As one of the Allies during the First World War, Japan had some right to feel that she had not benefitted from the spoils of victory. Other than a few marginal gains from the defunct German Empire, Japan had little to show for her involvement in the greatest war of all time. Although her direct participation had been much less of a burden than that of France, Britain or the United States, Japan’s contribution was not marginal. Her extensive naval assets had been deployed throughout the Pacific, the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. They had thus relieved the British and the French – and to a lesser extent the Americans – from the task of protecting Far Eastern trade routes from German commerce raiders and therefore allowed production and export to continue with little interruption.

The diplomatic arrangements that emerged after 1919 did nothing to assuage Japanese sentiment. The arms control policies agreed at the Washington Conference put severe constraints on the construction of major warships, particularly battleships, which were still seen as the prime weapon at sea. Events would show that the nature of naval warfare had changed, and that the future of naval warfare really lay with the bombs and torpedoes that could be deployed from an aircraft carrier rather than the massive guns of battleships, but this was not yet apparent in the 1920s. Even so, the fact that under the Washington Conference agreement Japan was limited to having only a proportion of the number of major warships allowed to either Britain, France or the United States was, understandably, seen as insulting. Although the other Allies could reasonably argue that they had commitments all round the world whereas Japan’s interests were largely focused on the Pacific, there was a clear implication that the Western Allies had combined to ensure that Japan was to be restricted to being a second-tier maritime power.


ABDA stood for America, British, Dutch and Australian Command and was an attempt to unify and co-ordinate the war efforts of the various Allies against the Japanese Empire. The ABDA project was abandoned once it became evident that denying Malaya and the Dutch East Indies to the Japanese was beyond the capabilities of the forces available.

This was particularly galling in relation to Britain and France, since a significant part of their justification for having large fleets was their need to protect their colonial and imperial interests, some of which – and a commercially significant proportion at that – lay in South Asia. Like Japan, France and Britain were primarily manufacturing economies with banking and insurance sectors that were built on their overseas trade. That trade, in turn, depended on the position of enterprises that could enjoy a preferential position on the markets of British and French colonies. Imperialist expansion gave Britain, France and the Netherlands a stranglehold on the exports of South Asia, but also gave them a more or less captive market. Japanese expansion in Korea and Manchuria was more focused on acquiring raw materials that could be consumed at home or be turned into finished products for export around the world than on building markets within the imperial domain, but the emperor’s government saw no good reason why Japan should not enjoy the power, privileges and prestige of acquiring a network of colonial possessions. If it was good enough for the British, the French and the Dutch, it was good enough for Japan. The role of the United States in South Asia might seem a little different superficially, since there was no intention to retain the Philippines as a permanent, formal colony, but that probably seemed to be a distinction without a difference in Tokyo.

The Japanese conquest of Manchuria was met with condemnation from all sides, but given the position of the Western powers, there was more than a whiff of hypocrisy involved and since nobody was willing to go to the aid of Manchuria there was little to discourage Japan from actively pursuing an expansionist policy if the opportunity arose.

Political opinion in Japan was divided by two possible approaches to expansion. Some favoured a northern strategy to exploit the natural and human resources of Korea (which had been conquered by Japan) and Manchuria to help further the war in China, while others favoured a southern strategy aimed at seizing the tin, rubber and agricultural produce of Thailand and Malaya, and the rubber and timber of the Dutch East Indies and Burma. Each prospect had its merits. A protracted war would require vast quantities of oil, rubber and tin, which, realistically, could only come from South Asia, thus giving economic aid to Britain, France and the Netherlands just when they were at their weakest. Since the successful German occupation of northern Europe in 1940 there was little prospect of the French or Dutch colonial forces being reinforced. On the other hand, it was possible that Japan could continue to extend its occupation in China without provoking a war with Britain or the United States. The shortage of raw materials for Japanese industry was exacerbated by trade sanctions, particularly on oil and a ban on the export of scrap metal from the United States. Individually, none of these factors need necessarily have led to war, but a strong body of ultra-nationalist opinion certainly encouraged the possibility. The question of adopting a southern or northern strategy was not, initially, settled by the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939. The Phoney War period from September that year to May 1940 did not reveal the weakness of the Western powers, but the campaign through Belgium, the Netherlands and France most certainly did. Within a matter of weeks, the Netherlands and France had been utterly defeated and the British Army driven out of mainland Europe with a tremendous loss of materiel was clearly unable to divert significant quantities of men or materiel to Asia. The fall of France put the colonial government of French Indo-China (modern-day Vietnam) in a difficult position. They were in no position to resist demands from the Japanese government given that their own country was now under the control of Japan’s ally, Germany. This would prove to be a significant factor once the war erupted in Asia since Japanese aircraft based in Indo-China would be able to mount operations as far south as Singapore.

