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ICE Case Studies
Number 118, December, 2003

The Way to Pearl Harbor: US vs Japan

Yuichi Arima

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information


1. Abstract

Japan is extremely poor in natural resources, and the situation was not much different in the pre-World War II era. Consequently, Japan had to depend on trade heavily to function as a modern nation, and it was a serious and vital issue for Japan to keep all crucial strategic resources, particularly oil, coming in to it from the outside world. If the route for Japan to obtain these materials was cut off, and therefore, the strategic resources were stopped from coming to Japan, there would basically be only two choices left for Japan. One is to lower the level of function as a modern nation to where it could meet the level of domestic productivity for natural resources. And two is to go out actively and find a way to gain what it needed to maintain its function as a modern nation. The conflict and negotiation between the US and Japan in the pre-World War II period illustrates a good example of the case and explains why Japan went to war against the US. The US, the biggest oil supplier for Japan at the time, imposed the oil embargo on Japan in July, 1941, and it helped the Japanese to make up their minds to fight against the Americans. Thus, in a way, the attack on Pearl Harbor was not a surprise one at all; it was a necessary result of the conflict and negotiation.

2. Description


The war Japan fought against the United States was a hopeless war for the Japanese, which they had basically no chance to win. Even many government leaders of Japan knew that at the time. However, at the same time, it was the war that they had to fight. That is because Japan’s national interest and the US one over China collided each other, and the Japanese leaders simply refused to bow before the US.

Japan had sent its troops in China and the US demanded Japan to withdraw from there. To back up the demand and to make Japan comply with it, the US even imposed the oil embargo on Japan. The attitude that the US took during a series of negotiations toward Japan was very formidable and little room for compromise was given, and as a result, the Japanese leaders had to make a very difficult decision about the nation’s course of action, whether they should accept the US demand or refused to do so and prepare for the war against the US. Needless to say, they chose to fight and faced a disastrous result later. But why China was so important to Japan? And what did the oil embargo mean to Japan? The following would try to explain these whys.

The Era of Imperialism and the Wake of Japan
Japan, under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, closed its doors to the outside-world in the early 17th century with an only exception of Deshima in Nagasaki, a small restricted port-area, where only the Portuguese and Dutch were allowed to put in at. During this period, it was strictly prohibited for any general Japanese people to make contact with the outside-world; anyone who did was very much likely to be sentenced to death [1]. The situation remained so for more than 200 years. Since Japan was an islands-nation surrounded by the ocean it was relatively easy for the Japanese to maintain national isolation policy. In fact, it was a very peaceful 200-year-period without any huge war. However, this peaceful time was about to end as four American battleships, including two with steam-engine that the Japanese had never seen before, led by Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy appeared in the Edo (Tokyo) Bay in 1853 [2].

While Japan was enjoying a peaceful time, the world was changing rapidly and the era of Imperialism had begun. The western imperial powers took whole African continent and divided it up as they desired. The wave of western imperialism reached Asia as well. By the mid 19th century, the British had gained the control of India, Myanmar, Singapore, and Malaya (Malaysia). The French had controlled Indochina, and the Dutch had colonized East India (Indonesia). The United States was a late-starter in Asia, but also expanded its presence and had put Philippines under its control in 1898 [3]. Even the Qin Dynasty of China was defeated by the British in the Opium Wars (1840-1843, 1856-1860), and became a prime target of the imperial powers. The world was in such situation when Perry came to Japan.

It was a very shocking fact for the Japanese that even the Qin Dynasty of China, which had probably been the strong power in Asia and considered as the sleeping lion, could do only a little against the British and their weapons with the latest technologies. Now Japan was the next, the Japanese leaders thought. China’s defeat actually put the Japanese leaders in a situation presented with a difficult choice: Should they keep the isolationism and fight against anyone who would dare to open the door, or should they open the door by themselves and try to learn about the world? The Japanese leaders were convinced by the China’s defeat that it was impossible for them to repel the hand of western imperialists by force; if even China could not keep the westerns away and stand alone, there was no hope for Japan. Consequently, Japan abandoned its closed-door policy finally [4]. Furthermore, the Tokugawa shogunate was thrown away and it ceded a way to the Meiji restoration (1868).

