"The Pacific War was a war to liberate colonised Asia".
221 members of Japan's long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party LDP) moved this lie in Japan's parliament in 1995


Strategic overview in the Pacific at the beginning of 1942

In 1995, 221 members of Japan's long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party LDP) moved the following motion in Japan's parliament called the Diet:

"The Pacific War was a war to liberate colonised Asia".

It was a blatant lie, and many Japanese knew it was a lie. The lie infuriated Japan's neighbours who had suffered conquest, slaughter, and brutal humiliation at the hands of Japanese soldiers between 1937 and 1945. See "Japanese War Crimes".

When Japan launched the Pacific War with almost simultaneous attacks on British Malaya and Hawaii (7 December 1941), it was not done with the intention of replacing the comparatively benign British, Dutch, and American rule in their South-East Asian colonies with independence for the native people of that region. The Japanese were intending their Pacific War to be a war of conquest, and exploitation, with stern Japanese masters replacing what they perceived to be weak colonial rule by white masters in British Malaya (now Malaysia), British Borneo (now Malaysia and Brunei), the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia), British Burma (now Myanmar), and the Philippines. The Japanese were aware that the semi-autonomous Philippines had been promised complete independence by the United States in 1946, but they were not prepared to allow that to happen. The Japanese were planning to strip these resource-rich former colonies of food and raw materials, especially war materials needed for Japan's war machine, such as oil and rubber. The inhabitants would be put to hard labour for their new Japanese masters.

The devastating Japanese surprise attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at its Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii on 7 December 1941, launched without a preliminary declaration of war, initiated what Japanese military leaders termed the First Operational Stage of Japan's campaign of military conquest in the Pacific and South-East Asia. Several hours earlier Japanese troops had stormed ashore at Kota Bharu on the northern coast of British Malaya. Nine hours after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese struck the Philippines with massive air attacks and, in one afternoon, destroyed American air power in the Far East. The American commander in the Philipines, General Douglas MacArthur, had left all of his military aircraft lined up on his airfields while he pondered his response to Pearl Harbor and neglected to obey his orders from Washington to strike back against the Japanese.

To facilitate capture of the American Philippines without interference from what remained of the United States Pacific Fleet after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese seized American island bases between the Philippines and Hawaii. Guam fell to the Japanese on 10 December 1941. Wake Island fell on 22 December 1941. The Japanese invasion of the Philippines began on 22 December 1941 with the landing of two divisions at Lingayen Gulf. On 25 December 1941, Hong Kong fell to the Japanese. On 15 February 1942, Britain's so-called "impregnable fortress" of Singapore was surrendered to a much smaller Japanese army. Despite British assurances to the contrary, Singapore had never been anything more than a paper fortress. On 19 February 1942, Australia's northern mainland port of Darwin was shattered by two successive heavy Japanese air raids. Although Dr Peter Stanley of the Australian War Memorial describes the Darwin raids as "small beer" in his revisionist essay "Threat made manifest", two hundred and forty-three were killed and 330 wounded in Japan's first air attack on the Australian mainland. On 8 March 1942, the Dutch surrendered the capital of the Dutch East Indies to the Japanese. In Burma, British troops were being pushed back towards India by a relentless Japanese advance.

As American and Philippine troops fought a hopeless battle against invading Japanese troops between December 1941 and May 1942, any hope of reinforcement by the greatly weakened United States Pacific Fleet was negated by the Japanese Navy's control of the vast stretch of ocean between Hawaii and the Philippines. When Admiral Ernest J. King was appointed Commander in Chief of the United States Navy in mid-December 1941, he quickly realised that the United States would need access to Australia as a base for a counter-offensive in order to recover the Philippines from Japan. The Japanese Navy General Staff had already reached the same conclusion.

Author's Note regarding references to Japan's military high command in 1941-42

The peak body in Japan's military high command structure in 1941-42 was Imperial General Headquarters. It operated directly under the emperor himself, and was responsible to him. Army General Staff and Navy General Staff were important components of Japan's military high command, and were represented on Imperial General Headquarters by Army Sections and Navy Sections respectively.

Japan's Army and Navy General Staffs were not run like democracies in 1941-42. They were authoritarian and monolithic in structure. Those descriptions applied equally to the Army and Navy Ministries. Unless the context indicates otherwise, references to "Army General Staff" or "Navy General Staff" having a view on a particular subject will necessarily imply that the view was held by the Chief of Army General Staff, General Sugiyama, or the Chief of Navy General Staff, Admiral Nagano respectively.

