The Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbour. ‘Awakening the Sleeping Giant’

Essay, 2015

12 Pages


On December 7th, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) attacked Pearl Harbour, which ultimately brought the United States (U.S.) into the Second World War (WWII).1 The United States Navy (USN) lost four battleships, 180 aircraft, 2400 sailors, but more importantly, the Japanese strike delayed the USN’s ability to respond to the Japanese expansion into the Pacific in search of natural resources. The Japanese operation led and planned by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was a surprise attack that resulted in the USN fleet being an easy target for the IJN pilots. Dr. Dennis Showalter, former professor at both the United States Air Force and Army Academies, argues that Pearl Harbour was the final strike that brought the United States into war. However, Showalter also attests that there were many other factors that inevitably contributed to the war between these two nations.2 If Admiral Yamamoto knew that attacking Pearl Harbour would “awaken the sleeping giant”3, why did the Japanese leader believe attacking the American Navy was a good strategic move? This paper will analyze the overall impact of the IJN attacking Pearl Harbour and its effect on WWII. More specifically, this paper will argue how the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour played an instrumental tactical role in the Pacific for the Japanese in the short term. However, despite the Japanese initial success at Pearl Harbour the overall strategy led by Japanese leadership resulted in an absolute disaster resulting in the loss of the Pacific War and ultimately the loss of WWII for the Tripartite Pact.4

In order to fully comprehend the significance of the military strike on Pearl Harbour it is important to understand the political and economic issues surrounding Japan and the U.S. and how these issues played an critical role in the inevitable conflict in the Pacific. Dr. D. Clayton James, former Professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Kansas, asserts that America had four basic economic aims of pre-WWII strategy in Asia: “Prepare the Philippines for independence, keep China market open to American traders, maintain the flow of raw materials from Southeast Asia to the American industry and most importantly limit the Japanese expansion into Southeast Asia.5 “The storm over the Pacific”6 began when Japan threatened these aforementioned American financial incentives by invading China in 1937, searching for raw materials to revamp their ailing Japanese economy.7 Due to this Japanese invasion, the U.S. government began “loaning the Chinese government money to fulfill wartime production contracts.”8 In turn, in July 1940, the U.S. government stopped trading metal and gasoline to Japan. In retaliation of America’s trade embargo Japan aggressively expanded into modern day Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and other fronts of China to acquire the necessary natural resources it required. This pendulum of political attacks eventually resulted in the U.S. government freezing all Japanese assets in the United States - political relations between the two countries had deteriorated to such an extent that diplomacy was no longer an option. Dr. Robert Higgs, Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, reiterates this tenuous relationship in his article for the Freeman in 2006:

Roosevelt and his subordinates knew they were putting Japan in an untenable position and that the Japanese government might well try to escape the stranglehold by going to war. Having broken the Japanese diplomatic code, the Americans knew, among many other things, what Foreign Minister Teijiro Toyoda had communicated to Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura on July 31: ‘Commercial and economic relations between Japan and third countries, led by England and the United States, are gradually becoming so horribly strained that we cannot endure it much longer. Consequently, our Empire, to save its very life, must take measures to secure the raw materials of the South Seas.’9

Dr. Higgs and Dr. Clayton both argue that war between the two nations was inescapable. Japan was feeling the economic and political pressure of the USA and this strain only magnified Japan’s military plan to initiate the first strike. The Japanese raid was the final blow that ended diplomacy between the two nations and on December 12, 1941 the United States was at war with Japan, Germany and Italy. The United States was now a major player in the global conflict across the world, in both Europe and Pacific campaigns.10

The attack on Pearl Harbour as stated earlier was planned and executed by Admiral Yamamoto; he was Japan’s perfect candidate for the mission. After attending Harvard University from 1919-1921 Yamamoto continued to serve his country in the Japanese naval attaché in Washington, DC.11 Dr. Edwin Palmer Hoyt, an American historian who specialized in military history as well as a part time lecturer at the University of Hawaii, argues:

there was no officer more competent to lead the Combined Fleet to victory than Admiral Yamamoto. His daring plan for the Pearl Harbor attack had passed through the crucible of the Japanese naval establishment, and after many expressed misgivings, his fellow admirals had realized that Yamamoto spoke no more than the truth when he said that Japan's hope for victory in this [upcoming] war was limited by time and oil.12