The leaders of the Meiji government were well-aware that if they would want to defend their national dignity and be treated equally with other western imperial powers, Japan had to become like these powers [5]. In other words, they chose to become rather a predator than a miserable victim, and it set a rail for Japan to move toward militarism. Japan under the Meiji government rapidly modernized the nation under the slogan of fukoku kyohei (enrich the country, strengthen the military) [6].

When Japan took its first step out from the 250-year isolationism in the mid 19th century, it was nothing but a weak and far-less-advanced nation compared to the west. However, within 30 years Japan emerged as the strongest power in Asia, and started to expand [7]. In 1894, Japan defeated China (Sino-Japanese War) and gained Taiwan. In 1904, Japan even fought a war against the Russian Empire and surprised the whole world with unexpected victory. As a result, Japan succeeded to exclude the Russian influence from Korea. The aspiration of Japan for imperialism was spurred as it annexed Korea in 1910 and established the state of Manchuria, which was nothing but a puppet government, in 1932 [8].

War with China and Conflict with the US
In 1937, Japan went to war against China. As the war increased its scale, Japan advocated the construction of new order in East Asia and made its intention clear to establish a new world order in the region, which had Japan on top as a leader. As the US national interest in China was infringed by such attitude of Japan and the Washington government was provoked, and an imposition of economic sanction against Japan started to be discussed to restrain Japan’s aggression [9].

However, the World War II began in 1939 as Hitler and Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Moreover, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed an alliance treaty and formed the Triple Axis in 1940. Although the general public in America was unwilling to be involved in the war in Europe, President Frankly D. Roosevelt of the US felt that it was his responsibility to assist the Great Britain. Also, there was apprehension among some people at the time that if Japan attacked the British colonies in the Asia-Pacific region while the mother-land of Britain was under the attack of Germany it would lead to the collapse of the British Empire. So, Roosevelt believed that to defend the British territories in the Asia-Pacific region the US should take a firm line with Japan’s further expansion, and demanded Japan to withdraw from China. Even within the State Department the hardliners, who insisted that if the US showed a strong opposition and took a firm attitude to Japan’s expansion Japan would back off, dominated others, and warning from some people like Joseph Grew, the US Ambassador to Japan, that sanction would rather drive Japan to move to south than make it withdraw from China and eventually cause a war was neglected [10].

Economic Sanctions, Negotiations, and War
From 1939 to 1941, the US gradually tightened the level of economic sanction. Ironically, however, such squeeze could not deter Japan’s aggression but rather provoked it to take more aggressive actions instead [11]. The vicious circle of retaliations and eventually resulted in the collapse of the US-Japan relationship.

Japanese Reliance Upon US Scrap-Metal [t-1]

In 1939, the US notified Japan that it would renounce the Treaty of Commerce and Navigation that was signed by both countries in 1911. President Roosevelt, then, went on to the imposition of partial embargo of gasoline for aircraft and scrap-metal on Japan in July 1940. Japan countered the partial embargo by advancing its troops to the northern Indo-China, and the US matched the Japan’s expansion with the addition of more subjects to the list of partial embargo. This vicious circle of retaliations escalated and reached its peak when Japan moved even into the southern Indo-China in July, 1941 and the US replied to it by freezing the Japanese assets in the US and, furthermore, by the complete oil embargo on Japan [12]. As a result, the Japanese leaders found themselves in an extremely difficult situation in which they had to make their decision out of two options: to bow before the US, or to fight a desperate war against the US.

At the time there were mainly three issues between the US and Japan to be solved in the negotiations [13].

(1) Tripartite Pact of Alliance: The US urged Japan to withdraw from the alliance with Germany and Italy.
(2) Southern Indo-China: The US demanded Japan to withdraw from the southern Indo-China.
(3) China: The US demanded Japan to withdraw from China.

Among these points, there was a room for both countries to come up with compromising plans about the first two issues. However, Cordell Hull, the US Secretary of the State, was very reluctant to make any compromise on the third issue, namely about China. At this point, the Japanese leaders still had a little hope to settle the issues by negotiations so that the war would be avoided. The Japanese side proposed some plans, too. However, the US eventually refused to accept any plans presented by Japan and replied to Japan with the final proposition called the “Hull Note,” which contained only US original demands on issues on November 26th, 1941. As a result, the war became inevitable.

