The Road to Pearl Harbor: Tense Relations Between the Japanese and the United States Before wwii



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The Road to Pearl Harbor:

Tense Relations Between the Japanese and the United States Before WWII

Commodore Matthew C. Perry was determined to use his reputation as one of the United States' most respected naval officers to negotiate a treaty with the Japanese. After sailing his four black steamships into Tokyo Bay, he ignored Japan's demands to leave. Instead, he arranged his naval squadron near the Japanese capital of Edo (present-day Tokyo) and commanded that the ships' guns be pointed inland.




Imperialistic designs: thinking that other countries wanted to take over Japan

For more than two centuries, Japan had avoided almost all contact with Europeans and Americans. Suspecting imperialistic designs, the Japanese had expelled most foreigners in the mid-1600s. Perry's show of force on July 8, 1853, however, convinced the Japanese that they could not resist this powerful, modern nation. The signing of the Convention of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854, became the first step to opening the ports of an isolated Japan to American trade and goods.

Within several years, other nations, such as Great Britain, Russia, France, and the Netherlands, began to trade with Japan. Slowly, a modern Japan emerged. In addition to Western goods, the Japanese adopted European technology -- such as steamships, railroads, and modern weapons -- and European-style institutions -- such as schools, a national legislature, and an army and navy.

The Japanese also adopted a policy of imperialism. Many Japanese believed that if Japan was to become powerful, it needed to acquire industrially important colonies. In 1894, Japan went to war with China. A year later, it invaded Korea and the island of Formosa (present-day Taiwan).

Over the next four decades, Japan seized territory in Asia and the Pacific from China, Russia, and Germany. In 1931, the Japanese invaded Manchuria, a region of northeastern China. Control of the territory provided Japan -- a small island nation -- with a much-needed supply of raw materials and resources.

In July 1937, Japan launched an all-out war to take over China. The Japanese conquered much of eastern China, but by 1939, the two countries had fought to a stalemate, with neither side wanting to give way. The United States sided with China against Japan, but most Americans did not want to go to war. The United States, separated by oceans from both Europe and Asia, followed a policy of isolationism.

At first, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried diplomacy to force a resolution. He threatened to cut American trade with Japan if it did not withdraw from China. In May 1940, he stationed the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, as a further warning to Japan. In July, Roosevelt signed an act that restricted the sale of essential defense materials to Japan.

But the Japanese did not stop. By August 1940, while most of Europe was embroiled in World War II, Japanese troops occupied the northern part of French Indochina (present-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). In September, Japan signed a treaty of cooperation with Germany and Italy, whose armies were overrunning Europe and North Africa. The three nations formed an alliance known as the Axis Powers. In July 1941, the Japanese occupied the southern part of Indochina.

Roosevelt then ordered a freeze on Japanese assets in the United States and prohibited any oil from being sent to Japan. Japan had few natural resources of its own. Without oil, gasoline, and other raw materials from the United States, its army and navy could not produce the materials they needed for fighting.


Embargo: When one country forces trade to stop
By the fall of 1941, the Japanese military government, led by General Hideki Tojo, faced a dilemma. If Japan withdrew from Indochina and China, American trade would resume. If the Japanese refused to withdraw, the U.S. trade embargo would remain in place, and Japan would need a new source for oil. The Japanese believed that seizing new territories in the Indian and Pacific oceans was the answer to their problem.

Tojo and his advisors knew that the United States would have an advantage over Japan in a long campaign. The United States had more people, money, and factories to manufacture weapons and war supplies. But in the fall of 1941, the Japanese military believed it had the advantage. It had a large, modern navy and an army hardened by years of combat with China.

The United States also already was deeply involved in trying to help the British in the war against Germany, which they had been fighting since September 1939. With the United States closely watching and distracted by the situation in Europe, Japan hoped that a series of quick victories would force a peace and leave Japan in control of eastern Asia and the western Pacific Ocean.

While the Japanese prepared for war, the Tojo government continued negotiating with the United States. Perhaps it hoped that Roosevelt might change his mind and resume trade with Japan. Or maybe it believed that as long as the negotiations continued, the U.S. government would not suspect that Japan secretly was planning an attack.

Sensing that the talks were failing, U.S. military leaders warned Roosevelt that their forces would not be ready for war until the spring of 1942. Still, the U.S. Army and Navy rushed to reinforce Hawaii and the Philippine Islands -- U.S. territories that were closest to Japan in the Pacific Ocean.


Japanese diplomatic code: Their secret, coded communications

Pearl Harbor: The American Naval base in Hawaii

On December 1, 1941, Tojo's government, with the consent of Japan's emperor, Hirohito, secretly decided to end negotiations and attack U.S. forces on December 8 (December 7 in the United States). American leaders suspected that Japan was about to strike -- U.S. intelligence officials had broken the Japanese diplomatic code back in July, and they had intercepted a message from Tokyo to the Japanese ambassador in the United States on December 6 -- but they did not know that the naval force at Hawaii's Pearl Harbor would be the target.



Questions (Answer on a separate sheet of lined paper – Put a heading with your name and the date. Title it “The Road to Pearl Harbor).


  1. For each of the following words write:

    1. What you think it means

    2. A Phrase (an EXACT QUOTE) from the text that gives you a clue about what it means.




  • Expelled

  • Institutions

  • Imperialism

  • Stalemate

  • Isolationism

  • Assets

  • dilema




  1. Supply two details (EXACT QUOTES from the text) for this main idea in the third paragraph: “Slowly, a modern Japan emerged.”

  2. Supply the main idea (EXACT QUOTE from the text) for the following supporting details in the 10th paragraph:

    1. If Japan withdrew from Indochina and China, American trade would resume.

    2. The Japanese believed that seizing new territories in the Indian and Pacific oceans was the answer to their problem.

  3. Using 3 examples from this text (EXACT QUOTES) supporting the idea that Japan viewed the United States as an enemy, and your notes from the video, write a paragraph about why the Japanese would have viewed Americans as the enemy at that time. (**Hint: Japan viewed Americans as the enemy would be your topic statement.)

  4. Using the attached map, highlight or color the countries that Japan took over or tried to take over. Label the Pearl Harbor naval base on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.



Please note: This article is background information for a short story that we will be reading called “The Enemy” by Pearl S. Buck.


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