From his experience within the United States, Yamamoto learned to speak fluent English as well as familiarized himself with the Western culture. Yamamoto openly acknowledged: “The U.S. far surpassed Japan in the areas of raw resources, scientific research, industrial capability and population.”13 Yamamoto concluded that once the U.S. population united behind a cause, all of the aforementioned advantages grew at exponential rates. Dr. Michael J. O’Neal, an American historian, argued that because of Japan's failure in WWI, Japanese military leadership convinced its nation that they would rise again by, “expanding into southeastern Asia and the Pacific where resources such as oil and rubber lay could be found.”14 Initially, Admiral Yamamoto had reservations of following Japan’s Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō’s decision to engage in war with the United States. Concerned about American strength Yamamoto cautioned: “should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it would not be enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House.”15 Nonetheless, Yamamoto accepted the reality of impending war and planned for a quick tactical victory by destroying the US fleet at Pearl Harbour.

Admiral Yamamoto’s “plan to attack Pearl Harbour did not mark an aberration from the navy’s traditional role, for the raid was to be a minimum-risk, hit and run mission with the attacking units immediately assigned thereafter to supporting the ground operations in Southeast Asia.”16 The Admiral foresaw his mission in two phases. Phase One would center on the surprise attack against the USN at Pearl Harbour. With the USN fleet damaged, the Admiral would execute Phase Two, which would involve securing, and fortifying locations in Southeast Asia that would not be possible if the USN was not initially damaged.

Furthermore, the Admiral anticipated President Roosevelt to prioritize American military efforts in the European campaign of pushing back Adolf Hitler and the Germans. 17 However, the Japanese command structure: “badly miscalculated America’s capability to mobilize its industry.”18 The Japanese did not realize the U.S. ability to be battle effective in both campaigns.

Though the attack on Pearl Harbour initially appeared to be a military success for the Japanese, the long-term ramifications eventually revealed this surprise “tactical” attack to be a gross “strategic” miscalculation by the Japanese. December 12, 1941 proved to be a tactical success; however, it ultimately was a strategic disaster. For the purpose of this paper a tactical victory can be defined as: “a victory that results in the completion of a tactical objective as part of an operation or a victory where the losses of the defeated outweigh those of the victor.”19 Conversely, a strategic victory can be defined as: “a victory that brings long-term advantage to the victor and disturbs the enemy's ability to wage a war.”20

The actual attack on Pearl Harbour was devastating. The USN lost four battleships, 180 aircraft, 2,400 sailors and left 1000 people wounded.21 The Japanese first strike occurred at 07:55 with the main objective to destroy USN aircraft, anti-aircraft gunnery and airfields. An hour later at 08:54, with all aircraft and anti-aircraft defence disabled, the second wave attacked Oahu Island focusing their objectives on battleships and aircraft carriers.22 Shortly after the second attack, Admiral Nagumo made the fateful decision not to attack Pearl Harbour for a third time.23 Admiral Nagumo did not want to lose any more aircraft because it would limit his ability to defend an attack from the two missing USN carriers. At the time the Japanese did not know the whereabouts of these two phantom carriers and Nagumo was concerned that their absence could compromise the safety of his fleet. This Japanese withdrawal appeared to make cautionary sense; however, it still remains a mystery why Admiral Yamamoto’s earlier concerns were not heeded. Admiral Nagumo’s immediate decision to protect his fleet trumped Admiral Yamamoto’s concern to destroy the USN’s Pacific fleet.24 Many historians conclude that the Japanese missed an opportunity to completely destroy the USN in the Pacific.