As mentioned above, one of the demands that the US made to Japan was the withdrawal from China, and Japan was totally unwilling to comply with the demand. But why was China so important to Japan? There were mainly two reasons: face-saving and national security.

(1) Face-saving
The withdrawal from China was absolutely impossible to accept for Japan because Japan had already made huge sacrifices in China, in terms of financial costs, military costs, and human costs, to maintain its presence. Furthermore, Japan’s foreign policy was carried out in the name of Emperor, or Tennoh, who was perceived as a son of heaven by the general public in Japan. Therefore, once the policy, which was regarded as the will of heaven, was determined it was not to be taken back. If Japan did comply with the demand of the U.S. and withdrew from China, many people thought that the wealth of the empire would have been reduced by far, and the prestige of the empire would have been severely damaged. Then, the Japanese leaders did not think that they knew any way to account such withdrawal to the people of Japan, and believed that, even if they could manage to accept the demand from the US, the general public would not. The Japanese leaders were even afraid that the compliance with the demand might cause a military coup de’ tat or riots among people and that would overthrow not only the government but also the imperial system, which meant that even life of Emperor might possibly be in danger. Thus, the withdrawal from China was, in any means, unacceptable for Japan [14].

(2) National security
The withdrawal from China was also unacceptable for the security reason. When Hull demanded Japan to withdraw from China, the Japanese leaders believed that Hull meant the withdrawal from Manchuria as well. Manchuria’s strategic location was very important to Japan’s national security. Without Manchuria it would have made it very difficult to defend Korea, which held the biggest strategic importance for Japan’s national security. Ever since Japan opened the door, the leaders of Japan had always been afraid of Korea being controlled by the third party, such as China and Russia. After all, both the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904) were fought over the control of Korea. To secure Korea Japan needed Manchuria, and thus, the withdrawal from China that was likely to demand the withdrawal from Manchuria as well was not acceptable at all.

The US imposed the oil embargo on Japan on August 1st, 1941 to make Japan comply with its demands, and the embargo was a fatal shot to Japan’s foreign policy makers, which drove them into the corner. The table below shows main exporters and importers of oil in 1935 [t-2].

Main Oil Exporters in 1935
Main Oil Importers in 1935
United States
6,958 kt
  Great Britain
10,487 kt
6,860 kt
6,390 kt
6,221 kt
4,509 kt
Dutch East India (Indonesia)
5,139 kt
  United States
4,366 kt
3,369 kt
3,863 kt
2,279 kt
3,680 kt


Japan's Dependence on Oil Import in 1940 [t-3]
Country From
United States
btw 3,820 - 4,366 kt
Dutch East India (Indonesia)
btw 621 - 709 kt



Dependence of Japanese Economy on Foreign Import Other Than Oil in 1941 [t-4]
Steel industry raw materials

Japan was very poor in most of natural resources, and it had to rely on import of these resources to function as a modern state. Among many natural resources, oil was one of the most crucial strategic materials that Japan desperately needed. Japan could not produce oil, within its borders, even for 10% of its domestic consumption. At the time, Japan had relied very much on the US, which supplied Japan about 80% of oil that was consumed in the island-nation [15]. In other words, the power of life or death was in the hand of the American president. And President Roosevelt decided to choke Japan by keeping all oil, not even one drop, from going to Japan to make it comply with the demand of the US. Japan had also tied an economic treaty with Netherlands, which promised Japan the supply of oil (approximately 13% of the oil need) from the Dutch East India (Indonesia). However, the Dutch broke the treaty and followed the America’s oil embargo in August of 1941 as well. That meant that there was no oil supply for Japan from the out-side world, and the Japanese leaders had to find an alternative way to gain oil. Only option that the Japanese leaders could come up with was to take the Dutch East India and control oil fields. However, it was clear that if Japan just moved to south the war would become inevitable. The oil stock Japan had was only for a year and half, and time was running out. The Japanese leaders had to make up their minds as quickly as possible. If the war was unavoidable and they chose to fight, the longer they would wait the lesser the chance for victory would be because of the limited oil stock, which would be spent even during the peace time. The final decision the leaders of Japan made was war, though most of them knew that their chance to beat the US was very slim, and on December 7th in 1941, the Japanese airplanes launched from the aircraft-carriers carried out a surprise attack on the US military bases in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.


