicans and warred with the native Indians, and warred with other colonial powers. They clothed their newfound imperialism with the ideology of a crusade: it was their responsibility to carry the torch of the enlightened ideals of democracy and Christianity on lands foreign to it3.

This crusade led them to inevitable wars with other nations: against Mexico in the early 1850s, against Spain the 1890s, against the Spanish colony of the Philippines in 18994, against the native rulers of Hawaii and the Indians of the West in the late 1800s, and even against an ultra-nationalist movement in China, which called themselves Boxers5. This was the American, then, that burst upon the Japanese and their Tokugawa rulers: a White Man wanting to enforce his “enlightened rule” upon lesser races, because it was good for them.

An American that espoused the socio-political ideology of Christian democratic capitalism and took the Asiatic peoples as if they were his wards. Not that these Asian nations wanted it; it was forced on them. They were not even welcome in American shores: the white population looked down on the Asian immigrants as “contaminations”, threatening to pollute their race with inferior bloodline6. The whites, though divided between those advocating the new crusade and those that opposed it, were generally united in their disgust at the Asians.

The immigrants were accepted for purely practical reasons: they were needed for manual labor; but they were made as far distant from American life as possible7. The ranks of Americans began to divide: between those who advocated a crusade across the world and those who wanted to leave these independent nations to their separate fates. The latter half carried their voice through the two world wars; it certainly carried them beyond it. Race, however, began to give power and voice to those itching for a crusade: fears of a “yellow imperialism” in Asia to America’s exclusion terrified them.

They saw it in the Japanese victories against China, Russia and Germany. Each aggression by the “yellow peril” saw this fear inch closer to reality8. The Americans acted this fear and hostility out on the hapless immigrant Japanese and their diplomats, forcing the latter in outrage to accept the cancellation of Japan’s alliance with Britain in the early 1920s, for a not-so-conciliatory “gentlemen’s agreement” in the Washington Conference9. They broke Japan economically when the latter “went too far” by crossing to French Indochina10.

It was an America, then, of a racist-isolationist-imperialist character that first saw itself in Perry and then later to Roosevelt, half oblivious to a raging war a world away, half afraid of the growing “Asiatic storm” in the Pacific. It was this America that Yamamoto and his Kido Butai saw and burst upon. Through Yamamoto’s lenses: Japan, from White Peril to Manifest Destiny Tokugawa Japan at the time of Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival was racist, isolationist and religiously intolerant of foreigners.

They experienced the machinations and religious imperialism of the Portuguese, and their government strongly reacted by banning all trade with the Europeans, excluding the Dutch, as well as practice of the Christian religion. The Japanese even required the regular trampling of a crucifix as a gesture of good faith11. When the Americans began to venture near Japanese waters, the Japanese saw them as no different from the Europeans, who had begun to carve up China to the west. This “White Peril” did not abate from the coming of America’s Perry. It went fever pitch.

The guns of the Americans—guns that the Tokugawa could not match—interrupted the enlightened isolation of the nation. Soon, the Europeans would come seeking their share of concessions, until the Japanese would be no more than their colony. The “White Peril” propelled a terrified Japanese populace to revolt and then overthrow the incompetent Tokugawa12. The Meiji government, in time, became the instrument that the nationalists needed to save their nation from extinction from the Europeans. They expanded their navy, reformed the army, and adopted Western tactics.

The imperialism the Japanese soon espoused was a necessary one; the Europeans would then be forced to accept that they were not a colony to be conquered, but an equal to be recognized. Japan, thus, found itself on its own series of crusades: against China in 1895, against Russia in 1905, and against Germany during the First World War. They expanded their territory bit by bit, to the respect of some powers, and to the rising terror of America. On their road to Imperialism, they began to espouse a crusade all their own: to “liberate” all of Asia from the Europeans.

They saw their respected colonies as “wards”, as America saw Asia in the 19th century. China was their “junior sibling”, which was to be protected from the Europeans. This was a sentiment similar to America’s reaction towards Cuba. They began to envision a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”—a liberated Asia guided by the Japanese13. Their cause became more acute the minute America forced out Japan from the circle of “acceptable colonizers”, and forced on them in the Washington Conference terms, which were insulting to the Japanese pride.

America, then, stood in the way. They were terrified of the American military, and the stigma of Perry’s arrival was still fresh in the Japanese mindset. There was also a practical, and economic character to their desperation: the United States, in imposing their economic sanctions, virtually starved the Japanese. Like the American ships warded off by Tokugawa guns, the Japanese overtures were warded off by American rebuffs. They must have seen their Kido Butai fleet as a Perry expedition; maybe, afterwards, the United States will see reason.

It was this racist-imperialist-expansive Japan then that came before the gates of racist-isolationist-imperialist America, and burst upon it, to oblivion. Conclusion: The Ships that Carried the World Yamamoto shook his head and closed his eyes in embarrassment. He and Perry were the same. Both their acts were the expressions of a nation wanting to burst forth. The United States in the 19th century wanted to expand economically; and Japan in 1941 needed to. Both destinies were entwined to each other, and to the great soul of Asia. They were two acts of reaching out, and they were akin to each other.

Perry, we know, eventually arrived before the gates of an isolationist Japan, with guns in the ready and with forceful terms upon the reluctant, but hapless Tokugawa. From across time, Yamamoto arrived at the gates of half-isolationist America, bearing bombs and guns, with impossible terms upon the reluctant Roosevelt government. Both failed: the Perry expedition wanted to open Japan to trade and understanding with America. Decades later his country imposed an impossible embargo and trade sanction against Japan, who had done no more than ape the country that had first come to their doors in the first place.

The Kido Butai, Yamamoto’s fleet, came hoping to fatally disable the American fleet, give his country enough time to establish a modern empire, and force the United States to a fait accompli. The reactions were the same: the Tokugawa who advocated reason were overpowered by nationalist rebels who wanted to strengthen the navy, the military and the nation to force the “foreign barbarians” out of Asian waters. The isolationist movement in America virtually collapsed following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Both thought their territories were sacrosanct, and both were swept away by a racist, nationalist movement.

It was, in fact, a war between similar ideologies. To say that the America was the sole cause of Pearl Harbor would be remiss of other facts of that time: the war with China, the continued aggression of Japan in Indochina, and the threat of the Nazis, who had an alliance with Japan. The minute, however, Perry crossed the threshold into Japanese soil the curtain had unfolded in a tragic drama that would involve the two nations in a clash of wills, only coming full circle in the devastation of Pearl Harbor.

His country’s continuing distrust of the Japanese, their “protective Imperialism” in the Pacific, the Washington Conference which condemned Japan to the role of outsider, right to the final act of Roosevelt’s embargo, all these acts pushed Pearl Harbor closer and closer to reality. No one could have predicted it; each one was too involved in his role and his ideology to see through it. Both were ultimately at fault, and Pearl Harbor was merely the final act in a great tragedy that was being played by both nations.

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