There is no question that tactically Pearl Harbour was a success. Ken Kantoni, Senior Fellow, International Conflict Division, Center for Military History and lecturer of the National Defense Academy, asserts this Japanese short-term victory: “From a tactical point of view, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour was one of the most brilliant operations in naval history. The Japanese operation was a surprise attack, without declaration of war, and U.S. battleships in the Harbour were easy targets.”25 The Japanese victory at Pearl Harbour weakened the USN’s ability to disrupt the Japanese expansion into southeastern Asia. The only offensive weapon systems available to the USN Pacific Fleet immediately following the strike were submarines, which proved to provide no significant damage until the beginning of 1943.26 In May 1941, the American War department held a G-2 conference to estimate the availability of their forces for the upcoming war. The findings of this conference showed that the American Army would be able to deploy a small force overseas for offensive purposes but due to the devastating effects at Pearl Harbour, the USN’s Pacific Fleet could only provide defensive actions. This was one of Admiral Yamamoto’s primary goals in the operation, therefore proving that the tactical decision was success.

For the first four months after the strike it appeared that the quick strike on Pearl Harbour was well worth the risk. Although Japanese leaders, including Admiral Yamamoto and Admiral Nagumo, predicted the U.S. government would negotiate a compromise instead of fighting a long and bloody war, the IJN was still able to get the vital oil resources they required to keep expanding and growing as a nation.27

However, this initial success for the Japanese would shortly come to an end, as the U.S. was able to recover from the initial loses faster than expected. This argument of an limiting Japanese success can no better be summarized than by the proud Chief of U.S. Naval Operations, Admiral Harold Stark:

While [the Japanese] may have [their] initial successes, due to timing and surprise, the time will come when [the Japanese] too will have [their] losses, but there will be this great difference. [The Japanese] will not only be unable to make up [their] losses but will grow weaker as time goes on, while on the other hand we will not only make up our losses but will grow stronger as time goes on. It is inevitable that we will crush [the Japanese] before we are through with [the Japanese]. When this war is over, the Japanese language will only be spoken in hell.28

Within a couple of months of the strike, the British transferred ships from their Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets to help aid the losses at Pearl Harbour. Within four months of the attack, 11 of 18 damaged USN ships from the attack had returned to duty - permitting the USN to commence interfering with Yamamoto’s six-month plan to gain control with of the South Pacific.29 By March 1942, the U.S. reestablished supply lines in Australia, allowing them to move troops into the South Pacific. With this supply line in place, it was the beginning of the end for the Japanese.

On May 7th, 1942, exactly five months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the USN and IJN faced their first major battle, the Battle of the Coral Sea.30 With the help of the Australian Navy, the USN destroyed one light carrier, one destroyer and several smaller ships, but more importantly, the USN severely damaged two of the IJN’s primary carriers. Less than a month later, the USN found and attacked the IJN fleet at the Battle of Midway. This was a devastating loss for the IJN as the Japanese lost four carriers compared to the one that the USN lost in the same battle.31 By June 1942, the IJN had lost two times the number of ships that they destroyed at Pearl Harbour. Their initial tactical success was starting to look more and more like a strategic nightmare.32 In August 1942, the United States launched its first invasion into the Empire of Japan; from that day forward the Japanese gradually lost more and more of their Pacific empire. The war officially ended on August 15, 1945 when the Japanese surrendered to the allied forces.

Despite Admiral Yamamoto’s tactical victory at Pearl Harbour, he admitted that he was not fully satisfied with the results; his goals in attacking Pearl Harbour had been to annihilate the USN’s Pacific fleet and not just delay the inevitable.33 Admiral Hara Tadaichi, Commanding Officer of the Fifth Carrier Division for the IJN during WWII, reiterated Japan’s folly on focusing on tactical rather that strategic outcomes: the: "We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war.”34 Admiral Yamamoto definitely achieved this by destroying, damaging and killing the ships and the sailors at Pearl Harbour. Although Admiral Yamamoto planned and orchestrated a military strike that resulted in the greatest loss in U.S. Naval history, the damage they inflicted still failed to accomplish the goals that Yamamoto originally planned.35 Overtime, the USN was able to recover its damaged ships and with the help of their allies, the British and Australians, they were able to stop the advancing Japanese in the South Pacific.

