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Asia’s assertion of Authority

Until the first quarter of the 20th century, Asia has always been a store where an imperial power goes, fights, and “owns” the place. It was never meant to be given a seat at any table. Similar was the case with Latin America and Africa too. However, when the world wars happened, the indigenous people realized what they’re worth and started demanding independence or a say in global matters. Be it an uprising in the then India or awakening west with the occupation of Manchuria by Japan, it was evident that time would not be far when Asia would revolt to their status of being “inferior”.

One of the most dramatic events of the 20th century was Pearl Harbour. It proved many wrongs right and “helped” politicians in Allied powers have their say in dealing with war matters but most importantly it was unimaginable for an Asian island nation to take such a brave step. It is one of the clearest separations between past and future that one can find.

It was perhaps the most important mission the Japanese military undertook because it had to be done secretly and surprise the enemy, it was the largest gathering of force in history and it had to cover over 6000 kilometers in high seas. Thirty ships were carrying more than 400 aircraft with over 16,000 people across the Pacific Ocean to attack a country ten times bigger and richer than theirs. It was very cold. Some sources say it was snowing. The sailors on the 30 ships did not know where they went to war and they didn't even know who the enemy was. They thought they would attack Singapore or Hong Kong. All radio communications were interrupted. Special measures were taken to ensure that rubbish is not disposed of overboard. They were positioned rectangularly on the sea for a distance of kilometers, constantly fearing that someone would appear in the air them.

The whole plan of the Japanese would crumble, had any of this gone wrong. It was one of the most daring military games in history with chances of success 50% and failure would have been a premeditated suicide.

What pushed them into this desperate situation? The year 1905.

Eighteen months of war against the Russian Empire ends with a shocking victory, when Japan, a small island, it comes out triumphant. After centuries of being ignored by other countries, The Japanese finally established themselves on the world stage as a serious military power. That shocked the world. The fact that the great Czarist empire can be destroyed on the battlefield of these funny little men on a chain of islands from the east coast of Asia. This victory convinced the Japanese that should be considered a world power.

A decade later, after the outbreak of World War I, when the German imperial troops marched on China, Japan joins Britain to provide support. Thanks to the Japanese, the Allies achieved an important victory. After that, Japan is given a seat at the negotiating table and wants to be recognized for the help extended to Allies in the war. Japan was one of the five guest countries at the Paris Peace Conference. The Japanese did not have a decisive word, but they were present. The Japanese raised a racial equality clause. As part of the post-war treaty, the Japanese asked the Allies to let their citizens migrate more freely to Western countries, such as Australia and America. Their request was denied which left the Japanese angry.

Their leaders did not give up. After the transformation from feudal society in a parliamentary democracy, they hoped the new policies would help them keep up with the West. Once again, they were disappointed. When the United States banned non-white citizens from moving to the United States, the Japanese were also included. The immigration act of 1924 was widely seen to “insult” the Japanese by the Americans. This kind of discrimination and references to “yellow peril” offended the Japanese. So the Japanese felt treated as second-hand power when, in fact, they had a first-class military. The perspective of the English and the Americans was somewhat racist which led to a powerful poisonous brew of militarism and resentment towards the west.

The fledgling democracy took another hit with the great depression of 1929. The economy suffered a blow, recovery from which was very difficult. Demand for silk had fallen, and farmers were forced into situations when they had to sell their daughters into prostitution. All international ways to revamp the economy seemed impossible and this led to the country turning inwards for solutions.

Rise of Military and fear of West

Inspired by ancient traditions and samurai codes, an extreme-right nationalist movement was propelled and took over the military and then infiltrates the civilian government soon. Parliamentary democracy faced problems with increasing revelations of scandals and corruption coupled with intimidation by military men. The democracy ceased to function when an ultra-nationalist army general, son of a revered samurai, General Hideki Tojo took over the reins with a vision to transform an impoverished Japan into a rich and powerful nation. General Tojo was an intelligent man and a very good administrator but was relatively small-minded for he looked at the world from a completely military point of view. His solutions to problems were exclusively military. But at that time in Japan, he represented the general public opinion that Japan must act firmly against western powers.

