The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 can be analyzed from the perspective of the economic interdependence theory because this conflict was evidently triggered by the unrealized expectations of Japan regarding the development of trade relations with the United States in the Asian Pacific region. The oil embargo imposed in August of 1941 as the reaction of the United States to the aggression of Japan in Indochina changed the Japanese authorities’ visions of their economic stability and trade potential in the region significantly.1 In this context, following the premises of the economic interdependence theory, it is possible to state that Japan reacted to the U.S. actions and the proposed embargo as a dependent state which expectations regarding the progress of economic and trade relations in the region were not addressed; and such situation could potentially lead to the development of the military conflict.
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In spite of possible applications of different theories to explain the nature of the U.S.-Japan conflict in 1941, the economic interdependence theory can provide the most valid explanations of the observed conflict. According to Hotta, “the U.S. oil embargo of August 1 became a turning point in U.S.-Japan relations because Japanese leaders had failed to take a chance on the proposal that had preceded it.”2 Thus, the Japanese leaders’ expectations regarding the development of the future trade in the region were not realized, and the situation provoked their fears regarding the future access to the oil. The trading environment became negatively affected for Japan, and according to the economic interdependence theory, such situation could make the Japanese leaders discuss the possibility of the war.
From this perspective, the further Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor can be viewed in the context of variables associated with the economic interdependence theory. The Japanese unrealized expectations of the future trade that were caused by the strict oil embargo can be discussed as an independent variable because the access to resources was limited.3 Therefore, the further military conflict is a dependent variable. This frame used in the economic interdependence theory is directly applied to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The causal relationships between these variables are also supported with references to Hotta’s discussion of the Japanese leaders’ actions: “surprised and overwhelmed by what they saw as an undeservedly harsh punishment for the “peaceful” occupation, some began to see war with the United States in much less abstract terms.”4 The economic interdependence theory explains the future trade expectations from the perspective of positive and negative attitudes to the other countries, and the Japanese authorities’ attitudes to the embargo as the “harsh punishment” can be viewed as negative and directly leading to discussing the possible war “in much less abstract terms.”5 Japan felt being vulnerable, and the development of the conflict was the logical consequence of changes in trade relations, as it is explained with references to the economic interdependence theory that is valid in this concrete case.
The changes in the Japanese attitudes to the United States could predict two possible scenarios according to which the Japanese leaders could admit the economic collapse or choose aggressive measures such as the development of the war. In the case of Japan, the principle of the economic interdependence theory played the key role, and changes in the future trade directly predicted the conflict because the Japanese leaders became pessimistic about their potential to overcome the economic failure. According to Hotta, the U.S. embargos affected the country significantly, and Japan “was now completely isolated economically,” moreover, “it would have to go farther into Southeast Asia to procure resources by force.”6 These statements indicate that the Japanese leaders discussed the war as the only preferable choice. It is possible to state that that observable facts and examples presented by Hotta in the book are in line with the main principles of the economic interdependence theory. Thus, it is important to note that the implications of the U.S.-Japan conflict match the principles of this theory.
In this context, the conflict as the dependent variable of the economic interdependence theory is a result of changes in the attitudes to economic and trade relations. In the case of the U.S.-Japan relations, the conflict is actually the military one, and it is possible to speak about the significant role of economic relations and nations’ expectations in the development of the war. The Japanese leaders viewed the war as a way to reestablish the distribution of forces in the region and provide the access to the required resources again.7 Such irrational decision to provoke the military conflict is directly associated with the ideas of the economic interdependence theory when the possibility to develop peacefully is ignored because of the changed attitudes to the opponent.
However, not only unrealized expectations can be discussed as a trigger to develop the war and provoke the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The military conflict is a complex process that depends on a variety of factors. Hotta states that in addition to economic factors causing the fears of the Japanese authorities, the leadership factors also caused the development of the problem.8 Thus, the Japanese leaders failed to address the economic and trade constraints, and they also failed to respond to negative changes in the foreign relations in the Asian Pacific region. Still, the choice to develop the destructive war was made, and the critical trigger to start the war against the United States was the desire for the better future for Japan in terms of changing the distribution of powers and influences among nations in the region.
Having analyzed the U.S.-Japan conflict in 1941 from the perspective of the economic interdependence theory, it is possible to identify its main strengths and weaknesses in order to explain the aspects of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The strength of the economic interdependence theory to explain the beginning of the war is in the fact that it discusses how the negative attitudes to the other nations can lead to the further military conflict when the future trade is limited, and the economic stability of the dependent nation is questionable. Nevertheless, the theory also has weaknesses in explaining the development of the war because it is based only on one economic factor, and it ignores the variety of other factors that can influence the changes in the relations of different nations. Still, it is important to note that the theory is appropriate in order to explain what particular economic factors caused the Japanese leaders to organize the attack on Pearl Harbor while referring to the relationships between the authorities’ visions of changed trade relations and their further aggressive actions.
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Copeland, Dale. Economic Interdependence and War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Hotta, Eri. Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy. New York: Vintage, 2013.
- Dale Copeland, Economic Interdependence and War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 146.
- Eri Hotta, Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy (New York: Vintage, 2013), 152.
- Copeland, Economic Interdependence and War, 147.
- Hotta, Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy, 152.
- Ibid., 152.
- Ibid., 166.
- Hotta, Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy, 153.
- Ibid., 154.