A brief treatment of Japan's military high command in 1941-42 can be viewed in an an earlier chapter.

The rapid success of the First Operational Stage persuades the Japanese Navy to continue attacking

Meticulous planning preceded the launching of the First Operational Stage of Japan's campaign of military conquest in the Pacific and South-East Asia, and agreement had been reached between the Japanese Army and Navy on the scope of the first stage. The Japanese had intended that the rapid expansion of their empire by military conquest following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor would be followed by a defensive phase. During this defensive phase, their conquests would be consolidated and a strong defensive perimeter created. Behind that defensive perimeter, the Japanese would prepare to repulse American, British, and Dutch attempts to recover their lost colonies. Western military historians were surprised to learn after the Japanese surrender in 1945 that the Japanese Army and the Japanese Navy had neither formulated clear plans for the Second Operational Stage, nor reached agreement with regard to its scope.

By early January 1942, it was becoming apparent to Japan's military leaders that the April-May timetable for wrapping up the First Operational Stage would be met as Allied resistance crumbled on all fronts before the Japanese onslaught. After a period of consolidation to fortify newly captured territory and to enable the resources of conquered territories to be diverted to Japan, the Japanese Army was contemplating taking advantage of expected German Spring offensive victories in the Soviet Union to attack the Russians from the rear.

Japan's Navy General Staff and Combined Fleet choose different options for further naval offensives

Japan's senior admirals had been firmly committed to a defensive phase following Pearl Harbor to prepare for an expected American counter-offensive and to hold Japan's massive territorial gains, but the euphoria produced by the smashing of the US Navy's battle fleet while it lay at anchor in Pearl Harbor, and the successive victories that followed, convinced the Commander in Chief of Japan's Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, and his Chief of Staff , Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki, that a defensive phase would simply give the United States time to gather its enormous potential strength for a powerful counter-offensuive. Yamamoto and Ugaki agreed that Japan must continue to attack until the United States and Britain were exhausted by battle and welcomed peace talks. For its part, Navy General Staff began to think about the role that Australia was likely to play as a springboard for the expected American counter-offensive. Navy General Staff saw the answer to this threat as being a limited invasion of northern Australia to facilitate severing its lifeline to the United States.

Some readers may well be asking who was actually in charge of formulating naval strategy in Japan in 1941 and 1942 - Navy General Staff or Combined Fleet? This has already been largely covered in the earlier chapter dealing with Imperial General Headquarters, where it was mentioned that the Commander in Chief of Japan's Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, had achieved hero status in Japan after his devastating sneak attack on the American Pacific Fleet at its Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii. The success of the Hawaii attack, and the series of Japanese naval victories that followed, enabled Combined Fleet to usurp a large measure of responsibility for strategic planning from Navy General Staff. This fatal division of responsibility for Japan's strategic naval planning produced acrimonious debates and contributed significantly to the Japanese naval defeats at Coral Sea and Midway that turned the tide of the Pacific War against Japan in 1942. See Fuchida and Okumiya.

As Vice Admiral Nagumo's carrier bombers were busy converting Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor into a flaming inferno and demolishing the US Army Air Corps aircraft neatly drawn up, as if for inspection, on Oahu's military airfields, Admiral Yamamoto and his staff officers were assembled in the operations room of the battleship Nagato in Hiroshima Bay. The news coming in by radio from Nagumo's flagship Akagi off Hawaii was exhilarating. Total surprise had been achieved. Enormous damage had been inflicted on the American battleship fleet and land-based warplanes. American resistance had been weak and disorganised. The admiral's staff officers were relieved and jubilant. The great Pearl Harbor gamble had paid off handsomely. Only Yamamoto's face remained impassive. He was troubled by the failure to destroy any of the powerful American aircraft carriers. They had not been in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese launched their surprise attack. The admiral knew that the Americans would use those very same carriers to launch their counter-offensive from Hawaii. Yamamoto was also deeply troubled by the news that American resistance at Hawaii had been weak and disorganised. Three months earlier, the admiral had rejected a proposal from his Operations Officer, Captain Kameto Kuroshima, that Japan should capitalise on the disorganisation produced by the massive carrier-launched air raids to carry out an amphibious invasion of Oahu and deprive the Americans of their main Pacific base. Had he allowed a golden opportunity to slip through his fingers?