They all believed that too much of Asia was in Western hands. The Dutch controlled Indonesia today. The French controlled Southeast Asia. British controlled India, Singapore, Malaya, and Hong Kong. The United States controlled the Philippines. The Japanese believed that Asia should belong to Asians. Japanese had very few natural resources. They had no oil, no coal, and no energy resources to become a great power. Tojo's fixation on the western territories of Asia springs from valuable natural resources, resources that Japan needed to thrive. In 1931, Tojo's army invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria, an area rich in coal and iron.

Western powers with interests in the Pacific became restless and an international summit is convened where they decided to support China over Japan. For the Japanese delegation, it is an abomination. The West stole, occupied, took, did everything to get hold of the Asian regions, but the Japanese were denied this right. The Japanese considered its hypocrisy on the part of Westerners. Ignoring all calls to stop expansion, in 1937 Japan is closer to China, and this was the beginning of a brutal and bloody war. In a few weeks, thousands of Chinese citizens were killed by the Japanese army. When the massacres in Nanjing were reported, the world was terrified by the atrocities. They were unimaginable. For the US, which considered itself to be the protector of China, it was an extra proof of Japanese malicious intentions towards China. Japan wanted to attack, colonize, and exploit China of its resources.

The War and American preparation

But soon the West was facing its problems. In Europe, another far-right nationalist leader was implementing his expansion plans. Hitler’s dreaded army destroyed the entire continent and invaded country after country before incorporating them into the German empire. For British PM, Churchill, the threat of Nazi-controlled Europe was becoming a reality and the only hope of the west to stand up to Hitler was the entry of America into the war. However, Americans were not receptive. They were thousands of miles from the action and felt safe. They did not feel threatened, especially not when there are ~5000 kilometers of ocean between them and Europe. In public, President Franklin Roosevelt supports the wishes of his nation and while 1940 being an election year, he promised American mothers that their sons will not go overseas for war.

But Roosevelt is worried. He acknowledged, though not publicly, the danger to the United States by the Nazis. He did not want to break his word to his people but also realized that Allies need help. He helped Britain resist the Nazis through raw materials, airplanes, tanks, transport, equipment, ammunition, and oil among the supply of other things. But when in May 1940, Hitler invaded France, Roosevelt was alarmed. He sends a lot of help to the British.

On the other hand, in his policy towards Germany, he always kept an eye on Japan. He did not want Japan to take advantage of the situation in Europe to expand in Asia. Roosevelt was worried that Japan would seize the moment. It will begin to capture the colonies of defeated European powers. To prepare for his worst fears, when his pacific fleet arrived in Hawaii for training, he took an unnatural decision to keep her there. Originally, it was based in California, but Roosevelt believed that if it moved to Hawaii, it will deter the Japanese as there was no other large naval base within a radius of thousands of kilometers.

But not everyone agreed with Roosevelt's decision. Admiral Richardson was leading the Pacific Fleet at the time and he didn't think that moving to Hawaii was a good move. The fleet needed more ships, training, and Richardson thought that to confront anyone, one must have the necessary strength. He paid the cost of raising his voice against the move by getting fired. For the fleet, it was more or less like a tropical vacation. An exotic, remote, fragrant place with palm trees and mountain ranges where navy men had fun, picnics, went out to clubs.

Geographically, Pearl Harbor seemed untouchable. Thousands of miles from shore, well protected from airstrikes with an ample number of airstrips, docks, repair shops, and fuel depots. It was a base that could defend itself. It had a large area with shallow waters, and this protected the fleet from torpedo attacks. The torpedoes fall from planes and weigh around 800-900 kg. When they fall from a plane, the sink deep into the water before getting up a little and heading to a target. But Pearl Harbour wasn’t deep enough for them to be launched.

The Japanese still attacked the place successfully. How did they overcome these barriers which were presented to them naturally at Pearl Harbor is to be continued in the next post.

About the Author

Gaurav Sharma is R&D Manager with NTU Singapore. He currently works in the domain of Artificial Intelligence after having worked in Semiconductors and Technical consulting in India and Singapore.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

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