After analyzing the attack of Pearl Harbour and how it affected both the Japanese and Americans, it is evident that the strike on Pearl Harbour was a tactical victory for the Imperial Japanese Navy. However, in the long term the attack at Pearl Harbour was a strategic blunder as the IJN failed to inflict enough damage to delay the USN’s ability to respond to the Japanese invasion in the South Pacific. Sabin Burit, a columnist for the Japan Times, concurs this same observation: “The Pearl Harbor attack was a brilliant tactic, but part of a strategy based on the belief that a spirit as firm as iron and as beautiful as cherry blossoms could overcome the materially wealthy United States. That strategy was flawed, and Japan's total defeat would follow.”36 Burit acknowledged the military value of Japan’s “iron” might, but his reference to the “cherry blossom” reiterates that the Japanese victory, like the spring blossom, would be beautiful yet short-lived.


1 Kozak, Warren. "Pearl Harbor, Iran and North Korea; Don't Be Surprised If One of Our Underestimated Adversaries Does the Unthinkable." Wall Street Journal (Online), December 7, 2011, 1.

2 Haugen, David, and Susan Musser, Eds. Perspectives on Modern World History: The Attack on Pearl Harbor. Farmington Hills: Greenhaven, 2011, 19-21.

3 D, Bruce. "Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto Quotes - Pearl Harbor Oahu." Pearl Harbor Oahu Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto Quotes. 2015.

4 Haugen et Al, 26.

5 Paret, Peter, Gordon Alexander Craig, and Felix Gilbert. Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986, 709.

6 Marston, Daniel. The Pacific War Companion: From Pearl Harbour to Hiroshima. Oxford: Osprey, 2005, 15-29.

7 Haugen et al, 5.

8 Ibid

9 Higgs, Robert. "How U.S. Economic Warfare Provoked Japan's Attack on Pearl Harbor - Robert Higgs." The Independent Institute. 2006.

10 Haugen et al, 6-8.

11 Paige, Bill, and Xian Bing Li. "Mistakes at Pearl Harbor, Japanese Errors That Cost Japan the Pacific Prize." Academia, July 26, 2011, 7.

12 Hoyt, Edwin P. Yamamoto: The Man Who Planned Pearl Harbor. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990.

13 Paige et al, 7.

14 Haugen et al, 15.

15 Prange, Gordon. At Dawn We Slept. New York: Penguin Books, 1982, 11.

16 Paret et al, 707.

17 Paige et al, 8.

18 Paret et al, 707.

19 Wikipedia, Tactical Victory.

20 Wikapedia, Strategical Victory.

21 Martson, 31.

22 Paige et al, 10-13.

23 Lord, Walter. Day of Infamy. New York: Holt, 1957,181.

24 Marston, 42.

25 Ibid, 31.

26 Paige et al, 21.

27 Goldstein, Donald M., Katherine V. Dillon, Minoru Genda, Masataka Chihaya, Giichi Nakahara, Shigeshi Uchida, Sadamu Sanagi, Isoroku Yamamoto, Ryunosuke Kusaka, and Sadao Chigusa. The Pearl Harbor Papers: Inside the Japanese Plans. Washington: Brasseyʼs (US), 1993.

28 Martson, 28.

29 Paige et al, 23.

30 Ibid, 24.

31 Ibid.

32 Prados, John. "Battle of Midway." 2009.

33 Marston, 42.

34 D. Bruce, 2015.

35 Paige et al, 25.

36 Sabin, Burit. "Dawn of a Tragic Era | The Japan Times." Japan Times RSS. 2004.

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The Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbour. ‘Awakening the Sleeping Giant’
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Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto, Japanese, American, History, Pacific War, WWII, World War 2, Imperial Japanese Navy, United States Navy, Pearl Harbour, Pacific Campaign
Quote paper
Blake Sullivan (Author), 2015, The Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbour. ‘Awakening the Sleeping Giant’, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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