3. Duration

1937 - 1945

It was the 1937 Japanese invasion of China that brought a crack between the United States and Japan up to surface. The US took a critical attitude toward the Japanese invasion and the crack became larger and deeper when Japan decided to go south in search of oil and other natural resources in 1940.


4. Location [map]

Continent: Asia

Region: Asia-Pacific


5. Actors


II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem

Resource (Oil)

The main cause of war, at least for the Japanese, was oil. Oil was a lifeline for power, but unlike the US, Japan could produce only a little amount of oil domestically, which was far from enough to fulfill its oil-demand. Japan had become a member of the imperial powers and one of the most advanced nation in the world of the time. However, such accomplishment and power was impossible to achieve and maintain without oil, which Japan had totally depended upon the US for the supply. Japan would have had to find alternative sources of oil if it lost the oil supply from the US, however, it would not have been an easy task. Even if Japan could find an anlternative source for oil, it did not even possess an enough capability to transport the oil to Japan from wherever the place would be. Being awere of that fact, the US and President Roosevelt used it as one of the ultimate diplomatic cards, which would guarantee the superior position for the US and make Japan comply with its demand.

However, it was not just oil that caused the conflict. It was also a miscalculation of the US on how much Asia meant to Japan that caused the tension between the US and Japan to rise. While Asia was just another region to expand to for the US, it meant much more to Japan. For the Japanese Asia was a crucial region for their national security, however, unfortunately the American leaders did not understand that point.

7. Type of Habitat


8. Act and Harm Sites:

Act Site Harm Site Example
United States Japan Oil Embargo

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict


10. Level of Conflict


11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities)


IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

Direct/ Indirect: The purpose of Japan's expansion to south was clearly to put sources of natural resources, particularly oil, under its control. The oil embargo that the US imposed on Japan limited options available for the Japanese leaders and drove them into the corner. On the other hand, oil was not the main issue for the US. For the US, it was their economic interest in Asia and apprehension for Japan's further expansion that drove them to conflict with Japan.

13. Level of Strategic Interest

Bilateral/ Regional: the US and Japan were clearly the most influential players in the conflict even though other parties, such as Netherlands, Great Britain, or China also played minor roles.

14. Outcome of Dispute:

War followed by Japan's defeat in 1945.


V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE and TED Cases



16. Relevant Websites and Literature



Web Sites



1. William G. Beasley, The Rise of Modern Japan (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990), 22-23.

2. Ibid, 26-34.

3. Donald G. McCloud, Southeast Asia: Tradition and Modernity in the Contemporary World (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1995), 120-123.

4. Robert Smith Thompson, Empires on the Pacific: World War II and the Struggle for the Mastery of Asia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 29-35.

5. Michael Montgomery, Imperialist Japan: The Yen to Dominate (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988), 96-114.

6. Beasley, 21-24.

7. Montgomery, 114-129.

8. Beasley, 152-175.

9. Tadashi Aruga and Seigen Miyazato, Gaisetsu Amerika Gaiko-shi (The American Diplomatic History) (Tokyo: Yuhikaku, 1983), 126-128.

10. Ibid, 128-129.

11. Thompson, 75-100.

12. Roland H. Worth, Jr., No Choice But War: the United States Embargo Against Japan and the Eruption of War in the Pacific (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1995), 100-135.

13. Aruga, 130.

14. Showa Tenno no dokuhaku hachi-jikan (The Showa emperor's eight-hour monologue) (Tokyo: Bungei-shunju, 1990), 118-120.

15. Walter J. Levy, Oil Strategy and Politics, 1941-1981 (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1982), 24-35.



Table-1. Converted into chart form from New York Times, 4 August, 1940 III-1.

Table-2. Converted into chart form from B.R. Mitchell's International Historical Statistics 1750-1993.

Table-3. Converted into chart form from Walter J. Levy's Oil Strategy and Politics, 1941-1981 (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1982), 24-35.

Table-4. Converted into chart form from Time August 4, 1941, 61-62.




December, 2003