From this moment, Yamamoto fretted about his failure to order the successful carrier attack to be pressed home by capturing Hawaii before the Americans had time to reinforce its defences. On 9 December 1941, Admiral Yamamoto ordered his Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki, to draw up a plan for an invasion of Hawaii. This bold initiative accorded entirely with Yamamoto's belief that Japan could not win a protracted war against the United States. Bold military action was needed to force the Americans to accept the wisdom of entering into peace negotiations with Japan. Total destruction of the US Pacific Fleet and seizing Hawaii might well persuade the Americans that winning the war would be too costly for the American public to stomach. Yamamoto also instructed Ugaki to draw up alternative plans for a carrier strike into the Indian Ocean against the British Eastern Fleet and for an invasion of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), but Hawaii had to be the priority target because only that could ensure total destruction of Japan's most feared enemy, the United States Pacific Fleet. Yamamoto was not interested in an invasion of Australia at this time because he believed that destruction of the US Pacific Fleet should be Japan's top strategic priority, and he felt that an invasion of Australia would not necessarily produce this result.

Japan's Combined Fleet presses for an invasion of British Ceylon

During January 1942, Rear Admiral Ugaki's staff officers weighed both options and formed the view that capture of Hawaii was an unrealistic option while the United States Pacific Fleet aircraft carrier force was intact and because the element of surprise was no longer available. They recommended an invasion of British Ceylon. The capture of Ceylon, they argued, would enable Japan to dominate the Indian Ocean and intercept oil and any military support that Britain might provide for Australia. Although deeply disappointed by the finding of his staff officers with regard to Hawaii, Admiral Yamamoto ordered them to plan for an attack on the British Fleet and an invasion of Ceylon.

Three months of frequently acrimonious debate concerning Japan's next strategic naval objectives followed between the Navy General Staff and Combined Fleet. They found the Japanese Army firmly opposed to any proposal that required massive commitment of army troops.

While Navy General Staff was prepared to place the Combined Fleet plan for an invasion of Ceylon before Imperial General Headquarters at a conference of the Army and Navy Sections on 4 March 1942, the Chief of Navy General Staff, Admiral Osami Nagano, intended to urge acceptance of his own plan for an offensive to capture key areas of the northern Australian mainland.

The Japanese Army refuses to supply troops for invasions of Australia or Ceylon

When the joint conference of Navy and Army Sections of Imperial General Headquarters was convened in the grounds of Hirohito's Tokyo palace on 4 March 1942, the Japanese generals rejected the claim by Navy General Staff that only three army divisions would be required to capture and hold key northern areas of the Australian mainland. The generals insisted that a successful invasion of Australia would require at least ten army divisions which they could not spare at that time. Moreover, they claimed that they could not provide logistic support for ten divisions in Australia at that point of time. Shipping to supply ten Japanese divisions in Australia was simply not available.

In refusing to provide troops for an invasion of Australia, the generals pointed to the heavy manpower and logistic strains imposed on their army by the rapid deployment of troops across South-East Asia from Burma to Rabaul, and from the Philippines to Wake Island in the central Pacific. The generals claimed that their problems were exacerbated by Japan's continuing war against China and the need to maintain those ten divisions in northern China and Manchukuo (formerly Chinese Manchuria) to resist a possible attack on Japan by Russia.

Citing again their claim that army resources were overstretched, the generals also refused to supply troops for an invasion of British Ceylon. They insisted that the Japanese Army needed more time to consolidate and fortify Japan's extensive military conquests before troops could be made available for additional major offensives.

Navy General Staff and Combined Fleet representatives left Imperial General Headquarters on 4 March with the intention of preparing plans for offensive operations that could be carried out by the Japanese Navy alone, or with minimal participation by the Japanese Army.

Before passing on from the conference at Imperial General Headquarters of 4 March 1942, it is important to make the point that the refusal by Army General Staff to provide troops at that time for an invasion of the Australian mainland or British Ceylon did not cause those Japanese Navy proposals to be rejected out of hand. The proposals were simply deferred for later consideration. If the much smaller United States Pacific Fleet had been completely destroyed at the Battle of Midway (4-6 June 1942), as the Japanese confidently expected, Australia would have been left without American naval protection for the rest of 1942. Without American naval protection in the second half of 1942, Australia would have stood alone against the overwhelming military power of Japan, and would have been unable to defend itself against a Japanese invasion. With Australia left without a powerful protector, and in the event that it refused to surrender to Japan, it appears very likely that the Japanese Navy would have demanded that an invasion of Australia become a strategic priority to be undertaken before the United States could rebuild its naval strength. The first of the powerful Essex Class carriers did not become available for fleet service until the middle of 1943.