Although economic factors were critical in the development of Japan’s route to war with the Western powers, there was also a political dimension. In December 1938 Fumimaro Konoe, the Japanese prime minister, declared a policy titled the ‘New Order in East Asia’ which would encourage the growth of an economic area dominated by the Yen rather than the currencies of Europe. Initially intended as a development in the northern portions of East Asia, the ‘New Order’ was the foundation of the ‘greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’; essentially a catch-all phrase to cover all of the territory that fell under Japanese domination. Although the Co-Prosperity Sphere concept was largely a fig leaf to disguise Japanese imperial expansion, there was a degree of wider political idealism involved. One of the slogans of the supporters of scheme was ‘Asia for the Asiatics’ and there was, to a modest extent, a genuine ambition to destroy European and American colonialist power throughout South Asia, though in reality this was largely a matter of seeking to replace European hegemony with Japanese political and economic domination. To some extent the development of the Co-Prosperity Sphere policy was a reaction to racialist policies among the Western powers. In 1919 the Japanese delegation to the Versailles treaty negotiations had proposed a declaration of universal racial equality. This was vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson – though he had no right to do so – because it would undermine the position of the colonial powers which had emerged victorious from the First World War and which had extensive interests in Asia, South America and Africa. It might have also caused him considerable political difficulty at home, given the strong tradition of racialist policies and practices in many American states; this was, after all, a time when the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan could still be received formally at the White House.

Naturally, some people in the nations conquered by Japan in 1941–42 saw the removal of British and Dutch colonial governments as a step toward national independence, and the Co-Prosperity Sphere concept as a possible route to economic development that would benefit their own communities rather than corporations in Britain and the Netherlands. Any such hopes were quickly undermined by the nature of the Japanese occupations and it rapidly became all too clear that the removal of one set of colonial masters meant nothing more than the installation of a different foreign power. However, in some locations in Malaya and a little more widely in the Dutch East Indies the Japanese were not, initially, regarded with total suspicion and some Japanese soldiers genuinely thought they were engaged in a war to liberate their fellow Asians from European and American imperialism.

The German conquest of France and the Netherlands in 1940 and the continuing troubles of the British through early 1941 presented Japan with an opportunity to remove European influence from Asia and to become the undisputed major power in the East. This could only be achieved if the United States could be neutralised. In late 1941 America was not yet prepared for a major war, but was certainly moving in that direction. The British were starting to make a modest degree of recovery in their campaigns against Germany and Italy, but were still struggling to maintain imports across the Atlantic from America and, after the summer of 1941, had the added burden of making a contribution to the Russian front as well. If a victory was to be gained, Japan had to make a move before the American military could be put on a real war footing and before the British improved sufficiently on their current situation to give serious attention to matters in the Far East. If the blow was to be struck at all, it had to be struck quickly and at all of the opposing powers at the same time to prevent one coming to the aid of the other. The Japanese offensive of December 1941 delivered just such a blow; it was incredibly audacious and an absolute masterpiece of planning and military ingenuity; for a while it achieved the political objective of Japanese primacy throughout the Far East. The seaborne landings mounted in Malaya and south Thailand were only part of a much wider picture and although the strike against Pearl Harbor inflicted a grave injury on the American Pacific Fleet, the blow was far from fatal. When the Japanese attack hit Pearl Harbor there were no American aircraft carriers in port. This would turn out to be a matter of huge consequence, but that was not altogether clear at the time.

There were other, less dramatic factors in leading Japan to adopt a war policy. The conflict in China had not been as swift or as straightforward as had been anticipated. One of the political justifications for attacking the British and the Americans was that both powers would be forced to reduce their support for the Chiang Kai-shek’s forces. This was less than realistic since Chiang was much more reliant on support from the Soviet Union, but it did have a certain appeal to popular opinion in Japan and the news media – totally under Japanese government control – encouraged the belief that the Chinese forces would be mortally weakened by the loss of American aid. Similarly, there was a view that the Chinese government was heavily reliant on the fundraising activities of the Chinese diaspora of merchants and professionals across South Asia generally, but in Singapore and Malaya in particular. This was not unfounded; the Chinese communities did raise substantial sums for the war effort at home, but certainly not enough to have a profound effect on China’s ability to resist the Japanese invasion. In reality, fundraising in the British colonies and American contributions to the Chinese government were insignificant issues compared to the wider questions of Japan’s economic need for raw materials and foodstuffs, as well as her political desire to be a great international power and the leading force in Asia; neither issue – singly or in combination – was enough of a challenge to provoke war.

The attacks of December 1941 brought the Western Allies together with a shared objective: the defeat of Japan. In the early months of the war active co-operation was almost non-existent. The United States was not in a position to intervene in support of Britain or the Netherlands; although America had been providing arms and other supplies to Britain for some considerable time, the tide of public opinion in the US had not turned in favour of active participation. Pearl Harbor changed everything in that regard. America had been attacked with no declaration of war, thousands of lives and millions of dollars’ worth of material had been destroyed and the American public was now ready for a fight even if their military was not. In that sense, the Pearl Harbor attack can be seen as a gigantic political and strategic error. It is not absolutely certain that the United States would have entered a war with Japan on the basis of her invasions of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, but there could be little doubt that a direct attack on an American port or on the Philippines would force the issue.

Japan’s attack on America did more than bring war to the Pacific. Germany chose to declare war on the United States in support of her Asian ally. President Roosevelt had been pushing toward declaring war with Germany for some time, but had not had the political support which would enable him to do so; now Hitler had saved him the necessity by declaring war on the United States.

In a sense, this clearly defined who was fighting for what. At its simplest, the Western Allies were committed to a war which would destroy the power of Germany, Japan and Italy, and in turn those nations were committed to a war which would destroy the power of Britain and America. In the case of Britain and the Netherlands, this included ensuring that they retained possession of the mineral and agricultural wealth of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. They could only do this by preserving a certain aura of invincibility and convincing local public opinion that the European powers could protect their communities from invasion.

Book title

Malaya. Location of military formations, airfields and air force units, 8 December 1941.

Book title

Singapore Island. Location of military formations, airfields and air force units, 8 December 1941.

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